Higher Ground

Timing is often everything when it comes to indie filmmaking. That’s certainly the case with Higher Ground, the directorial debut by Academy Award-nominated actress, Vera Farmiga (Up In The Air, Source Code, Nothing But The Truth). The film about the struggle and coexistence between faith and doubt is inspired by Carolyn S. Biggs’ memoir, This Dark World. It features Farmiga in the lead role of Corrine Walker and follows her through three phases of her life. The film has appeared at the 2011 Sundance, Tribeca and Los Angeles Film Festivals and is currently in distribution through Sony Pictures Classics.

Successfully pulling off a highly-regarded, low budget feature is a challenge for anyone, but even more so, if you are the director, the lead actress and pregnant on top of that. Living in upstate New York, Farmiga happened to be ten minutes away from BCDF Pictures, a production company and facility built with the intent of facilitating indie feature film production. She decided to check them out as a possible production resource and quickly discovered a synergy that was ideal for Higher Ground. Although BCDF was prepping another film at the time, the decision was made to fast-track Higher Ground, in part to be able to film before Farmiga was too far along in her pregnancy. Within a couple of weeks, the film was in full production for a 28-day filming schedule during June 2010.

BCDF Pictures, situated in the upper Hudson River valley, is a mash-up between summer camp and the old Hollywood studio system. The founders also created a film fund, Strategic Motion Ventures, to finance the pictures produced by BCDF. They own RED One MX camera packages and the farmhouse-style facility is home to several edit suites and screening theaters, which makes it ideal for a filmmaking home base. For Higher Ground, BCDF supplied two RED packages to director of photography Michael McDonough. They also worked out various tests prior to the production that let the DoP establish a number of in-camera looks for the three time periods in the story.

Hitting the ground running

Higher Ground editor Colleen Sharp wasn’t hired until three weeks after the start of production. So, BCDF proceeded down a post production workflow path based on the assumption that the film would be edited using Apple Final Cut Pro, their primary in-house NLE platform. Head of post production Jeremy Newmark handled the one-light color correction for the RED camera dailies, transcoding them into ProRes QuickTime movies. By the time Sharp was on board, BCDF had already accumulated two-and-a-half weeks of dailies in the ProRes format.

According to Sharp, “I’ve cut one other film using Final Cut, but I feel more comfortable with [Avid] Media Composer. I suggested, if possible, it would be better if I could cut Higher Ground on an Avid, because I had to hit the ground running. Since I was starting three weeks after filming had begun, I needed to be as efficient as possible and that would be on a system that I was most comfortable with.” Of course, this added the dilemma of whether or not to re-transcode the RED files into a format native to Avid.

Good timing once again played a role. Avid had just released Media Composer version 5.0, which enabled the direct use of ProRes files through AMA (Avid Media Access), as well as limited third-party hardware support for monitoring. In addition to Final Cut systems, BCDF also owned an older Media Composer license. They were able to cost-effectively set up the Avid suite for Sharp by upgrading their older Avid software license and adding the Matrox MXO2 Mini for video output to the large screen in the edit suite.

Newmark explained, “I was concerned about whether I’d need to take the existing dailies and convert them again to DNxHD media for Colleen. I talked it over with a friend at PostWorks in New York and it seemed like using AMA would be viable. We proceeded down the road of using the ProRes files in the Avid and Colleen was able to cut the film entirely using linked AMA files. We never transcoded them into DNxHD and it worked well. Of course, at the beginning I still had the Plan B of converting everything again if the AMA idea didn’t work; but, I wanted to avoid this as it would have cost us extra time. Even though we own a Red Rocket card for fast transcoding, the crew was using two cameras the entire time and often recording very long performance takes. So, in two-and-a-half weeks, they’d already accumulated quite a large amount of footage.”

In the end, it worked better than expected for what was at that time a new software release. Higher Ground is likely the first feature film edited using strictly AMA-linked ProRes files. Thanks in part to the weak economy, the film company was able to secure off-hours packages for DI finishing in Los Angeles and sound editing and mixing at Sound One in New York. Newmark continued, “I was able to send the colorist [Adam Hawkey] an EDL and the trimmed .r3d RED camera files, as well as the looks that I’d established with the DoP. These were imported into a Nucoda system, which read the files perfectly, including the looks presets. Adam told us this worked seamlessly and gave him a great starting point to work from in grading the film. Michael [McDonough] supervised the grading over a five-day stretch.”

Anticipating the big challenges

I asked Colleen Sharp about editing challenges on the film. She replied, “The biggest challenge I’d anticipated turned out not to be an issue at all. That was working with a first-time director, who was also the lead actor. Vera was great to work with. She was new to the entire editing process and very intrigued by the possibilities. She was hands-on during the edit and very helpful. I normally work on a film during the shooting and complete an editor’s cut before I start working with the director. In this case, I wasn’t completely done with my cut before the production wrapped, so the last portion of this first cut was worked out with Vera’s involvement. They finished shooting just after the 4th of July weekend, but I didn’t have my first cut together until the third week in July. It was just under three hours long! We continued working at it until mid-October and ended up at the final length of 107 minutes. Naturally, with that much trimming, you have to lose some scenes that are painful to cut, but that’s all part of the process.”

“I’m glad to say that none of Vera’s decisions were ever based on vanity. Only about the best performance and with this cast, the performances were always good. One editing challenge was dealing with the number of children in the scenes. For instance, Vera’s sister Taissa plays Corrine in the younger scenes. She’s never acted before. So, you had Vera directing her sister and she got a great performance out of her. Of course, as the editor, it’s my job to help get that performance on screen in a way that best represents the story.”

Naturally, whenever you have a lot of footage, the biggest challenge for the editor is wrestling just the sheer volume of material. Higher Ground shot about 14TB of RED footage, which translates into nearly 100 hours of raw material. Fortunately the story progressed in a linear fashion through the three periods of Corinne’s life. No parallel storylines or intercutting between different eras. To help manage the content, assistant editor Peter Saguto organized the ProRes files at the Finder level into folders based on scenes. This made sense for a Final Cut edit, but when it came time to move to Media Composer, most of this structure could be carried into Avid via AMA. As a result, Saguto didn’t have to completely start his logging from scratch after the change of platforms.

In the end, the post production workflow proved to be very viable. Newmark said, “When we started this, a lot of the advice we received ended with ‘good luck – no one has ever done this before.’ I was impressed with the stability of the Avid system, compared with the Final Cut system that was being used at the same time on the other film going through BCDF.” In the future, BCDF intends to handle more films on the Avid system. Newmark continued, “We always want to let the decision be made by the cinematographers and editors whenever possible. We own RED camera packages, but we’ve also shot films with ARRI ALEXA and 35mm film depending on what’s the right approach for that film. I really think Avid is the best tool for feature film editing and I’m glad this experience worked so well. Of course, now when we have a RED show that we know will be cut on Media Composer, we transcode the RED media to DNxHD.  Nevertheless, going ProRes on Higher Ground proved to be far more seamless than I would have expected.”

In its first year, BCDF Pictures produced four films: Higher Ground; Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding; The Last Keepers (formerly known as The Art of Love) and Rhymes with Bananas. They are currently in post production on Predisposed and Liberal Arts and in production on Bachlorette.

Written for DV Magazine (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters

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