By Karen Moltenbrey
When selecting a workstation, post facilities differ in their opinions about what’s most important, depending on the function the workstations will serve. It goes without saying that everyone wants value. And for some, power is tantamount. For others, speed is a top priority. And for others still, reliability reigns supreme. Luckily for users, today’s workstations can check all those boxes.
As Eric Mittan, director of technology at New York’s Jigsaw Productions, is quick to point out, it’s hard to fathom the kinds of upgrades in power we’ve seen in workstations just in the time he has been working with them professionally. He recalls that in 2004, it took an overnight encoding session to author a standard-definition DVD with just one hour of video — and that task was performed on one of the first dual-processor desktops available to the regular consumer. “Nowadays, that kind of video transcode can take 15 minutes on a ‘light’ laptop, to say nothing of the fact that physical media like the DVD has gone the way of the dinosaur,” he says.
That is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the revolution that workstations have undergone in a very short period. Here, we examine the types of workstations that a pair of studios are using for their editing tasks. Jigsaw, a production company, does a large portion of its own post through Apple iMacs that run Avid Media Composer; it is also a client of post houses for work such as color and final deliverables. Meanwhile, another company, Final Cut, is also a Mac-based operation, running Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere Pro, although the company’s Flames run on HP workstations.
[Editor’s Note: These interviews were done prior to the coronavirus lockdown.]
Jigsaw Productions is a documentary television and film company that was founded in 1978 by documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. It has since transitioned from a company that made one movie at a time to one that is simultaneously producing multiple features and series for distribution by a number of networks and distribution partners.
Today, Jigsaw does production and offline editorial for all its own films and series. “Our commitment is to filmmakers bringing real stories to their audience,” Mittan says. Jigsaw’s film and episodic projects include the political (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer), the musical (History of the Eagles) and the athletic (The Armstrong Lie).
On the technical front, Jigsaw does all the creative editorial in house using Avid’s Media Composer. After Jigsaw’s producers and directors are satisfied with the storytelling, the lion’s share of the more technical work is left to the company’s partners at various post houses, such as Harbor, Technicolor, Light Iron and Final Frame, among others. Those facilities do the color timing and DCP generation in the case of the feature titles. Most of the conform and online work for Jigsaw’s TV series is now done in house and then sent out for color.
“I wouldn’t say for sure that we have mastered the Avid-to-Resolve online workflow, but we have become better at it with each project,” says Mittan. It’s Mittan’s job to support post and offline operations along with the needs of the others in the office. The backbone of the post fleet comprises 26 (2018) 27-inch i7 iMacs with 32GB of RAM. During 2018 and 2019, Jigsaw experienced a period of rapid growth, adding 19 new edit suites. (That was in addition to the original 13 built out before Mittan came aboard in 2017.) There are also some earlier iMac models that are used for lighter tasks, such as screening, occasional transcoding and data transfers, as well as eight Mac mini screening stations and five Mac Pro cylinders for heavy transcoding and conform/online tasks. Approximately 10 or more 2019 models round out the remainder of the hardware, though they were purchased with i5 processors, not i7s.
“Jigsaw’s rapid expansion pushed us to buy new machines in addition to replacing a significant portion of our 2012/2013 model Mac Pro and iMac units that had comprised most of our workstations prior to my arrival,” Mittan notes. Each project group at the company is responsible for its own data management and transcoding its own dailies.
Furthermore, Jigsaw has an Avid Nexis shared storage system. “Our editors need to be able to run the latest version of Avid and must maintain and play back multiple streams of DNxHR SQ via a 1Gb connection to our Nexis shared storage. While documentary work tends to be lower resolution and/or lower bandwidth than narrative scripted work, every one of our editors deserves to be able to craft a story with as few technical hiccups as possible,” says Mittan. “Those same workstations frequently need to handle heavy transcodes from interview shoots and research archive gathered each day by production teams.”
When buying new equipment, Mittan looks to strikes a balance between economy and sustainability. While the work at Jigsaw does not always require the latest and greatest of all possible end-user technology, he says, each purchase needs to be made with an eye toward how useful it will remain three to five years into the future.
While expansion in the past few years resulted in the need for additional purchases, Mittan is hoping to get Jigsaw on a regular schedule of cycling through each of the units over a period of five to six years. Optimally, the edit suite units are used for between three or more years before being downgraded for lighter tasks and eventually used as screening stations for Jigsaw’s producers. Even beyond that, the post machines could see life in years six to eight as office workstations for some of the non-post staff and interns. Although Mittan has yet to access one of the new Mac Pro towers, he is impressed by what he has read and hopes for an acquisition in 2021 to replace the Mac Pro cylinders for online and conform work.
Post at Jigsaw runs Avid Media Composer on the Apple machines. They also use the Adobe Creative Cloud suite for motion graphics within Adobe After Effects and Photoshop. Mittan has also implemented a number of open-source software tools to supplement Jigsaw’s tool kit for assistant editors. That includes command-line tools (like FFmpeg) for video and audio transcodes and Rsync for managed file transfers and verification.
“I’ve even begun to write a handful of custom software scripts that have made short work of tasks common to documentary filmmaking — mostly the kind of common video transcoding jobs that would usually require a paid title but that can be taken care of just as well with free software,” he says.
Additionally, Jigsaw makes frequent use of servers, either functioning as a device for a specific task or for automation.
Jigsaw has done projects for HBO (Robin Williams Come Into My Mind), Showtime (Enemies: The President, Justice & the FBI), Discovery Channel (Why We Hate), A&E (The Clinton Affair) and more, as well as for Netflix (Salt Fat Acid Heat, The Family) — work Mittan describes as an exercise in managing more and more pixels.
Indeed, documentaries can present big challenges when it comes to dealing with a plethora of media formats. “Documentary work can frequently deal with subjects that have already had a significant media footprint in legacy resolutions. This means that if you’re trying to build a documentary in 4K, you’re going to be dealing with archival footage that is usually HD or SD. You may shoot a handful of new interviews in your new, so-called ‘native’ footage but be overwhelmed by hours upon hours of footage from a VHS collection, or stories that have been downloaded from the website of a TV station in the Midwest,” he adds.
“Working with mixed resolutions means you have to have the capability of running and gunning with your new 4K footage, but the lower resolutions can’t leave your creative editors feeling as though they’ve been left with remnants from another time in history. Blending all of those elements together in a way that tells a cohesive story requires technology that can bring together all of those pieces (and newly generated elements like graphics and reenactments) into a unified piece of media without letting your viewing audience feel the whiplash of frequent resolution changes.”
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Final Cut was founded in London by editor Rick Russell. It expanded to New York 20 years ago and to Los Angeles 15 years ago. Across all three offices and several subsidiaries – Significant Others VFX, Machine Sound and The Lofts — Final Cut has more than 100 staff and artists worldwide, offering offline editing, online editing, VFX, graphics, finishing, sound design, mixing and original composition, as well as “dry-hire” facilities for long-form content such as original Netflix series like Sex Education.
Primarily, Final Cut does offline creative editorial. Through Significant Others, it offers online editing and finishing. Although, as editor Miky Wolf notes, there are smaller jobs — such as music videos and digital work — for which the facility “does it all.”
The same can be said of technical supervisor Ryan Johnson, whose job it is to design, implement and maintain the technical infrastructure for Final Cut’s New York and Los Angeles offices. This includes the workstations, software, data storage, backups, networking and security. “The best workstations should be like the best edited films. Something you don’t notice. If you are aware of the workstation while you’re working, it’s typically not a good thing,” Wolf says.
Johnson agrees. “Really, the workstation is just there to facilitate the work. It should be invisible. In fact, ours are mostly hidden under desks and are rarely seen. Mostly, it’s a purpose-built machine, designed less for aesthetics and portability than for reliability and practicality.”
Final Cut’s edit room runs off a Mac Pro with 32GB of RAM; there are two editing monitors, a preview monitor on the desk and a client monitor. The majority of the company’s edit workstations are six-core 2013 Mac Pro “trash cans” with AMD FirePro D500 GPUs and 32GB of RAM. There are approximately 16 of these workstations spread between the NY and LA offices. Moreover, the workstations use little to no local storage since the work resides on Avid’s Nexis servers. Each workstation is connected to a pair of 24-inch LCD displays, while video and audio from the edit software are delivered via Blackmagic Design hardware to an LCD preview monitor on the editor’s desk and to an OLED TV for clients.
The assistant editors all work on 27-inch iMacs of various vintages, mainly 2017 i7 models with 32GB of RAM.For on-set/off-site work, Final Cut keeps a fleet of MacBook Pros, mostly the 2015 Thunderbolt 2 pre-Touch Bar models. These travel with USB 3 SSDs for media storage. Final Cut’s Flames, however, all run on dual 12-core HP Z8s with 128GB of RAM. These machines use local SSD arrays for media storage.
According to Johnson, the workstations (running macOS 10.14.6) mostly are equipped with Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro, and the editors sometimes “dabble” in Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve (for transcoding or when someone wants to try their hand at editing on it). “We primarily work with compressed proxy footage — typically DNxHD 115 or ProRes LT — at 1080p, so bandwidth requirements aren’t too high. Even lower-spec machines handle a few streams well,” he says. “Sequences that involve many layers or complicated effects will often require rendering, but the machines are fast enough that wait times aren’t too long.”
The editors also use Soundminer’s products for their sound effects library. The assistants perform basic compositing in Adobe After Effects, which the machines handle well, Johnson adds. “However, occasionally they will need to transcode raw/camera original footage to our preferred codec for editing. This is probably the most computationally intensive task for any of the machines, and we’ll try to use newer, faster models for this purpose.”
Wherever possible, Final Cut deploys the same types of workstations across all its locations, as maintenance becomes easier when parts are interchangeable, and software compatibility is easier to manage when dealing with a homogeneous collection of machines. Not to mention the political benefit: Everybody gets the same machine, so there’s no workstation envy, so to speak.
Reliability and expandability are the most important factors Johnson considers in a workstation. He acknowledges that the 2013 Mac Pros were a disappointment on both counts: “They had thermal issues from the start — Apple admitted as much — that resulted in unpredictable behavior, and you were stuck with whichever 2013-era GPU you chose when purchasing the machine,” he says. “We expect to get many trouble-free years out of the workstations we buy. They should be easy to fix, maintain and upgrade.”
When selecting workstations for Final Cut, a Macintosh shop, there is not a great deal of choice. “Our choices are quickly narrowed down to whatever Apple happens to be selling,” explains Johnson. “Given the performance tiers of the models available, it is a matter of analyzing our performance needs versus our budget. In an ideal world, the entire staff would be working on the fastest possible machine with the most RAM and so forth, but alas, that is not always in the budget. Therefore, compromise must be found in selecting machines that can capably handle the typical workload and are fast enough not to keep editors and assistants waiting too long for renders.”
The most recent purchase were the new iMacs for the assistants in LA. “For the money, they are great machines, and I’ve found them to be reliable even when pushing them through all night renders, transcodes, etc. They’re at least as fast as the Mac Pros and, in most applications, even faster,” Johnson points out. He expects to replace the 2013 Mac Pros this year.
Wolf notes that he must be able to work as efficiently at home as he does at the office, “and that’s one nice thing about the evolution of offline editing. A combination of robust laptops and portable SSDs has allowed us to take the work anywhere.”
Using the above-described setup, Final Cut recently finished a campaign for an advertising client in which the edit started on set in LA, continued in the hotel room and then finished back in NY. “We needed to be able to work remotely, even on the plane home, just to get the first cuts done in time,” Wolf explains. “Agencies expect you to be fast. They schedule presentations assuming we can work around the clock to get stuff together — we need systems that can support us.”
Johnson highlighted another recent project with a tight schedule that involved cutting a multi-camera sequence in UHD from portable SSD storage on a standard iMac. “This would have been impossible just a few years ago,” he adds.
Main Image: Netflix’s Sex Education
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer, covering visual effects and post production.