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

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

Using FCP X with Adobe CC

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While the “battle” rages on between the proponents of using either Apple Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro CC as the main edit axe, there is less disagreement about the other Adobe applications. Certainly many users like Motion, Aperture and Logic, but it’s pretty clear that most editors favor Adobe solutions over others. I have encountered very few power users of Motion, as compared with After Effects wizards – nor graphic designers who can get by without touching Illustrator or Photoshop. This post isn’t intended to change anyone’s opinion, but rather to offer a few pointers on how to productively use some of the Adobe Creative Cloud (or CS6) applications to complement your FCP X workflows. (Click images below for an expanded view.)

Photoshop

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For many editors, Adobe Photoshop is the title tool of choice. FCP X has some nice text tools, but Photoshop is significantly better – especially for logo creation. When you import a layered Photoshop file into FCP X, it comes in as a special layered graphics file. Layers can be adjusted, animated or disabled when you “open in timeline”. Photoshop layer effects, like a drop shadow, glow or emboss, do not show up correctly inside FCP X. If you drop the imported Photoshop file onto the timeline, it becomes a self-contained title clip. Although you cannot “open in editor” to modify the file, there is a workaround.

To re-edit the Photoshop file in Adobe Photoshop, select the clip in FCP X and “reveal in Finder”. From the Finder window open the file in Photoshop. Now you can make any changes you like. Once saved, the changes are updated in FCP X. There is one caveat that I’ve noticed. All changes that you make have to be made within the existing layers. New, additional layers do not update back inside FCP X. However, if you created layer effects and then merge that layer to bake in the effects, the update is successful in FCP X and the effects become visible.

This process is very imperfect because of FCP X’s interpretation of the Photoshop files. For example, layer alignment that matches in Photoshop may be misaligned in FCP X. All layers must have some content. You cannot create blank layers and later add content into them. When you do this, the updates will not be recognized in FCP X.

Audition

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Sound mixing is still a weak link in Final Cut Pro X. All mixing is clip-based without a proper mixing pane, like most other NLEs have. There are methods (X2Pro Audio Convert) to send the timeline audio to Pro Tools, but many editors don’t use Pro Tools. Likewise sending an FCPXML to Logic X works better than before, but why buy an extra application if you already own Adobe Audition? I tested a few options, like using X2Pro to get an AAF into Premiere Pro and then into Audition, but none of this worked. What does work is using XML.

First, duplicate the sequence and work from the copy for safety. Review your edited sequence in FCP X and detach/delete any unused audio elements, such as muted audio associated with connected clips that are used as video-only B-roll. Next, break apart any compound clips. I recommend detaching the desired audio, but that’s optional. Now export an FCPXML for that sequence. Open the FCPXML in the Xto7 application and save the audio tracks as a new XML file.

Launch Audition and import the new XML file. This will populate your multitrack mixing window with the sequence and clips. At this stage, all clips that were inside FCP X Libraries will be offline. Select these clips and use the “link media” command. The good news is that the dialogue window will allow you to see inside the Library file and let you navigate to the correct file. Unfortunately, the correct name match will not be bolded. Since these files are typically date/time-stamped, make sure to read the names carefully when you select the first clip. The rest will relink automatically. Note that level changes and fades that were made in FCP X do not come across into Audition.

Now you can mix the session. When done, export a stereo (or other) mixed master file. Import that into FCP X and attach as a connected clip to the head of your sequence. Make sure to delete, disable (make “invisible”) or mute all previous audio.

After Effects

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For many editors, Adobe After Effects is the finishing tool of choice – not just for graphics and effects, but also color correction and other embellishments. Thanks to the free ClipExporter application, it’s easy to go from FCP X to After Effects.

Similar to the Audition step, I recommend detaching/deleting all audio. Some folks like to have audio inside After Effects, but most of the time it’s in the way for me. Break part all compound clips. You might as well remove any FCP X titles and effects filters/transitions, since these don’t translate into After Effects. Lastly, I recommend selecting all connected clips and using the “overwrite to storyline” command. This will place everything onto the primary storyline and result in a straightforward cascade of layers once inside After Effects.

Export an FCPXML file for the sequence. Open ClipExporter and select the AE conversion tab. Import the FCPXML file. An important feature is that ClipExporter supports FCP X’s retiming function, but only for AE exports. Now run ClipExporter and save the resultant After Effects script file.

Launch Adobe After Effects and from the File/Script pulldown menu, select the saved script file created by ClipExporter. The script will run and load the clips and a your sequence as a new composition. Each individual shot is stashed into its own mini-composition and these are then placed into a stack of layers for the timeline of the main AE composition. Should you need to trim/slip the media for a shot, all available media can be accessed and adjusted within the shot’s individual mini-comp. If a shot has been retimed in FCP X, those adjustments also appear in the mini-comp and not in the main composition.

Build your effects and render a flattened file with everything baked in. Import that file into FCP X and add it as a connected clip to the top of your sequence. Disable all other video clips.

©2014 Oliver Peters

NLE Tips – Week 4

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Apple FCP X and Lined Scripts

Feature film editing is facilitated by the information coming from the script supervisor’s notes and adjusted script. This is frequently called a “lined script” because the supervisor will draw vertical lines with notations that indicate which angles and takes cover specific sections of every scene. In addition, editors developed another notation of horizontal lines that separate the dialogue. This was the basis of the original Ediflex Script Mimic process that eventually found its way into Avid as Script Integration and Script Sync. (Click on any image for an expanded view.)df_nle4_4_sm

There are a couple of simple ways to adapt this concept to Apple Final Cut Pro X. A few methods have been proposed, but the easiest and fastest method for me is to use markers. The first step is to take the printed script with the script supervisor’s notations and add the horizontal line notation that splits up the dialogue.

df_nle4_2_smStart at line 1 on page one and you’ll eventually end up with 1,000 or more at the end of the last page. Other numbering conventions are fine. Ideally this could be added to the script by the supervisor before the start of the production. If not, you or the assistant editor (if you are lucky enough to have one) will need to do this. You can add as many lines as you want to, depending on how granular you want the division of the dialogue to be. This could be with every carriage return of the printed script or it could be just between every paragraph.

When the camera files are imported and logged into the FCP X event, you’ll need to add scene and take information. This can be done by renaming the clip name or (which I prefer) by entering it into the scene/take columns (or both). As each clip is reviewed, add markers at every point within the clip that matches the position of the horizontal divisions made to the script dialogue. Rename these markers to match the numbers assigned on the written script.

df_nle4_3_smWhen you’ve gone through this process for each file that covers the scene, you will have scene/take information that matches the supervisor’s vertical lines and markers that align with the horizontal separation. Under each clip, there’s now a list of markers, which you’ve labelled to match the script lines. By clicking on one of these, you can instantly jump to that point in the dialogue within any given clip.

In a lengthy scene, if you want to see all the coverage options that are available for a particular line of dialogue somewhere in the middle of the scene, all you have to do is go to the corresponding numbered marker closest to that line of dialogue. If that number is “201″ for example, simply click on the marker labelled “201″ within each clip and you can successively review each angle and take at that point.

Naturally you can leverage FCP X’s capabilities by creating favorites and smart collections based on these choices, but script lining and using markers is a good and easy starting point.

©2014 Oliver Peters

NLE Tips – Week 3

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The Avid  – Resolve Roundtrip Workflow

Avid Media Composer has always been regarded as the best offline editing tool and its heritage was built upon a strong offline-to-online workflow. The file-based world has complicated things and various camera formats have made life even more complex for editors. Many have become quite fond of using Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve as a great companion to Media Composer. It’s cross-platform and even the free version will do most of what you need. Here’s a step-by-step example of how you might use the combo. Relinking varies a bit, based on file metadata and might need to be modified for your particular circumstances. This workflow is great with ARRI ALEXA files and will most likely work well with other similar camera formats. (Click images for an expanded view.)

df_nle3_4_smCreating edit proxies files with Resolve – ALEXA files are usually Apple ProRes 4444 or ProRes HQ QuickTime files that have been recorded with a Log-C gamma profile. So, they are big files with a flat appearance. To start, launch Resolve, load the ProRes camera clips into the Media Pool (Media or Edit tab) and select/edit all of the full clips to a new timeline. In the Color tab, select “track” instead of “clip” and apply a single node. In that node, apply an ARRI Log-C-to-Rec709 LUT. Go to the Deliver tab and pick the Avid roundtrip Easy Set-up. Make sure “Individual Source Clips” is selected (not a single file), define a render location and df_nle3_3_smdecide whether or not to add a file name prefix or suffix (not required). Render using the DNxHD 36 codec choice.

Moving to Media Composer for the creative cut – When the render process has been completed, you’ll have a folder containing Avid MXF media and a corresponding AAF file. This media has the LUT “baked in” and has been rendered with the very lightweight df_nle3_5_smDNxHD 36 codec. Drag the AAF file out of this folder to another location. Now drag this complete folder into any of your Avid MediaFiles/MXF subfolders. Unless you’ve already added extra folders there, you will typically find one existing folder (with Avid’s default label of “1”) that contains MXF media. Change the label of the new folder (the one that you’ve just dragged in) to another number, such as “2″.df_nle3_2_sm

Launch Media Composer, create a new project, open the first bin and import the AAF file that was created by Resolve. This bin will become populated by the color corrected, DNxHD 36 files created by Resolve. Voila, you are ready to edit your Oscar-winner! Cut until the project is locked. When you are done and are ready to move to the online or finishing phase of the edit, export an AAF file from Media Composer. Select “AAF Edit Protocol” and “Link to” media in the AAF options.df_nle3_10_sm

df_nle3_7_smReturning to Resolve for the final grade – Launch Resolve and start a new project. Import the AAF file that you exported from Media Composer. You’ll end up with a timeline that matches your Avid cut and it will be linked to the DNxHD 36 media. You will want to relink the files back to the original camera media – the ProRes HQ or ProRes 4444 files. To do this, delete all the media in the Resolve Media Pool (Edit tab), which will make the timeline clips appear offline. df_nle3_12_smNow, navigate to the folder with the original camera files and bring those into the Media Pool. Your timeline clips will now be relinked to this original camera media. You’ll recognize this because the clips on the timeline will be back to their original, flat, Log-C appearance. In some instances, Resolve may see some files as duplicate and might possibly relink to the wrong file. In that case, you’ll see an error icon on the timeline clip. Click on it and Resolve will present a dialogue window with the possible alternate media options. Pick the correct one and the clip should then be linked to the right shot. Color correct your timeline with the desired grade and any reframing.

df_nle3_6_smReturning to Media Composer to complete the edit – When you’ve completed the color grading, go to the Deliver tab and pick the Avid roundtrip Easy Set-up again, but this time pick a higher-quality codec (like DNxHD 175x). Make sure to set handle lengths (usually 2-5 sec.) and render (as “Individual Source Clips” again). The result will be a new folder of rendered MXF media with the “baked in” grade, plus a new corresponding AAF file. As before, drag out this AAF file and drag the folder of rendered media into the Avid MediaFiles/MXF subfolder. Relabel the folder of this new Resolve media with a different number (such as “3″).

df_nle3_11_smLaunch Media Composer, open your existing project and create a new bin. Import the new AAF file, which will now populate this bin with the high-quality media. This bin will also include the sequence that you sent over to Resolve, but now linked to the high-resolution media files. In many cases, you would simply use this sequence for any final effects, titles and other adjustments.

df_nle3_8_smRelinking the sequence in Media Composer – If for some reason the sequence that was “round-tripped” does not correctly reflect the edited cut as built in the offline stage, then you will need to relink a copy of that sequence to the new media. To do so, duplicate the sequence from your DNxHD 36 edit and move that copy into the bin with the 175x media. Close all other bins, except the 175x bin. Right-click the sequence and select “Relink” from the menu. Set your options to “Select Items In All Open Bins” and relink by “Timecode – Start” and “Source Name – Tape Name or Source File ID”. This will cause the sequence to be relinked to the new 175x final-quality media.df_nle3_9_sm

If everything worked correctly, you will have done a complete offline (creative cut) and online (finishing) workflow between Media Composer and Resolve, without the need for Avid’s traditional import or newer AMA processes!

©2014 Oliver Peters