As the era of Peak TV chugs along, it seems only to be gaining power, like a locomotive on the downhill side of a steep incline. That’s good news for audiences, who now sit at a bigger and more diverse buffet of programming than ever before, and it may be even better news for creatives and craftspeople who have seen employment opportunities multiply. But it puts pressure on post-production, which had spent decades servicing television customers whose demands were modest compared to those of feature filmmakers. These days, that’s all changing. We asked Pankaj Bajpai, senior colorist and SVP of business advancement at Encore, part of Deluxe Creative Services — post-production home for shows including Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, Iron Fist and many more — to fill us in on how his corner of the post world is evolving to meet the new needs of episodic television.
A Cultural Shift
Bajpai says TV is undergoing a full-blown cultural shift. “The boundaries between the theatrical film and TV crowds are merging,” he says. “That never used to be the case. Movies were movies, and TV was a whole other culture itself. And now you have pretty high-end theatrical film people that are doing both. TV as a platform allows a lot of creative writing and production, and the number of eyeballs that feature films are getting to isn’t necessarily what it used to be. A film like [director Robert Benton’s 1979 Oscar-winner] Kramer vs. Kramer, if it were being produced today, would be a TV show.”
As the creative profile of TV has been increasing among the film community, so has the volume of televised content being produced — and the pace at which that content must be delivered. Traditional network TV shows are delivered one weekly episode at a time, but for OTT services like Amazon and Netflix, all 10 episodes of a TV season get delivered at once.
“When people are involved who come from the background of releasing movies, they want all that time to go into the creative editing process,” Bajpai says. “And that puts post in a corner sometimes, where we have to produce the same level of quality, with the same attention to detail, in a fraction of the time we used to have. Those are the real challenges we’re facing.”
Will all that in mind, Bajpai says his first job is “recon.” That means talking with TV clients to make sure Deluxe understands and addresses their needs, from dailies to deliverables. It’s something Deluxe has always done, but Bajpai said the intensity of this kind of research is increasing to ensure that Deluxe maintains a personal connection to the demanding new world those customers now live in. As an example of a specific initiative Deluxe has taken on behalf of those clients, Bajpai cited something called Trailblazer — proprietary, internally developed project management software that keeps track of any changes made to a project at any point in the post-production chain. It’s designed to ensure, in particular, that any last-minute changes to a show are actually applied and reflected in the deliverables.
“Let’s say you’ve finished your color and your approval process, and then the producers change five cuts in a scene,” Bajpai says. “How do you make sure those five cuts make it through color, through the edited masters, through all the versions and then finally make it into all the files that are to be delivered? Even if the producers are not making changes, QC fixes may come in at the last minute. How do you make sure the QC fix goes into the raw digital master, then goes into color, etc? We have this happening on virtually every show. Trailblazer was developed for that purpose. We maintain watertight control over anything that happens to a project at any given time.”
Rather than using pen and paper, emails, or phone calls to track such changes, Trailblazer is designed to be a foolproof system. In simple terms, Trailblazer creates a color-coded database. When a change is made to a scene at any point in the post process, such as an adjustment to the color grade, Trailblazer automatically updates and displays related items — say, an edited master or the show’s HDR pass — in red. Once those items are updated, they turn green. When the final deliverable is being made, if the staffer in charge of deliverables doesn’t see everything greenlit, from top to bottom, they will take a step back and make the required updates. And Trailblazer is a networked system, so it can track editorial decisions in London and color decisions in New York to make sure that all of the appropriate changes are incorporated in the deliverables that are being made in Los Angeles.
Keeping Creatives in the Work, Not in the Weeds
Another development is increased specialization of roles in post. Basically, that means making sure technical people are available to deal with the more mechanical elements of the workflow, freeing up key personnel like editors and colorists to spend more time with clients. “You’re focusing the talent to the task,” Bajpai says. “For example, you might get VFX deliveries and need to know if they’re in the right color space. Did they send an EXR file in a linear color space, or a DPX file in a Log C color space? You don’t want that cut in without being parsed before it reaches the colorist. If you have your team checking that out and flagging it, when it hits the color session it’s already taken care of so the colorist can spend time with the creatives.”
Bajpai says the increased efficiency of that working methodology has its own impact on the culture of TV post-production. With the colorist free of some of those housekeeping tasks, clients are getting more out of the creative relationship. “It’s like turning the culture of post around,” he says. “Clients are wrapping their head around the idea that they can be in and out of the online in three hours instead of spending the entire day. If they’re in the process of delivering 10 shows, every little bit of efficiency counts. And at Deluxe, with the amount of work we’re doing, that whole infrastructure has to be solidly in place.”
VFX: Now, More Than Ever
As the creative scope of television increases, so do the demands being placed on VFX vendors, and Deluxe has to work closely with them to make sure that they understand what today’s TV productions are requesting. “We have to have our VFX vendors deliver EXR files with embedded maps and so forth, and that affects their pricing and their bidding,” Bajpai explains. “Even four or five years ago, for TV, it was really difficult to get vendors to produce maps without their systems choking because they didn’t have the render power. But today it’s the norm. When the TV movie becomes a 10-hour movie, the concept has to change and the thinking from VFX vendors has to change.”
HDR: The Future’s How Bright, Exactly?
Another new factor in TV programming is the existence of HDR deliverables. Despite a big commitment from OTT providers, who are eager to compete with broadcast television, Bajpai says some customers are taking more of a wait-and-see approach to HDR. “HDR is coming into frame slowly,” he says. “Netflix is obviously hugely invested in it. Amazon and Hulu, too. Starz is just dipping their toes in. We will see, as it progresses, how much of the world HDR gets traction in.”
So Deluxe is staying agnostic, providing customers with every available option, from HDR10 to Dolby Vision to HLG. But the important thing, Bajpai says, is that Deluxe makes it as easy for a production to embrace HDR as it is to ignore it completely. “Technologically, HDR is not that big a challenge,” he says. “The challenge is the aesthetic. There are people who want to promote HDR because it looks great. But when you actually sit down with certain DPs and producers, they feel very vulnerable right now in that most productions aren’t monitoring the shoot in HDR. Netflix has certain shows that do, but it’s not easy to have the entire production pipeline geared toward HDR monitoring, from the video village to the director’s monitors and everywhere else. And that makes the DPs uncertain, for lack of a better word, of what it is they are shooting and how HDR will change the aesthetic.”
Bigger and Better
The only thing that is certain in TV’s rapidly changing post-production culture is that the demands of studios and creatives will continue to grow. Asked whether bandwidth between facilities, for instance, is less of a concern than it once was now that very large data pipes are the norm, Bajpai says it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that processes that are adequate to meet today’s needs may not be up to snuff tomorrow. “We are very lucky to have enormous bandwidth between all or facilities, but we can’t say, ‘Oh, we have so much we don’t need to worry.’ The files are getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “I have a show we’re working on where acquisition is all 6K, even though the delivery is only HD. They want to shoot anamorphic and extract part of that image for an HD 16×9 picture.
“You might meet your bandwidth challenges today, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t suddenly going to be taxed down the road. You may have a very big pipe, but if you have six shows going on at once you have to make sure you don’t choke that pipe. At Deluxe we are very lucky in that we have these enormous bandwidth connections between all our facilities, but we can’t say, ‘Oh, we have so much bandwidth it’s not a problem.’ We have to be very cognizant.”