New Technology and Production
Non-linear editing, fast computers, and high-speed data networks have gone a long way in changing our approach to post-production and is now making significant inroads into distribution; but as of yet, the production process has changed very little.
In the second decade of the 21st century, we are still saddled with an 19th century, Victorian era workflow. Clanking, whirring cameras constructed with motors, flywheels, belts and levers; arcing HMI lamps out of a Frankenstein movie; and the dreaded desire for the, “film look,” the visual equivalent of adding vinyl hiss and crackle to an audio recording, seem to rule the day.
Viewed in isolation, this approach can seem quite sensible. A tried and true approach that has been developed via trial and error over a long period of time can be extremely efficient, but when viewed as part of the whole, a number of things become clear. Attempting to use old workflows with new technology only creates more work. By maintaining the traditional separation between production, post-production and distribution, we enable the negative consequences of inefficient practices in one area to be fobbed off onto another. There’s still a strong theme of, “we’ll fix it in post,” even though current technologies have the potential to help us get it right on set. A good case can be made that today, post begins in the camera body.
We are seeing an explosion of new approaches to capture: fixed camera, 360˚ recording, the use of super high resolution cameras to shoot wide and crop, DSLRs used as video cameras, and the use of non-standard devices such as iPhones. There is a common thread that unites all of these: every one of these devices, from the iPhone to the Red camera is at its heart, a computer with a lens attached to it. The sooner this is acknowledged, the sooner we can begin to exploit the inherent advantages of this.
The first and easiest improvement that can be made is in shooting ratios. This is the one area where television production has diverged from the film approach, and unfortunately not for the better. Inexpensive tape has led to a “let it roll” attitude toward shooting. It is not uncommon to see shoot-to-use ratios in excess of 400:1. Although this is fine in the “out of sight, out of mind” world of tape storage, it creates huge management problems and escalating expense in the world of disk-based storage.
Film has the strange advantage of being both expensive and labour intensive, so greater care is exercised in its use. Additionally, shooting ratios in film are expressed in three registers as opposed to the two used with tape – shoot:print:use. This improves the editor’s lot, as the only material that makes it to the edit suite has already been determined to have some value. The introduction of tapeless cameras has the potential to reintroduce this approach to rushes, as bad takes can be deleted directly in the camera.
Time in the edit is far too important to waste on logging. The new generation of cameras can solve that problem. Media files can be transferred faster than real time, so the moment a card fills up, it can be offloaded onto a laptop on set and returned to use. Once that media is on a laptop, there’s no reason to defer inputting the logging information until later. This means the editor can begin to work the moment the material is available and won’t have to spend hours doing a tedious forensic examination of the material. The process flow diagram at the end of this document illustrates one such approach.
We must, however avoid the trap of focussing solely on the significant gains in efficiency and productivity to be found in modifying our current working practices to take advantage of new technologies. There is huge potential for creativity locked inside all this silicon.
We’re moving into a world where picture can be treated like sound just as with multitrack audio recording. Any single segment of video can be combined with others, cropped, masked, re-coloured, stretched, squeezed, re-made and re-modelled at the press of a button. This allows a great deal of flexibility during shooting if production teams are willing to think about editing while they are shooting.
The level of quality now available in low-cost, lightweight devices is astonishing. Until recently, quality and flexibility were in opposition and certain sacrifices had to be made to allow “run and gun” and “one man band” shooting. No longer. Handheld cameras, personal Steadicam units and portable cold lighting kits mean that “guerrilla” shooting approaches can begin to compete with traditional shooting techniques in terms of quality.
Bringing about a change such as this is similar to learning a new language. In order to master a foreign tongue, you need not only the desire to learn and the opportunity to practice, but also the necessity to use it. Without the imperative to use a new skill, most people will return to what is familiar.
There are a large number of factors to be taken into account in any attempt to change current practices and behaviours. The fact that production inefficiencies are being pushed into the post-production process is a godsend for commercial post houses. If you’re charging by the hour and gigabyte, there’s no better customer than an inefficient one. As such, there’s little incentive for Soho to encourage change.
The change is going to have to come from within. We must do it with encouragement, reward, and by mandate.
There are people throughout the industry who are already working this way, or attempting to work this way. Every effort should be made to seek out these people and let them know that their efforts are appreciated. Bring their work to the attention of the rest of the industry and establish their reputations as pioneers and thought leaders.
A great number of people who work in the media are not purely motivated by money, the ways we can reward people may be more difficult to come up with but will have more lasting impact because they are related to pride in a job well done, enjoyment of work, and the opportunity to create, which touch people on a deep emotional level. We must reward people by giving them the opportunity to rise above the commonplace.
Pushing forward change by mandate is never easy, and should be avoided whenever possible. The good news in this case is that the value of these practices will quickly become clear and people will begin to find ways to improve upon them.
We are at an inflection point in video production and the industry as a whole. Although it’s a bit scary, times like these offer fertile ground for change.
What this change requires is an active, focussed programme of work. Gentle suggestion has proven to be ineffective, so it’s time to give a guiding hand. This work will also need to look at the entire chain from lens to screen to identify common areas for improvement and to ensure we’re not simply pushing problems to other areas.
This potential to make both revolutionary and evolutionary is a rare one and we should grab this opportunity before it slips away.