Categories
Management Reviews Software

Airtable (TL;DR review)

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of being a tech savvy person working in the entertainment industry is all of the almost but not quite right software on the market. For example: you have Asana’s anti-freelancer friendly pricing. Misguided attempts at analytics. And shoehorning Trello into an indie documentary productivity tool.

Today’s entry into the almost but not quite right category is Airtable. I know this startup is hot right now. But sadly it misses the mark for me. My TL;DR review is this:

Airtable offers neither the design flexibility of a spreadsheet, nor the customized reporting of a full featured database.

Here is an example of the dashboard I use to manage my shows:

Dashboard view
The Post Supervisor’s “Dashboard“.

And here the best Airtable can do with its Record List “block“:

Airtable Dashboard Record List Block .png
Awful on so many levels.

I was hoping Airtable would make it easier for me to keep a Dashboard version of the schedule in-sync with a Calendar view. And it did show potential. Changes made in the calendar show up on the record list block. And changes made to an episode record, show up on the calendar. (See the embedded example “base” below) But without design tools to provide contrast and emphasis, Airtable can’t make the cut into useful. The per user pricing doesn’t help either.

https://airtable.com/embed/shrjp3ssjvpDhrFHl?backgroundColor=red&viewControls=on

I have a few more complaints about Airtable, as a company, as well:

  • They advertise Airtable as a spreadsheet alternative, but on their community forums repeatedly say that Airtable is not a spreadsheet when users ask for features that Airtable can not do.
  • Screenshot-2018-6-6 airtable block at DuckDuckGo
  • One much requested feature is a “record updated” trigger for Zapier. Despite an employee saying that this feature is “coming soon“, there is now just radio silence on this front. Just say that it’s not on the API roadmap anymore. Your silence is deafening.
  • Glacial response from the support team. Plus blocking a paid user for 1,000 years seems like an excessive and silly policy.
  • IMG_0827
    3018… I mean really?

I’m extra hard on Airtable because I’ve never wanted a service to work SO badly.Screenshot-2018-6-6 Post Production Scheduling Survey

 

The potential to save hours of work each week is sooo close, but too far. Perhaps if Airtable engaged with their customers as opposed to ignoring them, they’d create a product that would appeal to even more users.

Categories
Management Pipeline

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.

Categories
Management People

FINDING YOUR NEXT ASSISTANT EDITING GIG

 

I’m giving a presentation on resume writing and job interviewing for Assistant Editors at the A.E. Bootcamp. The class filled up before I had the opportunity to promote it, but I look forward to sharing my experience with you in a few weeks.

Categories
Management Pipeline

NLE Analytics: 3 User Scenarios

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.

STARWARS-REEL-1-940-1010
Reel One from Stars Wars The Last Jedi. SO much inaccessible data!

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.

Specialty Footage:

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.

Anomalous footage:

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?

Ep 12 days after
Wouldn’t it be great if your NLE could generate information this easily?

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.

Coda:

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.

 

Categories
People

TV Characters who’d make good Post Supervisors (BONUS)

Note: you can read part 1 here.

Coach Taylor – Friday Night Lights

Coach Taylor


Coach Taylor is the winningest coach in Texas high school history because his unorthodox training practices challenge his players to achieve more than they ever imagined possible. For example, after taking over the East Dillon Lions in Season 3, the coach has his offensive team train against a 13 man defense because, “if you can punch through a thirteen man defense, you can get through anything.” His ability to set challenging but achievable goals would make Coach Taylor an excellent Post Supervisor.

Post Supervisors manage the Assistant Editors, Coordinators, and the Post P.A.’s (collectively known as the support staff). A good Post Supervisor knows how to be a career coach for the show’s most junior members. They give their team the opportunity to try new things, but protect them from making career-ending mistakes. For example: to increase A.E. engagement I created an A.E. curriculum for my assistant editors to help them know which skills they need to learn in order to advance, and an Exporting Checklist to help prevent public mistakes.

Setting goals for your team that cause just the right amount of difficulty is a skill every Post Supervisor should develop. Setting challenging and specific goals allows your team to achieve more than they would have if you stuck with safer, and more boring targets. Google’s re:Work has links to excellent research on goal setting and team engagement that even Coach Taylor could get behind.