Q&A: Building the mastering mindset with Melissa McAllister

Melissa McAllister recently joined ZOO to head up the launch of an all-new mastering services division. Honing her mastering and project management craft with Fox Filmed Entertainment, Melissa brings a wealth of experience to the role of director of TV mastering and servicing.

We spoke to the seasoned pro about her background, project management mentality, and why now is the right time for the new service line at ZOO.

Welcome to ZOO! Can you tell us a bit about your background and your time at Fox?

I grew up in Southern California, about a mile and a half from ZOO’s El Segundo office. In fact, one of my first jobs out of the gate was for a company that would later become ZOO Digital.

After working my way into project management, I joined Fox Filmed Entertainment working in their own post facility called Fox Media Services, which did mastering and servicing. They were also starting a new program creating localized masters and they brought me into work on that. We had two shows to start with, and by the end of the year, we had 50.

We had two shows to start with, and by the end of the year, we had 50.

I did that for a few years, and then they ended up making me the supervisor of all of the project managers in the mastering and servicing wing. That’s where we would do next-day air and current air mastering for all the top shows.

It was a lot of catalog mastering, and this was at a time when new platforms were just starting to come out, so every day there would be a new spec or a new solution that we had to come up with. We were a very nimble facility.

In 2017, I ended up going on a bit of a different route. I moved away from post for a while and led the creative team at an upcoming clothing brand. Then over to a membership company for CEOs, to build the project management over there.

So, what was it that brought you back into post?

I stayed in touch with a lot of people at ZOO and would hear what was going on, so when I heard they were getting into mastering, it definitely piqued my interest.

I knew how much the family and community culture means at ZOO, and how real that was.

I always missed ZOO and it had a very special place in my heart. I knew how much the family and community culture means at ZOO, and how real that was – and I decided it was the right move for me.

How has your experience away from ZOO developed what you bring to the team now?

I understand this role and service from both sides. During my time at Fox, the sheer amount of volume that we were able to work on, and the quality of communication throughout, was exceptional. The project management and production teams were absolutely in sync, able to perform daily miracles in terms of turnaround times. I know how tight and sometimes last-minute things can be, but I have the experience of getting it done no matter what.

Why is project management so critical to mastering services?

In mastering, if you have these next-day servicing orders for a platform, the show has to show up. No matter what. It’s got to be on there because if people turn on their platform and that next episode isn’t there, it’s very noticeable.

Each request has a ton of deliverables and understanding which different steps to take at which point is vital. Knowing when to QC, which steps to start working on ahead of another, and finding the best approach each time. This level of project management delivers quality while managing to do so consistently to the tightest deadlines.

How do you cope with that pressure? What mentality do you need?

I think the biggest thing is to remain calm because if you start being too excitable, you’re going to burn out immediately. It’s always going to be high pressure, so it’s about having the experience and confidence to remain clear in your own mind.

Then there’s constant communication, so everybody knows where things are and where they need to be. Sometimes, with mastering, a date could come in but then it’ll change quite abruptly, so we have to have our teams ready to go – and to be flexible enough to move around as needed.

Finally, it’s about persistence. When the pieces need to be shuffled, we’re not here shrugging our shoulders saying ‘Oh, this is too much, we can’t get it done!’, that’s just not a possibility in this industry. Staying calm, communicating clearly, and always having determination are all equally important.

Going forward, what are you hoping to achieve with ZOO?

I want us to have our stable shows that people recognize as a ZOO master. We’re ready to hit the ground running and earn the trust of the biggest names in the industry and demonstrate exactly what we can do.

We’re ready to hit the ground running and earn the trust of the biggest names in the industry.

There’s been a lot of changes with different facilities doing mastering, and I know that this is the perfect time for ZOO to come along and earn everybody’s trust. We’ve proven ourselves as a safe pair of hands across all of our departments and this is no different.

With mastering, it’s especially important to have that trust because we’re at the top of the chain when it comes to other workflows. You use mastering assets to do so much downstream, so it’s our job to deliver the efficiency and quality that helps our other teams do their jobs even better, all while making life easier for our customers.

How would you explain the benefits of mastering services from ZOO?

So, the idea is that you need a master of files that you can trust to make all different flavors of files down the line. With technology changing and new platforms evolving, there are so many new ways to consume content, so you want to make sure that your source files and master are the very best quality.

You want to make sure that you’re using a facility that understands technology and keeping everything up to today’s standards. As things are moving and changing all the time, we want to make sure that we are always making the most technically advanced file that can be used over a longer timeframe, so that we’re not constantly relinking everything. It’s future-proof.

Think of it as your base for the whole end-to-end project. Everything else downstream relies on this file being right, and the best quality, because if the master is wrong and you find out later, then everything else you’ve made downstream may need to be remade or fixed.

With ZOO, we’re thinking about this bigger picture. Not only making the master the very best it can be but also understanding where and how all the pieces fit together, to make things as efficient as possible from start to finish.

As well as your attachment to ZOO, was this future focus a big draw in deciding to join?

Definitely. ZOO is trying to see what’s coming down the horizon, while a lot of others are stuck in what’s going on now. This team is always trying to future proof, and I think a lot of others don’t do that.

The team here actively looks for the roadblocks, so they can remove them.

I already know that if something could work better, we’ll talk about it and figure it out. In a lot of other places, the mentality is ‘well, that’s the way it is’ – at ZOO, you’ll never hear that. There’s always someone working on some kind of tool or product that will fix that situation or make things easier for our teams or the client. The team here actively looks for the roadblocks, so they can remove them.

What do you see as the main reasons our clients should come to ZOO for mastering?

The mentality of planning for the future is definitely one of the key reasons. Built into that, we’re willing to work with you to understand your needs. If you’ve got a different type of file, or deliverable, or endpoint, we’ll figure out how to make it work. We’re not afraid to take something on and dive into what we need to do to make everything come together in the right way.

Another reason is that our current team has lots of experience on different sides, so we understand how mastering comes together within production and on the client-side. We know how important it is to have a vendor you can trust, providing a service where you feel comfortable to hand over your project. Always knowing what’s happening, with no surprises.

The combination of always looking ahead, while also ensuring that we deliver the best quality and communication today, is key to the mastering service we provide. ZOO is really good at providing this level of simplicity and clarity. Tell me what you want, and we’ll tell you the best ways to get there – with a pathway that works best for both of us.

How do we ensure this high level of communication?

At ZOO, we go out of our way so that the conversation includes the right people. If there’s something I’m doing in mastering that has an effect on dubbing, that representative is there to flag it. When you have the right person there who understands their part better than anyone else, all of the priorities are acknowledged at the right time. So, if something does need to happen earlier in the workflow, or if a certain file type is going to be needed, that can be addressed at the right time.

When you get your schedule of shows, you have to assign shows to the managers by the air day, so you don’t assign too much on a given day. There’s a lot of communication between the post team, assets, QC, to make sure everyone is in a rhythm. And the schedule is constantly changing so you have to make sure you’re talking to everyone. Whether that’s upstream, downstream, everyone knows what’s going on.

With ZOO offering end-to-end services, everyone needs to make a concerted effort to understand what other teams are doing. It’s crucial to know how it all comes together and just having a pulse on what everyone else is doing is key.

So, it’s all about staying transparent, internally and externally?

Yeah, communication and flexibility, and being able to adapt are so important because it is such a fast-moving world. The mentality is that we need to make a decision now because we don’t have much time, so it’s important to be clear on where you stand – and really understand all the moving pieces.

We always need to stay calm and find the best way to make it work.

At the end of the day, if we don’t get an episode or movie up, to the right quality and timeframe, there’s going to be a problem, so we always need to stay calm and find the best way to make it work.

So, how does mastering tie into the end-to-end globalization offering?

People want things so quickly now; it makes sense that one facility should be able to do everything. The old idea that you have to go here for one thing and there for another isn’t such a priority. Without the right systems in place – which, of course, we offer too – those different vendors and teams have to talk and keep each other up to date, and that can lead to delays and bottlenecks.

In this world, if there’s a delay and it’s with an end-to-end vendor like ZOO, I can talk to all the downstream teams and can troubleshoot a way to get everything back on time. How do we get this back on track? What do we need to do? Whether that’s working on prelims to get things moving, or so many other solutions, we can find a way.

For our globalization customers who are sharing their content with audiences around the world, it’s about understanding the timeframes demanded of them and offering a team they can trust. Once you’ve worked on a show, across multiple service lines, you understand the ins and outs of it, you understand the cadence and what to look for.

We want to build that trust factor so that you can confidently say ‘this a ZOO show’, and we know it better than anyone.

Why is this the right time for mastering services at ZOO?

While this is new and something that I probably wouldn’t have imagined us doing 10 years ago, now it’s something that I can’t imagine us not doing. I think we’re at a place where we have to do this to be what we’re supposed to be. It’s the logical next step in giving our clients the service they need, making their lives easier.

Talk to ZOO for more information about mastering services.

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