In part 1 of this series I describe the process of using a Gantt chart as project management tool for unscripted television post production. In this post I will zoom in on one specific part of the editorial process: offline editing. And meditate deeply on how we think about editing as an activity in the project management scene of the word.
In project management terminology:
An activity is a component of work performed during the course of a project. Activities take time and consume resources; you describe them by using action verbs. Examples of activities are design report and conduct survey.
This is tricky, because your activity is someone else’s project. For example: Change Car’s Oil might be an activity to you; drop car off at the mechanic and pick it up 30 minutes later. But from your mechanic’s point-of-view Change Car’s Oil is a series of small activities that require unique resources and multiple stopping points.
There are some flaws with Car Oil example, but you can also think about something like renovating a house. As a homeowner you might see macro activities like: renovate bathroom, rennovate kitchen. But your General Contractor sees hundreds of smaller activities that need to be planned in coordination with each other. As a homeowner you hire a GC so you don’t have to worry about “the details,” but knowing the details will help you understand the cause of delays when they eventually crop up.
The Post Supervisor faces a similar dilemma
One way of looking at the post schedule is macro: “The team has six weeks from start to rough cut.” Therefore, you’d see this component of offline editorial as one distinct activity. If you are a Post Supervisor you probably see your schedule this way.
An editor sees something entirely different. They see hundreds of smaller activities. Even something like “cut act one” is broken down into much smaller activities: cut scene 1, cut scene 2, cut scene 3, cut transitional segment between scene 1 & 2, cut transitional segment between scenes 2 & 3, cut bump out, etc etc etc…
This difference of perspective isn’t a problem, until you have to understand and explain why a cut is late.
If you only see the macro picture, you can know that a cut is late. But you won’t have the information you need to troubleshoot the cause. Even if you breakdown your activities into something more ganular, like acts, you still won’t have the information you need for a diagnosis.
How Changing a Car’s Oil is Different from Editing
At this point it might be logical to think that the answer is breaking down offline editorial into more distinct activities; the “cut scene 3, cut transitional segment between scene 1 & 2” from above. This is how a general contractor and mechanic does it. But editing is different for two reasons.
Firstly, the order of activities is usually not important. An Editor can work on a scene in Act 3, then score Act 2, and finish the day assembling a transitional montage. Without critical dependencies, a Post Supervisor can go mad trying to track all of the editor’s activities each day.
Second, more importantly, the creative process is messy by its nature. Perhaps you’ve seen this inspirational meme around:
Creativity doesn’t happen in a strict linear fashion. It requires exploration and false starts. The truth is that every creative endeavor, even network television, will never be finished, only abandoned. More often than not, post production is an exercise of accomplishing as much as possible in the allotted time.
The point of applying project management techniques to television production is to maximize the amount of time your team is doing the fun creative work instead of waiting for resources to become available. It’s not to limit creativity, but to unleash it!
The docusoap is a unique subgenre of reality television that draws on techniques from documentary production and news gathering. Specifically, it is a direct descendant of Cinéma Vérité. You can witness this heritage if you watch The Queen of Versailles (1, 2) and compare it to any of The Real Housewives. Truthful subjects presented behind crude reality.
But if the docusoap, perfected by Bravo, can claim such a noble pedigree; we also need to acknowledge its scamp father, Electronic news-gathering.
The production of a docusoap scene has more in common with the techniques used by a news crew, than anything resembling a film shoot where shots are carefully blocked and rehearsed. The recording of a good docusoap scene has the mise-en-scène of a professional football team (either one) playing around a UCB improv troupe. Reality just happen; and the crew is always just a half step behind.
And of course you have genre defining sit down interview present in both documentary and news productions:
The influence of Electronic news-gathering on the docusoap production is especially predominant on this heritage workflow. “Heritage” (borrowing a term from LightIron’s Michael Cioni) because it is based around the Sony Professional Disc and the XDCAM HD422 codec. It utilizes the shoulder mounted F800 camera; a 13 lb beast that you were as likely to see carried by the local news crew, as you were on location with the Real Housewives. This workflow is fast! And very stable.
This in-depth workflow write up is meant to provided a solid foundation for crafting your own workflow. What is presented here is as much a way to think about workflow, as it is an actual how-to.
Video is recorded on Sony Professional Discs, the media is MXF wrapped, 50 Mbit, HD422 XDCAM at a 23.976 non-drop frame rate.
Audio is recorded at 16 bit 48 kHz B-WAV mono track files, because Avid Media Composer does not work well with polyphonic files.
The production team is instructed to “roll fat,” i.e., keep the cameras rolling as much as possible. The post teams needs this because each time the camera stops recording, a new clip is created, creating more work for the assistant editors during episode preparation .
The ‘F800’ and ‘788’ are workhorses. Both devices are extremely reliable; have a large user base, therefore finding a crew is easier than some of the more exotic cameras; and are well supported throughout the global, especially within the United States, Europe, and Asia.
The F800 was designed as a news camera which further speaks to its reliability. But there is one additional feature that makes this camera a time saver further down the line: proxy video recording. The F800 is capable of simultaneously recording a low-resolution 1.5 MB/s MPEG-4 file that can be used for offline editorial. In this heritage workflow, the proxy media is copied directly to our Avid Isis shared storage system at four times real-time (i.e. 1 hour of footage requires 15 minutes of ingest for editorial).
Contrast this 4X speed with a modern tapeless workflows which requires a specialized DIT cart, or a lengthy transcode process that is usually one and a half times real-time (i.e. 1 hour of footage requires 1:30 hours to ingest for editorial). ‘Ep Prep’ is the stage most likely to introduce ‘lag’ between production and post, so any tool that adds efficiency is most welcome.
Side note: I once read that Formula 1 race cars are required to be designed within such a tight specification, that the most efficiency one team’s car can have over another is only one or two percent. However, that small 1% efficiency, whether a little less drag or a little less weight, is what separates a winning team from a middling one. The same dynamic is at play here. If the average show tapes between 1,500 – 1,800 Professional Discs; if a technique is able to save me 2 minutes per disc; then the result is 55 saved hours. That is entire week of Assistant Editor time.
The hand-off: Dallies & Tape shipments
This docusoap workflow doesn’t have a dallies stage in the traditional sense, because the field team rarely has time to rewatch the taped footage. The most common reason a field producer will look back is for wardrobe continuity purposes when taping a pickup scene.
That said, the Professional Disc is a nonlinear digital format (as opposed to a linear digital format like DVCProHD tape) and each disc can be cloned digitally. In this case each disc is loaded into a Sony U2 drive and copied on a 2TB G-Drive by our Production Coordinator before the hand-off. In the unlikely event of a shipment loss, these G-Drives function as a backup of the master footage; while also giving the field team the opportunity to look back on taped footage like dallies.
Simultaneously, the audio team transfers each day’s audio from the 788T recorder to a 1 TB LaCie Rugged hard drive. The audio team also includes a Sound Report, which is a csv file generated by the 788T that lists which cast members were recorded on each channel, the number of takes, and additional metadata that is useful to the Assistant Editors during episode prep.
After all of the day’s discs and audio have been copied, the Production Coordinator packs them into a box and ships them to the post department via FedEx Priority Overnight. On rare occasions, the discs are sent via courier service. Equally important is that the Production Coordinator sends the Post Coordinator a detailed email listing: tracking number, a list of packed discs, and any additional information about the assets.
When the package is received by post department the Post Coordinator will check that all of the listed assets in the Production Coordinator’s email have been received; or address any discrepancies with the field team.
There are three primary considerations when planning the hand-off of footage from Production to Post:
Let’s review these one-by-one:
1) Geography will probably have the greatest influence on hand-off considerations, because a show that tapes and posts in the same area will have it considerably easier than a show that shoots on one side of the country and posts on another. Shows that tape ‘off-the-beaten path’ and therefore don’t have regular FedEx or Courier services available; or internationally, and therefore have to contend with customs; will have an additional level of logistical complexity to deal with. As a rule of thumb, the further apart production and post, the more this consideration comes into play.
2) How quickly footage needs to be turned around is also very important because it will determine whether you need to use FedEx or Courier. Every production should work as quickly and efficiently as possible; but there is a difference between producers wanting to work with footage quickly, and having your back against the wall because of air dates. You should make an effort to understand how real your deadlines are.
3) Finally, the size of your team affects what is possible. A production team can accomplish great things if one coordinator’s entire job is to work split shifts and backup discs, review the tape lists, and package assets for shipping. But if you only have one coordinator who’s getting clearance releases, buying craft services, and dealing with the tapes… well you’ll need to have more modest expectations.
These three factors interplay. If your show is taping on the other side of the country and is up against air dates; then you need to make sure that there is adequate personnel in place to handle tape shipment quickly and efficiently. If your show is taping down the block from your post house, the A.E.’s can handle most of the hand-off responsibilities.
In the next post we’ll discuss what to do when the discs and audio hard drives are handed off to the Lead Assistant Editor for Episode Prep.
Interesting paper by the Project Management Institute from 2008 that surveys the state of project management practices in the motion picture industry. The entire paper is worth a read for two reasons. Firstly, it frames the challenges of production into traditional “project phases”. Secondly it compares film production to other creative endeavors (video games) and other industries (pharmaceutical R&D). Below are a list of highlights with my thoughts in bold. Now if only I had access to the underlying research…
The motion picture industry, not often represented in the project management discourse, is an industry that is expected to provide a unique perspective for the study of project management. I chose to research film project management due to its wide appeal yet limited presence among project management references, academic sources, and published literature. This paper attempts to uncover and capture the significance of project management practices to the motion picture industry. My goal is to contribute these findings to a wider project management community.
DeVany (2007) also compared film production to pharmaceutical research, where both industries have had statistically similar results in producing successes.
They asserted that traditional management strategy was inadequate for explaining the existence of the motion picture industry, whose project-based and mobile structure left parent organizations such as film studios lacking long-term knowledge, experience, and permanence. I am curious to see how they compared production to traditional manufacturing. Contrast with the smiling curve.
They used interviews with a small number of film professionals to show the importance of trust, available hierarchy, and trade jargon to the efficient operation of the film crew as a virtual enterprise.
In a study of more than 300 films to determine whether marketing could overcome poor quality, Hennig-Thurau, Houston, and Sridhar (2006) found that quality was the stronger driver of long-term revenue. Reminds me of the quote from James Cameron: “No audience was ever won over because a film came in on budget.”
Simon (2005) explained that the management of creative projects such as film production involved specialized leadership skills. Such as…
In a controversial and more extreme position, Zackariahsson, Walfisz, and Wilson (2006) asserted that a formal project structure actually inhibited the natural creative process. This assertion wasn’t adequately proven by their work in the area, which was limited to a single case study. Interesting!
Because of her background in formal project management, Cheklich was able to bridge the two professions of project management and film production, drawing parallels and reiterating the importance of financing, scheduling, budgeting, and communications.
Table 1. What Film Phases Map to the PMBOK® Guide?
Brook, 2005 Clevé, 2006
Production and postproduction overlap; editing of raw film, sound, effects, printing, delivery
Primary phase; less risky synthesis stage
As a primary concern of project management professionals, risk management appears to be a key and driving force behind the practices of today’s film production projects.
Their answer to the financial risks endured by remaining in a much less lucrative, unstable, and unpredictable movie market was to restructure the business of filmmaking into what it has primarily become today, a purely project-driven business Does this represent an opportunity for studios to hire cheaper labor by offering stability and healthcare?
[Studios] They were free to utilize a broader resource pool of talent, and they were free to control the amount and frequency of films they undertook (Jones, Lichtenstein, Borgatti, Hesterly, & Tallman, 1999). Both benefits theoretically would appear to mitigate the greater financial risks of film production experienced in today’s business climate. However, Phelan and Lewin (1999) arguably claimed that this flexibility was more costly to the studio.
Table 3. Who is the Film Project Manager?
“The producer’s role is to turn story ideas into profitable cinematic entertainment, and to persuade others to share in his or her commercial and creative vision”
In addition, an entire staff known as the production office is typically required to perform project management duties (Producers Guild of America, 2005
In many cases, the unit production manager handled the logistics of production while the line producer worked to manage payments to contractors and vendors during production and served an accountancy role.
Motion picture production has been deemed similar to other industries such as software development and pharmaceutical research. … What makes motion picture project management different from many other industries, however, is the degree or intensity in which these fundamentals are applied, and by whom. Film production is unique because it is a logistically complex and difficult undertaking, much like waging a small war. Urgh… the comparison to violent endeavors really needs to stop.
Primary research in the form of a motion picture industry survey, with an adequate sample size, would help to clarify, expand, or dispute the findings in this paper.
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.
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. 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?”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Longtime readers know that I believe that our NLE’s are missing an entire dimension of tools. They are woefully inadequate when it comes to helping us make informed business decisions. A new class of tools I call NLE Analytics are required to enable Producers, at the production management level, to make informed decisions. It is my hope that the three user scenarios below prompt Product Managers at Adobe (Premiere), Apple (FCPX), Avid (Media Composer), and Blackmagic Design (Resolve) to take this need seriously, and consider adding these tools into future versions of their software.
Evaluating Music Libraries:
Rene is the Post Supervisor of an unscripted show that was just renewed for its fourth season. Last season her editors complained that the show’s music library was beginning to feel stale. It is Rene’s responsibility to negotiate with the music vendors, but she doesn’t know which are providing value and which are resting on their laurels. Is she paying one music vendor more than another, but using their library less?
The current process is to ask the editors what they think; which is really asking them what they feel; subject to all of the cognitive biases that lead us into bad decision making. The other option available to Rene is to load the previous season’s music cue sheets into Excel and go through numerous contortions to arrive at a general quantitative number like: “music company X provided 32 of 100 cues used in episode 303.” However, this doesn’t provide a full picture. Perhaps a company that has a smaller number of cues are actually being used for longer duration? Or perhaps one company provided a lot of cues early in the season, but dropped off later, demonstrating a lack of library depth.
And yet all of this information is so close at hand. The final sequences of each episode can provide all of this data and more. The right implementation could create a music usage dashboard providing Rene with a real time snapshot of what music her editors are currently using. If music company X is under represented, Rene would be empowered to reach out mid season and let her under performing music vendors know that their royalty checks are going to be a lot lighter if they don’t step up.
Robert is the Production Supervisor of a second season show. His camera department is always asking for the additional resources (i.e. money) required to set up complicated car cameras, time lapses, drone, and b-roll sliding shots. The additional manpower and camera gear adds up to several thousands of dollars each week of shooting. Yet when Robert watched the last season on TV it feels like most of this specialty footage was never used.
The Post Supervisor can tell Robert how much storage space the specialty footage takes up, but this number is a poor indicator of the true cost of loading and organizing and maintaining this footage. Maybe the Post Supervisor can provide Robert with something like, “we used 2 minutes of car camera footage in our 44 minute episode 303,” but there is no easy way of providing Robert with an exact usage for the entire season. Or definitely no way to broke down it done by camera type.
And yet all of this information is so close at hand. The final sequences of each episode can provide all of this data and more. The right implementation could create a camera usage dashboard. In addition to specialty footage, the dashboard could provide up to the minute information about which cameraman’s footage is being used, perhaps indicating crew troubles.
Outliers are things that stand out from the crowd. In statistics they indicate data that needs attention for a variety of reasons. In NLE Analytics, a shot could be considered an outlier if surrounded by a majority of footage from a different date/time. For example; if a scene is made up of footage from April 1st, but one shot is from May 15th, this should prompt the producer to ask, “why?” This anomalous shot could indicate a pickup shot due to camera issues. But perhaps it was due to creative discovery during the editing process? Or maybe it was a pickup interview because someone forgot to ask the right questions during the sit down?
Whatever the reason, having a tool that easily identifies anomalous footage and brings it to the producer’s attention would be a valuable start to rethinking the entire production process from pre-production through delivery. I’ve explored how this could be applied to interviews in my post about: What the Bravo docu-soap can learn from Netflix part 1 & part 2.
When he founded Digital Domain, James Cameron said that he wanted to create a place, “where technology would not just serve, but actually inform the creative process” (emphasis mine). The idea of NLE Analytics is to create a tool set that informs the creative process by pointing out inefficiencies and diverting money to places that will enhance the creative vision.
Today’s non-linear editing systems are huge repositories of data. But this enormously valuable information is completely inaccessible to us. With the right tools Producers can make informed business decisions and join the creative conversation. The entire production process could be reconsidered; a necessity in a world of shrinking budgets and increased deliverables.
I have two hopes. Firstly, that Product Managers at the big 4 developers take this idea seriously and consider implementing these tools into future versions of their software. Secondly, that Producers take these ideas seriously and let the big developer know that these are tools they want to use, and that future business will go to the ones who make it happen.