In conversation: Katie Hinsen
Our VP of Business Development, Danny Peters, recently spoke to Katie Hinsen, Executive Producer at Nice Shoes and Co-Founder of the Blue Collar Post Collective
We are launching a new interview series where we sit down with industry leaders and talk all things media and technology. For the first in the series, we have international producer, technology and business leader, and post-production professional, Katie Hinsen. Originally from New Zealand, Katie currently lives in Hollywood and is an executive producer for Nice Shoes, looking after features and long-form television series. Katie is also one of the original founders of the Blue Collar Post Collective, an international organisation that has nurtured the careers of thousands of young professionals.
Katie, you continue to have an impressive international career; tell us a little bit about your successful journey, starting in New Zealand to your current post at Nice Shoes in Hollywood.
I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work in television and I began my first job working evenings whilst I was still attending high school in the day. I didn’t tell anyone my age until I turned 30, I just let people assume that I was a college student. I then worked my way up over the years through television in New Zealand. One advantage I had was that being significantly younger than my colleagues I was often assigned to learn, implement and lead the introduction of new technologies. If something new came out, they’d throw it to the kid and that happened to be me.
I worked exclusively in television until 2007, when I was asked to join the DI team at Park Road Post Production (which is part of Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital company) where I learnt a lot about the world of film. I immersed myself in the inner workings of the lab and I also took advantage of the secondments I was given to learn, implement and lead the adoption of new technologies.
From there I moved to New York where I initially worked on an autostereoscopic 3D project, which ended up not being widely implemented by the public. A lot of us in the industry felt that this was going to be the next step in 3D, but as we know it really crashed and burned. This led me to look more critically at the human aspect of technology adoption and that was a really huge turning point in my career.
In early 2014 I co-founded the Blue Collar Post Collective, a grassroots initiative supporting emerging talent in post-production, but at the same time I was also exploring the future of technology and our industry, which led me to a radical career change in 2016. I could see the traditional model of a post-production facility becoming unsustainable and I knew I wanted to develop and implement the post-facility of the future. It was clear that things were about to change and I wanted to be part of that change and I knew that the first steps would be to build and lead a traditional facility, so I could really learn and understand what that meant. So I went back to New Zealand and convinced a couple of crazy guys who had the same kind of ideas as I had, to let me have a go and at the same time I immersed myself in the world of start-ups, alternative business practices, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The facility that I worked at was called Department of Post and it became enormously successful.
I soon realised that my purpose in all of this was to learn, and that if I’d done the job well, I should be able to resign on the day that we launched and move on. So that’s exactly what I did; I spent two years developing the facility and as soon as we launched I resigned and I moved to Los Angeles where I was then approached by Nice Shoes, my current company. Nice Shoes are leaders in high-end commercial post-production with 5 offices around North America, and they were looking to hire people like myself who were experts in their corner of the industry in order to develop and lead their facilities. So now I’m currently the Executive Producer there, leading episodic, features and dailies for North America.
When we look at defining quality it’s what is seen on-screen; the best possible image, the best possible audio and flawlessness. It’s systems, workflow, people and process that get us to that point.
Going back to the ‘Department of Post’ in New Zealand; how are they living out the vision you helped create since you resigned?
They’re doing exceptionally well. At the time it was clear that there was a space in the market in New Zealand for a world class, high-end post-production facility that was at the cutting edge of technology. The New Zealand government had been working really hard to build world-class studio space there for some time and the tax incentives brought a lot of international productions over. But there wasn’t really anybody in the Australasia/Asia-Pacific market that could support all of the production that was happening down there. Park Road Post Production is more of a traditional facility situated in Wellington, which is a traditional film hub. But Auckland was really where the growth was happening because television had been done there for decades. I knew that the industry was ready for a facility that looked like a traditional facility on the surface, that everybody was comfortable with, but underneath was very much the facility of the future. So our goal was to build the most high-end and most technologically advanced post-production facility in the world there. I felt very strongly that I should establish the the facility and business infrastructure and make it sustainable, so it didn’t rely on me and I could then move on. It was really important that I just went in there as somebody with ideas and expertise to guide the building and development, and to see them into the future.
It’s a great approach. Moving on, how would you define what quality means throughout the post-production process? Is it in systems, workflow, people or process? How do you define ‘quality’ in high-end post-production?
Quality in high-end post-production is the perfect combination of every one of those factors. When we look at defining quality it’s what is seen on-screen; the best possible image, the best possible audio and flawlessness. It’s systems, workflow, people and process that get us to that point.
When you’re looking at designing the post-house for the future, what technology trends are you specifically looking for?
My approach is all about giving talented and driven folks everything they need to do their best work. So I look for tools that fit perfectly between the artist’s needs and the client’s needs. Often I find that off-the-shelf tech is designed for the masses but exceptionalism lies at the edges. I think that’s a really important thing to remember and that’s why not every tool is fit for every job. I seek out tools that can easily be hacked, customised and made accessible to those of us who want to implement them within a certain workflow. Technology is not static and neither is the work that we do, the clients needs or the type of productions we do so we need tools that are flexible and can be tweaked to fit something new. Any kind of static technology restricts creativity.
Technology is not static and neither is the work that we do (…) so we need tools that are flexible and can be tweaked to fit something new. Any kind of static technology restricts creativity.
You’re a mentor to so many young professionals; how do you view training and career development in our industry? And following on a previous question; how does the Blue Collar Post Collective rank in your list of achievements?
To be honest, the Blue Collar Post Collective is my single proudest achievement, which started back in early 2014. The idea came from an observation of my own needs and the needs of others around me. I noticed that there was a huge gap in what younger people needed and what actually was out there for them. At the moment, we’re seeing a generation of professionals who have graduated in a very different time to the one I started out in, in the 90s. To those whose success story starts with the mailroom I often ask them, “What is the equivalent of the mailroom now and is that job paid?”
When I came into the industry we all worked in studios and were very fortunate to have access to people who could teach and mentor us. But today’s graduates typically come out of college into freelance life, and they don’t have that same access. I felt that what was missing was a community. At the time, a lot of those people just didn’t know each other unless they actually worked together, so I thought that one of the solutions to that would simply be to get a bunch of below-the-line workers from one facility to meet the same people doing the same jobs at another facility. And that was where it all began.
I had just started a new job at Light Iron in New York and in the same week a guy called James Reyes also started there who came from a different post-house. So I said to him one day, lets get all of the machine room guys, the online editors, the assistants and the colourists to the pub and I’ll invite my colleagues from my previous post-facility and you invite your colleagues from your previous post-facility. So 12 of us went to the pub and we found that we all had so much in common but had never had the chance to meet one another. It was so successful that we decided to do it again. The second time we met up there was about 40 or so people. The third time, we had over 100 people and that’s when we realised that this was something that was going to make an impact. In terms of a leadership ethos, we were taking what our clients, or in this case, our members needed, and facilitating that. Thats all we were doing; facilitating. So as the needs of our membership changes, the BCPC changes. Our membership has now changed from people who work in post-facilities in New York, to a global membership of around 30,000 people around the world in all areas of post-production and production.
But when you ask about how the industry is fairing in regards to the training and career development, I can tell you that we absolutely need to do better. I think we are still working with a system that favours those with more privilege over merit. I’ve always thought that the talent in folks who want it the most will succeed, but I’ve learnt that that’s not necessarily the case, and I’ve started to really examine my own levels of privilege and look at my success against where I’ve had advantages and where I’ve had disadvantages. I’ve also learnt to not compare my own journey with the journeys of others because everybody is different and in particular those of us who started out a little earlier and didn’t graduate during one of now two recessions — I really can’t compare our journeys at all. It’s more important than ever to look at who is getting opportunities. I think the unpaid internships model is a real problem in our industry, because only those who can afford to live in a major city with no income (research has found on average two years without pay) get the opportunities to have the really good start to their career. We have also focussed a lot on how we enable people to succeed and haven’t focussed enough on how we can enable people to fail. Because for some people with less privilege, failing once, they never get another chance. Yet we see people with a lot of privilege getting the chance to fail over and over again, and those who’ve had enormous success in life often preach the idea that failure is the road to success. I can tell you from my own experience, that my failures have been the thing that have driven me to success. So how can we give more people the chance to fail and recover so that we can give the chance to the best possible people to lead our future in this industry?
Can colleges do more in terms of industry placement throughout the curriculum?
Absolutely; I think that the biggest thing colleges can do is empower their students to understand what their rights are and to support them to not take unpaid internships if possible. And also to encourage the businesses that they work with to pay their interns.
That is a very valid point and with the research to back it. We’ve looked at the workers like yourself servicing the industry. If I could pivot to clients and client expectation. Is there such a thing as a global client template for high-end post-production, or are their real differences in client expectations from Auckland, New York and Hollywood?
The expectations are mostly the same. All high-end clients expect the same high-end products and services. But there is in my experience, a cultural difference that changes how we get there. For example, I have found between New Zealand and the US — both have extremely high level of product, talent and technology. However, the way in which we do things are quite different; for example New Zealand has been dealing with the tyranny of distance for so many years and we have developed technology and implemented workflows that overcome that really well. I think cultural awareness and cultural understanding is really key to what we do. We’ve always said that psychology plays a big part in post-production and I think that now we are operating in a global market, we need to consider expanding our understanding of human behaviour and culture. I think at the end of the day, the highest end product is consistent globally.
Any new technology, for it to be widely adopted needs to be accessible, better and collaborative.
The situation we find ourselves in currently requires many facilities to suddenly implement “remote workflows” and that means different things to different parts of the post-production chain. How have you been affected in Hollywood and what is being implemented?
Well, I think for a lot of people it appeared that we implemented remote workflows overnight. But the truth is that at the high-end we generally didn’t. In my area of technology, remote workflows and distributed workflows have been on our minds for a good decade at least. This is something that’s moved forward as the world has become better connected and now we’re seeing a demand, not just for a solution, but a solution that can be widely adopted. Some facilities are more advanced right now, and others have almost duct-taped together remote solutions, but that’s where innovation comes and that’s pretty exciting to me. I think this is a real test and it’s important that we understand that, it’s not about how good our remote solutions are, it’s about how good they are for the talent and the client. In this case we have to remember, while we’re forging ahead and building all of these incredible remote and distributed solutions for post-production, we’re not thinking about how people are going to feel about them and whether they will continue to use them after lockdown. So it’s really not about how good our remote solutions are right now, it’s about how good they are for the user at the end.
I think that as someone who studies the widespread adoption of emerging technologies and who analyses their likelihood of becoming mainstream; I like to follow a model I call the A-B-C model. Any new technology, for it to be widely adopted needs to be accessible, better and collaborative.
Can you explain how you see client services being satisfied given that operations must be conducted remotely rather than in person?
Well I think there are ways that the implementation of remote work will, for the most part, enhance client service. We are a service industry and without our clients we are nothing, so the end product and the client experience is everything. The artist’s experience is also very important, especially in this particular moment in time. There are ways in which the client service will be enhanced if remote working is done well, and only if we make sure that they really are accessible, better and collaborative. Clearly they can be collaborative, but we have to understand what collaboration means. And it means different things in the colour suite, as to the graphics suite, as to the producers office. Also, is it collaborative enough? Is is accessible? Usually. Is it better? Often. But is that better for everybody as well? Is it better for somebody who lives in a very small apartment and doesn’t have a lot of space to do their work, maybe not. So I think we need to not just think about the masses, but we have to think about all of the different kinds of use cases and whether A-B-C applies to each of them, because that’s how we can really start looking at what proportion of people will really adopt this technology, and how can we then build that into our business model to give an overall better client service.
Do you see artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) benefiting post-production, and if so how?
It absolutely does and it has been for some years. A lot of people talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning like they’re a thing of the future, when we’ve really been implementing them across our industry for probably a good decade. But it all sits under the surface and the best tools that implement those things are the ones that we don’t even notice. I think that both of those things are incredible tools and I absolutely think that the continuing implementation of AI and ML is where the future of our industry lies. The more “dumb tasks” we can hand over to the computer, the more creative we can be. So I’m quite the optimist in terms of these technologies and what they’ll do for us and I’m absolutely a proponent of embracing them as much as we can.
Thats almost a perfect point to leave it on, but I have just one more for you. We are seeing a greater demand for productions to be provided in higher resolutions, with 6K and 8K becoming more commonplace and HDR deliverables now a standard request. Given the sheer amount of data and media being generated, how can post-production best handle the challenges presented by a high demand for storage and workflows?
We need to be more mindful when we are developing our infrastructures. I’ve always said when we’ve had problems that we can’t figure out, we must look to other industries or others within our industry who have solved this problem. We can look to VFX or distribution for example — they already handle large amounts of data. Netflix does it wonderfully and quite seamlessly — it is the core of their business model to always have this seamless streaming, and it’s an enormous amount of data they’re handling. There’s a lot of places that we can turn to to learn how to better manage these enormous amounts of data. We are also exploring using smaller packets of data so it travels more efficiently over smaller distances where possible. That means building our facilities on top of hybrid cloud infrastructures, and also being a lot smarter about what we’re doing with our data — where we’re storing it, how we’re storing it and how we’re transporting it.
We really need to be looking to the experts in storage and count on them to help us manage this data. We’ve always traditionally looked to the theatre to guide our industry and that’s not going to solve our problems in technology, it’s actually the nerds who are going to save us. If you look at the gaming industry, the tech industry and other industries we’ve traditionally turned our noses up at, they already have the solutions we’re seeking. So we have to look to other industries; digital asset management, supply chain logistics — real boring stuff like that, because they actually know how to sort this problem of massive amounts of data.
It’s also extremely present right now because we’re very much seeing a digital divide in our society. I live in Los Angeles and the internet by global standards is actually pretty terrible and here we are talking about implementing remote workflows on a large scale, where the truth is that much of the United States can’t handle that amount of data going down our domestic pipes. So we have to find ways to solve that problem too. That’s not something we can easily solve and we really need to be doing that more urgently than most of the other things we’re thinking about right now.
So in summary, while we face the challenges of supplying high quality product to our clients in new ways we still need to be embracing and adaptive of new technologies?
We do, especially since we have built a lot of our remote workflows and pipelines on a facility-to-facility model across high speed, dark fibre connections often, and if we’re going to go the way of facility-to-home, home-to-home or home via data centre-to-home models, we really need to rethink a lot of what we’re doing. We need to really think a lot harder about how we’re going to overcome some of those less sexy problems before we see large scale implementation, because it’s never going to be better than walking into a DI theatre if we have latency and bad internet to struggle with.