Food Network Star and the case of the crunched tapes

My first series as Post Supervisor was Food Network Star for CBS Eye Too. I have always taken pride in my technical savvy, but this show taught me that some problems are beyond one person’s ability to solve, and that a Post Supervisor’s primary role is to be the team’s best communicator.

The following is an account of the most tricky troubleshooting problem I’ve yet encountered in my post production career:

To: Post Supervisor

From: Night A.E.

Subject: 0122D07 Tape Damage

Shit. This is not an email notification you want to see when you first wake up in the morning. However, this Night A.E. is one of the best. I know the email will be a solid description of the problem he encountered, steps he took to solve the problem, and the results. Plus, it’s better to be informed of problems sooner than later. Slide to unlock my phone. The email reads:

Tonight, while rewinding tape 0122D07 prior to capture, I noted a deck error on deck “B”, alternating “E-52” and “AUTO OFF”. I turned the deck off, called the post house’s technician and looked up the error, which is listed as “WINDUP REEL NOT ROTATING”. The Tech turned on the deck and ejected the cassette, from which a small amount of crunched tape could be seen from the edge. Attached is an image of the tape after The Tech wound it slightly.

Image of the first “crunched” tape.

The deck seems to be working correctly, and is capturing subsequent tapes without problem. According to The Tech, there is no indication whether the error is related to the deck, the camera, or the tape itself. I will continue to closely monitor all tapes as they are loaded.

Solid problem description. One damaged tape is an outlier. Nothing to be done at the moment. I get dressed and head into the office. The day almost passes until the Day Loader runs to my cubicle to tell me that tape 0120B13 was chewed up. Now we have a problem!

When you troubleshoot a problem you looking for commonalities. However, this problem was different from the start. The tapes came from two different cameras “B” and “D” respectively and failed on two different decks[1]. Therefore, I want to investigate the tapes. I ask our coordinator to collect the tape serial numbers and email our vendor. All analogue mediums are subject to a bathtub curve failure rate; perhaps there was a manufacturing issue?

While I wait to hear back from the tape vendor I update the team:

To: Post Production Team

From: Post Supervisor

Subject: IMPORTANT Tape 0120B13 Lost

Another tape was just chewed up: 0120B13. This was a different deck and a different camera than 0120B13. This is not a camera problem, and it is not a deck problem. I am looking into having the tapes spliced and dubbed, but can not guarantee this will work. Is there anyway we can start implementing safety recording in the field as soon as possible?

My phone’s notification: “so TWO tapes are destroyed!?”

My phone’s notification: “Holy SHIT stop all tapes NOW”

My phone’s notification: “This is a REDACTED problem! Did you call them?”

Caïn by Henri Vidal. Photo by Alex E. Proimos

In retrospect I can’t believe I sent so careless an email. I can’t believe I sent an email!?

Lesson: when dealing with potential crisis, use the phone!

Identify and inform key stakeholders of the problem by phone. Tell them the facts, tell them what’s being done, and if they freakout, don’t take it personally. Repeat until all of the key players are aware of the situation.

When presented with an information gap, people make stuff up to fill it in. Email is a low bandwidth form of communication and people make stuff up to fill in all of their questions. A phone call allows immediate question asking and answering. In addition, the tone of your voice communicates so much more than your words. If you sound confident and “on it” things will go better for you.

Years later I read the following in Vanity Fair about World War Z’s troubled production and Producer Ian Bryce’s effort to fix it:

Movie sets, in his experience, function best when people talk to one another, he said. So before Bryce crawled into bed, he got a list of department heads and senior crew members and sent an email of his own. “If anyone is up for a new way of doing things, here’s my phone number,” Bryce said he wrote. “Here is my assistant’s phone number. Call me. I can talk faster than I can type.” It didn’t take long for people to respond. “It got some immediate hit backs of ‘Hooray!’ ” he said.

Three deck loading station (from back in the day).

Our tape vendor got back to us and said that the tapes were manufactured at different times. But the the Panasonic representative the vendor spoke to was very concerned and asked if it be ok for them to reach out? “Of course,” I said. Having someone from Panasonic help troubleshoot could only be an asset, right? Well kinda. I’d soon learn that once an equipment manufacturer gets involved, so does everyone else.

I tell the EIC about Panasonic’s desire to help and immediately I’m instructed to setup a conference call will all parties. ALL parties. The conference call dial-in included the EIC and show engineer, the post house engineer, the camera rental company’s engineer, all of their attendants, and the Panasonic representative.

After the endless round of introductions the representative announced that they had pulled the service records of all the tape decks. And that there were none. The post house immediately became defensive and said that their decks were maintained internally by certified technicians. When Panasonic rep repeated the same trick on the camera rental company the result was exactly the same. By this time every person on the call was trying to contribute their two cents, but the only effect was an increase in volume and a decrease in the quality of conversation.

White_House_Conference_Call
Needless to say our conference call didn’t go like this.

All the while, production had kept shooting because the camera bodies were most likely not causing the problem. This continued to add to the post department’s backlog. We were falling behind loading and episode prep fast. We needed to figure this out soon, or post was going to have to postpone the editors and story producers.

With no easy answers, and everyone feeling defensive, the only thing to be done was to suggest an end-to-end run of the entire workflow with engineers checking the tapes at every point in the process. It went something like this:

The cameramen would roll tape like normal. After every load the camera engineer would check each tape and hand them off to the Panasonic rep who would confirm the integrity of each tape. Then the representative would hand deliver the tapes to the post team who would load the tapes under the post house engineer’s supervision. We couldn’t recreate the problem.

Therefore, we started loading the backlog of tapes and almost immediately, this:

Return of the “crunched” tapes.

It was during the time when the tapes were being hand delivered from the set to post, that the culprit was discovered. While the show engineer was chatting with the camera rental engineer, the show engineer saw an assistant cameraman and field producer reviewing a tape on the QC deck in the corner of the set.

Turns out that the camera department kept a small QC deck on set so cameramen and field producers could watch footage before sending the tapes to post.

The QC deck, which had been out of sight, went unnoticed during the end-to-end test runs. When the engineers checked the QC deck they discovered an unreported servo error that caused the tapes to slightly unspool during playback. When the tape was played back again during loading, the loose tension of the tapes was causing the E-52 errors during capture.

To: Stakeholders

From: The Post Supervisor

Subject: Tape Troubles Solved

Good News: When you open the top of a cassette, the black tape across the top should be taut. The video tape across the bad tapes are very loose. By opening up the tapes we are able to identify which tapes have problems and then fix them by manually rewinding the tapes. After the tapes have been manually tightened the tapes work just fine.

Cassette release to manually rewind loose tapes.

Followed by the Night A.E.’s inevitable shift report:

To: Post Supervisor

From: Night A.E.

Subject: Shift Report

Tonight I checked the cassette of every uncaptured tape available for tape slack.

Of the 700 or so tapes I checked, about 2 dozen needed tightening, with about 8 being bad enough that I would expected that any attempt to load them without tightening would have failed. E Cam tapes represented about half of the tapes I had to tighten, with F, G, H, J and K cams also having at least 2 slack tapes.

Overall, there seems to be some improvement, I checked all 139 tapes from tonight’s drop and only 3 needed to be tightened. Compare that to the 1/20 tapes, where I had to tighten 10 tapes, with E Cam being the biggest culprit.

Including tonight’s drop, all uncaptured tapes have been checked for slack and corrected if necessary. Tonight’s tapes can be found under the desk in the main A.E. room.

Checking 700 tapes. Now is that an A.E. assignment if ever were one!

Conclusion

Some problems are beyond one person’s ability to solve. In this situation, with 5 or 6 engineers involved, I learned that my role as Post Supervisor was to be the team’s best communicator. I also learned that sometimes troubleshooting involves a little bit of luck!

[1]Tape Library end note:

Our library of 3,000 DVCProHD tapes is divided by episode, with two additional sections for b-roll and interviews.

Tapes are labelled date_camera_load. For example: Tape 0210B13 is from February 10, Camera B, thirteen tape of the day. This system works for us. I’ve never been happy about it, but I can’t think of a better system, and I’ve spoken with many colleagues about alternative system.

Tapes before and after labeling.

One additional organization note: tapes are labelled with color Avery circles; each color corresponds to an episode. And tapes are labelled with a Brother tape labeler. In the future I’d like to have a tape database and bar code labeler, but with tapeless media on the horizon I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance.

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