"America's Most Wanted"'s Digital Workflow

America's Most Wanted, the long-running television program that gives viewers a chance to help nab some of the country's most notorious criminals, is going digital. It recently adopted an all-digital workflow that is saving money and creating tremendous efficiencies for its producers. Switching from Beta SP acquisition and analog online, the show now acquires material digitally with Panasonic's DVCPRO 50 cameras, offlines and onlines with Avid Media Composers and a Symphony, and provides shared storage with an Avid Unity Media. In addition, producers move footage between remote locations with Telestream ClipMail Pros, and stay in touch with each other via Research In Motion's BlackBerry servers.

"Going digital here has changed my life," said Lance Heflin, America's Most Wanted's executive producer. "America's Most Wanted is a complicated show to put together, a combination of a breaking news show, a magazine show; it has filmed reenactments, with stories all over the country. To cook this cauldron up every week at the last minute is really a test."

Although its main offices are in Washington, DC, the show also relies on a Los Angeles-based West Coast satellite bureau, audio mixing at Silver Springs Studios in Maryland, and a correspondent who files stories from Georgia. Getting all of the geographically distant facilities and the internal studios in DC connected digitally was a technological feat that now pays off every day.

"Our goal is like other companies, to head in a direction that is as tapeless as possible," said Marc Kaplan, executive in charge of production. "When I can review an MPEG file on my computer, I'm saving $8 for every piece of tape I don't lay off to, and producers can just sit at their desks and click to see something. It's hard to quantify the savings and efficiencies from thatÑbut the major benefit of being tapeless is a savings of dollars."

In fact, Kaplan estimates that, in the last season, the show saved over $200,000 in Vyvx, Fed Ex, and messenger charges as well as tape stock.

The evolution to digital began in December 2000 when it became obvious to the producers that the America's Most Wanted's picture and audio quality needed help. The show constantly updates earlier stories and, because of its tight turnaround, continually re-uses portions of archived episodes. "We'd go down several generations and it really affected the video and, especially the audio," explained show Producer Chris Hamilton. "It began to sound muddy. Basically, the time had come to upgrade our look and our quality."

At that time, America's Most Wanted had four edit suites, two standalone Avid Media Composers, and two online analog suites. The producers swapped out the two analog rooms for an additional Avid Media Composer and an Avid Symphony, with Avid Unity Media tying all four rooms together. Chief among the challenges in switching out the old edit suites was the fact that the entire changeover had to be done in two weeksÑthe only two weeks out of the year when the show is pre-empted.

"It was rip Ôem out, put Ôem in," remarked Hamilton. "But we got everything up and running." The impact was immediate. "Among other efficiencies, it gave me the ability to post the show in four rooms simultaneously," said Hamilton. "I have one person as the primary editor on a show every week. As I approach Friday, I can bump someone out of the room and turn two or three rooms to my disposal, turning around a show much faster. Now, the executive producer can come in a full 24 hours earlier and we can watch the show through and make changes that we couldn't make before. It's also allowed us to incorporate breaking news on fugitive cases up until the very last minute. And that happens all the time."

The show has 15 years' worth of material in its library, all on Beta SP tapes warehoused in a storage facility. For immediate use in the new digital pipeline, producers re-purposed as many of the analog reels as possible.

"There was an initial crush of getting everything loaded in," said Hamilton. "But, as we've moved along, the new digital libraries have been a godsend. Now, we also have show templates, with bars and tone at the head and slates and countdowns, and we're able to just drop in the animation we need." With enough animations on-hand to take care of immediate needs, Hamilton next turned his attention to creating an entirely new look for the show's many re-usable clips.

"We wanted to upgrade the look of the show, so we started updating animation reels," he said. "We created discrete elements with Photoshop and After Effects and exported them as QuickTime files to Avid. They never even saw tape."

To ensure accessibility to this all-important new digital library, Hamilton has taped it out to DVCPRO so, if for any reason there was a drive failure, the animations would be readily available. However, he notes that Avid Unity Media allows the mirroring of part of the drive space, creating another copy of the elements and extra insurance for the show's production crunch.

Another new tool that's creating enormous efficiencies for the show is the Telestream ClipMail Pro, which allows footage to be moved between geographically distant locations and also stores clips on an FTP "reviews" server which show producers can access from their personal computers. America's Most Wanted's four Telestream boxes connect the Washington, DC office with the West Coast bureau, Silver Springs Studios audio facility, and the correspondent in Georgia.

"The Telestream is fantastic," said Heflin. "We outsource audio sections, and those pieces are shipped back and forth with Telestream, and we can view them with a website. I can sit at my desk or in a hotel room and pull out my laptop and be part of a screening session or watch the latest cuts and approve."

In the pre-digital days, in order to see, for example, a piece from the West Coast bureau, the producers had to book satellite time to transmit and record it, then gather everyone together in a room to view it. They'd then phone the L.A. producer with feedback. After he re-edited the piece, the Los Angeles producer would Fed Ex the tape to Washington, DC.

With the Telestream ClipMail Pro, now a three-minute piece can be sent at 8 Mbps, which takes about 20 minutes to receive in its entirety. The producer will send the piece twice, once in a lower resolution MPEG-1 format and again in broadcast-quality format. In the Washington, DC headquarters, everyone can open up a full-screen version of the MPEG-1 file and watch it on their desktop PC. The broadcast quality version is exported to DVCPRO tape and loaded onto the Avid Unity system for instant use by the editors.

For audio sweetening at Silver Springs Studios, Hamilton sends a VHS-quality MPEG-2 file with burned-in timecode via the Telestream and an Avid OMF file, which contains all the discrete audio tracks, onto the FTP server. "They just line-up the OMF with the video reference and do a complete stereo mix," he said. "We view the stereo mix over a fiber optic line and can make tweaks in realtime. We import the stereo mix right back into the Avid into the sequence it was made forÑand it never touches tape."

"We find the Telestream boxes invaluable," said Kaplan. "I don't have editors waiting around. The streamlined efficiency through the utilization of the Telestream box is huge to us. It's a perfect fit for the digital world that we're creating here at America's Most Wanted."

The latest version of the Telestream software will soon allow even greater efficiencies. With the ClipMail box's ability to be controlled like a Sony tape deck, users will be able to export the material directly into the server, without ever going to tape.

By going digital, America's Most Wanted has expanded its capabilities, taking many previously outsourced tasks in-house. It will soon add a Chicago-based correspondent, outfitted with a fifth Telestream ClipMail Pro box. It has added a second graphic artist and two Alias|Wavefront Maya platforms, taking nearly all the show's animations in-house. With Curious Software Curious Maps software, it is also creating its own animated 2D maps in-house. And it has added two Avid DV Xpress edit systems, replacing out-of-house editing of long-form pieces.

"The beauty of that is that once a long-form project is approved in its rough-cut form, we can grab the project folder and email it or put it on a floppy and give it to the editor on the Unity system," said Hamilton. "When the rough cut is approved, we can take the Avid project onto the DV Xpress system, and it's totally compatible with the Avid Unity in terms of all the data. We just link back to the media, and the project is mostly built."

To create a fully useable archive, America's Most Wanted is also in the process of adding a Virage asset management system. Once the clips are digitized, they will all be browseable by key word via the company Intranet.

"Those clips, once they're digitized, will allow us to pull up all the appropriate clips, pick one and locate the reel," said Hamilton. "It will be a bit of a time-consuming process to put in place...but will save us a lot of time once it's done."

"I'm loving the results," declared Hamilton, echoing all the sentiments of the show's producers.

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