In today's cash-strapped programme-making climate, the twin economic realities of falling rates from broadcasters coupled with the falling cost of editing kit have led many producers to one inevitable conclusion. Performing at least some offline edits and creative cutting in-house and taking advantage of lower cost desktop editing systems can make a huge difference to keeping post-production costs to a minimum.
One indie which has made a definite move towards in-house posting is Darlow Smithson Productions, maker of high-end documentary and drama such as Seconds From Disaster, Megastructures and The Beckoning Silence. The company boasts an array of 10 offline suites and three capture stations to supply them. All are Final Cut Pro systems, which can be used for offline work, conforms and recaptures (reconforming the timeline at HD resolution).
Darlow Smithson head of post-production Dan Carew-Jones says the indie has made a gradual investment. “A Final Cut Pro suite capable of doing DVCPro HD can cost£5,000 to£6,000. Four or five years ago, we networked them all together and put in a central storage solution. That was a fairly significant capital investment, but nowhere in the region of that typically made by a facility.” However, it's not really about the money, he explains, “it's about creative control.”
Carew-Jones says the benefits of in-house editing include being able to have an executive producer run up to eight programmes simultaneously without having to traipse round London to different edit suites. “We're doing a series right now that's using 10 edit suites all on the same series. The real benefit is that an executive producer can move between the rooms. It gives you more control over what's happening in edit suites.”
Many of the full-service post facilities welcome this trend because their offline suites exist mainly to prepare business for the online suite. These facilities mainly provide high-end finishing and audio, services that require years of experience and creative skill, as well as the technical infrastructure and capital investment to continually offer cutting-edge systems.
Says UK Screen chief executive Gaynor Davenport: “Less work may be coming out, but opportunities have been created for post facilities and freelancers in terms of project management, consultancy and technical support services. There is a sense that there has been a fall off in terms of offline or preparatory work, but there is still demand for high-end grading, visual effects and audio.”
Evolutions managing director Simon Kanjee argues there's a limit to how far in-house post can go. An HD offline/online workflow, for example, would be difficult to manage in-house. “There's always going to be production companies putting suites in and that makes perfect sense for a certain type of work,” says Kanjee. “But some production companies recognise that it can be a false economy. If you get HD wrong, for instance, it can be very costly to resolve. That's where facilities like ourselves add value, with the technical experience, knowledge and ability not to make costly mistakes.”
Bucking the trend somewhat is the Picture Production Company Group, which has invested heavily in creative finishing tools - recently installing an Autodesk Smoke HD editing and finishing system and Final Cut Pro HD to complement its Avid DS HD.
“The reality is that once you've invested in HD, from a kit and expertise/training perspective, the only parameters are how far does it make commercial sense for you to go,” says chief executive Steve O'Pray.
“We carry out many different kinds of creative and post projects, and so have a hybrid approach to what we invest in that matches these work streams. We've drawn the line at scanning and playout, because the volume required for our current and projected output doesn't make a sensible commercial case for this level of investment.”
Flynn Post is an example of another development in the industry, an offshoot of a production company that has developed a new string to its bow. Taking on post-production tasks including 3D animation, graphics design, offline and online editing, it was set up five years ago when budgets for music video, the mainstay of Flynn Productions, were in decline. This mirrors the current experience of production companies facing falling broadcast rates.
“We wanted to meet the challenge of keeping creativity and quality high,” says Caroline Purkayastha, head of Flynn Post, who reveals the strategy is to push the post-production arm as a trading and creative entity in its own right. “This has meant creating a separate marketing, development and recruitment policy so that Flynn Post responds directly to the needs of its clients,” she explains. “The move has generated considerable success with more than 50% of business coming from out-of-house clients.”
Purkayastha adds that for the post side of a company to flourish there needs to be a clear and separate set of strategic objectives that it pursues quite apart from those of the parent. “Of course, more often than not the experiences of the production side of things informs the decisions made by the post team, but the challenge remains to think independently and with the requirements of the post market in mind,” she says.
But the Picture Production Company Group and Flynn Post are still exceptions, not the rule. A more typical scenario is for a production company to adopt affordable desktop editing systems for offline work, using them for rough cuts and assemblies and only entering a craft edit suite for final finishing and playout.
Facilities haven't been slow to react to this growing trend. Several have developed complementary technical services to help production companies become more self-sufficient in offline work. One such service is BBC Post Production's Media Solutions team.
“The post community is used to change and can offer its technical expertise and experience to carve out a new role for itself and guide programme-makers through the maze of post-production,” says team leader Malcolm Cowan.
“We've been working with a number of production companies as part of our new service, including Parthenon Entertainment, advising on configuration and workflows and ensuring equipment is being used as effectively as possible.”
Pushing it hard
Unit is another such facility, supplying Apple computers loaded with Final Cut Pro as part of its “Unit to You” service. This provides equipment and technical support to carry out in-house post-production. It also provides a central back-up facility for data.
“This year, we're pushing it pretty hard,” says managing director David Peto. “We already look after all the media for several clients, which we can serve back to them as and when needed. They know it's safely backed up, which gives them piece of mind.”
In fact, there are a number of issues that production companies heading down the road to in-house post need to be aware of. “Early planning is the key,” says Cowan. As well as being realistic about your capability to perform all the tasks needed to produce a broadcast compliant tape or file for delivery to transmission, Cowan says producers need to make sure that they are using their equipment in the most efficient manner and bear in mind that they may need to hire ancillary equipment to support their post-production, which can drive costs up.
“Multiplatform production raises its own challenges,” says Cowan. “If the delivery specifications are detailed enough, then most desktop editing systems will export files to match the specs, but should you be using your valuable editing kit for such tasks? It is important to bear in mind that it usually takes much longer than real time to export multiplatform content from most systems and this is time you can't edit on the system.”
Facilities all warn that HD is the biggest potential DIY post headache. “Producers need to come and talk to us first before using it,” warns Evolutions' Simon Kanjee. “The ingest process and the managing of the media when you're talking about high-def formats is a very tricky process and if you get that ingest wrong you'll be in a world of pain.”
Evolutions offers guidelines and consultancy services to its production clients on this subject, as does The Sanctuary. “It's worth it for us to avoid a headache later on,” says the Sanctuary's joint managing director Daniel Stracey. “It saves money and time. Post is still seen as something you think of last, but you just can't do that with HD.”
Pepper operations managing director Shane Warden points out that it's the cost of running facilities rather than the purchase of the kit that creates the problems, and that's just for standard definition work.
“For HD, the stakes are higher,” he says. “Viewing conditions are much more demanding, storage costs increase, as does the importance of managing that storage. VTRs jump significantly in price and require an experienced team to ensure output is acceptable for broadcast. So when it goes wrong, or when the impossible schedule arrives, who will you shout at?”
Depending on the production's aims, the attention to detail of employees and how comprehensive the understanding of the delivery requirements is becoming self-sufficient carries many risks. “Ultimately, the price of repairing mistakes further down the line can be more than hiring professional post houses in the first place,” says the BBC's Cowan. “Productions must consider whether it's worth taking a risk.”
Want to find out more?
Broadcast Live and Video Forum - 3pm to 4pm Wednesday - Post for production companies
With a number of production companies looking to operate post services in-house, what are the potential issues? How can production companies ensure that their in-house facilities add value to their business? Also, what has been the impact of this trend on the post community?
Katy Child Head of Commercial Development, BBC Post Production
Malcolm Cowan Media Solutions Team Leader, BBC Post Production
Panel: Simon Kanjee Evolutions
David Peto Unit
Paul Glasgow Avid Technology