How Low Can You Go?

Craig German

Craig German

My original intent for this article was to explore how a TV producer or film director could conceive, create, and distribute a high production value show for a fraction of the “typical” cost.  We all know about Robert Rodriguez’s critically acclaimed $7,000 film, El Mariachi; Tyler Oakley’s $6M/year on-line social issues show; and student filmmakers who make compelling movies on nothing but free labor and borrowed equipment and rooms.  And there’s no question we can learn a lot in this industry by studying these examples to test our ideas about how we make great content.  But what I was after was this: how can we change our creative workflows and apply new products and services from industry disruptors to reduce the cost profile for what we do?  With limited print space and time, I decided on two things: I’d focus my attention on production and post in scripted TV and film; and I’d avoid quantitative budget comparisons, instead aggregating the thoughts of some of our colleagues into a picture of where we’ve made progress today, where we may go in the future, and where some of the challenges will probably persist.

Historically, scripted television and film have required significant budgets and heavy infrastructure. However, progress in technological innovation and the evolution of content business models have enabled and motivated us to seek lower cost profiles, with even greater expectations that costs will continue to decrease.  The sources of cost savings have been in several areas: workflow optimization; tools commoditization; cloud services; and open technology.

When we talk about workflow optimization, we’re talking about intelligent process choices.  Are there redundant steps?  Can we remove any dependencies to shorten the timeline?  If we change the order of events, do any steps collapse?  We’ve seen workflow specialists rise to the level of key players at post houses.  And with more compute power, cheaper storage, and greater connectivity, a workflow specialist has a deeper arsenal for his attack plan.

As an example, Jesse Korosi, Director of Workflow Services at Bling, has had increasing requests to be involved in a job from capture to final conform, going beyond the typical separation of on-set and post roles.  Often, much of the knowledge about the assets leaving the set for post is lost – it wasn’t captured in the first place, or it is not convenient enough to track.  By involving the workflow specialist in technical decisions up front, from how color is created on set, to the software used for metadata logging and VFX Data Wrangler notes, he is able to aggregate project metadata so that downstream teams can automate more of their processes.  Aside from some of the customized tools that a workflow specialist may use, many other software companies like Colorfront have opened up their products to enable workflow specialists to customize them, as well.

Another type of workflow optimization is talent focus.  Great colorists and sound mixers still command a premium and will likely always be appreciated for their importance, as evidenced by the many award categories at the BAFTAs, Oscars, Emmys, HPAs, etc.  Even in the indie world, as noted by Randall Maxwell, an indie producer/writer, you need the pop you get from the color pro and the mixer.  Is there a way to focus these talented professionals on where they add the most value, and not where the work is more preparatory or ancillary?  Adam Stern, Founder and CEO of Artifex Studios in Vancouver, has seen a trend of doing the initial sound or color work in a home studio before submitting it for the high end finishing step.  Having said that, you won’t achieve high production value without true talent, the right tools, and the right viewing or listening experience.  The choice you have is how close you want to get to the look you want before you engage with the real deal.

The term “cloud” has been around long enough that we all have a pretty good idea of what we mean when we say it.  But how does it help us to control our costs?  When cloud was first becoming a thing, the only solution most of us had on our lips was Amazon, and we were skeptical about what could be accomplished in the cloud, how secure it was, and whether it could meet our SLAs.  Ten years later, we also have Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, major vendors have developed vertical ecosystems in each cloud solution, the cloud providers have a solid relationship with the MPAA, and there are sophisticated tiers of storage and compute to meet our varying post and distribution needs.  Erik Weaver, who ran the Entertainment Technology Center’s Project Cloud, observed through various case studies that creative teams were able to exploit editorial resources, via BeBop and Avid, as well as HDR color correction via Colorfront, in the cloud to complete their films, while only paying for the transactional costs of the actual cloud cycles.  Similarly, Adam Stern said that he now has the luxury of reserving budget that he used to have to hold back to keep up with the latest rendering hardware and infrastructure, and he is instead able to reallocate those funds directly to VFX burst rendering in the cloud.

Post production tools themselves have become more sophisticated and multi-purpose.  The competition from Final Cut Pro and Premiere has given Avid a run for its money, and our community has benefited as a consequence.  Although there have been questions over the past several years of whether Apple was serious about the professional market, they are still an important option for many post production professionals, whether as part of a large operation, or as an independent producer.  And this has certainly driven each of these vendors to lower their price point while piling on features that enable content creators to get closer to their final vision with a one-stop shop mentality.  As an even more extreme case of commoditization, look at the success of the film Tangerine at Sundance 2015 – shot completely on an iPhone 5s (with Steadicam and anamorphic lens attachments).  While the Tangerine crew still went through a traditional post phase, the fact that they could make a splash using a camera that doesn’t have ARRI, Sony, or RED in its name should give us all pause.

We’ve discussed a few areas of disruptive change – so what’s next, and what’s not?  It seems that we will eventually see all of our tools in the cloud, with metered access according to how much we use them.  More creative choice will be accessible on set, and eventually, even raw material will be delivered electronically.  Workflows will end up fully integrated all the way from the set, through post, and into distribution.  But – the need for sheer talent is essential to the creation of compelling content (at least, until Watson understands the greatness of Martin Scorsese or Matthew Weiner), and no one wants to put out a show without experiencing it in an environment that approximates how a viewer will see it, so mix stages and DI suites are also a fixture in the process.  As pointed out by Jacob Medjuck, an early pioneer of all-digital post, the biggest budget items in a mainstream film continue to be the talent, and music – since those are much harder to control, we’ll continue to focus on process and tools.  Our industry will continue to find ways to produce great content more quickly, for a lower cost, and for more platforms.  One thing that we can count on is that each of us will be asked to contribute in our own way to this on-going transformation.

I’d like to thank the following people for their input to this article: Jesse Korosi, Director of Workflow Services at Bling/SIM Digital, and Co-Head of the Young Entertainment Professionals group (YEP) at HPA; Jacob Medjuck, Film Director and Founder of Film Raiser; Erik Weaver, Global Marketing Director at HGST, and Project Cloud Lead at ETC; Randall Maxwell, Film Producer/Writer; and Adam Stern, Founder/CEO of Artifex Studios.

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