Indie features are often the proving ground for cutting edge technologies, but they pose a challenge for the post-production team, who is trying to give these films a big budget finish. During this past year, I’ve edited and been post supervisor for The Way Back Home – the first full-length feature to use the combination of Sony’s new HDCAM-SR format and ASSIMILATE’s SCRATCH data-centric workflow. For this film SCRATCH was used as the digital intermediate system for finishing and color grading. The Way Back Home was written by and stars Michael H. King as Spencer Krane, a big city lawyer who returns to his small home town after a personal tragedy to take care of his grandmother who has suffered a stroke. King, who co-produced the film with veteran Florida producer Paul Sirmons, pulled together a great supporting cast, including film and stage legends Julie Harris and Ruby Dee, as well as Danny Nucci (Titanic), Deezer D (ER), Mina Badie (Her Name Is Carla) and Tessie Santiago (Good Morning, Miami). It is the first time that Harris and Dee have ever appeared together.
The talent behind the lens was no less impressive. To get the most value on the screen with a 23-day shooting schedule, Sirmons asked friend and mentor Reza Badiyi to direct. Badiyi is recognized by the Directors Guild of America as having directed more hours of dramatic television than any other director, helming episodes of Falcon Crest, Early Edition, Deep Space Nine and countless others. Another unique aspect of The Way Back Home was its association with Valencia Community College’s Film Production Technology Program located in Orlando, Florida. This is a nationally renowned program geared towards training below-the-line production personnel. A typical film that works with the Valencia program uses students for about two-thirds of the crew, working in assisting or secondary capacities under the direction of professional crew members. For example, in the post-production area, my assistant editors and the foley artists and recordists were all students.
High Definition Digital Intermediate
Indie films have turned to HD video as a way of keeping the budget down, but Michael King was insistent on getting the classic film look, which only 35mm film could truly guarantee. Initially I had developed a post-production budget geared towards a traditional film finish, with cut negative, opticals and lab color-timing. Once we contracted with Miami-based film lab and post facility Cineworks – an early HD proponent – our plan changed to using HD as a digital intermediate. At the suggestion of Cineworks’ president and partner Vinny Hogan, the production was changed to Super 35mm instead of regular 35mm. The Super 35mm frame is rectangular and a closer match to the 16×9 aspect ratio of HD, so you get smaller film grain and, therefore, a cleaner image when transferred to video. By the time we got to a locked cut, another bit of good fortune and timing hit this film in the form of a major upgrade at Cineworks. Hogan had committed to adding HDCAM-SR and the ASSIMILATE SCRATCH DI system – the first in the southeast for each product – just in time to be used on The Way Back Home.
Sony’s HDCAM-SR is an advanced high definition format capable of much higher bandwidth than regular HDCAM. The video is recorded with a data rate of 440 Mbps as either 10-bit 4:2:2 (2.7:1 compression) or 4:4:4 (4.2:1 compression) video. It has already attracted the interest of filmmakers like George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez and Michael Mann because it offers a real-time recording format that is competitive with 2K image scanning. Cineworks’ film scanner of choice for this application is the Sony FVS-1000 Vialta – Sony’s brief but highly regarded foray into telecine products. The Vialta is a multi-resolution, multi-format, real-time telecine equipped with dual-link HD-SDI outputs. In our case, the Super 35mm negative was converted to 1920×1080 high definition video and recorded to HDCAM-SR tapes over the dual-link connection, so that the recorded image maintained the full 4:4:4 color fidelity. So far this was a pretty standard video workflow, except that there aren’t many options for posting 4:4:4 media, which is where the ASSIMILATE SCRATCH system came in.
The SCRATCH CONstruct environment is the basic user interface, where an editor/colorist handles data management, assembly and effects. SCRATCH is designed as a software application to assemble image sequences. Each shot within a scene is organized into a folder of sequential image files where each file is a frame. These folders are assembled into a timeline according to an edit decision list (EDL), XML file, cut list or ALE for keycode conform. Since SCRATCH is organized this way, the workflow isn’t limited to film assemblies. The same methodology can be applied to animations generated in Maya, After Effects or anything else that can create image sequences. In fact, SCRATCH can work with SD or HD video, 2K or 4K film files or even higher resolutions.
At Cineworks, this software is installed on a Boxx Technologies dual-AMD Opteron workstation with 3TB of storage. SCRATCH is network-aware, so storage can be local or pulled from a SAN. Two key hardware ingredients fuel the mix. The system is equipped with the Bluefish444 HD|Lust card for dual-link HD video capture and output. The operator and client see the image courtesy of an Nvidia FX4000 SDI display card. This is a dual-link OpenGL card that feeds DVI to the operator display and dual-link HD-SDI to a monitor or projector – in this case, an NEC DLP projector. The SCRATCH software has no specific capture and output controls, as it is designed to read and write files to drives and not VTRs. Instead, Bluefish444 supplies its Symmetry capture utility for these tasks.
The Finishing Steps
The workflow on The Way Back Home went like this. I edited the film using DVCAM “dailies” on one of Valencia’s Avid systems. When the picture cut was “locked”, I generated film lists, an EDL and a reference videotape from my Avid project. These lists were used by Cineworks colorist John Palmisano to retransfer each shot (with added “handles”) from the Super 35mm camera negative. John used the Sony Vialta telecine and HDCAM-SR recorders running in the 4:4:4 mode to record the film images. These tapes and EDL were then handed over to editor Bradley Greer, who digitized the footage into the workstation in real-time using the HD|Lust card and the Symmetry software. The footage is stored to the hard drives in the DPX image sequence format, which can be accessed by SCRATCH. Once Bradley launched SCRATCH and loaded the EDL, the corresponding shots would appear on the conformed timeline, just like on a nonlinear editor.
Conforming is never a perfect process. In this case, I had cut the 24fps film on a 30fps Avid system. Avid includes software to adjust for the frame differences between film and video, but there is always the potential for one frame differences in sync or at edit points. To check this, we loaded my reference tape and were able to compare both timecode and visual references in the CONstruct windows. Since the image files were loaded with a few seconds of handles for each shot, it was easy to slip these scenes by a frame or so to get the sync perfect. This wouldn’t typically be necessary with a true 24fps EDL.
The system is designed to assemble, but not to do effects. Dissolves, pan-and-scans, zooms and step-framed slomos are within the abilities of the system, but other standard effects, like titles, superimposition or smooth variable speeds require plug-in filters. ASSIMILATE includes The Foundry’s OpenFX API for plug-ins and Cineworks purchased several Furnace plug-ins for this reason. Several were used on this project, most notably Kronos for a very fluid speed ramp effect and other plug-ins for dust-busting. For more complex, effects-driven projects, I would recommend treating these shots as you would film opticals and build them ahead of time with After Effects, Shake, Fusion or a similar compositor.
The second big part of ASSIMILATE SCRATCH is color-grading (color-correction). The colorist has control over real-time primary and secondary color-grading with the SCAFFOLDS module, which can be controlled by an external trackball controller, like the Tangent CP-200BK. Most of our corrections were simple shot-matching and adjustments for time-of-day lighting, such as making a daytime exterior shot look more like dusk or early morning. This certainly didn’t require the level of control that digital intermediate post can offer, but other correction would have been hard to achieve.
Several flashback scenes were shot with slight blue filtering to set them apart from the present day scenes. During color-grading, Michael King and John Palmisano tried black-and-white instead, which proved to really drive the story in the right direction. Crisp black-and-white is often hard to achieve from color negative film during photochemical timing and frequently has to be done as an optical effect. In the digital realm, this is very simple and gave these scenes a classic touch. Stephen F. Campbell – a much-sought-after central Florida DP and operator – was the film’s director of photography. Stephen (the A-camera operator on Monster and the CBS Elvis mini-series) was shooting a Warner Brothers feature at the time of color-grading. To keep Stephen in the loop, Cineworks exchanged JPEG stills and DVDs of the color-corrected scenes to ensure that the DP’s vision was preserved in the final look of the film.
Posting The Way Back Home with SCRATCH has turned out to be the best of both worlds – digital efficiency and quality that rivals film data scans; however, this isn’t a video online edit session. Adding effects and color-correction required that these changes be “baked” into the image – in other words, the whole film has to be rendered prior to output back to tape. Our full-length feature took about fifteen hours to render. (ASSIMILATE has already issued new software releases that optimize rendering speeds twofold on the same hardware.) It’s important to note that this workflow isn’t limited to the 35mm filmmaker. For example, if you shoot with a Grass Valley Viper digital cinematography camera and record on the HDCAM-SR format, then your options for dual-link post are otherwise limited. Systems like SCRATCH will be part of the equation that keeps the film labs of the future in the game!
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)