How J/KAM Digital and Snap Sound Delivered the Off-Kilter Adult Swim Comedy

Childrens Hospital debuted in 2008 as a web series on before coming to Adult Swim this summer. Bringing it to television meant planning a workflow that would preserve the creative energy that made the online version a success while bringing the property to a much larger audience. That responsibility fell to North Hollywood’s J/KAM Digital, which cut the show in HD on Mac-based Avid Media Composer Nitris DX systems and finished it on the Symphony Nitris DX. Film & Video talked about tapeless workflow with J/KAM Digital owner Keith Gore and CTO Erik Beauchamp, plus, from audio facility Snap Sound, owner/sound designer Zach Seivers and sound designer/re-recording mixer J.M. Davey.
Film & Video: Talk about the production workflow.

Erik Beauchamp: Childrens Hospital shot with the new Varicam 3700 P2 camcorder using the AVC Intra 100 Mbps codec. Every day, after they finished shooting, they would offload the P2 cards on set, make a clone of them so they had a backup, and then deliver one of the drives to the editorial room, where we would use AMA [Avid Media Access] to bring all those clips online in Media Composer. Once we had all the footage online, they would log-and-transfer everything over to the Unity shared-storage network, where all the edit bays would have access to the files. It was much faster than having to capture from tape, and it allowed everyone to work at full HD quality through the duration of the project. They used the full-res AVC Intra with Avid Nitris systems and worked in 1080p 23.976, the native frame rate of the shoot.

When it came to actually finishing, there was no need to recapture anything. They spent all their time working on color treatment and making last-minute changes to the show instead of worrying about recapturing all the sources and other typical offline/online workflow issues. We onlined the show using one of the Avid Symphony bays, then made file-based outputs in the Avid DNxHD codec. Those were delivered to the network, and we made some tape-based outputs for our own protection.

F&V: Is a file-based delivery to the network unusual?

EB: It’s a little bit unusual, but it’s becoming more common. At the larger networks and the studios, even when you do an entirely file-based workflow, at the end you’re typically laying back to their format of choice – D-5 or HDCAM SR. The smaller networks, with more progressive workflows, are the first ones to jump in and adopt this stuff. Obviously it saves you renting these expensive decks that cost thousands of dollars a day, as well as HDCAM tape stock, which will run you a couple hundred dollars per tape. A show can better use those funds to spend more time with editors and more time on color-correction.

Keith Gore: Because of the ease of passing the files around to producers, in house or even out of house, no one has to worry about a deck at this point.

EB: Also, creatively, we were working with filmmakers who couldn’t always be with us in the room. This file-based workflow allowed us to send cuts or versions of the mix, whatever we were trying to home in on creatively to on location to make decisions via email.

J.M. Davey: From a sound-production standpoint, it’s great for us to get a full-res color-corrected QuickTime, and it wasn’t any hassle for J/KAM. That’s a great benefit to us, making sure we get all the details and aesthetics correct. Working in low-res hasn’t hurt us before, but it’s always beneficial to see the look the directors and producers are going for.

F&V: In the sound department, were you getting AVC Intra files, or DNxHD?

EB: We would export files for Snap Sound using DNxHD, typically.

JMD: We use Avid Mojo SDI to be able to view our QuickTimes. We can work with any native codec the offline and online editors are using. We were brought on very early in the process and were able to sit and spot with the producers in a very traditional manner. But, instead of waiting four to six weeks for the first episode to lock, we were designing sounds early in the process, turning things over to them completely digitally through file-based workflow. They could make creative decisions on sound design way earlier than most shows of this budget.

F&V: How quickly are file-based workflows becoming the norm for you and your clients?

EB: The DNxHD codec has actually now been accepted as a SMPTE standard for broadcast. ProRes for Apple and Final Cut is also being utilized, but DNxHD is one of the more popular files for delivery. It’s catching on, but there are still a lot of traditionalists out there.
Zach Seivers: It feels like there was a sort of a stigma until recently.
JMD: In some cases, people feel better about having a tape, and it’s really not a founded concern. Tapes are subject to corruption and damage and loss just as easily, if not more easily, than these memory card and Blu-ray XDCAM optical discs. The advantage of a file is you can dupe it back it up and store it in several different places at almost no cost. If you wanted to do the same thing with all of your master tapes from a camera, you’d typically have to send those out to a dub house. You’re paying for the labor, the time, the tape stock, and the space to put it in. Not to mention that if you have to go back to those tapes, you’re renting a deck and you’re spending real time to get that footage back into the editing bay.

F&V: How long have these workflows been viable?

EB: AMA was introduced on an earlier version of Avid, making it much easier and more manageable to get media into the Avid from all those file-based [acquisition] formats. That made a big usability difference for file-based workflows. We’ve been working with them, experimenting with them. We’re at the point now where the science is pretty locked in.

KG: It now works, versus a while back when it was more of a struggle. You get the files and it gets into the system and everyone’s happy. A year ago, you were fighting with it.

EB: It’s perfected at this point. We have a very particular process that we go through to make sure everything works, using all the recommended Avid guidelines, and we have great success.

F&V: What kind of guidelines?

EB: A lot of it is different naming conventions. Sometimes people are not careful when naming the directories the camera masters are stored in. They’ll put in illegal characters or slashes, and then they don’t realize why they have issues down the road. Sometimes people transfer P2 files and they haven’t been very careful to label their camera [when naming files] and you’ll get duplicate file names. We talk to the production staff and make sure the cameramen have carefully gone through their settings, making sure their cameras are set to the same frame rate and format so when the files are delivered to the editorial room we don’t have any surprises. We’re not getting a mixture of frame rates and codecs, and everything is labeled properly. At that point the import is child’s play.

KG: With the file-based stuff, everyone thinks, I’ve got a camera with a card so I’ll just copy it over. They go out and shoot and come back to an editorial situation where, because they didn’t talk to the other guy who was shooting, they have two different frame rates.

EB: You need to talk to your sound men and find out what your final delivery specs are, because those will often dictate what format and frame rate you are going to record on set. If you don’t address those issues up front, you get midstream in the process and have to fight fires and develop workarounds and solutions that cost the productions time and money.

JMD: It seems like a no brainer but we’ve had multiple situations in sound where we get a new final QuickTime and, surprise, they gave us stuff to work on at the wrong frame rate. Now we have to backtrack and figure out how to put out that fire.

F&V: How does the handover happen between the picture and sound departments?

ZS: The process is so simplified that it’s just a matter of being turned over an AAF and a QT, and the speed at which that can be done is getting faster. We would sound-design sequences before they were even finished locking picture. It’s as simple as us being able to deliver a bounce-down mix as a digital file they can drop into their sequence. We would actually give them stereo stems back so they could cut picture with our stems and utilize specific layers they wanted. If they wanted a particular sound somewhere else, they could take those elements apart and use them creatively in other sequences.
Somebody mentioned earlier that the larger networks are going to be slower to take this on, while a lot of the innovation is happening on the smaller productions.

ZS: The cool thing about these filmmakers is they knew exactly what they wanted. It was a triumvirate of producers – Jon Stern, David Wain and Rob Corddry were the three primary producer/directors – and you’d think it would be difficult to have them all in the room at the same time, but they had a way of formulating what they wanted, solidifying it, and streamlining it down to very specific notes. That, coupled with the efficiency of our process, allowed them to save a lot of money. A show like this wouldn’t be possible with a traditional workflow. It really leads the way for new kinds of content to be on major networks, and it allows smaller companies to show what they can do creatively.

KG: If they do their homework. In these economic times, a lot of small companies like ours are given the opportunity to get these shows in house. and when you have all the ducks in a row it’s so doable.

F&V: There’s been some concern that these new models have some ramifications for the industry in their potential to put people out of work.

ZS: The engineering side definitely suffers in terms of jobs. But it opens up a lot more opportunities on the creative side. In terms of storytelling and filmmaking, the tools are getting easier to access. It doesn’t mean taking the complexity out of it. You still need to be well-read and knowledgeable on the latest workflows and versions and problems, but it takes emphasis off the process and puts it on the creative output. That’s what the clients are looking for. Obviously they want to do things cheaper, cheaper, cheaper – but at the same time they see the other side of that, which is achieving results that are what they envisioned in the first place.