Thanks so much for talking to me! To start, I just want to know; why is True Crime so popular right now? I know everyone’s sitting inside and serial killers are inherently interesting, but it seems like the past five years, especially with stuff like Mind Hunter coming out that like, that is the focus of everyone’s attention.
[Joke]: I mean, I think that there’s something inherent to crime programming in general, that it has, first of all, it’s real. It’s the highest stakes, right? I mean it’s life or death. I think there’s just something inherent like DNA-wise built in. We’re always comparing ourselves. We’re like, “could this happen to me? Am I safe?” and so we like watching that stuff and thinking like, “Oh, that could never be me” especially like the Wives With Knives or some of those shows. You’re like, “nah, I would never fall for a guy like that.” But I think the serial killer stuff it’s like, it could happen to anybody and that’s what’s so real and scary about it. I think we watch it and we’re obsessed with it. I think since I’ve become a parent, there’s also this idea that you don’t want to create one because somehow as a mother, serial killers always hate their moms and it’s always a mom’s fault, you know? It’s like, how does that brain work? It’s the nature versus nurture debate I think it’s just, it’s fascinating. For the same reason that audiences are drawn, I think, to horror movies, it’s like a real life monster, you know? I think we’re all afraid of on some level of the boogeyman, right. And the idea that there could actually be a boogeyman out there. And by the way, there are! It’s scary. I think one of the great things for me that I’ve learned being a part of the genre for the past five years is law enforcement has come such a long way that there’s actually far less serial killers. So in a way it’s comforting because it’s like, these days they’re able to spot what would be a serial killer between DNA and all the techniques they use to solve crimes way sooner, which is why you’ve had less serial killers in the past 10, 15 years then you did in the seventies when they were everywhere. So, I think there’s something comforting to knowing that we’re now beyond that. So they really are sort of like monster tales from the past in a way.
That’s an interesting point, technology probably has had a huge impact. It was easier to hide in plain sight the 70’s, even in the 90’s. Now there’s almost no way you could get away with something because at bare minimum someone’s going to film it with their phone.
[Joke]: Yeah. And now even with touch DNA, those technologies are just getting faster and easier. Like there’s no way you can enter any place and not leave DNA. So I think that you know, a lot of serial killers, a lot of these guys now getting caught with genetic genealogy is because they left their semen at these horrible murder, rape murder scenes. and because they didn’t think about DNA. Science caught up and now they’re all getting caught. You know, I think that once touch DNA becomes a real thing for people in the field we’re not just going to be looking at fingerprints anymore. We’re not just going to be looking at eyewitness statements or profiles. We’re just going to touch DNA the heck out of a scene and just have the computer spit out who the suspects are, which is also kind of scary. I mean it’s like you cross a line at some point, right? Where you go from, “this is good for public safety” to “Oh, this is kind of scary.” Cause like you said, there is no place to hide. I mean, there really is no privacy anymore. Privacy is kind of an illusion to a certain extent unless you live way off the grid and for how long will that be possible before you’re a target?
So talk to me about Unraveled, I understand you two aren’t doing the interviews on this one?
[Joke] Unraveled is an anthology series where we’re following two investigative journalists, Alexis Linkletter and Billy Jensen. And so with this series, they’re definitely doing most of the interviews. When did Unmasking a Killer for CNN I did a lot of the interviews depending on the show, we have different producers depending on if it’s in Los Angeles or across the country, but we may send a producer because we may not be able to leave at that time for production reasons. I’ve done my fair share of interviews in the past, but yeah on Unraveled, we’re really following Alexis and Billy.
[Biago] Yeah. We kind of came up like very Indie. So we came up writing, shooting, directing, editing, color correcting, sound mixing all of our own stuff. So early in our career, we just divide and conquer and just kind of fill in wherever we couldn’t afford to get somebody. So I think that these days we do less interviews just because we’re doing so many projects at once, but yeah, if we need to step in we do.
So when you’re interviewing the subject of a terrible thing that happened in their life, do you have to schedule like… five hours where the first three are just like, getting to know them, letting them know they’re safe with you, and you’re not gonna start leading them down some terrible path or exploit them or anything like that? Like, filmmaking is all about efficiency and that can’t be a very efficient process.
[Joke] Yeah. I mean, we, we don’t just show up at someone’s door and put a camera in their face, there there’s been months of contact and building trust. And I mean, one of the stories we’re doing for Unraveled the two main, like women in the story that we’re interviewing and that we’re going with, like, we’ve been in contact with them for three years before we went and filmed with them. So a lot of times it’s just building that rapport and building that trust and really understanding what the story is and knowing what they are, what they can, what they’re willing to talk about. Sometimes it’s hard. I mean, there have been shows where someone is so broken. I mean, there’s a mother who had lost her only daughter and you could just see, I mean, it was, it was just, it was hard. It was really hard because she’s just, she’s, she’s broken. But then there’s others who have found that strength and who are telling these stories because they want their loved one to live on. You know, they want to make sure that they’re not just a number because that’s what often happens it’s very sad. Whether it’s law enforcement or the media, as soon as a crime has happened, the attention gets focused on the bad guy. First it’s catching the bad guy, then it’s trying the bad guy, and somewhere along the way the victim just doesn’t become an equal part of the story. And so a lot of times it’s about loved ones wanting to give a voice to their loved one who isn’t around anymore. And just to make sure that it’s not just about the bad guy
[Biago] And also for people that have been through something that awful, I mean, I’m sure you can imagine a lot of them they get therapy and they need to talk through things and a lot of times part of that healing process is them taking ownership of the story and it’s something that’s fairly common, cause I’ve heard about it from plenty of people that we’ve interviewed that like, especially people who’ve survived crimes themselves, like really horrible things done to them is, by taking ownership of their story, it helps them heal. And so that’s a nice sort of side effect to sharing your story is in a lot of cases, it’s part of these people’s journey towards healing.
[Joke]: And in a weird way, it also ends up being very like therapeutic for them. Because they’re saying, “okay, let’s do this” and you know, like someone we’ve been talking to is like, “I haven’t thought about this and talked about it this much in a long time. And it’s like, I realized there’s still some stuff there I need to work through” so there’s lots of reasons, but I think it, it, yeah, it takes time and it, you need to be able to be patient and give people the space to get there on their own time.
So in this case, the Long Island Serial Killer, tell me about what happened and when.
[Joke]: Oh my God. So this is a crazy, this is a five-year-old story for us. Alexis Linkletter, was a producer with us on other projects and, she’s from long Island and her friend, Chris Lobe was arrested and started saying these crazy things about the chief of police that like he was dealing with sex workers and other stuff and, and, lots of allegations. And, I was like, okay, well, that sounds like a political corruption type story, which is very hard to sell. Because again, like how does that fit in crime? And it’s, it’s sometimes it’s a little too heady and I said, but let’s, let’s look at it. Let’s, let’s start investigating seeing if there’s things that are true about it. And as we started peeling it away, we ended up at the Gilgo Beach Murders, which is the Long Island Serial Killer. And so we’re like, “wait, this whole corruption thing is connected to the Long Island Serial Killer!? We never set out to do a Long Island Serial Killer story, and only got to these murders through investigating something else. And so when I started then looking at all the other Long Island Serial Killer, content that had been created, and there’s a lot of it, it never really dealt with the things that we had found because that’s not where their investigation had led. They kind of followed the police track and what we discovered is the police draft came to an abrupt end because of this chief of police. And so once we started putting the pieces together and kind of went out to kind of the crime buyers and said, Hey, you guys, like, this is a different way of looking at the Long Island Serial Killer, because we came at it from a different angle. People were like, “What!?” and so we’re very excited that we got to do it and that we got to do not just the two hour specials, but the seven hour podcasts, because there’s just so much content that we’re like, there’s no way we can get all of this in two hours. And it’s also a very different audience between television and podcasts where we would go and do our television pitch and we’re like, maybe this is a six hour mini series for television and buyers were like “eh, it’s too complicated for audience”, but the podcast audience loves that. Like all the like rabbit holes. And then we come back and like all the different layers and keep peeling the onion. So we’re very excited that we get to do both. If you kind of want the overview and get to the essence of it, you just go watch a two hour special. Once you want to know, more dive into the seven hour podcast and it’s just layers upon layers. So it was a fun kind of way of storytelling for us, cause they both have to be able to stand on their own cause not all podcast listeners will go and sign up for Discovery+ and watch the special and not all television viewers care about podcasts. So, that was kind of a fun puzzle work, but I play Tetris a lot so it was fine [laughs].
So from a technical perspective I suppose it’d be easier to produce the bigger thing first and then make an edited down version, did you think of it more as a podcast first or more a television show first, or how did you go about that process simultaneously? Were you filming every interview to use the audio later or were they two separate productions almost?
[Joke]: So it’s always parallel because what we’re learning from one or the other would inform the other, right? So it was never like, let’s do this and then let’s do that. So it was always parallel, but you know, we’d get down this whole, like for example, in the Long Island Serial Killer we reveal or we find out we investigate that the DA and the chief of police have a long history together. And once you dive into that, it’s just a whole other story. And so we were able to do an entire hour long podcast on that portion of it while in the TV show I think maybe we cover it in two minutes. Ya know? So some of it is just like, okay, is this something that is so good and juicy that it can sustain more time, then let’s definitely take that time in the podcast. And it’s like does it take us too far off track in the TV show? And then let’s just mention it and move on. So there were some interviews that were specifically done just for the podcast because again, we knew we wanted more voices maybe in this section or that section. Most everything from the TV show, the audio of it can end up in the podcast, but not necessarily. I don’t think that there’s anything really that’s in the TV show that’s not in the podcast other than you see it. So the podcast was released before the special and one of the main things that we got, everyone was just like, I want to see this guy. I want to see him say that. I want to see the photos. So you get an extra level obviously by visual stimulation as you watch his special versus just the audio from the podcast that, but our production, model has always been even cause unraveled as an anthology series. So we’re working on four more stories, they’re actually filming two doors down in the office right now, but it’s always parallel.
[Biago]: Is a lot of hours of content like to do that much for every opposite, never done this many hours of combined content. And the thing with a podcast is a lot of people think, “Oh, it’s a podcast and cost so much less than shooting for television.” And while production is maybe a little less, you still have to put in hundreds of man hours of research that cost doesn’t go away. You know? So it would be difficult to do a podcast on the level we’re doing now without having it be able to be at least a small part of a television budget, being able to have those efficiencies of having researchers on staff otherwise it’s really difficult cause people underestimate what goes into making a podcast as you can probably imagine [laughs].
Oh yeah I’m definitely learning that with Frame & Reference. ProVideo Coalition is ostensibly an educational website, what are some of the things that you guys have maybe learned over the years that have made making a podcast easier and what are maybe some things that people can learn from your hybrid approach that maybe was sort of a newer lesson that you maybe didn’t expect?
[Joke]: Well, I think firstly, we have to, I, I’m not the podcast expert, but to me in my mind, I always split podcasts into two different categories. There’s the kind of weekly chats or weekly stories. And then there’s kind of the narrative podcasts, which are like the serials or like what we’re doing with Unraveled, where we’re kind of taking seven hours to tell one story, right? So those are very different. And I think for the weekly kind of chat podcast, people underestimate just the stamina you have to have enough to create content every week and just to keep that going, which I think is a different issue than kind of the narrative stuff. What we’re working with right now, again, like back to what Biago was saying is, there’s so much research that goes into it and there’s so much time to really kind of, like, plot it out and what’s going to go in what episode and how do you keep every episode exciting and how is there a beginning, middle and end within each episode. But they all grow to a larger story. You know, it’s almost like writing a novel right? Where each chapter needs to still feel like its own thing, but they all need to add up to a larger story.
You know what they say, “fix it in Pre”.
[Joke]: Yeah, exactly. And so that takes, and so the money there is in pre and is in kind of plotting that out and making sure you have all the puzzle pieces and then puzzling it all together, which is a different post-process than, “okay, let’s put two people on a mic together and you know, maybe we’ll take out some of the really awkward things that were said or some awkward pauses. But other than that, there’s not that much editing. It’s pretty straightforward.” I would advise someone that, if you’re going to do a weekly podcast, make it a chat pocast [laughs] the other stuff takes just so much work and pre-production and research and writing. To me, those are kind of the big two different workflows.
[Biago]: Yeah. I’d say from a technical standpoint, like you said, everybody has a podcast, we have our own little podcast we do about working in documentary and unscripted. And I edit that in Adobe Audition and always have. When it came time to this, obviously this is a much bigger production, and our initial podcast editor wanted to work in a non-Adobe program. and you know, and we were like, okay let’s figure this out in the early episodes was really difficult because we were using the audio from the television show, as well as audio recorded only from the podcast, we were trying to keep everything in sync with like EDLs, exports, and it was just a big mess. What we finally said was like, “look, there’s no reason not to just do all of this in Premiere. All of our favorite editors know Premiere, our producers know Premiere, everybody that we work with that knows how to tell a story, knows Premiere. Let’s not make them learn a different audio program. Let’s not leave the Adobe ecosystem.” And the minute we switched over to that, it was great. And when you add to that, like again, the fact that people undervalue what goes into making a podcast, there’s no place in the budget for us to go take it out to a pro mixing studio or whatever, but you can get really great style out of Premiere without working real hard. I mean, obviously everybody knows about the Essential Sound Panel, which makes it easy to get to a good sounding straight out from the beginning and also to keep it in the live state because we get new information. It’s like all of a sudden, a big story point happens three days before it’s going to go up. We can make that change and it’s not a whole remix and export and take it over here and mess around with that. I’m also a big fan of the audio track mixer in Premiere. I think it’s under-utilized a lot by people. It’s a great way to do subgroups and stuff. I love it. And when I’m editing, like, our own pitch tapes, or if I’m personally editing a pilot, I use the audio track mixer. It’s still a little bit more complicated than Essential Sound, so our current editors working in Premiere are using the Essential Sound Panel to get it most of the way there and then we use a little multi-band compression in the audio track mixer at the end. But I would say that was the biggest jump for us was like “Okay, let’s stay all Adobe. And let’s use Premiere as an audio editor, why not? It’s all there. Why introduce anything else into the process?” And from that moment on it’s been smooth sailing.
[Joke]: We also have all this archival to work with. So whether it’s like you’re getting a news clip or someone just recorded something on their iPhone or whatever it is, interrogation video, 911 calls, there’s just all these different formats so from a TV standpoint, we knew Premiere could handle that. That’s how we’ve always worked. We have our folder structures, [our workflow], our folder structures and everything so it was like “Um, can we please just make our Audio Editor come to Premiere? [laughs] It’s all there.” and it’s worked great.
So you guys are editing the television show as well?
Goodness. What’s your storage situation like for that? Do you just have racks of hard drives at this point?
[Biago]: Yeah, we have about, I think between like our main, like, SSD storage and then our “backup storage”, we have like around 200TB. It’s a lot of space and, and obviously we throw a lot of stuff on LTO, but that’s built up over the years, some of those drives are left over from like our very first server more than 10 years ago. It’s been a while. So I would say like our actual, like day to day storage is about 40TB of stuff that we, that we lean on heavily.
[Joke]: But now because of COVID and we have other editors, a lot of it is being moved in external drives.
[Biago]: Yeah. That was, that was a big thing. I’m sure you’ve heard about that from everybody with the COVID it’s like, okay, how are we going to do this? There’s plenty of really cool whizzbang workflows where people can like use a proxy over the internet and but the problem is that residential internet sucks. Anybody who lives in LA knows that, and you just can’t count on it. So in a lot of ways, we went back to our early days when we were still living in our one bedroom apartment and just making tons of drives, being really careful, and just making sure we get them who needs them you know, as secretively as possible. It’s the only foolproof way to make sure that they’re getting that footage and there’s no internet downtime in that. So that’s been very, a big throwback to our indie roots is just this drive situation and keeping everything in sync.
Are you guys using Productions?
[Biago]: We are not yet. It’s something that we’re definitely looking at, and it’s one of those things where, we have some very good friends at Adobe who kind of give us the thumbs up or like, the thumb sideways [laughs]. I think we’re, we’re at a place where our next series, we may step into that for the first time. We’re actually still using an older version of Premiere for various reasons. It’s stable, we know it works, we’re always a few versions behind just because the stakes are so high when you’re dealing with this this budget. It makes ya nervous, you know? So we’re trying to hold on to older versions probably a little longer than we should. Like, you know, you never upgrade in the middle of a project.
[Joke]: It’s also based on their advice at this point, because we were very early Premiere adapters and it became an issue and so I think that they’re like, “all right, we’ll tell you when it’s stable” [laughs] stop being the Guinea pig. We we did break it a few times.
[Biago]: I have to say, all credit to Adobe, because we’re not like Universal Studios. We’re not some super huge company and they treated us like we were, they came to our office, they wrote code for us, it was crazy. It was really great cause it was like, they really wanted to understand how people were working in Unscripted as opposed to Scripted. In a lot of cases the people they were working with in Scripted were smaller films that were working with like four Reels and we had like, thousands of hours of footage and 10 editors hitting the server at once. It’s a completely different workload. And so I was very grateful that they cared enough to listen to us because actually, at the time I called everybody and I didn’t hear back from Apple, Avid (God bless them) came out and told us they weren’t gonna do anything to fix anything, but they hope we chose them anyway. And Adobe was like, “we’ll write you some code.” And I was like, “really?” And they did.
Talk to me about your workflow from ingest to export. How are you organizing the assets? Are you using any tools that help with your efficiency?
[Biago]: It’s a big puzzle from the time the media comes in. We used to convert everything to the same video format for stability reasons, but we really don’t do that anymore. We’re mostly using Canon C300 footage, which we bring in just the native card, the MXF files. And we were doing an MXF rewrap for a while and I think we actually dropped that part of the process because it just turned out we didn’t need to do it. We also used to convert the DSLR second camera footage to ProRes, but then when you’d be holding on to both and that would fill up the server really quick. And so we’ve been able to just not do that anymore. I love the fact in Adobe, you can have a multicam sequence and just mix whatever cameras you want, which is very different than FCP7 which we were on before, so that makes that part of it very convenient. We get the footage and it’s like, you could spend days just converting and relinking everything.
We have a Lead Assistant Editor whose job it is to basically come in and organize the project. I believe that they generally use the “sync by time code” command to sync the audio files with the video files and then what we try to do, cause we end up with like sometimes 15, 20 tracks of audio and we really don’t need all of those. So what we provide to the editors, we try to either strip those away or have them pre muted so that they’re only dealing with the tracks that they need. And we have the other tracks for safety.
I would say that the interesting thing that we do is that all of our Project Files we basically keep in sync with Dropbox, which helps them both working in office, but also remotely. We’ve been using it for 10 years. A lot of people think that if you’re using Dropbox that you’re “working from the cloud” but you’re not, you’re working from your computer, you know? It’s creating a duplicate on your computer and keeping your computer in sync and if your internet goes down, wherever you last were saved, it saves your computer first. There’s no risk in using Dropbox, which is something I’ve had to educate a lot of Post Supers on.
Where you can run into trouble with Dropbox, and this was a big lesson we learned is if the editors are accidentally rendering or sending their cache files to the Dropbox, all of a sudden you’re sending gigabytes of data. And then Dropbox will choke your pipeline because you’re using so much data. One of the things we always have to make sure that we’re very careful about is “where’s your render files going where your cash files going to make sure they’re not going into the Dropbox”. We do the same thing with After Effects projects; The project itself lives on the Dropbox, the media lives on our server or the remote drive. so that’s a big part of our workflow. I would say, as for a folder structure breakdown, the premiere projects get really big. They get really thick.
In most cases we’ll give a smaller project to the editors because they don’t need everything because we have one master project where it’s like for everything for an episode. And a lot of times editors, they just need an Act, you know? So there’s no point in bogging them down with everything. When we first met with Adobe, they were like, “Whoa, this is like, you’re putting a lot of footage in these projects.” And we were like “Well, yes. But we kind of have to!” When you’ve got a three hour interview that you need the multicam for three cameras, you’re going to have a lot of footage in the project ya know?
I know what, what was that custom code that Adobe built? Well, not what was it, but like, what did it do for you
[Biago]: It was patches and stuff. Like, at first there were some difficulties with OMF Exports. This is going way back, right? This was like, eight or nine years ago. The one that I’m most proud of, and that I take full credit for, was “File > Export > Selection as Premiere Project” because that did not exist.
We were in the office and I was explaining about how we to do things in Final Cut with the lead programmer and he was like, “Well, listen, we have a way to collect files. Would it be useful just to be able to do a selection and export it?” and I was like, “Yes, that’s exactly what we need.” We had it like the next day. And then it was like in the next version! And I mean, we use that all the time. Like, we’ve got story producers who are looking for a bite and we just want to hand a sequence off with just the bites in it. They don’t want to do a whole big project thing. So they’ll export just that sequence as a small project, we import from that, it’s way faster to open, way easier to grab stuff, way more organized, less chance of mistakes. So, that was the big one
There were other things, they said that they had learned that they were “bad network citizens” in that every single computer connected to a server would try to demand full, maximum processing power from the server at once. And if I understand it correctly (again I’m not a hardware engineer) as it was explained to me, if you have 10 computers hitting the server and every single one of them was acting as if the other computers connected didn’t exist, it would just bring it to its knees. So that was another thing where they optimized really quickly.
[Joke]: At that point they were used to working with David Fincher. It was happening at the same time and they’d be like, “Well Fincher isn’t having this problem.” And it’s like, well, he had an editor and like an assistant editor, but we had 10 systems with editors. It was things like that.
So do you guys work in Reels?
[Biago]: Well, we work work in “Acts” but essentially by the time we get to like, halfway through and edit, we basically have one big project with all the Acts in it.
Do you see more hybrid content being the future now that everything is kind of connected and people watch everything across devices or even all on one device?
[Joke]: I think what’s new about it is that while there’s definitely been companion podcasts to TV shows… we did one for Unmasking a Killer; we made a TV show, we had all this extra content, we made a podcast. With this show from the onset we’re going to do both parallel and Discovery was on board from the beginning. I do think that it makes sense to combine resources, to then put out the two products.
[Biago]: It’s also very creatively fulfilling, which is why I think you’ll see more of it because creatives are going to want to do it, For us, if we want to experiment, we do it in the podcast and we can. We’re allowed to, we’re given a lot of freedom with the podcast we would never get with a TV show. So in some ways you get to exercise your creative muscles and try new things. I mean, nobody could have imagined 30 years ago that this would be the state of media. So who knows where it’s going to fall. But I think, I do think what will drive it will be creatives inspired to do more with it. Because if we want to do it more of it’s going to get done. If it’s something that’s a pain in the butt and it’s just an extra thing we have to deliver and it’s and it’s treated as a second hand by everybody involved, no one’s going to want to do it. But if it’s something you get creative satisfaction from we’re gonna do a lot more.
Were there any references that you guys had for the show or was it a pretty wholly unique experience?
[Joke]: It’s funny. Cause we had not seen something done with two hosts, two investigative reporters at the same time, that we all felt really good about that we’re like, “Oh, they nailed it” So it was kind of new for us in that sense and, and figuring out what’s their role? How, how are they together? Who does what? Do we have them do interviews? Do we see them do interviews? You know, we knew we didn’t want to be CBS 60 minutes or 20/20, we’re not a news magazine style show. We also didn’t want to do anything “stagey” where it’s like, “they’re going to do an experiment now.” We definitely wanted to stay doc and verité. So it was a little bit of like, “well, I think it’ll work.” And so then when we put together it was like, well, who has a voiceover going to happen? And I was like, “I don’t know. Let’s just switch it up and see how it works!” And it works perfectly. I think overall we knew we wanted a doc series. We want it to feel real. We wanted to have that sense. And one of the ways that I pitched it was “imagine if Sarah Koenig had a camera with her while she was making Serial”. And that’s what it is. We’re following them as they’re like trying to unravel this mystery. So yeah, we definitely had some reference points, but how it was all gonna come together, we didn’t know.
[Unraveled: The Real Story of the Long Island Serial Killer began streaming on Discovery+ streaming platform on March 9th, and the podcast, which launched ahead of the series and shares its name, is currently charting at #8 across all US podcasts.]