Workflow, workflow, workflow. I cannot say enough how important your workflow is for production, especially in Post. When I first started at Hurlbut Visuals, we were about to begin a new journey for the company by creating “Shane’s Inner Circle.” What this meant for us was that we were about to go into a content creation BOOM. Shane really wanted to beef up the amount of content and drive home more visuals by introducing more video into this new website and build up more video for the Hurlblog all together. With this plan in mind, we had to act fast to get ourselves ready for the amount of content we were about to begin creating, so we started developing a strong plan.
Fast forward to a year later. We have been creating content at a RAPID pace. In the history of Hurlbut Visuals, the total data storage of all of the content was 25TB for six years. We created 20TB in twelve months once we started “Shane’s Inner Circle.” So what are a few questions that might pop into your head as you let that sink in?
- What did you do to manage all that data?
- Now that you’re doing a lot more video content, did you add editors? Did you create a post-production facility?
- Did you have the infrastructure for post when this data creation began?
Here is my goal in answering these questions in relationship to how our company has grown: the answers I present and the workflow I show you can be a guideline for how you can create your own setup at your new or growing company. I’ve got what I think can help you prepare for the future, especially if you are in a small business that can see itself growing. But first let me take you down the road of thought that should help spawn that part of your brain that you just haven’t tapped yet.
Seeing the Future and Understanding Where You Are Headed
It was late August of 2014, and we are just about to kick off the start of the Illumination Experience Tour around the country, but first I had a meeting set up with Michael Cioni, CEO of Light Iron. The meeting was to discuss future collaboration together (we have some projects with their team that we are currently working on and will be coming in the future to both Shane’s Inner Circle and the Hurlblog). I wanted to find out Michael’s feelings on education and sharing, which he couldn’t have been more excited about.
One thing that stuck with me in our meeting that I think of almost every single day was something Michael said to me as we were standing in one of their rooms that had their Outpost system setup for a demo (paraphrasing, of course): “David, future casting (or future proofing) is the most important thing you can do in business today in every sense. If you understand where you are headed it will show you where you need to go. The simplest example is to think of workflow in production. If you’re looking to finish a film in 4K, don’t just build an infrastructure that supports 4K. You have to build beyond it at least to 6K. If you only build up to what you need, you will never be able to adapt and grow once new technology gets introduced.”
That brief yet powerful statement really resonated with me. It spoke to me. I knew right then and there what I had to do to help Shane and Lydia get their educational ventures to continue to grow. Here is an excerpt from Michael’s presentation at Revolution Cinema Rentals back in May of 2015 where he talks about future proofing and growth.
The 3Cs That Are King
Communication, Coordination and Content are King in the proper environment that is conducive to successful workflow and execution. The first thing I looked into when I started at Hurlbut Visuals was how content was being created.
Specifically, how are we managing our video content that goes into our written articles?
- What is our system of communication as a team to get on the right page together?
- How do we review the content after a first draft edit has been completed?
- How do we publish this material to the associated articles and websites?
First, communication between Shane, myself, our editor Dylan Leong, and anyone else overseeing the project is done either in person to start or via conference call. We discuss the project, how we shot it, go over my notes and Shane’s notes, and then we let Dylan take it from there. We discuss how we shot the material, what cameras we used, what the final output will be (4K or 1080p delivery), what graphics we need to create, and the overall direction we want to head in.
To review content, we have begun using a platform called Frame.io, a very popular platform that has been on the market for some time. It is incredibly versatile and it gives us a lot of room to make comments, and draw on videos to discuss what we do and don’t like. We will go more into Frame.io and how to use it at a later date.
For our final delivery of the content, we use Vimeo as our online player. Vimeo allows us to have a stable platform that we can just rely on. We can customize the links, layout, color, and sizing, and it also gives us a clean interface within the Vimeo website that helps get more eyes on our content. Our Vimeo files can be embedded into any site we choose, including our Hurlblog App on iTunes.
Asset Management and How to Make It All Work
I want to dive into the thought process behind choosing your post-workflow based on your production workflow. Whether you are choosing a Canon C500, RED Dragon or a GoPro, you need structure, performance and power. We’re going to go over why we chose particular cameras and how that affected our workflow in a very unique story of how we were set up at the time using MacPros and MacBook laptops, compared to how we are set up now after purchasing HP Z Workstations and building out our G-Technology Direct Network Storage System.
Data Managing Before the Company Grew
We weren’t ready for the big time yet. Our slider didn’t break the way the coach wanted it to and our fastball just didn’t have enough velocity to keep us going strong late in the game. The players were getting bigger, stronger and faster, and we needed a way to keep up.
When I started at Hurlbut Visuals, content had been shot on a variety of cameras and platforms, which were based around what Shane was using on movies and commercials and what the readers of the Hurlblog wanted to learn about. This still exists today, but the difference is that we are doing a lot more shooting and content creation than ever before.
Until this point in the history of Hurlbut Visuals, the need to have access to all 25TB of those assets was minimal at any given time. There would be months where the team didn’t need something from a set of drives, so they were kept off-site in a climate controlled location where they were maintained for long term shelf life. When they were needed, they were recalled to the office and the files were accessed.
Let’s jump to August of 2014 where we instantaneously needed access to all 25TB at one time. This was new, very new to this team. Now we are working with three or four people creating content for the soon to be launched “Shane’s Inner Circle,” working with 18 total drives, and searching and looking for content, which cost us a lot of time. Shane and Lydia quickly realized that we needed to upgrade our asset management to prepare for where we were headed in the future, a new future that had come to the horizon very quickly. Keep in mind that the old system was working and did work for what Hurlbut Visuals was doing, but now we had increased production and become essentially an everyday content creation machine. The ballgame got a lot bigger.
This leads us to where passing around hard drives between editors and producers turns into higher-end storage management and shared network storage. But how do you recognize you are at that level? What steps do you take to make that next move to get a higher performance engine into that new car?
You step back, look at the previous setup, cross-compare it to the new setup you are about to be transitioning to and ask some very detailed questions:
- What would you define as “Working Assets”? This means, what are the most important pieces of data on these drives that you use on a consistent basis? What are the files you foresee needing access to more than five times every six months. Calculate that total number.
- How often do multiple people need access to the data? Is it just one person, two, three, or fifty users?
- How many backups are there? If there is only a single copy of a piece of data, you must figure out how you can safely backup the materials.
- Is there a file structure and naming convention currently in place that you can work with? If not, you must build one to properly manage the materials going forward.
- Truthfully, does the model that is currently in place really work for what you are doing now?
- And the most important, from the conversation with Michael Cioni, where are you headed in the future?
Getting Called up to the Data Management Majors: Our First At Bat
I certainly played the role of Jackie Moon in the real life Flint Michigan Tropics looking to merge into our own form of the NBA. You should note that this is the perfect reference mainly because Shane shot Semi Pro and it is one of the most underrated Will Ferrell comedies out there. Please go check it out. You’ll laugh your tail off, I promise. Plus, it’s one of the best looking comedies out there and I’m not just saying that. I think you will agree.
The next chapter in our content creation was to figure out what our next steps were going to be. In the past Hurlbut Visuals attempted to maintain itself in a 1080p workflow as much as possible since they were editing on MacBook Pros, etc. Now we found ourselves producing content that was in 4K. One of the first projects I worked on was with footage from the Canon C500. We ultimately had taken footage that was converted down to 1080p to handle the workflow, but we didn’t want to do that any longer.
We decided as a team that if we really wanted to showcase the power of these sensors, we wanted to handle all of it in the native format as much as possible. We wanted to become the outlet for the readers out there who could see how to handle the material properly within their own systems and how it could be done. The way we handled it prior was either with lots of time or we would solicit help from a company like Light Iron to help in applying our color grade across the board of a test, giving us the final 1080p files that were finished, and we could do our assemble edit from there.
Only in that model we left a lot of education on the table that we just could not present to all of you and properly handle the workflow. So we attempted to do it with our setup of a MacPro from 2012 and MacBook Pros for a RED Dragon Camera Test that was gearing up for Shane’s latest project, Into the Badlands. We wanted to stay as native as possible, just as Shane had done with the Canon C500 for his Fathers and Daughters tests, but this time we wanted to handle all of the post ourselves.
For this RED Dragon Camera Test we were going to cover:
- IR Pollution
- Day Exterior ISO Performance
- Day Exterior Backlight
- IRE Skin Tone Value Test (Skin Tone OLPF vs Low Light OLPF)
- RED Dragon Skin Tone vs Canon C500 Skin Tone
- RED Compression (In Camera Compression)
- Night ISO Performance
- Latitude: Under Exposure
- Latitude: Over Exposure
That’s nine tests in total and there were roughly 20 videos we created between two advanced articles that were written for Shane’s Inner Circle and a basic version on the Hurlblog. These tests essentially became the straw that broke the camel’s back in our system performance. At this point, we were working with:
- Mac Pro (2012)
- 2x 2.4GHZ 6 Core with 16GB of Memory, ATI Radeon HD 5770 1GB Card, 256GB SSD OS Drive
- MacBook Pro (2013) & MacBook Pro (2014)
Attempting to push this test with the final output of each video to be a 4K H.264 for YouTube almost crushed us. We were up against the wall with other deadlines of material we were looking to get out to the web and adding this project only made the mountain nearly insurmountable.
Our first attempt was to bring in Derek Johnson, one of Shane’s DITs, with his Mac Pro (the new 2013 model) and get cracking on exporting/rendering material, but this was still limiting us. We were stuck working only in a USB 3.0 environment and there was just too much to do on one system. We were dead in the water at this point.
Our savior in this case became turning to Light Iron. We called Paul Geffre at Light Iron and asked for HELP! We took our native material over to Light Iron with our Adobe Premiere project files and had them churn out the final videos to make these articles happen. They spread the workload amongst three systems on their network server, allowing for more to happen with larger quantities of speed and performance. The pipeline between the original files and computers were not limited to 5mb/s of USB 3.0 speed, but they were running at a minimum of 200mb/s over their network, and most likely faster than that. They saved my tail.
Playing in the Majors Full-Time Now
The day after we published the RED Dragon Camera Test article I asked myself, what did we learn from this experience? Honestly, more than we could have ever imagined.
Our workflow now had grown immensely. Dylan Leong was on board as our full-time editor, we added two part-time freelancers in Megan Pham and Laura Murphy and we were about to add another full-time writer/shooter/editor to the team, Cooper James. Not only were we in a situation where we needed to all have access to all of the material that we used on a daily basis, but we were creating content at a RAPID pace (which I mentioned before).
At a time like this, I think of the great Stan Ross. Stan thought he had 3,000 hits for the Milwaukee Brewers, but only to find out that he was a few hits shy, he walked back into the locker room at the age of 47, but to a whole new ball game…
My reference in all of this is that the game has changed and we have to change with the game if we want to position ourselves at the top. So we did just that. (Mr 3000 is also another one of Shane’s feature films!)
Our first step in the process was addressing how much storage space we needed. Ideally, it needs to be put into a platform that is infinitely expandable, or at least close to infinite as possible. We had been working with G-Technology since the beginning of 2015 and they were helping us determine which products were the best to use for our situation and what other people were using in the industry. So large storage capacity is what we were after. Ok, check. We will come back to that.
Our second step was addressing our computer systems. We were currently running a completely Mac based setup and from what we had seen of the new Mac Pro models, we weren’t running to the Apple store screaming YAY! We’re SAVED! It was quite the opposite. To make the Mac Pro work for us we would have to purchase a chassis that would be a thunderbolt setup in order to add in the following third party pieces:
- RED Rocket X Card
- Blackmagic 4K Extreme Card (or the Blackmagic Mini Monitor for 1080p)
- Upgraded Nvidia Graphics Card (Mac Pros come stock with ATI Graphics Cards which are not ideal for editing)
The additional cost of the chassis wasn’t exciting, as we were looking at a minimum of a $4,500-$5,000 setup with just the computer and chassis. Then add in the upgrade of the Nvidia Graphics Card, which would land us somewhere between $1,000 to $1,800 depending on if we went with the K4200 card or the K5200 card as examples.
Now we’re up to $6,000. And that is just with the base model Mac Pro (quad core, dual GPU, 12GB of RAM) and we still aren’t maxing out much performance compared to the previous 2012 model. I’m going to spare the cross comparisons for the sake of the length of this article and will share some links that support the cost expenditure. (Compare Mac to HP Z Workstations)
Where do we go then? Fortunately, Shane has had a long standing relationship with Hewlett-Packard (HP for short). Shane used the DreamColor monitors extensively on his time shooting Act of Valor and taking the time to turn the Canon 5D Mark II into a lightweight digital film camera (HP LP2480zx DreamColor: Your Eyes into the DSLR Colorspace).
So we reached out to HP. We asked for their guidance, sharing our situation and discussing how we could use HP’s products like the z820 series of workstation computers in our post-production operations. I’ll be honest. I wasn’t thrilled at first with the idea of abandoning my Mac roots and going back to Windows. It wasn’t HP that I was concerned about. It was Windows and I honestly wasn’t that aware of the difference in power between the systems. Nonetheless, I was thrilled that we had a possible solution on the way.
Our main stipulation with HP is that we wanted to use a system that everyone could use. We didn’t want something that would “break the bank” if we were a small business looking to expand, but we also wanted the same level of power that a major facility could have. We essentially wanted our cake and to eat it too.
HP’s Guidance on Our Future
They set us up for success. That is it in a nutshell. I have spent the past ten years of my career working in Television and Film, and the majority of that time I worked on Macs when I was producing and doing some editing and color, but there were always things that we had to sacrifice because of the fact that we let the operating system choose our system.
HP HP recommended a pair of Z840 systems where their base price starts at $2,399, but the specs already come in blowing the Mac Pro out of the water.
- 24 Cores compared to 12 Cores in the Mac
- Nvidia Cards come standard. Ours came with the K5200 8GB Card.
- Z Workstations perform at 10.4 Teraflops compared to 7 Teraflops on the Mac Pro
- 7 slots for expansion, which is something Mac abandoned. Now you need a Thunderbolt Chassis.
- Maximum of 15TB internal storage, compared to 1TB of storage on a Mac
Not Gigawatts, Teraflops. But it’s basically like getting struck by a bolt of lightning. A Teraflop is how we measure the speed and performance of a computer today. To give it some perspective, SMU in Dallas, Texas created a super-computer in 2014 that boasted 120 Teraflops and was valued at $6.5 million. SMU is using this super-computer to crunch numbers in physics and cancer research. Incredible stuff.
We still added our external cards in the system using the seven slots, and our base price before the additions came in around at $4,800. It is roughly compared to this model listed on B&H:
Where we were crippled before, attempting to render and export 5K down to 1080p from the RED Dragon, 20 videos would have taken 28 hours according to Adobe Media Encoder. We were now at five hours total for this many videos to transcode and export. Working with Windows has been surprisingly painless. It took about a week just to get comfortable with the layout and the subtle differences again, but it is completely worth it once we saw the performance increase and time we were now saving.
Back to the Future or Back to that Whole Storage Management Thing
See what I did there? Back to the Future clip earlier, now this title…. You’ll get it. Maybe. (Btw, for those of you wondering now, Dean Cundy, ASC shot Back to the Future).
The second half of this game is how we managed the data we were creating and all of the previously created data. Our answer lies with G-Technology yet again. This time we were moving past USB 3.0 and getting into Thunderbolt 2. Thunderbolt 2 was very important for what we were about to create. We wanted to have the ability to do two very important things:
- Infinitely expandable (or near infinite) Storage
a. With Thunderbolt 2, we can daisy chain up to 6 devices that are connected to the main port.
- The ability to share the data across a network that multiple users could connect to at the same time and grab the data at the same time, without causing interruption.
a. If there are three editors who need to use the same clip, they can and it’s wonderful.
When we talked to G-Technology about what we should use, we were introduced to the G-Speed Studio XL systems. Oddly enough, they look like Mac Pros. They come formatted automatically for Mac, but they work on HPs too. All you have to do is reformat the systems right when you plug them into your HP computers.
We purchased two 64TB G-Speed Studio XL systems and kept them in a RAID 5 configuration, giving us 50TB per system, 100TB total. The RAID 5 allows us to have a single drive go down on the internal workings of the G-Speeds and we can still recover our media. G-Technology offers a web-based interface where you can check on the status of your drives and verify that they are working properly. We check ours at various times with a schedule reminder. With a future upgrade to the Thunderbolt 2 card for HP, we can connect these two systems directly into the HP Z840 and then allow for 12 total additional G-Speeds to daisy chain off of the system if we needed to.
The performance alone going from USB 3.0 to Thunderbolt 2 is an immense difference and we are now able to handle four streams of 5K playback in full resolution in real-time, with an output of 1080p. Currently we are not working for 4K output, but that could come down the line. G-Technology does make a G-Speed Studio XL that starts at 24TB and has a price tag of $2,999.95, which can be a little easier to chew on if you need to save some money.
That gets you to the ballpark of where we are at for now. In our next article in this topic, we are going to discuss how we created a Direct Network Storage Solution with our HP Z840s and the G-Speed Studio XLs, so that multiple users can connect to the assets at the same time. I will dive into how Mike McCarthy of Bandito Brothers came in and set up this system for us and educated our team on how it all works.