24p HD Restoration

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There’s a lot of good film content that only lives on 4×3 SD 29.97 interlaced videotape masters. Certainly in many cases you can go back and retransfer the film to give it new life, but for many small filmmakers, the associated costs put that out of reach. In general, I’m referring to projects with $0 budgets. Is there a way to get an acceptable HD product from an old Digibeta master without breaking the bank? A recent project of mine would say, yes.

How we got here

I had a rather storied history with this film. It was originally shot on 35mm negative, framed for 1.85:1, with the intent to end up with a cut negative and release prints for theatrical distribution. It was being posted around 2001 at a facility where I worked and I was involved with some of the post production, although not the original edit. At the time, synced dailies were transferred to Beta-SP with burn-in data on the top and bottom of the frame for offline editing purposes. As was common practice back then, the 24fps film negative was transferred to the interlaced video standard of 29.97fps with added 2:3 pulldown – a process that duplicates additional fields from the film frames, such that 24 film frames evenly add up to 60 video fields in the NTSC world. This is loaded into an Avid, where – depending on the system – the redundant fields are removed, or the list that goes to the negative cutter compensates for the adjustments back to a frame-accurate 24fps film cut.

df_24psdhd_5For the purpose of festival screenings, the project file was loaded into our Avid Symphony and I conformed the film at uncompressed SD resolution from the Beta-SP dailies and handled color correction. I applied a mask to hide the burn-in and ended up with a letter-boxed sequence, which was then output to Digibeta for previews and sales pitches to potential distributors. The negative went off to the negative cutter, but for a variety of reasons, that cut was never fully completed. In the two years before a distribution deal was secured, additional minor video changes were made throughout the film to end up with a revised cut, which no longer matched the negative cut.

Ultimately the distribution deal that was struck was only for international video release and nothing theatrical, which meant that rather than finishing/revising the negative cut, the most cost-effective process was to deliver a clean video master. Except, that all video source material had burn-in and the distributor required a full-height 4×3 master. Therefore, letter-boxing was out. To meet the delivery requirements, the filmmaker would have to go back to the original negative and retransfer it in a 4×3 SD format and master that to Digital Betacam. Since the negative was only partially cut and additional shots were added or changed, I went through a process of supervising the color-corrected transfer of all required 35mm film footage. Then I rebuilt the new edit timeline largely by eye-matching the new, clean footage to the old sequence. Once done and synced with the mix, a Digibeta master was created and off it went for distribution.

What goes around comes around

After a few years in distribution, the filmmaker retrieved his master and rights to the film, with the hope of breathing a little life into it through self-distribution – DVDs, Blu-rays, Internet, etc. With the masters back in-hand, it was now a question of how best to create a new product. One thought was simply to letter-box the film (to be in the director’s desired aspect) and call it a day. Of course, that still wouldn’t be in HD, which is where I stepped back in to create a restored master that would work for HD distribution.

Obviously, if there was any budget to retransfer the film negative to HD and repeat the same conforming operation that I’d done a few years ago – except now in HD – that would have been preferable. Naturally, if you have some budget, that path will give you better results, so shop around. Unfortunately, while desktop tools for editors and color correction have become dirt-cheap in the intervening years, film-to-tape transfer and film scanning services have not – and these retain a high price tag. So if I was to create a new HD master, it had to be from the existing 4×3 NTSC interlaced Digibeta master as the starting point.

In my experience, I know that if you are going to blow-up SD to HD frame sizes, it’s best to start with a progressive and not interlaced source. That’s even more true when working with software, rather than hardware up-convertors, like Teranex. Step one was to reconstruct a correct 23.98p SD master from the 29.97i source. To do this, I captured the Digibeta master as a ProResHQ file.

Avid Media Composer to the rescue

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When you talk about software tools that are commonly available to most producers, then there are a number of applications that can correctly apply a “reverse telecine” process. There are, of course, hardware solutions from Snell and Teranex (Blackmagic Design) that do an excellent job, but I’m focusing on a DIY solution in this post. That involves deconstructing the 2:3 pulldown (also called “3:2 pulldown”) cadence of whole and split-field frames back into only whole frames, without any interlaced tearing (split-field frames). After Effects and Cinema Tools offer this feature, but they really only work well when the entire source clip is of a consistent and unbroken cadence. This film had been completed in NTSC 29.97 TV-land, so frequently at cuts, the cadence would change. In addition, there had been some digital noise reduction applied to the final master after the Avid output to tape, which further altered the cadence at some cuts. Therefore, to reconstruct the proper cadence, changes had to be made at every few cuts and, in some scenes, at every shot change. This meant slicing the master file at every required point and applying a different setting to each clip. The only software that I know of to effectively do this with is Avid Media Composer.

Start in Media Composer by creating a 29.97 NTSC 4×3 project for the original source. Import the film file there. Next, create a second 23.98 NTSC 4×3 project. Open the bin from the 29.97 project into the 23.98 project and edit the 29.97 film clip to a new 23.98 sequence. Media Composer will apply a default motion adapter to the clip (which is the entire film) in order to reconcile the 29.97 interlaced frame rate into a 23.98 progressive timeline.

Now comes the hard part. Open the Motion Effect Editor window and “promote” the effect to gain access to the advanced controls. Set the Type to “Both Fields”, Source to “Film with 2:3 Pulldown” and Output to “Progressive”. Although you can hit “Detect” and let Media Composer try to decide the right cadence, it will likely guess incorrectly on a complex file like this. Instead, under the 2:3 Pulldown tab, toggle through the cadence options until you only see whole frames when you step through the shot frame-by-frame. Move forward to the next shot(s) until you see the cadence change and you see split-field frames again. Split the video track (place an “add edit”) at that cut and step through the cadence choices again to find the right combination. Rinse and repeat for the whole film.

Due to the nature of the process, you might have a cut that itself occurs within a split-field frame. That’s usually because this was a cut in the negative and was transferred as a split-field video frame. In that situation, you will have to remove the entire frame across both audio and video. These tiny 1-frame adjustments throughout the film will slightly shorten the duration, but usually it’s not a big deal. However, the audio edit may or may not be noticeable. If it can’t simply be fixed by a short 2-frame dissolve, then usually it’s possible to shift the audio edit a little into a pause between words, where it will sound fine.

Once the entire film is done, export a new self-contained master file. Depending on codecs and options, this might require a mixdown within Avid, especially if AMA linking was used. That was the case for this project, because I started out in ProResHQ. After export, you’ll have a clean, reconstructed 23.98p 4×3 NTSC-sized (720×486) master file. Now for the blow-up to HD.

DaVinci Resolve

df_24psdhd_1_smThere are many applications and filters that can blow-up SD to HD footage, but often the results end up soft. I’ve found DaVinci Resolve to offer some of the cleanest resizing, along with very fast rendering for the final output. Resolve offers three scaling algorithms, with “Sharper” providing the crispest blow-up. The second issue is that since I wanted to restore the wider aspect, which is inherent in going from 4×3 to 16×9, this meant blowing up more than normal – enough to fit the image width and crop the top and bottom of the frame. Since Resolve has the editing tools to split clips at cuts, you have the option to change the vertical position of a frame using the tilt control. Plus, you can do this creatively on a shot-by-shot basis if you want to. This way you can optimize the shot to best fit into the 16×9 frame, rather than arbitrarily lopping off a preset amount from the top and bottom.

df_24psdhd_3_smYou actually have two options. The first is to blow up the film to a large 4×3 frame out of Resolve and then do the slicing and vertical reframing in yet another application, like FCP 7. That’s what I did originally with this project, because back then, the available version of Resolve did not offer what I felt were solid editing tools. Today, I would use the second option, which would be to do all of the reframing strictly within Resolve 11.

As always, there are some uncontrollable issues in this process. The original transfer of the film to Digibeta was done on a Rank Cintel Mark III, which is a telecine unit that used a CRT (literally an oscilloscope tube) as a light source. The images from these tubes get softer as they age and, therefore, they require periodic scheduled replacement. During the course of the transfer of the film, the lab replaced the tube, which resulted in a noticeable difference in crispness between shots done before and after the replacement. In the SD world, this didn’t appear to be a huge deal. Once I started blowing up that footage, however, it really made a difference. The crisper footage (after the tube replacement) held up to more of a blow-up than the earlier footage. In the end, I opted to only take the film to 720p (1280×720) rather than a full 1080p (1920×1080), just because I didn’t feel that the majority of the film held up well enough at 1080. Not just for the softness, but also in the level of film grain. Not ideal, but the best that can be expected under the circumstances. At 720p, it’s still quite good on Blu-ray, standard DVD or for HD over the web.

df_24psdhd_4_smTo finish the process, I dust-busted the film to fix places with obvious negative dirt (white specs in the frame) caused by the initial handling of the film negative. I used FCP X and CoreMelt’s SliceX to hide and cover negative dirt, but other options to do this include built in functions within Avid Media Composer. While 35mm film still holds a certain intangible visual charm – even in such a “manipulated” state – the process certainly makes you appreciate modern digital cameras like the ARRI ALEXA!

As an aside, I’ve done two other complete films this way, but in those cases, I was fortunate to work from 1080i masters, so no blow-up was required. One was a film transferred in its entirety from a low-contrast print, broken into reels. The second was assembled digitally and output to intermediate HDCAM-SR 23.98 masters for each reel. These were then assembled to a 1080i composite master. Aside from being in HD to start with, cadence changes only occurred at the edits between reels. This meant that it only required 5 or 6 cadence corrections to fix the entire film.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Sony Vegas Pro 13

df_Vegas_hero_UIIf you are looking for an easy-to-use editing application that’s optimized for a Windows workstation, one option is the Vegas Pro family from Sony Creative Software. There are several configurations, including Vegas Pro 13 Edit, Vegas Pro 13 and Vegas Pro 13 Suite. The big differences among these is the selection of Sony and third party tools that come with the bundle. The Edit version is mainly the NLE software. The standard Vegas Pro 13 package includes a Dolby Digital Professional encoder, DVD Architect Pro 6, the NewBlueFX Video Essentials VI plug-in collection and Nectar Elements from iZotope. All three products include CALM Act-compliant loudness metering and the HitFilm video plug-in collection from FXHOME. The Suite bundle adds Sound Forge Pro 11 (a file-based audio editor), HitFilm 2 Ultimate (a separate compositing application), Vegas Pro Production Assistant and 25 royalty-free music tracks.

Vegas Pro is a 64-bit application that requires a 64-bit version of Windows 7, 8 or 8.1. In my testing, I installed it on a Xeon-powered HP Z1 G2 configured with Windows 8.1, an NVIDIA K4100m GPU and 16GB of RAM. I didn’t have any video I/O device connected, so I wasn’t able to test that, but Vegas Pro will support AJA hardware and various external control surfaces. If you’ve ever used a version of Vegas Pro in the past, then Vegas Pro 13 will feel comfortable. For those who’ve never used it, the layout might be a bit of a surprise compared with other NLE software. Vegas is definitely a niche product in the market, in spite of its power, but fans of the software are as loyal to it, as those on the Mac side who love Final Cut Pro X.

Vegas Pro 13 supports a wide range of I-frame and long-GOP video codecs, including many professional and consumer media formats. For those moving into 4K, Vegas Pro 13 supports XAVC (used by the F55) and XAVC-S, a format used in Sony’s 4K prosumer cameras. Other common professional formats supported include Panasonic P2 (AVC-Intra), Sony XDCAM, HDCAM-SR, ProRes (requires ProRes for Windows and QuickTime installed) and REDCODE raw. 4K timeline support goes up to a frame size of 4096 x 4096 pixels. As an application with deep roots in audio, the list naturally includes most audio formats, as well.

What’s new

df_Vegas_hitfilmFans of Vegas Pro will find a lot in version 13 to justify an upgrade. One item is Vegas Pro Connect, an iPad companion application designed to be used for review and approval. It features an online and offline mode to review and add comments to a Vegas Pro project. There’s also a new “proxy-first” workflow. For example, videographers shooting XDCAM can use the Sony Wireless Adapter to send camera proxies to the cloud. While the XDCAM discs are being shipped back to the facility, the editors can download and start the edit with the proxies. When the high-resolution media arrives, they then automatically relink the project to this media. Vegas Pro 13 adds a project archive to back up projects and associated media.

df_Vegas_nectarThe plug-ins have been expanded in this release by bundling in new effects from NewBlueFX, FXHOME and iZotope. The video effects include color modification, keying, bleach bypass, light flares, TV damage and a number of other popular looks. These additions augment Vegas Pro’s extensive selection of Sony audio and video effects. Vegas supports the VST audio plug-in and OpenFX (OFX) video plug-in formats. This means other compatible plug-ins installed for other applications on your system can be detected and used. For example, The FXHOME HitFilm plug-ins also showed up in Resolve 11 Lite (beta) that I had installed on this computer, because both applications share the OFX architecture.

Given its audio heritage, Vegas Pro 13 includes a comprehensive audio mixer. New with this release is the inclusion of iZotope Nectar Elements, a single audio plug-in designed for one-click voice processing. Another welcome addition is a loudness meter window to measure levels and mixes in order to be compliant with the CALM Act and EBU R-128.

Putting Vegas Pro 13 through the paces

df_Vegas_reddecodeOne big selling point of version 13 is GPU acceleration based on OpenCL in NVIDIA, AMD and Intel graphics cards. This becomes especially important when dealing with 4K formats. The performance advances are most noticeable once you start layering video tracks. Certainly working with 4K XAVC, RED EPIC Dragon and 1080p ProRes 4444 media was easy. Scrubbing and real-time playback never caused any issues. The Vegas Pro preview window lets you manually or automatically adjust visual preview quality to maintain maximum real-time playback. If you are a RED user, then you’ll appreciate access to the R3D decode properties. The Z1 G2 felt very responsive working with native RED camera media.

df_Vegas_colorcorrMany editors take awhile to get comfortable with Vegas Pro’s interface. Vegas started life as a multi-track audio software (DAW) and the layout and track design stems from that. Each video and audio track is designed like a mixing board channel strip. You have a read/touch/latch automation control, a plug-in chain and a level slider. With audio you also get panning and a meter. With video, you get a spatial control, parent/child track hierarchy control (for track grouping) and a compositing mode. Many of the functions can be manipulated in real-time, while the timeline is playing. This may seem obvious when writing audio levels in an automated mixing pass. It’s more unique for video. For example, you can do the same for video opacity – writing a real-time pass of opacity level changes on-the-fly, simply by adjusting the video level fader as the timeline plays.

df_Vegas_audioOnce you get deeper into Vegas, you’ll find quite a few surprises. For example, it supports stereoscopic workflows. The Title Generator effects include numerous animated text templates. Together with DVD Architect, you have a solid Blu-Ray Disc authoring system. Unfortunately, there were also a few things I’d wanted to test that simply didn’t seem to work. Vegas Pro 13 is supposed to be able to import and export a range of project files, including XML, AAF, FCPXML, Premiere projects, etc. I attempted to import XML, FCPXML and Premiere Pro project files, but came up empty each time. I was never able to export an FCPXML file. I was able to export FCP 7 XML and Premiere project files, but the Premiere file crashed Premiere Pro CC 2014 on both my Mac and this test PC. The FCP 7 XML did work in Premiere Pro, though. I tried to bring an XML into Final Cut Pro X using the 7toX translation utility, but FCP X was unable to relink to the media files. So, while this should be a great feature, it seems to be a work-in-progress at this point.

df_Vegas_interfaceIt was hard for me to warm up to the interface itself. While it’s very fast to operate, Vegas Pro is still designed like an audio application, and so, is very different than most traditional NLEs. For example, double-clicking a clip edits it straight to the timeline as the default condition. To first send it to the source viewer in order to select in and out points, you have to use the “Open in Trimmer” command. Fortunately, there is a preference setting to flip this behavior. Vegas Pro projects contain only a single timeline – also referred to as the project (like in FCP X). You cannot have multiple timelines within a single production, however, you can have more than one instance of Vegas Pro open at the same time. In that case, you can switch between them using the Windows task bar to select which active application window to bring to the front. It is also possible to edit a .veg (Vegas Pro project) file to the timeline. This gives you the same result as in other NLE software, where you can edit a nested timeline into another timeline.

Speaking of the interface, the application badly needs a redesign. It looks like it’s still from the Windows 98 world. Some people appreciate starkness – and I know this probably helps the application’s speed – but, if you’re going to stare at a screen all day long, it should look a bit more elegant. Even Sony’s Sound Forge Pro for the Mac, which shares a similar design and starkness, is cleaner and feels more modern. Plus it’s very bright. In fact, disabling the Vegas theme in preferences makes it even painfully brighter. It would be great if Vegas Pro had a UI brightness slider, like Adobe has offered for years.

Conclusion

Sony’s Vegas Pro 13 is a useful application with a lot of power for users at all levels. At only a few hundred dollars, it’s a strong application suite to have in your Windows toolkit, even if you prefer other NLEs. The prime reason is the wide codec support and easy 4K editing. If that’s how you use it, then the interface issues I mentioned won’t be a big deal.

On the other hand, if you’re an experienced Vegas Pro user and happy with it as is, then version 13 is a worthy upgrade, especially on a high-end machine. It’s fast, efficient and gets the job done. If Sony fixes the import/export problems I encountered, Vegas Pro could become a tool that would make itself indispensable.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

The Zero Theorem

df_tzt_1Few filmmakers are as gifted as Terry Gilliam when it comes to setting a story inside a dystopian future. The Monty Python alum, who brought us Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few, is back with his newest, The Zero Theorem. It’s the story of Qohen Leth – played by Christoph Walz (Django Unchained, Water for Elephants, Inglorious Basterds) – an eccentric computer programmer who has been tasked by his corporate employer to solve the Zero Theorem. This is a calculation, that if solved, might prove that the meaning of life is nothingness.

The story is set in a futuristic London, but carries many of Gilliam’s hallmarks, like a retro approach to the design of technology. Qohen works out of his home, which is much like a rundown church. Part of the story takes Qohen into worlds of virtual reality, where he frequently interacts with Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a webcam stripper that he met at a party, but who may have been sent by his employer, Mancom, to distract him. The Zero Theorem is very reminiscent of Brazil, but in concept, also of The Prisoner, a 1960s-era television series. Gilliam explores themes of isolation versus loneliness, the pointlessness of mathematical modeling to derive meaning and privacy issues.

I recently had a Skype chat with Mick Audsley, who edited the film last year. Audsley is London-based, but is currently nearing completion of a director’s cut of the feature film Everest in Iceland. This was his third Gilliam film, having previously edited Twelve Monkeys and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Audsley explained, “I knew Terry before Twelve Monkeys and have always had a lot of admiration for him. This is my third film with Terry, as well as a short, and he’s an extraordinarily interesting director to work with. He still thinks in a graphic way, since he is both literally and figuratively an artist. He can do all of our jobs better than we can, but really values the input from other collaborators. It’s a bit like playing in a band, where everyone feeds off of the input of the other band members.”df_tzt_5

The long path to production

The film’s screenplay writer Pat Rushin teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. He originally submitted the script for The Zero Theorem to the television series Project Greenlight, where it made the top 250. The script ended up with the Zanuck Company. It was offered to Gilliam in 2008, but initially other projects got in the way. It was revived in June 2012 with Gilliam at the helm. The script was very ambitious for a limited budget of under $10 million, so production took place in Romania over a 37-day period. In spite of the cost challenges, it was shot on 35mm film and includes 250 visual effects.

df_tzt_6Audsley continued, “Nicola [Pecorini, director of photography] shot a number of tests with film, RED and ARRI ALEXA cameras . The decision was made to use film. It allowed him the latitude to place lights outside of the chapel set – Qohen’s home – and have light coming in through the windows to light up the interior. Kodak’s lab in Bucharest handled the processing and transfer and then sent Avid MXF files to London, where I was editing. Terry and the crew were able to view dailies in Romania and then we discussed these over the phone. Viewing dailies is a rarity these days with digitally-shot films and something I really miss. Seeing the dailies with the full company provides clarity, but I’m afraid it’s dying out as part of the filmmaking process.”df_tzt_7

While editing in parallel to the production, Audsley didn’t upload any in-progress cuts for Gilliam to review. He said, “It’s hard for the director to concentrate on the edit, while he’s still in production. As long as the coverage is there, it’s fine. Certainly Terry and Nicola have a supreme understanding of film grammar, so that’s not a problem. Terry knows to get those extra little shots that will make the edit better. So, I was editing largely on my own and had a first cut within about ten days of the time that the production wrapped. When Terry arrived in London, we first went over the film in twenty-minute reels. That took us about two to three weeks. Then we went through the whole film as one piece to get a sense for how it worked as a film.”

Making a cinematic story

df_tzt_4As with most films, the “final draft” of the script occurs in the cutting room. Audsley continued, “The film as a written screenplay was very fluid, but when we viewed it as a completed film, it felt too linear and needed to be more cinematic – more out of order. We thought that it might be best to move the sentences around in a more interesting way. We did that quite easily and quickly. Thus, we took the strength of the writing and realized it in cinematic language. That’s one of the big benefits of the modern digital editing tools. The real film is about the relationship between Bainsley and Qohen and less about the world they inhabit. The challenge as filmmakers in the cutting room is to find that truth.”

df_tzt_8Working with visual effects presents its own editorial challenge. “As an editor, you have to evaluate the weight and importance of the plate – the base element for a visual effect – before committing to the effect. From the point-of-view of cost, you can’t keep undoing shots that have teams of artists working on them. You have to ensure that the timing is exactly right before turning over the elements for visual effects development. The biggest, single visual challenge is making Terry’s world, which is visually very rich. In the first reel, we see a futuristic London, with moving billboards. These shots were very complex and required a lot of temp effects that I layered up in the timeline. It’s one of the more complex sequences I’ve built in the Avid, with both visual and audio elements interacting. You have to decide how much can you digest and that’s an open conversation with the director and effects artists.”

The post schedule lasted about twenty weeks ending with a mix in June 2013. Part of that time was tied up in waiting for the completion of visual effects. Since there was no budget for official audience screenings, the editorial team was not tasked with creating temp mixes and preview versions before finishing the film. Audsley said, “The first cut was not overly long. Terry is good in his planning. One big change that we made during the edit was to the film’s ending. As written, Qohen ends up in the real world for a nice, tidy ending. We opted to end the film earlier for a more ambiguous ending that would be better. In the final cut the film ends while he’s still in a virtual reality world. It provides a more cerebral versus practical ending for the viewer.”

Cutting style 

df_tzt_9Audsley characterizes his cutting style as “old school”. He explained, “I come from a Moviola background, so I like to leave my cut as bare as possible, with few temp sound effects or music cues. I’ll only add what’s needed to help you understand the story. Since we weren’t obliged on this film to do temp mixes for screenings, I was able to keep the cut sparse. This lets you really focus on the cut and know if the film is working or not. If it does, then sound effects and music will only make it better. Often a rough cut will have temp music and people have trouble figuring out why a film isn’t working. The music may mask an issue or, in fact, it might simply be that the wrong temp music was used. On The Zero Theorem, George Fenton, our composer, gave us representative pieces late in the  process that he’d written for scenes.” Andre Jacquemin was the sound designer who worked in parallel to Audsley’s cut and the two developed an interactive process. Audsley explained, “Sometimes sound would need to breath more, so I’d open a scene up a bit. We had a nice back-and-forth in how we worked.”

df_tzt_3Audsley edited the film using Avid Media Composer version 5 connected to an Avid Unity shared storage system. This linked him to another Avid workstation run by his first assistant editor, Pani Ahmadi-Moore. He’s since upgraded to version 7 software and Avid ISIS shared storage. Audsley said, “I work the Avid pretty much like I worked when I used the Moviola and cut on film. Footage is grouped into bins for each scene. As I edit, I cut the film into reels and then use version numbers as I duplicate sequences to make changes. I keep a daily handwritten log about what’s done each day. The trick is to be fastidious and organized. Pani handles the preparation and asset management so that I can concentrate on the edit.”

df_tzt_2Audsley continued, “Terry’s films are very much a family type of business. It’s a family of people who know each other. Terry is supremely in control of his films, but he’s also secure in sharing with his filmmaking family. We are open to discuss all aspects of the film. The cutting room has to be a safe place for a director, but it’s the hub of all the post activity, so everyone has to feel free about voicing their opinions.”

Much of what the editor does, proceeds in isolation. The Zero Theorem provided a certain ironic resonance for Audsley, who commented, “At the start, we see a guy sitting naked in front of a computer. His life is harnessed in manipulating something on screen, and that is something I can relate to as a film editor! I think it’s very much a document of our time, about the notion that in this world of communication, there’s a strong aspect of isolation. All the communication in the world does not necessarily connect you spiritually.” The Zero Theorem is scheduled to open for limited US distribution in September.

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Cold In July

df_cij_2_smJim Mickle started his career as a freelance editor in New York, working on commercials and corporate videos, like so many others. Bitten by the filmmaking bug, Mickle has gone on to successfully direct four indie feature films, including his latest, Cold in July. Like his previous film, We Are What We Are, both films had a successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Cold In July, which is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, is a noir crime drama set in 1980s East Texas. It stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Killing Them Softly) and Don Johnson (Django Unchained, Miami Vice). Awakened in the middle of the night, small town family man Richard Dane (Hall) kills a burglar in his house. Dane soon fears for his family’s safety when the burglar’s ex-con father, Ben (Shepard), comes to town, bent on revenge. However, the story takes a twist into a world of corruption and violence. Add Jim Bob (Johnson) to this mix, as a pig-farming, private eye, and you have an interesting trio of characters.

According to Jim Mickle, Cold In July was on a fast-track schedule. The script was optioned in 2007, but production didn’t start until 2013. This included eight weeks of pre-production beginning in May and principal photography starting in July (for five weeks) with a wrap in September. The picture was “locked” shortly after Thanksgiving. Along with Mickle, John Paul Hortsmann (Killing Them Softly) shared editing duties.

df_cij_1_smI asked Mickle how it was to work with another editor. He explained, “I edited my last three films by myself, but with this schedule, post was wedged between promoting We Are What We Are and the Sundance deadline. I really didn’t have time to walk away from it and view it with fresh eyes. I decided to bring John Paul on board to help. This was the first time I’ve worked with another editor. John Paul was cutting while I was shooting and edited the initial assembly, which was finished about a week before the Sundance submission deadline. I got involved in the edit about mid-October. At that point, we went back to tighten and smooth out the film. We would each work on scenes and then switch and take a pass at each other’s work.”

df_cij_4_smMickle continued, “The version that we submitted to Sundance was two-and-a-half hours long. John Paul and I spent about three weeks polishing and were ready to get feedback from the outside. We held a screening for 20 to 25 people and afterwards asked questions about whether the plot points were coherent to them. It’s always good for me, as the director, to see the film with an audience. You get to see it fresh – with new eyes – and that helps you to trim and condense sections of the film. For example, in the early versions of the script, it generally felt like the middle section of the film lost tension. So, we had added a sub-plot element into the script to build up the mystery. This was a car of agents tailing our hero that we could always reuse, as needed. When we held the screening, it felt like that stuff was completely unnecessary and simply put on top of the rest of the film. The next day we sliced it all out, which cut 10 minutes out of the film. Then it finally felt like everything clicked.”

df_cij_3_smThe director-editor relationship always presents an interesting dynamic, since the editor can be objective in cutting out material that may have cost the director a lot of time and effort on set to capture. Normally, the editor has no emotional investment in production of the footage. So, how did Jim Mickle as the editor, treat his own work as the director? Mickle answered, “As an editor, I’m more ruthless on myself as the director. John Paul was less quick to give up on scenes than I. There are things I didn’t think twice about losing if they didn’t work, but he’d stay late to fix things and often have a solution the next day. I shoot with plenty of coverage these days, so I’ll build a scene and then rework it. I love the edit. It’s the first time you really feel comfortable and can craft the story. On the set, things happen so quickly, that you always have to be reactive – working and thinking on your feet.”

df_cij_5_smAlthough Mickle had edited We Are What We Are with Adobe Premiere Pro, the decision was made to shift back to Apple Final Cut Pro 7 for the edit of Cold In July. Mickle explained, “As a freelance editor in New York, I was very comfortable with Final Cut, but I’m also an After Effects user. When doing a lot of visual effects, it really feels tedious to go back and forth between Final Cut and After Effects. The previous film was shot with RED cameras and I used a raw workflow in post, cutting natively with Premiere Pro. I really loved the experience – working with raw files and Dynamic Link between Premiere and After Effects. When we hired John Paul as the primary editor on the film, we opted to go back to Final Cut, because that is what he is most comfortable with. That would get the job done in the most expedient fashion, since he was handling the bulk of the editing.”

df_cij_6_sm“We shot with RED cameras again, but the footage was transcoded to ProRes for the edit. I did find the process to be frustrating, though, because I really like the fluidness of using the raw files in Premiere. I like the editing process to live and breath and not be delineated. Having access to the raw films, lets me tweak the color correction, which helps me to get an idea of how a scene is shaping up. I get the composer involved early, so we have a lot of the real music in place as a guide while we edit. This way, your cutting style – and the post process in general – are more interactive. In any case, the ProRes files were only used to get us to the locked cut. Our final DI was handled by Light Iron in New York and they conformed the film from the original RED files for a 2K finish.”

The final screening with mix, color correction and all visual effects occurred just before Sundance. There the producers struck a distribution deal with IFC Films. Cold In July started its domestic release in May of this year.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

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