Workflow From Home: Episode 10 – Scaling Remote Post Facilities
It’s hard to believe that we’ve all been working remotely for nine weeks and we’re already up to Episode 10 of Workflow From Home.
You probably know by now that we conceived this series to give video creators of all sizes and industry disciplines the information and tools you need to stay productive while working from home.
But in case you’re new to the series, we’ve been producing it using Frame.io from shoot to delivery—from our homes across the US.
In this episode, we did something a little different. We went behind the scenes of a large-scale finishing facility and how they went from working in a high-capacity brick-and-mortar-based workflow to temporary work-from-home setups—and continued to deliver 4K HDR digital intermediates for many of the episodic series and features you might be watching while you’re at home.
Panavision’s post house, Light Iron, invited us for an inside look at how their combination of local hardware and cloud-based solutions have not only enabled them to keep up with client demand, but have uncovered new efficiencies that they expect will help improve future post-production workflows.
In Episode 9 we tackled some key concepts about synchronous review, and at post houses like Light Iron, clients have typically collaborated in synchronous ways.
So how did a company with a continental footprint, an onsite staff of editors, colorists, and engineers who all work on expensive, specialized hardware, collaborate with clients from around the world who were no longer able to be onsite?
First, let’s talk about a theme we’ve discovered in previous episodes. That is, the companies who’ve transitioned to remote work most successfully are the ones who have flexible and innovative workflows already in place. Episode 8, in which we talked to ZOIC Studios cofounder, Andrew Orloff, was one good example.
Another was Episode 3, where we talked to Bruton Stroube editor Lucas Harger, and another was in Episode 4, where we talked to editor David Stevens of The Bothy and The Assembly Rooms. Another common theme? Many of them use Frame.io.
Light Iron Overview
Light Iron has three main departments: First, Editorial takes the reels from the offline editors, goes back to the original camera files and conforms the high resolution footage as proxies to create the timelines for the colorists. The Color department then does the final grading and hands the graded digital intermediate to the Deliverables department, also called the machine room, where they render out the final assets to be distributed to the various studios and broadcasters in the appropriate formats.
This workflow demands that the colorists stay in constant contact with an internal producer and the editor as conforms are being updated and new shots cut in. It’s a complicated evolution for the final to come together, and that kind of collaborative workflow becomes more challenging when it’s not all under one roof.
Light Iron was faced with two immediate challenges. Obviously, they needed to be able to collaborate with clients who could no longer physically be in the room with the colorist. We’ve covered that topic in Episode 1 and Episode 9.
But then, they needed to solve the puzzle of having their internal teams collaborating with each other, in different roles, accessing the same high quality assets at the same time—each in their own remote locations, without delays that could impact delivery schedules or air dates.
If you think about the way Light Iron typically works, the facility revolves around a “hub” model, where the facility sits at the center and all the other teams or contributors function more like the spokes of the wheel.
Moving to a remote workflow meant that their workflow became more like a “web,” with the facility as the central point for ultimate delivery, but with assets needing to be more cross-functionally connected and accessible.
A complex move and workflow
When the news that California was going into quarantine came down suddenly, the Light Iron engineering team leapt into action to figure out how they’d get everyone working remotely—in basically one weekend.
As Lance explained, it took “a couple of long nights” to get the gear and the strategy worked out. They quickly had a couple of Mac Pros delivered, converted them to Resolve and Baselight, and checked them out to the colorists.
Working with 8K, often with uncompressed images with layers of color correction and de-noising requires the highest-end equipment. And that kind of hardware typically puts out a lot of heat and needs to live in a climate-controlled machine room.
It’s neither inexpensive nor intended to be portable: a Baselight color grading system’s entry level price is in the neighborhood of $100K, and, as Ian points out, the equipment is delicate and doesn’t like to be moved or jostled.
On the day when the colorists were taking home their systems, the engineering team set the systems up on the long tables in the Light Iron kitchen area. Lance’s most ingenious idea? Having the colorists participate in the disassembly of their stations themselves, which meant that they were able to successfully reassemble them at home and do their own installation troubleshooting.
The three colorists set up their workstations in their home guest rooms. In Corinne’s case, she has two small children, so she needed a room with a baby gate to keep the delicate equipment safe. Her configuration included a new Mac Pro, Baselight Slate, a Sony BVM-X300 monitor (now the BVM-X310), and a Maxx Digital ThunderRAID3 8Bay with 112TB of storage. From her home, she was able to finish a 4K series with HDR and SDR deliverables.
Ian brought some outdoor picnic tables inside and covered them with sheets to accommodate his equipment: a Baselight Blackboard 2, Sony BVM-X300 monitor, and a 160TB Maxx Digital Evo 6G 16 Bay Thunderbolt 2 RAID.
He was working on a feature film, so began by having a pre-production call with the director. After that, he did an unsupervised pass, and used Frame.io to get specific notes from the director.
He then did a supervised streaming session by syncing his system to another system at Light Iron that was streaming back to him and to the director simultaneously. He used one iPad with Google Hangouts and another iPad with the Streambox application so they could both see the same quality on the same device in real time. As Ian said, “it was just like any other grading session.”
Nick set up his home system to mirror his Light Iron setup with a DaVinci Resolve Control Surface, a Sony BVM-X300 monitor, a Resolve GUI monitor to his right, his scopes on the left, and a Mac Pro under his desk with a 100 TB Thunderbolt 3 RAID.
Nick’s new workflow is a complicated, yet efficient, exchange of media and feedback. The high resolution media lives onsite at the Light Iron facility, so when the client turns over the offline, Light Iron pulls the OCF from their LTOs and puts it onto a SAN.
The online editor in Santa Clarita dials in and gets everything lined up, adding any opticals, visual effects, and titles. Then Nick receives the project at his home in Burbank, grades it, and sends the project back to Light Iron in Hollywood.
From there, they send the color corrected files for the clients to review. The clients send detailed notes using Frame.io, which Nick then addresses—a process made easy by the Frame.io integration in Resolve—and then sends the final back to the Light Iron facility, where they render out the deliverables that go to all the broadcasters and studios.
The proof is in the productivity
The big question: With several million dollars of gear spread across cities, and working with their editors and data teams in a remote web, how was their productivity affected?
The truth is that all three were up and running almost immediately. And all remained either equally or more productive—Ian was actually busier at home than he was onsite in January. Nick finished two features, delivered a 10-episode Fox series from his bedroom, and is gearing up on two more features.
What’s noteworthy about this story, which is evidenced throughout this series of expert testimonials, is that flexibility lends itself to productivity. What’s more, Light Iron discovered that remaining productive while being remote wasn’t as technologically challenging as they had anticipated. On the whole, the technical challenges ultimately turned out to be relatively insignificant.
All three colorists, however, cited that their biggest hurdle was not being able to get the kind of non-verbal cues you get while sitting in a room with someone. They couldn’t read body language or gauge reactions or look directly at the client to see if they were understanding one another properly.
Obviously, not being able to receive those non-verbal cues was something the colorists felt was a disadvantage—at least, at first. But identifying problems like that tends to pave the way for new opportunities, and as they continued to work remotely, they uncovered some less obvious advantages.
Smart people come up with smart solutions. For example, Nick started sending wedge tests to his clients so they could easily point to the look they were after, which removed the kind of ambiguity you can get from in-person interactions—“This is too dark/bright/saturated,” etc. And by using Frame.io, he gets notes that are clear and easy to address.
Ian agrees. Clients can view their material on an iPad or color calibrated monitor and give him all the notes at once, making the process “an incredibly efficient use of time.” He believes that clients will realize that they don’t necessarily need to travel to a facility if they can get a good first pass from the colorist and then sit and focus on their own.
Similarly, Corinne discovered that in some ways it’s actually better for clients to be able to review their material on their own and take the time to process their notes without a colorist sitting there waiting for them to give feedback.
The future of post-production
If you’ve been watching this series from the beginning, you’ll see that we’ve been on a discovery journey together. We didn’t have this whole series mapped out when we started, and we relied on you to help influence the direction we’ve gone. At first, the picture was a little blurry, but together, over time, we’ve started to see several patterns coming into focus.
First, those companies who sit at the forefront of innovation are able to pivot the most easily. And second, even companies who were previously rooted in brick and mortar, in-person, synchronous, on-site behavior, are gaining valuable insights from this work-from-home experience—and they kind of like it.
They’re finding advantages like increased efficiency, less time spent traveling or commuting, clearer and more intentional communications. There’s even been a time reduction for creatives waiting on assignments, instructions, or feedback. We’re hearing these things again and again from both the vendors and the creatives.
Will there be a substantial and permanent shift in the balance between synchronous and asynchronous work models? Or will decades of old habits pull us back to the system we knew? Over time, something new is going to emerge, and the best part is that we all have a say in what that ultimately looks like.
We hope you’ll stay tuned for future episodes as we continue to explore those questions—and more.