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Designing your Dream Studio

Mapping out production and post suites to attract talent and clients

In The Days Before The Dinosaur – and FireWire – working offline on a desktop computer always added value to video productions. Whether it was creating a rough cut before heading to the $1,000 -per-hour online suite, or trying out an animated logo idea before working with a $1,000 -per-minute designer, prepping on the desktop was a must if you wanted to improve the end result. And there’s no better place to revamp or build out a brand new studio than on your laptop.
While not as sexy as an HDV NLE, or a free After Effects plug-in, properly laying out your studio can save you time-and possibly clients. If you think this kind of workspace makeover doesn’t apply to you, take a look around you at your production setup. You know, that twisted conglomeration of cables, software, monitors, semi-burned DVDs and over-worked CPUs that looks like a cross between the wide Sargasso Sea and a bad cable day at Frys Electronics. See what I mean? If you aren’t wild about your current layout, just imagine how your clients feel.
Okay, let’s consider your clients. They’ve gotten a lot savvier about what they want, haven’t they? And sometimes that means they have no problem sitting next to you in the edit suite. In the era of high-overhead post-production houses (you know, the facilities with the Espresso counter, marble floors and exotic leather furniture), it was customary to hustle your clients into the comfy room where they could oversee their productions as comfortably as they could afford to. These days, however, many clients take on a much more hands-on role in post-production, especially when working with smaller post facilities. Consequently, you’ll need to plan for enough room for at least one client to work beside you in your studio setup (unless, of course, you’d rather keep them contained in a specific viewing area; the choice is yours). Still think you don’t need to redo your current production digs? Do you have multi-function edit rooms, or are the rooms in your suite still separated into different specialties? A single computer can handle just about any post-production task you throw at it-why limit a room and gear to just handling sound or graphics when you can design a space that can double as a secondary full-functioning edit suite?
You don’t have to be an electrical engineer or an architect to start planning your workspace, no matter how big or small. Sure, the big facilities use professional AV facility designers to precisely customize their post suites. If you have the budget, you can do the same-but you can also do it better by first organizing your own studio design ideas before meeting with a facilities designer. There are several easy-to-use programs out there to help you design your production workspace, including The Omni Group’s OmniGraffle, AVSnap from the Altinex Group, and @Last Software’s Sketchup. While these programs will take a bit of work to learn, in the end they can save you money while designing the workspace you need.
Flowing it with OmniGraffle
So you have all this gear-decks, computers, monitors and a horde of drives. Add to this all the various audio and video connections, and you have a mess. The easiest way out of this situation is to start organizing what goes where. When it comes to managing an AV system, nothing works better than a flowchart. There are a variety of good programs on the market, but I particularly like OmniGraffle from The Omni Group. OmniGraffle is not only a great flow-charting program, but it is also free with all new Macintosh systems. (The current versions, OmniGraffle 3.2 and OmniGraffle 3.2 Professional, can also be downloaded for $119.95 and $199.95, respectively, from www.omnigroup.com, or purchased from an Apple Store or CompUSA retail outlet.)
Using a click-and-drag interface, you can assemble your components on the main window and then add input/output connections as needed. Just drag a box or icon onto the main area, and then add more components as needed. These are mainly just shapes, but you can draw lines between them to show connections, as well as add arrows to show signal flow.
At the very least this will tell you how many cables you’ll need. You can also create a template that you can use to set up the cable order on an audio or video patchbay. Another nice addition for Mac users-OmniGraffle only works on Mac OS X, after all-is that the program comes with a set of Macintosh product icons, so you can easily drop in realistic-looking Mac CPUs. OmniGraffle won’t work in Windows, though it would be great to see this kind of functionality in a Windows XP version.
Snapping it In Place
Windows users have another great program, however: AVSnap from the Altinex Group. AVSnap is a step up from flowcharting, as it was developed specifically for designing AV systems, and also comes at an irresistible price-it’s free. You can download it at www.avsnap.com. The advantage of AVSnap over typical flowcharting programs is that it comes with hundreds of audiovisual components, all of which you can modify as needed. So instead of using generic squares and rectangles in your flowchart, you can use a preset component that already contains all of its AV inputs and outputs.
Again, you use a drag-and-drop approach to setting up a diagram of your system, and then use the line tool to show connections between devices. With AVSnap you can also preset the distance between devices, so you not only come up with a diagram of your dream system, but also a cable list with required lengths. When you’re finished, you can export your dream studio design out as a set of project diagrams, system schematics, cable lists, or as project files in PDF format.
Naturally, there is a catch to all this: While AVSnap is free, its library is somewhat limited. You won’t find specialized editing gear, audio interfaces and video converters in the mix, which means you’ll have to modify existing icons to match your gear. While this is fine for some gear, it can be tedious when you have a FireWire video interface like the AJA IO with a dozen or more ports. Still, AVSnap is a good program and worth checking out.
CAD for the Rest of Us
Flowcharting is great for cabling, but you also need to know where to put your gear. While typically this has been the realm of architects and system designers, Sketchup from @Last Software has finally brought CAD to all of us non-architect types. SketchUp is a new paradigm in computer-aided design that lets you combine precision drafting with incredibly easy-to-use tools. The steep learning curve on traditional CAD programs has long been the sticking point for casual learners. Learning a program such as Autodesk’s AutoCAD, for example, requires the same dedication (and long hours) as learning a professional 3D animation program-without the payoff of being able to also create stunning animation.
SketchUp, on the other hand, is designed to quickly let you draw your ideas onto a 3D plane and keep accurate dimensions of all your gear as you go. Consequently, building your workspace is a snap. You start by clicking and dragging a flat square onto the screen, which is your floor. Once you’ve set it to the right size, you rotate from the top view to a side view. Next, you draw a line from each corner, and then draw another line from each of the end points. As soon as you connect the lines, it becomes a solid wall. Connect all the lines and you have an instant room. Using the built-in library of objects, you can place lighting, chairs, desks and even people in your room.
SketchUp is also a great pre-visualization tool. It comes with a free library of film and video objects, ranging from par lights to a dolly track. While this won’t show you a highly rendered visual of a particular scene, your gaffer or grip will love you because you can show him/her where you need lights placed and how much dolly track to assemble for each shot.
SketchUp is an elegant program, but it will require an investment in both time and money. Version 4 is available for either Mac or Windows and lists for $475 (upgrades from previous full versions cost $95; a 30-day trial CD-ROM, which includes tutorials, is $20). You can download the Film and Stage plug-in, with tutorials, which premiered as a prerelease version at Siggraph last year, as well as a bonus pack component library of Film and Stage icons, at www.sketchup.com/markets/entertainment.php.
While SketchUp is by far the easiest-to-use CAD software I’ve ever worked with, it still will take you a few days to get up to speed. Don’t dive into this expecting that you’ll get finished results right away; after all, this is still a CAD program at its core. But it’s also a remarkable tool that can do double duty as a pre-vis program for the rest of your production work.
Designing your space may seem trivial, but consider this: Besides your bed and (one hopes) your home, where do you spend the most amount of time during your day? Given the long hours that make up most production projects, it’s critical that your workspace be as functional and comfortable as possible. In the end, a well-designed space will make those long hours during production or post seem a bit less stressful-and just think how much better those client meetings will be.

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