Busy studio teams are endlessly looking to automation for solutions that streamline workflows and simplify responsibilities. But where does a studio start implementing automation?
To answer that, Daniel Jester, host of The Creative Operations Podcast, gathers a roundtable of creatives with ties to Stanley Black & Decker's content team. They include Marc Berenson, former head photographer for the company, along with three colleagues: Dan Birzak, Rob Ouellette, and Lesley Rivera.
In search of the in-depth chat on how the Stanley Black & Decker team crafted automation using common studio programs, like Capture One? Find the full episode on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, orour website. For the mere recap, though, read more.
Pursue Agile Tools and Flows
To Rob, Stanley Black & Decker's creative automation developer, the goal of automation is agility, and the definition of agility is quick scalability.
"I'd say 'agility' means being able to make something on a Monday, and by Monday afternoon, someone else can do the exact same thing not where you are," Rob says.
Fake It Till You Make It
When Marc, in his head photographer role, started collaborating with Rob, with his automation focus, neither of them had a lot of scripting experience.
"I was faking it till I made it, all the way—YouTube, Google, Adobe forums, anything I could get my hands on to even get a grasp of what I was doing," Rob says.
Their goal was to find ways to iterate multiple actions in unison.
"We designed a script that would basically do what Photoshop's built-in batch process would do, but better," Rob says.
They learned enough script to customize a tool that allowed them to command mass-edits—"I guess 'modular' is the best way to describe it," Rob says. "Once we were done with making it, we didn't need to do anything afterward, scripting-wise."
Maximize Existing Tools
You can increase your automation without even needing to script original code or add new programs to your tech stack. Sometimes solutions come when you learn how to operate your current platforms and their existing integrations.
At Stanley Black & Decker, Dan, who's the team's senior production manager for creative automation and efficiencies, worked with Marc to link Capture One to the company's cloud storage system, which then linked to the team's go-to project management tool.
"It enhanced the visibility to the assets that were being shot," Dan says. "It led to faster reviews. It increased accessibility. You didn't have to be on-site or part of the photo shoot to actually see the results once we built that integration."
Marc lauds Dan for creating a Capture One output into their hot folder of key images. Any changes to the hot folder trigger a notification to relevant team members.
"People could see in real-time when updates came, then they could give us feedback either through that cloud platform or through other ways," Marc says. "But it was helping so much that we weren't outputting and sending an email: 'What do you think?' It just went straight into that folder. That's something that was just thinking differently with C1 Pro and our cloud server, which, in our case, was Box.com."
Start Simple in Your Automation Efforts
As cool as efficiency might be, there's no need to succumb to the temptation to automate too much, says Lesley Rivera, a Senior Retoucher with Stanley Black & Decker.
"There's nothing worse than when you're given a file—especially an export from Capture One—and you have edits baked into it that are too heavy-handed," Lesley says. "It's more complicated to undo them. So I like looking at Photoshop as more of an additive process where we can make smaller actions that are all stackable and which build on one another. And I think it'll be easier to make additional edits from there rather than turning off our layers and trying to figure out what layer is causing a problem and making the file look over-edited."
But there's still so much work that can be accomplished within moderate amounts of batch editing in programs such as Photoshop.
"The file is almost 50% of the way there before it even gets to the retoucher," Lesley says. "Usually, we'll actually send it out to a vendor for clipping, and then they also handle some light cleanup and retouching as well. And then we've automated some curve adjustments, and then Photoshop has really great abilities with their layer masks and automating them, so we have a curve for shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. They populate around 60 or 70% opacity, which is great. Again, they don't get too heavy-handed. On top of that, we'll have our color edit, so I believe the layers we normally use are selective color, hue saturation, and gradient maps, and then we also populate the swatch of the color build that we're trying to match to."
Looking at the Future of Automation
As exciting as automation strides have been for the team at Stanley Black & Decker, just like with other studio teams across the globe, the best is yet to come, Marc insists.
"There will be a day when you put keywords in C1 Pro, those keywords will get actions to go in Photoshop—that's the next thing, the next place we're going to," Marc says. It's going to be that you're going to put a code. It's going to be 'ABC_1,' and that's going to mean when it goes to Photoshop, 'ABC_1' triggers these things that we just built today. We're like the caveman era when you think about what's coming down the pike. It's incredible."
So if Marc is right, and we're at the very beginning of a larger shift, in terms of favoring automation, what are the implications for creative teams and their roles?
To Marc, the rise of automation signals a dulling of the divisions that have existed between studio teams.
"I was at a studio once—a big e-com studio—and I remember, it was like my first month or two managing it, and we were waiting on the product," Marc recalls. "So a bunch of photographers and digitechs were available, and the retouching team was swamped. I said, Oh, let's take the photographers and digitechs and see if they can help.' 'Oh no, no. They can't help us. We're the retouching team. They're the photography team.' I think as this agile automation comes in, you start training and leading people in a direction where you could be helping out in many of these other areas besides your specialization."
That's a start for inspiring you and your creative team to reflect on your use of automation—where you can script new tools, work with existing resources, and look to the future. But for this full episode of The Creative Operations Podcast, check out Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, orour website.