Software Worth Knowing About: OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle

There are two powerful software applications that every Post Producer should know about: OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle. Both of these apps can help you communicate your ideas with more clarity and help you manage the creative process more effectively.

OmniOutliner

OmniOutliner is for writing with structure. What it brings to the table are a unique set of tools for organizing, visualizing, and styling your text with ease. Writing with structure is especially important when you are trying to communicate complex ideas that multiple parties need to ‘buy into’; like your show’s post production workflow.

Here is an example outline I created for a heritage XDCAM workflow:

What I like about outlining is that it imposes a structure on my writing. In my example above the process forced me to consider the entire workflow. In effect it influenced my thinking and made sure I was covering all aspects. The advantage of using OmniOutliner is that it enables the user to move things around quickly and create more readable documents.

OmniGraffle

If a picture is worth a thousand words then a good diagram is worth two or three thousand at least! OmniGraffle is a tool for creating diagrams.

One of a Post Producer’s most important responsibilities is communicating problems clearly. In my experience teams default to wordy emails too often. When things get challenging you’re often better served by turning to high bandwidth form of communication like in-person or phone calls. If you have to send an update via email, a good illustration can often explain things much more clearly then a dozen paragraphs.

Earlier in my career one of my shows had a dubbing problem. After uncovering the problem with the Posthouse’s Tech, I had to explain the cause of the problem to the EIC. I spent hours agonizing the best way to explain why the audio and video didn’t match on the DVD dubs. It seems obvious in retrospect, but explaining what specific wiring issue transpired proved to be challenging, until I remembered ‘the Graffle‘.

Coda

The creative process is messy by design. Creating something new isn’t a linear exercise. It’s filled with false starts and wasteful explorations. Managing the chaos is a Post Producer’s job and the best way to do that is through more effective communication.

Learning Python

I’m finally teaching myself Python! I’ve wanted to re-learn computer programing almost since I stopped learning C in high school.

I’m using Ali Sweigart’s excellent book Automate the Boring Stuff with Python. I can’t recommend it enough!

There are two things that have made this the book for me. First, Automate starts at the beginning and building a solid foundation. For example: most of the other resources I’ve tried (and I’ve tried many in the past) don’t explain the difference between the Interactive Shell and the Launcher. Or how to even check that you’re running the most current version of Python in the Command Line. Maybe it’s so basic that most resources just assume that the reader will know how to do this. But this starting from the beginning approach has made the world of difference for me.

I also like the practical aspect of the book. It’s not working towards abstract computer theory, it’s building towards enabling you to use a computer as the most powerful tool mankind has even invented. In other words: how to stop wasting your time repeating unnecessary tasks.

I’ve supplemented my learning with two additional online resources: “The Hitchhikers Guide to Python” and “Think Python“. These two resources fill out and expand upon the knowledge I’m learning in Sweigart’s book.

Keeping a Work Journal

Notebook Recap

My primary requirement for the support staff is that they carry a notebook and pen at all times in the office. Too much gets thrown at us too quickly to rely on electronics. On my way to the water cooler; I’ll be confronted by an editor who experienced a payroll problem, a producer who needs a multi-group looked into, and the E.P. telling me that a cut delivery is going to push. All of these items get written down in the notebook immediately, or otherwise they’d be forgotten by the time I made it back to my desk.

Your Notebook == Institutional Knowledge == Job Security

Over time your notebook becomes a valuable repository of institutional knowledge that can be referred back to, which helps keep your job secure. An Assistant Editor I used to work with took this advice to heart and has a small book shelf dedicated to her old notebooks. A few years back, after she had moved on to editing, I needed help locating some old XDCAM discs from a past season. I reached out knowing that she’d be able to find the information we needed in one of her old notebooks. Shortly after I received an email with pictures from her notebooks with the exact information my team needed. Her notes saved my team hours of work. Talk about building good will!

What is a work journal?

A Few Work Journals: Old & New

A Work Journal is a place that you keep your thoughts and feeling about your work. Keeping a work journal is like a ‘next-level’ notebook. But instead of capturing things you need to do (or have done), your work journal is a place to create records about your work for your future self. Here’s an entry I wrote near the start of my Post Supervisor career in NYC:

From Tuesday, May 10, 2011: I need a better handle of what I’m doing, what the coordinator is doing, what the Lead A.E. is doing, and what tasks the Post Department is doing at any given moment. Story Producers are always crying wolf and creating a false sense of urgency. It is my job to determine what problems actually need the department’s resources.

Rereading my early Post Supervisor entries I can see myself struggling to understand what the position is about and how the responsibilities differed from the Post Supervisors I had worked with in Washington, DC.

Why keep a work journal?

The positive effects of journaling have been documented in numerous studies. My process is to spend about ten or fifteen minutes writing down a few key thoughts about the major events of the day before I leave the office. I’ve previously used Moleskine cahier journals, but now I recommend Pitch Black Notebooks by Field Notes or the Evernote App if you want to go digital.

Keeping a work journal has allowed me to look back and spot patterns or inconsistencies of logic in thinking about my career. Here is an entry I wrote in 2009:

August, 2009 – Today was proof that my current career is at the end of the line.

This morning I came into my client’s office to restart their Xsan. It had to be shut down over the weekend while the building’s electrical panels were replaced. When I came in Monday morning, I turned on the power supplies, the switches, the drive arrays, and mdc servers as I was supposed to. However, I was unable to get the SAN volumes mounted.

I knew the problem was most likely network related, something from when the old router was replaced and new firewall installed, however my networking knowledge is limited. Instead of digging into the forums and figuring out the solution myself, I called our integration engineer. He ‘remoted in’ and solved the problem, not me.

At the time I beat myself up for not being able to solve the problem, but when I revisited that entry three years later I realized that it was the first instance of me recognizing myself as a producer and delegating responsibility.

Rewritten – August, 2012 – Today I delegated responsibility for the first time, and in the process reinvented myself.

This morning I came into the office to restart the Xsan. However, I was unable to get the SAN volumes mounted. I knew the problem was most likely network related, however my networking knowledge is limited. Instead of spending my time figuring out the solution, I called our integration engineer. He solved the problem in a couple of minutes.

The lesson I learned was that my time is valuable, and I need to pay careful attention to how I’m using it. Spending hours trying to solve a problem that an expert can solve in minutes is wasteful. The balance between what I’m supposed to do and what I’m supposed to delegate is a fine line. But that line is why I’m trusted as a Post Production Supervisor in the first place.

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Lee Iacocca

I’d like to say that the Iacocca quote has been true for me, and it has been true in a way. Not in an overt “write something down and it will happen tomorrow” way. But as a place to state your goals, analyze your intentions, and track your progress.

You carry a notebook if you care about your job. You keep a journal if you care about your career.

The Freelancer Twitch

Can I kill my phone for five days in August? The fact is that working in tv is 24/7. I mean, I had a music pass for a show episode dropped on me around 1030 on Saturday night. That’s just how it is. At least DC keep regular business hours. And I was going to try and bug out of town towards the end of this week, but I just had a recording session scheduled to wrap out two of my actors on Friday. I’ve been on call for… a few years now? And I still have the Freelancer Twitch, of needing to be hyper-present and hyper-alert and hyper-aware at all times. If you started out poor and precarious, and did not in fact zoom straight into the golden stratosphere but stayed precarious for a long time and had major work/money crises deep into the duration of your career… it doesn’t go away. You can’t train it out. It’s a hardwired reflex.

From Warren Ellis’s weekly newsletter orbitaloperations.com

The Timeline (fiction)

The timeline is a space beyond the world. We can go forward and backward. We can witness every option. We can audition every word and every action. The sound waves remind me of when I spent my summers surfing in Baja. The timeline is infinite with endless space before and after. The only limit is your attention. You slowly sculpt and refine the timeline. Collecting your experiences, your influences; notes are just another method of helping you uncover your style. Consistent refinement and smoothing out. Until the Show ends and you move on.

And yet there is a discipline to it; a technical, logical component that must be respected. Without intelligent organization, you will fall into Chaos. Without understanding how the system works, you will be dependent on someone else. There are long late nights alone. The hum of the machines and your thoughts in the darkness of an abandoned office. And there will be times of great collaboration. You and your peers gathered around a conference room table, feeling like you are building the great cathedral in Köln. The Show is life because life is a show. There is nothing else. Before or afterward. So you close the door, hunch a little forward, and focus on the timeline. One cut after another. On and on forever.

In memory of Dave Walker.