At Outpost Digital, knowledge is power

The big event on the course today was our visit to Outpost Digital.

I thought that our wonderful tutor Jamie Hitchings would be giving us a tour. Our guide was Evan Schechtman. The tour was of much more than the facility – it was a no holds barred tour of how to get into the post industry.

He gave us a whirlwind tour:
1. The shared storage in the server room
2. A soundproof, prefabricated editing room
3. A larger room to host work done on commercials
4. A visit to the graphics department

…and we spent the rest of the time in an amazing conference room where Evan told us the truth about the post industry.

Evan started Outpost Digital in 1998. It is postproduction company built on the principles of using mass-market Mac hardware and commercially available Mac software to do everything that the other companies were doing with dedicated hardware and software systems. They have offices in both coasts and have strong links with companies all over the world. They have survived the last few years by knowing that their competitors aren’t the big facilities houses with kit that no one can afford. They need to make a case to entice those people who think that they can do it all at home on their multi-core Intel MacPro.

The technical ideas at the heart of their business are rock-solid reliable shared storage, and a deep understanding of compression and codecs. The shared storage (combined with flexibility of Final Cut Studio) means that any room with a Mac can be used for any task you might need in a post-production workflow. If a computer blows up, all you need to do is go into the room next door and continue editing. If a huge job suddenly comes in, all the computers in the facility can be roped in to help with the rendering or compression. In the case of compression and codecs, once you know how to compress video at high quality for an acceptable data rate, you can use consumer products to play, review and edit footage and projects. There’s no need for tens of HD playback systems when the output can be played back from any computer to any screen.

Enough with the advertising. Evan then talked about how to be a successful freelancer at Outpost Digital. He talked at twenty to the dozen, but I was able to make a few hurried notes (stuff in brackets is from me):

1. The more you know, the more powerful you are. The more you understand the software, the systems and the hardware the better. There is no ‘barrier to entry’ – all the software and information is out there for you to learn from.

Don’t be a PC user – he’ll probably be able to tell, and you won’t get the job.

HDV is the work of the devil. Get to know DVCPro HD. Apple’s Compressor is your friend. You might need to use another piece of software a bit earlier in your pipeline to prepare your video for Compressor. That’s Outpost Digital’s ‘secret sauce’.

2. Stop telling yourself that you are an individual: you are a business.

As soon as you finish your conversation with the person who is hiring you, send them an email confirming the verbal contract you have with them. Start that paper trail that both you and them will be able to follow.

Make sure that you turn up on time – by aiming to be there early.

Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ – it is much better to say ‘I don’t know’ instead of guessing how to carry out a task and wasting hours getting it wrong. As soon as you say ‘I don’t know’ that is when you start learning.

You can dress how you like – as long as your underwear isn’t showing.

Speak clearly – in English. People need to understand what you are saying.

No breath or body odour. Carry gum if you need to.

Make sure you have all in the information with you on the first day for any required paperwork to be filled in.

Accounting is key. As soon as you finish the job send TWO invoices. The first goes to ‘Accounts Receivable’ via the old-fashioned postal system. State on your invoice who approved your hiring, and say when you want to get paid. This is usually ‘Net 30’ – if you have pre-arranged it, you could put ‘Due on receipt.’ The second invoice can be sent via email to the person who approved your hiring.

3. Your reel

Make sure you stick to one set of abilities. If you are a cameraperson, motion graphics designer and director as well as an editor, make the reel you send in just cover your work as an editor. If you get the job, and once people get to know you, then you can give them a reel of your motion graphics, or of films that you shot but didn’t edit.

Don’t waste time with complex ‘original’ DVD packaging. You don’t want to demonstrate your ability as a packaging designer. Use a standard Amray case. They stack well, go up on the shelf, their spines can be recognised from across the room.

Don’t go the other way and use a sharpie on a bit of paper. Get a good label for the DVD itself that goes some way towards hiding the brand of DVD-R you used to burn your reel onto. Make sure your name and contact details are on the disc label as well as the case – useful if the disc gets separated from the packaging.

Don’t waste time with an advanced DVD front-end. Unless you want work creating DVD front-ends. Demonstrate that you know about what typefaces and colours aren’t screwed up by the medium of DVD. The simpler you make it, the better.

Don’t lie about your contribution to a piece included in your reel. You will be found out. Make it clear what you are responsible for. Include a two or three line case study summary to clearly explain what you did.

If you have worked on long-form projects, choose two-minute segments that represent the best of your work. If you have a large variety of work, choose a piece of music and create a montage to match the music. Don’t put every edit on a beat – it may be easier to do that, but you should demonstrate a bit more variety in your choices.

4. Your abilities
A. Your skill
B. Your understanding of media, history, aesthetics
C. Your ability to get on with a wide range of people. You need the patience of a saint. You need to be a person the client doesn’t mind being with during a long render. If someone is hard to work with, you should have no problems at all with them.

5. Creativity by committee
Especially when producing commercials, you need to be able to deal with large groups of people coming to decisions in your presence. Many people feel that they haven’t made a useful contribution unless they suggest some sort of change. They feel that it might be bad politically if they say ‘I’m fine with that, I don’t think we need to do any more work on that.’ People need to justify their presence in these meetings. (My friend Matt Davis says that people like this feel that they always need to ‘mark their territory.’ It’s people like this that we have to clean up after.)

The worst examples of this are the ‘Frame Fuckers’. These people suggest moving an edit by single frames at a time. For these people you need to know the art of the zero-frame edit. You press a few keyboard shortcuts, re-arrange some windows, and play the unchanged sequence again saying ‘There, do you think that’s better?’ Nine times out of ten, they will say ‘See, I think that’s a lot better.’ (During yesterday’s masterclass with Bill Pankow, he said that most movie directors never talk in terms of how many frames to move an edit by. They just say ‘we need a little more’ or ‘a little less there’)

(Ironically, I’ve worked with some brand managers who have to handle ad agencies as suppliers, and most of the time the people from the agency do not know enough about the products they are selling and the brand idea they should be following. The ads they make are for their showreels and kudos from within the advertising industry.)

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