Frontline’s Post-Production Schedule
Episodes of Frontline have an average eight-to-twelve month gestation period from the time they are awarded to the time they go to air. “We might have some programs that go two or five years, and we have some programs that are done in a matter of weeks, but the average is eight to 12 months” explains Tim Mangini, Frontline’s Director of Broadcast.
In broad strokes, this translates to four-to-five months of research, a month of shooting, followed by two-to-three months of post-production work. The typical number of shooting days is 20 to 25.
Post-production is done offline; Frontline still uses an offline/on-line model of editing. Here too there can be significant variations in the length of time it takes. “There are people who are editing in a few weeks, and there are people who are editing in 25 weeks,” says Tim, but generally ten-to-12 weeks of off-line editing is typical.
Once the program is locked and the Frontline editorial department has signed off on it, it comes to Boston for a one-week finishing phase, which runs for the week prior to broadcast. That week looks something like this:
Friday (two weeks before broadcast): A drive that has the offline master project, sequence and all of its audio and source video clips is sent to WGBH.
Monday: Ingestion of the material. Two or three rooms are dedicated to ingestion, and at the same time a copy of the audio sequence is sent to a local mix house, Mix-One Studios, and they start mixing.
Monday afternoon: If the producer/director has specific requirements on the picture side, they sit with the colorist and go through those scenes Monday afternoon. Otherwise, the producer shows up Tuesday and goes straight to the mix.
Tuesday: Mixing, coloring and edit cleanups. By the end of this day the colorist/editor has gone through the film a couple of times and smoothed everything out, and fixed all the technical errors that they can find.
Wednesday morning: First-pass picture screening. This is done with the producer/director and the editor, and anywhere from four to eight of Frontline’s staff. They watch the film straight through without stopping, and take time coded notes along the way. The editors then have about 24 hours to make those fixes and changes.
Wednesday afternoon: Editing fixes.
Tim goes with the producer/director and the editor over to the mix facility to finish up the soundtrack and a layback of the mix is usually completed Wednesday afternoon. They’ll then watch it straight down again, take notes, go back and do fixes/changes and then the audio stereo pair is sent over to WGBH.
Thursday mid-day: “Final” screening. This will include anybody from the post-production staff that needs to be there, the producer/director, the editor, and someone from the senior editorial staff at Frontline. There will also be an executive producer and a senior person from the web unit.
They watch the film straight through, top to bottom, and make notes.
“I don’t do stop and start screenings,” explains Tim, “because I want to see everything in context so that we understand how the film flows and make sure that we’ve gotten it just right.”
This results in more fixes and changes. “Sometimes, if the executive producer is seeing it for the first time, or they haven’t seen it in a couple of weeks since they locked it, sometimes we have some serious work to do.” This may involve restructuring, new narration, finding new images, or sometimes a duration change is required. “That is less common, though. More often we have four to eight hours of color, packaging and technical fixes to do just to get it perfect.”
Friday morning: insert session into the master tape. For the previous screenings, a new HDCAM master is made each time. On Friday the final inserts are made into the master, or if the changes were of a significant magnitude they create a new master.
Friday afternoon: the film is complete and the Edit Master is brought down to WGBH’s master control area. A technical evaluation is performed and it’s then duplicated for PBS, making two copies; a PBS broadcast master and a PBS backup tape.
Friday evening: The tapes are packaged up and sent by separate couriers, one goes FedEx and one goes UPS, to PBS in Virginia. “We’ve learned over the years to have them on separate airplanes.”
Monday: Tapes arrive at PBS. PBS technically evaluates them and ingests them into their system, and then puts the file on a server for broadcast.
Tuesday 10pm: Broadcast.
“That’s in the ideal world,” –Tim Mangini
What is a technical evaluation? Tim Mangini explains:
“We have to make sure that the documentary meets all the criteria that are in the PBS Red Book. The PBS Red Book is essentially the bible of all the technical specifications we have got to meet. If they were to catch something it might be that the color gamut goes out of range. Perhaps there’s a glint off someone’s glasses and it happens for one or two frames or five frames.
When we do an online it’s incredibly rare [to miss these moments] because we’ve got at least three sets of trained eyeballs who technically can see these things, and are watching the scopes as well as watching the screen.
We close caption our films and maybe something goes wrong in the captioning. It might be that the audio is too loud or too soft, or it doesn’t meet the specification for overall loudness for the entire film. Those are rare because the people who mix our shows are fantastic at meeting spec and delivering every week.
Generally we catch all the technical problems in our online and mix sessions before it gets there, but if something sneaks through its good to know that the eval engineer is going to catch it before it gets to air.”