TV productions embrace tapeless era

"Leverage"

Post work enters the file-based realm

The use of digital files is helping spawn a mostly tapeless work environment -- and television's busiest producers couldn't be happier.

"It just makes so much more sense," says Dean Devlin, executive producer of TNT's action-drama "Leverage," which moved its production from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore., in 2009.

"We have to produce a high-quality show, but we have less and less time and money to do it," he says. "If you are using the tapeless approach to save money, you will. If you are using it to change how you work creatively, you'll [still] save money."

Devlin says his production's tapeless workflow has helped shrink "Leverage's" packed production schedule, particularly significant for a show that averages 55 setups a day: "There is absolutely no way we could do the quality work we're doing if we weren't working tapeless."

While parts of the post process -- like editing -- went file-based years ago, more is becoming file-based thanks to digital cameras that record footage to hard drives instead of videotape.

Bill Romeo, senior vp entertainment TV at Ascent Media -- an umbrella for post houses like Encore Hollywood -- says that the company is posting 37 shows this season, 30 of which are shooting with digital cameras. Of those, about a third are recording to hard drives, while the balance are recording to tape.

Romeo says the latter is still more common, but the hard drives have grown since last season.

The trend is encouraging revamps to the TV post business model. MTI Film, developer of Control Dailies digital dailies system, recently expanded by opening a Los Angeles-based facility.

"There hasn't been a piece of tape rolled during an online, color or titling session," CEO Larry Chernoff says. "We are even starting to deliver files to networks. The only time we roll tape is if a client needs it for an [archival] purpose."

Long-established post houses are also restructuring for clients who have been forced to reduce their budgets for TV post work; at the same time, productions are shooting more footage than ever on a wide variety of cameras that don't support the same formats.

'Leverage' exec producer Dean Devlin
 

"Everyone is shooting with different cameras, so we are getting tons of file-based data," says Jon Johnson, executive vp sales at Modern VideoFilm, which does post work for shows like "Modern Family." "We have shows for which we'll get second-unit footage shot on, for instance, Red or P2."

Working with files instead of tape has made it easier for post talent to perform tasks on location, like setting a grading look or true color correction of dailies, which were once almost exclusively performed in postproduction facilities within multimillion-dollar grading suites.

Those in the TV post business say they've been energized to ramp up on-set processes as clients look to do more out-of-state work -- like Devlin -- especially where they can collect additional tax incentives.

"In the past, we saw productions leave the state that we were never able to work with," says Tom Vice, GM at Fotokem's nextLAB division. "This [new technology] has allowed us the flexibility to send the gear out-of-state or country."

"We are using the new tools in-house as well," he adds, pointing out that post technology is getting more affordable as it becomes more accessible. "We can turn our $2 million bay into a $50,000 suite. Do we charge the same amount of money? We can't. But we can do more and we are more efficient."

"The TV industry is hemorrhaging money with a broken model," adds Bruce Long, senior vp postproduction at Next Element by Deluxe, a post facility that was acquired by Deluxe Digital Media this year.

"The labor and fixed costs have stayed high, but the rate and volume of work has slowed, squeezing profitability out of the [post] business," says Long, adding: "It requires a whole new approach to the work and the workflow.

It allows companies to lower infrastructure costs and use more automation. The goal is to fix the business model."

Whether the file-based movement will extend through the entire post process is less clear as most studios remain uncertain with what to do with their archival footage.

"It's the one thing that's holding this up from being a 100% file-based workflow," Vice says.





ON-THE-FLY POST WORK CAN BE DONE JUST ABOUT ANYWHERE

Shooting the CW pilot "Nomads" -- a never-aired drama that documents the adventures of backpackers traipsing through southeast Asia -- wasn't a challenge simply because of the rocky landscapes.

"Thailand is 14 hours ahead of Los Angeles," says Tom Vice, GM of the nextLAB division of Burbank-based posthouse Fotokem. "And the production wanted dailies for editorial, in Burbank, the same day as production."

To support the overseas shoot, which used Red and 5D digital cameras to capture footage, Fotokem provided a file-based workflow for a faster turnaround. Dailies services in Thailand were needed, as well as getting the Avid media back to Burbank for editorial while the seven-day shoot was in process.

Fotokem also sent a member of its team to Thailand to help producers work with nextLAB Mobile hardware and software system.

Once on location, they shot to CF cards on both the 5D and the Red, Vice says.

"The digital imaging technician brought those cards into his workstation and applied a color-grade that would travel with those files," Vice says.

One of the major challenges of the workflow was the amount of footage shot with digital cameras.

"On their lightest day, they shot three and a half hours of footage; on their heaviest, they shot six," Vice says. "But each day we were able to keep up with the local dailies process in Thailand and send the media back using a Fotokem service called Global Data."

After only four hours of transmission time, the first 60 minutes of media were back in Burbank, ready to be imported directly into the Avid.

Because of the time difference, the process earned a fitting nickname.

"We called them 'yesterdailies,' " Vice says.
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