A few years ago I was hired by a production company in Mexico City to implement a Real Housewives-style post production workflow on their new show. I jumped at the opportunity to work internationally and the following week I found myself in the wonderfully diverse capital of Mexico. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was about to make some of the biggest post production mistakes of my career.
The trouble began almost as soon as I walked into the office. The production team was already a few weeks into taping, and their shooting style was problematic. They were shooting in a style similar to scripted production. That is, they would start and stop rolling the cameras everytime the cast and crew reset themselves.
In my experience, unscripted camera teams are instructed to ‘roll fat,’ i.e. keep the cameras rolling as much as possible. The post team likes this because each time the camera stops recording, a new clip is created, creating more work to the Assistant Editor. During Episode Prep the A.E. needs to manually sync each clip into the overall sync stack. The more clips, the more time the A.E. spends building the sync stacks.
The math quickly adds up. Two cameras recording over three hours with six stop points creates only twelve clips to sync (2 x 6 = 12). Two cameras recording over the same time frame with fifty stop points creates a hundred clips to sync (2 x 50 = 100). Over eight times the work!
The second challenge was the shared storage system. The production had already installed a REDACTED system that did not offer Avid style bin-locking emulation and Mimiq did not exist at the time. This was problematic because bin-locking enables the type of simultaneous collaborative editing that Avid Media Composer is famous for. Without bin-locking the editors would be islands working as if they were on local storage.
My mistakes were two-fold:
Firstly, I accepted a consulting job without thoroughly assessing the situation. It’s always trouble when Post Production is brought in after the cameras start rolling. But in this instance I was in a double bind with the shared storage system. There was only so much I was able to do for the production company: I could identify problems, but since replacing the shared storage wasn’t an option, I couldn’t replicate the Real Housewives-style workflow I was familiar with back home.
Secondly, I didn’t really listen to the people describing the problem and people offering solutions. While assessing the show’s challenges I fixated on the “implement a Real Housewives-style post production workflow” mandate I received when I was hired. It didn’t occur to me that sometimes fixing a workflow is just making the work flow. If the AE’s are grouping and the Editors editing, the exact implementation isn’t really that important.
In addition, over and over again, the producers kept saying, “let’s bring people in at night and just get through it.” In other words, fix the problems through brute force methods; what Hollywood calls “throwing bodies at the problem.” I was living in New York at the time, and in the city, it was impossible to find an editor to work dayside at the last minute. Finding an editor to work 10 pm – 8 am was unthinkable to me. However, I didn’t take into consideration the labor market. In Mexico City I learned that there was a robust pool of news editors who would have been happy to work the overnight shift on an innovative new unscripted show.
At the end of the week, when it was time for me to go home, the production decided to staff up and muscle through the problems by running post 24/7. On my flight home I wrote in great detail about the technical issues that would make it impossible to implement a Real Housewives-style workflow with the current equipment in place. Everyone seemed happy enough, and in future seasons I learned that some things had changed, like asking the camera teams to keep their cameras rolling. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had failed by sticking to the letter of the assignment, instead of the spirit of it.
They say that the best teachers learn more from their students, then their students learn from them. In Mexico City I learned how important it is to thoroughly assess a situation before diving in. I also learned the importance of flexibility when considering problems and their solutions. Finally, for the first time I started to see how unscripted shows should start looking at news production for new production techniques. We’re so quick to emulate scripted production, but perhaps digging into our news gathering roots can yield valuable lessons as well.