The present and future of post production business and technology

What is the role of “failure” in innovation?

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.