Due to COVID-safe measures, remote workflows are a regular feature in today’s post production, but some facilities are taking it one step - or one app - further
Post houses are renowned for blue-sky thinking and client support, so it’s not surprising that they’ve risen to the challenge of lockdown and Covid-safety with a range of innovation. But in many cases, these are adaptations and accelerations of a move towards remote working already demanded by an industry that is increasingly global and constantly working.
Multinational (and multifaceted) facility The Mill is one such example, with New York creative director Gavin Wellsman revealing that all of its services have been offered remotely from very early on during the lockdown.
“There was a period of a few weeks while we migrated to working from home where some artists had to upgrade their home internet services and iron out a few of the kinks. Just in New York we had over 200 artists working remotely within three weeks,” he says.
“Our engineering team across the group did an incredible job within such a short period of time. I think that is thanks to the infrastructure that we already had in place. As a creative service we are already a very fluid business, being able to route our machines to different locations and work share across the group for larger projects and skillsets.
”As our client’s needs had changed over the years we were used to remote sessions on a regular basis, so we already had many protocols in place to take this next logical step.”
Wellsman admits its hard to compete with in person creative problem solving and human interaction, but The Mill studios have adapted through tools that IBC365 subscribers will be all too familiar with, such as Teams and Zoom, but also dedicated software for browser-based client review such as Frankie from Cospective.
“We have found quick and efficient ways to share our work internally and with our clients for reviews,” he says.
“Following the same behaviours as if we were in the office like kick-off meetings has also helped to keep the teams to be motivated. This also keeps the quality of a project high as we share ideas and progress throughout the schedule. Our senior creative team offer help from the sidelines to make sure there is support to make a project run and look as good as possible.
“At the beginning of the lockdown there were many new protocols set up to make for a better work from home experience,” he continues. “But once the connectivity was there and you had access, it was as if you were in the building. There were also lots of workarounds and new pieces of software to familiarise ourselves with, but the fundamental principles of running a project still rely on the same rules and structure.”
“Even when we have multiple people who are collaborating with us, we need to make sure that we’re all seeing the same thing,” Eric Potma, Technicolor
Wellsman says clients have been “really impressed” with how quickly The Mill transitioned.
“Maybe because on the surface the tech and equipment perceived by our clients was limited to only being used in house. [They] never got to see behind the curtain of how everything was run,” he says.
“For years we have required the flexibility to scale up and move artists around for different size projects, sometimes using artists from our other sites remotely using our local machines all connected to the same job structure and servers for speed. One of the main strengths of the Mill is to scale up and cherry-pick the best artists from around the group, the days of being limited to only using a team in your own location are long gone.”
London-based Envy Post is offering a bespoke service through web and mobile apps to bring production, editing on-site and editing remotely together. The facility, which operates across six London sites, launched the Envy Remote platform for iOS and Android in November.
It offers a range of services via a single log-in. The Edit service provides editors direct dual screen access to their edit suite. They can access the same shared project as the rest of the team, with the producer also seeing the same screens in real-time.
The Files service uses Signiant to give the team secure access to their Client Store, allowing them to upload music, voice-over and other files directly to the edits. A full task management platform allows clients to add categories and tasks, then assign them to any team member, while team members get notified on the Envy Remote mobile app and progress can be tracked throughout.
A Notes function allows the whole team to see all edit and production notes in one place, including attachments, while a Discussions and Live Chat feature, allows everyone on the project to start fixed discussions on any topic, or ad-hoc live chats with individuals, all from the web and mobile.
There’s a shared project calendar, and a Storyboards feature, which replicates the wall of sticky notes that would usually be in the suite. Meanwhile Frame.io integration provides access to all Frame.io links form within the platform, so that editors can quickly import any comments directly into Avid.
And as well as the Envy Remote front-end, Envy has built a whole backend-end orchestration portal to manage it all.
According to CEO Dave Cadle, the experience is just like you’re live within an editing suite. Reactions from clients have been positive: “It’s what they’ve been wanting for a long time, it allows them to be a part of the post house for their production requirements, to be able to remote into an editor’s home or into a production space within their environment,” he says. “As for the editors, they think we’ve moved next door to them.
“It keeps them up to date with all the incoming footage, it allows them to access syncing and grouping, it’s ongoing throughout the day, and they’re live with what we are ingesting and what we are preparing for, such as clips from other rooms,” he adds.
It’s an ever-evolving app. “We can tweak it,” says Cadle. “We’re looking at putting it ‘on camera’ so the editor/production manager/client can view and monitor the cut as they go along to do reviews, which is really important.
Colour me remotely
Technicolor was ahead of the curve with TechStream, an app and platform that was devised before the pandemic hit, and has since proved its worth and expanded beyond its original remit. It enables secure, real-time viewing of a live colour and VFX session on a mobile Apple device. Colour-matched to the calibrated 4K HDR monitor used by the artist, a TechStream session can support up to six different stakeholders comfortably and can carry stereo audio on the content stream, utilising LTE for transport on the mobile app, as well as WiFi.
According to Eric Potma, head of technology, WW Post-Production at Technicolor, the platform was set up to address the finishing workflow, where picture colour grading especially takes place in a tightly calibrated environment on facility premises, but also taking stock of the fact that a lot of clients needed for reviews would be working on other projects and locations when the postproduction stage was taking place.
“Our clients couldn’t be in two places at once,” says Potma. “We needed to try to push our calibrated environment as much as we could to a mobile DoP or director. If they’re travelling and they’re 3000 miles away, we wanted to get them to work with us. When the pandemic hit it made so much sense to amp up this service.”
Speaking to Brady Woods, VP of global account management at Technicolor, it becomes obvious that TechStream is viewed as close as possible to an appointment with an artist, rather than just a review app.
“A differentiator from the other solutions in the market is our colourist is responsible not only for the colour in this session but he’s also wearing the face of the software solution in the session,” continues Woods. “So if both are not successful, we don’t get to blame a third-party software solution. We put a lot of checks and balances into the process to try to optimise those experiences.”
It was developed in-house, with the approval of Technicolor’s creatives.
“The [application] vendors are out there, basically trying to capture as much market share that they can get through as many different workflows as possible,” adds Potma. “We’re focused. We already have our client, we need to make sure that we’re servicing that workflow.”
That TechStream workflow is based around the artist’s session, whose output is taken out over HD-SDI to an H.265 encoder. “H.265 is a real benefit in that it provides a tight wrapper to travel across the bandwidth available to the end user,” says Woods.
The client uses an iPad Pro (the app now also supports Apple TV and iPhone) as the receiving device. Client-specific iPads can be distributed to customers as a colour accurate tablet that they can make their core decisions around density and shadows and brightness, or the engineering team gets engaged with the client to calibrate their own devices.
“The manufacturing process on the iPad allows us to have a very consistent workflow,” says Potma. “We need to maintain the consistency of the iPad, and all of the settings within it. Even when we have multiple people who are collaborating with us, we need to make sure that we’re all seeing the same thing. We are also calibrating remote people’s TVs as part of our services. We basically need to set the standard.”
In terms of colour accuracy, the artist also has a TechStream iPad in their session, so they can compare it with their Sony BVM-X300 OLED panel. “The artist is working on a calibrated monitor, but is also receiving the stream as well,” says Potma.
“We’re using the same hardware as what is out in the client experience, we’re maintaining that everything is accurate as, as expected. So there’s some checks and balances there from the artist too.”
The Apple TV app was released five months into the pandemic and Woods admits this was more of a challenge as TV/monitors used with the device typically vary wildly in colour management.
“We can’t be sure that the colour is going to be accurate so either we would supply the monitor or we’d travel to the home in a socially distant way to calibrate that monitor,” says Woods. “If that is not possible then we suggest the client makes their main colour decisions on the iPad Pro, and ultimately use the Apple TV as a secondary monitor [which mimics the home environment].
“The system allows you to have up to six sessions at once. So they can have a ‘secondary user’ that allows the client to have the iPad Pro and the Apple TV running at the same time.”
“I’ve actually seen up to 12 people operate at the same time, the system is capable of much more,” says Potma. “But, unfortunately, the collaboration [benefit] starts to fall apart when you get that many people ’in a room’.”
“You can actually have two encoder boxes running the same content, so if needed, you could have 30 users watching the same piece of content. We just wouldn’t recommend it for a colour session,” says Woods. “We have to put clients in a box a little bit and say, ‘if you want it to be a positive experience, cap it off at six users’.”
Since launching, TechStream has encompassed VFX reviews and editorial review as well. “HDR and 4K [support] are almost an imminent release,” says Potma. “These have all been developed from our experiences during COVID of difficulties of getting people into work.”
The team is working on developing additional functionality for sound, “We’re aiming at being at 5.1 and Atmos,” says Woods. “We’re really trying to create a single solution that’s across picture, sound and visual effects.”
Woods says TechStream goes through a rigorous set of tests in every location with different types of artists on different platforms anytime that Technicolor updates the app. “As we release new functionality into the system, we’re focussed on making sure that it’s a value add to the experience of collaborating with our artists.”
Security is the big issue with any content. That’s even more crucial in a Covid-fragmented, locked-down and remote environment.
“You hear horror stories of drives being speed-biked to people’s houses with a lot of content that might be owned by Netflix. Something that’s been shot for a lot of money and that’s on a back of a bike on a brick. That alarmed me,” says Cadle. “[With Envy Remote] we can secure clients’ footage and guarantee that is up-to-the-hilt secure. That relaxes everybody in the post chain and the production side of things.”
Technicolor ensures security with firewalls and two-factor (email and pin) access to TechStream, while the session is also encrypted using the SRT protocol. “We also have third-party security auditing of the code and the applications to maintain our platform is secure,” says Potma.
“Necessity being the mother of invention and Covid really being the mother of adoption, we’re seeing it shake off some of those spider webs that we’ve seen with clients for a long time,” Brady Woods, Technicolor
The Mill’s remote staff all follow the same procedures as when they were in the office, says Wellsman, and they mimic the office environment when it comes to security. “We securely connected through remote systems to our machines back at The Mill so it’s as if we were all under one roof,” he says. “Working from home we now log in using a two-step authenticator for added security which is reactivated after there is no activity for a certain period of time. NDAs are also very common on many of our projects and all of our staff have been trained to really understand what’s a stake. In general, if our work hasn’t been cleared by the marketing department or by the client nothing gets out until a project is live and has the green light. Having worked for many years on highly confidential projects, we have multi-tiered security levels depending on our client’s request to make sure the most confidential of projects are protected from the rest of the business.”
A behind the scenes of The Mill’s first ad produced and shot entirely in isolation, with Voxi and Ogilvy
Building for the future?
Remote may not have such an impact on facility size as you might think.
“I’m not looking to reduce the footprint in central London, if anything at the moment we’re adding to it,” says Cadle. “I don’t think it’s going to be a drastic change with regard to real estate, clients for one will still want to come in for finishing. We offered the Symphony guys in long form units to go back to home and they all turned it down, they wanted to come into the online space where they have got everything at their disposal. Although our advertising guys are working merrily at home and probably will work that way for a while.”
He does see the workflow changing, in that projects will probably start life remotely and then editors will come in for the final six to eight weeks. “On shows like Top Gear or The Voice, they’ll probably ‘preamble cut’ for a few weeks in their bedrooms and then come in so the production guys can motivate them and get all the guys on the same hymn sheet.”
Wellsman is of a similar opinion. “Do we need to have everyone sitting together five days a week? I don’t think so – the stigma of working from home or leaving the office early to finish your workday will go away and a blended work structure will become the norm.
“We will adapt to a blend on a project-by-project basis,” he continues. “I do think that for some projects the best results will come from the in-person interaction with our clients in the same room, especially in the 11th hour when you need quick decisions.”
As for TechStream, Woods “doesn’t see a world where even post Covid, this isn’t an integral part of what we do. Necessity being the mother of invention and Covid really being the mother of adoption, we’re seeing it shake off some of those spider webs that we’ve seen with clients for a long time.
“It’s really been a time for us to rethink how we work and come up with ways to do it differently,” she adds. “I’m excited that clients have adopted it, but I’m really excited that the artists have adopted it. The entire team in Technicolor feels like we built something that allows them to do their job and allows them to do it in a safe way.”