I originally wrote this in early January but decided to shelve it because this post felt too personal and off-topic for a blog (mostly) about post production. What a difference eleven weeks can make, right? I don’t have anything to say about the ongoing global pandemic, but something about this post feels of the moment and worth sharing now.
In 2019 my wife gave birth to our second child and I became a father again. Parenthood is amazing, and beautiful. But that’s not what this post is about, because being a parent is also an endeavor filled with an existential anxiety best expressed by a quote from Elizabeth Stone:
“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
It is through this lens of existential anxiety brought on by parenthood that I want to share with you my three favorite pieces of media from 2019: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, Inside Bill’s Brain by David Guggenheim, and Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang.
“Forget your hopes. They are what brought you here.”
— Clive James translating Dante
If you think you know what Wallace-Well’s book is about without having read it, you’re wrong! The Uninhabitable Earthis to climate change, as The Omnivore’s Dilemma was to food: a framework to think about its respective topic and a survey of the best thinking in the field.
Just as Michael Pollan set out to explore the complex multi-faceted ways in which we grow and consume food from fast-food to farm-to-table; David Wallace-Well examines all of the ways our climate is changing (rising sea-levels, reduced air quality, more extreme weather, etc) and more importantly, how we as a species are coping with it. His chapter on how Cognitive Biases prevent us from effectively grasping the problem is a worthwhile reason to read this book.
I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that my children may very well live to see a world where humans abandon coastal cities like Miami and Venice. But neither do I know how to reconcile how much I love my kids with how much I dislike people. Humans aren’t good at much, but we are certainly good at holding opposing values as equally true.
“Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
David Guggenheim frames his wonderful portrait of the brilliant Bill Gates through the work he and his wife, Melinda, are accomplishing through their foundation. Let’s just get this out of the way: Guggenheim tries to paint Gates as complex, but his documentary series is really an indictment against the rest of us. Bill and Melinda Gates want to give us clean water and eradicate polio, and they are willing to spend Billions of dollars to do it, but people just can’t stop being people. We reject the vaccines and the cheap clean energy and good money continually gets thrown after bad.
Secondly, that most all of humanity has relinquished so much power to so few makes me feel sad for the future. We, the people, no longer believe that government can do something like eradicate polio through smart public policy, so instead we wait for billionaire overlords to hand out a disease free future when they feel like it. Because as much as Bill Gates wants to help humanity, he’d prefer not to pay more taxes.
“What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”
The wisest of us know that if there is any comfort to be found in this world, it is to be found in art. Ted Chiang’s recently published collection of short stories Exhalationare transcendent. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” are beautiful explorations of regret and the triumph over it.
But in my opinion, the best of Chiang’s short stories is, “The Great Silence,” about the parrots who live next to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and lamet humanity’s inability to see what’s right under their nose. It’s heartrendingly beautiful and is the perfect coda to a post about existential dread. If you only read one of my links, go to Electric Lit and read his story here.
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 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.”
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 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.
My path in the business began in high school. In my junior year my days were filled with electronics and computer programing classes and I had some uninspired notion about studying engineering in college. The work suited my logical side, but I distinctly remember feeling ambivalent because some creative spark was missing. As a child I loved to play with Legos, and in middle school my friends were big into role-playing games (Cyberpunk 2020, not D&D, if you must know). These were group activities that blended a rigid systems-type thinking with the more unpredictable nature of creativity.
Everything changed one afternoon when a friend invited me to help him tape his public access show after school. Eric’s show was called Pinhead Nation and he booked local rock bands to perform in his backyard on the deck of his parents’ house. Then he’d interview them afterwards. All I remember from that afternoon is running around to clear off the deck and lay audio cables with intense purpose. There was a feeling of camaraderie that is familiar to anyone who’s worked on a set. It was so exciting to be part of a crew. This collaborative approach to creativity is exactly what had been missing. The feeling electrified me and I was ‘hooked’. By the following year I transferred into my high school’s the television production class.
My high school’s video production program had a small studio with two pedestal cameras, an ENG camera, a control room with A/B switch, and an S-VHS linear editing system. In retrospect, I was lucky to have access to a high school program with so much equipment. At the time (1998-1999) that analogue gear probably cost our school district a small fortune.
The class had a variety of projects, but my favorite was a newscast I wrote set during Roman times. It was a multi-step project. First, I had to write the script in the A/V format (original hand written script). Then I had to tape and edit an ENG package that would be ‘rolled-in’ into the main newscast. From here it was a natural progression to go on to major in video production in college.
In college I gravitated towards documentary production. Looking back now, I think I realized that it was easier to create high quality documentary productions than scripted narratives, because narrative is SO resource intensive. A scripted production requires costumes and sets, in addition to lighting and sound; while documentary, especially *cinéma vérté*, requires so much less. Also, I enjoy learning and a good documentary teaches you something new about the world. It can be creative and emotional while also feeding the logical part of the mind.
In college I also started the FDU Film Guild. A campus club that purchased extra equipment and props to encourage fellow students to get out there and make films. It served the purpose of building a community of people who help each other by contributing their unique skills. One of our primary fundraising activities was filming campus events, creating DVD’s, and selling those DVD’s to the organizations. Event videography, but lucrative nevertheless.
I also spent two years working at a company in New York City called iNextv. It was like Youtube, just 5 years too early, since almost nobody had fast broadband internet at the time. My first assignment on the job was to assist the studio engineer with soldering the remaining cables to their bnc connectors. During my two years on the job I had opportunities to run studio cameras, assist the Avid Media Composer editors, and learn Final Cut Pro. It was a sad day when I came into work and learned that the company had became the latest victim of the first dot com bubble.
The year after graduating college I moved to Washington, DC and landed my first job as an Assistant Editor. But that’s a story for another post…
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.