Behind-the-Scenes With The Ellen DeGeneres Show's Workflow

When The Ellen DeGeneres Show started in 2002, it was standard-def and housed on the NBC lot. All the changes came six years later.
“The show was very excited to move to the Warner Bros. lot. It is such a great place to work,” explains Derek Westervelt, the show’s executive in charge of production and senior producer. “After Telepictures designed and purchased a technical package we wanted, the studio built the facility from the ground up for us. And it is fantastic.”

Building a new facility coincided beautifully with the producers’ other interest: switching from standard definition to high definition, and from tape to tapeless. That path soon became a journey with a bump in the road and a happy destination.

Readying the new facility for season six, the systems integrator recommended moving from Avid to Apple Final Cut Pro in lieu of Avid. Previously, The Ellen DeGeneres Show had cut with Avid Meridiens, adding the Unity by season three to allow multiple editors to work on the show simultaneously. The thought of switching to another editing system was met with reluctance.

“Our editors were very familiar with Avid and it was such a stable, reliable system,” says Westervelt. “So there was a bit of concern from that point of view alone. Why change?”

As it turned out, says Westervelt, the new facility performed smoothly in many ways. “This complex was built top to bottom, with all the broadcast and post infrastructure,” he says. “We were in very good shape on the broadcast side.”

But stresses showed up in post-production. Once the new editing system was in place, it wasn’t long before everyone had second thoughts. “While Final Cut Pro was good in some ways, it became quickly apparent that it wasn’t the right application for us,” says Westervelt.

‘A  Trying Season’

Senior editor Clark Burnett, who started on the show in season two as a freelancer and has been full-time for the last three seasons, says the transition from SD to HD, and from tape to tapeless, was “interesting.”

“We made it work, but it was a trying season,” he says. Because the editing team was so used to Avid Unity as a way to collaborate and share editing duties, it was a rude shock to lose that easy capability. “We were so used to working with a lot of last-minute needs,” says Burnett. “Last season, we couldn’t do that without workarounds – and there were tons of workarounds.”

Westervelt agrees. “The workarounds took additional time that became challenging,” he says. “We didn’t miss deadlines, but we scrambled hard to make it.”

Perhaps no one felt the pain more than Telepictures Productions Engineer Jason Schroeder, who worked through several round-the-clock shifts during the start-up period.

According to Schroeder, one of the problems was that the entire system didn’t have enough storage capacity. “Front Porch Digital offered to work with us to achieve the results that were originally promised to the Ellen post department for their long-term data archive, and chose its DIVArchive as the solution,” says Schroeder. “Sitting between the applications and our IBM LTO-4 tape library, Front Porch delivered on their promise. [The DIVArchive] responds well within the system and does a fantastic job.”

Re-evaluating Workflow

As everyone struggled through the season, Omneon and HP gave Schroeder the support needed to re-evaluate the workflow. The show’s Omneon Spectrum media server could be paired with the Unity by using Marquis Broadcast’s Medway media-transfer and format-conversion software. “With this technology, the staff was looking at a very easy solution on how to integrate their previous gear with an Avid Unity,” says Schroeder. “Their efforts enabled the post department to salvage a majority of the media-asset-management infrastructure and focus entirely on delivering a robust edit solution.”

The Marquis transfer is extremely fast, says Schroeder. “It’s so fast that it’s pretty much a real-time record transfer off the Omneon to the Unity,” he says. “Within anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute of the act finishing, the editors have it.” The Marquis transfer engines make the media available on the Unity first, and then the editors used DaletPlus for long-term management on the show’s near-line and LTO-4 data archives.

It wasn’t hard to figure out that, with Final Cut, the editors also needed more time to do tasks that had previously been seamless, even in the background. “When I was cutting on the [Final Cut] system and didn’t have to share, I had no problems with it,” says Burnett. “The moment we tried to treat it like a Unity, it didn’t work the way I was used to. I would have to create a new project and copy it into another system. The system just wasn’t a good fit for what we do here.”

“By the middle of season six, we knew we would come back to Avid,” says Westervelt. “It was a matter of how to do it.”

Transitioning Back to Avid … Slowly

How they did it was slowly. While season six was still in production, Avid brought in four edit bays. “We did a beta-test situation where every Friday we would cut one show on the Avids,” says editor Burnett. “We did our teaser as well. We did have issues, but Avid kept stepping up and dealing with them immediately.”

The trick was not only introducing the new Avid system, but using it simultaneously with the existing editing system. That’s when Schroeder did something rather unconventional: he swapped out the xSAN storage and put in a Unity. “One of the amazing benefits of Unity today, to Avid’s credit, is that it’s open to connecting with [other editing systems],” says Schroeder. “We took full advantage of that here. One of my technical challenges was to make sure the editors could finish season six while we were ramping up for season seven. The end result was awesome. I had FCP and Avid editors using the same SAN. Technically, Final Cut can’t use the media that Avid creates, but the ability for both platforms to operate on the same SAN volume gave us an enormous amount of flexibility we never had.”

By the end of season six, 10 Avid Media Composer Nitris DX systems had moved inside the show’s post-production facility. One of them is used in a unique way: it sits in the equipment room, and is used remotely by StudioCity, the company that produces the show’s promos. StudioCity editors are able to access the Avid with Apple Remote Desktop and a VPN connection, select their shots, and play out the HD clips directly over fiber, compressed using an Evertz JPEG-2000 card.

Plenty of Storage

The show’s new system also has plenty of storage: 64 TB of Avid Unity (online), 100 TB of HP EVA storage (nearline), and 400 TBs of IBM LTO-4 tape storage (deep archive). Considering that Season 6 started with only 16 TB of editing storage and barely 100 TB of LTO-4 tape storage, the post-production staff feels like it has arrived at a system that fits the model of what’s needed.

“Avid’s new campaign is about listening to customers,” says Schroeder, who reports that he’s logged no overtime yet this season. “It isn’t just a slogan. With Avid, they value communication very highly, and that speaks volumes about why we’re reinvesting in that company.”

For the editors, the return to Avid editing systems provoked sighs of relief. “The new Avid is slick,” says Burnett. “This is going back to what everyone loved about the Meridiens. It’s a dependable, solid box.” He is also now enjoying the benefits of the tapeless workflow. “The one thing that’s amazing about tapeless is how I can bring back all the media,” he says. “Before, we would output it split four-channel track. I would digitize and cut it. Now all the media is there and it comes back quickly and slickly.”

Westervelt says it didn’t take long to get up to full speed again. “The Unity we have is very quick,” he says. “They can retrieve and shuffle their media effortlessly, so our problems there have been resolved.”

With season seven in its early days, Westervelt looks forward to expanding the show creatively. “We’re starting to branch out and do more live shots,” he says. “We’re exploring ways to do that in a more fun, accessible way. We’ve been doing sequences using Skype and Twitter to connect with the audience, and they love it.”

“The show has a lot of components to it every day,” he says. “Some of them are regular-we’re a day-and-date show-we also have music acts, live remotes. Bringing those disparate elements together every day is a challenge. And Avid, in almost every way, makes that do-able for us. When we want to take that challenge to a new level, Avid is a ready tool to take what’s thrown at it.”