Digital Production Buzz
May 15, 2014
[Transcripts provided by Take 1 Transcription]
David Newman, Sr. Director, Software Engineering, GoPro
Jonathan Handel, Entertainment/Technology Attorney & Labor Reporter, TroyGould and The Hollywood Reporter
Brian Drewes, Co-Founder, ZEROvfx
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Larry Jordan: And welcome to The Digital Production Buzz, the world’s longest running podcast for creative content producers covering media production, post production, marketing and distribution all around the world. My name is Larry Jordan and joining us is our co-host, the ever handsome, the affable, the well rested and a much better Mr. Mike Horton.
Mike Horton: And the always sweating. My goodness, it’s hot here. It’s just so hot.
Larry Jordan: It is a very warm Los Angeles. It’s hit, what, 102 degrees today.
Mike Horton: It was 102 in Chatsworth, that’s for sure.
Larry Jordan: And it’s at least 125 here in the studio.
Mike Horton: Exactly.
Larry Jordan: We have got to get the air conditioning working, that’s all there is to it. Sitting round with all these old washing machines, they don’t care, but we do.
Mike Horton: Well, they’re taking up all the electricity.
Larry Jordan: Yes, well, that’s true, that’s true. The air conditioner is laboring to keep up with the hot water.
Mike Horton: That’s right, yes.
Larry Jordan: We’ve got a great group of guests tonight.
Mike Horton: Yes.
Larry Jordan: We are going to start with David Neman, the Senior Director of Software Engineering at GoPro. GoPro cameras are everywhere these days, but integrating their footage into a professional edit is often a challenge. Recently, GoPro announced new software and codecs to make this easier, which David will discuss tonight.
Larry Jordan: Hollywood is even more preoccupied with fights and the potential for fights than usual this week, from class action lawsuits covering unpaid interns at Fox to the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild. Jonathan Handel, the Entertainment Labor Reporter for The Hollywood Reporter joins us tonight to bring us up to speed on all the latest fisticuffs.
Larry Jordan: And Brian Drewes is the Co-Founder of ZEROvfx, a Boston based visual effects company that continues to succeed in a very difficult business climate. Brian returns to explain the secrets of their success.
Larry Jordan: Just as a reminder, we are offering text transcripts for each show, courtesy of Take 1 Transcription. Now you can quickly scan or print the contents of each show, as well as listen to it. Transcripts are located on each show page. Learn more at take1.tv and thanks, Take 1, for making these transcripts possible.
Larry Jordan: Mr. Michael…
Mike Horton: Mhmm?
Larry Jordan: …I can tell by looking at you that you are just a bundle of energy in all this heat. What are you working on these days?
Mike Horton: Um…
Larry Jordan: It’s that bad, huh?
Mike Horton: Nothing. Working on the next LAFCPUG meet. Working on the Amsterdam Supermeet. Working on the Tokyo Supermeet. Working on all the webinars… Movieola. Working on The Digital Production Buzz. I have 12 jobs.
Larry Jordan: And a couple of them should start paying money one of these days, don’t you think?
Mike Horton: Yes, one of these days it’s going to pay off.
Larry Jordan: Well, it is wonderful to see you back. We missed you last week, because…
Mike Horton: Yes I did, because I had a tooth problem.
Larry Jordan: Yes, and is it all well better now?
Mike Horton: No. Yes and no. I’m taking lots of Advil.
Larry Jordan: One of the things I really like about Michael is he soldiers on through the pain. There’s just nobody that really, no-one deals with pain the way that Mike does.
Mike Horton: Well, just take a couple of Advil and I’m happy, and I’m so happy right now.
Larry Jordan: You’re feeling…
Mike Horton: Hey, should we say something about the Avid thing really quick?
Larry Jordan: Oh yes. By the way, they announced something new. What is it?
Mike Horton: Yes, it’s a subscription model now, well, you have your choice – subscription model or you can buy it. It’s $49 a month. If you need it, you pay 49 bucks a month and you stop paying for it if you don’t need it. But what’s really cool, if you own it right now, you can lock it in for $299 for another couple of years or pay $39 per month, so it’s actually a heck of a good deal. Go to avid.com.
Larry Jordan: It’s part of their Avid Everywhere. By the way, did you hear the news about Adobe? Their VIP site is down.
Mike Horton: It’s been down for, what, 18, 19 hours now?
Larry Jordan: Yes, almost.
Mike Horton: That’s not good.
Larry Jordan: No, it’s very not good because people who want to access the cloud for their software can’t do it. If you’ve downloaded it, it’ll work; but if you need to register, you can’t.
Mike Horton: And all those people saying, “I don’t trust the cloud. I don’t trust the cloud,” like Larry.
Larry Jordan: We’ll be back with David Newman after this.
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Larry Jordan: Mike and I are playing with my headset volume and my eardrum’s now into the next county.
Mike Horton: You told me to do it that way. I just do what you tell me to do.
Larry Jordan: David Newman is the Senior Director of Software Engineering at GoPro. He recently moved from managing the software applications teams to working within the camera teams advanced technology group. Sounds really impressive. Welcome, David, it’s good to have you back.
David Newman: Oh, thank you, Larry and Mike also, thanks.
Larry Jordan: We are glad to have you with us because we’ve got about 800,000 GoPro questions for you.
Mike Horton: For the 800,000 users. Well, more than that.
Larry Jordan: Before we start, what does a Senior Director of Software Engineering at GoPro actually do?
David Newman: Well, my responsibility was for both mobile and desktop teams, so I had people who were in charge of doing the applications on the IOS and Android devices, that’s the GoPro app, and I had people working on GoPro Studio, which is a free editing utility that we offer to all our customers – both of those utilities are free – and as a Senior Director I get to specify the types of technology that I’m going to use and really engage both outwards with customer licensing, I would bring technologies into our suite of tools, so I had a lot of responsibilities for both outward facing and inward technology selection. A lot of fun.
David Newman: Now, as you said in your introduction, I’m moving that, sort of thinking about which software technologies to advance, sort of like image processing algorithms, and how to move that into the camera team so that when we are designing cameras, we are really staying in the forefront of what will happen in post so we can design a camera that really works well with the new things that people will be doing when they’re doing image development, color corrections and so on.
Larry Jordan: There are two minds about that, so we’ll just jump right in. Wouldn’t you want to have the camera shoot the correct color to begin with? And, number two, if the camera is set to do a specific thing, how much do you want to do in camera, where you can’t change it later, versus how much do you want to do in post, when you can always change your mind? Answer whichever one of those you want to tackle first.
David Newman: Well, it ends up being a user dependent choice. Sometimes you don’t want the camera to be making selections for you because you know you’re going to color correct. This is the more the coradiant users, the user who’s shooting for episodic television, who is shooting for feature work. They’re going to go into the ProTune menu and say, “I want flat, I want fixed white color, I want to control how much sampling’s going on, I want to control the ISO on the camera.”
David Newman: All of those are part of the new ProTune 2.0 feature that was rolled out for Hero 3+ only about six weeks ago, so it’s a firmware update. But there are also professionals who want a corrected color, they want white elements to track what’s happening in the world, and we now… allow you to say what parts of the image are developed and what parts aren’t. So you can say, “I just want GoPro color, I want it to be saturated,” and that makes more sense for your broadcast customers.
David Newman: Of course, our mask cine market will probably not turn ProTune on because they all want the more friendly bit rates. The lower bit rates are faster to play back, faster to transfer from the camera and so on. Whereas ProTune turns the bit rates right up to the maximum the camera can do so that we give the highest possible quality experience to a professional. So you can be in two minds. Sometimes you will want to shoot where it comes out just tanned and beautiful from the camera; and other times you’ll want it as flat and as raw as we could possibly make on the side of the camera.
Larry Jordan: One of the things that I’ve been hearing a lot in my email recently is that working with GoPro footage, especially in a professional editing environment, is more difficult than people expect. What do people need to know to work with GoPro footage successfully, whether it’s taking out the fisheye effect or converting it into a format that gives us greater color space? Is there something special we need to do to work with GoPro footage?
David Newman: I think some of that is a little bit legacy information. It used to be a lot harder and a good example is that with the advent of Hero 3 and Hero 3+, we added timecode, but if you haven’t upgraded your Aniline, you may not experience that timecode, they think, “Oh, GoPro doesn’t have timecode.” Well, it does and the thing works with Premiere CS6 and CC, it works with Media Composer 7, it works with Timecode X. All of those will read the timecode from GoPro. But if you’re on an older version, you haven’t upgraded the tool you’re on, Media Composer 6 or 6.5, you may not see the timecode and you’ll find that you have more difficulty.
David Newman: Now, unfortunately we can’t backward upgrade those capabilities. Adding timecode into an MP4 is a very new thing and not all the tools are expecting that. We do use a standard QuickTime timecode track. It is time of day, so you set the clock and, in fact, if you used the GoPro app, it actively sets the clock so you can use your Smartphone as effectively being your reference source for clock. So now your timecode will roll from that set-in time, so it greatly reduces the time on productions when you’re dealing with multiple GoPro cameras, as well as mixing with other cameras, to be able to look up material based on timecode.
David Newman: The first thing there is sometimes if you feel there is no timecode, have a look at the toolset that you’re using and make sure that you’ve got the tools that can support a timecode track within an MP4. The other areas you mentioned, things like, how much of the lens curvature there is? The GoPro shoots really wide images and this is more of a set-up DIT issue, or even a cinematography issue. Yes, it’s great having cameras placed everywhere on sets and being able to get those angles.
David Newman: You still should plan for each of those shots, because if you just set the camera in its default mode and shoot this 120 degree horizontal field of view – very, very wide – that will have a curvature associated with it. It will have some of what people call fisheye. The GoPro lens is strictly not a fisheye lens, because a fisheye will have way more curvature and, in fact, the GoPro lens curvature is designed to have a certain aesthetic, to have a certain capability of depicting a wide image without it having the streamed, bubbly nature of a fisheye which makes people’s faces very round in the middle and with the edges really crushing in.
David Newman: We worked on a balance and it’s halfway between fisheye and rectilinear. But if you were to rectilinear converse, streaming a wide image, now your edges are stretched, correct stretched, but it’s wider than what you experience with any other camera, so it sometimes doesn’t look correct. I’ve seen GoPro content used in episodic television and so on; often leave the curvature on because it actually makes that wide image look more natural.
David Newman: But if you want it to inter-cut with other cameras as if there wasn’t any curvature at all, you probably should be using the medium field of view. You can shoot 1080 and the 2.7K with a medium field of view, which almost has no curvature at all and you can just rectilinear convert that and it looks natural.
Mike Horton: I did not know that. I mean, I don’t use the GoPro because I’m not a shooter, but I did not know that, because all you see is the GoPro videos of the day and there is a bit of curvature in all of those videos. So I didn’t think there was a way to actually do it in camera.
David Newman: When we were working on ‘Need for Speed’ and we were helping Shane Hurlbut and his crew – we’d known the Bandito Brothers and all those guys for a long time, worked with them on a number of features – and they were using a lot of GoPro content in that project and they were really worried about the curvature. And so we were prototyping Hero 3+ at the time, which was introducing this 2.7K mode with a narrower field of view and I remember someone… on one of their Twitter feeds and saying, “Oh, we got the new firmware,” and they go, “Ah, shh, shh, NDA,” you know?
David Newman: But I told them, “No, no, not that yet,” because we were working on Hero 3+ and it looks like there’s almost no distortion at all. And then within our free tool the GoPro Cineform studio tool will actually have a fisheye removal. But even the latest Adobe Premiere CC has filters, presets basically, that will do the lens to. Rectilinear conversion and if you set the camera up into the medium field of view, it looks beautiful.
David Newman: You can still shoot at 2.7K with that medium field of view, which gives you a great over sample image, so if you’re doing an HD production, you’ve got quite a lot of extra pixels to move around in, a more extra sharp pixel when you resize it down to 1080; or, if you’re doing a HD or a full 4K or HD production, you can upscale to 2.7K and that not looking too soft. So there are a number of different… That is the sweet spot mode for the camera. I would shoot most productions, unless you need a really wide image, in 2.7K with a medium field of view…
Larry Jordan: Sorry for the pause, I was taking notes because I want to make sure I understand that. Back in 2011, GoPro purchased CineForm. As we know, CineForm makes some really phenomenal codecs. How has CineForm evolved under GoPro? Are you still shooting mpeg4 with H.264 compression? Or are you starting to roll in CineForm into some of the camera native formats?
David Newman: No, CineForm would be quite a large format for a small film…camera. If you think about the size of the SD media we’re using, CineForm is not as compressed as H.264 and it’s designed as an intermediate codec. We saw it used, and still is today, in large compact cameras and mobile recorded devices and so on and, of course, in editorial and post, but not in the kinds of form factors that you see in GoPro cameras.
David Newman: The CineForm technology, when GoPro acquired it, was primarily about solving the problem that GoPro users have where the intermediate codec is a necessity. Back when we acquired it, on the GoPro web page, when people were shooting their – even then it was just 1080p 30fps – Three years ago most consumer class computers couldn’t comfortably play back 1080p 30fps from an H.264 and so the recommended workflow was to download MPEG Streamclip, which is really for pros, it’s not a customer friendly utility, download and transcode it into what was available on the computer.
David Newman: Now, on the Mac, you have ProRes, if you installed Final Cut, and on the PC you were left stranded. So by acquiring CineForm and giving our codec away for free, which we weren’t doing, and I was the CGO at CineForm, and by acquiring CineForm they could solve two problems that the customers had. One was the ability to play back their content with reasonable computer hardware, because the CineForm codec is way faster than H.264.
David Newman: The other is that we were making massive inroads into 3D, so the Neo-3D, which was an expensive tool at the time, although it was cost effective for 3D producers, was a $3,000 utility and how the GoPro/CineForm relationship actually started was Nick Wilburn and Brad Schmidt, who’s the… CEO and Credit Director, were doing their first year at NAB, this was back in 2010, and just before the show they were told that they must have 3D, it’s the booming thing – and it was certainly true – and so what they did is they downloaded the software, a 15 day trial of 3D, and edited their first demo reel of GoPro 3D with our software. They liked the software so much they bought the company, so within 12 months of that meeting, we were part of GoPro.
Larry Jordan: One of the things I was reading about recently, and I’m a little confused so I’m just going to sound stupid at the moment, but you’re now doing something with SMPTE. Is it a new codec or is it a new standard? What’s happening here?
David Newman: I think probably a lot of the existing CineForm customers are going, “Well, what happened to CineForm? It’s a great codec, they still have it, but GoPro doesn’t seem to be pushing it that much.” We actually make it available pretty much for free when you install our software, but there’s not a big marketing push behind it.
Larry Jordan: I think that would be a safe statement, yes.
David Newman: Yes, and the reason is what we were actually doing, somewhat stealth and a little bit more publicly recently, was working on the standardization of the codec. We have been working with SMPTE for two and a half years. It takes a long time. We’re not done, but we’re a long way through the first two parts of the standard. They have been published and are now available through SMPTE and this was only a few weeks ago, so we had a big celebration there. It just took a very long time to work out how to take what is the core technology behind the CineForm codec and basically share it with the world.
David Newman: There are things that the codec does that really don’t have an equivalent in the market today. So there are still compelling reasons to have it. It’s not so much that GoPro could have been promoting it, but when you consider how much our business has exploded, the small market of professional codecs is not one of the things that they need to be dealing with. That’s basically the case. It was more of an intention type of thing, but they did invest into making sure this technology was out there, because we, as in GoPro, are using it internally and customers do produce – think of back in the CineForm days, we might have tens of thousands of users using the CineForm codecs for content creation.
David Newman: Now we have millions of users using it for content creation and, while we don’t push the codec so much, it’s in way, way more systems than we could have imagined as one of the designers of the codec. It’s out there in so many places and we want to protect that content. We want the user who puts their finished edit and they render it out into a CineForm file as a much higher quality intermediate than they could with H.264. Then when they come back to that file and maybe in ten years’ time they’ll go, “Oh, I did this event, I want to go back,” they need to know that that file is secure, that file is available to them. Even whether GoPro’s gone off and done something else. We’ve basically registered what we did with CineForm and we’ve put it into the SMPTE standard.
Larry Jordan: Take a deep breath. What does that mean from a practical point of view? You’ve registered it with SMPTE. Is that like registering a copyright?
David Newman: No. Actually, what we did is we defined the technology that explains how to encode and decode bitstream, such that even if GoPro was not actively supporting decoders and encoders. A third party could recreate our work and extract that information from your file. Let’s say that in 30 years’ time you have a ProRes file and Apple doesn’t care about professional video products any more – that was not supposed to be leading anywhere – but anyway, you may not be able to decode that because there’s no public information about that.
David Newman: There are some people who have reversed engineered it, but it’s not a public standard and we had some interesting markets that were beyond just… some of the professional customers who would not use the format if it wasn’t standard. One of the examples of something that we may do is SMPTE is also working on the Interoperable Master Format, and this is a new package that allows production companies – Disney, Paramount, studios – to finish episodic television feature film work into a format that you can create all your deliverables from.
David Newman: Right now, they’re primarily using JPEG 2000, which was the format when CineForm was founded were going to use and found so inefficient in terms of computer time that we actually developed the CineForm codec as a solution for it. We’re about eight times faster than JPEG 2000. We’re very similar otherwise, bit rates and quality and other factors. All the things are very similar, we label a codec just like JPEG 2000. JPEG 2000 is an awesome quality way of storing images. It’s what we use for DCPs, for visual theater protection formats and…
Larry Jordan: Ok, now hold on, time out. I have a different question then. We’ve got this standard or soon to be standard or will be a standard or you’re moving down the road to become a standard, but standards will ultimately show up. Who’s then responsible for making sure that this codec is then supported in the NLEs that we use, whether it’s Avid or Apple or Adobe? Does GoPro develop the interface or do the developers themselves – Apple, Adobe, Avid – have to do that?
David Newman: Ok, that’s interesting. To answer your question, it is a standard today but we’re adding more descriptions to do more and more elaborate things with the codec. We did the simplest version, it’s a standard today and that’s published now. As a result, anybody – whether it’s an NLE, a camera manufacturer and so on – can request that standard from SMPTE. SMPTE manages the, I think it’s a $300 fee, you pay for the standard and once you have the standard you can implement and so on.
David Newman: But if you wish to implement it within your NLE, camera, so on, although with a camera we only have software… you may contact GoPro to license… to implement it within your tool. That’s always been the case, but through SMPTE you can get the standard and then you can get our reference version for that, which is something that we maintain and build and we license that. Meaning that there might be some fees associated with that, because we’re just like other codec vendors, like a common codec vendor with a lot of tools, is something like MainConcept.
David Newman: They provide the engine behind a lot of our playback tools that you see on mobile solutions and they’re in the business of taking H.264 and MPEG2 and building from the standards an optimized version and then making it easy for people to integrate model tools. So this is one of those standards, but we’re not…
Larry Jordan: David, David, David, we’ve got to invite you back but we’re running out of time.
Mike Horton: That’s fascinating stuff.
Larry Jordan: Certainly no shortage of stuff to talk about. For people who want more information, where can they go on the web?
David Newman: Well, certainly gopro.com is a great place to find out everything about the cameras and as well you can reach out to us.
Larry Jordan: That’s gopro.com. David Newman is the Senior Director of Software Engineering at GoPro. David, we’ll have you back, I promise. Thanks for joining us.
Mike Horton: Thank you, David.
Larry Jordan: Take care.
David Newman: Thanks, guys.
Larry Jordan: Bye bye.
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Larry Jordan: Jonathan Handel is an entertainment and technology attorney of Counsel at TroyGould in Los Angeles. He’s also the Contributing Editor on entertainment labor issues for The Hollywood Reporter, he’s got a blog at jhandel.com and is totally unable to drive a toy Porsche. Hello, Jonathan, welcome back.
Jonathan Handel: Oh my God, the past is never dead, is it?
Mike Horton: It’s never dead.
Larry Jordan: Unlike Europe, you are never forgotten here in the US.
Jonathan Handel: Unlike Europe indeed, very interesting new ruling, that’s right.
Larry Jordan: Jonathan, Hollywood is making so much news this week that we can’t begin to cover it all in depth, so I’m just going to cue you and step back. Give us the headlines and point us to where we can go for more information, and I want to start with a subject that I talk about with my students all the time, which is internships. Tell us about the lawsuit against Fox from the unpaid interns who toiled on Black Swan. What’s happening?
Jonathan Handel: Well, that’s a lawsuit that was filed in 2011 and it’s been making its way through the system. They won a victory in the District Court last year and the case was on appeal. The Court of Appeals is expected to rule sometime early next year, so it’s going to be a while. Now, what’s that case about? It is about unpaid internships. As I think everyone knows, those kinds of internships are very common in the entertainment industry and in some other industries – the music business, publishing, fashion.
Jonathan Handel: All these are creative areas where there’s a lot more demand for entree into jobs and into career paths than there are places to accommodate people, and that’s a formula for people potentially being taken advantage of. The law is actually pretty strict on what kinds of unpaid internships are allowed and what kinds aren’t. And the answer really is that most of the ones that we think of, where you’re doing something for the employer and you’re fetching coffee and dealing with picking up someone’s laundry, maybe learning a bit about directing or writing or editing, whatever the person is that you’re working for, according to the judge, internships that look like that are not legal. Basically, if the employer is getting a benefit and getting far more benefit than the intern is, if the intern is doing work that otherwise would have to be done by someone who is paid, if the intern is not in a training program at the location of the company, all of those factors weigh in favor of saying, “Look, this is somebody who is working.”
Jonathan Handel: Now, the companies say, “Well, look, interns get the benefit of entree into these careers,” but there are two answer to that. One is the reality is that a lot of people don’t, a lot of people end up interning and then don’t make it; and the other thing is that the judge said, “Look, those kinds of benefits, the experience of learning a bit about a production company and of getting references and referrals for jobs and that sort of thing, those are the same sort of benefits someone would get if they were working. That really is just an incidental aspect of being an employee.”
Jonathan Handel: It is on appeal. We don’t know how that’s going to turn out, but it doesn’t look great at this point for Fox and for some of the other companies and, in fact, Fox and Universal, which apparently both were doing unpaid internships, changed their policies and have paid internships now. The other major studios, according to an article, always had paid internships but UCLA nonetheless reports that 90 percent of the internships from production companies, smaller companies, are still unpaid.
Mike Horton: Kind of sounds like a State Supreme Court decision here several years down the line.
Jonathan Handel: Well, it’s a federal case.
Mike Horton: Oh, a federal case.
Jonathan Handel: Yes, yes, because the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as in this case New York state law – the case was brought in New York because the picture was shot there – it’s one of those areas where you have overlapping federal and state law and so they brought a case in the federal court.
Larry Jordan: Now, is there a limit? For instance, here on The Buzz we’ll have an intern come by for a week or two weeks at the most, but never more than that. If they’re just here and they’re a fly on the wall learning how things work, are we illegal, based upon that initial ruling?
Jonathan Handel: No, that sounds legal. If they’re there really just to learn and they’re not actually doing work that is productive work for the company, they’re not laboring for you guys, but literally are shadowing and a fly on the wall, from my understanding of the ruling, that would be fine.
Larry Jordan: Ok, let’s shift gears. What’s the issue with the Musicians’ Union and offshore migration?
Jonathan Handel: The Musicians’ Union is not happy that certain companies, and in particular the largest two, being Lionsgate and Marvel, are very prone to scoring their projects overseas and not using US union labor. The union points out that it’s particularly ironic that we’re talking about major movies that, in most cases, have received tax subsidies, when they’re shot in the US, from the states in which production takes place so they pocket the tax subsidies and then look for further savings by offshoring what the union says should be good old American jobs.
Mike Horton: Wow. Holy crap, that’s just like taking a cue from the VFX industry. You find that tax subsidy in VFX and you find it in music and you find it in this, oh my goodness. Just grrr.
Larry Jordan: Not that Mike has an opinion.
Jonathan Handel: Not that Mike has an opinion, exactly. But that is exactly the way the Musicians’ Union feels and so the latest development is that they delivered 12,000 petitions to Lionsgate a couple of days ago, on Tuesday, calling for them to score their projects here. They reached some accommodation with Lionsgate on ‘Mad Men’. That is scored in the US, I believe, but in terms of the film projects, they’re still pretty consistently being done overseas.
Larry Jordan: All right, next one – it doesn’t surprise me that SAG and AFTRA are fighting again. What’s this one about?
Jonathan Handel: Well, no, I don’t think they’re fighting, actually. SAG-AFTRA is negotiating with the studios.
Larry Jordan: Oh, well I take back my words. What’s the latest from SAG-AFTRA?
Jonathan Handel: It’s being done under a news blackout, so there’s nothing much to report except to just give people the contacts. These negotiations happen every three years. The DGA and WGA did their deals earlier this year and ratified them. Those deals will serve in large part as a template for what SAG-AFTRA ends up achieving, so there’s kind of a kabuki dance. SAG-AFTRA is probably asking for five percent or four percent raises and the studios are probably offering two percent, but everyone knows the annual increase in minimums is going to be three percent, because that’s what the DGA and Writers’ Guild got.
Jonathan Handel: In new media, there were these developments in residuals and other terms, particularly for subscription video on demand services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and SAG-AFTRA will get those developments ultimately as well. The bigger and tougher issue for them is that they still have two separate TV contracts, the AFTRA contract and the SAG contract.
Jonathan Handel: They’re trying to merge those, but the little bit of the mystery is going to be, ok, if you do merge those contracts, number one, the wage rates are different and that’s a leftover effect of the fact that SAG stalemated for a year and didn’t do a deal, back up to the writers’ strike. So what wage rate do you adopt?
Jonathan Handel: And then, number two, the pension and health funds are not merged. So if you have a single contract, how do you decide for a new show whether the P&H is going to be done under the SAG plan or the AFTRA plan? That’s obviously a very technical kind of issue, but one that makes a real difference in terms of people’s ability to have good health coverage and…
Mike Horton: That’s exactly what all the anti-merger people were saying and it’s going to be interesting to find out how they’re going to resolve this.
Jonathan Handel: Right, right.
Larry Jordan: But is it a good sign or a bad sign that the news blackout is holding? If there were a lot of internal dissention, they’d be leaking this all over, wouldn’t they?
Jonathan Handel: Well, it’s a frustrating sign, since I write for The Hollywood Reporter, but…
Larry Jordan: We don’t care about you, Jonathan.
Jonathan Handel: Aww, I feel abandoned. But you’re right, you’re right. All kidding aside, at least for a moment or two, this is a more peaceful time in the life cycle of this union, certainly than several years ago. When they go into the next internal election cycle, what’s that going to look like? I don’t think it will be this year, I don’t think. Maybe it would be this year, I don’t know.
Jonathan Handel: That certainly is an area where some of these internal divisions will come to the fore again, but it’s interesting. You mentioned the anti-merger folks. The pro-merger folks made a major argument where they said, “Look, if you merge SAG and AFTRA, you’re not going to have as much SAG versus AFTRA dissention because things will be more internalized,” and that’s proven true. There still is dissent and it’s along some of the traditional lines, but it’s not at the fiercely pitched boil that it was at a few years ago when you had separate unions.
Larry Jordan: And Jonathan, there’s more that we could talk about, but we’re going to let you go for right now. Where can people go on the web to learn more?
Jonathan Handel: Thanks very much.
Mike Horton: Thanks Jonathan.
Larry Jordan: Bye bye.
Jonathan Handel: Bye bye.
Larry Jordan: We had our next guest on a few weeks ago. Brian Drewes is the Co-Founder and Head of Production at Boston based Zero VFX, where he oversees all components of large visual effects projects from initial bidding to final delivery. I was just reflecting, Michael, before we say hi to Brian, that last week we had a show that concentrated on how to keep a business alive and I can’t think of a harder industry to be in…
Mike Horton: Than the visual effects industry, yes.
Larry Jordan: …than visual effects, so I want to find out not just how creative Brian is, but how fast his footwork is. Hello, Brian, welcome.
Brian Drewes: It’s pretty fast, let me tell you. How are you guys?
Mike Horton: I bet it is.
Larry Jordan: We’re doing great to have you with us.
Mike Horton: I think the biggest difference is he’s in Boston and we’re in LA. Maybe that’s the big difference.
Brian Drewes: So that means I dance faster, I think, right?
Mike Horton: Exactly.
Larry Jordan: They’re always saying, you know, you’ve got to it the way they do in a big city, not realizing Boston is a big city.
Brian Drewes: Well, it’s certainly a big city, just not a big industry city, that’s for sure. But I think that we’ve sort of proven that a little untrue at this point.
Mike Horton: The thing about Boston is it has the smartest people in the world right there.
Brian Drewes: Oh thanks. That’s on the other side of the river…
Larry Jordan: Yes, true enough, true enough. Give us a quick thumbnail, what does Zero VFX do, just so we have a background? Because then really I want to focus on two things, Brian. I want to talk about how to survive as a business, because you’ve got some insight there, but I also want to talk about the growth creatively of the company, so we’re going to look in both directions. But tell us about Zero VFX.
Brian Drewes: Sure. We’ve been around for four years and we primarily work in visual effects for TV commercials and feature films. About a 50/50 split between those, especially last year, but in general that’s where we like to be, is that split. Mostly in photo reel, so really hard surface modeling and compositing, all that kind of stuff, and then some motion graphics, especially for the commercial end of things.
Larry Jordan: How many commercials did you do last year?
Brian Drewes: Well, in the first quarter of this year, we delivered about 400 spots. So that’s pretty busy, right?
Mike Horton: Are you serious?
Brian Drewes: Yes.
Larry Jordan: You’re not just by yourself over there. You’ve got some teamwork.
Brian Drewes: No, we counted them up, actually. We looked on our server and we were like, “How many? We were really busy this quarter,” and it was like, “Holy cow, yes, that’s 400 spots.”
Mike Horton: Are you talking 400 national spots or a lot of the…
Brian Drewes: Yes, yes.
Mike Horton: Holy cow. That’s like every single commercial.
Brian Drewes: Well, no, come on. There are a lot of commercials out there, right? Yes, but it’s a lot of Boston based agencies, but they were working on national stuff, for sure.
Larry Jordan: How many people do you have working there with you?
Brian Drewes: We have a total of 35 now, but at the beginning of the year we were up to 45, because we fluctuate, of course, especially with the future stuff, we end up bouncing up. So we had 45 at our maximum.
Larry Jordan: You’ve got 35 or 45 creative people. Clearly, there’s the business end and goodness knows we can’t discount them nor say they’re not creative, but when you’ve got that big a team, how do you manage them? How do you keep them all on the same page?
Brian Drewes: Well, we have all the production assets, management tools, like Shotgun that help with communication. That’s really a big thing, is communication between the departments that start needing to develop and we try to make sure that people get to experience those commercials and features, because we feel like that diversity, not just from a business perspective but from a creative perspective. It keeps people engaged and really keeps people driving their capabilities and learning what they’re good at, and that’s our job as employers, is to help people figure out what they’re best at and what they enjoy doing. We get a really good look at a lot of different cross sections of things to do, so I think it’s a great thing for everybody.
Mike Horton: You don’t have 35, 45 people working on the same project. I mean, they’re all diverse and work on separate commercials. You can’t have 45 people working on 400 commercials, correct?
Brian Drewes: That’s correct, yes, and we’ve got somewhat different pipelines, but there are points where they intersect. So when we’re working on commercials that have heavy compositing, of course that’s where the feature film pipeline starts coming in. We just built this four years ago, over the last four years. We’re really able to look at and take a step back and say, “Ok, how do we want these two different pipelines that have two different environments, where will they interact and how do we as managers make sure that they’re interacting in a way that’s both the best for the company, for the client and for the creatives that are participating in it?
Larry Jordan: Well, that brings up a conversation we had a couple of weeks ago when we spoke with Christina Lee Storm about her documentary on the death of the legendary VFX company Rhythm & Hues, right after they won an Oscar for the ‘Life of Pi’. These are hard times for the VFX industry. What are you guys doing to survive?
Brian Drewes: I think I said this word earlier, but diversity really is it. The other side of the river, Harvard Business School, that’s what you learn. I didn’t go there, but from what I hear that’s business school 101, is having this kind of diversity where you say, “Ok, we want to make sure that, as a footprint, the company can withstand those cycles that are inherent, especially in project based work, where you don’t necessarily have the control over the rest of the process that ends up impacting our sales cycles for these different things.”
Brian Drewes: So with the commercials you have these very short duration projects, but you end up on the cash flow side, with the revenue side of the company. You end up with these swings but don’t end up having all your eggs in just one basket. That for me personally is the thing that I think is very important to not forget, because it’s really easy to forget that when you’re just crushing it on features and say, “Ok, great, we’re doing four features,” like we did last year – we did ‘American Hustle’, ‘Equalizer’, ‘Sex Tape’ and… Pleasure’ and you can easily fall into just saying, “This is all we’re doing,” but we made a lot of very clear and cognizant choice to say, “We’re going to ingest more in the commercials.”
Brian Drewes: So we brought in an executive producer on the commercial side who’s a phenomenal addition to the team, named Sarah Spitz, who worked at an agency for 15 years. So we’re really making sure that we don’t forget that very essential part of running a business – making sure to maintain that diversity – so that if there are places where you have to say “No, this project’s not for me,” you’re not putting your company out of business to make that decision.
Mike Horton: But you did American Hustle, you did the other movies that you mentioned. Did you, as other VFX companies have done and have gone under as a result, bid hoping that you would actually make money on the gig because it would look good on the resume? How did that work? Because you know what the other companies have done and then, of course, there’s the changes and all this and they end up losing money.
Brian Drewes: Yes. I’ll make that decision on shots. But for a whole film, I personally would not make that decision. I would never go in saying, like, “Oh yes, by the way I’m going to lose money on this entire film.” If you know that going in, that’s problematic, for sure. But again, if you do have a diverse footprint where you’re saying, “I’m going to lose money on my features part of my business but I have the commercials that are making up for that,” you can make that decision. So it’s really about having diversity, which does give you the ability to not have to make that hard decision sometimes. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to make that. But I can see how that develops, and it’s not just to say…
Mike Horton: Well, especially when you’re starting your company too. You want to get your name out there.
Brian Drewes: Absolutely, absolutely, and that’s something that you have to trust is going to be there and you’re going to have to make those decisions sometimes. Like we made the decision that, ok, there are going to be many months where we don’t get a paycheck and that’s part of the business. Personally, as owners of the company, we’ve always of course paid our employees, but as owners we say, “Ok, we’re going to sacrifice here because we believe in the company, we believe in the team and we believe in the relationships we have with clients that this is all going to work out.” That’s the risk that I decided and Sean decided to take, but that’s what owning a business is about.
Mike Horton: Better believe in the relationship you have with your family.
Larry Jordan: The challenge, I think, for the VFX industry, though, is it seems like you guys – I’m lumping you in with everybody else – are in a race to the bottom. Where suddenly you’re just competing on price and you’re underbidding each other to the point that nobody’s making any money. I mention that simply because the streets of Burbank and Hollywood are littered with VFX firms that aren’t around any more. How do you avoid that trap when it is so easy to say, “Well, we’ll do it for 100 bucks less”?
Brian Drewes: Yes. I think I’d rather race to the side, which is to say, “Ok, I’m going to try a bunch of side businesses. I’m going to try to create content, I’m going to write technology.” You know, we use technology, we have technologists that work for us and so let’s make software. Let’s try these other things. Really bringing the innovation in and really not stagnating at just a project based entity I think is really important and, certainly, call me in five years or ten years and see if that’s working, but up ‘til now it has. Not to say that I’m certainly not the smartest person ever around and I think that it’s a shame that there are so many companies, and so many people that are having a really hard time with it and I don’t know what the answer is for them.
Brian Drewes: All I can vote on is what my company does and the vision that we’re bringing to it as owners and creators, is to say let’s let people play around with technology and see what comes out of it, see if we can’t make a great product. I just released a software called Downstream that is a tiny little tool for After Effects that allows people to look at compression before they bake it into their QuickTime movie. It’s just these little tiny tools that are like, let’s see what happens, let’s see if that works and I think it’s a race to the side. I’d rather look at it that way and then you don’t have to race to the bottom if you go sideways.
Mike Horton: Well, speaking of racing to the bottom, in the commercial industry, do you lose gigs to Toronto and Vancouver and Montreal and London?
Brian Drewes: No, no, it’s not looked at that way generally. You compete on price, but it’s definitely about relationships and at some point it’s someone else’s money that’s getting spent. So I think people really look for the team that they want to work with and they have a little bit more leeway in that, because those projects generally are smaller. You’re not talking about a five million dollar feature film. So they have the ability to be doing many of these projects so they can kind of go shotgun with it and just try a bunch of different people. You generally aren’t competing against other facilities just on price.
Mike Horton: Oh, you’re making me feel warm and fuzzy. Well, you are, and there’s hope out there with guys like him who is doing the right thing.
Brian Drewes: It’s a solution for us. It’s really like you have to invent those solutions with the strengths that you have in your team. So, like, I’ve had a lot of agency relationships over the years of my career and that’s why we’ve chosen this kind of diversity. Someone else is maybe really great at product development for software, so go and do that. It’s just to sort of say don’t just have one job, have multiple jobs as far as careers. If you work for a company, if you own a company, have multiple careers and really try to continue to invent and don’t just do projects.
Larry Jordan: One more business question, then I want to shift over to creative. But this sort of runs the balances between business and creative, because if keeping clients is based upon your creative talent and your relationships, how do you keep your creative talent from walking over to the competition?
Brian Drewes: That’s a different sort of issue to what we have in Boston. But I hope that if you’re appropriately staffing projects, if you’re a good employer to your employees, hopefully you foster a culture that people want to stay in. For us in Boston, we are building most of our staff and do have to hire people from other cities to come to Boston to help us when we are in these really prolific periods. But for us it’s really about growing that staff, and really training people, and working with the schools to get a good pipeline of students that can come out and have a job right out of college. For us, it’s about capturing and training. That’s really important to us.
Mike Horton: Yes, get those MIT guys.
Brian Drewes: Yes, yes. Lots of science.
Larry Jordan: Ok, now you get to put your creative hat on. From a creative perspective, which is where you’ve been living up until suddenly you’re running a staff of 45. How do you balance the creative work that got you started in this industry with the day to day business work?
Brian Drewes: Well, I’ve always been a producer. I’d like to consider myself a creative producer, but Sean Devereaux, who’s our Visual Effects Supervisor – I’m speaking for him now – but it is a balance between coming and being purely creative and then also the management of the team and management of the shots and going and being on set. The set work is extraordinarily important in really working with the film makers and really developing those relationships that bring you through the post process. I think from a creative standpoint, it’s just bringing it to that next level.
Larry Jordan: When you say the set work is important, what does that mean?
Brian Drewes: Well, as far as going and actually being on set with the directors, with the producers and really helping sculpt what is being shot. That’s really a super important part of the process, is knowing, “Ok, this is what we’ve budgeted. This is what the creative goals of the film makers are,” which of course changes from expectations to execution. It’s a creative process, so you get the camera set up and it’s not exactly what you thought, so you need to work with the film makers to make sure that their vision is coming through in a way that makes me, the producer, be able to know that we’re going to be pretty close to budget. That is extraordinarily important for determining what the pathway of that feature will be.
Mike Horton: You need to take your business model on the road.
Larry Jordan: Syndicate his business model?
Mike Horton: Yes, exactly. Tell everybody how to do it.
Brian Drewes: That’s another example of going sideways.
Mike Horton: Exactly. That would be another source of income.
Brian Drewes: There you go.
Larry Jordan: See, Michael is always looking for speakers for his next Supermeet.
Mike Horton: Any time I talk to young actors who want to get in the business, I say, “Don’t just be an actor.”
Brian Drewes: Yes.
Larry Jordan: What should they be?
Mike Horton: Director/actor.
Larry Jordan: Oh, I see. Hyphen it.
Mike Horton: Cinematographer. Learn everything about the business.
Larry Jordan: Brian, what projects are you working on now that you can talk about?
Brian Drewes: Well, we’re working on two feature films which I can’t talk about, I’m sorry, other than to say that they’re not shooting in Massachusetts, so no incentives whatsoever. It’s through the network of people we have developed over these last four years and, really, our careers that has allowed us to be able to evolve past the whole tax credit thing here in Massachusetts. So we’re really proud and stoked to be able to say that and can’t wait to talk more about the films. But we’re actively on set for those. So we expect that we’ll be really starting to hit the stride there in the fall, picking those up; and then just a bunch of commercials, pretty much at any point.
Larry Jordan: Do I note that you just finished a couple of interesting features? Or am I…
Brian Drewes: Oh yes. Yes, yes, for Sony we finished ‘The Equalizer’, which is a Denzel Washington film, which is going to be awesome and that comes out early fall.
Mike Horton: Is that based on the old TV show?
Brian Drewes: Yes, it’s based on the old TV show.
Mike Horton: Oh, cool.
Brian Drewes: It’s sick. It’s a great film. We’re really excited. There were 600 shots in that, visual effects shots…
Larry Jordan: Oh my goodness.
Brian Drewes: …so we’ve got lots of varying levels of…. in that, lots of explosions and all around sort of excellence. It’s an action film.
Larry Jordan: No pride of ownership there. How about the other one?
Brian Drewes: That one’s called ‘Sex Tape’. That’s with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel and that’s coming out here I believe in a month or so, and that’s a comedy. It’s phenomenal. Also really great film makers, really great team to work with on both of those. The studios have been a pleasure to work with and that one’s a very funny movie, very, very funny movie, so some really fun stuff.
Larry Jordan: Brian, for people who have decided that you have to do their next project, where can they go on the web to learn more about you?
Brian Drewes: Zerovfx.com.
Larry Jordan: That’s zerovfx.com. Brian Drewes is the Co-Founder of Zero VFX and, Brian, as always, thanks for joining us. Look forward to having you come back.
Brian Drewes: Hey, cheers. Thanks, guys.
Larry Jordan: Thanks, bye bye.
Brian Drewes: Bye.
Larry Jordan: Mike, you can get off the table now.
Mike Horton: That’s so cool, that music.
Larry Jordan: I like it.
Mike Horton: It went on for a little too long. I had so much to say and now we don’t have any time to say it. It was nice, you know, hearing about the whole VFX industry. As you know, I’ve been following that very, very closely and it’s not doing so well, but he’s doing well, and that company is doing well, and I know there are other companies doing well too and it’s just nice to hear that. It’s nice to hear the positive stories.
Larry Jordan: Well, I think he makes a good point, and you picked up on this, when he was talking about the fact that you can’t be a one trick pony.
Mike Horton: No.
Larry Jordan: You’ve got to have multiple talents.
Mike Horton: I mean, it’s easier to talk about his smaller company, but when you talk about big, big, big companies where you have three or four hundred employees that you’ve got to take care of and then you make the decisions to go underbid these big movies in the hopes that you can make money. It’s just not a business model that works. But his seems to work.
Larry Jordan: Well, I’m especially impressed with how much he’s grown over the last couple of years.
Mike Horton: Isn’t that amazing? In four years, during the worst period of the visual effects industry. Incredible.
Larry Jordan: Yes, and I also like the fact that when you’re dealing with creative people, you’ve got to focus on your staff and…
Mike Horton: Oh yes, you’ve got to keep that talent or do what you can. I mean, a few of them are going to go, there’s nothing you can do – people have got egos – but keep that talent.
Larry Jordan: Well, the other thing I was just looking up, he last joined us on December 12th of last year. So it’s been about five months since we talked with him and it’s just fascinating to hear about the growth and how the company continues to improve. That’s really cool. He’s a good guy and I’m glad to have him back; and the stuff at GoPro is amazing.
Mike Horton: Yes, and they should be coming out with a 6K 3D IMAX version here in the next six months. And if they’re not, well, jeez. Talking about that guy, he’s so smart. He could probably come up with all this. He’s designing the software. Put it in that same form factor, put in an IMAX version.
Larry Jordan: We talk with David a lot. David Newman is the Senior Director of Software Engineering at GoPro; and then Jonathan Handel, the entertainment labor reporter for…
Mike Horton: Come on, David, give it to us in six months. You can do it.
Larry Jordan: …The Hollywood Reporter; and Brian Drewes, the Co-Founder of Zero VFX, the Boston based visual effects company.
Larry Jordan: There’s a lot happening at The Buzz between shows and it’s all posted to our website at digitalproductionbuzz.com. Hang out with us on Twitter, @dpbuzz, and Facebook, at digitalproductionbuzz.com.
Larry Jordan: Our producer is Cirina Catania, our engineer is Adrian Price. On behalf of the ever handsome Mike Horton, my name is Larry Jordan and thanks for listening to the Digital Production Buzz.
Mike Horton: Bye, everybody.
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