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THE END FOR FACILITIES?
by David Fox
With DV and computer-based editing, many producers are creating their own in-house post-production areas. But what does this mean for facilities houses?
A decade ago, independent producer Bernard Clark had a lot of series in production and decided to build his own post-production area. It was primarily a creative decision, as he believes you retain more control over the result by keeping everything in one place, but declining costs made the decision easier.
At the time a three-machine one-inch format edit suite cost about £500,000, but Beta SP had just been introduced, and he built the first component SP suite in the UK for £220,000. However, he says costs have reduced so much now that it is worthwhile for almost any producer to have their own editing systems. Clark Productions most recent online Avid suite cost £40,000 "and it does a great deal more with better quality than Beta SP," he says. He now has no tape suites, but a lot of Avids.
With more new channels coming on stream, overall production has to increase, but most will be of low cost material, says Paul Styles, director information, communications and entertainment division with consultants KPMG. This is because production is still the biggest cost in broadcasting, so it is here cost savings must be made. At BSkyB, for example, he says 40% of income is spent on content compared to 30% on delivery.
If producers move post-production in house, and use low-cost equipment, they can keep greater control of the budget, and have one less company in the chain trying to make a profit.
"There will be a role for traditional editing, there will still be some high end stuff, but low budget productions will seek an alternative route," says Jim Brown, head of post-production and graphic design, BBC Resources.
The proliferation of low-cost stations has already taken place in radio, and Brown believes "TV is following on from where radio was a few years ago. Radio journalists have been using desktop editing for several years."
Although he admits new technology could "sound the death knell for traditional facilities companies," and believes some facilities will suffer because of the introduction of cheap DV systems, he says it is possible to survive, so long as you adapt to users needs. In the case of the BBC, that means supporting some very low budget productions, such as the arts programme, The Frame, commissioned by Flextech for the UK Arena channel. This uses DV, Optima offline, low cost PC graphics and an Avid MCXpress for online, before dumping the programme to DV tape again.
With a user-driven system like this, the crucial thing is "what happens when something goes wrong." So, as a facility, BBC Resources has set up a Desktop Support service, which is operated via a Web site on the BBC Intranet service. It gives general advice, such as how to do video grabs, and a technician can offer remote support by logging in to the system for diagnostics and software support. They can even take control of the PC and carry out a particular operation or just talk the user through it. Training is also part of the package. As the BBC begins to set up more Production Villages for individual departments he says this type of support will have to increase as conventional support becomes more difficult when the user base is spread out over a wide area.
Getting What You Pay For
Clark says that on very low budget programmes "post-production is what you do when you really should have gone home," which leads to burnout and is unfair to staff.
The Frame's budget is £13,000 per hour, and Brown says it proved difficult to make a complex programme for this. While it worked well from a viewer's point of view, the technical skills suffered, which is why it has now become less ambitious. As some producers argue, it may be that to do a low budget production well actually requires more experienced people rather than cheap, new staff.
Brown believes programmes are best served by users not solely trying to do everything themselves. "It is not a case of where will you edit, but who will help you achieve the results." He sees the shift from dedicated editors to multiskilling as only being a reasonable option "for very low budget programmes which don't have an alternative," as it is not necessarily the best use of resources.
Rowan Bray, facilities manager, Arena Digital, is sure one thing won't change, whatever happens, and that is that people matter most, as they, rather than the machines, make the programmes. "Ideas have to be communicated to viewers, and you've got to be able to tell a story and make it look attractive," she says.
"Looking back five years, one thing has stayed the same: the ability and creativity of staff and the ability to communicate with clients. What has changed is the technology. It is all now non-linear," says Bray.
She thinks the technology changes have been advantageous, and that it is just a matter of using them to achieve the best results. However, she admits clients are also changing: "They need more for less," she says.
Although equipment prices are coming down, and with less need to compress thanks to faster, larger disk drives the difference between offline and online is disappearing, Bray believes production companies won't find it cheaper to do everything in house, simply because of all the peripheral equipment it takes to run an online suite, such as audio mixers and waveform monitors, which are more difficult to integrate in a user friendly fashion into a computer-based solution. "A facilities house provides facilities, plural, not just editing," but also graphics, grading, dubbing, etc., which she says programme makers will still need to access, especially where productions are using archive material from film, various tape formats and different standards. She says this will not be practical in a Production Village and feels that areas like duplication, audio and graphics will stay strong as producers are not taking them in house.
However, of the £4 million or so BBC Resources spends each year on capital equipment, Brown expects an increasing amount of this will be used to create more Production Villages, which cost about £250,000 with two Avid onlines, one offline and a graphics workstation. To compensate, it will be spending a lot less on tape systems. This is part of a trend which saw the BBC reduce its offline capacity by 25% in 1999, but increase online by 50%.
One of Clark's productions, Lost Animals, which has been sold around the world, has had to be delivered in five minute, ten minute, half-hour, and hour packages (and even a three minute version), which he says puts real pressure on editing skills. While an Avid can cope with all the repackaging needed, "it still requires an experienced, talented editor," he told a seminar at the Production Show in London.
Although people can be trained in such skills, Hector McLeod, managing director, Glassworks, says that getting a person who has a sufficiently talented "eye" for the job requires someone special (he usually recruits from art college).
"When you are teaching someone to use editing software, you are not teaching them to use software, you are teaching them to edit," he adds.
The BBC is so large, says Brown, that it has lots of different ways of giving people skills, from three year training schemes to researchers and assistant producers having to quickly learn new, basic skills.
He believes multiskilling is primarily being done by young staff on low-budget programmes, but that as they move up to higher budgets and more prestigious productions, they will also move to using more traditional facilities.
"The only thing technology does is to enhance our creativity," says McLeod. As the equipment comes down in price (the Inferno that Glassworks uses cost about £500,000 three years ago and the equivalent costs some £150,000 today), the proportion of its charges spent on people is rising (a freelance operator gets about £1,000 a day).
But high end facilities, still have to have high-end (and cost) equipment. "We need to turn commercials around very quickly, so can't wait to render or have unreliable equipment," he explains.
What To Do?
If facilities are to survive and thrive, McLeod believes that "as an industry, we will have to think about other markets, other forums to exercise our skills. Content is one of these areas."
He sees Glassworks "heading for a fall" if it continues to do what it does now, so it will have to move into creating content itself and become a rights holder, probably doing digital animation.
Bray also expects Arena will start having to become co-production partners with clients, and will probably come to arrangements with channels to provide total production packages.
Styles agrees that "bartering facilities with co-producers is the beginning of a trend, but it will require planning with brokerage experts and new approaches to accounting to allow for residual values," which he says may not always be achieved.
McLeod thinks that "our investment in hardware and software will probably be reduced over the next three years and the money saved from that will probably go into research and development," such as of plug-ins to its systems, to allow Glassworks continue to offer its own unique attractions.