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Getting Hell on Wheels Under Control at Sim Digital

How Sim Reinvented the Rental-House Model to Smooth Out Digital Workflows

A lot has changed since 2009. Back then, Sim Digital was doing brisk business, renting cameras, editorial systems and other gear to film and television productions across North America. Sim had been in the rental business for nearly 30 years, but the type of gear its customers were using was changing. Productions were abandoning 35mm film and instead shooting with digital cameras. That shift involved more than new cameras. The entire production model had to be reinvented to support images captured as files rather than on celluloid.

Many of Sim's customers were having trouble negotiating the change. Camera manufacturers favored different camera file formats, and that often led to delays and other problems in dailies processing, editorial, and other stages down the line. “There always seemed to be arguments between the camera department and the post house,” recalls COO John DeBoer. “When problems arose, the post house blamed the camera, and the camera department pointed the finger at post. The poor producer was often left in the middle, not knowing what the problem was and not understanding the technology.”

Extending the Rental House Model
Sim realized that, in order to help its customers avoid such problems, its business model needed to change. It began collaborating with Bling Digital, a boutique specialist in data services, to develop custom workflows. Sim supplied the cameras and Bling handled video assist, dailies and data services. The companies’ engineering staffs worked together to iron out workflow issues and eliminate technical snafus. They first applied the formula to the USA series Covert Affairs, and it worked so well that other shows quickly followed: Suits, Warehouse 13, Against the Wall and Psych, among others. 

Problems between the camera department and post vanished, and technical issues were resolved internally. “If there was a bad cable, we’d know about the problem before production was aware of it and have it solved,” DeBoer says. “It gave a huge boost to producers’ confidence level. They no longer had to worry about technical issues. If a problem occurred, we didn’t point fingers. We just fixed it.” Sim eventually bought Bling and integrated it into its post-production department. 

Further broadening Sim's services, its Bling unit developed the Post On Demand system, known as P.O.D. for short. It's a modular, cart-based system that can be configured for a variety of post functions including dailies processing, editorial and color-grading. Sim also opened or expanded offices in Toronto, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Atlanta and Halifax. By 2013, SIM had become a very different company. It still rented cameras and editorial systems, but it was now providing productions with the kind of services that formerly required a bricks-and-mortar post house.

Hell on Wheels: Speeding Post Processes
The AMC series Hell on Wheels is a good example. “We do camera, dailies, manage a high-speed pipeline from Calgary to L.A., and support editing suites in both cities,” explains DeBoer. “Dailies get pumped directly to our office in L.A., where the show’s Avids are located. They do the edit on-site, and the execs review the shots there.”

Hell on Wheels Co-producer Peter Chomsky asked Sim to redesign the show’s workflow as it prepared for its second season. “When I came onto the show, they were shooting everything on [ARRI] Alexa cameras, loading that material onto drives, shipping those drives to Technicolor in Vancouver, processing the dailies there, and then piping them down to Technicolor in Los Angeles for delivery to the cutting team,” Chomsky recalls. “Editorial started out a day and a half behind production, and that was not a good place to be. I thought we could do better.”

For season two, Bling engineers set up a dailies processing facility adjacent to the show’s set in Calgary. Data files were processed as they came off the cameras and dailies were sent via high-speed Aspera connection to the show’s finishing facility. The editorial team was located just five minutes away and picked up hard drives containing the dailies there.

For the show’s current season, the workflow has been further refined. Now dailies are piped directly to the show’s production offices, where they are immediately available to the editors. “They arrive on a hard drive that’s near my desk,” says Chomsky. “Dailies download automatically overnight and assistants grab the drives in the morning.”

When necessary, the dailies exchange can happen even faster. “There are times when we are doing pick-up shots for a show that is already in online,” Chomsky explains. “I can have the master files for the new shot sent directly to my computer. I put them on a drive, send them over to the finishing facility and we drop them in the same day.”

The workflow is configured so that all dailies, whether captured by Alexa or GoPro cameras, are delivered as ProRes 444. That simplifies the handling of data through post. “We finish in 444,” says Chomsky. “The master dailies drive that is shipped from Calgary goes to the finishing facility for online and then to the VFX house where they use it to do their pulls. Everything is speaking the same language all the time.”

The workflow is efficient and virtually error-free, says Chomsky, and the fact that production is in Calgary, while post is in Los Angeles is immaterial. “Sim/Bling came into this with a fresh approach using current technology,” Chomsky observes. “That’s given them an edge, especially over post houses that are still reliant on equipment that’s not state-of-the-art.”

Although camera rentals are still a big part of Sim’s business, the company says it really excels at servicing shows like Hell on Wheels all the way through to post-production. “We consider ourselves a partner to the producer,” DeBoer says. “It’s all about moving data now. Productions want to be able to move data from point A to point B without problems or confusion. We see our role as making the producer’s life as simple as possible.”

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