Avid Education: Trailblazing a New Reality With Wake Forest University Documentary Filmmakers
Today’s ever-changing landscape of television documentaries to series to reality TV production requires one to be nimble, but precise. With the constant changes in camera codecs, ratios and the challenge of how much footage is too much for one scene, editors and producers are left weighing the costs of production with the reality of tightening budgets.
Recently Trailblazer Studios, VP of post production Scott Roy and three members of his staff provided students at the Wrought Iron Production arm of Wake Forest University of Documentary Film Program a presentation on the beginning a production with post in mind. Trailblazer Studios has been in business for close to 15 years and started out doing documentaries for client Figure * Films like Kate Plus 8 and The Duggars – 19 Kids and Counting that eventually turned into long-running reality series on TLC Network. While many similar productions are considered to be done in N.Y.C. or Hollywood, Scott and his team have built a solid foundation in Raleigh, N.C.
Kevin Shattuck and Abby Mann helped with the presentation discussing all aspects of the pre-production process all the way through distribution, as well as how Trailblazer is able to use 42 local staff members and another 18 to 20 remote Media Composer freelancers and four to five Pro Tool freelancers to get their projects in on time and on budget. While they allow their editors to have some freedom to tell the story as they edit, they are very strict on the set-up and delivery back to Trailblazer Studios.
Through the use of a proxy workflow, Abby will create multiple folders inside of a super bin detailing where things are kept, where the editor can keep their files and what elements are required for the show from a music, sound FX or graphical look. These are sent to the freelancers with a direction the producers are looking to go with this particular story. Once the editor is done, they then send back the proxy edited story for an online clean up and color correction. Audio is then picked up by several different groups within the Trailblazer Sound Department for final mix down. This is all then recompiled by an online editor for delivery to the network based on that networks requirement, which could be DNxHD, PRoRes, LTO Tape, BluRay, Electronic or something else.
Kevin discussed in great detail the reasons for needing to preplan a documentary before you ever choose a camera. With all of the new file formats available — 4k, Ultra HD, 1080i or 1080p, and 23.98 — it can get very expensive and complicated on the back end if you have not thought through your project from start to finish. Trailblazer’s crew talked to the students about the pitfalls of simply shooting and editing something without following specific steps, such as missing delivery date due to conforming in online or shooting in the wrong bitrate and eating up all your storage before you finish your project. Knowing these things before you go can save you thousands of dollars and hours of time.
Kevin and Abby spent time discussing shooting with logs and how that is different than without logs, but how much more information is gained and the freedom it provides the colorist at the end to get just the look you’re looking for. They highly recommended that before you shoot hours of footage, shoot a 10-minute scene and bring it to the finishing house so they can test to confirm that what you want can be achieved. A good finishing house will ask the questions and provide the guidance for making your production stay on course and budget.
They also discussed the importance of media and how to protect it. One tip: Always make a perfect copy on two separate transport storage devices, then separate those two, so that if something happens to one you have a backup someplace else safe. They also recommend shipping one to the post house where you plan to finish, and the other can stay with you. They also delved into the world of managing the media you have, no matter what NLE you use. They highly recommend you develop a naming convention that everyone on the project understands — this will save hours at the end, when you begin your assembly process. With Media Composer, you can easily bring in this preassigned metadata from the digital cards or assign it in the bins. Organization is vital to any great production.
Many of the students that participated in this two-day class also learned from Trailblazer’s Audio gurus, Eric Johnson and Aaron Keane, what best practices should be employed when out on location for collecting natural sound, selecting audio in the edit bay and what to pass on to the online mixer. Johnson also described how important it is to the overall production that natural sound plays, not just in one scene but in the entire documentary or show.
Themes for the students included picking the correct tool for the job, understanding the finished project before you start and having a plan. The staff at the Wake Forest Graduate Program understand this and come from the field, having spent more than 30 years working in documentary and commercial films. Peter Gilbert, director of sports storytelling and full professor of practice at the Wake Forest Documentary Film Program, spent many years in the industry as a producer and DP on such films as Hoop Dreams and At The Death House Door. He said, “Today’s filmmakers’ job is not just making the film, but then selling it, too.”
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