Yesterday we were under deadline. We had to get some Blu-Rays of a 5min promo piece into FedEx by 4:45pm for Saturday delivery, for one of our biggest clients. Failure was not an option. We had to make some editing changes, swap some shots, color correct, audio mix, and author a Blu-Ray in one day. We’ve done it before, we could do it again. It’s only a 5min piece. But, as Murphy’s Law goes, many aspects of our production pipeline failed:
1. LTO system decided not to let us offload original RAW shots
2. Graphics from our out-of-house designer were uploading into our Dropbox at a snail’s pace
3. We noticed problems in the audio once the stems were back in Final Cut and our ProTools artist had already left
4. Final Cut crashed numerous times on a system that hasn’t crashed in months
5. During the final exports FCP kept giving us “General Error”, not allowing us to export any Quicktimes at all
6. 720p H.264 files would glitch out 4:45 into the video
There were other smaller things, but you get the idea.
What had been a fairly routine, coffee-sipping morning quickly turned into a frantic afternoon. But it reminded me of something that I always believed, but many others don’t prepare for. In production, especially under deadline, you need to have a Plan B, and in many cases a Plan C. Often times, I will have a Plan B all finished and waiting in the wings, for the inevitable moment that Plan A fails.
Yesterday, as each one of these failures happened, I started jotting down in my notebook the possible Plan B’s. Graphics not showing up in time – OK, I’ll start mocking up new ones using FCP’s text editor. FCP “General Error” not allowing us to export Quicktimes – OK, get another system ready to capture the SDI output of this one and we’ll make the Quicktime on that one. Audio stems not quite correct – OK, start bringing the missing elements back from the original edit and put them in the new sequence in FCP with the ProTools stems.
Luckily, the final graphics showed up, so I didn’t need FCP’s awful text graphics. Exporting from FCP using “Recompress All Frames” took forever, but finally “General Error” didn’t pop up and I got a complete ProRes. These things started coming together at the last minute, but even if they didn’t, at least I had a Plan B ready to go.
This doesn’t just apply to production. This is true in many different jobs, and parts of life. One of my favorite jokes:
If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plan.
The Plan B workflow is one of those things your client or boss may never see. All they know is that you got the job done. They have no idea there were any issues, and they don’t really care if you did have problems and what they were. They just want the project in their hands on time. But your co-workers see it. In many cases it’s what separates the successful producers from everyone else.
Plan B In Action
Last year, a company that I worked for in the past was having a premiere of their new 3D movie. I was excited because I was going to get to meet and hang out with the RealD projectionists and the guys who did the final 3D conform. These are the guys behind the curtain and I had a lot of questions, as I was thinking about getting into 3D and I wanted to know every aspect.
In previous premieres for this company, it was my job to master the movie to HDCAM, setup the projector and deck, run tests to make sure everything was good, then act as projectionist for the shows. But this year, as I was no longer with the company, I was merely an observer. Outside guys were hired and I just got to watch and chew their ears off. And drink Snake River beer. I was in heaven. Oh, and my band was playing outside during the first showing to entertain the movie goers that were attending the second showing. This was gonna be a fun day.
At 10am, things started taking a turn. The DCP file, which we had just received via FedEx, was not loading properly into the cinema server. There were other files in the server, such as trailers for other 3D movies, which played fine. But the DCP would not play. We tried re-loading a few times, but nothing. We called the only 3D theater in town and asked if we could use their server, but they were using a Dolby system, so it would not work with our RealD setup. We couldn’t get ahold of tech support for the server company. The first showing was at 5pm.
Finally we got through to tech support and after trying a few things, their final suggestion was to erase the entire server, reinstall the OS, and try again. We didn’t have a copy of the OS. We would need to download it. Adding up the time for download, time for reinstall, and time for testing, we were cutting it extremely close. This was assuming it would work. We started discussing Plan B.
We decided that it wouldn’t be ideal, but we would show an anaglyph version of the movie off HDCAM. Problem – the NEC projector we were using couldn’t take the HD-SDI signal from the deck. It was specifically designed to work off a cinema server. So we would need to get a second projector. There wasn’t enough room in the booth, and the throw was shorter, so we would need to set it up in the audience.
I ran over to the office of the production company and told them what was going on and that we would need to start Plan B using the HDCAM master of the movie. “But Eric, we haven’t made an HDCAM of the movie yet. The DCP is the only master. We figured since…” “What? You don’t have a backup?” I was shocked to hear this because in previous years I would run an HDCAM or HDV tape with a DVD backup just in case. Since this was premiere day, no one was in the office to work – it’s a day to relax and have fun after spending the last full year making this movie. I started calling people to get them in the office to get this HDCAM tape printed.
At this point, it was wait and see. The 3D projectionists were downloading and installing a new OS on the server, the movie tour staff were setting up the second projector, and the editors were working on printing an HDCAM. Everyone was coming to me with questions, I was directing people on what to do and I was running around making sure everything was moving forward. I was just supposed to be an observer.
And then it was time to play with the band. I could no longer help. As I sat at the drum kit, I watched people scurry back and forth trying to get things working. The 3D server was not ready and the 5pm showing was done on the second projector with the HDCAM anaglyph version. Right before the second (and main) showing, the band finished up and I ran to the projection booth. The projectionists were sweating. They were still loading in the new OS. They had no idea if this was going to work. The 5pm showing of the anaglyph version went off without a hitch, so they knew the backup plan would work, but the RealD polarized version was so much better, and this was the big premiere, so they HAD to make it work.
A few more minutes the projectionists said. Showtime came and went. Just a few more minutes. The MC kept the crowd entertained and they had no idea.
Finally, it worked.
It started a bit late, but the RealD version was off and running. We all just sat back in the booth and let out a collective sigh of relief. I had a beer.
Later in the night during the after party, one of the production company owners came up to me and gave me a big hug. He said he didn’t know what I did, but heard that if I hadn’t helped, the premieres might not have happened. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. This is a very smart group of people and they would have figured it out. But it proved to me once again that your Plan B is more important than your Plan A.
Always have a Plan B.