The Importance of the Pipeline

How to build a studio is a topic that I’ve seen discussed on a few internet message boards recently, and I’ve also gotten a few emails about it. In the olden days of video, this was extremely expensive, but now you can get comparable gear for almost one tenth the price. Also, dealing with analog video was kind of tricky. Even basic post tasks might involve lots of equipment that we don’t see much in computer post. For example, multiple edit decks, edit controllers, DVEs, video and audio signal amplifiers, cable patchbays, TBCs, blackburst generators, timecode capable audio recorders, multitrack mixers, and lots and lots of exotic cables that you don’t see much anymore.

Yes, things are simpler today, particularly in post-production. But contrary to most indie film ads, a good post studio requires a little more than a single camcorder, a single cable, and a single white plastic laptop. A good post studio is built around a pipeline, not hardware or software. The workflow needs to be designed around what the staff will be doing on a day to day basis. And it should be scalable, as well.

Judging from the feedback I’ve been getting, most of my readers are at varying stages of the transition from video production to feature production. The video work, be it for a local tv station or an individually marketed DVDs, pays the bills while allowing the reader to practice filmic techniques and move towards a career in film production. Regardless of how advanced these individual production companies are, the first step to building a solid studio is the same; outline the upcoming annual workload.

What exactly will this studio be doing? Producing short-form documentaries or long-form documentaries, either independently or under contract? Filming live events and conferences and selling lecture DVD products? Creating TV commercials for broadcast TV? Various video for the web projects? How-to, training, or other industrial videos? Off-line film editing? Color correction and other graphics work? Once you know that, you can begin to plan a pipeline to best serve these projects.

The goal is to create a workflow that is balanced between the utmost efficiency in handling the job at hand, and the ability to expand the studio rapidly for the jobs of the future. It isn’t possible to just pick the components on their individual merits; the studio network needs to be more than the sum of its parts. Every aspect of the production process must be taken in to account to avoid bottlenecks. First look at upgradability, in terms of both gear and of staff, and them move into the hardware and software. This will take a lot of research, since digital video isn’t quite as simple as it initially looks.

Even though digital technology has simplified most of the processes that required dozens of pieces of analog gear, the days when analog video was a single standard had a few advantages over today’s formatting challenges. For example, we now have D1, DV, HDV and HDTV frame sizes (among many others) and dozens of separate frame rates from 23.97p to 60i. Most codecs work with AVIs and Quicktime, but not all of them work together, and some HDV tapes recorded on one camera might not play on another.

So do your homework on what you need, and what your staff will need, and what your software and hardware will need. And don’t forget to factor in some level of redundancy and/or backup options, and some sort of archival solution for your footage library. Any shots or graphics elements that might be usable in the future should be saved if at all possible.