Behind the Lens: Creating Community: A TV workflow that expands creativity and squeezes dollars
COW Library : Broadcasting : Debra Kaufman : Behind the Lens: Creating Community: A TV workflow that expands creativity and squeezes dollars
Visit the "Community" panel at NAB:Tuesday, 4/12/2011 02:00 PM - 03:00 PM Room Number Room N109
With episodes that riff on everything from feature film and TV genres to 80's pop culture, "Community" delivers its humor through imaginative writing, innovative story structure and quirky performances. Innovation is also the hallmark of the series file-based production workflow, which is unusually flexible and economical. What is the creative genesis of "Community's" motley crew of characters, unusual story lines and meta-humor? How has the show built a loyal and passionate audience using twitter and social networking? What are the benefits and challenges of its almost exclusively in-house post production workflow - shooting on HD-XDCAM, ingesting and editing XDCAM natively on Avid Mojo DX and sound mixing in an editing room. A look at the creative, onset capture and post processes for one of broadcast television's most intelligent and funny comedy series.
Creator/executive producer Dan Harmon, left.
Community, the half-hour NBC comedy distributed by Sony Pictures TV and NBC, is one of the more quirky, inventive shows on TV. Created by Dan Harmon, Community's premise is that disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale) has gone back to get a real college degree and teams up with a disparate group of oddballs in a study group: his love interest Britta (Gillian Jacobs), the naive Annie (Alison Brie), curmudgeonly Pierce (Chevy Chase), former high school quarterback Troy (Donald Glover) and his pal Abed (Danny Pudi), an obsessed film student, along with single mother/born-again Christian Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and former Spanish teacher nemesis Senor Chang.
The show, which debuted in September 2009 and has just been greenlit for a third season, features inside humor, pop-culture references and film cliches to frame its stories. Popular past episodes have included Dungeons & Dragons, an entirely stop-motion animated show, nods to Pulp Fiction, The Godfather and My Dinner with Andre, and the apocalypse via a world-annihilating paintball war.
Behind the wildly popular Community, is another community, made up of the show runners, producers, cinematographer, crew and post production experts that have experimented with new technologies to come up with the workflow that allows maximum creative flexibility at minimum expense.
Creator/executive producer Harmon got his start in stand-up comedy, improv and moved on to screenwriting (Monster House). He then founded Channel 101 and partnered with Sarah Silverman to create her Comedy Central series, The Sarah Silverman Program before pitching Community, which was inspired by his own community college experiences, to various network executives.
Executive producers/directors Joe Russo and Anthony Russo--both of whom played a key role in the Emmy-winning, critically acclaimed show Arrested Development among their other credits--started researching new technology from the very beginning to find ways they could get efficiencies and keep their creative options open. Phil Squyres, senior VP of technical operations at Sony Pictures TV recalls the early conversations, after the pilot was shot with the ARRI D-21 and recording onto SR tape.
"The Russos were interested in a couple of workflow options, including a file-based workflow," he says. "They knew enough about it that they knew there were certain speed efficiencies with this workflow. They also expressed an interest in setting up their own post operation. Not just cutting offline, preferably in HD, but also finishing the show short of color grading in their edit bay, so they could make last-minute changes and save some money."
"They weren't afraid of new technology," adds Squyres. "In fact, they were a little aggressive, asking in one of our early meetings about using DSLRs."
Although DSLRs have now been used on a variety of TV and film projects, this conversation took place well over two years ago when DSLR usage was truly an experiment. "This was before the cameras were capable of doing 24P and could only shoot 30 fps," says Squyres. "That's the primary reason I said, wait a minute, let's see what else is out there."
Joe Russo notes that they researched cameras for a year, from Canon to RED, examining each camera's workflow and trying to figure out what was the best fit. Cinematographer James Hawkinson shot the show's first 26 episodes, replaced by Gary Hatfield, who was the show's camera operator. "As a producer working in this day and age and economy, everything is about cutting costs and the belt is tighter than it's ever been," he says. "If you want to maintain quality, you have to find out how to do things expeditiously because time equals money. It's part of a whole philosophy in place: how can we work quickly and easily and still get a great product."
COMMUNITY -- "Political Developments & Uncivil Disobedience" Episode 216 -- Pictured: Chevy Chase as Pierce -- Photo by: Lewis Jacobs/NBC
Squyres had just helped set up The Dr. Oz Show, in a partnership with Harpo Productions, in New York and shared what he learned about using the Sony XDCAM format as a recording deck. "I knew a lot about the format and what it could do on the post side, which is the primary reason we chose it for that show," he says. "I shared that information with the Russos. I said, if you like the look of the ARRI D-21 and it has to be tethered, why not tether it to the Sony XDCAM deck and get the advantages of the workflow, which is essentially file-based?"
That started the conversation about the possibilities. Producer Jake Aust, in charge of Community's post-production, began testing the XDCAM format, which had just become 4:2:2 and 24P. "We took the pilot, half a day's work of production and converted it to XDCAM, set up an Avid in Phil's lab, brought an editor in and had him edit it natively," says Aust. "We didn't want transcoding or going to tape. This particular 4:2:2 50-megabit codec was also new for Avid, and they really committed to the workflow as well. In the beginning it was a bit buggy, and Avid sent out a programmer who sat with us, working through everything, writing patches and installing them."
"That was the germ of the idea… to look at all the technology on the landscape, assess them and create a new approach for the show in its first season," he says.
One of the challenges going in to the show was the fact that the Russos tend to shoot a tremendous amount of footage; the show shoots an average of 40 to 50 hours per 22-minute episode and this season's finale--two half-hours shot over two weeks--shot 90 hours per episode. "What I love about the XD drive, which records on a disk and holds an hour's worth of footage, is that it's already archival," says Russo. "You give it to post and they rip files off that at eight times the speed." He also points to the fact that the hour-long disk makes it cheaper to run the camera. "We don't cut, because people run to make-up or go to the bathroom and you lose the energy," he says. "By not cutting, we shorten our day by keeping the camera rolling and clearing out those 10-minute segments when people disappear."
COMMUNITY -- "Dungeons and Dragons" Episode 214 -- Pictured: Joe Russo, Alison Brie "Annie" -- Photo by: Lewis Jacobs/NBC
The ARRI Alexa will replace the ARRI D-21 next year, says Russo, who notes that the Alexa "allows for less lighting, so we'll be saving more money." "I love the ARRI Alexa," says Russo. "It's a game changer. It limits our costs so all the money we do have is aimed towards the creative." In addition to the ARRI D-21, Community also occasionally uses the Sony EX-CAM. "We did a mockumentary episode where we monkeyed around with the Sony and we liked how it cut in with the ARRI D-21," he recalls. "It wasn't that discernable of a drop-off in quality. They're small cameras so one person can operate it and it's not heavy so you can operate all day without being exhausted."
Russo was so impressed with the look of the Sony EXCAM that he made sure there were several available for the season finale, a paintball episode that was, he says, "very difficult to accomplish in the time allotted." "I went with a handheld look in the Bourne Supremacy world and we got the Sony EXs out," says Russo. "We were shooting a very experimental, very action-oriented episode of a show that likes to break boundaries on what are basically consumer cameras…and the look is incredible."
In fact, the lightweight and small size of the camera helped meet the deadline of the action-packed episode. "A set-up for a shot with a larger camera that weighs 50 pounds is different than grabbing a 5-pound camera," says Russo. "The cameraman and crews' energy is conserved and everyone is working at an optimal level for a much longer time. For me, this is the next game changer."
Next season, the Russo's plans to use a combination of the ARRI Alexa and the Sony EXs for the handheld look. "The Alexa helps us because of its ASA rating," he says. "But we're a generation or two away from having a $15,000 camera that is better than anything else on the market, with broadcast and feature film projection quality. Then, the production can own the cameras."
Choosing the right cameras was only one part of the puzzle. The goal from the beginning was to create an efficient workflow, and recording to the XDCAM format gave the production a way to not only rip dailies at a super speed but also to ingest footage at HD quality into and out of the Avid. "We've done away with laybacks," says Russo. "What we're cutting is what the audience is going to see. We keep it until Wednesday to deliver on Thursday. All we do is marry the mix to our timed images and we're ready to go."
Of course, creating a fully fleshed out post production pipeline is not child's play, and Aust--who came to Community from The Office, where he was post production supervisor--was faced with all the challenges to make it work seamlessly. He notes that the XDCAM decks offer the advantages of a file-based workflow but behave like tape. "Most of these file-based workflows rely on SxS cards or go straight to hard-drive," he says. "Then you've got an over-taxed, over-stressed crew that is trying to deal with file-management. The set isn't a very conducive place for that. You're also erasing cards after backing them up, probably to be used again in the same day. That's always a scary proposition and I've never liked that. You put all the safeguards in place and cross your fingers, but media gets deleted all the time. With the XDCAM storage on set, it looks like a deck with a piece of media in it, and it's easier to shuttle around, clip by clip, to a post facility. All they need is a deck, with no special knowledge of a file-based solution."
COMMUNITY -- "Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy" Episode 217 -- Pictured: Anthony Russo, Malcolm Jamal Warner "Andre" and Ken Jeong "Senor Chang" -- Photo by: Adam Taylor/NBC
In post, however, the XDCAM media also behaves like a file. "You Fire-Wire connect it and you can drag a file off of it," says Aust. "That's how we ingest to Avid." The production has also done some of its own tricks with regard to synching sound on set. "We have a dual-system sound and it's never entirely in synch no matter what you do," he says. "Things drift. What we were able to do is debug all that and introduce some frame delays. So we actually delay the sound and the timecode going into the camera because the picture coming out of the back of the camera is delayed. So when you wire the camera to the video deck, the video going into the deck is a frame or two behind what's live. Then, with some engineering up front, the picture hits the video deck exactly in synch. When we get to turnovers at the final lock, the sound timecode matches up with the sound master. We spot check it to make sure everything's lining up...but we don't synch sound."
That engineering trick saves hours each night, says Aust. "Ninety-eight percent of the time, we just pull the video clip in, organize it for the editor and that's that," he says. "And then everything works at the sound final.
Another huge time-saver is the use of Avid Script Sync. "Cameras roll constantly and the Russos do rolling re-starts," explains Aust. "It's almost impossible for an editor to receive 40 to 50 hours of material per episode. The only way to organize it is to run it through a scripter."
The system is even faster this season. Squyres built a system whereby the script supervisor pushes a button on an internal take, which puts an invisible click. That click comes up as a locater in the Avid. "It's much easier for the night assistant editor to find [internal takes] and it's a big time-saver," says Aust. "Depending on the episode, the editor can get through 50 to 70 percent of the scripting in his shift. In the morning, the editor can really start editing, and the assistant editor can catch up."
Aust compares it to a streamlined post facility workflow with a synching operation through a telecine bay. "Even with a good rate, it can be $250 an hour," he says. "You're logging maybe 100 hours of telecine time with 40 hours of footage, at $250 an hour, not including tape stock. That's $20,000 per episode literally just dubbing is what it boils down to. Our night assistant editor--which costs us $2,300 for the week--saves at least half of that money, and we get more done and reduce overtime with the day editor."
"Honestly, this is where the huge advantage is," admits Aust. "It took us a little time to figure out how the show would work, and once we saw where the problem areas were, we threw resources at them. It's saved us tons of time and allows us to shoot a lot of footage. Maybe I bring in the assistant editor on the weekend, but weekend overtime on an assistant editor pales compared to how much we'd spend at a post facility processing those dailies."
Another innovation is bringing the sound mix in-house. "Joe and Anthony are very hands-on and they're the ones that have to get in the car and drive to go approve the mix," explains Aust. "They knew they'd be directing a lot of the episodes and wanted flexibility. Even if they weren't directing, they didn't want to have to sit around for a mix playback. They could approve the mix and then, before approving finals, do more work in the edit room. And it has worked out that way."
The importance of schedule flexibility was inherent in a show with six executive producers, four of them who regularly attended the mix, and all of them with different schedules. With a dedicated sound mixer, they reasoned, they wouldn't be scheduling around a mixer who worked on multiple TV shows.
COMMUNITY -- "Celebrity Pharmacology" Episode 212 -- Pictured: (l-r) Donald Glover as Troy, Joel McHale as Jeff -- Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC
Mark Binder is the show's supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer. With many of his credits in feature film (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy, Madagascar, Star Trek, Paranormal Activity), TV was new to him, but the idea of bringing it in-house made perfect sense. "Time is your worst enemy and post has become a bottleneck," he says. "In the past, the concept of the 'mobile stage' was never heard of because of the size of the crew you'd have to maintain and the heaviness of the technologies. But that isn't the case any more."
He recalls that when he spoke to the Russo brothers about the options, he said "I have a stage in the Valley...or I can bring it to you." "In Los Angeles, you're spending a minimum of three hours driving," he says. "What is their time worth? It's invaluable, and those inefficiencies cost a lot of money."
The production turned a 17x20-foot cubicle office on the second floor of Paramount's editorial building into a mixing stage. The set-up is based on ProTools 9, fully stacked with six HD cards and Ikon control-based. Binder also uses the Satellite software add-on that allows him to dedicate a ProTools LE machine as a tape deck. The team varies from three to four people. In addition to Binder, who does the mix and sound design, Doug Mountain does dialogue, Nick Shaffer does dialogue and effects and Ryan Young is Foley and dialogue.
Editing and Foley are still accomplished off the lot, at Binder's I Make Noise facility in the Valley. But anything that needs a sign-off takes place at Paramount. That includes on-location ADR, another huge efficiency. "Now ADR is a hop, skip and a jump away from the production," says Binder. "To lose an actor would cost the production a ton of money. Now they walk upstairs, shoot ADR and walk down."
Being more efficient allows for more creativity with audio, says Binder. "Every show we do is a mini-feature," he says. "It's cut extremely wide and they want everything to be at the next level. There are no cutting corners. My guys feel appreciated and this whole thing goes a huge extra mile."
COMMUNITY -- Season: 2 -- Pictured: (l-r) Donald Glover as Troy, Alison Brie as Annie, Danny Pudi as Abed, Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley, Ken Jeong as Señor Chang, Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Joel McHale as Jeff Winger, Chevy Chase as Pierce -- Photo by: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC
Aust agrees. "We created a sustainable model that isn't about nickel-and-dime-ing 15 minute overages on a sound stage," he says. "It's a different culture when you have a sound team that's really part of the team and their livelihood depends on the success of the show. Other places, you get the attention of sound editors and mixers a segment of their day and week when they're paying attention to five or six other shows. They work hard and I love a lot of those mixers but I think to myself that all TV could go this way. I don't see a downside to it. It's a better environment to do highly creative, collaborative work."
The democratization of camera and editing technology as well as digital recording formats has opened up the door to dozens of potential workflows. Every new workflow is a risk, equally fraught with potential upside and potential disaster. For those productions--such as Community--that want to test the waters to gain efficiencies and maximize creativity, creating a carefully researched and unique template from the writer's room to the living room is clearly the way to go.
Shirley finds a way to crush Chang's dream of playing a fatherly role in her child's life.