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December 2014
Issue: March 1, 2013

Post On Demand

At this year’s HPA Tech Retreat, Bling Digital led a lively discussion on the impact file-based workflows are having on feature and television post production.

File-based workflows have obliterated boundary lines that once separated production from post production. Dailies production, color grading and other processes that were traditionally performed by brick-and-mortar post facilities are now routinely happening in on-set and near-set production environments. While adapting to this new reality can be challenging, the time, cost and creative benefits can be great.

The paradigm shift brought about by the move to file-based workflows was the subject of a recent panel discussion at Hollywood Post Alliance’s annual HPA Tech Retreat in Palm Desert, CA. Titled “Post on Demand,” the panel featured Chris Parker and Chris Jacobson, respectively, chief technology officer and VP of creative services for digital workflow specialist Bling Digital; as well as three highly accomplished pros from the production world: Callum Greene, executive producer of Pacific Rim, the new action film from Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.; Universal Media Studios' VP of post production Richard Winnie; and Gavin Barclay, co-producer of the television series Suits and Covert Affairs. 


Chris Jacobson- VP of Creative Services, SIM Digital and moderator Chris Parker- Chief Technology Officer, Bling Digital.

Parker set the scene by describing how the switch to digital camera systems over the past few years has transformed feature and television sets. Where the removal of exposed negative from a film camera once clearly marked the start of post production, now the distinction is far less clear. Today’s digital cameras produce data files that may be passed onto a DIT on or near the set who may or may not begin post processing then and there. How data is gathered, stored, backed-up, processed and distributed to parties downstream can vary considerably. 

Dailies production once meant shipping film to a lab or post house for processing. That same work, said Parker, “can now be done with gear that fits into carry-on luggage. That,” he added, “allows post production producers a lot of flexibility to realize efficiencies that weren’t previously possible.” 

Greene described how quickly things have changed in the feature world. Five years ago, he produced a film that was shot with the then new Genesis camera. The production’s proposal to process dailies in a near-set digital lab was initially met with skepticism by the studio. “We had to conduct four months of camera tests just to convince people we could shoot in that format, let alone set up a lab on location,” he recalled.


Callum Greene, executive producer of Pacific Rim the new action film from Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.

“Five years later, there is no longer a question,” he said. “Not only is shooting on digital assumed, the idea of near-set or on-set creation has become widely accepted. The difference is night and day.”

“The ability to deliver a director’s vision in a hotel room is huge… tie in the fact that you are bringing costs down and increasing control and it becomes very, very attractive.”

Winnie pointed out that post production is no longer, one size fits all. “Every show is a snowflake,” he said. “Geography plays a big part.” Some directors, directors of photography and producers are gung ho about new technologies and the opportunity to exercise greater control over downstream deliverables. Others prefer not to be bothered. But that only proves the point. File-based technology has added flexibility to a process that was formerly rigid.

“There are so many things you can do now,” Winnie observed. “Everyone has so many demands on their time and anything that you can do to make them more comfortable, to keep them from having to troop all over town, and to be more focused is a tremendous benefit.”

It’s not only about time and money. Barclay talked about the creative benefits that Covert Affairs has gained by implementing a file-based workflow. It has made it practical for the show to venture outside of its soundstage in Toronto. “Over the past three seasons, we’ve traveled to 15 countries,” he said. 


Richard Winnie, Vice President of Post Production, Universal Media Studios.

Using traditional methods shooting in a foreign location would have been time and cost prohibitive as it would have required enlisting the services of a post house at the location site to process dailies that would then have had to be shipped back to the post production team in Los Angeles. Now, the production simply brings along a dailies technician. Using a portable system, he processes dailies at a nearby site and delivers them to the post team over the Internet.
 
“The assistant editors get the footage the next day the same as if we shot in Los Angeles or Toronto,” Barclay explained. “They hit the ground running.”
The result is a boost in production value for Covert Affairs. “It’s something that we’ve made a focus for the show,” Barclay said. “It’s been huge creatively.”

Jacobson described some of the workflow solutions that Bling Digital and its parent company SIM Digital have been developing to help productions take advantage of the benefits of file-based production. They include its Post on Demand or POD system, a portable, modular, post-production system that is configurable to the needs of each individual production. PODs can be used for dailies processing, final color grading, editorial and many other processes.

PODs were developed, in part, to address an issue that has caused some to worry about location-based post production: “What if something breaks? If you’re working in a post house and a piece of gear fails, you move to the next room,” Jacobson noted. “To achieve the same thing, we build redundancy into our PODs. If a computer goes down, there is a back-up. If a SAN goes down, you switch to local storage. Storage is inexpensive today and that makes it practical to have the necessary redundancies in place, ensuring critical deadlines are met.


Gavin Barclay, co-producer of the television series Suits and Covert Affairs.

Portable post-production systems like the POD can be an improvement over traditional post production facilities, Greene observed, as they support close collaboration between parties located far apart. “You can have PODs everywhere,” he said. “So that everyone has access to the same material, sees the same color and the same light that was set by the director and the DP.” 

“On Pacific Rim, ILM did most of our effects in San Francisco, while we were shooting in Toronto. When the director talked to the VFX Supervisor, they were looking at the same shots. We had more than 1700 effects shots and we needed speed. Being there in person is best, but taking advantage of new technologies is a close second. In our case, it was huge. It made our schedule doable.”

Bling Digital, a division of SIM Digital (www.simdigital.com/bling/blinghome.html), is a post production technology and services provider specializing in on-set data management, digital dailies, post production finishing, data archiving and editorial systems rentals. 

Photos by Steven Weiner; photos courtesy of Hollywood Post Alliance.