An afternoon conference session at NAB Show New York (formerly Content and Communications World; the event's new branding was announced yesterday) this week asked executives from post-production facilities with a local presence to reveal their anxieties — the new technology, emerging standards, and business challenges that turn their hair prematurely grey. The session was less tense than it could have been, as the panelists entered a free-flowing discussion that covered everything from their own career trajectories to the challenges of coordinating operations across multiple far-flung locations. But they did identify a few pain points that come with being a 21st century post house, especially in the go-go New York City market.
1) Real estate. "What I say to my money people is I wish there were things we could spend more money on that would give us a competitive advantage, and the truth is there are very few of them," said Technicolor Postworks CTO Joe Beirne, noting that the expensive big-iron hardware that used to drive investment in post has been replaced by desktop workstations running powerful software. "But one thing in New York City that you can spend a lot of money on is real estate. That's a big challenge as much as other categories of things — how to make this work in a way that's accessible physically."
And Avi Laniado, chief engineer at Harbor Picture Company, recalled the challenge of finding a suitable venue in Manhattan for a large mixing stage. He said a big-enough space with a high ceiling that didn't require columns to be put in as reinforcements wasn't easy to come by.
2) Obsolescing infrastructure. Laniado remembered worrying about obsolescence even as his brand-new stage was being built. "It used to be that I'd build the room for the next 10 years and it would stay that way" with just a few minor upgrades, he said. "Now, every day you wake up and hear about a new sound system they're trying to push into theaters, new servers, new ways of mixing more channels, [the need for more] bandwidth and connectivity to other studios. So I was building that room for eight months and I was thinking about it almost constantly — the fact that, by the time we invested all that we wanted to invest in it, it might be outdated. The industry is moving so fast that by the time you finish a project like that, things change."
And Harry Skopas, technology director at The Mill in New York, emphasized the importance of building infrastructure with equipment that will hold up well over time. "Infrastructure isn't a billable item, but it is the heart and soul of the operation," he said.. "I always fight to start out big with infrastructure. If I invest in a core switch that is at the top of the line, I'm going to squeak a lot more years out of it versus if I get the $199 special just to get things going. It's a harder sell, but if you look at it from a return-on-investment standpoint, you get a lot more life out of it and it stabilizes the whole workflow process."
3) Workflow and data. Keeping track of the data generated by digital workflows only gets more challenging, panelists said. "We did a movie on the ARRI [Alexa] 65 camera that was shot outside of Beijing in China," recalled Chris Parker, CTO of the post-production division of the SIM Group. "When a lot of data originates out in the field and has to come back into the facility, there are a lot of systems protocols and processes involved. You can get fired off of a job if they don't like your color. But if you start losing negative and assets, it's going to cause many more problems than just the one show that you're not responsibly managing your data on."
Skopas said file-based workflow must be kept under logical control. "We're all away from the tape and the threading of the machines, and we're just generating data," he said. "And the data needs to live somewhere. So part of the data workflow is creating predictable places for your data to live. Once you start deviating from your workflow, that's when you start hitting roadblocks."
4) Staffing. Post staffers doing their job at workstation PCs no longer spend time developing deep knowledge of a narrowly specialized craft and muscle memory for performing it, as a tape operator or telecine operator might have back in the day. That has new implications for hiring, Beirne noted. "It's more of an intellectual capacity that we look for rather than great depth in one area," he said. "We look for great depth in one area of something. That could be playing the cello. But if you can get that deep and that good at one thing, that talent and the knack and the heuristics you get from that often translate very well to other things."
Skopas suggested paying attention to the special characteristics of your staff to make the best use of their capabilities, paying particular attention to the parts of the job that they seem to really enjoy and focusing their duties there when possible. "Nurture the people from within and really find out what their interests are," Skopas said. "It takes a bit of micromanagement and it can be a pain in the ass in the beginning, but … you really do achieve a much better result from them."
5) Money leaving the industry. Panel moderator Ben Baker, chair of the education committee for the Post New York Alliance, remembered the conversion to DCP, which saved studios huge amounts of money by eliminating the cost of physical prints — and dramatically reducing the amount of money they were willing to pay post for DCPs versus film deliverables.
Beirne noted that disruptive changes like the sudden drop in price of DaVinci Resolve under Blackmagic Design can catch post operations "flat-footed." When trying to keep up with the latest technology, he said, it makes sense to be cautious. "We were very late adopters of 4K projection," he admitted. "We followed the curve and only made the investment when we absolutely had to." That's partly because early iterations of 4K projectors weren't up to the contrast standards of the 2K equipment that Technicolor PostWorks already had in place. What's more, the premium you can charge for delivering projects with the latest and greatest technology is never completely commensurate with your investment in those upgrades: "I'd be really happy if I was getting, reliably, 15% more for delivering [4K] projects," Beirne said.