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Top 5 Ways to Avoid Catastrophe in Production and Post

Before you lose it on set or fix it in post, follow these simple guidelines to keep everything moving smoothly

It's no surprise that rapid changes in technology and dramatic drops in budgets have forced many experienced producers out of their comfort zones and into uncharted waters. To make matter worse, networks and studios often still expect the impossible for a fraction of the budgets of years past.

As a consultant, far too often I get called in to "fix" problems that could have been avoided with a little planning and understanding. The really big budget productions rarely have these issues because they can afford to deal with things on set and/or in post. But for low- and mid-budget productions most of the catastrophic problems I see in production and post could be overcome by following these five important guidelines.

1. Backup and Archive are different, yet equally important. A backup is a temporary copy that you make every day-or hour or shot-to ensure that there are multiple copies of specific data, until that data can be permanently archived. An archive is a permanent copy (or copies) that can also be used in disaster recovery, or final conform, but often just ends up on a shelf in a secure location(s) away from the rest of the media. Everything that's shot on a card, disc or drive needs to be backed up immediately to at least two locations (three places if you can), and one of those locations should be a RAID-protected hard drive. A SINGLE HARD DRIVE IS NOT AN ARCHIVE. LTO tape is an archive. It's cheap, it lasts a long time, and it takes deliberate effort. Additionally, if you take your data integrity seriously don't "drag & drop" files to backup and archive. Instead, use software that can safely migrate data and run a checksum to make sure that all information has been moved entirely, safely and without corruption.

2. The devil is in the details. If you're using a new camera, switching to a new editing platform or changing your workflow, you'd better know everything about that element of your production. On a recent pilot for a reality show we had a combination of 28 cameras that we had to manage. Weeks before the production, the DIT and I used a stopwatch to time the media transfers so we knew exactly how many seconds it took to ingest media from each camera. Based on those calculations, we knew we needed 8 laptops ingesting material the whole time. We were also able to calculate the right amount of RAID storage to have on set (shuttling hard drives wasn't an option), and we knew we needed two LTO-4 tape drives on set archiving the media every 30 minutes. In the end, he walked away from the location with the raw camera media written to two hard drives and LTO-4 tapes. The RAID went straight into editorial with footage logged, transferred, binned and circle takes already marked.

3. Don't go overboard. A TV producer, whom I respect immensely, recently told me that he's excited to find the right project on which they can bypass the traditional post process completely. But just because you can do color correction, transcoding, archiving, dailies, logging, compositing and editorial on set, doesn't mean you should. It's perfectly OK to get the shot and move on. (NOTE: I am a big fan of logging shot info on set, though. Metadata is our friend and can make the post process much smoother.)

It's been my experience that most of the color correction work that gets done on set gets redone in post anyway, as does editorial. Shooting digital isn't as forgiving as film so DP's are forced to shoot and expose different cameras differently. It's important that the director and DP know that the final look can be achieved on set before moving on. Having color-grading capability on set is critical for this reason. And for some projects, it is an absolute life-saver. But it's not something that has to happen every time.

4. Hire the right people. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but almost every time I get called to address a problem, it's a result of human error, not computer malfunction. A client called me recently because they had lost 11 days of a 13-day production thanks to a person that oversold his abilities as a data manager. An experienced camera assist, DIT or data manager (depending on the production) should have a system for efficiently managing cards from the second they come out of the camera, to backup, archive, and then back into production, like color-coding the media with tape or stickers. This person should also be the one telling the production how many cards will be needed to safely and efficiently handle the production.

When you end a project that went smoothly, and everyone is high-fiving at the finish line, take a moment to note the key people that led to that success and use them again on your next production. Trust those that have brought you success, and be mindful of new colleagues that might be in a position to cause catastrophic problems to the production.

5. Don't believe the hype. If you jump into "mission critical" mode with a new piece of gear, or new software, or a new workflow without vetting it thoroughly, then shame on you. Every manufacturer overhypes their product's capabilities. It's up to you to know what works and what is a thinly veiled marketing ploy. There's a big difference between stats used as a bullet point in a brochure, and the real world. Just because a new version of editing software says they can handle any format, codec, frame rate, raster size, etc., doesn't mean you should try to cut a feature with 1500 edits in one timeline that way. I love pushing the limits of the technology, but with great power comes great responsibility. Be conservative if you're in uncharted water.

As you can see, these five recommendations are mostly about safely managing your data. That seems to be the driving factor behind most of the catastrophic problems I see in production or post. The smartest producers and line producers have simply replaced tape with cards and drives, film with LTO tape, and film loaders and video assists with a quality AC and DIT. The networks and studios will continue to expect impossible deliverables on very tight budgets. But in my opinion, there is no corner to cut on proper data management. After all, how much money are you really saving if you lose everything and have to shoot it all over again?

Nathan Adams is the president of Cinematomic, a Los Angeles consulting company that specializes in technical and creative services for production and post. For almost 20 years, Adams bridged the gap between creative and technical, first as a musician and recording engineer and then in post, helping studios in Los Angeles switch from analog to digital. By 2001, Adams added Avid & FCP to his knowledge base and helped pioneer the transition from traditional film workflow to all digital and HD pipelines. His core business at Cinematomic has evolved to focus primarily on asset, storage and archive management solutions and workflow. He recently provided technical services, workflow consulting, and on-set data management equipment and services for David Fincher's The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, currently in theaters worldwide. You can contact him at nathan@cinematomic.com.

This is the first in a series of upcoming columns by Adams that will look at how to economically plan and manage production and post when shooting in a range of formats, including 3D.

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