The present and future of post production business and technology | Philip Hodgetts

Archive for March 2009

This is part of the larger writing project that (hopefully) will be finished around NAB time. This excerpt is two, of the ten sections, on how to produce more cheaply. I expect this to be a little controversial as I’m saying, essentially, “go as cheap as you can” when I know a lot of my close friends would always advocate “work at the highest quality you can afford”. They may not be different things!

All types of production are undergoing downward budgetary pressure. Some of this is simply equipment driven and of the industry’s own causing. For many years production and postproduction facilities pointed to the standard of equipment they used (or format) to indicate that they were “professional”. Then one day that equipment went up in quality and way, way down in price. Clients who understood they were paying for access to expensive equipment suddenly questioned the cost of production when the equipment went down so far in price.

Smart companies saw this coming and long ago stopped talking about the equipment and tools of production as their differentiating factor and moved to promoting their skills and talent at communication.

What the drop in production costs has created is the ability to create a program in almost every budget arena. How can we do that? We do that by adopting changes in technology and business that favor lower budget production without cheapening the look.

How much you are able to take advantage of these cost reductions depends entirely on the type of work you do and how technically pure your clients need you to be. Keep in mind that even Discovery now accepts HDV source for their “Bronze” programs (and smaller amounts in higher tiers of programming).

Here are two of my Top 10 tips for producing cheaper. Pass on the cost savings to keep clients coming back for more; or hold onto the savings and make more profit.

1) Don’t pay for quality your clients won’t see

This is the number one recommendation and one that’s sure to be controversial. A number of my friends are very quality focused: for them uncompressed 10 bit is a compromise on native film quality! (Ok, I exaggerate a little, but you know what I mean.) These people eschew “consumer” formats (like HDV and AVCHD/AVCAM) because they don’t meet their quality expectations.

Quality is fine. I’ve got no problem with shooting on Viper cameras, and doing 4:4:4 conforms at the end of the process for the Digital Intermediate, if you’re heading for major film distribution. There will always be work that requires the highest quality, but that is not the majority of independent production.

If your client won’t see the difference between something shot with 3-chip and a Thompson Viper, why spend the extra on the camera rental and the digital lab work to process to something editable? If it doesn’t add value on the screen, don’t spend it.

Over the last two years I’ve advised on a number of projects where compressed workflows were indistinguishable from uncompressed workflows. The first example was a multicam Saturday morning show being edited from the switched studio shoot, and the individual cameras. The company was “offlining” this SD project with DVCPRO 50 and then onlining to 10 bit uncompressed from Digital Betacam source. The uprez was taking them 18 hours a show and causing enormous problems for the Assistant Editors.

I suggested that they finish in DVCPRO 50 as it was a perfect match for the Digital Betacam source and challenged them to point to any visible difference between the DVCPRO 50 and uncompressed 10 bit. When nobody, from the Post Production Supervisor down to the editors and assistants, could see the difference the decision was made to use the DVCPRO 50 versions to finish.

A film project, going direct to DVD as the third in a movie franchise, was edited in ProRes 422 HQ from capture of dailies to DVD Mastering, simplifying the workflow.

Another film project, the fifth in a popular franchise, was shot with a Thompson Viper and the digital lab converted the Viper images to editable ProRes 422 HQ. The producer asked for the “highest quality” ‘offline’ in case he could convince the director to not go to a 4:4:4 conform. Given that the release was DVD only, and the market for this franchise would not perceive any quality difference, the company ultimately saved the $70,000 a conform of the Viper source would have cost, by doing color correction of the ProRes 422 (HQ) footage.

In both the last two examples, the ‘film’ was only going to be seen on DVD and the audience was the established audience for the franchise.

Once we get beyond a certain quality threshold (different for every targeted audience) there is no added value in producing in ever-higher, ever-more-expensive workflows “because we can, and we care about quality”. Clients and audiences only care about the “good enough” quality. If you doubt me, go visit 10 of your non-industry friends and see how well adjusted their home TV sets are.

You could rent a Viper or Sony F23 for a film project or buy a RED One digital cinema camera for the project, and the audience, even on a project distributed on film, won’t see the marginal quality improvement that the extra cost of the Viper/F23 provides.

Will an event client see the difference between a decent HDV camera and a $40,000 Panasonic or Sony camera? Does their home display come close to showing even that source as to maximum benefit?

Will a corporate client see, let alone worry about, so-called rolling shutter issues with an EX-1?

Don’t sweat the formats and gear. Even the cheapest modern HD camcorders aimed at the consumer market deliver “to die for” quality of just a few years back.

Compression is your friend

Compressed formats like DVCPRO 50, ProRes 422 and Avid’s DNxHD codecs are your friend. ProRes and DNxHD both do HD work, with minimal compression, at Standard Definition data rates.

This brings great benefit: lower storage costs and easy SAN (Storage Area Network) configurations. Not only is there less storage required (usually less than ¼ that of uncompressed 10 bit) but the storage does not have to be as fast, because the data rates are lower.

These high-quality, compressed formats make it possible to design a SAN based on Gigabit Ethernet , instead of requiring expensive Fiber Channel.

2) Put the money where it gives the best payback

If it’s not worth spending more than the client will perceive on the gear, it is worth spending money on decent lighting and sound. Lighting makes the pictures look great: far more so than any format change.

Research has shown that high quality audio is the cheapest way to “improve the perceived image quality”. Apparently good audio makes audiences think the pictures look better than the same pictures with poor-to-average audio.

Lighting

Gain some expertise in creative lighting then build a basic kit in whichever technology you prefer, although these days I’d be considering LED and fluorescent lighting over more traditional incandescent sources. LED and fluorescent lighting are low heat, which saves on air-conditioning needs (or prevents uncomfortably hot location shoots). LED lighting units, in particular, are smaller and lighter to transport.

Remember, with modern cameras, control of light is more important than the gross amount, once you clear the minimum exposure level that will keep the camera from deteriorating into noise.

Create some basic configurations you know well, and – along with your team – you can assemble quickly for the majority of the work you do. Creative flexibility and experimentation are for higher budget opportunities.

My ideal kit would be a LitePanel 1×1 , Two Lightpanel mini’s and Lightpanel Micro for a camera light. That kit will come to US$3880 and is highly recommended. If you look inside the back pages of the trade magazines you’ll find less expensive competitive offerings. One of the nice things about LED is that they can be dimmed without changing color temperature. If you’re still looking for alternatives check out Zylight .

Audio

Quality audio takes much more effort than using the built-in camera microphone, but that isn’t news to anyone, I’m sure. Invest in some good quality (Sennheiser or Lectrosonics) radio microphone systems and mini-shotgun system if you can, but for a budget kit here are my recommendations. (The higher price of the Sennheiser or Lectrosonics systems is offset by robustness of the gear, particularly the Lectrosonics microphones, that will mean they last many more years than cheaper gear, and offset by the reliability of “it just works”.)

Boom microphones can be expensive and, in general, you pay for what you get. The top-end Sennheiser shotgun will run you around $2500 – way over the top for a budget kit. Instead I settled on an Azden SGM-1X – Super-Cardioid Shotgun Condenser Microphone at $150. It’s a good compromise that can be used on camera for directional atmosphere or on a pole for talent audio. You’ll need a windshield and the K-ZFC Slip-On Fleecy Windscreen (Long) from K-Tek will do the job for around $80.

That boom pole you’ll be needing, along with some strong arms to hold it for any length of time, also comes from K-Tek . If there was the budget there I’d go for one of theirs.

If I had the budget I’d go for the K-Tek KA-113CCR 6-Section Articulated Boom Pole with XLR Coiled Cable (Side Exit) and 5 Locking Positions – Measuring 1.4 to 9.5′ for around $800, but instead we’ll go for the K-Tek KEG-88 Traveler Carbon Fiber Boom Pole at $370. (Yes, I know that’s more than the microphone, but the pole will continue to do duty long after you upgrade the microphone.)



Like shotguns, radio microphones come in a wide range of prices. Highly desirable is a diversity receiver . In diversity receivers there are two independent receivers, with their own aerials, and the receiver chooses whichever output has the best signal, moment by moment. I’m going for a Samson Concert 77 – Wireless Lavalier Microphone System with CR77 Receiver, CT7 Body-Pack Transmitter with Samson LM5 Lavalier Microphone at $220, which is the lowest price diversity system at B&H photo.

You’ll also need (or someone will) noise isolating headphones for location monitoring. Figure at least $50 and up. Figure $100 for cables and audio adapters for getting direct feeds from mixers and PA systems.

Another eight sections on producing more completely coming in April in my new book The New Now: growing your production or post production business in a changed and changing world.

Mar/09

23

What to do if you’re underemployed?

Production and post-production are constantly evolving and developing. If you are not actively learning you are falling behind. While you have the advantage of experience, those graduating from Film Schools, Universities and even Community Colleges have experience with Final Cut Pro, Media Composer, After Effects and usually a 3D application (like Cinema 4D or Maya). Photoshop skills are simply assumed: grade schoolers are now doing visual effects and compositing.

Whatever new skills you learn, should be consistent with your brand and unique selling proposition. Most people’s immediate thought is to broaden the range of services you offer, in the expectation of being able to service more customer needs. This needs to be done carefully, whether by improving your own skills or partnering with others, to keep true to your core brand values.

One of my friends, Randy Tinfow of Image Plant and Proscenum, chose a different path. Instead of broadening their services, he chose to narrowly define their speciality. Randy says:

“I have actually gone in the other direction, narrowly defining our perceived specialty or “value add” to be in an area of great demand.  So by developing excellence in an area of need, we’ve been able to differentiate ourselves and have as much business as we can handle.  We have not sold editing, animation, compression, or production in 5 years, but 80% of our activity is doing just those tasks.  It’s the other 20% of the work that pulls clients in our direction: “providing enhanced video delivery mechanisms.
“Being great in one important area is far better than being a good generalist.  Certainly more lucrative.  It helps that we can demonstrate how our works ALWAYS saves clients money.”

By building one specific area of expertise – “enhanced video delivery mechanisms”, including the entire Proscenum delivery technology – Image Plant have grown their editing, animation, compression and production services without advertising or promoting them!

Almost everyone will have to deal with non-tape workflows. These workflow changes are upon us so. Now is the time to read and get test footage to become totally familiar with how to edit RED, XDCAM HD/EX, AVCHD/AVCCAM, etc now, ahead of client needs. Or become an expert in getting media online with expertise in encoding and hosting. Inevitably it will drive production and post production.

Resources

If you happen to be in Southern California then UCLA Extension in Hollywood offers everything from acting and animation to television writing and visual effects. Most courses at UCLA Extension and comparable schools meet for six to 12 weeks and cost a few hundred dollars. Longer, part-time certificate programs take up to two years to finish.

The various Guilds also have classes and resources for free through the Guilds’ head offices. Lori Jane Coleman, American Cinema Editors internship director, encourages fellow editors who aren’t on a show or film crew to take a Final Cut Pro class, which is offered free through the guild.

Beyond these regional activities, companies like Lynda.com, Total Training and Class on Demand have both DVD-based training and online delivery of the same training.

  • Tip: You’ll get the most benefit out of any form of visual training by working along with the trainer, or immediately putting the skills into use with your own project materials. Passively watching online video or DVD rarely improves your knowledge. Actively applying what you’ve learnt within 24 hours cements it as knowledge in your brain. If you haven’t used it within 72 hours (3 days) research shows that you wasted your time watching.

Don’t forget, too that most software comes with tutorials. In the Final Cut Studio 2 package there are two DVDs of tutorial included free. You’ll be surprised how many productivity tips can be learnt.

Studio Daily and DV run periodic webinars on relevant topics you can use to improve your skill base.

BuZZdex

One resource you should be using, wherever you are, is the Digital Production BuZZ BuZZdex. The BuZZdex is an index to the best of free articles, tutorials and resources anywhere on the Internet. While we all know there are great tutorials at CreativeCow.net, throughout the Digital Media Net network and at places like LAFCPUG.org or KenStone.net, it is only through the BuZZdex that you can find articles from all these sites, and more, that are indexed by Application, Chapter and Topic.

For example, if you wanted to find an article on Chroma Keying DV in Final Cut Pro, you would go to the BuZZdex and choose “By Application”. Select Final Cut Pro then Articles and Tutorials by category. Select Keying from the category list and the topic sublist will appear . From there you can choose Keying DV and three articles will be listed ready for your learning pleasure.

Or if you wanted to know how to create a fake display on a monitor. Choose Articles then Articles and Tutorials by category and click ‘more’. Select Visual and Creative Effects as the chapter and Simulating Displays. Then simply choose the article that’s closest to the type of display you want to create.

As of today, the BuZZdex contained 7233 references to 4627 individual articles or tutorials. (Some articles have more than one reference in the index because they fit under more than one topic.) No other resource comes even close. These can be further sorted into type, so if you only want to see video tutorials, you can limit the BuZZdex to only showing you video-based tutorials.

 Optimally, regardless of workload, we all should be spending the equivalent of 20% of our workweek on improving our skills. Few, outside Google employees, can realistically find time to do that when our businesses are running hot, so we have to compensate by using any time when business is not running hot to improve our skills and improve our marketing.

When we were proposing micropayments for Open TV Network’s RSS-driven system, one reporter started her article with “Market trends be damned, the Open Television Network launches this week. ”

Such is the conventional wisdom that micropayments have been tried and don’t work. But there is a big difference in “being tried” and “being tried in a way that doesn’t get in the customer’s face all the time”. Micropayment technologies that “get in your face” and require significant data entry for every transaction, or make it really, really obvious that you’re spending money – even if it’s a penny a page.

So, I agree that micropayment models that get in your face all the time have failed. That’s no surprise at all. Although the “penny a page” model has been tried, it could work if it were designed so that there were no big warnings that you were going to spend another penny! (Heaven forbid.)

Because the Open TV Network is RSS based, we used the same “Get” button in the aggregation software (mostly Apple’s iTunes) as the “download and buy button” by pre-pending the file name with the price. We designed our system to work with payments as low as a penny a file (1c) although no-one has yet priced content that low.

Although originally considered to be as low as 1c per purchase, micropayments are now considered to be any amount that would be unprofitable to transact through the credit card system with its current charging models.  Like Apple we aggregate the charges until it is profitable to post to a credit card on file. (Apple, I believe, transacts every week.)

Others use the “buy some currency in advance”. Microsoft use this model as do iStockPhoto.com. You buy some currency and the “exchange rate” may not be one-to-one. Generally you can only spend these currencies on the one site.

Whichever model, I’d like to propose that micropayments, when done frictionlessly – without intruding into the customer’s enjoyment – are definitely successful. The examples that follow are from my own experience, but there are in-game economies in many multi-player games. For example  World of Warcraft Gold, Microsoft Points (X Box) and the Wii game store, use the advance purchase of their currency model.

The secret, I believe, is to create a disconnect between the act of buying and the act of paying.

Ringtones

The mobile industry has the most widely accepted micropayment model: you buy minutes of air time and consume them one at a time. However the bigger success model is for ringtones. $2 for a 30 second snippet of a song (they probably already own) is a multi-billion dollar industry for the Telcos. Any sort of micropayment is easy to add to a phone account. Ringtones are purchased on the phone, on the go and simply added to the phone account. A phone account is a big amount to pay every month so a few ringtones don’t appear to add significantly to the account.

iTunes Store

A 99c music purchase is most definitely a micropayment, one that has now brought-in over $6 billion worth of gross revenue to Apple and its partners. What’s more interesting here is that these micropayment purchases are of content that is mostly available free via various bittorrent sites or services. Despite being available free, people prefer to use the very simple purchase method (Amazon’s One-Click) used in the iTunes Store. Charges appear weeks later on the customer’s credit card of choice. The music purchases – in iTunes or on the iPhone/iTouch – are frictionless during the transaction and the payment essentially disappears into the aggregated credit card bill at the end of the month.

App Store

Apple’s App Store for iPhone/iTouch applications is another example where the most common price for an Application is $0.99. Frictionless. Click buy, confirm purchase and it’s done. With iPhone OS 3 Apple are offering developers the opportunity to charge similar amounts (developer chooses) and the small payments appear weeks later on the aggregated credit card bill.

Open TV Network

As I said, frictionless purchase through an RSS feed that constantly offers new audio, video or print (PDF) content of interest to the viewer, right where they’re viewing the content (in iTunes). Like Apple, this requires an account to be set up in advance, but the purchase is a frictionless as clicking a button. (The confirmation of responsibility happens when the feed is subscribed to.)

Micropayments might not save the Newspaper business (as opposed to the news business) because there are so many sources of news that it’s hard to create the artificial scarcity that would be required to make charging viable. However for tangible benefits and the simplicity of consumption of media or applications, I see a very bright future for micropayments.

Perhaps, ultimately, major established content creators will see the wisdom of offering fairly priced downloads as a way of deterring piracy. When they do, we’ll be ready with the perfect mechanism!

Mar/09

18

What is Philip reading?

I could not function without RSS driven news feeds. I like NetNewsWire as my client and currently subscribe to something like 294 feeds. (Is that a lot? I certainly couldn’t visit that many web sites repeated times a day to find what’s interesting.)

In addition to these specific articles that I read in depth instead of just scanning the headlines, there were general news items from the US and Australia, and a couple of tutorials that will be added to the BuZZdex today. (I’m still doing that to help Larry Jordan out.) There are also about 20 email groups that come via Mail.

So, the day after iPhone 3.0 software announcement, and all things Irish, here’s what I’ve been reading this morning, and why.

NBCU’s Zucker Calls Out Jon Stewart: Blaming CNBC Is ‘Absurd’

The thoughts of the President of NBCU are always interesting. These types of summary articles also give insight into statistics. Interesting that Zucker thinks that NBCU is a “cable company” (rather than broadcast) and that they are now at “digital dimes” for digital content, up from digital pennies.

How is Avid faring in this tough economy? – Response

A response on the “Chat with Avid” blog from Kirk Arnold. Any comments from companies important in our industry is worth reading. (They’re doing ok but watching the economy carefully.)  In another post Kirk suggests people come to NAB for “the conversations”.

Streaming TV on ABC and MTV Is Profitable

NewTeeVee is a useful blog. Like the NBCU article this one is interesting for the data points it provides.

Google Provides Numbers On Just How Often DMCA Takedown Process Is Abused

Copyright, and the way DMCA takedown notices are being seriously abused by “big media” and those who want to drive out competitors is a subject area I follow closely. This provides some useful statistics.

How-to: building services into iPhone applications

While we’ll probably never build an iPhone application, never say never! So I maintain interest in articles on creating iPhone apps against the day we’ll decided to make one, or create one on behalf of a client.

The benefits of history

Frankly I read every post on Seth Godin’s blog. Marketing is an area where I can improve and his advice is more “out of the box” than most. Always good insight. This one is particularly challenging since we think Assisted Editing will “change the world”. So far I can’t think of who else has tried and failed at this.

Entrepreneurs vs. VCs

While we’re not currently planning to raise money from Venture Capital, I’m always interested in knowing about the process, in the hope that if we do ever need to go through that process, I’ll be informed and prepared. Brad Feld is always a good read.

Zucker Loves Hulu, But He’s About To Kill It

Who wouldn’t read this, given the headline? A different take on Jeff Zucker’s comments about Hulu. Apparently digital dimes aren’t worth much more than digital pennies?

iPhone 3.0 now with SquirrelFish Extreme?

I have a long standing belief that Apple will never allow Flash on their digital devices nor their own website. Instead they’re going down the path of HTML 5 and Javascript for Rich Internet Applications. With 30 million iPhone/iTouch sold that’s the world’s second largest platform not supporting Flash. (I figure there are less than 30 million Macs in use, it’s close and if not yet, the mobile OS X will have more uses than the desktop version). If website owners want to reach those people, they need something other than Flash, and Apple make it easier with improved Javascript speed. The Ajaxian blog is valuable to anyone programming web applications.

Client Collaboration and the IKEA Effect

While I’m not a lawyer (and don’t even play one on the Internet) the [non]billable hour always has great marketing insights for any sort of service company. And a consultancy – the Big Brains for Rent – is part of our business. Get clients involved in solving their own problems is the take-away here.

Major Book Publishers Start Turning To Scribd

I’m interested in self publishing – I think the technical book model will change to updatable pdfs and print on demand for those who want hard copy, so I’m interested in any developments in that space.

Mobile TV Backers Figuring Out That People Don’t Want To Pay For It

 I remain skeptical about “mobile video” although no-one has really defined where the demand is, or where the business model is. 

Vonage Pro now compatible with Macs

We’ve got Macs and we’ve been exclusively Vonage for “land lines” for more than 5 years now so why wouldn’t I be interested?

That’s what’s caught my eye this morning. I’ll probably look at other stories later in the day.

On Saturday (March 14) I was invited to be part of a panel presenting on “Marketing New Media” as part of the Los Angeles Brazilian Film Festival. My fellow panelists were much more experienced in the “traditional” (or old) media business than I. Most have spent their careers at WB, Discovery, et al.

It struck me that we were all using the term “new media” but for those coming out of the traditional production businesses – cable, network, broadcast – “new media” meant new outlets for their existing and future content. With some “webisodes” and social networking added on top. Indeed some of the webisodes are great stories on their own, but overall, ‘new media’ is just an outlet for the properties and brands created by old media.

Indeed, one of the panelists suggested over lunch following that the current conglomerates will simply buy up any ‘new media’ ideas or companies that might get traction and will therefore keep the hegemony going.

Since I don’t come from that background, I see new media as being something different from old media, but until Saturday had not been pressed to define how new media is different.

It’s not production values as some new media has very high production values and some cable shows have very low. Budget alone doesn’t seem to be a distinction. A lot of cable content had very low production values in the earliest days, but now, some 20 years later, cable is winning Emmies for quality drama production because audiences are now too small for network.

To simplify it to “reach” would mean that old media will always have the lead because it has already got the lead. New media could not exist.

To my mind ‘new media’ is the distribution corollary to democratized production and therefore has a distinct flavor difference than old media. After spending the weekend thinking about it, the distinction I would like to draw is that old media’s customer is the advertiser, and there are many layers between producer (creator) and viewer.

In new media there is a direct connection between producer and audience, and shows are made for the audience, not for the channel, network or advertiser.

New media is unmediated. It sinks or swims on the attitude of the viewers, not advertisers or executives.

What do you think? Tell me in the comments.

At the recent Pizza and Post night at Video Symphony event, I focused on the way that I’ve been pushed into innovation. Part of the reason I innovate is simply because I see a need. A few years back, Tim Wilson said of me:

“Philip looks beyond what is possible to what is necessary.”

Or put another way “Necessity is the mother of invention”. Initially, innovation in my world was driven by necessity. I had production ambitions beyond my equipment budget so found innovative gear that wasn’t part of the mainstream, starting with an Apple ][ based computerized edit controllers for a pair of U-matic 2850’s – real clunkers now. If we’d have had the budget for “regular” 1″ gear there would have been no innovation.

I had serial number 0030 for the Fairlight Computer Video Instrument – a crude pre-cursor to today’s computer manipulation of video images – that let me create visual complexity beyond the scope of the hardware limitations. The CVI was years ahead of its time but I knew, even then, that computer manipulation was the future of hardware. (By way of reference, we’re talking the mid-1980’s, definitely well before 1987.)  Low budget production drove me to adopt innovative technologies that may not have been “ready” for traditional mainstream.

That’s another clue to innovation: stay out of the mainstream. I’m essentially self taught (with the assistance of thousands of my nearest and dearest Internet friends) and went into a production business without having ever worked in film or video production.

One of the great freedoms to innovate with program style starts with a trusting client, and the ability to control the process. Trusting clients, who let you explore unusual program styles, are relatively hard to come by and I was blessed with two. An early 1980’s video for the NSW Coal Association (Australia) was a “two hander” safety video except the lower thirds were “visible” to the actors – bought on by the click of a finger from one actor to re-enforce a point. The fourth wall was not broken in the mid 1980’s, particularly not in training video.

My other innovative client allowed me to explore anthropomorphizing the ‘heart and soul’ of an aged care facility. In a video on correct budget process, I created  a two hander between the budget and administrator of an aged care facility (with only those two actors – all other characters were imagined). 

Innovation usually starts with someone saying “Why not?” Why not give that program style a try? Why not try a new piece of equipment that’s a fraction of the cost but isn’t proven in TV production?

Why not try and drive revenue during the quieter periods by making our own programming? If we’d been wildly successful in production we’d have had no quiet periods. Instead we had excess production capacity so we decided to innovate by creating our own programming that we would sell. This was probably more business innovation than technical or creative, but we partnered with a local association to produce videos and training manuals, that paralleled a national curriculum taught in 76 TAFE colleges (think US Community College and you’ll be close) but had no teaching resources. We never sold fewer than 52 of the packages and the revenue sustained us through many of those quiet periods.

In 1994 we were an early adopter of Media 100 – leaping whole generations of technology into the digital non-linear world. I’d fallen in love with the concept when I saw my first Avid about a year earlier, but Media 100 offered price advantages and I could finish broadcast quality on it.

That was the first NLE in Australia’s sixth largest market and it was five years and four Media 100’s later before a single Avid was sold into that market. Digital post became the mainstay of the business, along with effects creation since we could do high end effects in Media 100/After Effects that would otherwise have cost thousands of dollars.

In 1995 I purchased my first modem and discovered the Internet. Specifically I purchase the modem to get access to the Media 100 User Group email group. Suddenly I was no longer the “oddball outsider” in the Newcastle market, but par of a wider movement worldwide among other early adopters of NLE.

By 1997 I’d learnt enough from my peers that I wanted to share that knowledge. At the time I was very into non-linear learning but did not feel that “interactive software” was ready for mainstream adoption at that time. So the Media 100 Editor’s Companion was a two volume non-linear book, with built-in easel because there’s never enough room in an edit bay. 

If we’d been so busy with work in 1997, we’d have probably never followed through and put in the effort. However, because we did, we gained US and Canadian distribution and invitations to speak in those countries. Ultimately the 2001 move to the US was as a direct result of writing that book, which was a result of buying the modem!

That attempt at innovating the training manual also led, indirectly, to being part of the beta program for Final Cut Pro version 1 in early 1999. By now the technology had moved forward and we innovated with the DV Companion. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, we had invented an Electronic Performance Support System – the only one ever applied to creative software. They are essentially a software coach that’s there when you need it, with information delivered in a floating palette in text or video form.

However, because hard drives were small and video codecs inefficient, the only way to deliver > 3 hours of video in the DV Companion, we had to create them as sprite animations within QuickTime. Sprite animations, a.k.a. wired sprite movies, are part of the QuickTime toolset that most people have never heard of. It wasn’t until 2004 before we could move to all video (screen capture content) but in 1999-2004 we were able to innovate and provide video support when no-one else could, because I understood what was possible, although rarely done, with QuickTime.

If the Intelligent Assistants had been incredibly successful, we probably wouldn’t have continued to innovate and create a central resource for post production called the Pro Apps Hub, although it may have happened anyway, as I have a low threshold of boredom.

Ultimately we had to abandon the Pro Apps Hub software: part of the development environment was not moving forward to Intel OS X and that was clearly the future of OS X. Besides, by this time there were a lot of great FCP and Boris training content available and I’d rather be doing something no-one else was.

One of the highest compliments I can pay someone is “You ask great questions.” It is the question that frequently leads to innovation. Back in 2000 I was working on editing a documentary for friends in Sydney and realized how little of the footage ever ended up in the final cut. I wondered if it would be interesting to make that available, but my own sense of aesthetics dictated that this would mean generating custom edits based on search criteria.

We explored that a bit, going as far as demoing an early attempt at QuickTime Live! in early 2002 before leaving it on the back burner until a friend asked if that could be adapted to working with metadata. Just over a year later, in August 2008, we released the first of our Assisted Editing software tools. There’s a lot more innovation to come in that field.

Another great question we got asked was “How can you charge for podcasts?” That question ultimately ended up as the technology called klickTab that is used by Open TV Network. There is more innovation to come there too as we bring the technology to the book business.

Naturally I think both the current businesses – Assisted Editing and Open TV Network – have great potential and room for continued innovation. But if for some reason they don’t take off, then there will be more innovation, pushing the boundaries of what “needs to be done” regardless of whether or not it’s possible. Charging for individual items in a podcast feed was “impossible” until we did it. Building a first cut of a documentary from log notes was “impossible” until we did it. They needed to be done. And by we, I mean my ever smart, partner, Dr Greg Clarke, without whom most of this would not have been possible.

Somewhere in my feeds today I found a link to a blog I’d never heard of: A Working Library. An article called On Advertising caught my attention, probably because it expressed my thinking better than I’ve been able to articulate: 

“There is no end to this, in that short of eviscerating the content all together (and removing any impetus the reader might have to visit in the first place), our attention to the advertisements is always waning. Sadly, our attention elsewhere also suffers and declines; instead of staying still to read, we skitter from place to place, like frightened prey assured the predators are near.

So, let’s stop pretending, shall we? Any economy which charges ever less for ever more intrusive ads will eventually be successful not in creating wealth but in driving the readers away, until the only ones left to heed the ads are all the other ads, the cell phones searching in vain for a target market among the cellulite.”

Are we really sure this is the way to fund new media? The only way according to ‘common wisdom’. If it is, combined with the precipitous drop in advertising expenditure in recent months and a dismal outlook in the future, then new media is doomed. 

Fortunately I don’t think traditional advertising has much role in new media or new television. Integrated, relevant product endorsement or placement; pay for download or view or subscriptions are much more likely in a world where producers and audiences are disintermediated.

It’s very important to keep in mind that the single most successful model for online distribution has been Apple’s pay-for-download iTunes Store (and lately rentals) by a several billion dollar margin over advertising support for new media projects. As I’ve said before, the advertising supported viewing of Dr Horrible’s Singalong Blog returned negligible income but served to promote the iTunes download or DVD.

Perhaps I have a higher-than-usual aversion to advertising, but I do think we need new models. I have no confidence that the mass-market advertising model we inherited from the “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue has any relevance in a fragmented audience. 

Research shows that “relevant” advertising is more acceptable than any other form (to which I have to say “well d’oh”) and truthfully I appreciate seeing information-rich advertising when I’m looking for a product. Other than Googles Adwords text ads, I don’t see any attempt to target advertising. Even so I rarely follow those links because the informational links are where I go.

That’s why integrating products or services into the programming, or building branded webisodes around the main project seems to me to be far more viable than running a traditional 10, 15 or 30 second ad before or after the main content. The consumption model is different so there’s no reason to believe that old models will carry forward.

But personally, I’d still rather pay a producer a fair price for the content and skip the advertising completely.

Over the weekend I got a call from a client who was having trouble capturing the P2-based media he’d shot at HD Expo last Thursday. Now direct digital ingest of DVCPRO HD off P2 media (or copies) through Log and Transfer into Final Cut Pro has been one of the simplest and straightforward workflows since Apple introduced it with FCP 4.5. Basically “it just works”, except it didn’t.

My client followed Shane Ross’ article on importing P2 media to FCP 6 over at creativecow.net and all was good up until the point where the media should show up in Log and Transfer, when nothing happened. 

P2 workflow isn’t my strongest suit, so I referred my guy to Shane. Independently the client contacted his associate at Panasonic about the problem. Both concluded that FCP needed to be re-installed, which I dutifully did, uninstalling FCP 6 first, then re-installing.

There was no change! Troubleshooting is a logical process, something that seems to elude most people. As Sherlock Holmes said:

“Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”

We had a P2 card reader so to determine whether or not it was the media or the copies, we tried with direct-from-card import; disk images of the cards; and folder copies of the cards. (Both disk images and folder copies had carefully  maintained the file structure from the P2 cards, something that is crucially important.)

To try and eliminate FCP from the equation we tested with the demo versions of P2 Log from Imagine Products and Raylight for Mac from DV Film. Both applications crashed upon any attempt to convert and neither would show a preview. Not looking good for the media’s integrity, however the client had played back the media after shooting so there was a good reason to believe that it was fine.

Finally, the MXF4QT demo from Hamburg Pro Audio showed us that the media was fine, so what was the problem? 

Now comes the two most important tools for troubleshooting: Google.com and CreativeCow.net. While Creative COW has a fairly good search engine, I generally prefer to search via Google so that other sites are included. However, this time a search for “Can’t import P2 media Final Cut Pro” turned up a single thread that suggested there was a conflict between Noise Industry’s “FX Factory” product and the DVCPRO HD codec.

Search terms are important. I usually start with the important words of the problem and application or platform. Too few words and you’ll never find the solution in the results; too many and there will be no match. I like to think about how the answer might be structured and search for words I expect to find in the answer.

What I didn’t know until later was that the FX Factory application has an uninstall option, which would have been much cleaner than searching and deleting applications or components that don’t show up in a Spotlight search but do show up in a Find in the Finder. (Apparently Spotlight won’t show results from the Library or System folders “to protect you from yourself”!)

Once FX Factory was completely uninstalled, the P2 media appeared in the Log and Transfer window as expected, and presumably would also work in the P2 Log and Raylight demos, which appear to draw on the Apple DVCPRO HD codec. MXF4QT doesn’t call that codec so it was able to show the media.

I didn’t check versions of FX Factory and there could well be an update that resolves this problem. My client was more interested in getting to work editing at that point.

Mar/09

5

Why I still go to trade shows

Increasingly trade shows are becoming irrelevant. I remember my first NAB in 1998, my then editor at Digital Media World (an Australian Magazine and Trade Show of the day) needed me to research and write about the exhibits. A year later he only required a “color piece” because “all the information” was available on the Internet.

The color piece – or pulse of the show – is something you can only get by being there. Remotely you can get a feel for it thanks to the people who actually turn up, but only if you’re there.

I started thinking because today is HD Expo day here in LA (at the Universal Hilton until 8pm) and questioning why I would go.  It would be an opportunity to see the new Avid releases, but I’ve already researched them ahead of a Digital Production BuZZ interview tonight. I could be going for the keynote or speaker program, which are great for most people, but I’m above-averagely self educated on most things HD – writing a book on the subject helps – so that aspect isn’t so important.

So, why deal with the parking issues for HD Expo (a side-effect of the popularity) or the travel and accommodation costs for NAB, when I don’t have to?

Serendipity!

According to Wikipedia:

Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.

It’s the accidental meeting with someone; the chance comment; the juxtaposition of things that sparks a thought. There’s something about the atmosphere that opens opportunities. It’s said that NAB is “where deals are made” and certainly you can look back at NAB’s past and see how many deals were announced within the few weeks following.

So, the reason I go to Trade Shows is to find something – I don’t know what it is, or who it might be, but that’s what I’m looking for.

March 2009
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