In mid-March, media and entertainment companies across the globe and throughout the industry began to face what China had experienced since January — the realities of the Coronavirus Pandemic social distancing and isolation. Amidst this public health crisis, companies abruptly confronted extreme technical and workflow challenges while continuing to create and distribute content.
During this historic outbreak, Signiant launched “The Pandemic Series,” a collection of articles, interviews, and other content from the industry, for the industry.
As part of the series, Signiant interviewed industry professionals on how they transitioned and maintained remote work, what their challenges and successes were, and what lessons they’ve learned from it. Each one is a snapshot in time from their particular company, industry, geography, and personal perspective.
New York | June 18, 2020
SIGNIANT: Tell us about yourself and your work at Nice Shoes
KATIE HINSEN: I’m in a bit of a funny position, because what I tend to do for a living these days is go around the world and build digital intermediate/dailies companies. I spend a lot of time looking at technology, and designing and building high-end post production facilities.
Nice Shoes, as a company, has been around for 25 years with locations across North America, including Toronto. They have primarily been working in commercials. About a year ago, they invited me to come and start a DI and dailies company under the Nice Shoes brand. I’ve been working on essentially establishing a new business. Pre-COVID, I was about to launch a facility in New York. We have started work, but we’ve held off the launch.
SIGNIANT: How many people do you manage or run in your group?
KATIE HINSEN: The DI facility in New York is about 12 people. One of the things that I do is build my facilities and scale them around teams. I build these little pods of teams that work exclusively together.
There’s an efficiency and great team dynamic that gives the client a much better experience because they’re always consistently working with the same people. But it also attracts better talent. The interesting thing about the New York facility is that their core team is all women. As far as I know, we’re the only DI and dailies facility in the world that is entirely women, which is pretty exciting.
SIGNIANT: Has that approach proved to be impactful as you’ve moved to working remotely?
KATIE HINSEN: It really has. Working remotely has its challenges, especially for the talent. A lot of that comes down to that communication you get when you can just walk into the room. So, having teams that know each other so intimately that they don’t need to explain anything means it’s far more efficient when they’re not in the room. That’s worked for us really well. It’s really worked to our advantage.
SIGNIANT: What was it like leading up to the lockdown? How much warning did you have to prepare?
KATIE HINSEN: We saw there might be some disruptions happening, but we definitely didn’t expect quite the level of disruption that came. I don’t think many people expected it to come so quickly. March 13th, I think, was when everybody was just going to go home and see what happens.
We’re in the service industry in post and in service to our clients. Every decision we make is dependent on what our clients need. Our clients pretty unanimously across the board decided one day that everyone was going to be going home. And at that time, we were going to review in a week, that’s really where we did the same. We wanted to make sure that there was no disruption to our clients’ work because it was so important. The last thing we need to be doing is disrupting anybody’s schedules or work. So, we just made sure that we were able to do that.
SIGNIANT: Was your infrastructure ready for working remotely?
KATIE HINSEN: We were actually really fortunate, because Nice Shoes already had a lot of remote infrastructure in place. For us, to make that transition didn’t really require a lot of warning. That allowed us to pivot and be more agile than many companies. Our parent company has been doing remote work, especially at the high-end color grading side of things, for over 10 years; we already had the infrastructure and technology in place. All we really needed to do was send our artists home with the peripherals they required – professional monitors, color grading panels, that sort of thing. We were able to transition them to working remotely and use the same technology we use to work with clients who are in different locations already.
SIGNIANT: Are those artists working as islands with media on drives or are they logging into a centralized system?
KATIE HINSEN: Because of content security requirements, we don’t send people home with any media. Our artists all have some form of remoting into the central server. We’re a hybrid cloud – some of the work is in the cloud and some of the work is on the server at the office. We don’t let people handle any actual media off premises. They only stream it.
SIGNIANT: Is that a private cloud or public cloud?
KATIE HINSEN: For the DI department, we are largely using [the public] cloud only for rendering, and we are keeping everything else on the central server at the office because of content security. But we do have rendering using AWS.
SIGNIANT: So, everything is streaming to the artists and clients?
KATIE HINSEN: That’s right. We send a HEVC stream to the client, and they watch it on an iPad Pro or on a smart TV. That allows them to watch in UHD and HDR. That’s really important to us. We focus a lot of our work on the new streaming studios and that is required by them. We want to make sure that our clients are really seeing what they’re getting.
We also have been working with some of our friends at Dolby to make sure that our Dolby Vision workflows for streaming are really tight. That’s been really exciting as well.
SIGNIANT: When you’re streaming to clients, and they’re viewing on their own monitors, how do you ensure what you send is what they see?
KATIE HINSEN: First of all, this is for UHD/HDR content, not for theatrical content. We recommend that clients use an iPad Pro, or we have models of smart TVs we also recommend. When it comes to the iPad Pro, with the right settings on, they’re actually very consistent [with] excellent color accuracy. When we know what monitor they’re looking at it on, we’re able to send the metadata for their monitor straight to them when we stream.
We are looking at technology for remotely calibrating monitors, and when we can do that, we’ll be really excited to open up different kinds of monitors our clients can access. That’s really, really important because any new technology has to be accessible, better, and collaborative. But the accessibility side of that is going to be really key to the technology continuing to be developed and adopted.
SIGNIANT: How have your clients responded to the new workflows and technology?
KATIE HINSEN: We’ve seen some really awesome collaborations where the clients have loved the fact we can work remotely, and it’s really enhanced their production. [They] love the fact they were no longer bound by the resources available to them in their city or location. They love the fact they were able to work with creatives from all over the country. It’s not that they weren’t before, but it was always more of a psychological barrier. People felt they needed to be collaborating with people in person – they couldn’t possibly work with artists not in that location. Now that we’ve all been forced to be location independent, we have been able to offer our clients more freedom to work with talent and get tax incentives without worrying about the location of those people. It’s been really freeing for a lot of productions, I think.
SIGNIANT: How did your staff respond to working remotely?
KATIE HINSEN: I always say, in technology we tend to overestimate tech and underestimate people. This has been one of those examples where we’ve had to be really mindful of that, and not focus so hard on the tech that we forget the people, because tech doesn’t exist without people. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for going fully remote and making sure everybody’s working fine. What’s right for the producers is not right for the colorist. It’s been an interesting challenge for us in leadership to always look beyond the technical side of things, asking how do we make sure that our teams and our company culture not only stay intact but thrive and continue to develop.
SIGNIANT: Why is culture so important?
KATIE HINSEN: At Nice Shoes, company culture is a huge cornerstone of who we are. It’s a big part of what makes our clients love us. It’s been a big part of our focus: how do we not only maintain that company culture but improve it and use this opportunity to do new things and really develop?
We have found there’s been a lot more uptake in things like Slack, but the way we’ve been making sure we are connecting with one another has been really cool. We are finding we’re more connected to people in our teams. I’m finding my team is working more closely with the team in Toronto than ever before, whereas previously we might’ve seen these people once or twice a year in company events. Now, we’re actually working really closely as a team. I do hope that that’s something we can continue.
SIGNIANT: Has there been anything significant you’ve observed during this time that stands out?
KATIE HINSEN: I think there are two sets of facilities: those who already had solutions in place and just implemented them on a wider scale, and those who didn’t have a solution in place and had to innovate really fast. What I’ve been finding really interesting is looking at the facilities that didn’t have the infrastructure in place and what they’re doing. I think that’s where a lot of innovation has been happening. Those who had to duct tape to get a solution really fast have actually been really, really interesting. That’s where we’re really seeing some new solutions and really fun innovation in technology.
For those of us who just had to deploy at scale, it’s pushed us to also be more innovative, reconsider our solutions, and see whether we can keep pushing and learning from some of our colleagues who’ve been more innovative out of necessity. At Nice Shoes, we were already looking to roll out something more advanced in the third quarter of this year, but now we’ve looked again at that solution and going back to the drawing board, inspired by the innovation of some of our colleagues who are a bit more behind at remote work than we were.
SIGNIANT: You were about to open up a facility in New York that you had to put on pause. Has the pandemic experience changed how you would have designed it or prepared for it had you gotten through this last year?
KATIE HINSEN: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a blessing in a way. We were being told that it’s not possible to thrive as a DI and dailies facility if you’re not offering editorial space. New York post production is, to a larger extent, a real estate game. We had made the decision not to be a real estate company, but to do what we do really well. And that is to be a very high-end technology and creative company and to not be spending our money on real estate. A lot of people thought that we were crazy to do that.
But now the pandemic has hit, and real estate suddenly is no longer such an issue. I’m really pleased we went in that direction. It means we can focus our resources where they matter and not be worrying so much about real estate.
SIGNIANT: As a leader, what have you learned during this time?
KATIE HINSEN: During this time where the Black Lives Matter movement is causing us all to reflect, one of the things I’ve learned is the importance of a leader being quiet and being humble, and that it’s okay to admit and accept there’s a problem. Accepting and admitting there are problems and not everything is perfect is a really powerful thing to do, because it really is the first step to enacting meaningful change. If you can’t see, accept, and be humble about the fact that we’re not successful and perfect at everything, you’ll never get anywhere. I’ve learned the importance and the significance of doing that. It’s something we don’t often take the time or have the opportunity to think about in normal times. It’s been an opportunity to focus and think about that and practice shutting up, listening and admitting when we’re wrong so that we can try to move forward with supporting people in what they really need.
Another thing I’ve noticed is we have stopped having interactions with strangers and all of our interactions are very purposeful. For me personally, that has narrowed my window on the world. I have really taken steps to make sure I continue to have conversations with strangers. I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to have interactions and conversations with strangers in terms of my problem-solving skills, my creativity and my worldview. The way that I’ve done that and encouraged my teams to do that is, for example, in Slack groups. You can set up a bot called a Donut where it matches you up with a random person on that Slack group once a week for a 30-minute chat. That’s been one of the ways I’ve gotten to talk to people all over the world that I don’t know, which has been really interesting.
SIGNIANT: Has the time revealed anything to you about the industry?
KATIE HINSEN: I think what it’s done is it’s highlighted the fact that in our industry, we have a lot of fundamental pipeline issues. In our industry, there are people that are doing fine and there are people who’ve lost their jobs. Those of us who are working remotely, we talk about working remotely all the time. It’s very easy to forget that a huge percentage of our industry can’t work remotely, aren’t working remotely, and aren’t working at all at the moment.
A lot of those people are those who lack privilege, and those who are at the earlier end of their careers. People at the earlier end of their careers are really struggling at the moment. When we look at diversity in our industry, which is the other thing that’s being highlighted at the moment, we, as an industry, have been terrible at supporting underrepresented emerging talent for a long time.
I felt that the whispers that we’ve had for years about the issues in our industry have become shouts. Which is great because it means that we can no longer hide some of the issues or just ignore them. But we definitely need to look at what’s happening in the gaps between our interns and our juniors and why they look so different to the people at the top.
We are struggling to support people at the lower end of the industry, the people that are being furloughed. Many of the people that are being furloughed right now are making more money on unemployment than they’re making in post production facility jobs. That is a failing in our industry. And then when it comes to diversity, a lot of the people being furloughed are the people in the lower level jobs in our facilities, and those are often the only places where we’re seeing people of color.
We need to use the privilege and voices we have as leaders and admit and talk about the fact we have these problems across our industry and not shy away from talking about it and admitting it. We are the people that are able to criticize the industry and criticize ourselves without risk of losing our jobs. Really challenge each other and ourselves to do better and see if we can make a difference.
SIGNIANT: Should the pandemic subside, will remote working continue or go back to the way it was?
KATIE HINSEN: Before the lockdown, if you were sick or working from home, nobody was quite sure if you were going to be productive enough. There was always a cultural issue with some of that. Now I think we’ve proven that people can be effective, and people can work effectively from home.
Being able to give people more flexibility will open up the workforce to a lot of people who’ve been excluded by the fact that they need flexibility. In the world of diversity work, there has been such a push to have employers allow more flexibility for those who need it. Disability advocates have been asking for years for there to be more flexibility in terms of work environment, hours worked, and being able to have remote technology.
Now we’ve implemented a lot of these things, it’s a great opportunity to allow people to have the flexibility they’ve had from working remotely. That should hopefully open up our industry to more diversity because we will be enabling more people the accessibility that they need from having a more flexible work environment.
SIGNIANT: The industry is looking to its return to work. Are you seeing any signs of that?
KATIE HINSEN: Absolutely. Post production almost entirely [relies] on production for our business. There’s a lot of people very concerned in post production, but at the same time, it’s important to remember that for us to make money, production has to make money. For production to make money, the studios have to make money. Everybody needs to make money. We’re not islands, we’re an ecosystem.
Everybody is trying to get back to work. When my teams feel frustrated that we’re not doing a whole lot of work right now, I try and remind them that it’s not just the post industry gunning for us all to get back to work, but it’s the production industry, it’s the distribution industry, it’s everybody.
SIGNIANT: Is it the right time to come back?
KATIE HINSEN: I think that’s a very loaded question. I think “time” is not the question we should be asking. If you’re talking about the right time to come back, you can’t really look at it that way. Safely coming back to production isn’t going to be the same for everybody. So as long as any production can shoot safely, then they should go back to production. But what that means and what the timing of that will be is going to be different for everybody.
SIGNIANT: Are your employees ready to come back ready?
KATIE HINSEN: It absolutely depends on the employee. We need to look at everything, because working from home has been wonderful for some people and horrible for others. That’s why we need to be looking at this entire situation, not from a tech perspective, but from a people perspective. Some of my staff are introverts, they’re gamers; they just love sitting at home all day on a computer and not talking to anybody. They’re thriving in that environment. And there are some staff who are really struggling, who live alone, who are single parents. and it’s really difficult for them. They can’t wait to get back into the office.
SIGNIANT: If you could go back to January or February and give yourself advice to prepare for this, would there be anything special you would say?
KATIE HINSEN: I would certainly say that it would be worth starting to prepare for it sooner. In general, a lot of countries were a little complacent early on. But as humans, we are data driven creatures, and we’ve seen other pandemics that haven’t had quite an impact on us particularly in the big Western countries.
Nobody really expected COVID to be quite as impactful worldwide as it has been. If any of us were able to go back in time and say, “Actually this is going to be bigger than you think,” we could then prepare in many different ways. We could prepare culturally, we could prepare financially, we could prepare medically. Now, we need to take what lessons we’ve learned and how agile we’ve had to become and see if we can actually make something good out of it rather than wasting the experience.
SIGNIANT: When you look back at this period of time, what will you be most proud of?
KATIE HINSEN: I hope we will be able to look and be proud of having not wasted an opportunity to have both social-structural and technological change. I hope we can be proud of what we’ve achieved during this time, because that’s something that really worries me, that we’ll just go back to a version of the old normal.
I hope we don’t. I really hope we don’t squander what’s going on right now because a lot of people have had it really hard and suffered during this time. We owe it to the people that have gone through so much in this year to not squander that. I hope that both myself and all of us in the industry can look back and say that we’re proud we didn’t squander the opportunity to make meaningful change for our industry.
SIGNIANT: Are you optimistic?
KATIE HINSEN: Despite all the suffering people endured this year, I am an eternal optimist. I see there’s an opportunity for a lot of the things that I’ve been wanting to happen for so long to potentially happen. Moving to the cloud and embracing remote work and new workflows; being more accessible and more collaborative by using the technology we have; embracing diversity; the need for structural change in our industry, acknowledging it, really taking it on, and trying harder to do better.
We’re living in a moment in history that is going to have enormous impact. This year is going to be remembered. I very much hope that we can take the momentum we’ve begun in pushing and embracing technological change, pushing structural and systematic change, and embracing that as well. That is what I’d like to see. That’s what’s been exciting to me.
I’ll be really, really angry if we squander this opportunity, really disappointed. I’m an optimist and I don’t think we will. I think that we are going to see enormous changes and that a lot of what we implement today is going to continue. I’m really, really excited to see what our industry is going to look like in a year. I can’t wait.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.