Going tapeless

'Save money in post' has become the mantra for lean times

When a rough cut of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" arrived in the spring at Burbank postproduction house Fotokem, the mandate was clear: Producers wanted the tapeless treatment.

By now, the Fotokem wizards knew exactly what that meant: The footage was quickly digitized, and every post process -- editing, color correction, titling, visual effects and the final conform -- was finished in a single suite with an Avid Symphony for color correction and the Avid DS for painting and rotoscoping.

Not having to redigitize or record out to tape for every post task has become a huge time-saver for TV productions, which are increasingly looking to cut budgets without cutting corners.

"The Holy Grail of what I'm looking for with tapeless workflow is where you can edit, color and (add) titles in different suites at the same time," "Conchords" associate producer Jason Harkins says. "It'll save us time, and time is money when you're talking about being in a post bay."

Even in good times, the last step in a show's production process always runs up against depleted budgets and looming deadlines. But as the TV business struggles, a confluence of factors has made it imperative for post houses to help their clients trim costs.

"First you had the downturn in the economy -- advertising dollars are going down," says Bill Romeo, senior vp entertainment TV at Ascent Media's creative services group. "And then you had the threat of a SAG strike. It's been a perfect storm for productions to want to save money."

Producers are accomplishing these goals on the production end by moving to digital acquisition, avoiding the cost of film stock, processing and film dailies. Romeo says Level 3, Encore and Riot, the three Ascent Media facilities that handle TV productions, last year serviced 31 dramas, all of which were filmed. "This year, we're doing about 35 shows, and currently only 10 are filmed," he says. "The rest are on tape."

For tech facilities, the move to digital productions is a financial hit to their film-dailies units. But it provides an incentive to make their own workflow even more efficient. Fotokem, which handles 24 TV shows in-house, has been a pioneer in tapeless workflow.

"We've been playing with tapeless for four years now, starting with scanning the 16mm negative for 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' and having it available in 2K for the rest of the process," says senior vp Rand Gladden, noting that several new fall shows will be tapeless.

Ascent Media acquired PostWorks L.A. in December to tap into that company's file-based workflow. Such shows as CBS' "The Unit," Fox's "Lie to Me" and ABC's "Lost" have made the switch via Ascent.

The tapeless workflow saves money in several ways.

"You're not spending money on the tape -- and it's $130 for a one-hour roll of HD SR tape," says Gladden, noting that dailies alone can use three tapes a night times seven or eight nights of shooting per episode. "You're also not spending money on the time it takes to create those tapes, whether it's in an editorial or a color-timing suite."

Although avoiding tape dubs might seem trivial, it adds up to a dramatic savings over the process of a 22-episode season. Gladden estimates that going tapeless can save at least $4,000 an episode. Romeo agrees, pegging savings at $2,000-$4,500 per episode.

Some companies have come up with their own proprietary systems for making postproduction more efficient. LaserPacific Media won an Emmy for its SuperComputer for automatic assembly, part of the company's R&D team that has won six Emmys over the years. SuperComputer version 2.0 now accommodates HD footage and integrates the Avid Nitris.

"With SuperComputer, the ingest speed is four times faster than digitizing in the Nitris," CEO Brian Burr says. AMC's "Mad Men" and USA Network's "Burn Notice" are among the shows that take advantage of the process. "So you have the full-time savings of the SuperComputer and have access to the creative tools in the Nitris."

Tapeless workflow also can offer the advantage of a shared storage infrastructure. With the show's footage all in the same digital storage, the editor, graphics artist and color grader can work on an episode concurrently. "Instead of doing an assembly and then a color correction and then titling, you can be in one room coloring the show and in another room be titling it at the same time," Romeo says. "The savings can be substantial."

Another way post houses are helping trim expenses is via digital networking with facilities throughout the world. Post Logic, which is owned by Indian conglomerate Prime Focus, has a seamless connection to facilities in Canada, the U.K. and India. The 400 visual effects for "The Storm," which aired this summer on NBC, were done at Prime Focus' VFX house in India.

"We can find the appropriate technology and talent in the right location at the right price point," says Larry Birstock, president of Prime Focus Global Integration. "Our goal is to build one global entity, not geographic silos that run independently."

Fotokem uses its Global Data network to send files to facilities throughout the world, as well as to its newly acquired post/VFX boutique Spy Post in San Francisco. Gladden describes how the CW's "Gossip Girl," which shoots in New York, takes advantage of Global Data: "The dailies are done at PostWorks in New York, they create an Avid DnX36 file and send it here. We distribute that to editorial and others who need to see dailies." As opposed to an FTP site or copper connection that takes three hours or more to travel across the country, "we can do it within an hour," Gladden adds. "So editorial is able to start work at 8 a.m. every day, and that saves a lot of time."

Post houses are even injecting themselves into the production process with the aim of making the transition to post as smooth (and cost-effective) as possible. For productions with digital cameras, LaserPacific Media sends two digital hard drive storage units, which enable instant ingest of footage back in post. Fotokem now works with studios and producers to ramp up office space and infrastructure with a turnkey solution. "This allows studios to be able to expand and contract efficiently," Gladden says.

Even VFX companies servicing the TV industry are getting into the game. Zoic Studios, which works on more than a dozen TV shows, has created Zeus -- a combination lipstick camera and Lightcraft tracking software -- that turns a days-long virtual set creation process into a real-time process. "There is instantaneous creative feedback for approval on set," says Andrew Orloff, Zoic creative director, episodic department. Zeus is being used on ABC's upcoming "V." "We don't shoot and then go back and see it in post."

The cost-cutting moves are new lyrics in an old song, but the difference now is that technology is increasingly creating an environment where less money doesn't necessarily mean lower quality.