Issue: July 1, 2009


The reality of Hollywood rarely meets the suspension of disbelief that its shows and output required for audience consumption. Nowhere is that clearer than in the post production of a show like Dancing with the Stars, BBC's smash hit airing on ABC and shot and edited on the CBS lot in Hollywood.

Post spoke with Barry Ward, post production supervisor for Dancing with the Stars, to find out what it takes to get a popular show of this magnitude on the air each week, complete with fast turnaround times and, as its stars can attest, very real-world dangers…

Post: Why would there be post production on a live show?

Ward: "I actually get this question a lot. Although the show is live, certain elements, such as the training footage for each contestant, are prepared in advance. These two-minute packages showcasing that week's training are what I'm primarily responsible for.

"Training starts on Wednesday during each week of the season, and runs through Friday. Weekends are reserved for audio interview pickups. We start cutting on Wednesday, working with a combination of footage from the week before and new material shot in the field. Interviews in the studio are shot on DVCPRO HD at 720p 59.94 using Panasonic cameras, while footage in the field is captured on HDV at 1080i using the Sony HVR Z1U.

"In addition to the training packages for the Monday-night shows, there are also specialty packages for the results show on Tuesday consisting of behind-the-scenes footage shot primarily in DVCPRO.

"All of the material that comes to me has to be digitized into our Avid editing system. For cutting purposes, we use AJA's FS1 converter to bring in everything at 10:1 compression. Everything is cut at low-res because of storage, so when we up-res, we up-convert to DNX 220 720p. The FS1 allows us to cross-convert from the 1080i HDV footage to 720p."

Post: So, are you using a capture point?

Ward: "In that instance we only use the AJA FS1 when we up-re s—when we are doing the cross-conversion — but the other thing we use it for is live digitizing of the show."

Post: How is that fed to you?

Ward: "The show is videotaped live, and the feed going to the tape decks is fibered directly to our bungalows and edit suites. Each edit bay has been set up to receive a specific feed — line cut, ISO camera, etc. — so every edit bay is like a back up VT.

"We know when the show goes live, so our Avids are doing live digitizing and we also put them onto tape as a backup. That's where the AJA FS1 really comes in — we get eight channels of embedded audio, which, because of our setup need to be split out, and the FS1 splits out the eight channels so they can be digitized."

Post: What makes up those audio channels? You're dis-embedding the channels from the original fibre feed that comes into the post production bungalow from the stage, correct?

Ward: "Right. You are de-embedding the eight channels being sent through SDI. All eight channels of audio are embedded into the video signal and are sent over on one fibre line. From there it gets split out into video and audio channels.

"Because we are high definition, we also broadcast in 5.1 surround, so you have your left, right and center low frequency surround left, surround right, and what they put on channel 7 and 8 is a stereo feed for our SD people so they can get the regular stereo that comprises the eight channels.

"That's the line feed. The ISO cameras have different audio configurations because we have various mics isolated. When we add the judges' comments to the packages there will sometimes be a lot of excess commentary that needs to be filtered out. Each feed we get has a different audio configuration based on music, sound effects, mics, full program, 5.1 surround mix, etc."

Post: It sounds very similar to filmmaking?

Ward: "Even though everything is bundled up and split out, we still have papers all over the place, so we know exactly where everything is! Where are the sound effects again…oh yeah, that's right, it's ISO 3 channel 2…"

Post: You've been using AJA FS1s for the satellite feeds as well?

Ward: "We had the FS1s before we began live digitizing, primarily because we were getting East and West Coast feeds and needed to watch the East Coast feed as it happened live. We initially used the FS1s to convert the component signal to distribute through the various edit bays for viewing. Anyone working in any edit bay could watch the show whenever they needed to.

"For the Tuesday show, the editor cutting the recap starts Monday night at 5:00pm and works all the way through until 3:00pm Tuesday afternoon. He starts off taking notes during the current show so we wanted to ensure that live material could feed that directly into the edit bay. It's a matter of patching. Each edit bay has a patch panel allowing users to patch in and watch anything they tune into.
So you're taking a component signal that would normally comprise three cables, but you're using the FS1s to get it down to a single pipe. And all the audio is handled by the FS1s as well.

"We have an AJA FS1 in every rack of each edit bay, so if anything is in a strange flavor we can handle it without spending money on renting a higher-end deck. We use Panasonic 1400 decks, which don't break out eight channels worth of audio — only the Panasonic 1700s and 1800s do — so we needed a way to bridge the Avid and the 1400. In that situation, the FS1 comes perfectly into play.
"Same thing with the live digitizing — the FS1 breaks out the audio, exactly the same as digitizing tapes. Each bay has its own FS1 and it's just a matter of patching and boom, boom, there you go, you have your eight channels."

Post: So for a show like this there is no way that you are going to be able to handle it without having some massive service set up. What is the solution that Fotokem Digital has been able to provide for you?

Ward: "We have an Avid Unity system with 14TB of storage, but we only use about half that. A lot of the stuff is backed up on the other side so half the storage is used for backup in case we lose something.

"We're using PC Adrenalines. We have six of them in our edit bays along with three Symphony Nitris systems. One is used by an editor who comes in on show nights to handle reformatting and purposing for international broadcasts. However, in our primary bay we have six edit bays — two Symphony Nitris systems for online editing which we bring in for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

"As a backup system we have one assist bay with a PC Adrenaline and a stripped-down Symphony Nitris for rendering and graphics. We have 3-4 editors each assigned various contestants that work on the Monday show. They meet with the producers on Monday and will cut down all the material from Wednesday through Sunday. The fourth editor rotates over to the results show. We also have three results show people working Friday through Tuesday to edit for the results show."

Post: As you get to the end of a week's show, do you take it offline or to some kind of backup?

Ward: "No, we don't. All of the low-res material brought in at a 10:1 resolution stays on the Unity system. On Sunday nights we up-res the packages for online editing and then the producers sign off on them.

"Then I build the playback reel for the Monday show and that reel gets cut up so that we can electronically send each individual video tape package to the stage for playback on their computer-based system. The show could be completely tapeless, but I like to have good, old-fashioned tape as a backup. Monday is used for any fixes, such as a celebrity trip to the hospital or anything else that will change the package.

"Overnight going into Tuesday, we do the cold open of the show, the flashy opening and recap of the previous night. Some of the packages cut throughout the week for the Tuesday show would be waiting for additional material that couldn't be completed until Monday night or Tuesday morning.

"There is the rush on that point where Tuesday most of the stuff cannot be delivered until Tuesday afternoon around 2:00pm. Again it's the same situation: we bounce back and forth between the two online editors, send stuff over to the stage; send the stuff to tape backup. Once the show is videotaped I go in on Monday night to do the international/ABC network promo stuff they require.

"I work with an editor specifically for that, and we make sure that all the cameras from the live digitizing get grouped so the recap editor can start working on his stuff and anyone for the Tuesday show can start working on their material.

"On Tuesday I end up doing the same thing again — repurposing and all that fun stuff for international and ABC — only it's a little lighter for the assist because there are no editors looking for stuff for the night. At the end of the evening when everything has been delivered the AEs will do maintenance on the systems. They'll clean up the Unity — get rid of miscellaneous stuff and blow away the previous week's stuff. There are always two weeks of online material on the Unity. If we are on show 805 this week then they'll blow away 804. All the online stuff gets blown away to make room for 806. So at any one time at the end of a week there are two weeks online, but the last week is always DNX 220 in full resolution."

Post: You obviously need it for all of that recap stuff?

Ward: "Most of the storage we have is predominantly for the low-res material and, of course, now we have about 3TB of music."

Post: I understand that sometimes the musical acts and special guests are shot in a different order or prior to the show itself?

Ward: "For staging purposes their setups are quite elaborate and on a live show we are unable to go from one act to the next during a two to three-minute commercial break. Sometimes, especially with the more complicated dance acts, we'll pre-tape them in front of a live studio audience — the same studio audience that gets to see the show. It just gives us the freedom to work in between commercials."

Post: All of this sounds like a fair amount of infrastructure. Who is your equipment vendor?

Ward: "Our equipment vendor and technical backup is Fotokem Nonlinear. I had worked with them on American Idol, and ended up pushing for them on this show because of that live background. They knew what needed to be done because they'd been doing it for other shows. They have excellent technicians and a very responsive 24-hour support service.

"When Fotokem built in our Unity system they included a fail-safe redundancy system that would operate as a backup in the event of a fail. We hoped we would never have to use it, but it did come into play a couple of weeks ago and we were up and editing within five minutes.

"In the middle of a show it's almost impossible to keep up with every detail/product in the market so it's great that you have someone to advise and keep you from overspending.

"Fotokem's job is to maintain, and they let us know when we are ready for a new product. They're not out there to sell us something just to make a profit but to sell us something that works. We're also fortunate because we can use equipment that doesn't cost a fortune but has a lot of versatility. Fotokem really helps our budget because the rental costs are miniscule compared to the cost of buying everything outright. So when we get the opportunity to use powerful equipment that can serve our needs at a reasonable price then that is what we'll go after."