A New Look At Post|
Fast-changing Technology, Client Demands and
Broadening Skill Sets Have Transformed Post
into a New Era of Capabilities and Challenges
For longtime veterans of the post production industry, the world must seem topsy-turvy. Back in the day, post houses did a few things that were more or less predictable and often highly regimented: one place edited footage, another did telecine transfers and color correction, another did online finishing and completion, still another did visual effects, design and animation and finally the job landed at an audio post before being shipped (literally) off to a TV network.
Today, that formerly linear progression has, like editing itself, become a non-linear grab bag. Production companies have opened editorial shops. Editorial houses have opened production companies. Everyone is doing visual effects, design and animation. Editing programs are more accessible than ever (when consumer resistance to changes in Final Cut Pro starts to make news on CNN, you know its gone mainstream). And throughout, established players in the post field – from creative editorial boutiques to audio post houses to effects and finishing shops – need to navigate these dizzying sea changes while still staying profitable, keeping their top talent, keeping clients happy and continuing to find both personal and professional gratification in the work they do.
To examine these thorny issues, we turned to our all-star cast of sponsor companies for insight and expertise. This includes Fast Cuts Edits, the Dallas-based creative editorial and post production house founded by Editor Richard Gillespie; Sonic Union, the New York-based audio post boutique founded by Mixers Michael Marinelli and Steve Rosen and Managing Director Adam Barone; and Red Car, the iconic editorial shop founded by Editor Larry Bridges, which has offices in L.A., Dallas, Chicago and New York.
Also helping out as sponsors are FeedTheWalrus (FTW), the editorial and visual effects company founded by Editors Jeff Stevens and Adam Jenkins; charlieuniformtango, the Dallas-based editorial and post company founded by Editor Jack Waldrip and EP Lola Lott, which has a full-up production arm called Liberal Media Films; and Glassworks, the European post production, visual effects and CG company that has offices in London, Amsterdam and Barcelona.
So what are some of the biggest issues facing these players and their peers? Take your pick.
"I think the relentless drive to get things done faster and cheaper has had the greatest impact on all production recently, but it's particularly felt in post because it all ends up here," says Red Car Managing Director Mary Knox. "So far, technology has been our friend in evening out the tension between more/better and faster/cheaper, but no one seems to know when and where it will stop."
For sure some things are changing faster than others. Take color correction-right now, it's kind of the poster boy (or girl?) for disintermediating change. As Fast Cuts' Richard Gillespie points out, there will always be a need for stand-alone color grading studios. But increasingly, color correction and grading is going to be taking place in creative editorial suites, along with other aspects of design, visual effects and finishing.
"File-based work is an area that's driving changes in color correction," observes Gillespie. "The color correction tools are very powerful and have much of the same toolset that a Smoke or Flame artist is used to using. It makes me wonder, who will be the colorist of the future, the traditional film colorist, or the finishing artist who just changes the tools in front of him and continues to 'finish' the project with color correction?"
Gillespie recalls that "years ago I sat in a booth at NAB and told the folks there that they needed to combine the Smoke, Flame and Lustre onto one computer. They said, 'Oh no, we'll never do that.' Well now we have two Flame Premium Suites that combine Smoke, Flame and Lustre on one platform. That, coupled with a challenging economy for our clients, made it possible for us to get into color grading and other services that have benefited our clients and their budgets."
"In our domain we'll be given the responsibility for color, and we'll work it in and make it part of the value chain of the process," says Red Car's Larry Bridges. "It will become one of the stations along the way. And that used to be where you had to go to a million dollar room, but it s all software now, and it fits right into our infrastructure and workflow."
Bridges says that once everyone has figured out how to price it – and industry perceptions shift so that color is perceived as being in the bailiwick of the editorial house-then it will become the norm. "It just makes a lot of sense to do your color as you go," he says. "You key frame it, you get a sense of it, you involve the art director from day one and maybe you loop the DP in at the outset, and then you carry forward through the edit."
But it's more than just having the right gear, of course. "You have to have the right talent," says charlieuniformtango's Lola Lott. "Not all online/VFX editors are capable of being good color correctors. It's an art."
Another big trend is post houses getting into production. An example would be charlieuniform's Liberal Media Films. It can change the dynamics of how a post house works.
"You need to have a roster of directors who aren't mainstream, and who are willing and wanting to create their own content," says Lott. "We've found that it's this unique content that gets the agencies' attention. From there they know you're capable of bringing something different to the web as well as to traditional TV (and to their ideas). It also requires commitment to the whole process-that means having a producer on staff working closely with the directors, post producers and digital producer."
Driving the trend, says Knox, is the fact that "post companies are the ultimate problem solvers. You may come to us for an edit or for graphics, but if the brief changes or some issue surfaces, then we'll take care of it. I think the ability of editors to tell stories, mixed with the essential can-do attitude that permeates all good post houses, is why so many of us are being asked to venture into production and animation and other 'nontraditional' areas for our clients."
Other trends impacting the post world include the introduction of the CALM Act, which addresses issues of audio levels for broadcast spots. "It's had a huge effect on the way we work," says Sonic Union's Michael Marinelli. "We now mix entirely in surround, making the whole process more about creativity and less about how loud things are. Giving us a standard that isn't easily 'gamed' has been a positive move for us all."
"The shift to the digital workflow, the ability to work in the 'cloud' and the increased portability of hardware is having a massive influence in the flexible business model of a company such as ours," says FeedTheWalrus' Stevens. "What we're seeing is the infrastructure you once needed for more traditional workflows is no longer a necessity, and this has allowed us to be much more flexible and nimble in terms of the services and people we can offer. Where once it was just the edit, now it's edit, color correct, online, VFX, 2D/3D, web, phone apps and more."
Glassworks has taken a different approach, according to Managing Director Phil Linturn. "We haven't sprouted a conspicuous production arm," he explains, "and we haven't really changed our original ethos in response to a 'shrinking market.' What we have done is expand our group of companies to tackle specialist markets such as the emerging digital advertising market, the sound and animation markets, and even the medical market, where we've found room for the use of high end CGI in creating virtual medical training tools.
"We do of course see the impact of both agencies and production companies installing Avid suites, and we see the shift towards agencies striking long-term deals with one-stop-shops for a certain area of the market," Linturn adds. "But there remains, at least for now, a need for solid, skilled CGI and VFX in commercials, and this is the area in which we have always performed very well."
The file-based trend that's at the heart of much of this innovation, however, has been a mixed bag for editors, making the post process even more critical.
"It's an area where a real concentration on post is essential," says Gillespie. "There is so much to learn and stay on top of, from dealing with the quantity of footage to archiving at the end. We have a great system in place to manage file-based projects, and our editors and assistants are very fluid in dealing with both the volume and nuances of the various formats. It would be very helpful, however, if directors could re-learn how to say the word 'cut.' They would never just let film roll like they do with file-based cameras. Editors have to watch it all -- everything from hair and makeup to discussions of what the talent will be doing for the weekend -- before they can decide what to leave on the cutting room floor."
The integration of visual effects, design and motion graphics has had an impact on every aspect of content production, from the shoot through to final finishing. Post production companies have been industry leaders in embracing this, with many top shops opening standalone design and effects arms. But increasingly, those skill sets are being integrated into the larger post or editorial brands and brought under one roof.
Sonic Union, for example, began providing design and effects work for clients on an as-needed basis some time ago; since then, the studio's capabilities have steadily grown. "Through our visual effects and design staff, we're now engaged in this process more than ever, giving us an opportunity to be involved in a job at an earlier stage than in the past," says Sonic Union's Steve Rosen.
"The downsides are that, since VFX houses usually require so much time – often going past the finish of the mixing process -- we end up sending many of our mixes out of house for the final audio relay," he continues. "In these situations, we don't get the chance to hear our mixes against the final picture before they're delivered. And that can be disconcerting when you spend so much time making sure a spot sounds great, and then handing it off to someone who may not have either the equipment to monitor the various channels properly or the audio experience to know if something may have gone wrong. We'd much prefer to handle the audio until the end, and be able to say with certainty that what we mixed is what went on air."
"The key to making all of this work is collaboration between all the parties," stresses Fast Cuts' Gillespie. "I can't tell you how often we've had a call after the shoot has wrapped to say, 'Hey, we weren't able to get the food steam in the shot, can you fix it?' Or 'the model was partying all night and has bags under her eyes, can you fix it?' Of course we can fix it and we do. But I would add that if it is a complicated job, the parties usually get together in pre-pro, and that's the best. We've sent editors and finishing artists to many shoots, and that can really smooth out the whole process from beginning to end."
FTW's Adam Jenkins cites an example of just that: "We recently finished a spot for Deutsch where we were involved in the post-supervision on set, created the 3D demo and completed all the final compositing and additional VFX. With many campaigns being this post intensive, it only makes sense to get the post production company to do the whole thing, and we see this trend increasing."
The need for agencies to produce both for broadcast and for the web simultaneously often thrusts jobs directly into the laps of post production companies, which are tasked with producing multiple versions of ads, often to different specs and different lengths. Everyone, it seems, is grappling with the challenge of accommodating it.
"I think agencies are still trying to decide how much of this integrated work they want to keep in house and how to embrace outside companies such as ours," says charlieuniform's Lott. "I also think that agencies are still trying to sort out the workflow, both from a creative and production standpoint, within their own shops."
"It's practically the norm for us now to deliver for TV as well as for web and interactive," notes FTW's Stevens. "We've created and delivered everything from web banners, web videos, interactive assets as well as videos exclusive to phone apps." The studio, for example, created an iPhone app for last year's Fireflies West benefit bike ride in California.
"Multiple platforms mean multiple avenues for work, which is great," says Red Car's Knox. "It also means a vendor company such as ours can become more of a partner with an agency in the service of a particular brand. You really get to know quite a lot about a brand when you spend the kind of time required to edit its commercials. Why not deepen the application of that knowledge?"
"And you need to be constantly thinking about the end medium," adds Jon Desir, Red Car Chicago EP. "I think this will continue to increase as there are more and more ways to watch content. It can be a good thing, for sure, but it's difficult when everyone has different specs, resulting in multiple 'final' masters of just a single spot."
So are agencies asking their post partners for things that they didn't in the past?
"You mean besides discounts?" asks Sonic Union's Adam Barone. "Seriously, though, I think the greatest change has been the speed at which we're all expected to work. When I say this, I don't just mean us mixers, but also the folks at the editorial houses and the agency producers. We're always pulling off the impossible for our clients, and before we know it, it's become our new norm. Sometimes, creativity just takes a little 'thinking time,' but we're not often given this anymore. Being good has always been a prerequisite in this industry, but you have to be good and fast to survive these days."
There's also the desire to see finished work before it's really finished. "I think agency clients across the board are relying on post to deliver higher-quality rough cuts," says Carrie Callaway, MD at Red Car in Dallas. "Clients want to see more animation and finishing effects in the offline process. Same with color." So is this good, or a pain in the neck? "I think it gives post production houses the opportunity to expand and build on our talents," she responds. "We love the challenge."
The overall level of knowledge and sophistication among clients-both at agencies and at advertisers-has played a role in this trend. "Everyone, at all levels of the industry, is much better informed about the capabilities and possibilities of post, in all its forms," says Glassworks' Linturn. "People are familiar, consciously or subconsciously, of what can be achieved and what should be expected from companies such as ours. Creatives write scripts and directors create treatments that incorporate the latest technological trends, and also the latest style trends. It's our job not just to keep up, but to have solutions already in place for their ideas."
Looking ahead, the picture for most companies seems optimistic, if not a bit guarded. Relentless change has a habit of doing that to people. That said, there are bright spots for sure.
"For us, one of the brightest has been the talented young people that Steve, Adam and I have surrounded ourselves with," says Sonic Union's Marinelli. "We're just over three years in, and we feel as though we're just getting started. Every day still feels like a brand new company, and we enjoy watching the other mixers and artists make a name for themselves. It's great to see them all leave their mark on what Sonic Union is while helping clients achieve their goals."
At FeedTheWalrus, the impact of what Jenkins calls "dissonant" technology is still helping them shape the company. "I think we're moving ourselves into uncharted territory," he adds. "We've spent the last two years perfecting our formula, and now we're going to start implementing it in other fields. It's all about expanding our capabilities and applying them in new and unique ways."
"For the post industry as a whole, you'll continue to see more companies partnering and collaborating as well as offering services they wouldn't have dared just a few years ago," adds FTW's Stevens. "The only real forecast is that the future is getting harder to predict and trends are arising quicker and disappearing faster. Only a few years ago we didn't have Google, Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo, and now that's our daily diet."
In Europe, Linturn says Glassworks is approaching 2012 the same way they've approached every other new year: "With optimism and confidence in the creative abilities of our team and of our clients. The financial crisis is a real issue, and it will inevitably affect our industry as it is affecting others, but Glassworks, and the advertising industry as a whole, has seen difficult times before. Whilst budgets and the ways in which they are used may change, we remain confident that creativity and expertise are a vital part of the process and cannot easily be replaced. Creative and cost-effective solutions will continue to be the holy grail for agencies, and it will be the responsibility of the post companies that want to do well to adapt and offer them."
Ah, that secret word-creativity, the result of "thinking time," as Barone calls it. For post professionals, it's still their rallying cry. "Creativity remains a constant," observes Gillespie. "We still have to tell a great story, whether in traditional forms or not. The story needs to engage people, make them want to watch it and, in the case of advertising, needs to accomplish the purpose of selling a product or communicating an idea. And that's what we'll continue to focus on."
Chapter 1: Fast Cuts... Chapter 2: Sonic Union... Chapter 3: Red Car... Chapter 4: Showcase...