Post production as coronavirus exiles directors

While the production sector has crashed to a halt, what has been happening to the post production sector? We talk to Soundfirm and Cutting Edge for a high end view.

In the post production sector, the immediate response to COVID-19 is a bit different from production. We spoke to Cutting Edge CEO Michael Burton and Soundfirm’s senior post producer Helen Field about the special kind of eeriness they are encountering. 

As Burton explained, ‘We’ve spent the better part of the last three weeks getting staff home, getting them set up with workstations and making sure they can work remotely in an efficient manner.

‘The response from government and our landlords and banks is all very encouraging but it’s a massive workload on top of what we normally do to work out what we are eligible for and how we will keep the business running.’

Fielding is in the same position, while Soundfirm has also been working with productions which need final grading and sound mixes. The building is basically empty, with a small amount of IT support and some security while productions provided their own personnel. ‘It’s kind of creepy,’ she admitted from her own home. 

The normal production workflow has been complete halted. The second half of Wentworth for the year, for instance, is in limbo.

‘I don’t like using social distancing,’ said Field. ‘I think that sends a bad message – I call it physical distancing. That can be problematic because your editor and director need to be far enough apart and there can’t really be anyone else there. And then they have to go to each other’s homes.

‘Directors of course like to be with their editor or mixer or sound person while the work is happening. And for the time being, they just go and have to allow that person to work on their own all day and then just send in the files at night.

So the sound and effects teams are working from home, shouting to each other across their lounge rooms and using technologies like Zoom to fire files around. But they will need to congregate around expensive technology for sound mixing and final grading. ‘You can’t work remotely at that point, and people will have to go into Soundfirm, if we are still allowed to leave our homes at all.’

Cutting Edge is basically, ‘offering anything that we can do with teams working remotely,’ said Burton. ‘People still need to get their commercials out, and we are doing animation and motion graphics. Anything that can be done without having to go out and shoot the materials.

‘The amazing thing in times like this is how creative ideas come into play as we find different ways of approaching things for digital projects. And so, we’re engaging with the clients and coming up with new ways of getting their message across that don’t require people getting together and doing shoots.

‘We are using things like Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts, to be able to get them face to face. I think like most people we’re finding the NBN is a letdown – it’s not providing the infrastructure that it was promised to.

‘But I think we’re all adapting to that pretty quickly and just working around, there’s no point sitting there complaining. We’ll come up with alternative solutions and, and move forward.

The major concern for us is what this is all going to look like when it comes out the other side. You know some projects that were postponed likely won’t come back because of budgets. Because of availability of talent.’

We’re spitballing about what is going to be required when the curtains do finally start to roll and we’re back out to work, but we are mostly in discussion with our creators and clients so we can at least prepare ourselves for when things go back to normal.’

For Helen Field, that new normal will still contain the old problem of falling budgets. ‘The budgets, we’ve been working with over the last three or four years have been ridiculously low and you watch, at the back end of this they’ll be even less. 

‘You have to keep up with all the latest tech, you’ve got to have all the best people. You’ve got to have everything ready to go in case somebody rings you up and wants something,  and all of that costs money.’

Both of these companies are still feeling the tension between high and low end approaches to colour grading and mixing. All the combinations need to survive because both the budget and the blue chip markets need to be serviced. 

The two companies are very used to remote communications anyway. Cutting Edge is based in Brisbane, and has centres on the Gold Coast, Sydney and Tokyo. Soundfirm comes from Melbourne and has set up in Sydney and Beijing.

The company is in a kind of limbo between its former studio at Fox and the new premises at Animal Logic which are still be refurbished. So there is minimal work there at the moment. Beijing staff are beginning to come out of lockdown in strict obedience to the government. Unfortunately everyone has been sent home to where they came from, so they are scattered across provincial China at the moment.  

Cutting Edge sometimes generates production experiments internally. Will the company make new work for itself? That is an excellent temptation for everyone with the gear, but reality gets in the way. As Michael Burton warned, ‘Right now, that will only be done within reason. We have to pay wages and we need revenue and we are doing everything we can to keep as many of our staff as possible in full employment. But when events like this happen, it can bring out the best in people and there is a lot of ingenuity and creativity.’

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.