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The inside story of reality TV giants Bunim/Murray Productions, and their trip from Avid Media Composer to Apple Final Cut Pro...and back again.
We make reality television. Lots of it.
It's a very post-intensive process. Our shows come alive in the editing room, so we're very sensitive to any changes in the editing process. We're constantly looking for ways to improve the process -- and wary of any, if this is a word, "deprovements."
I was invited to Cupertino in February 2011, to see the first incarnation of Final Cut Pro X -- virtually the same presentation that they gave at NAB a few months later. My feeling in February was, "This is interesting, but obviously it's not ready for primetime. I hope by the time they release it, some of these things will be addressed."
Over the last 10 months, Apple has addressed some of those issues, and they are working on others, but in my opinion they've diverted from what we, as a company, need.
Apple has been using a quote of Wayne Gretzky's that "you should skate to where the puck will be." They're doing what they need to do, but their needs just don't necessarily mesh with our needs.
When the big brouhaha began last April at NAB, I was quick to say, "We're not doing anything until 2012," because a large organization like Bunim/Murray can't just turn on a dime.
In fairness to Apple, I also wanted to give them a chance to address all of the criticism that came up. Since then, I've seen enough of their development to know that the direction they're headed in still isn't the right choice for us. As a result, after years of building our editing workflow around Final Cut Pro, we have decided to return to Avid Media Composer and Avid ISIS as the heart of our post process.
This was not a decision that we took lightly. Change is inevitable. But, different is not necessarily better. Our editorial process requires some specific features that seem to be disappearing from Final Cut.
In contrast, Avid offers an end-to-end solution that allows us to work efficiently on projects in a large shared storage, collaborative environment. The ISIS storage solution also allows the kind of workgroup interactivity that is essential to our workflow.
Bunim/Murray Productions started twenty-five years ago when Jon Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim shared the same agent. Mary-Ellis had a background in soap operas, Jon had a background in TV news. That combination of soap opera storytelling and documentary sensibilities came together to create the groundbreaking hit for MTV, The Real World
. Bunim/Murray currently produces ten shows on four networks, including The Real World
, The Bad Girls Club, Love Games, Keeping up with the Kardashians
, and Project Runway.
The Real World: San Diego. Back from l to r: Frank, Sam, Priscilla, Nathan. Front from l to r: Ashley, Zach, Alexandra. Photo courtesy MTV. © Ian Spanier Photography 2011.
We generally have more than a hundred editing seats. It depends on how busy we are, and it depends on how you define an editor, but "more than a hundred" gives you an idea of the scope that we're talking about.
Every show we do draws on massive quantities of media: thousands of hours per show. A show like The Real World
generates thousands of hours of media for one season. Project Runway
generates a little bit less media because they shoot for a shorter period of time, but they also employ multiple cameras. One Runway
segment may use up to twenty-two cameras!
KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS -- Season: 6 -- Pictured: (l-r) Khloé Kardashian Odom, Kourtney Kardashian, Kendell Jenner, Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian -- James White/E! Entertainment ©2011 E! Entertainment Television LLC
I've been the Senior Vice President of Post Production for the past eight years, but I've been here almost from the beginning, starting as an editor on The Real World
Season 3 in San Francisco.
When I started, they were using a three-quarter inch linear system called the "Strassner." It basically tied together two 3/4 inch tape machines with a basic bare bones PC, and it generated a very simple EDL. You could not do dissolves or wipes -- it was cuts-only. We did the first few seasons of The Real World
using that system.
And then, along came this thing called the Avid. It was very bare bones. It was extremely expensive, and storage cost more than a nice sports car. It also wasn't ready to handle to the massive amount of footage that goes with reality television. We thought, "Okay, this is interesting, but it really won't work for us."
I have on my desk what I call my $5000 paperweight. It's an old hard drive, literally, $5000 dollars, and it was 3 gigabytes. The price of storage eventually came down to the point where we could actually afford enough storage to make it worthwhile. It was really Moore's Law catching up with our requirements.
Once that price/performance curve came down to the point where it made economic sense, we never looked back.
We adopted Avid Media Composer around Season 7 of The Real World
, and we used Media Composer for the next four or five years, eventually, getting up to the point where we were running forty-eight seats on two Unity systems for the shows we were working on.
Season 9 of Project Runway is back with 20 all-new designers (L to R: Top Row) Danielle Everine, Rafael Cox, David Chum, Serena da Conceicao, Gunnar Deatherage, Anya Ayoung-Chee, Bryce Black, Fallene Wells, Julie Tierney, Laura Kathleen, Olivier Green, Becky Ross, Cecilia Motwani, Kimberly Goldson (Bottom Row) Bert Keeter, Amanda Perna, Joshua Christensen, Joshua Mckinley, Viktor Luna, Anthony Ryan Auld. Photo Credit Courtesy of Lifetime Television. ©Jeff Mauritzen
Final Cut Pro kind of snuck in the back door. We were using two VHS decks tape to tape, trying to make string outs. They came to me and said, "Can you help us out? Is there anything you can do that's better than this?" Final Cut Pro was in version 3 at the time and I said, "Hey, let's look at this thing. It's not too expensive and it's pretty hard not to do better than two VHS decks."
We brought it in-house and loved it, but it was another couple of years before Final Cut Pro progressed to the point where it was a viable alternative for our core editing.
At that point, I received an NAB invite into one of Apple's private meeting rooms to talk about their brand new shared storage solution called Xsan. I said, "We'd really love to be a guinea pig test site, for Xsan." They said, "Well, it's not ready. It's still in beta form." And I said, "That's okay. We're willing to try it and play with it."
That's how we became one of the first early adopters of the Xsan shared storage environment. Once we had shared storage, we were able to seriously consider FCP as a viable alternative to Avid. We switched first on The Real World
around 2004. A year later, once we could see that it actually worked, we switched the whole company.
…AND BACK AGAIN
Avid Media Composer 6
Our decision to leave Avid years ago was less about technology, and more about economics and -- I think this is common knowledge in the industry -- that going back five, six or seven years, Avid had become complacent, and didn't necessary respond to the needs of the community.
So what is it now about Avid that made us switch? It's two things. One, it's not the same company we left, and two, their reaffirmation of their commitment to the professional has been very clear.
However, Final Cut is probably the best thing to happen to Avid as far as a user-company relationship. It was a wake-up call for Avid to realize that the customer did matter, that they did need to listen, respond and engage their end users.
Over the last few years, I have certainly been watching Avid, and they have changed. It's not the company that we left years ago. That's clear from both a technical point of view and from a management point of view -- personalities, people…all that sort of thing.
Not every show has the same workflow, and it always changes. It seems like every week we get a different format handed to us.
In general, our acquisition format of choice is Sony XDCAM HD disk. We also record a fair amount of media on the Sony EX-3. Then we have surveillance cameras, GoPros, HD-SLRs and things like that. We also equip some of our producers with cheap consumer cameras, not because they are cheap, but for "stealth access." In some of the social situations that we find ourselves in, a large professional camera would be unwelcome.
But, as you know, those consumer-grade cameras lack time code, and that can be a problem for post. The one thing that I can confidently tell you about our workflow is that it is constantly changing to accommodate new camera formats.
So, who's going to unpack all of these heavy boxes?
For audio, we've been on Pro Tools from the beginning. Even when we switched to Final Cut, we never switched away from Pro Tools. With the new Media Composer 6, Avid is offering some interesting and unique interoperability with Pro Tools.
The new Video Satellite option means that we can just sync up our Media Composer project directly to Pro Tools to play back, and not have to create a QuickTime or DNxHD movie to mix to. Maybe it seems like a simple step, but that one step, if you're talking about hour-length shows, can save us many hours per day.
As we evaluated Avid ISIS relative to our previous experience with Xsan, we decided, "In for a penny, in for a pound." If we were going to make this switch, we decided to go all in and adopt the entire Avid workflow, including storage. Having used Avid Unity in the past, I was certainly aware of the advantages that Avid offers for a "group based workflow," so while there are other options available for generic storage that is compatible with shared Avid systems, we felt the ISIS 5000 was a good fit for us in terms of capability and cost. We are planning to install approximately 250 terabytes of ISIS storage.
Avid ISIS 5000 with Management Controls
We're also switching to Avid Symphony. We're very happy with the Final Cut Pro-Color workflow that we had, but Symphony offers an even better "all-in-one-box" type of solution. We are interested in perhaps exploring the Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve workflow as well, so there are a lot of things to be interested and excited about.
TOOLS FOR STORYTELLERS
We are storytellers. Our audience, the people who watch the shows that we create, they don't care how we did it. Nobody tunes in to watch an Avid or Final Cut Pro show. They tune in to watch great stories and interesting personalities.
My job is to make sure that our team has the best choice of tools in their kit, and in my opinion, this change reflects that. We're doing what we need to do to stay ahead of the curve, to stay competitive, and to provide our editors with the best tools possible to be great storytellers.