Powderhouse Fuels Revolutionary Growth with Avid

Helping Powderhouse Productions make the most of their media, Avid has provided the openness and collaborative capability the company now employs to get the most done in the shortest time span possible.  Their recent purchase of Avid Interplay has enabled the Powderhouse production team to accelerate its development and production of TV series programming and continue its trajectory as one of the most explosive forces in the non-fiction entertainment industry today.

Creating a Media Revolution: Powderhouse Productions

Creating a Media Revolution: Powderhouse Productions

Named after a Revolutionary War storehouse for gunpowder, Powderhouse Productions is currently the largest independent producer of cable programming in New England, having developed some of the world’s most innovative, factual programming for clients such as Animal Planet, National Geographic, PBS and Discovery.  And business is literally booming. One of their most popular undertakings is a hit series for Animal Planet called Dogs 101, known to enthusiasts as the television encyclopedia of dog breeds, now in its 3rd hit season.

 “We’re turning out 1 ½ finished hours of programming every week. That takes a whole other level of media management we’ve never had—until now.”
Rob Kirwan, Senior Vice President, Production and Post.

The “Brains” of the Operation

Expanding upon their post-production business, Powderhouse is in the midst of creating another small revolution of their own with the development of original content.  In order to manage and keep track of its burgeoning flow of digital assets, this past year has been highlighted by the incorporation of the Avid Interplay Production asset management and Avid Unity ISIS networked storage platforms.  These technologies serve as the “brains” of the operation, providing everyone with access to the data they need, in terms of both digital assets and associated metadata, for an entire project or series, from one central location.

“On any given day,” comments Joel Olicker, Powderhouse CEO, “an editor, assistant editor, or producer will say, ‘remember that shot we made three years ago, when we were in New Delhi and we filmed those guys walking down the street?’  It no longer takes an army of people digging through boxes and ripping open tapes to see if maybe it's on this or that tape, then finding out that even if it is, we don't have a machine to play that format any more.  With Interplay, we are simply able to perform a search and retrieve that clip with all the pertinent metadata attached to it.”

This ability is having a major impact on the Powderhouse workflow.  Just two or three years ago, it was necessary to manage the production of ten season series episodes by separate sub-teams, with each team digitizing, cataloguing and storing the data in its own way.  “What this does,” says Joel, “is to give us a uniform, coherent, cohesive, rational system, whereby all the data is in a single place, in a single database, and instantly accessible by all who need it.”

Doing What Editors Get Paid For

The key business advantage has been to facilitate a dramatic increase in throughput, which has been tantamount for Powderhouse to raising profitability.  In an internal survey taken the previous year, the company found that as much as one-third of its editor's typical work day was being consumed by mundane housekeeping tasks such as inputting, outputting, transcoding, format management, logging, and transcribing.

With Interplay and Avid Unity ISIS, that work is now taken out of the editors’ hands so that they can not only do what they really are good at, but what they get paid for.

“Engineering a new genre”

Founded in 1994, Powderhouse purchased its first Avid editor that year.  Six years later, a sea change occurred with the decision to engage larger clients and move into series work, predicated in no small measure on the company’s breakout hit Discovery special, “Engineering the Impossible.”  Featuring in-depth profiles of such futuristic construction projects as a mile-high skyscraper and a bridge from Europe to Africa, this program virtually created a new genre of programming for cable nets. For Powderhouse, it signaled the end of one-off productions and a shift into multi-episode series development and production.

More Avid editing gear was eventually added to accommodate Powderhouse’s growing technological requirements, including the company’s first storage system.  Initially, the company opted to go with a solution from Facilis rather than Avid Unity.  Sharing media, though, eventually became such a challenge that the system was unable to keep pace with workflows.

“We were running a fiber-based solution for several years here,” comments Rob Kirwan, Senior Vice President, Production and Post, “and it worked pretty well.  We had up to eight editors, but then it started to stretch us a little too much.  We started seeing some glitches in the system, corrupt media, while larger difficulties emerged, like keeping track of the media itself.” 

Powderhouse needed a solution that would help change the focus of what everyone was doing from singular to collaborative effort.  “Given our fast-paced, deadline-driven environment, we wanted a process that would work without hassle,” comments Tug Yourgrau, Powerhouse President and co-founder. Local reseller, HB Communications, was invaluable in helping us move to that next level.”

Building an Arsenal of Technology

Avid Unity ISIS has since become a strategic weapon in the arsenal of Powderhouse technology, expanding on former user capacity of 15 to the level of 25-50 currently required.  Now, instead of having to write to the Facilis drive one contributor at a time, Unity ISIS provides partitions to which all contributors have access, simplifying the process of organizing and accessing data.

Enabling producers and associate producers to access media without having to make a DVD, working with Avid Unity ISIS is like the difference between working with an MS-Word and .pdf file; material can not only be viewed, but massaged.  “The fact is, producers don’t just watch, they precut and make timelines,” remarks Olicker "and that’s the Holy Grail for us, to give every member of the creative team that fingertip access to media.”

A.I.—the Advent of Interplay

Most recently, Powderhouse added Interplay to its current array of Avid gear.  Currently, that encompasses 25 offline workstations running Media Composer Software, 2 Media Composer Nitris DX ingest/output stations and 3 online finishing stations (2 Symphony Nitris and one Symphony Nitris DX), all connected to 48 TB of storage in three Avid Unity ISIS Engines.

“Interplay is another huge step up for us,” says Rob, “in terms of organization, collaboration, the ability to hang on to assets, archive them and retrieve them as needed.”

How deeply this impacts the production process is illustrated by Rob’s workflow travelogue.  “With Interplay,” he says, “as soon as a clip is digitized, it can be checked into the library where a producer can view it, start making notes, watching time codes, and even put locators on the media itself.

“This media can then go to editors who rough-cut the material, create a shot list, identify their favorite bits and b-roll, do a story cut, record their own narration through a USB microphone onto their laptop, and send it off to the assistant.  Now, they can lay out a sequence, check it into the Interplay, and when the editor walks in, there is a story cut ready and waiting.”

The Human Side

“What Interplay brings to the table,” comments Powderhouse Editor, Brian Cassin, “is a lot of Google-esque search functionality.  I mean, I can find pretty much anything I need just by typing in a word.  Now, if I want a whoosh sound, all I do is type in the word whoosh.  It brings up all my whooshes and I just pick the one I want.”

“That’s where it gets personal,” explains Joel.  “When technology fails to support and even thwarts people from doing what they do best, the result is frustration and burnout.  But having Interplay and Avid Unity ISIS completely changes the vibe.  The creative spark stays alive; people can do what they really want to be doing.  Doing stuff that excites them enhances the quality of the work itself, the quality of the work day and the experience of all the other people involved.”

“With Avid now quietly working in the background,” affirms Tug, “creative people are freed up to be creative.  That’s why, when we look at making any technology investment, we try to see beyond features and functionality.  It has to have a human side.”