With a career spanning over a quarter of a century, Barrie Williams, owner of Pixelfantastic, has had a ringside seat at the evolution of post-production workflows. Pixelfantastic is a boutique facility specializing in color, conform and file-delivery for concerts, documentaries and episodic television.
Barrie has delivered literally hundreds of shows over the years using a variety of mastering formats including tape, AS-11/DPP and UHD/4K files. While best known for color-grading, Pixelfantastic’s expertise also includes audio mastering, and repairing difficult-to-fix Harding PSE errors. Recent works include 4K grading, conform and delivery for “Stevie Wonder – Live at Hyde Park”, remastering an entire series of “Guitar Center Sessions”, “Blur: Live in Hong Kong”, the Bestival festival, BST – Hyde Park series, and concert specials for artists like Kylie Minogue, Ella Eyre, Pharrell Williams and Take That. It’s likely that if it’s got anything to do with music for broadcast television in the UK, it’s probably been touched by Pixelfantastic for one reason or another.
Mr. Williams is an early adopter, and expert user, of cineXtools and insert-edit technology, having applied cineXtools on nearly all his projects since his purchase back in late 2016. He tells us, “Ben Wainwright-Pearce, a superb London-based editor who I’ve worked with for many years, said I needed to take a look at cineXtools. I’d not heard of it, but he’d never recommended anything to me before so I thought I should take a look. I’m really grateful he called me!”
Challenges Delivering Files
It’s clear why Mr. Wainwright-Pearce encouraged Barrie to seriously consider cineXtools. There is a frequent and regular back and forth exercise between offline and conform/online because oftentimes information isn’t available to validate whether a title, start time, credit, or any number of other things is correct to begin with. “Typically, editors will send me the ‘finished’ edit for grading, we would finish the grade and send it back for viewing. This is often the point when the decision makers watch the program with full concentration, and ten minutes later there would be a phone call to say there’s a spelling mistake in a super. Then twenty minutes after that, a request would come through to change the credits, and can we also change the opening titles, and we also need to take out one of the songs because legal clearance has been refused,” explains Barrie. “These last-minute changes are unforeseen and uncontrollable when working on fast turnaround shows but during the final viewing of the finished master, all these changes suddenly become a priority. There will be penalties for late delivery and with the deadline just hours away, there just isn’t time to re-export the show.”
The challenges of file-based workflows are not new to Barrie. “I moved to file-based workflows when everybody else did, after the tsunami in Japan wiped out all the SR tape stock,” he says. “When we lost HDCamSR delivery, we lost the most valuable function of tape: being able to insert-edit to the existing video.” In addition to the challenges of no longer being able to make fast insert-edits, Barrie comments on the fundamental difference between tape and file deliverables. “When there was an issue with a program, the broadcaster would send the tape back, and I would simply insert the change. When we sent the same tape back with an inserted fix, the broadcaster would recognize the tape and only re-QC the segment flagged on the changelog. However, with files, and before cineXtools, every change was a new export – a brand new file that I am required to QC again and re-certify that it passes a long list of technical checks. We never had that problem with SR tape. If I only changed the credits on tape, we would only need to re-QC that segment, not the entire program.”
cineXtools is often compared to tape workflows because of its insert edit capability. However, Barrie notes that compared to tape, using cineXtools is both better and simpler. “With tape, everything is a real-time process, including restriping the tape to change the start-time. We could easily spend many hours beyond real-time getting the tape just right for the broadcaster,” he says. “With cineXtools, whether it’s a picture fix, audio insert, metadata change or timecode re-stripe, it’s a fast, almost instantaneous process. Moreover, and possibly most importantly, the file that I am making the changes to, is still the same file. Being able to make changes to the file that’s already been delivered is a time-saving function fundamental to the insert-edit workflow because it re-introduces the practice of being able to confidently spot-check changes. Being able to assure the broadcaster that not one single pixel in the file has changed except for the last 60-seconds of the credits is a huge deal. It saves me and the broadcaster so much time. This is a true insert edit – just like SR tape,” Barrie says.
Based on recent experience he explains why spot-checking files can be risky. “We purchased a new Mac Pro, but when it got hot it would occasionally render random lines of garbage in 4K exports. It turned out to be a VRAM error. Once the system cooled down, it wouldn’t happen for the next render, but it confirmed to me that encoding errors can happen regardless of how new and fancy your system is, that means every export requires a full visual QC,” he explains. With cineXtools, spot-checking any newly inserted material is completely adequate and results in a much faster turnaround for changes. “When I do insert a new shot or fix, I will immediately open the file in a media player and double check the newly inserted material. cineXtools has never been wrong, but it’s just an added level of confidence during the online process.”
AS11-DPP Deliverables with cineXtools
For editing metadata in AS11-DPP deliverables, using cineXtools means the once arduous and sometimes frustrating process is vastly simpler. “CineXtools’ AS11-DPP metadata editor has made this process completely straightforward and more importantly, instant. We export AS-11 using Adobe Media Encoder. Then, open the file in cineXtools and fill in the metadata fields. Previously, I would have used the DPP app to fill in the metadata fields, but it would take 30 minutes or more to commit a change.” He expresses a shared sentiment with many other UK post facilities, “Metadata is just data fields, so I could never understand why editing and saving wasn’t instant. cineXtools is instant.” He also notes, “Often we start mastering a program without knowing, for example, the clock number. I might only receive this information on the eve of having to deliver the file. With cineXtools, I can continue to go through the entire mastering process and at the last minute, type in the correct number in the metadata field and insert a new clock.”
Delivering 4K with cineXtools
Barrie notes cineXtools is an even more essential tool for 4K deliverables because everything from export to copy takes much longer than HD, leaving no time to address mistakes. “A recent two hour 4K concert (Stevie Wonder – Live at Hyde Park) was a 4K ProRes 4444 taking about 1TB in storage space. We had a final master that everyone signed off on and we’d copied the final master to the client’s drive, which took several hours,” he recalls. “The client wanted to change one of the names of the cameraman and correct a color-shift – so literally two tiny changes in this mammoth file. We were able to make the changes using cineXtools directly accessing the client’s master on their external drive, and followed suit on my master as well. If we’d had to re-export then copy over a new file, it would have taken an entire day, but it took literally minutes to make these corrections,” he explains. “Our client was amazed this capability exists and were grateful that we have the tools that give them the flexibility to create great products right up until the very last minute.”
About Barrie Williams and Pixelfantastic
Pixelfantastic was started in 1989 and have color-graded and mastered content for some of the most influential, high-profile musical artists and acts including Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Kylie Minogue, Blur and David Bowie. With a full Resolve color-grading theater and a ProTools suite, Pixelfantastic’s boutique post-facility boasts a complete end to end finishing workflow in a comfortable, laid back setting.
As a musician himself, Barrie has an ear and eye for the editorial process for artists and musicians and feels that he is ultimately the custodian of his clients’ art for the duration of the production, resulting in work that is completely in tune with the artist’s goals.
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