Most creative companies at some point face a big project — they have the talent, the technology and the ideas. The one missing piece: workflow efficiency. It’s their big chance to show the industry what they can do (or not). The project’s success can hinge on how the studio manages all of its digital assets, as well as the array of editors, VFX artists, producers, directors and freelance talent from around the world who have their hands in the creative pie. Having a set structure for how all of this will function is important, but even more important is getting everyone working on the project to buy in and use the system effectively.
So what what’s the best way to approach this potentially-daunting situation? Jon Chappell, founder of Digital Rebellion, developer of an array of apps and tools designed to make workflow challenges that creative pros face easier, and a longtime editor and post supervisor, talks about his experiences working on the upcoming feature The Timber, which is expected to be released in the US in late 2015. Digital Rebellion’s (www.digitalrebellion.com) workflow efficiency tools include CinePlay, Pro Maintenance Tools, Pro Media Tools, Post Haste, Cut Notes and most recently, Kollaborate. Here, he shares some tips for success and how to create a workflow that improves collaboration.
There are many studios that start out doing short form work — ads, network promos, music videos, etc. — and their success in that world leads to opportunities in feature or long-form television. Up until that point, they may not have had to think about collaborative workflows.
What would your advice be to a company in that position?
Jon Chappell: “If you're working with ads and promos, you’re probably dealing in most cases with less than two hours of footage per project, so you have to worry less about collaborative efficiency. You could be sloppy and it probably would not have severe consequences. But for something like a feature film, you need to keep it organized. Otherwise, you're likely to lose track of footage and take,s and only when you're close to finishing will you end up finding shots that you didn't even know you had.
“Overall, I think what post houses mostly underestimate is the amount of time post production will take, which then leads to either pushing deadlines or hiring more people, which in-turn eats further into their already tight profit margin. More than most businesses, visual effects studios in particular need to be very efficient to maintain profitability.”
Is there a one-size-fits all solution for workflow efficiency, or is it more about the individual needs of the company and the work they’re doing?
Chappell: “Every project is different, especially given how directors are shooting more and more footage, and mixing and matching cameras. They’ll use the Red one day, another day they’ll use the Alexa. Then they’ll cut all that with GoPro footage. That complicates the process for post houses because there are different codecs and different media formats to deal with. Every camera and every format has its own quirks.”
Are post houses, in your experience, open to changes in their workflow efficiency?
Chappell: “Often, the most common driver of change seems to be something going wrong — data loss, missing files, confusing organization, etc. My approach is to show people how much time they can save by being organized from the beginning. I think people are more receptive if you frame it from a positive point of view. Forcing people to work a certain way isn’t always the most effective approach, so figuring out what approach is going to be the most effective can depend on personal preferences as much as the working environment.”
To that end, many of the products that you’ve developed for Digital Rebellion were born out of your real-life experience working in production, right?
Chappell: “Pretty much everything. My most recent project, a film called The Timber, was quite tricky because they were shooting in the Romanian mountains and we were posting in LA. They wanted editorial to take place during the shoot, and shipping hard drives every day would be impractical, so we arranged with a post house out there to transfer proxies over FTP (this was pre-Kollaborate). We had a cluster of computers downloading the media, verifying it, checking it and sorting it. We did it all over the ‘net. We downloaded everything. Adding to the workflow chaos was a blizzard that stranded the production for two days. I've never been in a situation that went 100 percent smoothly, but I've seen the benefit that having an organized system can make. Production companies need someone to spearhead the media management process.”
What tools did you develop based on that experience?
Chappell: “Quick Bins, which is part of the Pro Media Tools suite, was developed during the making of The Timber as a quick way of sorting all of the media into bins. We had over 70 hours of footage to sort, which I didn't want to sort manually, so I created Quick Bins, which gathers info from the slate metadata and organizes the footage by scene and take. It’s a tool that doesn’t get talked about a lot, but for those who use it, it’s indispensable.”
Digital Rebellion recently introduced the workflow efficiency tool Kollaborate. Was that developed as the result of your experiences working on The Timber?
Chappell: “Yes. For a very long time I was FTP-ing files and it was a slow and convoluted workflow. Because I happened to be working on The Timber at the same time as I developed Kollaborate, a lot of the initial features were based on real-world problems we ran into. For this reason, many customers have said to me that they like using Kollaborate because it is very intuitive and understands the challenges post houses encounter regularly. We recently updated the software with a new play-head saving feature that allows you, for example, to start watching a video on your office PC, continue watching on your mobile device and then finish off on your Mac at home. We also introduced a lot of extra playback statistics, including when clients last viewed a file and the timecode position at which they stopped watching.”