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People

Producers on Producing Post Production – Part 1

If editing is consider “the invisible art,” then the people who supervise a film or television show’s post production process are a part of something even more arcane and misunderstood. 

Producers who specialize in post production can go by an assortment of titles: Post Producer, Post Production Supervisor, Co-Producer, or even Associate Producer. No matter the title, they all have one thing in common, they are vital to the smooth day-to-day operation of a show’s post production process.

I decided to talk with fellow producers to hear whether their experiences were similar to my own. I interviewed four Producers working in a variety of genres to hear in their own words how they think about their work. Over the next three months I’ll be sharing excerpts of our conversations. What’s presented here is a compilation.

Part 1: Biographicals and Defining Post Producing

When I set out to talk to PGA members who specialize in Post, I wanted to talk to my colleagues and hear whether their experiences were similar to my own. So I started at the beginning and learn about how they got into ‘the business’ in the first place. Then I wanted to learn how they defined their role as a Producer on their shows.

I met Andre Danylevich at his light filled apartment near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He has supervised both episodic television (The Orville) and feature films (CBGB). I immediately related to Danylevich’s story because I too thought I’d become a computer programmer long ago.

Gobler

So why don’t you just talk a little about your background, how you got into the business in the first place.

Danylevich

The bug bit me really early on, in high school. I was certain I was going to be a computer programmer for life. I was taking C++ and learning how to program, but then I got into theater. I randomly auditioned for a theatrical thing, and was kind of a natural at acting. And it was a lot of fun! For our senior English class, we had to do a five-minute short film and when it came to the editing I was like, “Oh this is awesome! It’s like the creativity of theater combined with the logic of programming, in front of a computer and I fucking love computers!”

Gobler

Could you elaborate a little bit on the transition going from editing into producing? What were some of the draws, or the differences?

Danylevich

I think for me the draw of editing is how you basically have the opportunity to create a story from scratch. You’re given all this raw material and you can go make a story. If you don’t have a script, if you don’t have a director, that’s like, “This is my vision!” You can just go do whatever you want. It’s a very very creative endeavor. The draw of producing was sort of informed by my experience seeing how a production goes and realizing how every decision from development onward can really impact the end product. So whenever I approach a project it’s always from: Where are we going? What’s the goal? And how can we make decisions from the earliest stages to better inform that?

The reason I love producing so much is because I just love being so hands on with every aspect of a project. And the people management and project management, schedules and budgets, are all things that can be really fun. Sure, they can get tedious at times when you’re delivering a new schedule every single day, but at the end of the day I really love problem solving and that’s what filmmaking and TV shows are; a perpetual problem to solve.

Gobler 

Can you take a moment and step back and describe more specifically what your kind of producing is on a project in television and film? 

Danylevich 

So in television I would say my producing involves receiving a lot of information. There’s already a lot of wheels in motion, a lot of decisions have been made, and it’s taking all of that and figuring out the best way forward. You have to sometimes just take whatever is going on and make it work. The show The Orville got nominated for an Emmy for visual effects for one of our episodes — a super ambitious episode — and it’s kind of a miracle we accomplished that, because at the time we were split between New York and L.A.. So I had to step up and basically took care of setting up post in New York to mirror our set up in LA. And so I think that’s a really specific example of how things will happen and you just have to keep the show on the road to make your delivery dates.

I think with producing a feature film, even though you’re never going to control all of the variables — there’s always going to be something that’s going to throw a wrench in the plans — I think it’s a little bit more of the mindset of prep prep prep and then deal with the problems as they arise when you go into production. You prepare everything as much as you can and then you’re faced with the realities of actor availabilities and stuff like that, and then you have to reschedule everything.

When I met Lynn Stevenson she had just spent six weeks Post Supervising a live-to-tape reality television show in Fiji. But that genre was an outlier for her who focused on scripted television (BONES and GILMORE GIRLS). Like Danlevich, theater was Stevenson’s gateway into the business.

Gobler

I know that you just got back from from Fiji. You were there for how long? 

Stevenson 

I was in Fiji for six weeks as the Post Supervisor on Love Island

Gobler 

Wow. And do you want to tell us a little bit about what you were doing there and your role as Post Supervisor?

Stevenson 

Yes. I’ve worked as both Post Producer and Post Supervisor. I have a wide range of experience with both scripted and unscripted. And this was a new type of job for me. I had worked with live television before, but going to a foreign country like Fiji, there’s a lot of challenges. So, basically my role was to coordinate and work with the network. We had people from CBS. We also had people from iTV America, the production company, and then we had our whole crew. We had about 400 people in production and post and that included people from eight countries.

Just in post we had 20 editors, six of whom were finishing editors. Part of my job was to manage their schedules. But we also had a post production company from Australia that provided all of the equipment. We were on networked Avids. So that was really helpful. We had a person handling all the satellite because we had to satellite to CBS and it was a five-day-a-week show. And even though the show itself was pre-produced, we were on a really tight 24 hour schedule.

Gobler 

You know, normally we start off talking about career background and I just realized that we didn’t even talk about how you got into the business in the first place.

Stevenson  

So I started out when I was young I was really involved with theater, acting in plays, and I was also involved with writing. My mom did amateur theater and got me into theater and my best friend’s mom was a novelist and got me into writing. Then I started directing plays. I went to UCLA as a theater major. But then I got very involved in the radio station and in journalism and I got very excited about that. But our radio station only went to the dorms so I decided, “Well maybe I want to be a journalist.” So I switched to San Francisco State and got in the broadcasting department where our station went all over San Francisco.

Gobler 

Was there anything when you were in the journalism broadcasting realm that kind of attracted you to post production as opposed to just staying in production?

Stevenson 

I love editing. So much in documentary and nonfiction is in the editing. I had jobs for documentaries where people would just hand me some transcripts, and they didn’t even have a plan, they’d just say, “Can you put this together?” And I loved that because it was like a big puzzle. So I really truly love editing, but then at the same time, I do like management a lot. I like being at the point where you’re working with the Showrunners and Directors. When they start knowing and trusting you, they will start asking your creative opinion, which I usually don’t volunteer unless I’m asked, because in post a lot of times we’re seen as management.

But yeah, the journalism thing, really the only reason I lost interest in it was, somebody attempted suicide, and I was the News Director of the radio station (San Francisco State) and I was torn because, on the one hand you’re supposed to go for the story, but then I realized I care more about the person that attempted suicide. I cared about what their family would think, and I was just finding myself going, “I don’t even want to assign this story.” So I realized news was not for me because of that.

Justin Holt is an affable guy with a hearty laugh who’s experienced post production from the production company, vendor, and studio sides. With experience as diverse as his it was interesting to learn that he originally didn’t plan on working in the business at all.

Holt

Full back story: I grew up in Western New York, in Rochester. I went to SUNY Albany for Political Science, realized that politics wasn’t my destined path, so I left school to try to make it in Hollywood. I moved out here in 2003 and I’ve been here ever since. Starting my career, I clawed and fought just to get a temp receptionist job. It was fascinating learning the business on that side right away, very different than what I thought it was gonna be. They had a partnership with a company called Weller Grossman. They saw that they needed a PA and I was like, “great!” So I joined as a PA, left the temp job because it was always going to be temp, and stayed at Weller Grossman from being a PA to being a post supervisor, growing with the company. When I started, we had three shows, and when I left we had 13 or 14 series running concurrently, three of which were daily episodics, 65 episode orders and I was the only post supervisor when I left.

Gobler 

Wait, wait, wait. In two years you went from PA to Post Supervisor!?

Holt

Yeah. It’s a very non-traditional path. At the time the company was a bit more scrappy, in the sense that you would have two or three jobs. The benefit of that is that if you wanted to grow and learn they were all for it.

Gobler

Well, sometimes it’s good to have those opportunities where you are able to take on more and learn more. 

Holt

Absolutely. My mentor, who is truly one of my mentors to this day, was my first Post Supervisor at that company when I was rising. I learned a lot from him. I learned how to take apart an Avid and I didn’t know that most post-sups didn’t do that, because he did it. But he left that company, and he started his own company. So that was just really great luck to have somebody that was that technical be a mentor. Everybody in that company was hugely technical, out of necessity, because we didn’t have technical support. There was nobody else to call. So when your Avid went down, you fixed it. I didn’t know that that was abnormal, in terms of the rest of the business. 

I met Tiffany Phelps at my office during a busy midweek afternoon. She has a calming presence and spoke candidly about her role supervising Supervisors as the Executive Director of Post at Shed Media. Like so many of us, Phelps was lured into this industry after considering an alternative career first. 

Phelps 

Yeah. So I wanted to be a doctor. And then I saw the movie Titanic and fell in love with the graphics of the movie and so I decided I wanted to go to school for TV instead of medicine. I went to college for television production at Cal State Northridge and basically right after that started working.

I started in production, and I thought I would never work in post and I fell into post after doing some production. The last thing I did for production was The Voice Season One and then I took a post coordinator job for a company called High Noon to do deliverables. That was supposed to just fill in between Season 1 and Season 2 of The Voice, and then I wound up post supervising the ALMA Awards for NBC after that and just sort of started post-suping and never went back.

Gobler 

When you say that you never thought you would go into post, did you have, when you got into the business, preconceived notions about what production was and what post production was — and you’re like “Oh, I’m never gonna like post”?

Phelps 

I think a little bit of both. I liked production. I liked being on set. I like being in the action. So I really really really enjoyed that part of it. As far as coordinating during my downtime in production I would do post deliverables and help out a post supervisor and I enjoyed the paperwork aspect of it, but I still really loved production. But after a while getting into post I realized I really enjoyed seeing everything come together and that’s kind of why I chose to stay. I liked color. I liked audio. I liked mixing. I liked figuring out camera codecs and so I wound up falling in love with that aspect of it.

Gobler 

And you never looked back. Can you tell us a little about your day to day responsibilities at Shed?

Phelps 

My day-to-day consists of overseeing Post Supervisors, overseeing all the calendars — our post-production and production calendars, because a lot of times when production shifts post shifts too. I work with DPs in terms of talking to them about the cameras that they want to shoot on. What works for our series. We come up with happy mediums sometimes depending on what codec they want to shoot and how much storage I can allow them to use on our servers. And then I work with our Post Supervisors to just help them with anything they need in terms of specs questions, scheduling questions, anything like that.

When I set out to talk to fellow producers, I wanted to hear whether their experiences were similar to my own. What I learned was that despite having different entrances into the business, we all shared similar traits, like a knack for problem solving and a passion for editing. In Part 2 of this series we discuss People Management and how Producers can exert influence while not being in a ‘creative’ role.

Liz Lipschultz contributed to this interview.

Categories
Management Software

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.

Categories
Reviews Software

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.

Categories
Management

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.

Categories
General

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