Adventures in Building a Post Facility

The Journey

My first media job was as an intern doing equipment management for production and post. All I wanted to do at the time was edit and animate, but instead I learned about systems and workflows. Looking back, it was a great foundation, and the things I learned have always been useful. Several years later, I now find myself bouncing back and forth between editor and manager.

So it was a welcome challenge last year when I was offered the chance to help a small organization set up a new post facility for their indie documentary work. They had just finished one film, were growing fast, and needed a new building. It was exciting. Then terrifying. I had a little bit of experience setting up edit suites, but never from scratch. And considering myself more creative than technical, it was quite stretching. There was a lot to learn, and the move-in date was only getting closer.

Edit Suite Before

It all began by purchasing an old restaurant that died with the economy awhile back. The plan was for it to be a place for all of the organization’s non-media staff to work, as well as the media staff. This meant both worlds would have to compromise to fit.

At first, I almost hired a company that specializes in planning and installing these environments. But that was an expense we couldn't warrant. I had to do as much as I could on my own, hiring specialists only in areas we really needed them.

Fortunately, the CEO was involved the whole time, making the process very collaborative. Our mantra was to dream big, then scale down as needed, which amounted to finding the most inexpensive options among the professional solutions. We did not want to get something that is cheap now, but costs in the long run with technical issues and repairs. Let’s do it well, but not necessarily extravagant. We’re not making The Hobbit here. One of the first things I did was go to the NAB to start researching, where I also met ScreenLight co-founder Chris Potter, who kindly invited me to share this story. That was a great start, but it was only a start. The next step was to scour the Internet for information & advice about post production facilities. For those interested, here are the best of those findings. Then I visited a couple local Kansas City post facilities to get a hands-on, tangible reference. Yes, they exist in the Midwest!

The next stage was to work with the architects at bnb design to plan the physical spaces. They used CAD. I used Google SketchUp, which was actually a great experience. Well, for me it was. They may have wondered who this guy was sending them SketchUp models. But the software is surprisingly simple. One weekend of tutorials got me making custom 3D layouts to scale.

Post Facility CAD Layout

Edit Suite Sketchup

Based on upcoming projects, we knew we needed a multi-editor environment that could handle hundreds (thousands?) of hours of HD footage from ingest to delivery. The only things we planned to outsource were post audio and possibly color grading (depending on budget & deliverables).

After much discussion, we decided to build four main media rooms – one editing room for the lead editor and director; one shared editing room with four workstations; a server room; and a screening room.

This may sound like a fairly small editing space. But they don’t turn around many projects for many clients. They plan to work on one big project for the next year or two, with just a few small videos as they go. The full-time media team won’t likely exceed 5-7 people.

The Facility

Primary Edit Suite

The goal of the primary editing suite is to be a place where editor & director can focus long hours on story editing, but also be capable of a lot of the finishing work that happens in documentary filmmaking.

It is powered by a 2010 Mac Pro 8-core located in the server room to minimize sound and better control temperature. It has two graphics cards: the nVidia Quadra 4000 for GPU processing in Adobe Premiere, After Effects, & DaVinci Resolve, and the nVidia GeForce GT120 for two Dell 24″ UltraSharp U2410 LCD monitors. It also has a Blackmagic Decklink Duo for the JVC 24″ DT-R24L41DU LCD monitor used for color grading.

I switched over from Final Cut Pro 7 this year and have been enjoying it so far. We’re using Resolve Lite for now as it is free if you’re only working with HD footage. Did I just say only HD footage?!

Primary Edit Suite

The HDTV on the wall is a Panasonic 50″ TH50BT300U plasma display, enabling others in the room to view a cut with good color, and without needing to sit at the editor’s desk. There is also a Blu-ray player.

The audio is routed through a Mackie 402VLZ3 4-Ch Stereo mixer to KRK RoKit 5″ speakers, and a subwoofer under the desk. The speakers sit on Sanus 31″ MDF stands and Auralex MoPAD isolation pads at nearly ear height. Each station uses Sony MDR-7506 headphones. The acoustic panels are the PrimAcoustic London 16 Room Kit, and their layout was designed by our audio consultant, Brian Calhoon.

The desk is 8′ x 3′, which is quite long, but made sense with the size of the room (12′ x 16′). It also gives plenty of room for notes, a laptop, and a second person sitting up close. The room size was not my favorite option, but it made the most sense with the space they had. The desk in the back is for the director. There is an Ethernet port there, too, in case he wants to browse footage on our server. We plan on putting a small couch in here later.

Each desk has an APC Back-UPS Pro 1500 in case power goes out. All of the furniture in the building was designed by Christian Gonzalaz, and much of it custom built by Aspen Leaf Kitchens Limited. The construction was all done by Heartland Property Solutions. Each room has two light sources with dimmers. This enables them to be very bright with overhead fluorescents, or an ambient feel with the wall sconces.

Secondary Edit Suite

Secondary Edit Suite

The goal of the shared workspace is to be a place where people can either work on their own or collaboratively. This is where other editors, animators, assistants, the production manager, and cinematographer / colorist can be found. In both rooms, the back wall is a neutral gray to help with color grading.

It consists of two iMacs for anything from media management to motion graphics, and a MacBook Pro mostly utilized as a travel suite, but also helpful in the office. There will also be a big whiteboard in here.

Once they get closer to doing heavy color work, I plan to get a beefy (new?) Mac Pro & color grading monitors for the back desk. Then we’ll install a thick black curtain behind the desk in order to give that area controlled light without impacting everyone else. This was one of the compromises due to the space available.

Server Room

Pretty self explanatory, the goal of this HVAC-isolated room is to serve the others with it’s awesome IT gear, specifically shared storage. There’s other networking stuff in here for the rest of the building that I don’t understand. This space is also being utilized for a camera closet.

The system administrator I often work with, David Gagne, helped a ton with shared storage. It is a fairly customized set up. This is one area in which I recommend hiring a specialist. It is highly technical and can get complicated very quickly. If something goes wrong in here, it affects everybody.

Server Room

The server is a Mac Pro running the Apple File Protocol (AFP). It connects to our workstations via gigabit ethernet with a Small Tree six port ethernet server adapter It connects to our storage via Mini SAS cable with an Areca ARC-1223-8x PCIe RAID controller.

As a Mac Pro, we can also connect any Firewire or USB 2.0 drive that is immediately accessible by each computer. After filming, the server will used as an ingest station for up to four Compact Flash cards at once with the Sonnet Qio CF4. If I had an extra PCIe slot, I’d use it for eSATA ports.

For active storage, I waited until 4TB drives were available, and got the ProMAX 16 bay RAID-6 FastMAX FX16. This grants a total of 64TB. But removing the two parity drives, and the 20% of storage you should always keep clear, that gives us about 45TB of usable space.

For backup storage, we use two ProMAX 8 bay RAID-5 FastMAX FX8+ drives. These will serve as mirrors to the active storage and be stored off site when not in use. We also use a few G-Tech & LaCie RAID drives for various purposes, like travel storage.

Screening Room

This is not set up yet, but will function as a 40-seat multi-purpose room with a high-end consumer theater setup. It could be used to screen projects-in-progress with the media team and focus groups, or to watch and critique other films, or non-media presentations by other staff.

At one point, we speculated about making this space a professional audio mixing studio in order to fully finish their films in-house. That idea didn’t last very long once we realized hardly anyone does this due to the cost of building a mixing suite versus the cost of merely hiring a mixing studio.

The Conclusion

When working with tight budgets, it’s common to use equipment for as long as possible. Aware of this, we still planned for the next 2-3 years, knowing that to be a common lifespan for technology. As they move forward with projects, I’m sure the strengths and limitations of this setup will emerge, and that it will continue to be developed as needed or as workflows change. Even so, the media team looks forward to continuing the adventure through doing what we all do best: telling stories!