Ann-Marie Corvin speaks to early adopters, workflow specialists and production experts to find out how they make tapeless pay
File-based workflows were supposed to be cheaper, faster and kinder to the environment, but many of those at TV’s coalface say this new way of working presents logistical and financial challenges.
From the price of cards for file-based cameras to hiring in extra data wranglers, those who have already got their hands dirty with data have long warned of the hidden costs.
However, as Mark Bos, a production executive at Talkback Thames, points out: “Tapeless is here to stay. At IBC last year, there were 27 new cameras, and 25 of them were file-based. That’s just the way the industry is going.” In a move to further the tapeless cause, the cross-broadcaster Digital Production Partnership (DPP)announced last month that it would be working towards the file-based delivery of programmes by 2014.
Fortunately, with careful planning, most of the extra costs can be mitigated by the new efficiencies that a file-based workflow can offer. The golden rule, says Bos, is “workflow, workflow, workflow”.
Talkback series Grand Designs and Escape To The Country have been shot tapeless on Sony EX1 (pictured) and EX3 cameras since 2007, and he likens the process on these high-volume, longrunning series to a game of chess.
“You need to be two or three moves ahead of yourself all the time because you’re going to end up with a huge amount of data, and something has to happen to that.”
For data novices, a trusted hire firm is a good place to start. Monkey Kingdom worked closely with Procam to plan its tapeless route for Made In
Chelsea, while Maverick’s simultaneous transition from SD to HD and file-based was aided by Mitcorp.
Mentorn Media and Sunset+Vine head of production technology Emma Riley, an early adopter of tapeless, says if your shoot is part of an international co-production or you are dealing with a range of formats, it may be worth recruiting an independent workflow consultant.
“Freelancers are the best, because they will have travelled around a lot of hire and post companies and know what is out there and what is possible,” she says.
Darlow Smithson has an ongoing contract with the technology-agnostic Support Partners. The workflow specialist’s business development and post-production manager John Perez says its role is “to look at the start and end point of where they want to get to and join the dots in between”.
One of Clear Cut’s latest tapeless projects is Blink Films’ Driving Wars for UKTV-owned Dave. Clear Cut head of operations Jess Nottage says it’s crucial for the post house to be closely involved in the pre-shoot workflow conversation.
“By offering that discussion at pre-production stage, we can make sure there are no surprises waiting for us in post, including costly format issues that may occur during the edit. It’s also essential in terms of helping us to forecast storage requirements.”
Disk or file?
Tapeless camera formats fall into two categories: optical disk-based cameras such as Sony’s XDCam and file-based cameras such as the EX3, Panasonic’s P2 or the Canon XF 305.
Many of those making the move to tapeless opt for XDCam because the disks can be stored as tape would be.
Talkback production manager Ruby Evans opted for disk-based storage on The Apprentice. With multiple crews filming concurrently over long days, she calculates that if they had gone down the card route, she would have required at least 10 extra people on set data wrangling, and would have spent around £10,000 per day on solid-state memory cards.
Likewise, when Raw Cut Television went tapeless for Sky 1’s Road Wars three years ago with Sony’s EX1 and EX3 cameras, company director Steve Warr worked out that if he were to treat the cards like tape stock, it would have set him back “a quarter of a million pounds”.
However, the beauty of file-based media such as Sony’s SxS cards, Panasonic’s P2 cards and Nano Flash cards is that they are reusable and last a long time.
“If you look at the cards as part of the price of the camera rather than seeing it as stock, it makes more sense. We will just keep reusing the cards until the cameras change,” says Warr.
The single biggest challenge in TV’s transition to tapeless is that production companies tend to work on a project-by-project budgeting basis. Smaller companies in particular are not going to see any ROI on file-based media investments for at least a couple of shows.
“I would hope that the market helps more by offering better rental and pay-as- you-go models,” says Mark Harrison, BBC North controller of production and BBC lead for the DPP.
Riley says for a company the size of Mentorn, it makes sense to buy the media in and then hire it back out to individual productions.
“We’re still using the same cards we used on our first production in 2008.” Mentorn operates a two-production rule for technology investments.
“Within six to nine months, we want something we’ve invested in to pay for itself,” says Riley.
For effective reuse of media, a production needs a rigid data-management system, which involves downloading footage onto external hard drives and getting somebody on the set to take ownership of this task. It’s also important before the shoot to work out how many cards and hard drives you’re going to need.
On Road Wars, Warr decided that each shooter needed four 16Gb cards per shoot - just enough to cover two days’ worth of footage before downloading to G-Safe and G-Raid drives.
“This process can throw more work onto the shooters,” Warr warns. “There was no extra money for a data wrangler on location so the shooters had to download their own material after a day’s filming.”
Riley stresses that careful pre-production planning is needed to avoid having a bleary-eyed self-shooter transferring data after a 12- or 13-hour day.
“What we do is look at the production schedule. If they are filming for two weeks, we provide them with enough cards for three or four days, and then schedule in half a day for download,” she says.
Productions can also benefit by speeding up file transfer. “The right laptops, USB sticks and hard drives can reduce transfer time to a quarter,” says Procam systems manager Don Grant.
Maverick head of post and facilities Donna Mulvey-Jones says that by consulting Mitcorp, Maverick was able to get its file transfer speeds down to 11 minutes for one hour’s worth of media on two drives.
Grant says it’s vital that whoever is doing the transfer copies everything they see on the card. “People browse through files to find the video and think that’s all that matters. But that folder will also contain valuable metadata. Don’t mess around with it and always check the folder size is the same as it is on the card,” he says.
Warr also suggests that the footage is taken off the hard drives and into a more stable storage or archiving system as soon as possible “because hard drives will fail eventually”.
He adds: “The worst thing you can do is leave it on a shelf and let it just sit there.”
On more complex or higher-end productions, an experienced data wrangler may be considered an insurance investment, and could be key to making sure a production doesn’t run over budget.
Being able to view rushes from anywhere, be it smartphone or laptop, and send them to anywhere using a regular internet connection and an FTP site can translate into a huge cost saving on couriers, tape transfer and tape decks.
“There’s a beauty in being able to view rushes and collaborate with people in a virtual way at a much earlier stage,” says Bos. “On Grand Designs, our dubbing mixer is based in Birmingham - he never sees a tape from us. We send him files up the line on a standard internet connection and he sends us 100 tracks back.”
However, what tapeless gives with one hand, it can take with another. “The media management is time-consuming,” says Mulvey-Jones.
“While we’re no longer having to deal with real-time ingest, we are spending more time making back-up copies. Archiving onto LTO can also be time-consuming, and is another expense for the production. So when you add it all up, there are no real savings to be made.”
While file-based work practices are still in their infancy, Riley says it’s important to communicate these extra budget lines to the broadcaster.
“Broadcasters are listening to us much more now. So rather than present them with a lump sum, make sure you have lines for any extra costs so that they understand what it’s taking to work in this way.”
-Cameras are cheaper than tape-based equivalents
-Stock costs are reduced as file-based media is reusable
-No VTR is needed (an HDCam SR deck on a weekly lease would be £500 + VAT)
-Rushes transfer is no longer necessary as all material can be accessed via laptop/smartphone/iPad
-Courier costs are reduced
-Ingest time is reduced at post stage
-A 16GB P2 card retails for about £280 + VAT and four might be needed to cover a two-day shoot
-Data wranglers may ultimately save money but extra bodies on set are never cheap
-Hard drives, memory sticks and software to speed up transfer
-Back-up. At least two copies of the footage need to be made by the post house and put on your hard drive
-Deliverables. Final delivery is still on tape. LTO transfer for archive is another cost