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August 2014
Issue: July 1, 2009

WORKFLOW: 'TRACEY ULLMAN'S STATE OF THE UNION'

Tracey Ullman's comedy sketches are often a barometer of the cultural zeitgeist. Her current show, Tracey Ullman's State of the Union, is the latest forum for the Emmy award winner to showcase her uncanny impersonations and hilarious skits in a satirical look at a day in the life of America. Her unique take on the country's celebrity-obsessed, 24/7 news culture is one step ahead of viewers' expectations with the kind of searing and irreverent insights that keep audiences laughing and coming back for more.

Behind the scenes the show is also challenging some conventional thinking − about HD workflows. The show, which airs on Showtime, was originally shot on the Panavision Genesis HD camera and edited in SD. For its second season, the producers were looking for an all-digital workflow that could take full advantage of the cost efficiencies offered by HD. Now they shoot with the Red One Digital Cinema camera in 4K and use Avid's digital editing, audio, and shared-storage solutions for a complete HD workflow from production through post.

The show's producers decided to make the switch to the Red camera in part because of its small size, which made its usage more practical. "There is a lot of Steadicam work on the show," says first assistant editor Guillaume Aubuchon, who believes that the smaller Red camera was easier to handle and more able to capture the largely improvisational sketches that comprise each half-hour show. "The Red camera was also considered cheaper to operate than Genesis. Plus, people were just generally feeling that the Red revolution was coming, and we wanted to get our hands on it and put it to use."

The post team extended the benefits of a more affordable production setup by pairing the Red camera with a total Avid HD editing solution. "Some people assume that Final Cut Pro is the natural choice for a Red workflow," he explains. "But it was demonstrated to us by Electric Picture Solutions [a provider of rental equipment and consulting services] that the Red camera was quite viable or even better with Avid systems, so we took another look. We found that working with the Red was actually a faster process with Avid."

FASTER, BETTER, CHEAPER HD

This season, shows are shot in 4K, 16x9 format, backed up on set to RAID storage, and sent straight to editorial where raw RGB files are imported directly into an Avid Unity MediaNetwork solution with 12TB of shared storage. A batch import of QuickTime files is used to convert footage into Avid DNxHD 175x media for editing in HD, while ALE metadata is imported directly into the Avid setup. A cost-effective Media Composer software-only workstation is used to import media.

Compared with Final Cut Pro, which he used with the Red camera on another primetime television show, Aubuchon believes that the Avid workflow offers significant time and cost savings. "Avid is 25 percent faster than Final Cut Pro when it comes to bringing media in from the Red camera and into the editing system," says Aubuchon. "With Final Cut Pro it takes longer than realtime to digitize. With Avid, it takes us three hours per day to import footage. That would have been four or five hours with Final Cut Pro. This speed in importing helps us gain more time for editing."

Dependability was also a key factor in choosing the show's editing systems. "Avid has reliability that Final Cut Pro does not," says Aubuchon. "With Final Cut, you might have to import footage over two nights and still have trouble with the media, so you couldn't start cutting right away."

Aubuchon and editors Rick Kent and John Valerio each use Media Composer Nitris DX systems for editing Avid DNxHD 175x material. This Avid codec gives them the ability to use storage-efficient, low-bandwidth files that offer the same speed and ease as working with SD, while retaining the high visual quality of HD.

Aubuchon, who hadn't used the Avid DNxHD codec before, found the encoded media to be top-notch for HD editing. "All my initial experience had been with Apple ProRes [for HD encoding]. Avid DNxHD is far better in terms of overall quality, particularly color depth," he explains. "This is so important with Red since it captures so much information in HD, and we want to maintain as much of that information as possible."

Once creative cutting is completed, Avid DNxHD 175x material is used for titling and effects fixes, as well as for layoff to D5 tape for final delivery. "With DNxHD, we can take media directly from the Red all the way through to broadcast and keep all of the detail," says Aubuchon. "All of our air masters are created from DNxHD."

AN ALL-IN-ONE POST SOLUTION

The wide-ranging Avid video and audio editing solution, with its speedy processors and easy-to-use shared-storage environment, is also essential for the show's visual effects work, particularly for the show's signature transitions between sketches. "We have this spinning globe where we come out of one part of the country, fly across the country, and push back in at another location. We use lots of stock footage," says Aubuchon. These transitions rely heavily on the Media Composer system's built-in effects tools, particularly for matte work and keying.
 
The Avid editing systems also offer easy interoperability with Pro Tools|HD digital audio systems from Digidesign. Pro Tools systems are used to handle all of the show's sound mixing, dialogue editing, and sound effects.

Next season, the editing team can take advantage of an even more streamlined post process now that Media Composer systems offer support for the Red camera. Using the latest version of the MetaFuze tool, Red files can be automatically converted into DNxHD media, eliminating steps in the ingest process for an even more efficient HD workflow.

On a show like Ullman's, with multiple segments and frequent improvisation, a fast, trouble-free, and powerful post setup helps the show's producers keep focused on crafting the best possible programs. "Packaging all the sketches together so it feels like a complete episode and has a natural flow − that's the real challenge," says Aubuchon.

They must be on the right track. The critically acclaimed show garnered three Emmy award nominations in its first season alone. The much-anticipated second season starts in April, offering even more of Ullman's irresistible comedy, while setting a new standard for fast and affordable HD production.