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Exploring the Workflow of Good Eats

COW Library : Art of the Edit : Tim Wilson : Exploring the Workflow of Good Eats
From The Creative COW Magazine


Creative COW Magazine presents Good Eats Exploring the workflow of the Food Network's popular program

Tim WilsonTim Wilson
Boston Massachusetts, USA

©2006 Tim Wilson and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
No matter what a television series is about, producing a series is all about workflow. The credits at the end of an episode list who did a particular task, but how they all work together is a story in itself. For a small part of that story on one show, meet -Good Eats-, the top-rated Food Network series.



"GOOD EATS"

"‘Good Eats' has been a favorite show of mine and my wife, Rebecca, pretty much since it debuted," says Walter Biscardi, principal at Atlanta's Biscardi Creative Media. Walter is also now an editor and animator on "Good Eats."

A large part of the show's appeal is its host, Alton Brown, aka AB. Because of his humorous approach to the science of cooking, Alton has been compared to Bill Nye the Science Guy; and because he builds many of his own kitchen tools, to Mr. Wizard.

But he's doing more than a comparison to either of those suggests. He leads a highly irregular, if recurring, cast of characters in a wide variety of locations, taking us all beyond science and gadgetry to fields including history, anthropology, pop culture, politics... and cleverly-presented cooking that also happens to be good eats. With its extreme-angled steadicam shots moving as quickly as AB's patter, there's never been a cooking show with style or content quite like "Good Eats."

HD Studio
Walter Biscardi's HD studio set-up where he works on "Good Eats."

Alton Brown: Pizza dough gets its rise from the gas produced by billions and billions of unicellular fungi called ‘ yeast' that chomp down on the sugar in flour-based doughs. Have a look. [Shot of yeast puppets loudly gorging.] They're real pigs. And once their little feeding frenzy is over ..."

Yeast: [belching sounds]

AB: "... that's right. Yeast belch makes bread rise."

The goal of "Good Eats" isn't just to provide recipes – although AB does. Its mission as a cooking show is to help viewers understand the underlying principles of cooking, giving them the confidence to tweak any recipe they're provided, and to create new ones of their own.

As a television show, its explicit mission is to entertain.

(Disclosure: my wife and I are major fans of "Good Eats." It's been on "Both First Run and Repeats / Keep Until I Delete" status on all three of the family DVRs for years. Wouldn't want to miss an episode in any room. And despite a childhood phobia of sweet potatoes that he's never quite gotten over, AB's "Sweet Potato Waffles" recipe is a miracle. You can find it at www.foodnetwork.com. Try adding pecans.)


Ingredients: Start with one Avid Media Composer Adrenaline

Avid has been a staple of "Good Eats" from the beginning, AB having gotten familiar with the company's NLEs during his years in commercial production. Ginger Cassell is the show's Avid editor, and the postproduction process begins as tapes come out of the camera to her.

The HD footage for "Good Eats" is shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio. However, The Food Network prefers that SD versions of shows fill the frame. So while Media Composer offers a number of real-time tools for aspect ratio manangement, Ginger and company use their deck's down-conversion to capture a center punch to uncompressed SD over SDI.

With AB's input, Ginger completes a rough cut of each episode, which is then sent to the network for review. Once her SD edit locks picture, she sends it to audio post for both music and effects. After editing in the finished audio, her master becomes the version that airs on The Food Network's standard def feed. It also becomes the basis of the HD version that Walter creates.


Keep Things Fresh with Liberal Amounts of Audio Tools

While grudgingly acknowledging the usefulness of an olive pitter, Alton Brown famously has no use for kitchen "unitaskers."

Patrick Belden's multi-tasking toolset for audio post starts with Digidesign® Pro Tools®. "I have serial number 6," he laughs. "I've been using Pro Tools for a looooong time. That's for mixing and sound design. But for music creation, I use Apple Logic." And at Belden Music and Sound, Patrick creates a lot of music for "Good Eats," playing all the instruments himself – nearly 100 different instruments so far.

He starts with a QuickTime movie and an OMF file of the episode that Ginger sends him. The Open Media Framework (OMF) was created because, even after evolving through a number of formats, the edit decision list (EDL) provides too little information to be useful in most contemporary production. An OMF file (usually called simply "an OMF" in conversation) describes everything about an entire show, including video formats, many effects, audio, and more.

The OMF Patrick gets from Ginger gives him the information he needs to supplement the reference QuickTime for adding sound effects and writing each episode's original music.

One of the most distinctive elements of "Good Eats" is the "tidbits," bits of trivia or technical information that serve as bumpouts to commercial and sometimes as transitions between scenes. Patrick's music for these is based on the show's ten-note opening theme.

"In the first season, we used the same music for all of them, and it drove us all crazy." Each season is divided into three sections, and for each of those segments, Patrick creates 8 or 9 new variations on the show's theme. "I have over 600 of them," he laughs again, "although to be honest, I lost count a long time ago. They're in the bump-outs and tidbits, in the Muzak as Alton wanders around different locations, and all kinds of other places.

"For an episode on peaches, there's a bit where Alton plays a character in China, with the appropriate costume. He's holding a peach, then tosses it to himself playing a costumed character in Persia and so on. I created original music for each of the nations, then blended them with the show's theme music," he says. "The peach ends up in the South, where I combined the show theme with The Battle Hymn of The Republic."

Sometimes, entirely original compositions are the only way to go. "For the same peach episode, I needed to create an opera. I had a few vocal samples, but no music, so I had to write that from scratch." Other uses of original music include themes for each recurring character and the animations used on many episodes.

"After doing every "Good Eats" episodes since the pilot, I have ten seasons of elements that I've written available to me, but at least 2 or 3 episodes a season, I try to use nothing but original music to keep things fresh."

A final musical note: more than a few people have noticed AB's uncanny resemblance to musician Thomas Dolby. Alton occasionally refers to being blinded by science, and Patrick admits to sneaking a few notes from that song into the mix now and again.

Having now done this for a while, Patrick can generally turn around his finished mix – balanced audio, original music and sound effects -- in 3-4 days, when he posts it back to the "Good Eats" server. Ginger finishes her 4-channel mix for the network by laying down Patrick's stereo mix on channels 1 and 2, with a split mix (one channel for voice, the other for music and effects) on channels 3 and 4.


Add Apple Final Cut Pro for HD

The OMF technology that connects Ginger's Media Composer with Patrick's Pro Tools and Logic systems also connects the SD master to Walter's HD post in Final Cut Pro.

With Avid playing such a central role in the SD production of "Good Eats", a frequent question is why they didn't upgrade their Media Composers to HD. The short answer is Walter. "I already had the HD editing and color correction gear. And I also developed the entire HD post process so it was easy enough to just let me handle the actual HD post for the show."

The hand-off between systems is handled by software from Automatic Duck Inc., which Walter uses to convert an Avid timeline to a Final Cut Pro timeline. OMF allows Automatic Duck software to provide information about the edits, but also titles, a variety of effects, keyframes for both video and audio, and more. This let Walter recapture Ginger's SD edit from Avid as HD in Final Cut Pro in about an hour, with perfect sync.

Automatic Duck makes that part of the process easy, although Walter admits that they started down the old-school path of passing cutlists. "I hate EDLs," he says. "They're more trouble than they're worth, and I can work faster with a simple printout of the In/Out points." Not as fast as with Automatic Duck, of course. (See sidebar, "Enabling workflow with Automatic Duck.")

To get good eats, you have to experiment

"We'd heard rumors that HD might be coming [to The Food Network], so we decided to start moving production in that direction," recalls the show's producer Dana Popoff. "By the time the network came to us to talk about HD, we were ready."

Getting ready took time. One of the first challenges Dana noted was the aspect ratio itself. "We use a lot of extreme angles and a lot of movement with our Steadicams on ‘Good Eats.' Shooting 16:9 was a little limiting at first because you could see past the edge of the sets." She also notes that HD production required different lighting, among other reasons to account for the different color space of HD compared to DV, their previous format.


Steep the HD Footage in the Panasonic Varicam

What about the cameras used? In 2004, there was already a buzz building around Panasonic Varicam. It allows DVCPRO HD to be captured at 720p with a framerate anywhere between 4 and 60 fps, for film-style shooting flexibility at a lower price than had been seen before. The problem was that only a handful of people were actually using it then.

"The first thing we found is that there's a lot of misinformation about HD. Many of those who think they know everything there is to know about HD, don't," says Walter. "The only way to ensure that what you're doing is going to work for your client, especially when you're dealing with a broadcast network, is to test, test and then test some more."

Although the first tests and the first handful of HD episodes were shot in 24p, "Good Eats" director of photography Marion Laney, Alton and the network all agreed that 24p with film gamma was too soft. As Marion continued to experiment, he found the right balance of frame rates, shutter speeds, filters and other secret sauce to maintain a film look, only sharper. They settled on 720/30p acquisition in DVCPRO HD, setting up output to 59.94 HDCAM.

Walter's quest for a production format needed its own series of experiments. With HDCAM specified for final delivery, he was encouraged to work in uncompressed for maximum quality. However, after adding transitions, color correction and graphic overlays to his edit, Walter found that even close examination on HD scopes showed only minimal differences between uncompressed HD and DVCPRO HD - certainly not anything that would still be visible by the time it reached viewers. "Dana came in and saw the same thing," he says.

Another benefit of the choice to go with DVCPRO HD is that Walter can keep half a season on his drives at once, a major workflow boost.

On the Set
Walter Biscardi, Dana Popoff, and a friend on the set of "Good Eats"


Season to taste using Adobe Photoshop and After Effects

In addition to editing, Walter spices up "Good Eats" with graphics and titles, and, for many episodes, Monty Python-inspired animations.

("Good Eats" devotees will tell you that while herbs come strictly from the leaves of plants, spices come from other parts of the plant, including seeds, roots, and bark. They'll tell you even if you don't ask.)

Something as simple as a static on-screen super may not be as simple as it appears, says Walter. "The show uses a funky font with a simple black glow around the edges of the text for the lower thirds, and a white glow for the full screen graphics. I had problems with both the Text and the Boris Text 3D generators in Final Cut Pro: neither one likes the ‘i' in that font. The glow around that letter just wouldn't take at all. It looked like we hadn't applied anything to it.

"We ended up creating all the graphics in Photoshop instead, which also wound up helping our workflow. We now create all the graphics – typically 30-50 for each episode -- in one Photoshop file, in order of appearance. Then I simply import that Photoshop file as a timeline in Final Cut Pro."

Also smoothing workflow is that all graphics work is done on a separate workstation while Walter edits. Likewise, he doesn't overthink integration between his NLE and After Effects. Rather than sending full sequences back and forth, he most often uses After Effects in conjunction with Photoshop for animations, without touching the edit at all.

While the animations intentionally look simple, they most definitely are not. Even working with Atlanta-based graphic artist Brian Mead, these animations can take the better part of a month to create. "One of the most difficult animations came in the ‘Raising the Bar' episode last year which featured ‘The History of Cocktails' in 60 seconds," says Walter. "It was a whirlwind tour from colonial days to today and had well over 400 elements."

The secret ingredient for many of these animations? Cast photos.

Walter points out that every member of the crew is expected to appear on the show in some form. "But there are certain folks who can't appear [on camera] because of what they're doing during a take," he says. "So I have about 600 head shots of just about every crew member so I can place their heads on the animated characters."

(Missing from his headshot collection is Dana Popoff. Although she has appeared on the show in "Strawberry Sky" and a handful of other episodes "when absolutely nobody else was available," she draws the line at animation. "I just don't trust Walter," she laughs.)


A Final Touch with Silicon Color

The last step in the creative process is color correcting every shot with Final Touch HD from Silicon Color. Walter first exports an XML file from Final Cut Pro. Similarly to OMF, files written in XML, or eXtended Markup Language, provide a rich set of data describing the entire show. This means that a tiny text file is the only thing moving between Final Cut Pro and Final Touch HD for an entire episode, with XML written into that tiny text file pointing to the original media files.

In addition to a hardware control surface. Final Touch HD's software toolset is highly advanced. For example, soft-feathered masks on primary and secondary color corrections can be motion-tracked with gaussian blur in real time. Rendering finished output at 8-12 frames per second is fast, and the XML return voyage to Final Cut Pro is even faster. "I open that XML in Final Cut Pro, and instantly get a brand new, color corrected timeline," says Walter.

"This is absolutely awesome because it's completely nondestructive. I have my original, non-color-corrected timeline and a brand new color-corrected timeline with all the clips where they belong. It's not like After Effects, where I get a single QuickTime movie back from my effects work. I get all new clips from Final Touch HD."

Walter Biscardi
Above, is a shot of Walter, cast by Alton Brown into the role of Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez, for an episode called "TORT(illa) Reform."


For Dessert: How to Land Your Dream Job

Walter gets to work on one of his favorite shows, a dream come true for somebody who's made video production his sole living for the past 15 years. "You want to know the coolest thing about it?" asks Walter. "It was all because of Creative Cow!

"Marion posted a request in The COW's AJA Kona forum asking for someone in the Atlanta area to come take a look at his editing system because he was having problems. I volunteered." When he arrived at their house, Walter mentioned that Marion and Dana's kitchen (they're married) looked just like the one on his favorite show, "Good Eats". The conversation took off from there.

("I designed the kitchen with ‘Good Eats' in mind," says Dana. "It had to be more than an area for food preparation. We needed room for the camera to move, lights, monitors, and a crew of 14." Their kitchen was actually used onscreen for seasons five and six, but recreating it on a soundstage has allowed easier incorporation of Alton's tongue-in-cheek science presentations, as well as shots from inside the oven, refrigerator and cabinets, as well as other angles that would be impossible to accomplish in an actual house.)

Two months after Walter got Marion's AJA Kona/Final Cut Pro system running well, Marion asked Walter to meet with AB to discuss creating animation similar to the children's animations on Walter's reel. "The next day I'm meeting Alton on the set, and two or three weeks later delivering a full set of animations for ‘Sprung a Leek.' That's how I got started with the show and that's all I thought I would ever do."

It wasn't long before Marion called again, this time asking Walter to help the show develop an HD workflow. They wanted to do it without disrupting production, so Marion shot the last episode of season 8, "A Taproot Orange," using the Panasonic Varicam. The episode would never air in HD, but it gave everyone the time they needed to experiment.

"I guess they were really happy with the work I did, because they asked if I would just go ahead and handle all the HD post," says Walter.


Great Workflow

Now in season 10, such episodes as "Okraphobia" and "Squid Pro Quo" are the beneficiaries of the great workflow at "Good Eats".

Walter is quick to point out that what's described here is only one of several possible workflows, even for others who aspire to create their own 30-minute cooking shows. "I see a lot of articles and online posts that make it sound like you're stupid if you don't do things their way," says Walter. "We've built some efficiency into the way we're doing it, but there are at least a dozen other ways we could have gone that might have worked out just as well."

The goal in the end is workflow that works. The lessons learned from "Good Eats" apply to both cooking and video production. You know the ingredients before you begin, but an understanding of the underlying science will give you the confidence to experiment while creating your own recipe.


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