WORKFLOW SERIES ARTICLE 1b: Building a workflow
In issue #153 of IF Magazine (June-July 2013), IF launched an exclusive workflow series written by one of Australia's leading post-production and digital media practitioners, John Fleming. To be released in four instalments, the series will explore the different approaches to workflow associated with digital content production. This first article looks at the main influences and identifies the building blocks for a future focussed digital workflow. Other articles will take a more detailed look at the workflows associated with specific genres. Find the second instalment of the series in IF #154 (August-September), on sale now.
To consider a whole of production workflow we must first recognise the key phases of content production; pre-production, shoot, editorial, VFX, finishing and delivery. Each of these phases is considered a ‘vertical’ that includes key elements like specialists, the technology they use, service providers and operational practices. The elements are largely common across the verticals and conceptually form the layers that need to be considered when planning a workflow.
The resultant framework (below) can be used for projects of any size.
The layers are presented in isolation to explore workflow options, generate discussion around what could be improved and what ‘connections’ can be made between the different elements across each layer. However in practical terms, Services companies will bring together many of the elements into integrated and cost effective packages.
The Solution Team
The ‘Solution Team’ forms in pre-production. It consists of the VFX Supervisor, Post Production Supervisor, Editor, Supervising Sound Designer and Director of Photography (DOP). The team identifies the simplest and most productive workflow and ensures the workflow meets both the creative and delivery requirements. With the producer and director they then engage the necessary talent, specialist service providers and equipment.
Notionally the ‘talent’ can be made up of individuals, small businesses, or specialists from larger businesses. A more mobilised talent pool means that producers can consider forming specialist teams within the production. It’s also interesting to observe how the changes in technology and methodology are reshaping the traditional support roles. By looking at where each department crosses over it may be possible to redefine some roles to make use of the talent available.
The Production Technology
The falling cost and increased portability of technology has meant that in some instances producers can afford to purchase sophisticated production technology instead of renting. It then comes down to what value is placed on the service offering that usually wraps around equipment rental e.g. advice, support, redundancy, response to changing circumstances etc. Keep in mind some production technology must be provided by established and specialised Services providers e.g. sound mixing stages. Also if the production company is an SPV (special purpose vehicle), usually the equipment must be sold off at the end of production.
Workflow Management and Customisation
So far we’ve considered the needs of the production e.g. people, production technology etc. We will now look at the ‘anatomy’ of a digital workflow.
Once again we must consider the production phases and the common elements that form layers across the production process. In this case we are now very focussed on looking at the connections that can be created between the elements in each layer. As we build our workflow we must consider the following.
1. Production Technology
‘Production Technology’ is the different software and hardware packages used in content production. This could be an Onset DataCart, Avid Media Composer etc. These systems ideally ‘plug in’ to the workflow via a published API or SDK. If these are not available there is usually some form of transfer mechanism e.g. XML that allows data to be collected by the backbone.
2. The Glue
‘The Glue’ is the many software utilities that connect the ‘Production Technology’ into the workflow backbone. This enables interoperability between systems and allows automation of basic tasks. Whilst software developers create much of the glue, often creative practitioners have the skills to create basic applications e.g. scripts.
3. Workflow Backbone
Notionally the ‘Workflow Backbone’ is an intangible eco-system of industry standards, computer protocols, and programming languages that sit between the ‘front end’ and ‘back-end’ technologies. It links every element involved in the workflow. In practical terms it seeks to connect systems with each other; is the conduit for data, metadata and colour information, and allows customisations to meet the unique needs of each production.
4. Digital Workflow Management System
The ‘Digital Workflow Management System’ is a highly intelligent application that manages the storage systems and interfaces with all the activity occurring in the ‘Backbone’. It is the ‘vessel’ that accumulates project knowledge. Data is stored, served and backed up. In simple terms these sophisticated systems seek to streamline and automate as much as possible.
5. Whole of Production Asset Management System
Whilst ‘Digital Workflow Management’ concentrates on the production assets, some systems also gather elements from the broader production activities e.g. scripts, production design and wardrobe artwork, production photography etc. This ‘Whole of Production Asset Management System’ is implemented on Day 1 of production and captures information about the entire production process.
6. Production Management
‘Production Management’, like Production Technology, represents all the various software applications involved in administering the production e.g. Movie Magic etc. Once again, if a computer protocol exists (glue), they can be more elegantly connected into the Whole of Production Asset Management System.
7. Stakeholder Browser
Having all the production assets centrally stored provides a unique window for stakeholders, from anywhere in the world, to access and look across the production activities. The extension of this is a heightened potential for many aspects of remote collaboration and often removes the cost for DVDs and couriers.
For more detail around workflow refer to the Anatomy of a Digital Workflow however the following should be considered:
– On complex projects engage or nominate a workflow architect
– Ensure the production technology can be easily connected into the workflow
– Ensure onset data management meets the needs of each department
– Confirm the file format from the cameras e.g. RAW or Video, and understand the impact on budget and desired creative outcomes
– Confirm volume of dailies data and agreed delivery times
– Ensure data is protected across each phase of the workflow
– Identify metadata requirements, specifically any that are in Delivery contacts
– Confirm any workflow customisation needs, cost and development timeframe
– Confirm the workflow colour management plan with the DOP and Colourist
– Confirm online ‘review and approval’ system or collaboration tool to be used.
Infrastructure and Connectivity
Cloud based services and high speed connectivity will increase options around how production infrastructure is provisioned. For VFX and Animation projects ‘pop up’ studio infrastructure can now be considered e.g. Studio Engine.
Compliance refers to the checks that occur across the entire workflow that ensure that the delivery requirements are being met in each phase of production.
Options for Content Creators
The creative and financial benefits of engaging a ‘deeper’ workflow are often not explored because producers are focussed on ‘project’ outcomes more so than ‘enterprise’ solutions. However this area of ‘deep’ workflow management is now a focus of both technologists and Service providers so there will soon be many options to consider.
Larger VFX and Animation companies already have ‘deep’ workflows in place with sophisticated workflow management systems e.g. Shotgun, that have evolved in the open systems environment over the past decade. In fact, from a technology perspective, they are in a much better position to integrate emerging post production tools. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how technologist Autodesk builds on their significant presence in this area of the market.
Content creators looking for an in-house workflow solution may look for a comprehensive ‘Technology Solution’. It’s considered simple and contained. With their new Media Asset Management (MAM) system and Interplay Central browser, Avid is certainly looking to meet this challenge. Adobe is also positioning Premiere Pro as the entry point into an evolving eco system of specialist software applications and ‘partners plates’ that elegantly integrate third party applications.
Producers can also engage a ‘Service Solution’ provider to package a workflow. Global players Technicolor and Deluxe are developing sophisticated workflow solutions that aim to go ‘deep’ and all the way ‘across’ the workflow. In meeting the requirements of high end studio projects, the ‘economies of scale’ enabled by a global network is undeniable.
The ‘Pick and Choose Solution’, is in many ways a continuation of current practice and is possibly more relevant to the diversity of work available in the Australian market. There are different ways of approaching this but is does require a ‘workflow architect’ who can adapt to the different demands of individual projects. While bespoke solutions satisfy the need for flexibility and provide for the unique requirements of creative specialists, the ongoing costs of customisation must be recognised. The benefit of this occurring within a Services company is that the knowledge gained from each project can be accumulated and many of the underlying tasks automated. Over time this can provide significant productivity improvements and cost benefit.
Larger production companies may also look to have a single ‘enterprise’ workflow and asset management system looking across their full slate of projects, allowing individual productions to choose the ‘front end’ solution most appropriate to their needs as long as it can connect into the enterprise system.
The transition to this way of working will not happen overnight however content creators can now start to consider the benefits of a deeper approach to workflow management and where possible look to integrate the various elements across the production process. While there is a cost associated with implementing this approach to workflow management it can bring value to the production in many ways. These include:
• Creating efficiencies by automating processes
• Reducing time to make decisions by providing options quickly
• Reducing hours worked that reduce costs or improve work life balance
• Faster ‘up time’ on the next project
Finally, keep it simple and build it up based on the demands of the project.
This article first appeared in IF Magazine issue #153.