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Demystifying Post-Production with Rob DiCaterino of Square

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Full episode transcript

Daniel Jester:
This is the e-commerce content creation podcast, I am your host Daniel Jester, coming to you from my studio in Southern California, where a pickup basketball game has just started steps outside my door. And that literally never happens until I sit down to record an episode of this show.

Daniel Jester:
My guest on the show today is Rob DiCaterino of Square.

Daniel Jester:
Rob, welcome to the show.
Rob DiCaterino:
Hello Daniel. Hello everyone. Thank you, it's an honor.

Daniel Jester:
It's an honor to have you, we brought you on the show today to talk a little bit about demystifying post-production, really for stakeholders in the creative production process, who don't have a clear understanding of what post-production means or actually looks like. And your background, you have extensive experience in both post-production for e-commerce at scale and other types of content marketing, advertising, editorial, and that sort of thing. Why don't you take our listeners through your background so that we can kind of understand why you're the right guy to help us answer some of these questions?

Rob DiCaterino:
Sure, my pleasure. So in a nutshell, my career is retouching and retouching leadership roles, so I started out in print, actually I was at Scholastic Publishing and Martha Stewart, I was working on the print publication, so the magazines, the books, posters and then I pivoted into e-commerce and that type of retouching has its own skill set as well. So consistency, volume, it's at scale and efficiencies and all of those things.

Daniel Jester:
So vast experience in both, basically the two big channels through which we see a lot of content needs.

Daniel Jester:
I want to start off this episode by saying for some of our listeners, we want to help demystify post-production for people in an organization who maybe don't have a very clear understanding. My personal experience has been that post-production can feel, it's just misunderstood, it's a complicated process, it's very time intensive, it's very technical while at the same time having very sort of an artistic side to it. And so we're going to talk about some things that might be obvious to a retoucher or a retouch manager or somebody who has that background, but I think it's necessary to help demystify post-production a little bit.

Daniel Jester:
And so what I've asked Rob to do to start us off for this conversation is basically define post-production, what does it mean in sort of an ideal studio situation? When does it begin? When does post-production actually begin? And at what point should your post-production partners be involved in the process? So Rob, why don't you kick us off, step one in demystifying post-production, let's define what post-production actually means.

Rob DiCaterino:
Sure. So, if I'm being very literal, post-production is anything that happens after the production. So you have a photo shoot, you wrap and now it's post production. So post production involves things, when people hear post-production, so I'll give you a clean. When people hear post-production, they might think retouching, Photoshop, and that's true, but there are also a lot of other behind the scenes under the hood types of things that go along with it as well, such as very glamorous things like file naming, it's very important that after the shoot, the images get output with the correct file naming conventions for a variety of reasons, there's pixel dimensions, aspect, ratios, cropping, baselines, height caps, outputting in the right color space, there's metadata tagging and key wording and all of those kinds of things that happen after the shoot wraps. And oftentimes actually before the retouching even takes place, but that's al post production.

Daniel Jester:
So, this is one of the areas where I referred to it, and every place might have their own terminology, but this is really quality control, because one of the first things that our post-production partners are doing is making sure that the assets are correct for what they're needed for. And this happens without even really needing to see what the image itself actually looks like. Like you mentioned naming requirements, do the assets meet technical requirements, meaning pixel minimums, cropping, all of those things.

Daniel Jester:
Are all of the assets that I expect to be here present and accounted for, all of these things are incredibly important QC steps, we haven't even necessarily opened Photoshop yet.

Rob DiCaterino:
That's right, yeah. And there could also be very technical things as well like focus stacking. Do we have all the focus stacks? Are they in the right folders that they need to be in? And all of those things.

Daniel Jester:
So all of this is, again, just to reiterate, some of this is file management, all of this is stuff that are just like, okay, do we have what we were expecting to get? And does it meet the technical requirements that we have? Then we can get into some of the part of QC also can be some of the actual subjective and objective quality standards as it relates to the actual content of the image itself, so you might be looking for things like, is it in focus? Is it exposed well, does the color appear to be correct?

Daniel Jester:
And that's before getting into subjective quality things, which in an ideal studio are handled at sort of an art director level, so we're talking about model expression, posing, styling, things like that. Ideally that's before it goes into the QC step, somebody has made that decision on which is the right expression, which is the right pose. All of these things are before we get into retouching, but you're right Rob, people hear post-production and they immediately think, a retoucher who can take this image and Photoshop, Photoshop, Photoshop, and now it's exactly what I needed. And they can do that very quickly and it's easy and-

Rob DiCaterino:
Correct, yeah. There are misconceptions for what post-production is and what retouchers do. Yes, Photoshop and retouching is 50% artistic and it's having that artistic eye and being creative, but it is 50% technical, there are those technical aspects and oftentimes it's up to the retoucher to catch things that ... Look, it's a creative process, there are so many people involved, it's at scale, it's at speed and things are going to go wrong, I'm not saying this to blame anyone or point fingers, but there's always a curve ball, there's always things that go wrong by accident.

Rob DiCaterino:
So the retoucher oftentimes will open up an image and catch like, oh, this wasn't cropped correctly, or this was output too small, this was output in the wrong color space, or the wrong aspect ratio. If I were to retouch it, upload this to our e-comm site, it would not sit correctly with the other images. So yeah, retouching, there is that artistic aspect to it, you need a good eye and follow the art director's instructions, but there are those technical aspects that the retouchers are always having to be aware of and double-check as well.

Daniel Jester:
And not, for the purpose of this part of the conversation where we're sort of defining what's happening in post-production, I don't want to go too deep into this, but I do want to acknowledge that when it comes to the actual retouching part, there are dramatic differences between what a retoucher has time to do for e-com at scale and what they have time or resources to do when we're talking about editorial advertising, other types of content needs.

Daniel Jester:
So while yes, this definition works for post-production in general, your specific to the listener, I'm directing this, what you do in your studio really dictates how much time is spent, how much effort is spent in each of these areas, because sometimes your concern is speed the web, and sometimes your concern is getting this image exactly right for our ad campaign.

Daniel Jester:
Moving on from retouching, then you get into the things that happen, so, now our retoucher has retouched the images, they've addressed any notes maybe that came from the photographer, from an art director, their job doesn't end there, does it Rob?

Rob DiCaterino:
Post-production needs to be involved in the conversations all the way starting with pre production, because decisions are getting made, plans are happening, processes are being created, and without the retouchers being looped in and being part of the decision-making process and having a voice, wrong decisions can be made, so that by the time the shoot happens, it's finished, images get handed off to retouching, it's too late, the wrong decision was already made, the wrong approach was already taken, it's already baked into the images, and now the retouchers have to figure out how to undo it or how to fix it or solve, to solve that problem.

Rob DiCaterino:
And that just takes more time, time is money, so it's going to cost more, it's going to result in more frustration, it could also affect the quality of the images in the end result. So it's very important, it is so key to involve retouchers all the way at the very beginning, because they will be able to provide a perspective and insight into things that nobody else can.

Daniel Jester:
That's a great segue into, once we've defined the idea of post-production and sort of an ideal situation, how do we set up for success? I couldn't agree with you more Rob, that your post production partners need to be involved in the conversation from beginning to end. It's helpful at the very least, it's helpful for if you're like a service provider studio for your post-production teams to have all of those technical requirements that we talked about earlier, before the shoot even begins so that they know what they're waiting on.

Daniel Jester:
And there's a million other reasons to include post-production like you mentioned, they provide an important perspective because post-production, and I'm not alone in thinking this, there's been people on LinkedIn who've shared this quite a bit. Post production is an often thankless part of the production process, because usually the best retouchers, the best post-production teams, you're sort of unaware that they're there, because the images look great and everything works the way that it's supposed to. There's an entire team of people and an exhaustive process that gets you from image capture to that state, and a lot of times they're invisible to the end user, right?

Daniel Jester:
One of the parts of the post-production process that I felt like in the past, in my experience has been a weak point that can be kind of difficult to build a good process around sometimes is that after capture handoff, and this is especially true when you're working very, very quickly, and it's kind of hard to slow down to the pace that you need to, to make that things are being handed off well, but basically what I'm talking about is taking those assets, they've been captured, getting them into the post-production workflow along with vital relevant information to the post-production teams.

Daniel Jester:
Sure. Rob, what do you think are some of the things that we can do to help smooth that handoff process from onset into post-production to make sure that our post-production partners have the right information and the right context to do their jobs faster and without a lot of having to investigate things on the backend?

Rob DiCaterino:
Yeah, so they're, I mean, this might sound like common sense, but there definitely needs to be a process in place, I mean, that's just step one, you have to have a process in place, ideally with a tool or a platform in place that handles all of the aspects of the handoff. So, you can have a process in place where you have a server, you have I don't know, a chat app or email, and it's all of these separate tools and it's like, okay, the photographer output the images, now they're on the server, are they in the right folder on the server? Hopefully, are they named correctly? Hopefully. Were they the correct selects? Hopefully. And then the photographer emails the retoucher, hopefully the photographer had a chance to do that and they emailed the right person, and the retoucher receive.

Rob DiCaterino:
So that is a process that can be put in place, but there's a lot of room for error in that kind of process. Ideally you want a platform in place that handles all of those things, so the photographer is out putting an uploading to a dam or a tool, a platform, that will check and see are the files named correctly, then the art director can go in and make the selects, so, you know you're getting the correct selects and then move them onto the next stage, the retoucher gets alerted, here's my selects, here's the notes that are in there. And it just automates that part of the process. And also you know that all the metadata is traveling with the photos and the markups, it's all self-contained and in one system, and it just leaves so much less room for error.

Rob DiCaterino:
Because that's the big thing Daniel, is the mistakes, and again not judging, not pointing fingers, but at that scale, at that volume, at that speed, that alone leaves more room for error. So you can have a self-contained system in place that's handling those things, it just strips away all of that margin for error and it just makes it a much more smooth, seamless process.

Daniel Jester:
I want to talk with you a little bit Rob, on helping set expectations for external or adjacent stakeholders in the post production process. And this will admittedly have less to do with e-comm at scale, I feel like most places the mission of post-production is pretty clear in terms of how much time you have and what the tasks are. But it certainly comes up for service provider studio, shooting e-commerce product photography for a client that have some, they have some asks around post-production and Photoshop that can be pretty aggressive.

Daniel Jester:
It seems to me that setting expectations on editorial work and things like that can relieve a lot of potential heartache on your post production teams, and on all of the teams involved in the process, is like, we need to understand that there are dramatically different timeframes, things ... We need to understand that there are dramatically different timeframes for how long certain types of things take in post-production, right? So making some image adjustments, contrast, things like that, non pixel level work is relatively quick depending on the quality of the input, which I wanted to mention this earlier, but just like everything else, just like database administration, all of this is dependent on getting good quality inputs to get the best possible output, but that's an aside.

Daniel Jester:
Setting the proper expectations and understanding that some things can happen quite quickly in post-production and some things could take days sometimes on a single image. So in your experience, Rob, how important is it to make sure that you have those expectations set, and how can we do that effectively with our stakeholders?

Rob DiCaterino:
Yeah, that's a great point Daniel. Having been on both the in-house, the internal side and also the external creative partner side, working with clients, either way it is so important for everyone to understand and have expectations fully manage when it comes to retouching. I will let my guard down and I'll be very candid, I have been in many situations where a client might come to me and want some ... Sorry. I've been in many situations where a client comes to me and want editorial retouching, it's so hard to price, because it's so dependent on the art directors and the creative. But I understand, right? We have to work together, we have to come up with a price, so here's an hourly rate based on this discovery that we've done together and information gathering and how many rounds you wanted to go into and that type of thing.

Rob DiCaterino:
And so many times it'll go, for whatever reason, it's you just get a certain art director or maybe something wasn't quite captured correctly on set, so we have to fix it in post. And for whatever reason, it just goes into round after round and it's hours and hours, the retouchers are there all night and trying to ... And then at the end, okay, we're happy with the result and okay, great, here's your $50. Well, wait a minute, hold on a minute, we didn't talk about going into 10 rounds. No, no, no, you said $50. So it's like, no. Everybody has to understand that upfront we try to manage the expectations as best as possible, but there are guard rails that are put in place, like, okay, we're talking about spending X amount of time, we're talking about going into X amount of rounds.

Rob DiCaterino:
If it goes beyond that, then obviously it's a completely different expectation, but I say this with love and with a smile, but a lot of times somehow people conveniently forget those guard rails when it goes like, no, you remember a week ago I said if it goes beyond X number of rounds. Oh, no, we never said that. Well, okay, now we have to figure this out. But yeah, it goes back to please understand the expectations, if there is a time constraint, if there's a money constraint, in terms of a certain amount of budget, if there is a certain amount of rounds or whatever, we have to take that seriously because otherwise it just goes so off ... Again, I've experienced so many times things going off the rails, because people just didn't want to listen or I don't know, it's just, they don't want to listen.

Daniel Jester:
Yeah, this goes back to the earlier conversation that we had around, at what point should post production be involved in ... Excuse me. This goes back to the earlier conversation that we had around at what point should post-production be involved in the creative process? And we both agree Rob, and I'm a firm believer in this, especially for a service provider type studio who services various clients, is having post-production involved, because that does help set that expectation. And it's also important to deliver that message around rounds of review, and I know that there are studios out there who listen to this podcast who are going to really commiserate with this idea of rounds of review, because it's not something that I think is well understood by even clients who are getting a lot of work produced by some of their creative partners.

Daniel Jester:
And it's important and I want to throw this out there and I'll let you elaborate a little bit on it, Rob, that we set an expectation up front like you said around pricing, maybe we set an expectation on how many rounds, and I think also like what happens during those rounds of review?

Daniel Jester:
So one of the things that would come up all the time when I was with the studio here in LA, is that we would have to remind our clients over and over that you need to tell us everything you want done to this image, so that we can have it done for you in the first round. And a lot of the reason for that is there are structural things that you do to retouch an image, some of those structural things are drawing paths around elements in the image, whether it's around the model, piece of apparel, we would get really specific with the paths that we would draw.

Daniel Jester:
And it's sort of like, you work on an image and it's kind of like the idea of building a house and you do all of this stuff, you make all these decisions and now it's time to say, okay, last thing we need to think about is what color do you want these walls painted? And then you come back and you say, you know what? I know that I said that I wanted metal studs in those walls, but I think I'd prefer wood instead.

Daniel Jester:
And coming back with like structural things, things that are going to change the actual structure of the way that the final image was produced, it's just too late in the process to come back to some of those things and it's creating an incredible amount of work for the teams that are involved. So, that's kind of what we want to do with this episode is even from the service provider side of things, if you're out there and you're working with a studio in post-production and the retouching process has been a challenging part of that for you in your studio that you've been working with, some of that is just you have to really understand that this process, there is a process to it, there's a structural process to it as well, setting up an image to retouch it.

Daniel Jester:
All of those things if we talk about them upfront, we can all have a better and smoother post-production process. But that includes a ton of things, like, how many rounds are you going to get and what do you expect what types of things can be addressed in a round? My opinion, and again, Rob, I'm talking a lot, but I'm going to give you a chance to jump in on this. My opinion is that you tell me all the things you want done in round one, and we don't have around two, unless I missed something or one of the changes we made results in something that we don't like after all, which is I think a fair thing that happens. What are your thoughts on this, Rob?

Rob DiCaterino:
Yeah, those are all excellent analogies and excellent points, Daniel. I do like the house analogy, because, again, if I can compare it to let's say the actual shoot itself, during pre-production, we're talking about what lighting, what gear, what equipment, what set up, do we need a seamless, is it on location, tripods everything. And if you agree to let's say a certain lighting setup. Well, then you don't go on set the day of the shoot and say, oh, actually I want this completely other lighting set up, it's like, well, we can't, we physically can't do that, because we brought the equipment you said to bring.

Rob DiCaterino:
So just like with retouching, it's the same thing, it's like, okay, you asked us to do these things to the photo to achieve a certain result. And then after the retoucher did that, it's like, oh, actually now I want the model over here instead and now I want this and it's like, well, I mean, we could, it's retouching, we could theoretically do anything, but that's going to, we'll have to rework the whole image from scratch. And do you have the time for that? And do you have the budget for that?

Rob DiCaterino:
And a lot of times, I mean, those are just factual questions, they're just neutral, factual questions, they're not emotional, they're not loaded or anything, but a lot of times they're perceived as, I don't know what you want to call, offensive questions, because it's like, you know what? You're the retoucher, how dare you tell me it's going to cost me more money, we agreed to a price. It's like, well, but if you're asking me to go back and rework an image from scratch, even if you don't know that's what you're asking me to do. If that's ultimately what you're asking me to do, there's time and therefore cost associated with that.

Rob DiCaterino:
But again, unfortunately a lot of people don't want to hear that or accept that or be the one that is costing their company extra money. They don't want to be that block or they don't want to be that person. So yeah, again, I cannot stress enough, it is so important, loop the retouchers in, loop post-production into the conversations as early as possible during pre production. And also listen to what they say, because you can loop them in and sometimes it might seem like the retoucher is just being negative or just being a blocker or just being a naysayer, like, no, we can't do that. No, that's not possible. No, we can't ... But it's not.

Rob DiCaterino:
In my experience, a lot of ... I mean, even speaking for myself, but a lot of retouchers too, we're very practical thinkers and literal people, so, when we look at a situation, yeah, you have your creatives over there, dreaming big and coming up with the vision and all of these things, sky is the limit, there are no limits. But then the retoucher is often the one saying, well, that's great, but wait a minute though, you said we have three days to turn around 30 images and you want X, Y, and Z and we only have this much budget. So actually, even though your vision is great, in reality here's what can be accomplished in that timeframe and or within that budget. Again, that's often seen as nay-saying or not wanting to do the work or being difficult, but it's not, it's just being practical.

Rob DiCaterino:
So please listen when the retoucher says those things and take it seriously so that you do get that perspective, which will set the project up for success and you won't have these challenges when it comes time for retouching. It's like, well, wait, why is this costing us extra? Why is this taking longer? Because you should have listened to the retoucher.

Daniel Jester:
Absolutely. I want to pivot us into some, we've had a great conversation so far and we've touched on a lot of ideas ranging from sort of defining post-production into some things that can help you set up for a successful post-production process. I'd like to take the last couple of minutes here of the episode and just throw out some kind of quick hit tips from you and I have a couple that I'd like to share from sort of a photography perspective, I'll kick it off really quick, but the idea is, let's just talk to whomever needs to be hearing this tip to help ease the process of post-production. So I'm going to kick it off really quick, and my quick tip is for all of the photographers out there, one of my overarching philosophies on being successful in a photo studio is around being aware of the work you're creating for other people. And whenever you can, minimizing that work when possible.

Daniel Jester:
And so the way that this sort of manifests itself in the relationship between photographer and retoucher, is always be thinking about, is this decision that I'm making going to negatively impact or slow down somebody downstream from me such as retouch. And if it's absolutely necessary to make this decision, that I need to be effective at communicating the why behind that, so that my retouch partners don't feel like I'm just making decisions that make their jobs more difficult. So my quick tip is, always be aware of the work that you potentially are creating for people downstream from you, and when it's necessary to create extra work, communicate the reason behind it.

Rob DiCaterino:
I agree, that's excellent advice, Daniel. I'll also add, it reminds me of, of course, an old saying, I'm going to say it, people don't like to hear it, but I'm going to say it, garbage in garbage out. So that can apply to a lot of things, that can apply to the actual technical quality of a photo, whether it's underexposed or it's too small, you have to upscale it or that it can also apply to the creative itself in terms of, well, what is the creative vision here? Was there a vision, or was it just a haphazard shoot and now it's like, I don't know, let's figure it out in post and what's ... Oh, actually move the model here, actually, can you comp this head, because we want the model, he should have been looking this way, but instead we told them to look this way.

Rob DiCaterino:
So you're only going to get results as good as the photos that you give to the retouchers. So I know this, where am I trying to go with it? The more the ... Sorry. The stronger your creative vision can be and the stronger the technical aspects of the photography can be, again, that just helps set up the shoot and the retouching for success. Again, also have realistic expectations, so there are time constraints, there are budget constraints, even when a retoucher is working on a luxury ad or a billboard or a cover of a luxury fashion magazine, they don't have infinite time or infinite budget.

Rob DiCaterino:
So there are limitations, so be realistic and try to work, we're all here to create beautiful results, right? Nobody wants to put subpar work out there, we want to be proud of the work we're doing, but there are realities in place that we have to work inside of. So please try to remember that. I would also say, sorry, I'm just skimming my notes here real quick. Yeah, I would also say another thing that I've experienced throughout my career is over promising, but then under resourcing.

Rob DiCaterino:
So especially when I was on the creative partner side working with external clients and yes, of course we want to be successful, we want to attract and retain new clients, but over promising isn't going to help anybody, it just sets things up for failure, so just to be realistic. And then when we do partner with clients, and it's very exciting, we have these big, awesome projects and it's so cool, but just to not under-resource, so it's like how can I ... Does that make sense, Daniel?

Daniel Jester:
Yeah, no, it absolutely does. And I was going to kind of respond to that really quickly, Rob, I'd never quite heard it put that way, but that really resonates with me, the idea of over promising and under resourcing. That that kind of thing can happen all the time, and in creative production, it feels like it tends to impact post-production and I 100% will admit that I've been guilty of that, that in a conversation with a potential client agreeing to do something that I had no idea what the impact would be on post-production and the amount of work that it would involve on the backend.

Daniel Jester:
A quick example of this is a client said, Hey, we might have some minor changes to the packaging of this product, is it possible that if we give you some CAD drawings that we can Photoshop the packaging as it is now to reflect those kinds of minor changes? And I was like, yeah, sure, absolutely, no problem. And that type of thing is never that easy, even if the changes in actuality are minor, it can be extraordinarily 

About the host

Chief evangelist at Creative Force

Daniel Jester is an experienced creative production professional who has managed production teams, built and launched new studios, and produced large-scale projects. He's currently the Chief Evangelist at Creative Force but has a breadth of experience in a variety of studio environments - working in-house at brands like Amazon, Nordstrom, and Farfetch as well as commercial studios like CONVYR. Creative-minded, while able to effectively plan for and manage a complex project, he bridges the gap between spreadsheets and creative talent.