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

Mar/09

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How to produce more cheaply

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.

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2 comments

  • Martin Baker · April 3, 2009 at 4:24 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more about number 1 Philip. We were a pioneer in the UK in using DV50 inside FCP as a “straight to online” codec and I remember having similar discussions. The “everything has to be 10 bit uncompressed” is an argument I’ve never seen eye to eye with.

  • Admin comment by Philip · April 12, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    For some ideas on how NBC and AMC are producing more cheaply check out Variety http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118002339.html?categoryid=14&cs=1&nid=2562

    Philip

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