Media Theory Software

Final Cut Server REVISITED

Look at what popped up on my #Timehop feed today:

I don’t remember the exact problem that prompted this Facebook status update, but it reminded me of my very first post about Final Cut Server in the previous version of this blog. It’s worth revisiting, with an updated commentary at the end:

What is Final Cut Server?

by DKG on 2/2/10

I am often asked, “What is Final Cut Server?” And until last week I struggled to answer this question. The unveiling of Apple’s iPad made it all clear to me:

Final Cut Server is Apple’s attempt to abstract away the file system for digital creative work.

What does that mean?

Think about an iPhone. On the iPhone you never need to worry about where you’re installing an application. Just open the App Store, click “install,” and ‘pop’ the new app appears on your home screen.

In the ideal Final Cut Server installation, the editor, the assistant editor, and the producer never need to access the file system. No more asking the graphic artist in which sub-sub-subfolder did he save the newest graphic open.

And once you understand Final Cut Server replaces the Finder it becomes easier to see the true value of FCS. It also becomes easier to understand some of FCS’s other features, such as version control and annotation. I’ll discuss those features at a later date, because I really want to drive home the point on the benefits of an abstracted file system.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball compared the future of Apple computing to the automatic transmission:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

From my experience the most time consuming and creativity-sucking aspect of digital collaboration in post-production happens to be finding and managing the files themselves. I can not count the number of times I’ve accidentally imported a graphic from the wrong folder and later had to swap it out because an assistant editor saved it in a different, but equally logical sounding folder.

Final Cut Server attempts to alleviate this problem by removing the question, “where should I save this file?” I am certain that Apple’s intended consequence is to free the digital artist from the technology so they can focus on their real work, creation.

I still hate the file system, and I’m in good company. I’m currently reviewing Blackmagic Design’s “Definitive Guide to DaVinci Resolve 14“.  The author dedicated a significant amount of time reminding the reader of the difference between the media file and the representation of it in the project.

  • Pg. 35: “It is also important to understand that the clips are not copied, moved, or transcoded when you import them. DaVinci Resolve is completely non-destructive; it simple links to the unaltered files in their current locations on your hard drive.”
  • Pg. 48: ” Don’t worry, changing the Display Name does not change the filename on your hard disk.”
  • Pg. 84: “The project contains only the metadata for clips and timelines. It has no media associated with it.”
  • Pg. 88: While describing a ripple edit: “The audio and video tracks of the clip are removed, or extracted, from the timeline, but not deleted from the bin or your hard drive.” (emphasis mine)

This speaks volumes to the difficulties the average computer user has managing files. If you spend any time managing Avid Media Composer projects, you’ll see that even seasoned editors struggle with file management, evidenced by miscellaneous assets or render files created on the system drive.

This also confirms my own firsthand experience teaching nonlinear editing. My students almost intuitively always understood editing concepts like insert, overwrite, and trim. It was the importing, exporting, and media management that tripped them up.

I think people struggle with file management because the digital world doesn’t accurately map on to the physical world. Physical objects can’t exist in two places at the same time. But with things like Smart Folders and Smart Bins there is no reason something can’t be in two places simultaneously. But this is a conversation for another day…

Management Pipeline

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 →

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.

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.

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.

Media Theory

From the Work Journal: Business Model Canvas for a Post House

Yesterday I spent some time completing a business model canvas (1) for a post house. The process was thought-provoking because I saw that the cost structure for running one is very complex but the customer segments are very small. Basically: a post house is a viable business because it bundles all of the complexities of flexible workspace management, post production equipment management, video engineering, video IT services, talent management (for Colorists and Audio Engineers), and client services.

On the other hand, for a small or mid-sized post house, there are only two primary customer segments: 1) small production companies without the capital or experience to build out their own offices, or 2) the overflow for large production companies.

The challenge of balancing rising real estate prices, the diminishing complexity of ‘basically-free’ editing tools, and a small market of potential clients put the business model in a precarious situation. A post house that’s too small, while reducing their risk, may not be able to accommodate large productions and loose opportunities. A post house that’s too large has the ability to attract more productions but might have to settle for low-margin office space rentals just to keep the lights on. Tricky business either way.

Enter the Netflix color pipeline:

Netflix Color Pipeline
Netflix’s color pipeline per Post Production requirements v2.1

Netflix is a blessing for the post house business model. Look at their color pipeline! Not only is that workflow complex as heck, but it works so much better when offline & online editorial shares the same storage infrastructure. And it’s doubtful any single production company has enough Netflix finishing work to justify the expense of keeping all the pieces humming smoothly.

Having gone through the exercise of creating a business model canvas I have a new found respect for the owners of smaller houses like ECD and Vidiots.

(1) Note:

Business Model Canvas is a strategic management and lean startup template for developing new or documenting existing business models. It is a visual chart with elements describing a firm’s or product’s value proposition, infrastructure, customers, and finances. It assists firms in aligning their activities by illustrating potential trade-offs.

The Business Model Canvas was initially proposed by Alexander Osterwalder based on his earlier work on Business Model Ontology. Since the release of Osterwalder’s work in 2008, new canvases for specific niches have appeared.