State of the Industry 2008 POST PRODUCTION

by Steve Harvey. A spot check of post houses in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles reveals a number of interesting trends in the industry, particularly in the commercial world: Production of TV spots in HD with 5.1 sound is not as commonplace as might be expected given the approaching DTV switchover; travel expenses are driving remote participation in mix sessions; and the laptop is the new Auratone.
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by Steve Harvey.
A spot check of post houses in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles reveals a number of interesting trends in the industry, particularly in the commercial world: Production of TV spots in HD with 5.1 sound is not as commonplace as might be expected given the approaching DTV switchover; travel expenses are driving remote participation in mix sessions; and the laptop is the new Auratone.

With the DTV switchover fast approaching it might be expected that post houses would be reporting an increase in HD commercial production with 5.1 audio. "As we get closer [to the switchover], more and more people are pulling away from doing surround mixing on their spots. We've seen growth in 5.1 business over the last few years, but at the same time we're seeing people balk a little bit," observes Greg Crawford, senior sound designer at Crawford Post Production in Atlanta.

"Rather than use Dolby Digital and the dialnorm settings the way Dolby had intended--in that anybody could mix any way they wanted and the dialnorm would take care of the level problems--the networks decided they wanted to prescribe a dialnorm setting," explains Crawford. "The toughest thing is getting the deliverables from the network. We have a giant menu book of all the specs."

He continues, "It would have been nice if everybody could have gotten on the same page. For every dub that we do, we have to do an audio session and a re-edit session with new slates. It gets to be very costly for the advertiser."

Nathan Dubin, mixer/sound designer at Margarita Mix de Santa Monica in California, also points out differing video deliverables, although the situation seems to be settling, he says. "It seems as though the D5 is going to be the tape format of choice for commercials. In the HD projects that I'm doing I see less of the format madness than a year ago. More and more I do less and less of the different versionings."

In fact, he says, "The national broadcast spots that I do are almost exclusively in HD and 5.1 at this point, like the big car spots." In order to meet any variations in the spec, he adds, "I'm able to do a mix then convert my system to whatever layback I need to do."

As for dialnorm, he continues, "It provides the home viewer with a uniform listening environment." But, he notes, "As of now, it's not enforced in the commercial world. I don't know how it's going to get in line."

Deliverables can also be a moving target, as Crawford reports. "Last year we were delivering stuff to a network in August. They kicked it back and said it wasn't their spec. Then they sent us the spec for September!"

To avoid any hassle, he says, "We have clients who are perfectly happy to send a Digibeta standard def spot to a network. The network upconverts it, runs it through a box and it's in surround. It's the path of least resistance. Nobody cares how the blue light goes on; as long as it goes on, every network is totally happy."

Ron DiCesare, senior audio engineer at Ultra-Sound, a division of The Napoleon Group in New York City, has noticed an increase in remote participation from talent, other studios and video houses, and clients. "We're offering videoconferencing, like Skype and iChat, where our clients can monitor and watch the session remotely. Consumer-level videoconferencing programs can really have a huge impact on the audio industry," he comments.

"I think the advertising world has long been ahead of the curve; uploading and downloading have long been the norm," he adds. For example, on a recent Purina spot, Ultra-Sound downloaded the edited video from a shop in Sweden. "It was in PAL so I converted it in iMovie. Years ago, it would have taken days if not weeks to get it shipped over, then I wouldn't have known how to play it." "We do sessions with Skype," shares Dubin. "A lot of my clients trust me to work that way, even though what they're receiving via the conferencing is a pretty lo-fi signal. Plane tickets are just too much now, and we want to make ourselves accessible."

He also reveals that Margarita Mix is developing a turnkey unit that will allow sessions to be streamed to any internet location, with remote attendance via videoconferencing. "That's the next frontier for us. We've always done this with phone patches and ISDN lines, but we're trying to take it to the next level."

On the subject of monitoring remotely, DiCesare notes an important byproduct: "Laptops have become the equivalent of Auratones. All my clients have laptops, and many of them are listening and approving mixes with the laptop speakers. It's really impacted the way that I work. I used to think Auratones were the worst-sounding speakers until I got a hold of a MacBook!"

Dubin agrees: "I'm not embarrassed to say that I've wired a Mac PowerBook as an alternate speaker source, and I will monitor my mixes through that. I'm able to defend that the low end is there if I heard it myself." In the future, he suspects, in addition to monitoring, "I'm also going to be doing videoconferencing on the thing; I'm going to be doing the whole session via MacBook."

DiCesare has noticed another trend due to constricting budgets and timeframe: "Many of my clients are relying on me for the musical direction of the spot as well as all the music editing that goes along with it. [The budget] doesn't always allow a music producer or music company to be involved."

It helps that his clients know he's a musician, he admits, but it has also been enabled by the quality of production music: "Companies like Extreme Music and APM have so much great stuff, they've really raised the bar with what stock music can be."

On the subject of new business, Crawford reports that many states in the South are offering filmmakers tax breaks. "We've seen a good chunk of business from features. That's been a boost to us. It seems more like it was back in the early '80s here in Georgia, when there was a lot more film and television production going on."