New tools, attitude
EmptyA behind-the-scenes look at TV postproduction reveals a need for speed -- and a definite push toward going tapeless sooner rather than later. The CW comedy "Everybody Hates Chris" shoots with the digital Viper, and Panavision's digital Genesis camera system is the acquisitions choice for ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" and "What About Brian," to name a few shows that are already heading there. And with technology getting faster and more digital each year, post houses are happy to embrace the change. The way they see it, tapeless workflow is an elegant solution that connects artists and gear, as well as achieves the perpetual goal of saving time and money. These days, TV post houses are often on the cutting edge of new trends, customizing the process with updated gear and proprietary software.
"We're headed toward a datacentric workflow," Encore Hollywood managing director Barbara Marshall says. "We'll get there as fast as the clients will accept it."
That clearly isn't fast enough. Following is a trip through the winding advances in recent TV post technology.
On the Tapeless Train
Visual effects ignited Rainmaker Post's interest in offering an uncompressed high-definition workflow, which is catching on, president Barry Chambers says. His Vancouver-based firm provides processing and dailies transfer for the CW's "Smallville," Showtime's "The L Word," Sci Fi Channel's "Stargate: Atlantis" and USA Network's "The 4400," but the company's twist is in some proprietary -- and indispensable -- software.
"It's a routing switcher, a color-bar generator and a black generator and can store frames on the Da Vinci and move the session from suite to suite," Chambers says. "The software, which runs on a PC with an AJA card, saves time and creates a lot of efficiencies in the suite."
Matchframe Video just debuted its Matchframe on Demand suite of digital postproduction services. "With MOD, story editors, loggers, producers, directors, producers and studio executives can share media assets without duplication, transcoding or redigitizing," explains Matchframe COO Barry Nulman, who says MOD is in use on the CW's "America's Next Top Model" and Bravo's "Project Runway," among other TV shows. "This fast encoding solution produces Avid files, transcribes clips into text with timecode markers and performs searches using metadata. All this speeds up the editorial process."
Color Correction Gets on Board
The crucial step of color correction in the TV post process has always been a hardware-based island, but, with Resolve, Da Vinci debuted software-based color correction that connects to the facility's central storage (SAN).
"Production has to turn around programs faster, and so does post," Encore Hollywood director of engineering John Stevens says. "By hanging all the gear off of the SAN, everyone in the facility sees the same files. There's no copying files or moving tapes around."
Encore handles a heavy roster of TV shows, including CBS' "CSI: New York," Fox's "House," NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and TNT's "The Closer." The previous tape-based workflow took time and
money to record new tapes at every step in the process. "Working off the SAN, it's one file," Stevens says.
Da Vinci's Resolve also has a home at Modern VideoFilm, which is connected to the SAN with the Quantel iQ. "The Resolve has incredible tracking capabilities, layers and windows," says Modern vp Marcie Jastrow, who adds that the company is working on a TV pilot. "It's a much better tool to add more creativity."
Dust Busters Go High-Tech
Getting rid of the dust, dirt or scratches on a film or HD master is a huge time vortex in TV post. "No level of blemishes or dirt is acceptable," says Jon Robertson, president of Technicolor Creative Services Hollywood. "We could spend two days cleaning up the HD videotape of a two-hour made-for-television movie."
Not anymore, thanks to Da Vinci's ASC III. "It's a digital noise reducer that works heavily on positive and negative dirt and scratches in a global, real-time setting," Robertson says.
Therefore, dust busting is now almost entirely automated. Instead of an operator peering carefully at each frame, one real-time pass with the ASC III can get rid of most problems in a fraction of the time. And it's good news at TCSH, which handles film transfers for shows such as ABC's "Boston Legal" and "Lost," as well as CBS' "CSI: Miami."
"It's sped up delivery by a day, and we can do more throughput," TCS vp operations Kevin Fletcher says.
An Economy of Editing
Final Cut Pro made a big splash in feature-film editing when noted editor Walter Murch used it to cut "Cold Mountain" in 2003. But when it comes to TV editing, Avid has owned the market.
That's changed at FotoKem, where senior vp Rand Gladden reports that with the help of online editor Pete Sausone, the company has moved into FCP for TV series, with an eye to saving money. Lots of it.
"If you cut a network series on Avid, over a 40- or 42-week period, you would typically spend at least $280,000 to rent six systems and storage," Gladden says. "With FCP, you can buy three machines, which will cost $1,500-$1,600 a piece, and the three machines for the assistants, which will cost more with the tape machines connected to them. For $125,000 for a season, you show a significant savings in direct offline costs. And you own the machines."
Over three years, Gladden asserts, a show can save "more than $500,000." But not everyone's jumping on the FCP bandwagon yet.
"There needs to be the support infrastructure in place, and up until now, there's been limited support for FCP," says Gladden, who reports that FotoKem posted Sci Fi's "Eureka" and Lifetime's "Angela's Eyes" and now USA's "Psych" with FCP. "Shared storage is still an issue, and you have to train your nonlinear support staff to technically support it."
Avid's just-unveiled DNX HD 36 is a new HD codec that will give editors an HD picture at a data rate comparable to mini-DV. This allows editors to offline in HD resolution rather than down-converting to mini-DV.
"You can also move the media over the Internet," adds Matthew Feury, senior product marketing manager for Avid Technology's Advanced Post Products. "You save in terms of tape stock, and you avoid the headaches of converting between SD and HD. It's more of a seamless workflow from beginning to end."
Getting Up to Synch Speed in the Edit Room
Labor intensive doesn't begin to describe the mind-numbing exercise of synching up multiple takes with each line in the script. "On (the former Fox comedy) 'Arrested Development,' we had a full-time person working on scripting," says editor Stuart Bass, who is currently working on a Warner Bros. Television pilot. "There might be a gem in any one of the many, many takes. And to cut something like that without having it organized on a line script would take forever."
Avid created ScriptSync to automate the process. Based on voice-recognition technology, ScriptSync searches the tapes and drags the appropriate takes onto the computer-based script, line by line. "To sift through tapes to find 14 takes on every line, I spent most of my time spinning tapes," Bass says. "Avid has taken a process that might have taken four or five hours and turned it into a 45-minute to an hour job. I can knock through my scenes and be very thorough."
Visual Effects Invade Television
A spaceship hovering in space or an explosion that blows up the White House are the kinds of visual effects that have long been obvious staples of the small screen. Now, according to visual effects experts serving the TV industry, they can be found in the most unexpected places, in nearly every TV show on the air.
"It's hard to ignore visual effects in TV shows now," Zoic Studios CG supervisor Chris Zapara says. "The vast majority of shows utilize them in one way or another."
LookEffects president Mark Driscoll and visual effects supervisor Max Ivins agree. They're currently working on "Nurse," a pilot that takes place in Philadelphia but is shot in Los Angeles. "We're establishing an East Coast setting," Ivins says. "We're creating establishing shots of the hospital, which doesn't exist."
How did TV effects become so ubiquitous? "The TV landscape is getting so fragmented, and every show wants to be unique," Zapara says. "They need their own hook." In CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," Zoic Studios creates the signature "zoom into the body" shots. Fox's "Bones" has a holographic representation of what they're investigating, looking at bones and how they broke -- all created in the computer by LookEffects.
Visual effects technology has gotten more powerful and less expensive, making more interesting effects possible on a smaller budget. But that's not the only factor driving visual effects in television. "TV executives are becoming more knowledgeable, especially those who have worked on shows that successfully used visual effects," Driscoll says. "And the fact that visual effects are more price competitive and available has fueled a comfort level among studios."
The recent acquisition of Eden FX was another clear signal of the ubiquity and importance of TV visual effects. Point.360, a full-service postproduction company with facilities in cities across the nation, found Eden FX, which currently works on "Lost," Fox's "24" and NBC's "The Office," among other shows, to be an irresistible addition to the mix. "Eden will give Point.360 another means by which to cement relations with our existing customers," chairman and CEO Haig Bagerdjian says. "Content creation across all media is in continual need of highly realistic, imaginative and intriguing visual effects."
And the Future of TV Post?
Down the road, TV post continues to careen toward going tapeless; it might be less than a year before the industry achieves that benchmark. The efficiencies in time and money will make television an even more fertile environment for creativity.
"TV has become a more formidable stepchild," Driscoll says. "That's opened up a lot of room for very high-quality work to be done in the TV arena."