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.

Post Scheduling: The Schedule Keeper

Over the last few weeks, I’ve described the post production scheduling process in detail. In this concluding post, I’m going to explain why the Post Supervisor’s most important role is the show’s Schedule Keeper. And why the Post Supervisor’s method of communicating the schedule truly matters.

Editing takes time, and successful projects have realistic deadlines and realistic expectations for the amount of work that can be completed by each milestone. They also need everyone on the team to know these deadlines. Therefore, the Post Supervisor’s most important role is to be the show’s Schedule Keeper. As the keeper of the post schedule, a Post Supervisor’s job is to:

  1. Make sure everyone on the team knows all of the project’s milestones.
  2. Know what work is expected to be included at each of those milestones.

The Post Supervisor’s primary tool for keeping the team synchronized is the post schedule in all of it’s formats. At the start of every project I create a calendar that clearly presents when each of the project’s cuts are due, and what needs to be included in each cut. For example: on my broadcast shows, the network expects our Fine Cuts to include all graphical elements and to be within 1 minute of the final run time.

Producer Quick Glance
On their first day, every Producer & Editor gets one of these for their episode.

After the post schedule is distributed to everyone on the team, it is the Post Supervisor’s responsibility to make sure everyone buys in to these deadlines. I like to make sure that everyone on the team has reviewed and understands the dates. If anyone has any objections, I make sure to solicit their input and encourage constructive feedback. If someone on the team sees trouble in the post schedule, they should bring up their concerns and either 1) agree the project needs more time and have the Post Supervisor talk to the show’s stakeholders about getting more time, or 2) come to an agreement about what’s possible in the time allotted.

As your best collaborator, the Post Supervisor should ask questions like, “If I can’t get the deadline moved, how much could you accomplish in this time frame?” Or “How much time would you need to realize the stakeholder’s vision?” Sometimes the Post Supervisor will also prod by asking a producer if they’re really addressing the stakeholder’s vision or pursuing work for themselves. These questions aren’t meant to be offensive, but a subtle reminder that we’re all hired to execute the stakeholder’s vision, not our own.

If the tone of the conversation is adversarial, there is a problem. In general, by acting as a go-between, a good Post Supervisor mitigates any tension between the show stakeholders and the creative team; including the editors. As an advocate for the show, the Post Supervisor should remove emotion and keep all of the attention on the quality of the final product.

When I first became a Post Supervisor, scheduling was the most difficult responsibility for me to learn. The how-to do things in Excel was easy. Learning to roll with the punches and not take the changes personally was not. I used to internalize every “push”. But then I realized that in this area the Post Production Supervisor’s role most resembles a Project Manager’s role. Your job is to report the post schedule as fact.

These days I report on schedule changes per request, and don’t elaborate unless I’m asked to explain why a cut is late. In general [postponing] takes time; time equals money; and stakeholders tend to shoot the messenger. So be prepared to not take it personally.

Post production scheduling matters to me because I believe the Post Supervisor sets the tone; they establish the post department’s operating style. They establish how editors should be treated, the level of acceptable respect for the support staff, the importance of deadlines, and try to adhere to the budget and communicate when they can’t. Scheduling is not only about keeping all parties informed of the show’s progress. Scheduling is about creating a feeling of calm and control in the storm of the creative process.

When is a Cut Late? – On the Nature of Lateness

When you think about lateness, I’d bet you think about it in a very binary way, if you even think about it all. That Amazon package either arrives on the delivery date, or it doesn’t. Your 8:30 movie either starts on time or it doesn’t. But in the world of Post Production Management lateness is something much more difficult to pin down.

If the rough cut of my show is due on Wednesday, and we send it on Wednesday, we can safely say that our cut is on time. Alternative, if the rough cut is due Wednesday, but we send it on Thursday, then we should be able to agree that our cut is late. But let’s explore a few different scenarios:

Cut Schedule Test Episodes - Airtable image 1
Scenario 1

The rough cut is due on Wednesday, but on Monday morning the creative team realizes that the amount of work to be completed is greater than can be completed by Wednesday, so all of the stakeholders agree to push the rough cut deadline to Friday? If the cut goes out on Friday, do we say that the cut is late even though everyone knew about the scheduling change in advance?

Cut Schedule Test Episodes - Airtable image 2
Scenario 2

What if the rough cut is due Wednesday, but it is sent on Thursday. What do we say about the successive cuts (i.e. Fine Cut, Picture Lock)? If we push the fine cut delivery one day to accommodate the rough cut’s lateness, is the fine cut late too? On one hand “yes!” because when compared to the original schedule, the fine cut, and every successive cut, will be delivered at a point in time later then was set down in the original schedule. But on the other hand, “no!” because all of the stakeholders knew about the schedule change in advance. But the extra days are editing time, which costs money, so even if agreed upon, the lateness has monetary consequences that will need to be addressed.

Cut Schedule Test Episodes - Airtable image 3
Planning for Lateness

Questioning the nature of lateness may seem academic, but waiting to receive notes is the activity with the most potential for wasted time and money. While the show waits for notes from the network, the production company has no power to do anything besides wait. Therefore, each of those looong orange lines represents an opportunity to cause additional overages.

In general, there are two choices, and neither of them is good, just less bad:

  1. reallocate resources to other activities. For example: have your editor work on another episode.
  2. put resources on hold until the notes are received.

Having an editor work on an unfamiliar episode is television’s version of violating Brook’s Law. Some production companies take this one step further and ask editors to work on an entirely different show while waiting for notes to be turned around. Editors typically dislike this practice. And not every production company has the volume of work to move editors between projects.

On the other hand, putting your resources on hold may not be possible either. Many post houses won’t discount an edit suite rental if it only goes dark for 2 or 3 days. And most editors aren’t ok with having 3 random days off without pay. So often the production company is left with no choice but to pay their editors for not working.

Since lateness has the potential to be the source of the most wasted time, Post Producers would do well to spend an appropriate amount of time thinking about and planning for how they are going to manage their resources (equipment and editors) while they wait.

Food Network Star and the Case of the Crunched Tapes

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

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

To: Post Supervisor

From: Night A.E.

Subject: 0122D07 Tape Damage

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

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

Image of the first “crunched” tape.

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

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

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

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

To: Post Production Team

From: Post Supervisor

Subject: IMPORTANT Tape 0120B13 Lost

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

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

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

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

Caïn by Henri Vidal. Photo by Alex E. Proimos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return of the “crunched” tapes.

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

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

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

To: Stakeholders

From: The Post Supervisor

Subject: Tape Troubles Solved

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

Cassette release to manually rewind loose tapes.

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

To: Post Supervisor

From: Night A.E.

Subject: Shift Report

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

[1]Tape Library end note:

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

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

Tapes before and after labeling.

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