Critically lauded and a ratings hit, Psych recently wrapped its eighth season in Vancouver, adding to its record as USA Network's longest-running series. And for the third straight year, the Universal Cable Productions series is making its way from the camera to the screen via an innovative file-based workflow designed and supported by camera and production equipment specialist SIM Digital and its post-production unit Bling Digital.
SIM/Bling helped Psych become the first Vancouver-based television production to go fully digital in 2010, after having successfully established file-based workflows for two other Universal Cable Productions programs, Suits and Covert Affairs. Three years down the line, the elements of that workflow remain largely unchanged. SIM provides the show with ARRI Alexa camera packages (as well as Sony and GoPro cameras for specialized use), on-set graphics and playback services. Bling handles near-set dailies processing and data services.
Camera media is processed in the near-set lab, which includes the production of media for review, editorial, post-production and back-up. Editorial files and FCP ProRes proxy format are delivered via high-speed Internet connection to the show's editorial team, located 1,300 miles away in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Editors can begin cutting new material in as little as a few hours after its shot.
It took confidence for Psych's producers to make the leap to digital in 2010. Other Vancouver productions were still shooting HD video or film, so there was no template. However, they were intrigued with the potential for improved efficiency and cost-savings, and impressed with SIM/Bling's enthusiasm for the emerging digital paradigm. "There was some nervousness, because it was a whole new mode of production," recalled Ken Anderson, general manager of Sim Digital's Vancouver operations. "But they saw how well it was working in Toronto and the time and headaches it was saving for those shows. They wanted the same thing."
It didn't take long for the benefits of SIM/Bling's approach to become apparent. Gordon Mark, Psych's line producer, notes that shows that were early adopters of digital camera systems sometimes experienced problems in the hand-off between production and post. "You'd get a call from the lab saying 'there's a problem with the camera,' but then the camera crew would say, 'no, it's something the lab technician did,'" he said.
Those sorts of problems never arose on Psych because SIM/Bling managed both sides of the transaction. "If a problem occurred, and that didn't happen very often, their camera people and lab people would work together to resolve it," Mark said. "It was in their interest as much as it was in ours to get it fixed quickly. That was refreshing."
Psych's digital workflow also proved to be a significant upgrade in terms of reliability over the traditional film workflow. An error in processing at a film lab, observed Mark, could be devastating to a show's budget and delivery schedule.
"In the worst case scenario, your film could be ruined and you'd have to go back and do something again. That's very expensive," he said. "You would have to schedule the actors back and that, inevitably would involve some highly-paid guest star with lots of other commitments. So, it becomes a scheduling issue. Production can't shoot the footage, so the post people can't edit it, and it can't be delivered on time. It puts a wrinkle all the way through the system." With digital near-set processing, camera or processing issues are spotted and resolved quickly. The specter of reshooting has virtually been extinguished.
Series DP Scott Williams witnessed the transition from film and video capture to digital firsthand and has become a convert to the new file-based mode of production. For Psych, he shoots ARRI Alexa to ProRes 4444 master files and uses a Truelight on Set system (also supplied by SIM/Bling) to apply LUTs to key frames. Williams' color settings are applied to all dailies elements at the near-set lab. This arrangement, in effect, provides Williams with the luxury of grading his own dailies without leaving the set.
"Bling has recreated all of the functions of a lab in a near-set environment and they've done it with less overhead and greater efficiency," Williams said. "Everything is streamlined."
Associate Producer Janelle Reyes is the recipient of editorial media. She supervises post-production operations at the show's production offices in Manhattan Beach. Dailies are sent via Aspera connection to a nearby service bureau. "It's less than a mile away," she explains. "A PA picks up a drive every day. Bling also sends us lab reports, camera reports, LTO back-ups, and customized metadata which is very helpful for editorial. When we were working with a tape process, acquiring dailies involved a day's delay. Now we get the footage within hours of when it's shot."
Psych has been rewarded handsomely for its decision to go digital. Mark noted that, while the show's file-based workflow saves time and money, he values even more the peace of mind he gets by working with SIM/Bling. "We would have switched anyway because I knew we'd get great service," he said. "From the day we started, they have been unbelievable."
Anderson added that the relationship has also benefits SIM/Bling. Several other Vancouver-based television productions have signed up for the "Psych treatment." "They gave us a chance three years ago," Anderson said, "and it has catapulted us into a leadership position in cameras and dailies in this market."