Thursday, August 24, 2023
Navigating the complexities of digital production requires a harmonious blend of detailed processes, robust communication, and creative flair. This article delves into the essentials from fostering seamless links between marketing and digital production to the nuances of color management and the importance of continuous training. We asked Sean to share his strategies to ensure your post-production team consistently delivers standout, high-quality digital assets.
Digital production should be defined as “A department built around detailed processes, robust communicative systems, thorough planning extending throughout the product procurement and marketing chains, combined with impromptu creativity, resulting in quality assets a company requires to succeed.”
When it comes to creating a smooth-running engine of happiness within digital production teams, including Post-Production, part of the formula is building, maintaining, and utilizing workflows, systems, hardware, and software. The other half is accomplished through proper planning, project management, and creative execution. This combination not only ensures efficiency and cost savings but a better chance of successfully meeting quality expectations and deadlines while ensuring key milestones are accounted for.
Linking the Chain
Marketing and Digital Production are a sequence of hand-offs, all connected in the success of a project or product. Creating strong links between teams is critical. Our jobs extend beyond our specific assignments. Essential parts of managing a role, such as a retoucher, may include completing tasks while working toward goals, KPIs and metrics. However, additional responsibilities include considering your strategic partner’s tasks and goals while educating them on your requirements.
Ensuring proper delivery to your team, from your strategic partners, is the first step. Then delivering the appropriate requirements to the next partner in the chain, say from Post-Production to the web team, completes your position’s responsibilities. The chain only remains effective and efficient when teams pay attention to creating and maintaining strong links. Not only does this speed up a team’s workflow, it also assists quality, metrics, and budgets while building camaraderie throughout the digital production process.
Planning for Success
Success in Post-Production often comes from proper planning and well-communicated expectations. It is surprising how little some companies plan their seasonal production schedules by referencing past projects and their complexities year-over-year. This type of “assumption planning” as I call it results in teams being reactive instead of proactive, left without the proper resources, constantly scrambling to meet unrealistic deadlines and budgets. As a photo studio leader, I gather as much information as possible for my team from merchants and creatives. I often involve my Senior Retoucher Manager in pre-production meetings while forwarding creative briefs to determine true level of effort depending on the type of Post-Production requests. This helps us review our bandwidth and any need to expand our team through freelance staffing.
Art Directors and Creative Leads also need to communicate with retouchers, before and during a project. Project Managers and Department leaders must confirm concise direction, requirements, and deadlines are being provided so retouching can move forward with a clear focus. If freelance retouchers are hired for a project, they too must be provided all the information required for success; if pertinent, such as creative briefs, mark-ups, detailed and updated Style Guides, proper specifications, and schedules.
Proper Project Management
Assisting a smooth-running Post-Production team means addressing their main goal of delivering high quality artwork, on time. Meeting the negotiated service-level agreements (SLAs) among stakeholders while defining project details and expectations ensures these goals are met.
Ideally, since Post-Production is often one of the last stages before digital assets go live, each team should be allocated the appropriate time to complete their work, which includes the use of a project management system that fits the team's workflow and keeps everyone updated on documents, tasks, and timelines. What often occurs from concept to final creation, if project management is poor or up-chain partners don’t meet their deadlines, are delays that cascade down, crunching retouchers for time while original deadlines are rarely pushed back. It is an unfair and disrespectful practice that occurs way too often, setting retouching teams up for failure.
Once projects get the go-ahead, a competent project manager stays on top of each team’s or colleague’s tasks to move the project along, partnering with department leaders and the Post-Production manager. If this practice is maintained, Post-Production receives the appropriate time needed to complete their requests, tasks, call-outs, and rounds. Rounds should be limited to three, mark-ups and callouts should speak to the language of a retoucher, reviews and approvals should be completed in a timely manner so files can be turned around quickly. Part of being a good creative lead or art director is the ability to work fast, recognizing and communicating all details needed for final assets.
Poor project management can also affect Post-Production’s budget if delays force the team to hire freelance digital artists last-minute to cover unexpected delays, instead of ingesting projects internally. Internal resources of the team should be thought of as part of Post-Production’s budget, combined with allocated freelance funds. This cost is often overlooked, ill-considered, damaging a team’s long-term growth.
Like any job, retouchers require specific hardware and software to perform their duties. If your team is internal, this equipment is necessary and should be standard; the latest Photoshop or multiple versions there-of, high quality monitors calibrated on a regular basis, Wacom tablets for faster retouching with less wrist exhaustion, light booths with up-to-date bulbs, and adjustable sit-or-stand desks with ergonomic chairs as retouchers tend to be in front of their monitors for long periods of time. These industry-standard tools help limit unnecessary work, ensure accurate color, deliver consistent files, meet high-quality standards, and allow goals and metrics to be met.
Retouchers ideally work within image management databases and project management systems. They organize hundreds of projects and reference thousands of files quickly. Without studio production software and systems like VeryBusy, this process can turn into a mess of disorganization and delays. If your company doesn’t have a strong system to manage this workload outside of emails, PDFs, and spreadsheets, your Post-Production team can flail and drown in manual efforts.
Building Post-Production Processes
Retouching is not only a creative role within Post-Production, but a process-driven technical role as well. E-commerce and editorial imagery can be shot, styled, and processed by numerous photographers, stylists, and digital techs. A retoucher plays a large role in making all imagery from different sources look as if it was shot and styled on the same set under the same conditions. Utilizing a style and lighting guides and following a specific formatted set of standards establishes quality and uniformity throughout a collection of final assets. These retouching guidelines build consistency to a site, an email campaign, a marketing effort, adding to customer experience, reduced returns, and increased sales.
Coordinating standard operating procedures, SOPs, through process documentation also maximizes a retoucher’s time on technical and repetitive processes, helping determine a team’s bandwidth. Establishing these processes help Post-Production teams work smarter, and this organization leads to savings through increased productivity. Talk to your retouchers to collaborate on best methods and improvements such as technology advances and software updates. Once processes are in place, the Post-Production team should also educate strategic partners, creating compliance.
Get it in Camera
I’ve always said, capture as much as you can on set, with detail, composition, styling, and location. Then use Post-Production to expand on the limitations of time, budget, an image sensor, and fix what you couldn't achieve with exposure, light, color, or content. The “fix it in Photoshop” generation often dumps their lack of photographic knowledge or effort on Post-Production, assuming anything can be created. They aren’t wrong, yet there’s a cost for this mindset. The more effort, attention, and expertise utilized on set, the less work is needed in post.
Image Specs and Master Files
Accurate image specifications for projects are another crucial aspect of maintaining Post-Production quality and effectiveness while reducing manual efforts and lead times. Define, document, and disseminate up-to-date specifications necessary for each project from aspect ratios to resolution. No one likes to correct other people’s mistakes or inconsistencies, yet I’ve seen photo studios deliver images poorly color-corrected, in the wrong color space, degraded or reduced too small in size to maintain detail, incorrectly named, or placed in the wrong folders. This all dramatically affects the speed and quality of final output, not to mention the master files.
Proper specifications, ideally RAW or non-degraded files, provides Post-Production the quality ingredients to cook up the optimal assets. You can always go down in size, but you can’t go up without losing or rebuilding detail and wasting time. RAW files can be hugely beneficial providing the highest quality file information possible, yet larger files can also overload retouch teams and slow efforts, so the size and type of files delivered depends on the speed of the systems involved to avoid bottlenecks and backlogs. It’s a fine balance. Files should be robust enough to match the quality expected for final delivery, yet not too large as to slow transfer times through Post-Production.
Achieving consistent color is not as straightforward as it might seem. One of the first processes I review when overseeing a Post-Production team is how we deal with color management. A creative director once told me, when asked about color accuracy, "I'm not concerned. The end user rarely views a calibrated monitor, so we can’t control what they see.” This may be true yet as consumer-grade monitors continue to improve in color and detail, while inaccurate color becomes more evident. When shooting thousands of eCommerce products, proper color is key. If an apparel merchant buys twenty grey suits in a mix of tones and hues, they clearly want the differences to be apparent online.
The highest percentage of eCommerce customer returns also come from inaccurate color. Deliver misleading images for your web team, and you end up turning off shoppers adding cost to your company while affecting future sales. Variables in color occur throughout production. If a system isn’t implemented, color management can be all over the place. If color defines any part of your product, sales can be lost, returns can increase. As a key part to Post-Production’s success is delivering accurate consistent files, here are a few industry standards to follow regarding color management that make a hue-mongous impact (sorry, I couldn't help myself):
Producing accurate color balance on set:
Paint your photo studio walls a neutral grey like Munsell N8.
Have crews wear neutral or black clothing.
Neutralize color temperature and tint shifts using colorchecker cards. Replace each year.
Confirm Digital Techs and Photographers know how to use colorchecker cards properly.
Balance studio lighting, flash tubes, and modifiers as best as possible regarding color shifts.
Use high-end monitors and calibrate on a regular basis.
Use the same monitors from set to Post-Production to Creative if possible.
Turn off overheads while shooting to avoid color contamination and shadow issues.
Use the appropriate color space for final usage:
Determine the proper color space for each project and build a preset into your set software to automate output for Post-Production.
Adobe RGB is an ideal color space to bake into master files, maintaining a larger color gamut for current and future needs.
From the Adobe RGB color space, you could convert and output to CMYK for print, or sRGB for web.
Managing color in Post-Production:
Leave overhead lighting off and wear neutral clothing
Use high-end monitors and calibrate on a regular basis.
Use D50 & D65 light booths or lightboxes (depending on final output), and replace bulbs when they expire.
Use a color meter to read your light booth’s color temperature and match this reading to your calibrated monitor accordingly.
Cut variables, such as different light sources, to view product color. Use one and only one if possible.
To communicate color to ADs and CDs, remove vague color terms, such as “blue” or “red” and replace these with less subjective terms like “Pantone 15-4020” or “Pantone 1795 C”.
Time to train:
A final, yet crucial step for Post-Production success is keeping pace with ever-evolving technology. This requires time to train, attend seminars and trade shows, experiment, and learn more about ways to implement new technologies, software, or other platforms into workflows. For example, Artificial Intelligence is all the talk these days. AI offers a new tool for the system, yet it’s not the end all. It’s a way to speed up retouching requests that ate up time and resources in the past. However, if your team is unable to take the time to train and learn more about AI, implementing it may not be as effective or cost-saving as advertised.
These broad strokes should foster success with your Post-Production team. Tenets to build happier, more productive retouchers who deliver high-quality, accurate, consistent, standout assets.
Sean has built a wealth of digital production knowledge with an expertise in photography over his career. He’s written two books, produced and led hundreds of creative projects, standardized numerous critical processes, balanced budgets while creating savings, assisted systems and software integration, improved work environments, and assembled teams for various campaigns, all with care, kindness, and support.