By Randi Altman
Post-production veteran Howard Brock is not sentimental about the past. He has seen the industry change from film to tape to digital to file-based, and he’s embraced each new step along the way.
Brock co-founded the Burbank-based post house Matchframe in 1984. He ran it day to day until his departure in 2002. He took on freelance editing jobs before becoming president of Avid rental house Runway. After four years he went back to freelance editing once more. That’s where an editor friend found him and asked him to come on board the Charlie Sheen sitcom Anger Management… as an assistant editor. “I was under employed and over qualified,” he explains, “So I said, ‘It’s a union gig, right? Sure. Yay, health insurance!'”
The assistant title didn’t last long. Currently Brock is associate producer, online editor and leads the four-person in-house post team. Anger Management stays in-house for everything except for audio mixing, via Charlie McDaniels at Warners, and laying off to tape at J/KAM, which also provides the editing gear.
“We do as much in-house as we can. It’s my revenge on the post business,” he laughs. “There is an editor, an assistant, myself and a post coordinator.”
Even more impressive than having a small post team in-house is that Anger Management is a Debmar-Mercury show. “That means you go 10/90,” says Brock. “You do 10 episodes, and if you hit a ratings target you get a pick-up for 90. Which we did. So we have to crank out 90 shows in two years. That’s double the normal output of a sitcom.”
For editing, Anger Management calls on Avid Media Composer 7 and a 32TB Avid ISIS. For online work, Brock uses an Avid Symphony, and for color employs DaVinci Resolve.
They are about 75 shows in, and that took a year and a half. They expect to finish the full 90 shows by the end of 2014.
Anger Management’s production and post team learned from the show’s first 10 episodes just what they needed to do to step up their game to achieve 90 episodes in two years. postPerspective reached out to Brock for details.
How did your workflow change from the first 10 episodes?
When we did the initial 10 we used a product called SpeedRail (which at the time didn’t do 10-bit, but does now) and it had some limitations, mostly because it didn’t record to Avid shared storage directly. It forced us to use an offline-online workflow with DNX36 and DNX175 and to copy media onto the Avid Unity that we were using.
What changed this season?
We now use a Cinedeck, which records directly into an Avid ISIS in the format the Avid expects, so all we do is move it from one directory in the same volume to another, let the Avid index the volume and bring in an AAF. So our dailies take under a minute, which is faster than anything.
How did you know Cinedeck was going to help with the speed of your workflow?
I saw Cinedeck at NAB when we were finishing up the first 10, and it addressed all the issues we had with the other product. They have been great, totally reliable. It does everything you expect it to do, and it’s very flexible because we can also use it for a playback system when we bring an audience in to get live laughs — occasionally we invite an audience in and they watch the show on plasma monitors and we get the live laughs. We just have the Cinedeck load up to the same stuff we are working with and play it back to the audience.
How is that different than in the past?
We’d have to lay it off onto an XDCAM disk and then take a machine to a different location, record the stuff and bring it back here. Now we just play it back and record the live track at the same time, and the editor could have it as soon as it’s finished.
The whole idea is to do things as efficiently as possible. The effort of doing twice as many shows as the average in the course of a year doesn’t become a burden.
Is there any difference between using the Cinedecks vs. file-based acquisition?
Cinedecks record MXF media directly. Almost every other file-based acquisition product that uses Avid or ProRes codecs wraps them in QuickTime and that requires an extra step. So you bring a QuickTime into the Avid that’s got audio and video tied together and the Avid then has to unwrap it, take the audio and video parts apart — not necessarily changing it but rewrapping them — so it becomes more what the Avid expects. If you go through that process you might be two or four times faster than realtime, but it’s still going to take more time than “under a minute.”
How many Cinedecks do you have?
We have three Cinedecks RX units. Each is two channels, and we have four cameras. The MX was just hitting the market when we bought these, but we decided for the same price it made more sense to get three RXs rather than one MX.
Can you explain the workflow?
Since they have two channels, two of them are used to record the four cameras. The third one records a hot spare on one side and the other half is recording an H.264 feed of a quad split. Then that H.264 files is fed to a Light Iron server (Live Play Classic) that sends dailies to iPads on the set. So as soon as a take is finished they can pull it up on the iPad.
Live Play Classic allows you to get a list of whatever has been loaded into a folder. In our case it’s listed by scene and take numbers and you just click on it and it will play back the quad split over Wi-Fi, you can make notes, scrub through it and listen to it. It’s really handy.
Oh, and we aren’t doing offline/online either. We record DNX 175 from the Cinedecks and that’s what we cut in. There is no, “I have to conform the show or relink to the online media,” it’s already there.
It’s a block and shoot show?
Yes. A lot of sitcoms are shot in front of an audience, but this one is different. After the show is written they get on the stage and block it, then they shoot it (with Sony 1500 studio cameras and 2/3-inch pick-ups) and move on to next scene.
Most shows shoot most of an episode in a couple of hours in the evening with an audience, but we shoot all of the show in two days without an audience. For us, it wouldn’t be practical to do it in front of an audience, because the actors are literally doing a new show every two days.
In addition to being fast, the way you work now also saves bunches of money, correct?
Compared to doing it on tape, it saved them a couple of million dollars over the course of 100 episodes. We shoot about two hours of material a day with four cameras — if you shot on tape it would take about eight hours to import that into the editing system, and that would require an assistant sitting there loading tapes every hour.
We estimated it would have taken something like 1,430 hours to do this if all 90 episodes were on tape, so that’s the better part of 30 weeks.
So using this workflow saved how much?
We rented the Cinedecks, so they were no more expensive than a system and an assistant. We didn’t spend on tape stock, which would have been a couple of thousand dollars for every show. Then there would have been tape machine costs, plus another editing system.
If we ran up the traditional budget for post versus what we spend on post, ours is literally half of what we budgeted. A lot of that is also because we stay in-house. If we went out and did onlines that would have been more expensive. If we had to digitize that would be more expensive, and the tape stock would have been more expensive. If we had to go and do the audience playback elsewhere that’s more expensive. If we color corrected elsewhere that’s more expensive.
Plus this way the editor can start editing a scene as they are shooting, so if there is a problem they will know immediately. So it’s faster, better and cheaper.
What kind of work are you doing on the Symphony?
When the show is finished I use that same media. I lock it, get it formatted properly and send it from color to sound to the composer. When it comes back from color I spend a day cleaning up things that snuck in from production: a piece of tape on the floor, a mic boom shadow, a bra we aren’t supposed to see. We need to get rid of all of that. I spend a day cleaning that stuff up and making it look better.
Other shows will typically do that at an online facility, which would cost a lot of money. When completed, I spit it out to tape, we mix the show, lay it back, and FotoKem does the dubs, we send it to FX, and they put it on the air.
You’ve seen the evolution of post over the years. How do you view it currently?
Post has gotten more accessible. The cost of tools has come down so much it’s no longer a barrier. What was a $100K system can now be bought for $15K, 20K or even less if you take certain pieces out of it. For example, you don’t need tape decks anymore.
It’s the same with cameras. When I went to film school, it was cheaper to go to film school than it was to rent the gear and make a movie. Now, anybody can make a movie or create content. You can shoot with your cell phone if you want.
But just because the cost of entry has gone away that doesn’t change the fact that the people working in different jobs cranking out movies and TV require certain skills and talent. You still have to know how to use the tools.
Do you think more shows will do more things in house, like Anger Management is doing?
We can do more stuff in house, but that doesn’t always make people more comfortable. The notion of having to go to a post house has become more of an option now. In some cases it’s applicable because people want that comfort level or assurance. So there is still a place for some parts of the post business.
For smaller shows, like ours, it’s easier, and cheaper, to do the post in-house than go out to a facility.
And in the near future?
It’s all going to files, and the more you can send something over a pipe, it’s faster and easier and it will be more environmentally friendly.