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

Apr/12

11

How do you put more quality on the screen than is in the budget?

Perusing the Final Cut Pro X In Action stories I had two observations: as others have noticed no mention of Mac Pros, and that Leverage has a $1.8 million budget. Only the second has anything to do with metadata!

In all the stories the gear noted was iMacs, Mac minis or “Mac” with no specific mention of a Mac Pro, although presumably one may be in the Leverage workflow to house the RED Rocket card (although I have seen these running in external chassis off a Macbook Pro, so that’s not a given). It’s probably not worth reading too much into it, although I believe the Mac Pro is close to end of life (let’s say before the end of Summer) with no idea what replaces it for those who need an Nvidia card for CUDA acceleration.

The other data point was that of Leverage’s budget of $1.8 million. But just over two years ago I wrote:

If we turn to Television where a hour “scripted drama” (whether dramatic or funny) generally costs around $3 million an episode, although some of the newer shows (Mad Men, Friday Night Lights) are producing for under $2 million an episode.

I don’t know what the budget per episode has been on previous seasons of Leverage but they certainly have delivered it in production value on the screen in previous seasons. So, I presume they’ll continue to in the future – certainly this season they will be with forty visual effects and episode and a four to five day sound mix in that budget.

Dean Devlin:

“We think that Final Cut Pro X shows how simply and inexpensively a powerful file-based workflow can be implemented,” he says. “We’ve been able to do things on Leverage that no other cable show does simply because we can afford to do it using our all-digital workflow. It’s very rare to see a television show that averages 40 digital effects per episode. Or has four- or five-day sound mixing sessions. We’re able to do it and still produce a show for basically $1.8 million an episode. Not only does it change the price, but it actually changes creatively the way in which we work. We don’t have to wait to lock picture to start our digital effects shop.”

But that’s the challenge: two years ago, $3 million looks were being delivered for $2 million. And now $1.8 million. (Look, $1.8 m could actually be a budget increase for Leverage, so don’t hold me to it literally. I’m using it as a metaphor to represent the every shrinking budget that’s become a universal phenomena.)

How can you take out $100,000 an episode in costs, while continuing to deliver equivalent quality? Something has to give. Clay Shirky, in his (highly recommended) article on The Collapse of Complex Business Models, writes:

Dr. Amy Smith is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where she runs the Development Lab, or D-Lab, a lab organized around simple and cheap engineering solutions for the developing world.

Among the rules of thumb she offers for building in that environment is this: “If you want something to be 10 times cheaper, take out 90% of the materials.” Making media is like that now except, for “materials”, substitute “labor.”

Or clicks. At the Avid Professional Briefing a few weeks back Brinton Miller, VP Media Engineering at Discovery Communications was talking about how they counted “clicks” in the production chain, from initial ingest to final outputs (and boy do they have outputs!). Discovery worked with Avid Professional Services to build automated workflows, all built on metadata. All designed to take out as many “repetitive clicks” as possible. These were the tasks that don’t contribute to the edit or creativity and often involve large amounts of data wrangling: all better done by integrated systems and metadata.

In fact, at the same seminar, I think it was Andrew Finlayson, Senior VP Digital Media Strategies at SmithGeiger, who was part of a great keynote said:

“An asset without metadata is a liability. If you can’t find it, you can’t use it or get any revenue from it. It’s just taking up space costing you money.”

(May not be word perfect but that was the sentiment.) They didn’t exactly use the words, but I recognized the sentiment of “Taking the boring out of post“.

There are lots of ways to keep production values high and still control or reduce cost. Some shows have embraced green screen – and I recommend you check out the work of Stargate Studios – any of the back lot reels will likely impress.

For other shows, the secret will be faster tools, better workflows and better use of metadata. For Leverage it seems that this season, Final Cut Pro X is part of the “faster tools” part of the equations (and I like to believe we have some “faster tools” that helped in their faster workflows). But what happens when the budget goes down another $100,000 an episode?

And how does reality TV deal with the constant barrage of footage – many times more than 24 hours a day on some shows. The sane way to make sense of that is metadata: gather as much and as early as possible. Editors will get pre-trimmed, binned and tagged clips, or the string out someone (or something) else has done.

Earlier and easier metadata leads me to want to talk about the most exciting metadata release since Final Cut Pro X. But I can’t talk about that for just a few more hours. All I can say is that it’s really inspired me to rethink workflows for Solar Odyssey – with the right metadata workflow, the Solar Odyssey Challenge show might just be possible. (The thinking has been updated since that link, and I’ll be writing more about Solar Odyssey later this week.)

But tomorrow, the most exciting metadata related announced for 2012 (so far).

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3 comments

  • Ben Balser · April 11, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    So what are you announcing tomorrow?

  • Author comment by Philip · April 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    This time it’s not from us. It’s got me inspired though! I remember using the words “technology boner” to the product manager. 🙂

  • Jamie T · April 11, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    Looking at the production company for Leverage, they seem to have everything under one roof. This, along with meta data, would increase the flow, communication, and collaboration of the post process. Integrating the whole post process should allows for better, faster decisions and transactions.

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