In the world of post production pipelines and training, Simon Walker is someone you want to sit down with and mine for information. Which is exactly what AV3 has done in this lengthy interview with the UK-based Adobe Certified Master Trainer, who also gets in and advises on video editing and grading solutions and still takes time to be ‘on the box’ to check out the latest advancements in industry software.
We find out everything from how Simon got into the business starting with the early days of Photoshop, through to working on a tricky post solution for the FIFA EURO Championships. Plus he offers some thoughts on collaborating with Red Giant and what makes the perfect post production workflow.
AV3: Simon, what’s the best way to describe what you do?
Simon Walker: I train broadcast and film professionals in editing, grading and post-production techniques and I have been a freelance trainer for over 20 years. I am an Adobe Certified Master Trainer, an instructor for the International Colorist Academy, and I was also a Final Cut Studio Master Trainer before that. I also train other trainers, as well as end users, in the Adobe Creative Cloud Pro Apps – Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition, Prelude, SpeedGrade, and Adobe Media Encoder.
AV3: How did you get here? What led you into focusing on post production training?
Simon Walker: By mistake! At the beginning of the 90s, I was in desktop publishing designing graphics and page layouts and managing reprographics. This is before Photoshop had layers, when you had to make a selection and then bake that selection together with the next selection, and save the file as a new file, before moving on to do another selection. And then if you wanted to go back five versions, or rather when the art director said go back five versions, you had to make sure you worked in that way. And if you didn’t, you were stuffed!
Anyway, so I used to do that, and then the whole what we used to call ‘multimedia’ thing happened, when we started combining layout design with animation, audio and video. This was before it became called ‘new media,’ and after that, it was ‘360 media’, but we can’t call it that anymore and so it’s just become ‘media’. And the very quick story is that publishers started wanting content on disks as well as in print, so I started playing around with that.
My absolutely favorite software back then was Macromedia Director. I used to animate using it and code for it and it was absolutely brilliant. And then bit-by-bit, as the computers became more and more capable, I started plugging in audio and other types of devices. On the early Performa Macs you could only record 8-bit audio which sounded terrible, so I had to digitize it in a different way. And then you could plug a camera into them, and then eventually, in the mid-to-late 90s, I spent thousand of pounds on a standard definition card, the Pinnacle DC1000, which was crazy. And those were the days when Windows 98 would give you the blue screen of death if you picked your cup of tea up slightly in the wrong way.
The way I became a trainer was that people at the same time started buying their own kit and thinking, ‘Oh we can do this, why are we paying Simon to do it?’ But they realised that they didn’t know how to use it. And so my job morphed slowly over a period of ten years from doing everything myself to doing a balance of some things and then showing other people how to do things. And then Final Cut happened, and then after that Final Cut stopped happening, so then we went back to Premiere and continued to use After Effects, and then suddenly it’s 2017!
AV3: Could you talk about a typical day when you’re consulting or training on a post production workflow?
Simon Walker: There isn’t a typical day! All days tend to be different, depending on the client and the requirements of what they need to produce. The techniques I use also differ for different disciplines: for example on news production, speed is essential, and the focus is on delivering an edit quickly, whereas for film production, there is more time available. For example, I’ve worked on news projects where there is 10 minutes to create an edit and I’ve worked on film productions where the editor has 10 months!
When I’m doing training, sometimes it’s one-on-one training, sometimes it’s to a group of people with hands-on at the computer, sometimes it’s a short seminar or lecture, and sometimes it’s recording on-line tutorials like my lynda.com courses.
Different people learn in different ways and have different methods in which they like to learn, so part of my job is to work out how different individuals like to learn, and then provide training in that format.
AV3: What have you found is the secret to making a post pipeline as efficient as possible?
Simon Walker: Perhaps the secret is being flexible and adaptable regarding both the equipment you have, and also the people you work with. There are perfect workflows in theory, but you have to cross reference these with the budget you have and the time you have to finish the project. Also, different people have different styles and preferences for the way they work, so you need to consider these.
Sometimes the software makes a difference and sometimes the hardware makes a difference. For example, the ability for Premiere Pro to natively playback a wide range of codecs can lead to the assumption that you can throw 4K footage onto the timeline and play back without skipping frames on a low spec laptop, which is never going to happen. In cases like this, different methods then need to be used, for example Premiere Pro’s ability to dynamically adjust native resolution on playback and its ability to create proxy files on ingest, but still have the capability to grade with the original camera files, and the ability to switch in-between the two types of files as you work. This means you can try out various grades but also have the ability to play-back to preview the edit.
Consideration of the data-rate of certain codecs means that bottlenecks can be solved using an SSD or RAID, as older spinning discs are often the bottlenecks. I’ve found that when setting up a room for training, I use 1TB G-Technology ev SSD drives which have a transfer speed of almost 400 MB/s, which means I can transfer 20GB of training files in about one minute. This makes it very fast to set up 10 machines, especially when some attendees like to bring their own laptops. As they can be bringing Windows or Mac laptops, I use ExFAT formatted SSDs for this. Another interesting situation in the industry at the moment is choosing codecs for transferring graphic elements between different departments, especially since Apple is stopping development of QT for Windows.
AV3: For people working with different post production pipelines – because every job really can be very different – how do you approach that kind of work with the right kind of flexibility?
Simon Walker: As I said, theoretically, you could always have the best possible workflow, but usually there’s somewhere in the pipeline that lets it down. It typically manifested a few years ago with people buying more and more expensive cameras that could do higher and higher resolutions and then not investing in the graphics cards or the speeds of the hard disks. And so my experience with all sorts of different workflows, from small production houses right up to broadcasters with multiple floors of stuff, it is that it’s all relative to the timing and the budget that you have. And therefore which kit choices you make.
Here’s a practical example – I worked on a project in which it was figured out that the higher spec computers were a thousand Euros more than the next one below, but actually weren’t that much faster for what everyone was doing. And so fifty times a thousand Euros was actually quite a saving which could then put into higher graphics cards for people who actually needed it. And so it’s interesting – it was about small little specs between machines that made a big difference to the budget but weren’t necessarily going to slow down the system.
AV3: Do you still have time to do project work?
Simon Walker: Yes, I still get commissions for shooting and editing and doing graphics and grading. I think you have to be doing it to actually be secure in your answers during a training session. Because when you go into a training session it’s not just about what you know and how the software works, or whether you know how their setup works and what they like to do and how they like to learn. You also have to know all the small little things that they might ask you that there are workarounds for, because people are always trying to do something that they shouldn’t do with the software, which I think is fantastic. But it does mean that my job is also a facilitator in terms of helping people to learn those things through my experience so they don’t have to figure it out for themselves and reinvent the wheel and so on.
Plus, when I go into broadcasters I see people using the software in a slightly different way. Which is really interesting. And so it’s not just my experience. It’s the experience of dozens and dozens of people who are trying things out and then finding that one technique works well with another. After conversations about these techniques and watching it as well as doing it myself, I find that it’s a combination of experiences which informs the content I actually end up sharing with everybody.
AV3: It must be hard to keep up with software updates and everything, though?
Simon Walker: Well, I am absolutely fascinated by seeing what different companies are doing andreading between the lines. And also just regularly logging onto the forums and following people on Twitter, who talk about different aspects of workflow. And that means that you build up a picture of things that not only are your experience but also slightly outside your experience. And my homework is watching TV, going to the cinema, and watching movies!
I’ve have a whole library of screenshots, and my favorite thing is to download trailers and then break those apart, especially with grading, to talk to people about the themes in current movies and what certain colors mean, and what the film-makers are suggesting by their use of color. It’s such an interesting process.
For example, somebody asked me a while ago what is the most important color in movies? And there is no simple answer to that. But at the time, Sicario had just came out, and I was very interested to see that in this movie, beige, just ordinary, boring beige, was actually symptomatic of moral ambiguity in the film. And some of the bad guys were dressed in beige. And that contrasted greatly against some of the deep, dark shadows that they had in certain scenes. And so there was an interesting contrast between just those two colors. I mean that’s just the surface of it – in that movie it was beige, and then in other movies it can be a completely different color, which can have a different meaning because it’s in the context of the story that’s being told.
So the answer is, all color is contextual, but if you are constantly looking at how certain colors tell a story or how certain editing techniques or even camera movements can tell a story, then that informs your actual production work. Then you start trying those things out in real life and start comparing them. But that’s probably because my job is finding out all sorts of new, interesting stuff, both on the technical side and on the creative side, and then being able to apply that for work. But if I didn’t have this job I’d probably end up doing that anyway.
AV3: Can you talk about working with Red Giant over the years – what makes them such a fun and influential company in this area do you think?
Simon Walker: I like the fact that so many of the staff are film-makers. This is across all the disciplines. For example, from people in the marketing department, to also the QA and the engineering department. Many of them shoot and edit short films as part of their creative expression. This is why the tools are so great, as they know first hand the pain points that film-makers have, and then make tools to solve them in creative ways. Here’s another example – the development of PluralEyes was because the original developer wanted a better way of synchronising the video and audio footage he was creating at home.
AV3: You had some experience setting up a Premiere Pro CC workflow for use in the FIFA EURO Championships last year, especially solving a playback issue. Can you talk about that?
Simon Walker: We had an issue with real-time playback on graded footage using the AVC-Intra 100 codec. The editors wanted to have real-time playback because they wanted to be able to apply a treatment without having to render. So they wanted to add the treatment, play it back on the Premiere Pro timeline, change their mind, and adjust it in real-time. This is especially useful when you’re sitting next to a producer showing treatments.
So I designed a way for people to be able to add multiple different looks to footage using Magic Bullet Colorista from Red Giant, using the HSL wheels in Colorista to actually isolate certain colors. There were some looks like bleach bypass and then a sepia treatment and a vignette, plus something to isolate warm colors and something to isolate cool colors, and a range of stylising effects. And what we found was that we could stack four or five of these effects onto a single clip and playback in real-time without skipping frames. So we were able to not only preview effects, but also it was faster to output because Colorista was processing on the GPU using the Mercury Playback Engine.
So that became really important, and I made something like 25 presets that were available on all the edit suites, where editors were able to choose them. It helped people in some instances to hit deadlines because they were able to quickly provide stylized treatments for highlights and interstitials and small graphic pieces. That’s just one instance – most people use a variety of techniques – but that was specifically what I found useful with Colorista in a live sports environment.
You can read more about Simon Walker’s work and experience at his website: http://simonwalkerfreelance.com/