A Heritage Docusoap XDCAM Workflow (Part 1: Production and The Hand-off)

What makes docusoap production unique?

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:

Bravo interview
Lisa Vanderpump in the iconic Bravo “confessional” interview.

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.

Acquisition →

PENTAX Image
Note: although the term “XDCAM” is used interchangeably, the actual physical media is technically called the Professional Disc and the audio & video media is recorded with the XDCAM codec in a MXF wrapped file. Image by Dylan Reeve, CC BY-SA 3.0

Our acquisition tools are the Sony PDW-F800 ENG style camera and the Sound Devices 788T audio recorder.

F800
The tried and true Sony PDW-F800.

Video is recorded on Sony Professional Discs, the media is MXF wrapped, 50 Mbit, HD422 XDCAM at a 23.976 non-drop frame rate.

788t_io
The tried and true Sound Devices 788T.

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:

  1. Geography.
  2. Time.
  3. Staffing.

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.

What the Bravo docu-soap can learn from Netflix (part-2)

“The biggest epiphany I’ve had this year is that what really matters is the machine that builds the machine – the factory.” — Elon Musk, on the Gigafactory.

Netflix is starting to think about the television production factory. Others should take note because the ability to reduce waste and improve efficiency are useful skills that deliver significant advantages over time.

In order to develop a LEAN production model for television production, we need to break down our products into components and analyze how we’re putting each piece together. I’m using the Bravo-style docu-soap as a frame work because their franchise offers experimental opportunities not commonly found in television. In part 1 of this series I wrote about the confessional interview. In this part I’ll propose some thoughts about the notes process.

Experiment 2: consolidating notes

Thesis:

Consolidating the cut delivery and notes turnaround into ‘blocks’ can reduce wasted editor time and increase the quality of attention given to review cuts.

Notes from the Network

Within the unscripted production community just whispering “Bravo notes” is enough to conjure dread in the hearts of even the most seasoned story producer. In addition to the quantity of notes received with each cut, Bravo is notorious for asking for additional cuts beyond what’s formally agreed upon, i.e., the notorious Rough Cut 5 or the Fine Cut 7.

As my colleague FarFromReality jokes: “For those of us in the trenches – particularly in Post production – saying you are about to work on a Bravo show is to say, ‘I am going to be continuously abused for the foreseeable future and my production company is probably about to go into a deficit.’” But the truth is that nobody really likes notes from any network.

As I’ve previously illustrated, network notes turnaround is the area where production companies are likely to accumulate overages. Making matters worse is that the easiest option for the production company to minimize overages has a negative outcomes for the staff: telling story producers and editors to go on unpaid hiatus until the notes come back.

On the network’s side, I suspect executive satisfaction is low among those inundated with multiple cuts from disparate series. Multiple studies have clearly demonstrated the advantages of paying deep attention and not multitasking. The cognitive load of switching between series and chronology (watching episode 6’s rough cut before episode 4’s fine cut) must certainly take its toll on the quality of notes given.

Therefore it is only logical to look for ways to simultaneously reduce the chance for overages and improve the quality of the collaboration between the network and their producing partner.

Linear Weeks Grid

Linear Weeks Grid stacked
Sample staggered post schedule most unscripted shows use.

Right now most shows are edited on a staggered schedule. (Episode 2 starts editing a week after episode 1. Episode 3 starts editing one week after episode 2 and two weeks after episode 1.) While this seems like it would be efficient at first glance, when you look at how this plays out in the post schedule, staggered scheduling creates weeks in which disparate cuts are delivered with no regard to a human’s ability to retain information or switch contexts.

Post Schedule dashboard overview
Staggered schedules create situations where a network executive is expected to watch & note: episode 4’s rough cut, episode 1’s second fine cut, and episode 3’s fine cut.

Block scheduling

What I propose is experimenting with the block scheduling of cuts and the notes process. For example: Production company delivers episode 1 – 4 rough cuts all at once. Then the network executive reviews all of the cuts together and gives notes all at once.

Linear Weeks Grid Netflix blocked
Block scheduling would deliver a series of cuts and notes all at once.

The goal is to reduce notes turnaround and improve the quality of notes as well as strengthening the network-production company relationship, by giving showrunners the full attention of the network.

Coda

I don’t know how either of these experiments would end up. But the point is to try and discover opportunities to reduce waste and improve efficiency. I believe Bravo is in a unique position because their franchise shows are ripe for experimentation. But LEAN thinking is available to all of the networks and production companies. The question is which parties are going capitalize on these opportunities first?

What the Bravo docu-soap can learn from Netflix (part-1)

Introduction

One of the advantages Netflix will enjoy in the future is that they are willing to rethink the entire production process. One look at their recent job postings will demonstrate that they are looking for opportunities to minimize waste and increase efficiency:

Senior Data Scientist – Studio Production

Netflix is seeking a versatile data science practitioner who is ready to tackle data analysis and modeling challenges in a refreshingly new problem space – Studio Production Science and Analytics.

Recruiting Researcher – Creative Content

This researcher will be responsible for uncovering candidates not already known to us, no small task in a business that can be especially insular.

Production Engineer, Live & Multi-Camera Production, Studio Technologies

Create blogs, documentation and other support resources to educate creative partners and vendors about our requirements and initiatives.

I believe Netflix could do more (notice that the content team is noticeably absent from their tech blog) but I’d like to see Hollywood’s old guard embrace Silicon Valley’s attitude of experimentation at the production level. Therefore, in the spirit of lean production, I offer the following two experiments to the Bravo-style docu-soap.

Why the Bravo docu-soap?

Firstly, unscripted programing (from documentary through all of reality TV’s sub-genres) are edited together from footage that is easily categorized. Vérité, b-roll, time lapse, confessional interviews, car cameras, cast cameras; all of these shots are easy to identify, and more importantly, the relationship between unscripted shots is easier to understand and quantify than scripted. Therefore, it is possible to analyze the final episodes and draw useful conclusions without image analysis.

Second, the Bravo franchises in particular present a unique opportunity. Although much pop culture criticism has been written about the differences between each of the Real Housewives series, generally speaking they are all the produced similarly. Each series is composed of the same stylistic elements, which make it easier to compare production variations within the franchise, as well as with other unscripted programing.

Experiment 1: Delay interview recording

Thesis:

By delaying the interview recording until the very end of post production, when the story producers (and network executives) know which questions to ask, the show’s production could eliminate unnecessary expenses and improve creative consistency.

Anecdotal Interview Statistics:

Bravo interview
Lisa Vanderpump in the iconic Bravo “confessional” interview.

The Bravo style docu-soap records cast “confessional” interviews multiple times throughout the production. Usually 4 or 5 days of interviews for each month of shooting. In addition, productions will record an additional 2 or 3 rounds of week-long “pickup” interviews after production has wrapped. In addition to the location expenses (studio rental), each interview day requires a minimum: Camera, Audio, Hair & Makeup, Story Producer, and Line Producer. Interview footage probably has the highest ratio of footage recorded vs used, which makes it an extremely wasteful and highly open to optimization.

Ep 02 percent
Episode 2 Act 2 Interviews are 16% of the sequence.
Ep 12 percent
Episode 12 Act 5 interviews are 13% of the sequence.

In addition, as the series progresses, the distance between when a scene’s vérité was recorded and its corresponding interview recorded grows. In my sample sequences episode 2 act 2 interviews were recorded 28, 68, and 72 days later; while episode 12 act 5 interviews were recorded 97 and 117 days later.

Ep 02 days after
Episode 2 interviews were recorded two months after the vérité.
Ep 12 days after
Episode 12 interviews were recorded over three months after the vérité.

I believe this happens because later interviews are addressing specific notes from the network. Since the field producers know what questions they’re asking the cast, the answers are often more concise.

By consolidating interviews until the very end of post, it is possible to imagine that each cast member could be interviewed over 2 days, instead of the usual 5 – 7 days over the course of a season. If you consider a cast of six, consolidating the interviews until the end of post could save up to 30 shooting days.

My goal in posting these experiments is to prompt Producers to start thinking about how their shows are made at the production-level. Our tools are not making it easy. But it’s only when we start to breakdown each episode into its components that we can start to create a Hollywood version of the LEAN production model. In Part-2 I’ll offer another experiment.

To Be Continued…