Gnarly Bay's Dan Riordan on the Parallel Path to Creative Freedom and Better 4K Workflows

Gnarly Bay, a small production facility in the beach-swept coastal town of Westerly, RI, has kept a fairly steady fix on its creative true north.

"We always like to create projects that not only keep things moving but actually steer the ship," says principal Dan Riordan, who founded the company with his college friend Dana Saint after a few exploratory years shooting weddings and local TV spots together. Now producing content for brands and agencies around the world, Riordan (on location above) and Saint say their so-called yearly passion projects—short films conceived, shot and edited without a commercial objective—best "show the kind of work we can do and want to do," he says.

"We made lots of crappy stuff when we started, but we kept at it and, slowly but surely, we made better and better content," Riordan explains. During a cross-country drive down to Costa Rica—the first of many to come—they began experimenting with experiential filmmaking better suited to their storytelling talents, a style that captured life's pivotal moments in all their fleeting and exhilarating glory. "Those trips started to shape our worldview of what we could use video for," Riordan says. "We realized that we could actually use it as an excuse to go out and see the world, and share all the very human, inspirational moments we found along the way. Then Vimeo arrived, and suddenly we could share these passion projects with everyone else." 

One of Gnarly Bay's popular short films released on its Vimeo channel.

As their creative vision matured, so, too, did their need for more sophisticated camera options. Riordan and Saint swiftly transitioned from their first Panasonic DVX100 — taping over "a summer of weddings for that first road trip so we didn't have to buy more tapes" — to DSLRs for all the obvious reasons. "When DSLRs hit the scene we were instantly on board," Riordan says. "They were just so accessible and easy to use and let us create consistently beautiful, cinematic content. But in the beginning, we didn't have any kind of huge plan: we were just learning as we went. We weren't even sure this was going to become a life-long career.

"Looking back, we now recognize that it was 24p, which started with the DVX100 and continued with DSLRs, that really saved us, because the stuff we were shooting to make a living started to look as good as the stuff we wanted to be shooting." 

Navigating storage options, however, has been a lot less straightforward for the lean facility with five full-time employees. "When we began shooting with DSLRs, we had hard drives upon hard drives filled with the original content that came out of the cameras, which you couldn't edit in Final Cut at the time. So we had the learning curve of having to then transcode everything to ProRes," he says. "At one point we were transcoding to ProRes HQ, which makes each file five times bigger. We were definitely running out of space and needed to solve our storage problem fast."

Initially wooed by the sleek design of LaCie's portable storage drives that paired nicely with the facility's Apple Macs, Riordan says he and Saint soon saw their new storage setup as a fundamental part of Gnarly Bay's daily workflow. "They never failed on us, so over time we amassed about 150 of them. They kept working, they looked pretty, and we kept buying them."

Then, down that sandy path to the wider ocean, they saw 4K stretched across the horizon. "We'd followed the curve and bought Canon C100s and C300s and Sony FS7 and FS700s — all the medium-to-big pro video cameras that were popular and could move us toward 4K," he says. "But we came to a point last year when, on more than a few gigs, they were looking for an even higher-end acquisition format."

Alexa Mini

The ARRI Alexa Mini records 4K UHD upsampled from 3.2K.

After considering and testing Red, they ultimately purchased an ARRI Alexa Mini. "We jumped right into the deep end and started shooting everything with it," says Riordan. "We also had to figure out how to store all these enormous files. Once we realized that if we shot 4K in slo-mo at 4:4:4, that was only 13 minutes on one 256 GB card. The odds were that, on any given shoot, we'd come home with 2 TB of footage that we'd also have to back up."

Thus began their even-deeper dive into understanding servers and RAID storage. "One thing we quickly realized: Our days of mass quantities of portable storage were over," he admits. Several filmmaker friends suggested the LaCie 8big Thunderbolt 2 rack RAID, with 48 TB of onboard storage. "It was a pretty easy decision for us," says Riordan. "Once again, it was sleek and trim, it looked cool and we knew it wouldn't fail us. But going with LaCie also was very much about safety and redundancy. Then we saw just how much faster the 8bigs were, and that changed everything. It's not just because of Thunderbolt, but mostly because they have so many more lanes to the highway. Our single-lane system, regardless of how many of those old drives we'd bought, no longer made any sense."

Does ramping up your RAID to meet 4K demands mean you have to also hire an IT specialist? "At this scale it's not rocket science," says Riordan. "You just need to take a little bit of time and make that commitment. When we think back to the time we taped over tape, we obviously had no future plan. But if you're getting into production now and you can see yourself in this industry for the next five years, make that smart leap now to get the best solution you can, based on speed, reliability and how it fits into your studio. It will pay dividends for you every single day."

LaCie 5big Desktop Raid

LaCie 5big Thunderbolt 2 desktop RAID is designed for 4K editing.

With three main editing bays running Adobe Premiere Pro CC—they left Final Cut Pro at version 7—Riordan says the next challenge was figuring out how to sync the team and their tools efficiently. "We did it pretty easily with a LaCie 5big and and an 8big," he says. "The 5big is a beautiful little beast: you buy it and plug it in and it works." The 8big rack, however, "was more like purchasing a custom hot rod. You have to get out ratchets and screw drivers to install it in your server rack. By the time we bought the third one it finally got fun. Installing the first one was a bit frustrating for us. We had to learn all the other stuff that goes with your very first rack: what kind of cabinet to get, what kind of battery backup, etc.. But, again, you get the hang of it fast."

There's another solution coming that could solve a host of problems for facilities of a certain size shooting in 4K, advises Riordan. "LaCie's 12big with Thunderbolt 3, which they introduced at NAB this year, handles 96 TB on your desktop," he says. "When the new Macs with Thunderbolt 3 come out, I feel like that beautiful tower is all you'll need to rock out for the next five years!"

LaCie 12big Tower

LaCie's latest desktop monster is the 12big Thunderbolt 3 tower.

With each upgrade or new accessory, Riordan says he and Saint have never lost sight of Gnarly Bay's original creative objectives. "We try to challenge ourselves everyday and ask, 'How can we streamline all this new gear to keep shooting the way we used to shoot, staying as nimble as we can?'" 

The answer is to keep working, for clients like Starbucks, Bounty and the NFL, but also budgeting for those annual passion projects that initially put them on the map and consistently net them new work. "Our personal short films tend to be great conversation starters," Riordan says. "Typically a client is drawn more to the feeling the piece evokes than the specific subject. We won't stop making them; they really are the best conduit to attracting like-minded clients. They've essentially become our reels and more fully show where we're at in terms of our filmmaking skills, but also our creative direction."