This is the second of a two part series on large-scale Final Cut Pro installations. Pie Town Productions currently produces nearly twenty TV shows, including Design on a Dime, Hammer Heads and (my favorite!) Color Correction. I spoke to Scott Templeton, one of the founders of Pie Town Productions and to Dana Besnoy, Pie Town’s VP of Post. We discussed the workflows and standard operating procedures that allow Pie Town to pump out around 600 broadcast TV shows each year using about 100 seats (we have 30 bays, and a staff of about 75 people total. 100 seats is a high estimate) of Final Cut Pro running on a massive SAN.
PVC: What’s the key to media management with Final Cut Pro?
ST: The key to us in media management is experience and knowledge. When you know the limitations of something, rather than yelling at the ocean because waves are crashing onto my beach, well, learn what those limitations are and how to work with that. In an operation like ours where we have such a lot of material that we deal with, it’s really starting with the basics of understanding first and foremost how FCP handles new clips.
DB: We have 18 off-line bays (7 editors working off of laptops in their homes and 5 on-line bays) that run day and night. You have potentially 43 editors who could all name their clips the same thing, or a variation of the same thing. When you’re doing real estate shows and design shows, an editor could name their clip “red living room” and who knows, in another show in another suite they could also have a clip named “red living room.” When we first started using Final Cut we realized that that was going to be a major problem when we ended up having the wrong swimming pool end up in the wrong property tour. Because the editor named their clip “pool” and then it wound up in somebody else’s show, because when they inevitably end up mounting all the drives because they can’t remember where their media is, it would reconnect to the wrong clip named “pool.” So we had to invent a naming convention that would be show specific and would not cross into another series or episode within the same series. We did that by using the abbreviations for our series, for example House Hunters is “HH” and every episode has a unique number. So if it was House Hunters, episode 1610, the clips would always be preceded by HH1610, so we knew those clips would end up in that show and that when an editor looked at it and they were cutting House Hunters 1612, they could see that that clip did not belong in their show.
PVC: What’s your hardware set up?
ST: It varies between off-line and on-line. Our off-lines are all G5 double doubles, quad G5s. And our on-line bays are all Mac Pros.
DB: We’re all KONA. We have mostly KONA 3s.
ST: Commandsoft FibreJet with 110 Terabytes of storage all primarily Apple X-serve RAIDS.
DB: The drives themselves are on the second floor of the building and the majority of post is on the first floor. Everything is run up to the server room over 2-gigabyte fibre and everybody reads and writes to the drives at the same time.
PVC: Why did you go with FibreJet and how’s your set-up been working?
DB: The question is always: Should I go with volume management or should I go with project management? X-SAN is project locking and FibreJet is volume locking. So, the beauty of X-SAN is that everyone can write to and from the same volume at exactly the same time and you have no wasted storage, but at the same time, maybe you don’t want everybody to be accessing everybody’s projects. We’ve been using FibreJet since we launched using Final Cut 3, six and a half years ago and we’ve been incredibly happy with it. It’s really stable. Everybody’s comfortable using it. We don’t run into any problems.
PVC: Any other interesting hardware solutions?
DB: The assistant editors will be working in their bay on what we affectionately call “Mac Stacks”. For the majority of our stuff that comes in Firewire we can mount up all five CPUs at one time and run them through a KVM switch with one central control unit: One monitor, one keyboard, one mouse. And that person operating that “head” so to speak can operate all those five ingest systems at one time.
PVC: I’m not sure I’m understanding the Mac Stack concept…
DB: We have found a really good way of reusing and recycling old machines and what we’ve done is take old G4s and we have two Mac Stacks, so in one Mac Stack I think we have 5 G4s and the other we have 4 G4s and they’re racked in big, tall, seven foot racks with sliders. Those machines all have their own switch and their own fibre connection. They are in the assistant editor bay, but they can write to any drive on the SAN, so an assistant editor will sit at a desk with one monitor, one keyboard and one mouse and a KVM switch and be able to select whichever tower they want to see on that one monitor. So they can connect a deck to each CPU and they can digitize five hours of footage in one hour. And they’re filling up the SAN, they’re just writing, writing, writing media and at the same time the editor could be refreshing that same drive and reading that media as it’s going down. So we can, with our two towers, we have nine machines we can digitize nine hours of footage in one hour’s time, and for a shop like ours with such huge quantity, that’s a huge benefit. And you can control the switch from your keyboard with a series of keystrokes. Or you can punch it up on the switch itself.
We have day editors and night editors, and our assistant editors are pretty much dedicated to working in one space and in that space there’s a dozen computers, so being that my shifts are basically full day and night the assistant editors have their bay to crank out as much work as they can.
PVC: How many shows are you pushing out the door?
ST: In 2007 we pushed about 525 half hours out the door. This year we’re on track to complete at least 650 by the end of the year.
PVC: How much media does it take for each of those shows?
ST: Averaging 25-30 hours per half-hour episode. The length of time in post-production depends on the show. Some of them are very edit intensive. Lots of b-roll shots, those are much more edit intensive. Basically like cutting a 22 minute montage.
PVC: What other apps are you guys running?
ST: We have a Filemaker Pro database that we created for our tape library that is internally built. As far as when we hit the edit bay. I’ll give you the interim step. Once the footage comes in it is transcribed, logged, primarily using Microsoft Word. Once it hits the edit bay, it’s FCP. We use a smattering of LiveType, a smidge of Motion a heavy dose of Photoshop and a pinch of After Effects. And after the show has kind of gone through the first level of post, we use a couple of tools for our notes process. Right now we’re using a product called Inqscribe and that’s primarily a transcription product, but it will grab timecode from off of the QT movie, so when a producer is making their notes it’s a keystroke to put the timecode into their notes, and they can control QT movies just like they’re controlling an old fashioned cassette for transcription and it saves them a lot of time manually typing it out.
Q: Can you describe a typical workflow for one of your shows?
ST: It varies a little bit. The dynamics of post have changed as you know. Those of us from the linear day understand about the million dollar edit bay and the Grass 4000 switchers and the A50-3Ds and the Impacts and the ADOs and all of the hardware peripherals and the ridiculously expensive decks. Then we went through that phase where Sony came out with the UVW line and PVX line and the equipment came less expensive and more affordable and you could step out of the traditional machine room concept where you had minimal amounts of decks and everybody had to be patched in to the machine room to digitize and until it was actually affordable to have decks in all of the edit bays. Now with the shift back to HD we’re back to that old format again where decks are again ridiculously expensive and to minimize the amount of time that people need access to a deck and the fact that storage has come down so much we no longer have to pick and choose the shots that we pick up front, we can ingest entire tapes, so that when an editor who’s working on an HD show begins it, all of the media is there at their disposal.
We all remember those phases when we were an Avid house, our first Avid tower was like $45,000 for 36 gigs. And now storage prices have come down tremendously. You can get 11Terabytes for under ten grand. So that’s really changed the dynamics of our post process, by storage being so much less expensive. It’s the paradigm shift. Once upon a time, decks were less expensive than storage, not storage is less expensive than decks.
Q: So you’re digitizing at full rez all the time?
ST: Depending on the show, we off-line standard def in DV and we off-line our HD shows in DVCProHD. We do have shows that we do a traditional media management process, like in shows that originate in a format that’s not truly DV like BetaSP or Digital Betacam and we will bring that footage in uncompressed, so it all depends on the particular show and the format that it’s shot on.
DB: Each episode, which would be synonymous with each project has its own Capture Scratch folder. Back to the example of House Hunters, the Capture Scratch folder would be HH1610 and all of the clips in that folder would be preceded with HH1610.
Then on the root of our drive is – the three folders that Final Cut makes is the Capture Scratch, the Audio Render and the Render files. And then inside of the root also, we have a project folder, a graphics folder, a motion folder, a voice over folder, so that when the assistants prep everything for on-line they can just grab everything and move it over. It’s fairly self-contained and they’re not chasing things down.
PVC: So are the editors or assistants still naming clips descriptively in any way?
DB: The editors use the log note in the logging window. What happens is the assistant editors bring in everything. We bring in full loads (meaning the entire tape) and then the first day the editor is working on the show they’re starting to crank through and string out the A-roll and get the structure of the story laid out and at that point they output the A roll for producer approval, so the producer can look at it and say ‘I want to move this beat. They talk about flooring three times, so let’s condense that to one beat instead of revisiting it multiple times,’ or ‘The show is running three minutes heavy, let me trim that out so you don’t have to go through and B-roll that and clean that out.’ So as the editor is A-rolling, they’re looking at all the footage and they can go and enter descriptive notes in the log note field in Final Cut and they can sort by that in their browser however they want.
And we have some partitions where all the shared stuff is, so we have a partition called AO1, and on AO1 is the music, the graphics and any shared elements and anybody can mount that as a read volume and access whatever they need. Whatever partition is assigned to that editor, they save their project data to their partition.
In-show graphics – like main titles, bump ins, bump outs, lower thirds, end credits – all of those are pre-designed prior to a series beginning and we built graphics layouts for our editors to access. So we will pre-build in the font size, style and color in a lower third, we will pre-matte and composite all the transitions and everything like that. We’ll lay them out in this template and then what the editors do is they start with that template. That is the launching point for every new project they begin. They open that template and then they do a “save as” and name it whatever project they’re going to be working on. So they know that in their project all the graphics and everything are correctly laid out and composited and then they just start cutting into that sequence. They don’t have to build anything except, copy and paste a lower third, change the homeowner’s name or the designer’s name or what have you. We try and make it as easy as possible.
PVC: Does all of the media for a specific show go in a specific place or is that not possible?
ST: That is the ideal and depending on a lot of factors. The only time when that’s really entirely possible in our world…. FibreJet is a volume level protection so if you’re assigned a drive to write to and the assistants have been digitizing media to that drive for you, well they can’t digitize media to that drive while you’re working on it so they of course pull up another partition and they digitize media to that and the next thing you know we’ll end up with media on several different drives so we have to keep a handle on that as much as possible.
PVC: And what’s the workflow as the shows move on to on-line?
DB: The on-line is actually the most stress-free part of the process because we’re big fans of working backwards. We do this as a company as a whole and in post-production. So everything we do, when we set-up to develop a new process or procedure, we talk to the finishers first and then we work it backwards. So by the time it gets to on-line it’s foolproof. By naming our clips what we name them and putting them on the partitions we put them on, once they get to on-line it’s an automatic reconnection. The on-line guys have their own drives that they render to and they have copies of all the show graphics and show templates on their folders and it’s pretty seamless, because we don’t do a re-digitize for on-line. When we bring stuff in for standard def, we bring it in at DV codec and it stays at DV codec the whole time. And when we bring HD stuff in we take it DVCProHD and we leave it at that. By not doing the re-digitize, we can save ourselves two days per show in on-line and the stuff looks great. So we’re sending them out the door as fast as possible, looking as good as they can. We’re trying something new: We’ve not worked with the ProRes codec to this point, but we have a new studio series that we’re doing for HGTV and we just shot seasons two and three and we brought them in from digi beta in ProRes, rather than DV and it’s looking really nice. So it will prevent us from having to re-digitize that show as well, which took 3 days per episode last season. The show is twelve cameras running twelve hours a day, multi-cam studio design competition, so we wanted to avoid as much re-digitizing as possible. It’s HGTV’s first studio show so it’s pretty exciting. They aired it this past summer and it was really well received.
PVC: So what are the important things you need to teach new editors when about your workflow when they first start editing for you?
DB: When somebody comes in the door we give them a style guide for whatever series they’re working on at that time and that style guide is generated by the producer of the series. The producer can creatively communicate what this series is about and what they’re looking for. Technically, my lead assistant editor sits with the new person for approximately an hour on their first day and takes them through our post bible. The post bible is a ridiculously large document taking them through, ‘This is how you record VO. This is how you name different clips. This is how you label your A-roll. This is how you label your B-roll. And this is how you find your media on the SAN and this is how to read your script. This is what the timecode refers to.’ We also have them sit with a lead editor on that series so the editor can talk to them peer to peer about what the show is and what the producers are looking for and then they watch numerous sample episodes to get on the same page. New editors usually come in and they cut half a show. So they don’t cut four acts of a four act show, they cut two. It gives them an opportunity to get their feet wet. It gives us an opportunity to make sure they’re on the right page before we totally jump in with both feet. So it’s a bit of a training process but if you end up having these strict rules for new people who come in to the building, the editors appreciate it so much. “Oh you guys are so organized and I know where everything is and I can find it.” It’s down to the tapes being in their bay and labeled and the shelf is labeled with the episode name and number. And every show has a folder with all the stuff in it. It has the pitch that went to the network. It has the field producer’s reports. It has the transcripts and the logs and everything. So as an editor sitting in the room, they can work 100% autonomously and not worry about when the producer is going to deliver something. They have everything at their fingertips and they can just move forward.
PVC: What are some typical errors that occur in this workflow?
DB: A lot of people will forget to set their Capture Scratch. So you don’t know where the files are being written to. People will send it to Final Cut Pro documents. People will send it to their internal hard drive or inside some random folder. They don’t understand the system. If an editor was working in that bay during the day and they recorded voice over, then person coming in after them also needs to record voice over for their episode, they may forget to change the clip name, so voice over for their episode will not be labeled correctly. It will be labeled so that it looks like it’s attached to the show the day editor was cutting, which could be a completely different series. So it’s little detailed things like that where we ask our editors to not only be editors and be producers, but be assistant editors at the same time to some degree where they’re double checking their work and going slowly. We’d rather have it done slowly and done right than to do it wrong and have to do it twice. So, it’s things like that that aren’t catastrophic, they’re just like “If you’d just checked when you opened the VO Record Tool to rename the clip, we wouldn’t have to be tracking this down.”
PVC: Do you have tips for people managing media for FCP?
ST: Number one to the success of the process is having a unique clip name.
The second one is understanding media management enough so that when you media manage a project you know where you need to “Cry Uncle” and to know what you solution is – how to get back out of that. For example we know there are certain issues about clips that have speed changes on them. So we know if we media manage a project, we’re going to have to contend with that. We always need to make sure that we have to manage the process and if there are certain clips that we have to back to the original off-line and move those manually, cut those clips over to make sure those shots are where they need to be for the final finish.
PVC: How do you back up the project data?
DB: Once a show has gone through the on-line process and the audio process we archive the project data and send them out of the building. The media we don’t worry about. If we ever need to re-create it in the future we can. And for our ProTools sessions, we back up the project with the media and archive all those and send them out of the building. Each night the editors back up their projects locally, so it’s saved both to the SAN and locally to the editor’s machine.
ST: Most of our stuff is manually managed. We have a very tightly built internal process of how clips are handled, how they’re digitized, where they’re stored, how they’re tracked. We do all of our media tracking – what we do is again through an internal custom-built FileMakerPro database – so we do have software that will poll our SAN and it’ll make a list of all of the shows that are on each drive so we know where media is stored, so when it comes time to deliver a show, we give a little pad to make sure that there are no notes that are going to come in and then at that time the media is removed from the SAN and we move forward.
PVC: It sounds like you guys have Final Cut media management down to an art.
ST: We are very happy with Final Cut Pro. It’s allowed us to do things that when we were an Avid shop that we weren’t able to accomplish. Avid is a fabulous tool and it does magnificent things, it’s just that at the time we made the switch over Final Cut really opened up the creative doors for us to do things that we weren’t able to do with just an Avid at the time. And it’s really expanded our capabilities and made Pie Town the success that it is.