Filmmaking Pointers

df_fmpointersIf you want to be a good indie filmmaker, you have to understand some of the basic principles of telling interesting visual stories and driving the audience’s emotions. These six   ideas transcend individual components of filmmaking, like cinematography or editing. Rather, they are concepts that every budding director should understand and weave into the entire structure of how a film is approached.

1. Get into the story quickly. Films are not books and don’t always need a lengthy backstory to establish characters and plot. Films are a journey and it’s best to get the characters on that road as soon as possible. Most scripts are structured as three-act plays, so with a typical 90-100 minute running time, you should be through act one at roughly one third of the way into the film. If not, you’ll lose the interest of the audience. If you are 20 minutes into the film and you are still establishing the history of the characters without having advanced the story, then look for places to start cutting.

Sometimes this isn’t easy to tell and an extended start may indeed work well, because it does advance the story. One example is There Will Be Blood. The first reel is a tour de force of editing, in which editor Dylan Tichenor builds a largely dialogue-free montage that quickly takes the audience through the first part of Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) history in order to bring the audience up to the film’s present day. It’s absolutely instrumental to the rest of the film.

2. Parallel story lines. A parallel story structure is a great device to show the audience what’s happening to different characters at different locations, but at more or less the same time. With most scripts, parallel actions are designed to eventually converge as related or often unrelated characters ultimately end up in the same place for a shared plot. An interesting take on this is Cloud Atlas, in which an ensemble cast plays different characters spread across six different eras and locations – past, present and future.

The editing style pulled off by Alexander Berner is quite a bit different than traditional parallel story editing. A set of characters might start a scene in one era. Halfway through the scene – through some type of abrupt cut, such as walking through a door – the characters, location and eras shift to somewhere else. However, the story and the editing are such that you clearly understand how the story continues for the first half of that scene, as well as how it led into the second half. This is all without explicitly shooting those parts of each scene. Scene A/era A informs your understanding of scene B/era B and vice versa.

3. Understand camera movement. When a camera zooms, moves or is used in a shaky, handheld manner, this elicits certain emotions from the audience. As a director or DP, you need to understand when each style is appropriate and when it can be overdone. Zooming into a close-up while an actor delivers a line should be done intentionally. It tells the audience, “Listen up. This is important.” If you shoot handheld footage, like most of the Bourne series, it drives a level of documentary-style, frenetic action that should be in keeping with the concept.

The TV series NYPD Blue is credited with introducing TV audiences to the “shaky-cam” style of camera work. Many pros thought it was overdone, with movement often being introduced in an unmotivated fashion. Yet, the original Law & Order series also made extensive use of handheld photography. As this was more in keeping with a subtle documentary style, few complained about its use on that show.

4. Color palettes and art direction. Many new filmmakers often feel that you can get any look you want through color grading. The reality is that it all starts with art direction. Grading should enhance what’s there, not manufacture something that isn’t. To get that “orange & teal” look, you need to have a set and wardrobe that has some greens and blues in it. To get a warm, earthy look, you need a set and wardrobe with browns and reds.

This even extends to black & white films. To get the right contrast and tonal values in black & white, you often have to use set/wardrobe color choices that are not ideal in a color world. That’s because different colors carry differing luminance and midrange values, which becomes very obvious, once you eliminate the color information from the picture. Make sure you take that into account if you plan to produce a black & white film.

5. Score versus sound design. Music should enhance and underscore a film, but it does not have to be wall-to-wall. Some films, like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are driven by a score of popular tunes. Others are composed with an original score. However, often the “score” consists of sound design elements and simple musical drones designed to heighten tension and otherwise manipulate emotion. The absence of score in a scene can achieve the same effect. Sound effects elements with stark simplicity may have more impact  on the audience than music. Learn when to use one or the other or both. Often less is more.

6. Don’t tell too much story. Not every film requires extensive exposition. As I said at the top, a film is not a book. Visual cues are as important as the spoken word and will often tell the audience a lot more in shorthand, than pages and pages of script. The audience is interested in the journey your film’s characters are on and frequently need very little backstory to get an understanding of the characters. Don’t shy away from shooting enough of that sort of detail, but also don’t be afraid to cut it out, when it becomes superfluous.

©2014 Oliver Peters

The Ouch of 4K Post

df_4kpost_sm4K is the big buzz. Many in the post community are wondering when the tipping point will be reached when their clients will demand 4K masters. 4K acquisition has been with us for awhile and has generally proven to be useful for its creative options, like reframing during post. This has been possible long before the introduction of the RED One camera, if you were shooting on film. But acquiring in 4K and higher is quite a lot different than working a complete 4K post production pipeline.

There are a lot of half-truths surrounding 4K, so let me tackle a couple. When we talk about 4K, the moniker applies only to frame dimensions in pixels, not resolution, as in sharpness. There are several 4K dimensions, depending on whether you mean cinema specs or television specs. The cinema projection spec is 4096 x 2160 (1.9:1 aspect ratio) and within that, various aspects and frame sizes can be placed. The television or consumer spec is 3840 x 2160 (16:9 or 1.78:1 aspect ratio), which is an even multiple of HD at 1920 x 1080. That’s what most consumer 4K TV sets use. It is referred to by various labels, such as Ultra HD, UHD, UHDTV, Quad HD, 4K HD and so on. If you are delivering a digital cinema master it will be 4096 pixels wide, but if you deliver a television 4K master, it will be 3840 pixels wide. Regardless of which format your deliverable will be, you will most likely want to acquire at 4096 x 2304 (16:9) or larger, because this gives you some reframing space for either format.

This brings us to resolution. Although the area of the 4K frame is 4x that of a 1080p HD frame, the actual resolution is only theoretically 2x better. That’s because resolution is measured based on the vertical dimension and is a factor of the ability to resolve small detail in the image (typically based on thin lines of a resolution chart). True resolution is affected by many factors, including lens quality, depth of field, accuracy of the focus, contrast, etc. When you blow up a 35mm film frame and analyze high-detail areas within the frame, you often find them blurrier than you’d expect.

The brings us to post. The push for 4K post comes from a number of sources, but many voices in the independent owner-operator camp have been the strongest. These include many RED camera owners, who successfully cut their own material straight from the native media of the camera. NLEs, like Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Apple Final Cut Pro X, make this a fairly painless experience for small, independent projects, like short films and commercials. Unfortunately it’s an experience that doesn’t extrapolate well to the broader post community, which works on a variety projects and must interchange media with numerous other vendors.

The reason 4K post seems easy and viable to many is that the current crop of 4K camera work with highly compressed codecs and many newer computers have been optimized to deal with these codecs. Therefore, if you shoot with a RED (Redcode), Canon 1DC (Motion-JPEG), AJA Cion (ProRes), BMD URSA (ProRes) and Sony F55 (XAVC), you are going to get a tolerable post experience using post-ready, native media or by quickly transcoding to ProRes. But that’s not how most larger productions work. A typical motion picture or television show will take the camera footage and process it into something that fits into a known pipeline. This usually means uncompressed DPX image sequences, plus proxy movies for the editors. This allows a base level of color management that can be controlled through the VFX pipeline without each unit along the way adding their own color interpretation. It also keeps the quality highest without further decompression/recompression cycles, as well as various debayering methods used.

Uncompressed or even mildy compressed codecs mean a huge storage commitment for an ongoing facility. Here’s a quick example. I took a short RED clip that was a little over 3 minutes long. It was recorded as 4096 x 2304 at 23.976fps. This file was a bit over 7GB in its raw form. Then I converted this to these formats with the following results:

ProRes 4444 – 27GB

ProRes HQ (also scaled to UHD 3840 x 2160) – 16GB

Uncompressed 10-Bit – 116GB

DPX images (10-bits per channel) – 173GB

TIFF images (8-bits per channel) – 130GB

As you can see, storage requirement increase dramatically. This can be mitigated by tossing out some data, as the ProRes444 versus down-sampled ProResHQ comparison shows. It’s worth noting that I used the lower DPX and TIFF color depth options, as well. At these settings, a single 4K DPX frame is 38MB and a single 4K TIFF frame is 28MB.

For comparison, a complete 90-100 minute feature film mastered at 1920 x 1080 (23.976fps) as ProRes HQ will consume about 110-120GB of storage. UHD is still 4x the frame area, so if we use the ProRes HQ example above, 30x that 3 min. clip would give us the count for a typical feature. That figure comes out to 480GB.

This clearly has storage ramifications. A typical indie feature shot with two RED cameras over a one-month period, will likely generate about 5-10TB of media in the camera original raw form. If this same media were converted to ProRes444, never mind uncompressed, your storage requirements just increased to an additional 16-38TB. Mind you this is all as 24p media. As we start talking 4K in television-centric applications around the world, this also means 4K at 25, 30, 50 and 60fps. 60fps means 2.5x more storage demands than 24p.

The other element is system performance. Compressed codecs work when the computer is optimized for these. RED has worked hard to make Redcode easy to work with on modern computers. Apple ProRes enjoys near ubiquitous playback support. ProRes HQ even at 4K will play reasonably well from a two-drive RAID-0 stripe on my Mac Pro. Recode plays if I lower the debayer quality. Once you start getting into uncompressed files and DPX or TIFF image strings, it takes a fast drive array and a fast computer to get anything approaching consistent real-time playback. Therefore, the only viable workflow is an offline-online editorial system, since creative editorial generally requires multiple streams of simultaneous media.

This workflow gets even worse with other cameras. One example is the Canon C500, which records 4K camera raw files to an external recorder, such as the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q. These are proprietary Canon camera raw files, which cannot be natively played by an NLE. These must first be turned into something else using a Canon utility. Since the Odyssey records to internal SSDs, media piles up pretty quickly. With two 512GB SSDs, you get 62 minutes of record time at 24fps if you record Canon 4K raw. In the real world of production, this becomes tough, because it means you either have to rent or buy numerous SSDs for your shoot or copy and reuse as you go. Typically transferring 1TB of data on set is not a fast process.

Naturally there are ways to make 4K post efficient and not as painful as it needs to be. But it requires a commitment to hardware resources. It’s not conducive to easy desktop post running off of a laptop, like DV and even HD has been. That’s why you still see Autodesk Smokes, Quantel Rio Pablos and other high-end systems dominate at the leading facilities. Think, plan and buy before you jump in.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Amira Color Tool and your NLE

df_amiracolor_1I was recently alerted to the new Amira Color Tool by Michael Phillips’ 24p blog. This is a lightweight ARRI software application designed to create custom in-camera looks for the Amira camera. You do this by creating custom color look-up tables (LUT). The Amira Color Tool is available as a free download from the ARRI website (free registration required). Although the application is designed for the camera, you can also export looks in a variety of LUT file formats, which in turn, may be installed and applied to footage in a number of different editing and color correction applications. I tested this in both Apple Final Cut Pro X and Avid Media Composer | Software (v8) with good results.

The Amira Color Tool is designed to correct log-C encoded footage into a straight Rec709 offset or with a custom look. ARRI offers some very good instructions, white papers, sample looks and tutorials that cover the operation of this software. The signal flow is from the log-C image, to the Rec709 correction, and then to the CDL-based color correction. To my eye, the math appears to be floating point, because a Rec709 conversion that throws a shot into clipping, can be pulled back out of clipping in the look tab, using the CDL color correction tools. Therefore it is possible to use this tool for shots other than ARRI Amira or Alexa log-C footage, as long as it is sufficiently flat.

The CDL correction tools are based on slope, offset and power. In that model slope is equivalent to gain, offset to lift and power to gamma. In addition to color wheels, there’s a second video look parameters tab for hue intensities for the six main vectors (red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta). The Amira Color Tool is Mac-only and opens both QuickTime and DPX files from the clips I tested. It worked successfully with clips shot on an Alexa (log-C), Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMD Film profile), Sony F-3 (S-log) and Canon 1DC (4K Canon-log). Remember that the software is designed to correct flat, log-C images, so you probably don’t want to use this with images that were already encoded with vibrant Rec709 colors.

FCP X

df_amiracolor_4To use the Amira Color Tool, import your clip from the application’s file browser, set the look and export a 3D LUT in the appropriate format. I used the DaVinci Resolve setting, which creates a 3D LUT in a .cube format file. To get this into FCP X, you need to buy and install a LUT filter, like Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. To install a new LUT there, open the LUT Utility pane in System Preferences, click the “+” symbol and navigate to where the file was saved.df_amiracolor_5_sm In FCP X, apply the LUT Utility to the clip as a filter. From the filter’s pulldown selection in the inspector, choose the new LUT that you’ve created and installed. One caveat is to be careful with ARRI files. Any files recorded with newer ARRI firmware are flagged for log-C and FCP X automatically corrects these to Rec709. Since you don’t want to double up on LUTs, make sure “log processing” is unchecked for those clips in the info tab of the inspector pane.

Media Composer

df_amiracolor_6_smTo use the custom LUTs in Media Composer, select “source settings” for the clip. Go to the color management tab and install the LUT. Now it will be available in the pull-down menu for color conversions. This color management change can be applied to a single clip or to a batch of clips within a bin.

In both cases, the source clips in FCP X and/or Media Composer will play in real-time with the custom look already applied.

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©2014 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer | Software v8

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At NAB Avid presented its Avid Everywhere concept. While Everywhere is a over-arching marketing concept, involving “the cloud”, storage, asset management, a marketplace and more, for most independent editors, Avid is all about Media Composer and/or Pro Tools. Given that, there’s very little in the Everywhere concept that affects these users. The most salient part is a restructuring of licensing and software options.

Media Composer and the options

Avid’s flagship NLE is now known as Media Composer | Software and version numbers are only internal, rather than part of the product branding. Avid released Media Composer version 8.0 in May, but it is only known as Media Composer. Added to this are three options: Media Composer | Symphony, Media Composer | NewsCutter and Media Composer | Cloud. NewsCutter, which always was a variation of Media Composer, is now sold as an option, which adds news-centric features to the interface. Media Composer | Cloud (formerly known as Interplay Sphere) is essentially a plug-in to Media Composer that allows remote access to an Avid asset management and storage system. NewsCutter and Cloud require a larger facility infrastructure, so I’ll skip them in this discussion. They have little bearing on what most independent editors do.

Two other past options, PhraseFind and ScriptSync, are currently not available, as these are based on a phonetic search engine technology licensed from Nexidia. Avid and Nexidia are in current discussions for a new licensing arrangement. While many editors rely on this technology, most do not. It is important to realize that Avid’s script integration and the internal Find tool are not completely tied to this technology and continue to work fine. The Nexidia options add a level of automation to the process through a phonetic match-up between waveforms and typed text.

Without ScriptSync, you can still create script-based bins, but the alignment of takes to script lines has to be done manually. Without PhraseFind, you can still search for text found in bin fields, but you cannot search by audio. Nexidia sells its own products, as well as licenses another application for editors that is sold through BorisFX as Soundbite. This is a standalone application geared to Final Cut and Premiere, but is not compatible with Media Composer. Until this gets resolved, Avid has advised editors who are dependent on ScriptSync or PhraseFind, not to upgrade past Media Composer version 7 software. Resellers still have these options available, in a version that is compatible with earlier versions of Media Composer.

Enter the new model

Media Composer version 8 is the first release of the application under the new licensing guidelines. You can now buy or rent Media Composer using three methods: perpetual license (own), subscription (rental) or floating license. The latter applies to larger facilities that are interested in purchasing “packs” of 20 or 50 perpetual licenses, which can be assigned to various machines as their production needs shift. The subscription license is based on an annual commitment ($49.99/mo-individual) or month-by-month ($74.99/mo-individual) rental and may be used by individuals or facilities. For example, facilities may have a number of perpetual licenses, but need to add a few seats of Media Composer for several months to accommodate an incoming, short-term production. They could choose to augment their “owned” licenses with additional subscription licenses to get through this immediate production crunch.

Most customers are likely to be interested in the changes in how you “own” the software, as the perpetual license model has changed from that of the past. When you now purchase Media Composer | Software, the cost is $1299, which covers the cost of the software plus one year of Avid support and any upgrades within the course of that year. (The actual support portion of that includes unlimited tech support over the web and one tech support phone call per month.) Customers still interested in a hardware license key (dongle) may purchase one for an additional $500. The Symphony option adds $749 to the bill. Current Media Composer owners (MC 6.5 or higher) can upgrade to MC 8 simply by purchasing a single year of support at $299 before the end of 2014. No matter how they got there (new purchase or renewal of an existing license) the software license is now on the current plan.

The important thing is that you have to renew again at the end of the first year of support. This is where the complaints have come in. As long as you renew your support contract each year at $299 (current price) then you will get any Avid updates to the software without having to purchase a separate software upgrade. (In the past, a Media Composer version upgrade has been more expensive than that year of support.) However, if you decide to let the support lapse for a year and then decide you want an upgrade, you will have to repurchase the product and any options anew.

Let’s say you bought Media Composer with the Symphony option – $1299 + $749. Hypothetically, by the end of the first year, Media Composer | Software has moved up to v8.5 and then you decide not to renew. From that point on, your version is “frozen” and cannot be upgraded. A year later, Media Composer | Software v10 comes out with enough compelling features to get you back on board. You cannot renew your v8.5 software license to upgrade, but instead have to purchase the current version Media Composer and Symphony again. Now you have two licenses: MC v8.5 and MC v10. Both work, but the older one is not upgradeable while the newer one is, as long as you renew its support contract after the end of the first year from the time of purchase.

Third-party bundles

In addition to the Nexidia issue, Avid now offers fewer third-party applications and effects as a bundle with the software. With the last few versions, you received Avid DVD, AvidFX, Sorenson Squeeze and BorisFX BCC filters (BCC only with the Symphony option). Avid DVD is no longer being developed. Variations of the others are now sold with a separate Production Pack third-party bundle. It gets a little confusing, because the options vary a bit between the perpetual and subscription models. If you buy the software, you now only get the NewBlueFX Titler Pro 1 and a starter set of their filters. “Lite” versions of Sorenson Squeeze and BCC (4 effects only) are offered with the subscription model. Since these are third-party products, you can still purchase them independently and existing versions that you already own will continue to work with Media Composer. BorisFX is offering upgrade deals to their products from past versions. Since AvidFX is simply an OEM version of Boris RED, one of their current deals is to upgrade from AvidFX to Boris RED 5.5 for $295. You can also upgrade to BCC 9 AVX for $599.

It’s a shame to lose the tools that were included in the past, but it really boils down to a consequence of the industry’s “race to the bottom”. At the prices that Avid currently sells Media Composer | Software, there simply is no margin left over to make third-party bundling deals. Developers aren’t going to accept a pittance just to be packaged with Media Composer. From the customer’s angle, you still have a decent set of audio and video filters included with Media Composer, including the NewBlueFX starter filters, Avid Illusion effects and the built-in Animatte effects tools. If you need more than that, you’ll simply have to purchase other plug-ins.

What to do

You own Media Composer version 7. What should you do now? The good news is that there’s no urgency to upgrade. MC v8 is essentially the same as v7.0.4, except with a new resident license tool (Application Manager). There are no new compelling features in MC v8 itself. Avid has promised one or more upgrades to happen during the year and resolution-independence has been mentioned as a technology that will come to Media Composer (although no specific commitment to a timeframe). You have until the end of the year to spend your $299 for support and get onto version 8.x. The smart money is advising to wait a few months and see what the next update brings. If it’s compelling, then you can take advantage of the deal and purchase the annual support, which gives you access to the new software (if you are on a recent version of Media Composer). The advantage to this is that the one-year clock starts at that time, so the later in the year that you do this, the longer the time (from now) that you have, before you need to renew again.

Changes like this always create a certain amount of tension. That’s been clear in the debates around Adobe’s shift to subscription with Creative Cloud. Users will inevitably compare the new costs to their old upgrade patterns and what the software used to cost them. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, since financial pressures change and none of these companies have ever said that changes to their pricing wouldn’t happen, if it’s necessary. It seems to me that Avid has adopted the best blend of purchase and rental that I’ve seen among the NLE companies. There’s an incentive to stay current with the software, which is both to Avid’s and the customer’s advantage. If you were a loyal user who stayed current and always bought the upgrades when they came out, then the new deal is better for you financially. If you tended to sit on old versions and only sporadically upgraded, then you are likely to pay more this way. No right or wrong – just the way it is.

©2014 Oliver Peters

SpeedGrade Looks

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In a previous post, I discussed how to use Final Cut Pro X Color Board presets. For that post, I created a set of presets and made them available as a free download. That remains one of the most viewed blog posts I’ve written and literally thousands of readers have downloaded the presets. In this post, I’m doing much the same with Adobe SpeedGrade CC Looks.

Adobe SpeedGrade CC uses the Lumetri deep color engine and presets may be shared between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC via the Direct Link protocol. Grades, LUTs and  presets applied in SpeedGrade are combined into a single Lumetri filter effect that gets applied to the clip in Premiere Pro. When SpeedGrade CC is installed, it includes a number of preset Look examples developed by Adobe and Looks Labs. These include stylized grades, film emulations and camera log conversions among others. When you work in SpeedGrade, it is possible to save user-created Looks, as well. These are a combination of any set of layers and grades that you have applied to a single clip. These may include color correction adjustments, but also LUTs and special visual effects filters. User files are saved as .look files with a corresponding .jpg thumbnail of the shot that the grade was originally applied to. These .look files are saved by SpeedGrade in a number of possible folder locations, so you have to be careful, as to which folder is open and selected when you save a file.

df_sglooks_2_smI have created a variety of custom Looks covering color treatments, effects, film styles and more. These Looks were built around an image I’ve used for many of my color correction blog posts, because it has a nice spectrum of colors. For example, it’s hard to set up a characteristic “orange & teal” look, when the image has no blues, greens or skin tones. To start, download the file from the link below and unzip the archive file. Inside, you’ll find a folder called “op_sgrades”. Let me point out that my testing and instructions are based on a Mac. I have not tested this on a Windows PC, so I am not sure where the proper default installation folder lives.

On a Mac, the supplied Looks styles (Lumetri and SpeedLooks) are inside the closed application bundle. To install this new folder, you need to open the SpeedGrade CC package contents (right-click the application icon and choose “show package contents”). This will expose the application’s Contents folder. From there, navigate to the MacOS subfolder and then the Look Examples subfolder. Drag the “op_sgrades” folder into the Look Examples folder. When you next open SpeedGrade CC, you will be able to access this new set of Looks in the Looks Management pane. On a PC, right-click the application program icon and select “open file location”. This will expose a set of files, including the Look Examples folder.

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Another caveat to this procedure. What happens with the next Adobe update to SpeedGrade CC? I’m not sure what happens to any folders inside the application contents package during an update. It may be that you would have to install this custom folder into the Look Examples folder again after a SpeedGrade CC version update. We’ll see when the next SpeedGrade CC update happens.

Since each of these presets was built on the same log-encoded (flat) image, you will need to adjust the grade according to the image you apply it to. In all of these, the first Primary layer (bottom of the stack) will be the same and is used to neutralize the image. The sliders I adjusted include input saturation, pivot, contrast, temperature and magenta. Only the global settings were adjusted in this layer. You can tweak it, hide/disable it or replace it with a LUT adjustment instead. I have stayed away from camera LUTs, as a way of neutralizing the image, because these will drastically affect the other corrections in the stack – often in unpredictable ways.

If you look back at my FCP X Color Board Presets article, you may notice that those looks were more extreme. In this set, I stayed more subtle, but the presets will be more complex, since SpeedGrade CC permits built-in effects. Some of these may be slow to display and update. This is especially true of any that include blurs.

Click here to download a .zip archive file of the Looks presets.

Click on any image below for a slideshow of the various Looks.

©2014 Oliver Peters