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State of the Industry: Post/Broadcast

Only a couple of decades ago, a small, modestly-equipped commercial audio post production room could command an hourly rate that was the envy of the big multitrack recording studios.

Only a couple of decades ago, a small, modestly-equipped commercial audio post production room could command an hourly rate that was the envy of the big multitrack recording studios. No longer— like every other sector in the audio industry, post is feeling the downward pressure on budgets.

One price driver is competition from home-based practitioners. “Post is now feeling the same threat that music did in the ’90s, as far as people taking stuff into their houses and apartments,” says Phillip Fuller, VP engineering and technology at Technicolor-Post- Works New York.”

“In New York generally, our real estate taxes have gone up 25, 30 percent in the past couple of years, and everyone’s budgets have gone down. We are getting less per hour than what I got when I started at PostWorks seven years ago. And those same clients have more product, because of trying to fill the 5,000 different TV channels that are out there now.”

PostWorks handles some commercial work, but as suggested by its seven TV mix stages, three Dolby-approved stages and ADR stage, its focus is television: 75 percent reality TV and 25 percent episodic TV and features. Happily, Governor Mario Cuomo signed some tax incentives this year—a 30 percent refundable tax credit if 75 percent of the post is handled in New York City; 35 percent if upstate—that are bringing in plenty of work, according to Fuller.

“It’s about a 3/4-mile walk from my house to our furthest facility, and there’s easily at least one or two TV shows or movies shooting every day on my walk. We’re starting to see all that work in dailies, and onward.”

In Hollywood, too, even on the lots, budgets are shrinking. “We’re seeing less tent-pole films, and more of the $40M-and-under productions,” says Tom McCarthy, executive vice president, Sony Pictures Post Production. The facility handles Sony projects, but also plenty of third-party work, and has seen a recent upswing in TV post.

“Filmmakers are looking at new ways to lower costs, while still providing quality high-dollar sound on the screen. That puts us in a position of needing to be extremely flexible in workflows, and thinking out of the box,” says McCarthy.

At Producers, an audio and video production and post production facility servicing advertising agencies, corporate clients and, thanks to its location in Baltimore, MD, government agencies, turnaround times are faster and the three audio rooms are expected to be more productive. “We’re doing a lot more things in less time,” says Bob Bragg, senior sound designer/mixer.

Federal legislation has increased the workload slightly: “In December of last year the CALM Act went into effect. We saw that coming and got the necessary plug-ins to accommodate that monitoring and metering,” says Bragg.

Producers features two rooms equipped with three-year-old Fair-light Constellation systems, each also running Avid Pro Tools 10 rigs for file transfer and compatibility checks. Earlier this year, Bragg helped sound designer/mixer Tim St. Clair bring a third room online with a Thunderbolt- enabled Pro Tools Native system running a Blackmagic video card with an Avid Artist controller.

Bragg has noticed a number of client-driven trends over the last several years: “About a third of our work is done with little or no supervision from our clients. They don’t have the time to be present; they’re juggling a lot more at their agency or corporation. We have to rely on sending approval files in all sorts of formats so they can check a video and audio rough-cut on their iPhones for content and make comments.”

In addition, clients’ projects now remain on the file server. “Everybody wants access at a moment’s notice. We doubled our storage server capability this year—we’re well over 10 TB now.”

Projects may come into Sony for any single part of the workflow—audio post, scoring and a range of video post services—but some clients use it as a one-stop shop. “As we see these budgets reduce, we’re offering a bundled service deal. Depending on the amount of post production services, we’re giving a cost incentive back for allowing us to be involved more in the film,” reports McCarthy.

But the demarcation between post tasks has started blurring, he observes. “The new filmmakers are coming from a newer, stronger-developed digital environment. They’ve been creating their first projects on their own, doing the directing, the editing, sound editing and mixing. So we have to be more flexible in the way we utilize certain equipment and workflows, and how we create a process for each individual film. And the filmmaker is dictating how they want that process to be handled.”

Fuller, too, is seeing the adoption of hybrid workflows; indeed, he’s incorporated them at PostWorks. “On our new stage that we’ve just opened, we have a 32-fader ICON, and right next to it, we have a Euphonix Fusion console. We did that combination— there are three different houses in New York that have that same combo of technology—mainly because there are still those old-school mixers that are used to a channel. Then you have, more and more, the Pro Tools mixer. But it still hasn’t merged totally together.”

On the Euphonix, Fuller has observed, “Things are going in and out of the Pro Tools recorder three or four times. That’s where our pre-assign chains all go to plug-ins now, and are all running in the same recorder as the stems are being recorded. The old school guys are trying to make the Euphonix function like a [Neve] DFC, which it doesn’t really. It’s close, but it’s not as intuitive.”

He also comments, “One thing that’s interesting is the resurgence of MADI. I’ve always been a big MADI supporter, from [Sony] 3348 days, and I worked for Neve for a couple of years doing the DFCs. My new stage is only MADI; it’s all wrapped around the Euphonix PatchNet system. Every Pro Tools [system] has a MADI box.”

Cost savings are driving technology choices at Producers in Baltimore, too. “The margins are tighter on projects. We’re definitely turning out more work in less time,” says Bragg. “We’re using tools like Source Connect in lieu of ISDN as a cost savings. In some cases, we’ve done looping [ADR] sessions via Skype.” Series such as Veep and House of Cards, filmed locally, visit Producers for ADR.

Bragg will be at the New York AES Convention checking new tools, especially software, he says, “in the form of plug-ins and new versions of editing systems that come with some presets that are time savers. Or are better able to help you keep your presets for particular types of work.”

Over the past four or five years, deliverables have transitioned fully to files: “No one is getting hard media anymore.”

Five years ago, Baltimore didn’t have the fiber infrastructure to support large file transfers, due to political wrangling. Now, says Bragg, “We’re uploading HD television spots by the dozens every day that have to be delivered and QC’d at the station overnight.”

Yet the challenge now is to keep the quality level up, he says. “People aren’t asking, ‘What is the largest file size we can do to keep the quality up?’ They’re saying the opposite: ‘What is the smallest?’”

“Television always seemed to be the place that technological change came out of, because their schedules are condensed, their budgets are lower, and because of the demands to bring high-quality product into the home,” says McCarthy. “Television always seemed to be the first willing to look at new hybrid-type work solutions, or other unorthodox—at the time—gear and implementations.” But with film budgets down, he says, “In 10 to 15 years from now, who’s to say it won’t be just one hub—a production operation where picture, sound and mixing are all taking place in one centralized area?”

The ubiquity of Pro Tools in the post workflow has made it possible for sound artists to slip between roles, he says. “I’m seeing sound supervisors and designers building a relationship from the beginning of the prep of sound, through the temp mixes, up to the pre-mixes, and that sound supervisor or designer possibly stepping into a mixing chair. I also see re-recording mixers that have really embraced Pro Tools technology and are just as capable of reversing that and becoming a supervising sound editor.”

While Sony is content with its Harrison MPC4-D consoles and Avid ICON and D-Control systems, he says, “We’re going to evaluate new technology,” such as Avid’s S6. “Based on what our artists feel will help them create and work better with filmmakers, we’re going to take a strong look at investing in that technology.” Filmmakers, picture editors and directors will also dictate what technology gets adopted, says McCarthy.

“Everybody is looking at how these lines are getting blurred now, and how to best do a project. I think if we’re not flexible in the way we operate, and in the tools we offer, we’re just not going to succeed in today’s market, and certainly not in the future.”