Building a post-production facility

So, you’re going to build a post-production studio from scratch. I’ve done that, and I hope to impart some of the wisdom I’ve gained from the experience. One important key is this idea: When building audio and video suites for a post-production facility, consistency is king. Audio and video suites should have the exact same hardware, software, plug-ins, etc. This allows for transparency across any suite of that type within your facility. It also prevents workflow bottlenecks in the event of needing to alter a job but having to perform the work on a particular machine because it has a unique plug-in not installed elsewhere. There are also a myriad of other important things to consider when building.

Audio suites

Audio mixing requires quiet suites, and all of them should be configured the same way — size, shape, everything. An identical room configuration for audio production is important for job revisions because different-sized rooms will produce different-sounding mixes.

There are two ways to build voice-over booths: affordably and expensively. I have had the pleasure of doing both. Naturally, an audio room needs microphones. Every engineer will have his or her favorite. Without too much trouble, you can find the best-of-the-best of them on the Internet quite easily. Invariably, one manufacturer in voice-over recording microphones (for literally decades in the motion picture and commercial production industries) will pop up.

Breakout boxes are obviously required for integration between equipment like audio I/O (e.g., connecting audio reference monitors, etc.) and digital routing. No external audio gear other than your breakout boxes, talkback and monitoring devices should be used. This is to ensure that produced jobs are using digital processing as opposed to something processed externally. External processing is asking for trouble, especially for future revisions and matching.

Video suites

First off, use broadcast-quality reference video monitors instead of consumer-grade displays. While it’s great to save money, your reputation is only as good as your last job. In other words, look at what you’re doing. Any other type of monitor (i.e. consumer television, computer screen, etc.) will not give you a true black register, which is necessary in the trade. Resist the temptation for quick, easy and cheap. Video reference monitors will be needed in both audio and video suites for total transparency, and video breakout boxes will be needed for video I/O (e.g., connecting reference monitors, etc.).

Cables, cabling

You’re going to need a lot of cable. Coax is the way to go for long runs using MADI technology, with high-quality insulated/shielded wire for the rest. (See the “MADI” article)

Color correction suite

Many facilities have color-correction suites, and other houses farm the work out. If you plan on color grading in-house, it can generate significant income for your organization. Keep in mind that having a talented colorist is important, and they don’t come cheap. Post houses usually hire a permanent in-house colorist due to the demand for real talent.

Each color suite should have the same broadcast reference display for consistency after the job moves to full-on production. Actual hardware will vary, based on preference.

Motion graphics suite(s)

No proper facility can be without motion graphics/visual effects suites. No matter how many you have, I highly recommend that your motion graphics suites also have the same broadcast reference displays as every other system in your facility. This only makes sense. These systems should also have identical hardware, software and plug-ins. Again, actual hardware will vary, based on preference.

3D animation capabilities

As the post industry evolves (and it’s happening so quickly), many studios are competing with others via high-end CG work. These systems should be powerful and have high-end graphics cards, a lot of RAM and fast storage.

Render farms

There comes a time in many post facilities where jobs — specifically animated projects — become almost impossible to render. These projects can be large and require a massive amount of computing power. There is an art to having the right combination of equipment to form a render farm and many things to consider, such as a high-speed separate network just for your render farm, the fact that render farms can draw unimaginable loads of power, and space. Many facilities pool desktop-sized machines together and fill an entire room. However, in many cases, they consume double or even triple the electricity that an actual render node should. Find render nodes that are small, compact, packed with processors and, of course, have plenty of RAM.

Multimedia/new media suite

I like to call our Multimedia department a New Media department because we are constantly providing newer forms of media to clients and distributors. Depending on the volume of work going through your New Media department, this suite should have at least one full-on edit suite capable of producing work and pulling the same jobs that were produced in video and motion graphics suites. CD/DVD/Blu-ray labeling is important for client presentations as well as mass duplication when needed.

Video machine room

Many facilities have gone tapeless, while others truly need tape-based media. Consider how media will arrive at your facility and how it is to be ingested into your system. Also consider the fact that storing everything on hard drives and expensive storage systems may be more expensive than just building a machine room.

If you build a machine room, here are items that need to be considered for your facility as a whole and the room itself: Tri-level sync (a video signal generator device used to create multiple types of sync signals), broadcast reference monitors (in your machine room, to see what you’re doing), HD-SDI video routing system (to route/port signals to various devices), video decks (to record what you’re doing) and at least one editing station within the machine room to have the same functions as your New Media department.

Asset management

This is one of the most neglected things in the post industry. Yes, asset management can be expensive, but it’s necessary, and it will make your life easier. Consider a system that will allow you to continue growing, while keeping older media online — for years if needed. Also, think about a system that has auto-archive features and offloads projects from your expensive shared storage to near-line disk-based storage or tape-based systems.

Shared storage

When creating a post facility, shared storage is extremely important. Working from external volumes is not only dangerous and reckless, but those drives can’t handle really large jobs. Imagine working on a 4K job from a single external drive; you are likely to have performance issues. Shared storage will open a new world to your facility. I recommend Fibre Channel over other technologies such as iSCSI. Ethernet can get scary, so I wouldn’t even try that route. It isn’t worth the risk, and I have spoken to many companies that claim to provide a superior product over GigE. No way.

In regards to any software licensing that you purchase, try to obtain floating licenses. 3D animation software and many visual effects plug-ins are quite expensive. Floating licenses will give you flexibility at a better overall price point.

These are simply the basics for what you would need to construct a post-production studio. Specifics, of course, would include a budget listing equipment and software by name, with incidental and ancillary costs included. Physically, this is essentially the bare minimum of what you should be thinking about if you’re planning to build your own post-production studio.

Ryan Salazar is director of engineering and post-production technology for StudioZ Productions.