Higher Ground

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

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

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

Hitting the ground running

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

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

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

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

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

Anticipating the big challenges

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

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

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

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

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

Written for DV Magazine (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters

The Social Network

Who would have thought that the online world of social media would make an interesting movie? That’s exactly what David Fincher set out to do in The Social Network, the story of how Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) became the youngest billionaire in history – thanks to a little start-up called Facebook. The Aaron Sorkin script is based on the book, The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich.

This was a return engagement for a number of Fincher’s crew, including cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club) and editors Angus Wall (Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Kirk Baxter (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The past two films – shot with the Grass Valley Viper camera – raised the bar for an all-digital production and post production workflow. The Social Network does that again, as the first released studio picture shot with a RED ONE camera equipped with the upgraded Mysterium-X sensor. As in the past films, the editorial team used Apple Final Cut Pro connected to an Apple Xsan shared storage system as their weapon of choice.

Angus Wall explained the workflow, “From our standpoint as editors, it was a very easy film to work on. Tyler Nelson and Alex Olivares, the assistant editors, handled all the data management and file conversions at David’s production offices. They converted the native RED camera files to Apple ProRes 422 (LT) for us. After that, it was pretty much the same for us as on Button or Zodiac, except that this time we were working with 1920×1080 images, which was great.”

When I suggested that Benjamin Button must have been more of a challenge as an effects film, Kirk Baxter quickly pointed out the similarities. “There are about 1,000 effects shots in The Social Network. It has a lot of digital matte paintings, but there was also face replacement much like in Button. In this film, there are two characters who are twins, but in fact the actors aren’t. So a similar process was used to turn one of the actors into the twin of the other. Although the story isn’t driven by the same sort of visual effect, like the aging technique that was a dramatic device in Benjamin Button, it still has a lot of effects work.”

For a fresh feel, Fincher tapped Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the score. Angus explained, “This worked out extremely well. Trent and Atticus were hired relatively early in the process.  Since they were working in tandem with the cutting, we were able to drop in a lot of near-final tracks instead of using temp music. This was great, because we had about 30 of their tracks to work with, all of which were actually intended for this film. That’s much better than the norm, where you scour your iTunes library to find some workable music to put under scenes.”

David Fincher shot approximately 280 hours of footage, recording all of the scenes with two and sometimes three RED cameras. The production schedule spanned from September to March, with a pick-up scene shot in July. Baxter and Wall worked out of Rock Paper Scissors (Wall’s LA editorial company) during shooting, staying up with the production during the first assembly process. Once production wrapped, editing was moved to Fincher’s production company offices. The two editors split up the scenes between themselves during the fine-cutting of the film.

Baxter explained, “David is a busy guy, so he doesn’t constantly sit over your shoulder while you’re editing. If Angus or I started out on a complex scene during the assembly, we usually stayed with it throughout post, since we were already familiar with all the footage. David would bounce between our two cutting rooms reviewing and offering his notes. He’s a very good director for an editor, because he knows exactly what he wants. He’s not an ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ type of guy. But he doesn’t overwhelm you either with information. At the beginning, he’ll set a general direction of what he’s looking for to get you started. Then deeper into the fine-cut, he’ll start tuning his approach and giving you more detailed comments.”

Most first assemblies are long and then the editor has to do major surgery to get the movie to the desired length. This wasn’t an issue with The Social Network. Wall explained, “The script was around 160 pages, so we were concerned that the first assembly was going to be correspondingly long. Our target was to keep the film under two hours. From the start, Kirk and I cut the scenes very tightly, using faster performances and generally keeping the pace of the film high. When the first assembly was completed, we were at a length of 1 hour 55 minutes – actually a minute shorter than the final version. Unlike most films, we were able to relax the pace and put some air back into the performances during the fine cut.”

Shooting with the RED ONE cameras introduced workflow changes for this film. Tyler Nelson (first assistant editor) handled the data management, creation of dailies and the final conforming of files to be sent to Light Iron Digital for the digital intermediate. Nelson explained, “I’m very particular about how the files get handled and so maintained control throughout the process. I was using two workstations with RED Rocket accelerator cards running ROCKETcine-X software to process our dailies. I would generate ProRes 422 (LT) QuickTimes for Angus and Kirk.  However, when it came to delivering visual effect elements and our final conform, we needed a bit more control, so I used a script that I wrote in FileMaker Pro to reference our codebook and pull our online media.”

Nelson continued, “When I received the locked cut, I generated an EDL for each video track and then used my FileMaker Pro script to parse the EDL to drive the transcode of the RED files into 4K DPX image sequences. I used these same EDLs to import each reel into After Effects CS5 to assemble our final conform. The footage was shot in 4K [4096x2048]. David framed his shots with a 2.40 matte, but with a twist.  We added an extra 4% padding on all sides so that if we wanted to reposition the frame north, south, east or west, we had a bit more image to work with. Effectively we had 3932×1638 pixels to use. The final images were exported as 2K [2048x1024] DPX sequences for Light Iron’s DI.” This extra padding on the edges of the frame came in handy, because Nelson also stabilized a number of shots. SynthEyes was used to generate tracking data for use in After Effects for this stabilization.

Early testing with various DI processes allowed the team to settle on the optimum RED settings to use in REDline (RED’s command line-driven software rendering engine). All files were delivered using the REDcolor (color space) and REDlog (gamma) values, which provided the most latitude to Light Iron’s colorist, Ian Vertovec. Light Iron CEO and DI supervisor, Michael Cioni explained, “Working with the full-range (flat) DPX files gives us nearly as much malleable range as with the native R3D raw files. Although it’s nice to grade in raw – because you have additional control to change color temperature or ISO values – that really isn’t practical in a film like this, with over 1,000 visual effects. You don’t want a lot of different vendors applying their own image conversions to the files and then later be unable to match the different shots at the DI stage. With log-like DPX files, they behave similar to scanned film negative and fit nicely into the existing pipelines.”

Cioni continued, “Ian graded the files using one of our Quantel Pablos. Since much of the look of the film was eloquently established on set, the grading came naturally to nearly every scene. The Social Network will really show off the expanded latitude and low-noise characteristics of RED’s M-X sensor. The scenes in this movie really live in the shadows. This film will deliver to audiences significantly more detail in images below 10 IRE as compared to typical digital cinema sensitivity. Although the majority of the first release will be seen as film prints, the future of all movies is digital, so the priority was given to the look of the digital master, rather than the other way around.” Technicolor handled the film-out recording for release prints, including digital-to-film color transforms from the DSM (Digital Source Master). The film’s final output is cropped for a 2.40:1 release format.

The technology angle of The Social Network is fascinating, but I wondered if there were any creative challenges for the editors. Kirk Baxter pointed out, “It was very well scripted and directed, so not a lot of story-telling issues had to be resolved in the edit. In fact, there were a number of scenes that were great fun to put together. For example, there’s an early scene about some of the legal depositions. It takes place in two different boardrooms at different times and locations, but the scene is intercut as if it is one continuous conversation. David gave us lots of coverage, so it was a real joy to solve the puzzle, matching eyelines and so on.”

Angus Wall added, “This is a movie about the birth of a major online power, but what happens on the computer is a very minor part.  For us, it was more important to concentrate on the drama and emotions of the characters and that’s what makes this a timeless story.  It’s utterly contemporary… but a little bit Shakespearean, too.   It’s about people participating in something that’s bigger than themselves, something that will change all of their lives in one way or another.”

UPDATE: Here are several nice pieces from Adobe , Post magazine (here and here) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild that also go into more detail about the post workflow.

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters

Avid DS shines for Metric

With all of the Media Composer 5 news, it might be easy to miss Avid’s latest update for the flagship system, Avid DS. Version 10.3.1 (see addendum below), released in mid-July, is a small point release that introduced two huge features – improved stereoscopic 3D control and support for RED Digital Cinema’s new “color science” and the Mysterium-X sensor. The new RED capabilities are showcased in the “All Yours” music video by the band Metric. It’s the official music video for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which featured the track under the end credits.

I spoke with Dermot Shane, a Vancouver-based VFX/DI supervisor who specializes in using Avid DS. Shane was working with 10.3.1 (in beta) when he got the call to handle finishing for “All Yours” (directed by Brantley Gutierrez). According to Shane, “The schedule on this was very tight and changes were being made up until the last minute. That’s because the video integrates clips from the movie and there had been a few last minute changes to the cut. In fact, we ended up getting one of these clips FTP’ed to us just in time for the deadline!” The production company for Metric shot the music video scenes using a RED One with the updated Mysterium-X sensor, which offers improved dynamic range. The newest RED software also improves how the camera raw files are converted into color information. These latest RED software updates have been integrated into the RED SDK used in Avid DS 10.3.1.

Shane described the workflow on this project. “The production company had cut the offline edit on [Apple] Final Cut Pro and provided us with an EDL. Avid DS can take this EDL and relink to the original R3D camera files, which gives me direct access to the raw data from the camera files by way of RED’s SDK. It’s an easy matter to scale the images for HD and to alter any of the looks of the images, based on changes that the director might want. Because these changes are made from the camera raw files, color grading is far cleaner than if I only had a flat image to start from. Once this is adjusted, I can cache the media into the DS and everything is real-time. On this project, the caches were working in 10-bit YUV high-def, and the master was rendered directly from the RED MX files. I probably changed the color information on all but three of the 162 clips in the music video.”

The new RED Mysterium-X support came in handy on this project. Shane continued, “The new sensor is much more sensitive and Avid DS 10.3.1 let me take advantage of this. For instance, I could create three versions of a clip all linked to the same R3D file. In each of these versions, I would create a different color setting using the RED source setting controls inside Avid DS.  One clip might be adjusted for the best shadow detail, another for the midrange and a third to preserve the highlights. These would then be composited into a single shot using the standard DS keyers and masks. The final image almost looks like a high dynamic range image. This is something you can’t do through standard grading techniques when the camera image has a ‘baked in’ look. It really shows the advantage of working with camera raw files.”

And what is the best thing about this new Avid DS release? “Stability,” answered Shane. “We worked around the clock for three or four days without a hiccup. That’s hard to sell people on up front, but it really matters when you are in a crunch. On this project, we literally finished about 20 minutes before the deadline. My client really appreciated the integrated environment that DS offers. Their previous projects had gone from Final Cut to a Smoke finish and a Lustre grade. These are very capable Autodesk finishing systems, but Avid DS is a complete finishing solution. You can do editing, effects and color grading all in one workstation. This makes it a lot better for the client, especially when last minute changes are made during the color correction pass.”

Stereo 3D tools have been enhanced in DS 10.3.1. Convergence tools now allow independent adjustment of 3D content for each eye. There is also real-time playback of stereoscopic containers and effects. Although “All Yours” wasn’t a stereo 3D project, I asked Shane about the new 3D tools. He replied, “So far I’ve only had a  chance to do some testing with the new tools. In previous versions, I would have to go out to [The Foundry’s] Nuke and use Ocula for stereo 3D work. Our DS has the Furnace plug-in set, which includes some stereoscopic tools. With Avid DS 10.3.1, I can complete one eye, apply the same grading to the other eye, adjust the convergence and then use one of the Furnace plug-ins to tweak the minor grading differences between the left and right eye views.”

Addendum: This article was originally written prior to the 2010 IBC exhibition in Amsterdam. At that conference, Avid announced the release of Avid DS 10.5, which will be available both as a full-featured software-only version and as a turnkey solution. The software version will be available for under $10K and comes bundled with a copy of Avid Media Composer 5. Some of the features in DS 10.5 – available for the first time in a software version – include full 2K playback and REDRocket accelerator support. In addition, the software has been ported to the Windows 7 64-bit OS, making it one of the most powerful editing/VFX/grading solutions for the PC platform.

Written for Videography and DV magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2010 Oliver Peters

RED Post – the Easy Way III

If you’ve read some of my past articles about RED, you know I’m not a huge fan of “native” editing using the camera raw files as source clips. I find that an offline/online workflow is still best for smoothly editing RED projects, yet it still retains access to the raw color data during the finishing process. Previously I discussed an easy workflow for Apple Final Cut Pro and Color users, but this isn’t the only solution. As you know, Avid Media Composer 5 and Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 have both integrated support for RED’s camera raw files. In this post, I’m going to discuss a couple of ways to use these tools in a non-native fashion.

Option A:  Avid Media Composer 5 offline-online RED workflow

Thanks to AMA and RED camera’s SDK, Media Composer 5 offers access to RED’s .R3D files. You can import camera files and adjust the source color settings from within the NLE’s interface. You can either edit directly from these files or transcode them to Avid media for a smoother and faster editing experience. Here is a short step-by-step explanation of a Media Composer-based workflow.

Step 1. Access/import RED .R3D files via AMA (Avid Media Access). Camera clips will open inside Media Composer bins, complete with camera metadata.

Step 2. If you want to change the levels/gamma/exposure/balance of the file by altering the camera raw data, then open the Source Settings for each clip and adjust the video.

Step 3. Adjust the clip framing by opening the bin Reformat column and set the option for each clip (center cut, letterboxed, etc.). Remember that your RED clips may have a 2:1 aspect ratio, but your Avid sequence will be either HD 16:9 or SD 16:9 / 4:3.

Step 4. Set the Media Creation render tab to a video resolution of DNxHD36 with a Debayer quality of “quarter”. Since the objective is a good rough cut – not “finishing” – this quality settings is more than adequate for editing and screening your creative edits.

Step 5. Transcode all source clips. This process runs at close to real-time on a fast machine. When transcoding is done, close all AMA bins and do not use them during the edit. You’ll edit with the transcoded media only.

Step 6. Edit as normal until you get an approved, “locked” picture.

Step 7. Now it’s time to switch to “finishing”. Move or hide all Avid media (the transcoded DNxHD36 clips) by taking them out of the Avid MediaFiles/MXF/1 folder(s) on your media hard drive(s). You could also delete them, but it’s safer not to do that unless you really have to. Best to simply move them into a relabeled folder. Once you’ve done this, your edited sequence will appear with all media off-line.

Step 8. Open the AMA bins (with the .R3D files) and relink the edited sequence to the AMA clips. Make sure the “Allow relinking of imported/AMA clips by Source File name” is NOT checked in the Relink dialogue window. When relinking is completed, the sequence will be repopulated with AMA media, which will be the native, camera raw .R3D files. If you want to change the raw color data at this point, you will need to change each source clip and then refresh the sequence to update the color for clips that appear within the timeline.

Step 9. Change the Media Creation settings to a higher video resolution (such as DNxHD 175 X) and a Debayer quality of “full”.

Step 10. Consolidate/transcode your sequence. This will create new Avid media clips at full quality that are only the length of the clips as they appear in the cut, plus handles. Since a transcode using a “full” Debayer setting will be EXTREMELY SLOW, make sure you set very short handle lengths. (Note: If you have a Red Rocket card installed, Avid supports hardware-assisted rendering to accelerate the transcoding of RED media.)

Step 11. Finish all effects and color grading within the NLE as you normally would.

Option B:  Apple FCP / Automatic Duck / Adobe CS5 workflow

You might be asking, why not just edit in Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro? The hitch is that Final Cut doesn’t support 4K files and Premiere Pro has a good native, but not a good offline-online workflow for RED files. FCP users clearly outnumber Premiere Pro users among professional film and video editors, however, both After Effects and Premiere Pro offer some interesting finishing options. In fact, a number of feature films have used both for all or part of the finishing process. A combination of Apple and Adobe tools creates some interesting scenarios for RED post. (Note: Automatic Duck Pro Import AE 5.0 is required.)

Step 1. Ingest your RED .R3D clips into Final Cut Pro using Log and Transfer. Set the preferences to use ProRes Proxy (NOT “native”). Set the color to “as shot”. This requires that the RED plug-in for FCS has been installed. (Refer to the previous article for a more in-depth explanation of this first step.) Please note that it is important to do this with the R3D files and not to start by simply dragging the in-camera-generated H, M or P QuickTime reference files into the FCP browser. Many RED users erroneously consider these to be “proxy” edit files. They are not. They are reference files at different resolutions/sizes that are linked to the R3D files and do not work correctly in this process.

Step 2. Edit normally in FCP until the cut is “locked”.

Step 3. Export an XML of your Final Cut sequence. I prefer using Automatic Duck’s free XML exporter and have had more reliable results with it, but the built-in FCP XML exporter will also work.

Step 4. Launch Adobe After Effects CS5. (Pro Import AE 5 works with CS3 and CS4, too, but you need to use an Adobe CS version compatible with native RED files.) Import the XML file using Pro Import AE 5. Make sure your Automatic Duck preferences are set to “Replace proxy footage with .R3D files.” The result will be an After Effects timeline with settings that match the Final Cut Pro sequence settings, except that all the clips will now be linked to the original camera files.

Step 5. Since the ProRes Proxy files were most likely 2K files, and the newly relinked camera files are the original 4K size, you will need to reset the scale value of each clip in the composition. This reframes the shot to fit inside the 2K frame, just as they did in FCP. Or you can creatively reframe the shots, since you have all the “bleed” of the full 4K frame. Alternatively, you can change the After Effects composition setting to match the 4K size.

At this point you could completely finish the project in After Effects, and there are a number of folks who would advocate that. From my point-of-view, After Effects is a compositing tool, rather than a DI or editing application. With the changes in Premiere Pro CS5, my druthers would be to get the media into that application. I’m only using After Effects as a conduit between Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro in this process.

You could go from After Effects to Premiere Pro via Adobe’s Dynamic Linking, but I’d rather not. That simply nests the After Effects composition as a single clip on the Premiere Pro timeline. I want the shots available as individual timeline clips, so follow these steps.

Step 6. Launch a new Premiere Pro CS5 project and select a new sequence setting from one of the RED presets, such as a 4K timeline.

Step 7. Highlight all of the .R3D clips in the After Effects composition and Copy.

Step 8. Switch to the Premiere Pro sequence window and Paste. All of the RED clips will now fill up the Premiere Pro sequence. At this point you should have a native 4K sequence with .R3D camera raw media. Corresponding master clips will show up in the Premiere Pro project window.

Step 9. To change the camera raw color settings of the .R3D files, open a clip from the project window and alter its source settings. These changes will automatically update that clip on the timeline.

Step 10. Finish effects and color grading as desired. If you are using this process with the intent of sending files to a DI house for film finishing, then your settings and any grading should be very neutral to allow for maximum latitude at the next stage.

Step 11. Export media. A big selling point of Premiere Pro CS5 to RED users is that it allows you to export DPX image sequences, in addition to all of the standard media options. DPX is the preferred format of most high-end DI solutions, like Quantel Pablo, Autodesk Lustre, etc. Premiere Pro CS5 is one of the few desktop solutions that enables an export of full-resolution 4K DPX files from the edited timeline.

OK, I’ve given you a lot to chew on. In three articles on RED post, I’ve covered quite a few ways to finish RED-acquired projects. Don’t get overwhelmed. Remember that you don’t have to use them all. Simply pick the one that’s best for you and have fun.

©2010 Oliver Peters

RED Post – the Easy Way II

The RED camera company has succeeded in shaking up the industry and getting all other camera manufacturers to rethink what a digital cinema camera should be. This year, the ARRI Alexa presents the first serious challenge by another system designed around a camera raw workflow. Although RED maintains a resolution advantage, which will increase with the forthcoming Epic, there are many other reasons producers might opt for an Alexa, a Panavision Genesis, a Panasonic VariCam/3700/2700/3000 or a Sony F23/F35/F900/F800.

One of the strategic errors that I feel RED made was to emphasize resolution over workflow. By doing so, their innovative approach was tagged early on by detractors as difficult and time-consuming. It’s actually rather straightforward with a lot of versatility and can be adapted to many different production needs. Unfortunately, no matter how easy it has become today, RED will continue to battle this perception issue. This is exacerbated by RED itself, who has never provided good documentation for its products, especially the post production tools. A byproduct of the “perpetual beta” mode in which the company operates.

Native vs. non-native

I haven’t been a big fan of dealing with the camera raw files during editing, opting instead to pre-grade/render/export the camera files first into an edit-friendly format. If you search through the RedUser forum, you’ll find plenty of posts pointing out that the preferred feature film workflow is to export flat-looking DPX files for conforming and grading in DI systems like daVinci, Pablo and Lustre. This is a common workflow for DI and digital acquisition. I’ve demonstrated some of the latitude such a flat image can offer, even though it isn’t camera raw any longer.

Apple and Assimilate were early adopters of being able to access RED’s raw color data. Since then, RED developed an SDK that has allowed many other NLE manufacturers access to the raw data through this spec. Now others, like Avid and Adobe, can open and manipulate RED files based on the camera raw data. This gives editors wide latitude over how the image can look, without being stuck to a “baked in” camera image as a starting point. It’s like editing from transferred film, yet having access to the original negative in the NLE. I’ve recently reviewed Avid Media Composer 5 and Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 and spent some time testing this out. Both do a very good job with native RED files, but my conclusion is still that an offline/online editing methodology works best for complex, long-form productions.

FCP’s Log and Transfer

Last year, I edited 90% of my projects with Final Cut Pro, so I’ve decided to revisit Apple’s “native” RED workflow with a fresh eye. FCP does not let you work directly with the actual .R3D camera files. Instead, RED files are imported via FCP’s Log and Transfer module. Here you have two options: a) import as native REDCODE (the .R3D file is copied and rewrapped with a QuickTime container); or b) import/transcode to an edit-friendly codec, like one of the ProRes codecs. During Log and Transfer, you may select one of several colorimetry presets or “as shot”. Once imported into FCP, you can’t access the source settings (as in Media Composer or Premiere Pro). Instead, the workflow is designed around Apple Color, where the tools are provided to once again access the camera raw color data.

A lot of the RED appeal is over the fact that the camera records 4K images. 4K refers to a frame size of 4096 x 2048 pixels (2:1 aspect ratio). The RED One camera is capable of various frame sizes, but 4K appeals to indie filmmakers as some sort of Holy Grail. That’s in spite of the fact that most feature film DI is done at 2K sizes and some films are even posted using HD video (1920×1080) as an intermediate step. Avid Media Composer 5 limits you to an HD frame while Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 and After Effects CS5 will let you work at 4K. FCP doesn’t allows 4K, so the effective workaround is to downsample the 4K RED images to 2K (2048×1024). FCP and Color deal with this image size quite effectively and i/o hardware like the AJA KONA3 includes presets for 2K images. I like the idea of 4K at the camera, but I’m perfectly okay with 2K and HD in post.

Size and debayering

The downsample issue is confusing, because it affects image size and debayering – the process that turns raw data into RGB video. Unfortunately, RED hasn’t provided clear information as to what is really happening. The rule of thumb is that 2K images are downsampled as 1:1, while larger images use a 2:1 ratio. Since you have no control over the debayering settings in either Final Cut or Color, the belief expressed by some users is that RED’s own post tools, like REDCINE-X, yield better image quality. I haven’t seen anything that’s an issue in my own testing and some of the threads at RedUser would indicate that the results are comparable in head-to-head testing. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

If you are planning to post via this workflow, then it’s important to think about the right image size before production starts. If you shoot at 4K 2:1 (4096×2048), the resulting 2K 2:1 image (2048×1024) in FCP will either have to be center-cut (a blow-up with some cropping on the edges) to fit an HD (1920×1080) frame  – or it will have to be displayed with a letterbox mask.

Color scales the 2K image in the Geometry room as it renders. Since the majority of producers using this workflow are mainly interested in a proper HD image (1920×1080), I would recommend that the original footage be recorded in either 4K 16:9 (4096×2304) or 4K HD 16:9 (3840×2160), aka “quad HD”. The former gives you a little wiggle room for minor reframing, while the latter is an even multiple and will provide the most accurate downsampled image.

RED step-by-step with Final Cut Studio

Let’s take a look at the recommended Apple Final Cut Studio/RED workflow using an offline/online approach and camera raw files. Experienced RED owners who use FCP will be very familiar with this workflow. It’s also clearly described in RED’s FCP whitepaper. On the other hand, if you are about to approach your first RED project and have some trepidation about post, then this is for you. I’ll assume that you didn’t plunk down five grand for a RED Rocket accelerator card and don’t have the budget for a high-end finishing facility using Assimilate Scratch, Quantel Pablo, Avid DS or similar tools. In short, you are looking for the best way to leverage Apple Final Cut Studio and get the most out of your RED files.

Step 1: Download and install the RED Final Cut Studio Installer. This adds the QuickTime codec and the support modules for Final Cut Pro and Color. (The whitepaper is also included in this download.)

Step 2: Copy the RED camera files to your local hard drive array for editing. Back-up the files to other archive media and store in a secure location. (Avoid any illegal characters – like slashes, number signs, etc. – when you label folders.)

Step 3: Start a new FCP project. Use FCP’s Log and Transfer module to import the RED camera files. Set the L&T preferences to a target format of ProRes Proxy. Apply a color preset, like “daylight” if desired or leave “as shot”. This preset will be applied globally to all clips imported in this session.

Step 4: Edit your sequences as you normally would do. If you need to apply certain “looks” to satisfy the producer or client, use the FCP color correction tools for a temporary adjustment. Remember that this is offline editing. The goal is a good rough cut and ultimately an approved, “locked” picture cut.

Step 5: Once the cut is “locked”, use FCP’s Media Manager to generate a version of the final sequence for finishing. Run Media Manager and “create offline” to generate a new FCP project. Set the desired target sequence settings  – most likely Pro Res HQ or Pro Res 4444 (1920×1080 24p 48kHz). Set handle lengths as desired.

Step 6: Open the new media-managed FCP project. Open the Log and Transfer tool. Change the L&T preferences to “native” and “as shot”. Select the master clips (media is currently off-line) and batch capture. The corresponding portions of these RED clips will now be re-imported as native files.

Step 7: Select the final sequence and “Send to Color”. Remember that all of the Color compatibility considerations still apply. Long sequences should be first broken down into shorter sequences. Speed ramps should be “baked in”. In short, do all the usual pre-flight preparation required by the FCP-Color roundtrip.

Step 8: Thanks to the RED Installer, Color has now gained a RED tab in the Primary In room. Camera raw adjustments include gamma, colorspace, temperature, tint, gains, ISO and more. This is similar to making camera raw adjustments to digital still photos in Photoshop. All clips with the native REDCODE codec can be modified by these settings. These changes are on a clip-by-clip basis, but you can copy-and-paste or drag the Primary In settings from one clip to multiple clips.

The rest of the color grading steps follow standard Color operation. Adjust the Geometry settings as desired, render and send back to FCP. There are no raw OLPF (optical low-pass filtering) controls for detail enhancement or sharpening within the RED tab. If you feel that the image is slightly soft, then apply some sharpening within the Color FX room.

It doesn’t really make a lot of difference whether you follow this approach or prep the files first and never return to the native .R3D files. Both methods work and result in great images. It really boils down to what works for you. The process isn’t as hard as people make it out to be. Jump in, test a bit first and then you’re ready to rock!

©2010 Oliver Peters