How Secrets of a Chef uses Airtable for post-production
Audiences watching cooking shows most likely don’t realize how much post production work goes into every single frame that makes air. That’s by design according to Post Production Supervisor Matt Levie.
“For every single frame that’s shot, we color correct in order to make it more appealing — to make sure the food is appetizing, the presenters look attractive and healthy, everything is shot well, etcetera. We even up the lighting, smooth out the color, make it look beautiful — and the audience is unaware that it ever happened,” Levie said.
The post-production process for each season of “Secrets of a Chef” is a six- to nine-month endeavor. As the supervisor of this undertaking, Levie contributes by both editing the show and overseeing a small phalanx of other editors throughout the process. The show runs 12 half-hour episodes each season.
“Like any technical professional, once you get to a certain point in your craft, you start to become an ideal candidate for managing large projects,” he says.
The process of manually condensing, color-correcting, and otherwise beautifying two to four hours of footage into 30-minute episodes requires careful collaboration between the editors and the show producers, who often have a very specific vision for how a recipe should be presented. Each episode showcases multiple recipes, each consisting of dozens of shots and other details to manage across the teams.
Finding the right software to help facilitate this collaboration has historically been a challenge: although they thought they’d use traditional project management software, in the end, “it was too complicated and the learning curve was too high for what we needed.” Coming into this season, Levie feared they’d have to go back to their previous method, which was to use an Excel spreadsheet. “That was a horrific disaster,” he says.
“Our producer wanted a lot of information, and it was really hard to cram all that information into a spreadsheet.”
So they ended up with a spreadsheet that wouldn’t fit on a screen, Levie says that became annoying, because out of sight, out of mind, people would forget to update fields because they weren’t on the screen. Then he found Airtable.
Levie initially just imported an existing spreadsheet (from a previous season) directly into Airtable. “We transferred the spreadsheet over and said, how can we use this to keep more or less the same information, but store it more efficiently?” As it turned out, the first step was actually to split the information from one giant, monolithic table into two, one for recipes and one for shows.
Airtable gives teams the power to link records, for example in the Recipes table Levie lists each recipe that appears during the season and links it to the appropriate episode in the ’Show’ field. The table also displays the status of the edit for that recipe, the last editor to work on it, the current length, the date last edited, and any changes that have been requested.
They’ve tailored Airtable to the way they work at PBS. The single source of truth allows editors and producers to see a history of changes that have been made without ever having to send an email. This new workflow replaces a clunky email-based workflows used in the past.
“[The producer] would email the comments and that was horrible,” says Matt. “There are 5 editors on the project, so she would email me and I would have to figure out who to send the comments to from there.”
Instead, they now collect all requests for changes in Airtable where editors can go in and comment directly when specific changes have been made.
“The comment field is super super important for us,” says Levie.
“If you look at any of the recipes, the producer will watch the recipe and put in her comments, and then editors will come in and put their comments in,” Levie said.
In addition, “Before, the editors would forget to explain what they did and I would have to bug them — now, they go into the base to update the status to say things are done, and see the other fields need to be updated too,” he added.
Now that Levie has developed a streamlined system for the post-production process, he’s using Airtable for other projects, including a 90-minute special event featuring Secrets of a Chef star Hubert Keller’s culinary adventures in Rio de Janeiro.
In the end, with Airtable’s help, Levie is able to spend less time worrying about the processes of post-production and more on what really matters: making culinary television look just a little more delicious.