The Trouble With Post

I have seen the future of post production facilities, and it’s has nothing to do with post production facilities. 

 Quick history quiz: who can remember post production in the 80’s and early 90’s? Those that can still reminisce about those boom times.

In the halcyon days, the post industry was dominated by a few major players in each territory, who could write the big cheques for big ticket, multi-million dollar gear more readily than their competition.Big room toys

Telecine suites.

Big, gas-cooled compositing towers.

SGI boxes that cost as much as a suburban house.

Buying this gear ensured that you got the talent, who needed access to this gear to earn the huge talent salaries. And the clients came by necessity- because only a few players could afford this kit, it was a scarce resource that clients paid you hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of dollars every hour to access. You had a book rate, and stuck to it. Where else were they going to go?

Each stage of the process was a singular process, connected by carrying lists and assets between processes. Who remembers the tape sub-maser? Those tape masters were sure expensive too. The post business was even able to charge up to $500 per program as a ‘Mastering Fee’, for the very important and complicated task of ensuring the correct broadcast IDs were put on the front of your TV program or commercial.

A previous boss admitted that once he’d bought the newest Flame sold to him by Discreet Logic (I’m showing my age here), his business plan was simply: pick up the phone when it rings. And if you bought the gear, built a fancy hotel room-style suite, and threw in the delivered restaurant meals, that phone would ring.

Every process was separate and distinct, and developed it’s own methods, specialisations and systems- the dailies guy didn’t need to know that much about the film finish or the VFX- his work was only going to be seen on a Beta SP, perhaps even a digibeta tape, because it was the flexfile list that would allow the next guy in editorial to get started. That editor would do his work, pass the EDL to the next guy, and so on. Every process was one way only, they were performed in a set order and didn’t encroach on each other’s distinct work methods. And if there was a problem in one part, you may have to start over again from several steps back in the chain to get it right. And even with the development and addition of non-linear systems and computers, the process itself was still very linear.

The business model was that the gear needed to be upgraded every 2-3 years. You had about 18 months to pay off the debt, and then another 18 months to take your profit. Any nicely done up suite could make a million dollars a year easy if you had it set up just right, were paying the talent a silly number and took the client out to Soho House for ‘refreshments’ after the job.

And this business model made some people very wealthy indeed- during the mythical high point in post production and VFX at the end of the 80’s/ early 90’s a decent budget music video would buy you the Maserati to match your gold raybans and white linen suit, and you’d invite your clients onto your yacht moored at Cannes for your legendary parties every year.

You just had to judge what to buy next, every three years, and you’d hope that your competitors couldn’t afford it as much as you could. The resellers of gear would make it easy, by taking you out for milky handshakes under the table every two years, as they knew you were about to make your three-yearly decision.

Every change and increase in resolution meant that you had to buy more expensive gear, but also that your hourly book rate could increase. You upgraded your standard def video network up to high def, and doubled your rate. You borrowed more money, and for a while more money came in to make those repayments. You were still on the 3 year cycle, but felt like things were speeding up a little.

This went one for nearly 15 years from the early 80’s, and was all screwed up by the twin meteors hurtling toward your business: Moore’s Law and commodity computing lowering the barrier to entry in buying the computing power you need.

I’m not writing anything new by saying now that spending $15,000 on a tricked out Mac tower will gain you entry into the world of post production, and that with that system you can start to quote against and compete with big-box post houses. This has been known for a while.

What I am wanting to do in this blog is to discuss just how much it all has changed, and what these changes mean. This isn’t your mother’s post production, and there’s no longer any way of buying a bigger piece of kit than the next guy and assume that you’ll win out.

I mean, you COULD buy a $million-plus telecine and put it into a nice hotel-style room, but that’d be the fastest way of going out of business, if you’re expecting to compete with the guy that put his $800 grading system on a $20-30,000 block of hardware and storage and starts churning through jobs shot on Red, Sony F-series or Arri digital cameras.

This is how my career has changed, it’s what I do now, and it’s the new business model I’m exploring professionally and in this blog: Just last year I was the post supervisor on the third Narnia film, Voyage Of The Dawn Treader that shot in the Gold Coast, Australia, for Walden Media/ Fox. We shot for 6 months, and exposed only 800 feet of film during that entire time. Even though the film was a huge Hollywood blockbuster, local post production houses probably billed less than a few thousand dollars (if that), because I was asked to jet in there and build a bespoke facility around the workflow for the digital shoot. We laid out the video and data networks, a data management area, even built a grading theatre from scratch. We didn’t have the bill-by-the-hour costs, because the studio owned all of the gear. We didn’t have scheduling issues, because it was all just dedicated to the film we were there to make. And when we were done we didn’t have to go out and find more work in the local area to support all the gear we’d bought, or lobby government to raise the tax break to attract other productions into our local area, we just packed it back into the truck and sent it to London, where the film would be continued and finished. The same thing was built in London as the production moved there,  and it’s about to start happening everywhere.

This is why big facilities everywhere are in such trouble, and this is what I’ll be discussing in this blog- the new landscape where the production properly controls and manages it’s post resources and destiny directly, just because it can, because it’s cheaper, and because it’s smarter.