What If It All Burned Down Tonight?

It's the end of a long, hard day at a small production company, and a wave of tribulations washes me out to dreamland. The old steam-powered Mac in Edit Room Four took five hours to compress a four-minute program. A faulty patch deleted the blue channel from a component analog spot dub. And it smells like a power supply is going down somewhere in the machine room.
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It's the end of a long, hard day at a small production company, and a wave of tribulations washes me out to dreamland. The old steam-powered Mac in Edit Room Four took five hours to compress a four-minute program. A faulty patch deleted the blue channel from a component analog spot dub. And it smells like a power supply is going down somewhere in the machine room.

It is here, at the feathered edge of consciousness, that the thought arises, part nightmare, part dream: What if it all burned down tonight?

I'd get the call from the alarm company, and find the shiny red trucks watering down the rubble of the old plant. Except for a few recognizable shapes poking through the ashes, it's all obliterated--no more cameras, computers, VTRs... nothing.

AN UNCERTAIN TRAGEDY

In some ways, it would be sad. I'd lose my collection of plastic hotel room keys. My 3-inch stack of yellow Sticky Notes would spontaneously combust, and I'd have to go look up the pixel dimensions of a 16:9 PAL frame all over again.

I'd take the good with the bad, though. The analog audio/video router would be gone, gone, gone, and I'd never have to replace those leaky power supply capacitors again. There'd be an awful lot of laminate countertops incinerated, our last big stylistic throwback to the '80s. The last half-dozen of our CRTs would go kaput, their picture tubes imploding in the inferno.

And the G4s would melt. That's the good news. Because short of a cataclysmic loss, why else would you discard perfectly serviceable computers? I mean, computers that could still boot in less than 15 minutes? And how could you dream of acquiring new, state-of-the-art technology if the old stuff still powered up each morning?

So that's the dream scenario: Our production hardware vanishes overnight, the insurance company pays off, we start over. How differently would we build out a 2006-era production business?

First, there's the matter of "philosophy of infrastructure." I'll go out on a jargon-encrusted limb here and say that broadcasters have it easy: Every manufacturer, developer and systems integrator offers a "clear roadmap" for a "format-agnostic broadcast infrastructure," a technology paradigm, if you will, based on servers, network switches, and database software. Decidedly non-TV words like "ingest" and "client terminal" pepper the broadcast outfitter's catalog, while such words as "tripod" and "microphone" are conspicuously absent.

Down here in Production Land, we have a philosophy of infrastructure, too: If you buy it, it has to make money.

Let's start with the fundamentals. One of the hottest trends in TV is the so-called "IT infrastructure" approach, and it's right on the mark. After all, it's all gonna wind up as bits and bytes somewhere in the production process. Fiber backbone? Copper gigabit network? HDTV-capable broadband coax? One-hundred-and-ten ohm AES audio lines? As with every other aspect of our hardware, the selection you make will remain current for about 10 weeks, after which you'll wish you had chosen the next hottest trend.

My solution: wireways and cable trays which run everywhere--to every room in the shop--and which require nothing more sophisticated than a screwdriver to access. No snakes, no busted ceiling tiles, no fiberglass rashes. There's no question here: You will be adding, removing and changing the wires and cables you install. As the saying goes, change is the only thing that remains certain; don't fight it, but instead plan for it at every turn.

I'd try to apply a similar ethic to the four pillars of the daily grind--shoot, edit, sound and graphics.

DIVERSITY RULES

Once upon a time, homogeneity seemed to be an overarching goal. An "all Betacam facility" or "an Avid house" would be an orderly, logical, structured environment from which to work, one which removed life's little uncertainties. Over the years, however, brutal reality has taught us that you can't necessarily depend on a single choice--technology, format or philosophy--to carry you through all kinds of situations. Our new facility would have to accommodate that uncertainty.

I'm thinking of a space where multiple edit rooms don't really need to be all the same brand; Final Cut HD where it makes sense, Avid Nitris elsewhere, for instance. Sharing identically codec-ed media sounds ideal, but in practice, it's not always necessary on a project-by-project basis.

If I had a chance to recast our camera lineup, I think I'd want one or two big, beautiful cameras, format-agile, if possible. And then I want a fleet of smaller cameras, HDV units like the Sony Z1U, which records DV and DVCAM as well. I wouldn't buy many open-face lighting instruments. These days, they tend to sit unused in their cases while we repeatedly drag out the Chimeras and Rifas and little fresnels. And, of course, a ton of accessories, both camera and grip. That's one area where we don't demand that our purchases generate billable income.

As for sound and graphics, there isn't an awful lot of hardware to buy these days--software defines your capabilities. A good prefab announce booth and an expensive mic, sure; but everything else revolves around software, an industrial-grade computing platform and an appropriate space to work in. In fact, I think I'd try to allocate more workspaces for nothing in particular... just a comfy place where you can stick a processor and monitor--application TBD. I sure wish I had one or two right now, for tasks like compression and DVD authoring.

Of course, there are the other little mistakes I'd love to correct--more air conditioning, better power, a larger tape library. But the big revelation is that our highly specialized, purpose-built facilities weren't the most forward-looking thing we could have done; it's clear now that flexibility rules the day, and is the one thing that's likely to remain essential.

No, I'm not really praying for fire, flood, earthquake or other cataclysm, just dreaming. The real question is whether, given the opportunity, I would consciously try to shape and direct the changes that affect us, or whether this dream, like so many, evaporates into the ether at dawn, its lessons unlearned.

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at walter@mmgi.tv.