Focus

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Every once in awhile a movie comes along that has the potential to change how we in the film and video world work. Focus is one such movie. It’s a romantic caper film in the vein of To Catch a Thief or the Oceans franchise. It stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie as master and novice con artists who become romantically involved. Focus was written and directed by the veteran team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) who decided to use some innovative, new approaches in this production.

Focus is a high-budget, studio picture shot in several cities, including New Orleans and Buenos Aires. It also happens to be the first studio feature film that was cut using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. The production chose to shoot with ARRI Alexa cameras, but record to ProRes 4444, instead of ARRIRAW (except for some VFX shots). At its launch in 2011, Final Cut Pro X had received a negative reaction from many veteran editors, so this was a tough sell to Warner Bros execs. In order to get over that hurdle, the editorial team went through extensive testing of all of the typical processes involved in feature film post production. They had to prove that the tool was more than up to the task.

Proving the concept

df1515_focus_5_smMike Matzdorff, first assistant editor, explains, “Warner Bros wanted to make sure that there was a fallback if everything blew up. That ‘Plan B’ was to step back and cut in either [Apple] FCP 7 or [Avid] Media Composer. Getting projects from Final Cut Pro X into Media Composer was very clunky, because of all the steps – getting to FCP 7 and then Automatic Duck to Avid. Getting to FCP 7 was relatively solid, so we ran a ‘chase project’ in FCP 7 with dailies for the entire show. Every couple days we would import an XML and relink the media. Fortunately FCP X worked well and ‘Plan B’ was never needed.”

df1515_focus_8_smGlenn Ficarra adds, “The industry changes so quickly that it’s hard to follow the progress. The studio was going off of old information and once they saw that our approach would work and also save time and money, then they were completely onboard with our choice.” The editorial team also consulted with Sam Mestman of FCPworks to determine what software, other than FCP X, was required to satisfy all of the elements associated with post on a feature film.

df1515_focus_4_smThis was a new experience for editor Jan Kovac (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as Focus is his first Hollywood feature film. Kovac studied film in the Czech Republic and then editing at UCLA. He’s been in the LA post world for 20 years, which is where he met Ficarra and Requa. Kovac was ready to be part of the team and accept the challenge of using Final Cut Pro X on a studio feature. He explains, “I was eager to work with John and Glenn and prove that FCP X is a viable option. In fact, I was using FCP X for small file-based projects since the fall of 2012.”

Production and post on the go

df1515_focus_1_smFocus was shot in 61 days across two continents, during a three-month period. Kovac and three assistants (Mike Matzdorff, Andrew Wallace, Kimaree Long) worked from before principal photography started until the sound mix and final delivery of the feature – roughly from September 2013 until August 2014. The production shot 145 hours of footage, much of it multicam. Focus was shot in an anamorphic format as 2048 x 1536 ProRes 4444 files recorded directly to the Alexa’s onboard cards. On set the DIT used the Light Iron Outpost mobile system to process the files, by de-squeezing them and baking in CDL color information. The editors then received 2048 x 1152 color-corrected ProRes 4444 “dailies”, which were still encoded with a Log-C gamma profile. FCP X has the ability to internally add a Log-C LUT on-the-fly to correct the displayed image. Therefore, during the edit, the clips always looked close the final appearance. Ficarra says, “This was great, because when we went through the DI for the final grading, the look was very close to what was decided on set. You didn’t see something radically different in the edit, so you didn’t develop ‘temp love’ for a certain look”.

df1515_focus_6_smA number of third-party developers have created utilities that fill in gaps and one of these is Intelligent Assistance, which makes various workflow tools based on XML. The editors used a number of these, including Sync-N-Link X, which enabled them to sync double-system sound with common timecode in a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Only a little use of Sync-N-Link X was made on Focus, because the DIT was using the Light Iron system to sync dailies.) Script data can also be added to Final Cut Pro X clips as notes. On Focus, that had to be done manually by the assistants. This need to automate the process spurred Kevin Bailey (Kovac’s assistant on his current film) to develop Shot Notes X, an application that takes the script supervisor’s information and merges it with FCP X Events to add this metadata into the notes field.

During the months of post, Apple released several updates to Final Cut Pro X and the team was not shy about upgrading mid-project. Matzdorff explains, “The transition to 10.1 integrated Events and Projects into Libraries. To make sure there weren’t any hiccups, I maintained an additional FCP X ‘chase project’.  I ran an alternate world between 10.0.9 and 10.1. We had 52 days of dailies in one Library and I would bring cuts across to see how they linked up and what happened. The transition was a rough one, but we learned a lot, which really helped down the line.”

Managing the media

df1515_focus_2_smFinal Cut Pro X has the unique ability to internally transcode quarter-sized editorial proxy files in the ProRes Proxy format. The editor can easily toggle between original footage and editorial proxies and FCP X takes care of the math to make sure color, effects and sizing information tracks correctly between modes. Throughout the editing period, Kovac, Ficarro, and the assistants used both proxies and the de-sequeezed camera files as their source. According to Kovac, “In Buenos Aires I was working from a MacBook Pro laptop using the proxies. For security reasons, I would lock up the footage in a safe. By using proxies, which take up less drive space, a much smaller hard drive was required and that easily fit into the safe.”

df1515_focus_3_smBack at their home base in LA, four rooms were set up connected to XSAN shared storage. These systems included iMacs and a Mac Pro (“tube” version). All camera media and common source clips. like sound effects libraries. lived on the XSAN, while each workstation had a small SSD RAID for proxies and local FCP X Libraries. The XSAN included a single transfer Library so that edits could be moved among the rooms. Kovac and Ficarra shared roles as co-editors at this stage, collaborating on each other’s scenes. Kovac says, “This was very fluid going back and forth between Glenn and me. The process was a lot like sharing sequences with FCP 7. It’s always good to keep perspective, so each of us would review the other’s edited scenes and offer notes.” The other two systems was used by the assistants. Kovac continues, “The Libraries were broken down by reel and all iterations of sharing were used, including the XSAN or sneaker net.”

Setting up a film edit in FCP X

df1515_focus_9_smAs with any film, the key is organization and translating the script into a final product. Kovac explains his process with FCP X, “The assistants would group the multicam clips and ‘reject’ the clip ranges before ‘action’ and after ‘cut’. This hides any extraneous material so you only have to sort through useable clips. We used a separate Event for each scene. With Sam and Mike, we worked out a process to review clips based on line readings. The dialogue lines in the script were numbered and the assistants would place a marker and a range for every three lines of dialogue. These were assigned keywords, so that each triplet of dialogue lines would end up in a Keyword Collection. Within a scene Event, I would have Keyword Collections for L1-3, L4-6, and so on. I would also create Smart Collections for certain criteria – for instance, a certain type of shot or anything else I might designate.”

Everyone involved felt that FCP X made the edit go faster, but it still takes time to be creative. Ficarra continues, “The first assembly of the film according to the script was about three hours long. I call this the ‘kitchen sink’ cut. The first screening cut was about two-and-a-half hours. We had removed some scenes and lengthened others and showed it to a ‘friends and family’ audience. It actually didn’t play as well as we’d hoped. Then we added these scenes back in and shortened everything, which went over much better. We had intentionally shot alternate versions of scenes just to play around with them in the edit. FCP X is a great tool for that, because you can easily edit a number of iterations.”

Engineered for speed

df1515_focus_10_smWhile many veteran editors experienced in other systems might scoff at the claims that FCP X is a faster editor, Mike Matzdorff was willing to put a finer point on that for me. He says, “I find that because of the magnetic timeline, trimming is a lot faster. If you label roles extensively, it’s easier to sort out temporary from final elements or organize sound sources when you hand off audio for sound post. With multi-channel audio in an Avid, for example, you generally sync the clips using only the composite mix. That way you aren’t tying up a lot of tracks on the timeline for all of the source channels. If you have to replace a line with a clean isolated mic, you have to dig it out and make the edit. With FCP X, all of the audio channels are there and neatly tucked away until you need them. It’s a simple matter of expanding a clip and picking a different channel. That alone is a major improvement.”

Ficarra and Kovac are in complete agreement. Ficarra points out, “As an editor, I’m twice as fast on FCP X as on Avid. There’s less clicking. This is the only NLE that’s not trying to emulate some other model, like cutting on a flatbed. You are able to move faster on your impulses.” Kovac adds, “It keeps you in the zone.”

The final DI was handled by Light Iron, who conformed and graded Focus. The handoff was made using an EDL and an FCPXML, along with a QuickTime picture reference. Light Iron relinked to the original anamorphic camera masters and graded using a Quantel Rio unit.

Filling in the workflow gaps

A number of developers contributed to the success of FCP X on Focus. Having a tight relationship with the editing team let them tailor their solutions to the needs of the production. One of these developers, Philip Hodgetts (President, Intelligent Assistance) says, “One of the nice things about being a small software developer is that we can react to customer needs very quickly. During the production of Focus we received feature requests for all the tools we were providing – Sync-N-Link X, Change List X and Producer’s Best Friend. For example, Sync-N-Link X gained the ability to create multicam clips, in addition to synchronizing audio and video, as a result of a feature request from first assistant Mike Matzdorff.” This extended to Apple’s ProApps team, who also kept a close and helpful watch on the progress of Focus.

df1515_focus_11_smFor every film that challenges convention, a lot of curiosity is raised about the process. Industry insiders refer to the “Cold Mountain moment” – alluding to the use of FCP 3 by editor Walter Murch on the film, Cold Mountain. That milestone added high-end legitimacy for the earlier Final Cut among professional users. Gone Girl did that for Adobe Premiere Pro and now Focus has done that for a new Final Cut. But times are different and it’s hard to say what the true impact will be. Nevertheless, Focus provided the confidence for the team to continue on their next film in the same manner, tapping Final Cut Pro X once again. Change can be both scary and exciting, but as Glenn Ficarra says, “We like to shake things up. It’s fun to see the bemused comments wondering how we could ever pull it off with something like FCP X!”

For those that want to know more about the nuts and bolts of the post production workflow, Mike Matzdorff released “Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow”, an e-book that’s a step-by-step advanced guide based on the lessons learned on Focus. It’s available through iTunes and Kindle.

For some additional reading on the post production workflow of Focus, check out this Apple “in action” story, as well as Part 1 and Part 2 of FCP.co’s very in-depth coverage of how the team got it done. For a very in-depth understanding, make sure you watch the videos at PostPerspective.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Understanding SpeedGrade

df1615_sg_1How you handle color correction depends on your temperament and level of expertise. Some editors want to stay within the NLE, so that editorial adjustments are easily made after grading. Others prefer the roundtrip to a powerful external application. When Adobe added the Direct Link conduit between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC, they gave Premiere Pro editors the best of both worlds.

Displays

df1615_sg_4SpeedGrade is a standalone grading application that was initially designed around an SDI feed from the GPU to a second monitor for your external video. After the Adobe acquisition, Mercury Transmit was eventually added, so you can run SpeedGrade with one display, two computer displays, or a computer display plus a broadcast monitor. With a single display, the video viewer is integrated into the interface. At home, I use two computer displays, so by enabling a dual display layout, I get the SpeedGrade interface on one screen and the full-screen video viewer on the other. To do this you have to correctly offset the pixel dimensions and position for the secondary display in order to see it. Otherwise the image is hidden behind the interface.

Using Mercury Transmit, the viewer image is sent to an external monitor, but you’ll need an appropriate capture/monitoring card or device. AJA products seem to work fine. Some Blackmagic devices work and others don’t. When this works, you will lose the viewer from the interface, so it’s best to have the external display close – as in next to your interface monitor.

Timeline

df1615_sg_3When you use Direct Link, you are actually sending the Premiere Pro timeline to SpeedGrade. This means that edits and timeline video layers are determined by Premiere Pro and those editing functions are disabled in SpeedGrade. It IS the Premiere Pro timeline. This means certain formats that might not be natively supported by a standalone SpeedGrade project will be supported via the Direct Link path – as long as Premiere Pro natively supports them.

There is a symbiotic relationship between Premiere Pro and SpeedGrade. For example, I worked on a music video that was edited natively using RED camera media. The editor had done a lot of reframing from the native 4K media in the 1080 timeline. All of this geometry was correctly interpreted by SpeedGrade. When I compared the same sequence in Resolve (using an XML roundtrip), the geometry was all wrong. SpeedGrade doesn’t give you access to the camera raw settings for the .r3d media, but Premiere Pro does. So in this case, I adjusted the camera raw values by using the source settings control in Premiere Pro, which then carried those adjustments over to SpeedGrade.

df1615_sg_2Since the Premiere Pro timeline is the SpeedGrade timeline when you use Direct Link, you can add elements into the sequence from Premiere, in order to make them available in SpeedGrade. Let’s say you want to add a common edge vignette across all the clips of your sequence. Simply add an adjustment layer to a top track while in Premiere. This appears in your SpeedGrade timeline, enabling you to add a mask and correction within the adjustment layer clip. In addition, any video effects filters that you’ve applied in Premiere will show up in SpeedGrade. You don’t have access to the controls, but you will see the results interactively as you make color correction adjustments.

df1615_sg_17All SpeedGrade color correction values are applied to the clip as a single Lumetri effect when you send the timeline back to Premiere Pro. All grading layers are collapsed into a single composite effect per clip, which appears in the clip’s effect stack (in Premiere Pro) along with all other filters. In this way you can easily trim edit points without regard to the color correction. Traditional roundtrips render new media with baked-in color correction values. There, you can only work within the boundaries of the handles that you’ve added to the file upon rendering. df1615_sg_16Not so with Direct Link, since color correction is like any other effect applied to the original media. Any editorial changes you’ve made in Premiere Pro are reflected in SpeedGrade should you go back for tweaks, as long as you continue to use Direct Link.

12-way and more

df1615_sg_5Most editors are familiar with 3-way color correctors that have level and balance controls for shadows, midrange and highlights. Many refer to SpeedGrade’s color correction model as a 12-way color corrector. The grading interface features a 3-way (lift/gamma/gain) control for four ranges of correction: overall, shadows, midrange, and highlights. Each tab also adds control of contrast, pivot, color temperature, magenta (tint), and saturation. Since shadow, midrange, and highlight ranges overlap, you also have sliders that adjust the overlap thresholds between shadow and midrange and between the midrange and highlight areas.

df1615_sg_7Color correction is layer based – similar to Photoshop or After Effects. SpeedGrade features primary (“P”) , secondary (“S”) and filter layers (the “+” symbol). When you add layers, they are stacked from bottom to top and each layer includes an opacity control. As such, layers work much the same as rooms in Apple Color or nodes in DaVinci Resolve. You can create a multi-layered adjustment by using a series of stacked primary layers. Shape masks, like that for a vignette, should be applied to a primary layer. df1615_sg_10The mask may be normal or inverted so that the correction is applied either to the inside or the outside of the mask. Secondaries should be reserved for HSL keys. For instance, highlighting the skin tones of a face to adjust its color separately from the rest of the image. The filter layer (“+”) is where you’ll find a number of useful tools, including Photoshop-style creative effect filters, LUTs, and curves.

Working with grades

df1615_sg_13The application of color correction can be applied to a clip as either a master clip correction or just a clip correction (or both). When you grade using the default clip tab, then that color correction is only being applied to that single clip. If you grade in the master clip tab, then any color correction that you apply to that clip will also be applied to every other instance of that same media file elsewhere on the timeline. Theoretically, in a multicam edit – made up of four cameras with a single media file per camera – you could grade the entire timeline by simply color correcting the first clip for each of the four cameras as a master clip correction. All other clips would automatically inherit the same settings. Of course, that almost never works out quite as perfectly, therefore, you can grade a clip using both the master clip and the regular clip tabs. Use the master for a general setting and still use the regular clip tab to tweak each shot as needed.

df1615_sg_9Grades can be saved and recalled as Lumetri Looks, but typically these aren’t as useful in actual grading as standard copy-and-paste functions – a recent addition to SpeedGrade CC. Simply highlight one or more layers of a graded clip and press copy (cmd+c on a Mac). Then paste (cmd+v on a Mac) those to the target clip. These will be pasted in a stack on top of the default, blank primary correction that’s there on every clip. You can choose to use, ignore, or delete this extra primary layer.

SpeedGrade features a cool trick to facilitate shot matching. The timeline playhead can be broken out into multiple playheads, which will enable you to compare two or more shots in real-time on the viewer. This quick comparison lets you make adjustments to each to get a closer match in context with the surrounding shots.

A grading workflow

df1615_sg_14Everyone has their own approach to grading and these days there’s a lot of focus on camera and creative LUTs. My suggestions for prepping a Premiere Pro CC sequence for SpeedGrade CC go something like this.

df1615_sg_6Once, you are largely done with the editing, collapse all multicam clips and flatten the timeline as much as possible down to the bottom video layer. Add one or two video tracks with adjustment layers, depending on what you want to do in the grade. These should be above the last video layer. All graphics – like lower thirds – should be on tracks above the adjustment layer tracks. This is assuming that you don’t want to include these in the color correction. Now duplicate the sequence and delete the tracks with the graphics from the dupe. Send the dupe to SpeedGrade CC via Direct Link.

In SpeedGrade, ignore the first primary layer and add a filter layer (“+”) above it. Select a camera patch LUT. For example, an ARRI Log-C-to-Rec-709 LUT for Log-C gamma-encoded Alexa footage. Repeat this for every clip from the same camera type. If you intend to use a creative LUT, like one of the SpeedLooks from LookLabs, you’ll need one of their camera patches. This shifts the camera video into a unified gamma profile optimized for their creative LUTs. If all of the footage used in the timeline came from the same camera and used the same gamma profile, then in the case of SpeedLooks, you could apply the creative LUT to one the adjustment layer clips. This will apply that LUT to everything in the sequence.

df1615_sg_8Once you’ve applied input and output LUTs you can grade each clip as you’d like, using primary and secondary layers. Use filter layers for curves. Any order and any number of layers per clip is fine. Using this methodology all grading is happening between the camera patch LUT and the creative LUT added to the adjustment layer track. Finally, if you want a soft edge vignette on all clips, apply an edge mask to the default primary layer of the topmost adjustment layer clip. Adjust the size, shape, and softness of the mask. Darken the outside of the mask area. Done.df1615_sg_11

(Note that not every camera uses logarithmic gamma encoding, nor do you want to use LUTs on every project. These are the “icing on the cake”, NOT the “meat and potatoes” of grading. If your sequence is a standard correction without any stylized creative looks, then ignore the LUT procedures I described above.)

df1615_sg_15Now simply send your timeline back to Premiere Pro (the “Pr” button). Back in Premiere Pro CC, duplicate that sequence. Copy-and-paste the graphics tracks from the original sequence to the available blank tracks of the copy. When done, you’ll have three sequences: 1) non-color corrected with graphics, 2) color corrected without graphics, and 3) final with color correction and graphics. The beauty of the Direct Link path between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC is that you can easily go back and forth for changes without ever being locked in at any point in the process.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Sorenson Squeeze 10

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Video formats don’t hold still for long and neither do video codecs used for file encoding. As the industry looks at 4K delivery over the web and internet-based television streaming services, we now get more codecs to consider, too. Target delivery had seemed to settle on H.264 and MPEG-2 for awhile, but now there’s growing interest in HEVC/H.265 and VP9, thanks to their improved encoding efficiency. Greater efficiency means that you can maintain image quality in 4K files without creating inordinately large file sizes. Sorenson Media’s Squeeze application has been an industrial strength encoding utility that many pros rely on. With the release of Sorenson Squeeze 10, pros have a new tool designed to accommodate the new, beyond-HD resolutions that are in our future.

df0415_sqz10_5_smSorenson Squeeze comes in server and desktop versions. Squeeze Desktop 10 includes three variations: Lite, Standard and Pro. Squeeze Lite covers a wide range of input formats, but video output is limited to FLV, M4V, MP4 and WebM formats. Essentially, Lite is designed for users who primarily need to encode files for use on the web. Desktop Standard adds VP9 and Multi-Rate Bundle Encoding. The latter creates a package with multiple files of different bitrates, which is a configuration used by many web streaming services. Standard also includes 4K presets (H.264 only) and a wide range of output codecs. The Pro version adds support for HEVC, professional decoding and encoding of Avid DNxHD and Apple ProRes (Mac only), and closed caption insertion.df0415_sqz10_1_sm

All three models have added what Sorenson calls Simple Format Conversion. This is a preset available in some of the format folders. The source size, frame rate, and quality are maintained, but the file is converted into the target media format. It’s available for MP4/WebM with Lite, and MP4/MOV/MKV with Standard and Pro. Squeeze is supposed to take advantage of CUDA acceleration when you have certain NVIDIA cards installed, which accelerates MainConcept H.264/AVC encoding. I have a Quadro 4000 with the latest CUDA drivers installed in my Mac Pro running Yosemite (10.10.1). Unfortunately Squeeze Pro 10 doesn’t recognize the driver as a valid CUDA driver. When I asked Sorenson about this, they explained that MainConcept has dropped CUDA support for the MainConcept H.264 codec. “It will not support the latest cards and drivers. If you do use the CUDA feature you will likely see little-to-no speedup, maybe even a speed decrease, and your output video will have decreased quality compared to H.264 encoded with the CPU.”

df0415_sqz10_2_smAs a test, I took a short (:06) 4096×2160 clip that was shot on a Canon EOS 1DC camera. It was recorded using the QuickTime Photo-JPEG codec and is 402MB large. I’m running a 2009 8-core Mac Pro (2.26GHz), 28 GB RAM and the Quadro 4000 card. To encode, I picked the default Squeeze HEVC 4K preset. It encodes using a 1-pass variable bitrate at a target rate of 18,000Kbps. It also resizes to a UHD size of 3840×2160; however, it is set to maintain the same aspect ratio, so the resulting file was actually 3840×2024. Of course, the preset’s values can be edited to suit your requirements.

It took 3:32 (min/sec) to encode the file with the HEVC/H.265 codec and the resulting size was 13MB. I compared this to an encode using the H.264 preset, which uses the same values. It encoded in 1:43 and resulted in a 14.2MB file. Both files are wrapped as .MP4 files, but I honestly couldn’t tell much difference in quality between the two codecs. They both looked good. Unfortunately there aren’t many players that will decode and play the HEVC codec yet – at least not on the Mac. To play the HEVC file, I used an updated version of VLC, which includes an HEVC component. Of course, most machines aren’t yet optimized for this new codec.

df0415_sqz10_3_smOther features of Squeeze aren’t new, but are still worth mentioning. For example, the presets are grouped in two ways – by format and workflow. Favorites can be assigned for quick access to the few presets that you might use most often. Squeeze enables direct capture from a camera input or batch encoding of files in a monitored watch folder. In addition to video, various audio formats can also be exported.

Encoding presets can include a number of built-in filters, as well as any VST audio plug-in installed on your computer. Finally, you can add publishing destinations, including YouTube, Akamai, Limelight and Amazon S3 locations. Another publishing location is Squeeze Stream, the free account included with a purchase of Squeeze (Standard or Pro versions only). Thanks to all of these capabilities, Sorenson Media’s Squeeze Desktop 10 will continue to be the tool many editors choose for professional encoding.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

df0615_panthers_3_smDocumentaries covering subject matter that happens within a generation usually divides the audience between those who personally lived through the time period and those who’ve only read about it in history books. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one such film. If you are over 50, you are aware of the media coverage of the Black Panther Party and certainly have opinions and possibly misconceptions of who they were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class, if which case, you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The American Experience, Freedom Summer, Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this new Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for Sundance presentation. Tunsil has worked his way up from assistant editor to editor and discussed the evolution in roles. “I started in a production company office, initially helping the assistant editor,” he says. “Over a period of seven or eight years, I worked my way up from assistant to a full-time editor. Along the way, I’ve had a number of mentors and learned to cut on both [Apple] Final Cut Pro and [Avid] Media Composer. These mentors were instrumental in my learning how to tell a story. I worked on a short with Stanley [Nelson] and that started our relationship of working together on films. I view my role as the ‘first audience’ for the film. The producer or director knows the story they want to make, but the editor helps to make sense of it for someone who doesn’t intimately know the material. My key job is to make sure that the narrative makes senses and that no one gets lost.”

df0615_panthers_2_smThe Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews (about 40 total subjects). Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is largely told by lesser known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events. The total post-production period took about 40 to 50 weeks. Tunsil explains, “Firelight Films (the production company) is very good at researching characters and finding old subjects for the interviews. They supplied me with a couple of hundred hours of footage. That’s a challenge to organize so that you know what you have. My process is to first watch all of that with the filmmakers and then to assemble the best of the interviews and best of the archival footage. Typically it takes six to ten weeks to get there and then another four to six weeks to get to a rough cut.”

Tunsil continues, “The typical working arrangement with Stanley is that he’ll take a day to review any changes I’ve made and then give me notes for any adjustments. As we were putting the film together, Stanley was still recording more interviews to fill in the gaps – trying to tie the story together without the need for a narrator. After that, it’s the usual process of streamlining the film. We could have made a ten-hour film, but, of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

df0615_panthers_5_smLike many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but acknowledged they don’t tell the whole story. He says, “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the LA headquarters of the party and the ensuing shootout. When asked how he felt, he talks about his feeling of freedom, even though the event surrounding him was horrific. That feeling clearly comes across in the emotion on his face, which transcends the mere words in the transcript. You get to hear the story from the heart – not just the facts. Stories are what makes a documentary like this.”

As with many films about the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Panthers weaves into its fabric the music of the era. Tunsil says, “About 60% of the film was composed by Tom Phillips, but we also had about seven or eight period songs, like ‘Express Yourself’, which we used under [former Panther member] Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland. I used other pieces from Tom’s library as temp music, which we then gave to him for the feel. He’d compose something similar – or different, but in a better direction.”

df0615_panthers_6_smTunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor, which he used for The Black Panthers. He explains, “I worked with Rebecca Sherwood as my associate editor and we were both using Media Composer version 7. We used a Facilis Terrablock for shared storage, but this was primarily used to transfer media between us, as we both had our own external drives with a mirrored set of media files. All the media was at the DNxHD 175 resolution. I like Avid’s special features such as PhraseFind, but overall, I feel that Media Composer is just better at letting me organize material than is Final Cut. I love Avid as an editing system, because it’s the most stable and makes the work easy. Editing is best when there’s a rhythm to the workflow and Media Composer is good for that. As for the stills, I did temporary moves with the Avid pan-and-zoom plug-in, but did the final moves in [Adobe] After Effects.”

df0615_panthers_1_smFor a documentary editor, part of the experience are the things you personally learn. Tunsil reflects, “I like the way Stanley and Firelight handle these stories. They don’t just tell it from the standpoint of the giants of history, but more from the point-of-view of the rank-and-file people. He’s trying to show the full dimension of the Panthers instead of the myth and iconography. It’s telling the history of the real people, which humanizes them. That’s a more down-to-earth, honest experience. For instance, I never knew that they had a communal living arrangement. By having the average members tell their stories, it makes it so much richer. Another example is the Fred Hampton story. He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the party who was killed in a police shootout; but, there was no evidence of gunfire from inside the building that he was in. That’s a powerful scene, which resonates. One part of the film that I think is particularly well done is the explanation of how the party declined due to a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. This was in part as a result of an internal misinformation campaign instigated by the FBI within the Panthers.”

df0615_panthers_4_smThroughout the process, the filmmakers ran a number of test screenings with diverse audiences, including industry professionals and non-professionals, people who knew the history and people who didn’t. Results from these screenings enabled Nelson and Tunsil to refine the film. To complete the film’s finishing, Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and then brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills and up-converting the standard definition archival footage.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Preparing Digital Camera Files

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The modern direction in file-based post production workflows is to keep your camera files native throughout the enter pipeline. While this might work within a closed loop, like a self-contained Avid, Adobe or Apple workflow, it breaks down when you have to move your project across multiple applications. It’s common for an editor to send files to a Pro Tools studio for the final mix and to a colorist running Resolve, Baselight, etc. for the final grade. In doing so, you have to ensure that editorial decisions aren’t incorrectly translated in the process, because the NLE might handle a native camera format differently than the mixer’s or colorist’s tool. To keep the process solid, I’ve developed some disciplines in how I like to handle media. The applications I mention are for Mac OS, but most of these companies offer Windows versions, too. If not, you can easily find equivalents.

Copying media

df0815_media_6_smThe first step is to get the media from the camera cards to a reliable hard drive. It’s preferable to have at least two copies (from the location) and to make the copies using software that verifies the back-up. This is a process often done on location by the lowly “data wrangler” under less than ideal conditions. A number of applications, such as Imagine Products’ ShotPut Pro and Adobe Prelude let you do this task, but my current favorite is Red Giant’s Offload. It uses a dirt simple interface permitting one source and two target locations. It has the sole purpose of safely transferring media with no other frills.

Processing media on location

df0815_media_5_smWith the practice of shooting footage with a flat-looking log gamma profile, many productions like to also see the final, adjusted look on location. This often involves some on-site color grading to create either a temporary look or even the final look. Usually this task falls to a DIT (digital imaging technician). Several applications are available, including DaVinci Resolve, Pomfort Silverstack and Redcine-X Pro. Some new applications, specifically designed for field use, include Red Giant’s BulletProof and Catalyst Browse/Prepare from Sony Creative Software. Catalyst Browse in free and designed for all Sony cameras, whereas Catalyst Prepare is a paid application that covers Sony cameras, but also other brands, including Canon and GoPro. Depending on the application, these tools may be used to add color correction, organize the media, transcode file formats, and even prepare simple rough assemblies of selected footage.

All of these tools add a lot of power, but frankly, I’d prefer that the production company leave these tasks up to the editorial team and allow more time in post. In my testing, most of the aforementioned apps work as advertised; however, BulletProof continues to have issues with the proper handling of timecode.

Transcoding media

df0815_media_2_smI’m not a big believer in always using native media for the edit, unless you are in a fast turnaround situation. To get the maximum advantage for interchanging files between applications, it is ideal to end up in one of several common media formats, if that isn’t how the original footage was recorded. You also want every file to have unique and consistent metadata, including file names, reel IDs and timecode. The easiest common media format is QuickTime using the .mov wrapper and encoded using either Apple ProRes, Panasonic AVC-Intra, Sony XDCAM, or Avid DNxHD codecs. These are generally readable in most applications running on Mac or PC. My preference is to first convert all files into QuickTime using one of these codecs, if they originated as something else. That’s because the file is relatively malleable at that point and doesn’t require a rigid external folder structure.

Applications like BulletProof and Catalyst can transcode camera files into another format. Of course, there are dedicated batch encoders like Sorenson Squeeze, Apple Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder and Telestream Episode. My personal choice for a tool to transcode camera media is either MPEG Streamclip (free) or Divergent Media’s EditReady. Both feature easy-to-use batch processing interfaces, but EditReady adds the ability to apply LUTs, change file names and export to multiple targets. It also reads formats that MPEG Streamclip doesn’t, such as C300 files (Canon XF codec wrapped as .mxf). If you want to generate a clean master copy preserving the log gamma profile, as well as a second lower resolution editorial file with a LUT applied, then EditReady is the right application.

Altering your media

df0815_media_3_smI will go to extra lengths to make sure that files have proper names, timecode and source/tape/reel ID metadata. Most professional video cameras will correctly embed that information. Others, like the Canon 5D Mark III, might encode a non-standard timecode format, allow duplicated file names, and not add reel IDs.

Once the media has been transcoded, I will use two applications to adjust the file metadata. For timecode, I rely on VideoToolShed’s QtChange. This application lets you alter QuickTime files in a number of ways, but I primarily use it to strip off unnecessary audio tracks and bad timecode. Then I use it to embed proper reel IDs and timecode. Because it does this by altering header information, processing a lot of files happens quickly. The second tool in this mix is Better Rename, which is batch renaming utility. I use it frequently for adding, deleting or changing all or part of the file name for a batch of files. For instance, I might append a production job number to the front of a set of Canon 5D files. The point in doing all of this is so that you can easily locate the exact same point within any file using any application, even several years apart.

df0815_media_1_smSpeed is a special condition. Most NLEs handle files with mixed frame rates within the same project and sequences, but often such timelines do not correctly translate from one piece of software to the next. Edit lists are interchanged using EDL, XML, FCPXML and AAF formats and each company has its own variation of the format that they use. Some formats, like FCPXML, require third party utilities to translate the list, adding another variable. Round-tripping, such as going from NLE “A” (for offline) to Color Correction System “B” (for grading) and then to NLE “C” (for finishing), often involves several translations. Apart from effects, speed differences in native camera files can be a huge problem.

A common mixed frame rate situation in the edit is combining 23.98fps and 29.97fps footage. If both of these were intended to run in real-time, then it’s usually OK. However, if the footage was recorded with the intent to overcrank for slomo (59.94 or 29.97 native for a timebase of 23.98) then you start to run into issues. As long as the camera properly flags the file, so that every application plays it at the proper timebase (slowed), then things are fine. This isn’t true of DSLRs, where you might shoot 720p/59.94 for use as slomo in a 1080p/29.97 or 23.98 sequence. With these files, my recommendation is to alter the speed of the file first, before using it inside the NLE. One way to do this is to use Apple Cinema Tools (part of the defunct Final Cut Studio package, but can still be found). You can batch-conform a set of 59.94fps files to play natively at 23.98fps in very short order. This should be done BEFORE adding any timecode with QtChange. Remember that any audio will have its sample rate shifted, which I’ve found to be a problem with FCP X. Therefore, when you do this, also strip off the audio tracks using QtChange. They play slow anyway and so are useless in most cases where you want overcranked, slow motion files.

Audio in your NLE

The last point to understand is that not all NLEs deal with audio tracks in the same fashion. Often camera files are recorded with multiple mono audio sources, such as a boom and a lav mic on channels 1 and 2. These may be interpreted either as stereo or as dual mono, depending on the NLE. Premiere Pro CC in particular sees these as stereo when imported. If you edit them to the timeline as a single stereo track, you will not be able to correct this in the sequence afterwards by panning. Therefore, it’s important to remember to first set-up your camera files with a dual mono channel assignment before making the first edit. This same issue crops up when round-tripping files through Resolve. It may not properly handle audio, depending on how it interprets these files, so be careful.

These steps add a bit more time at the front end of any given edit, but are guaranteed to give you a better editing experience on complex projects. The results will be easier interchange between applications and more reliable relinking. Finally, when you revisit a project a year or more down the road, everything should pop back up, right where you left it.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Camerama 2015

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The design of a modern digital video camera comes down to the physics of the sensor and shutter, the software to control colorimetry and smart industrial design to optimize the ergonomics for the operator. Couple that with a powerful internal processor and recording mechanism and you are on your way. Although not exactly easy, these traits no longer require skills that are limited to the traditional camera manufacturers. As a result, innovative new cameras have been popping up from many unlikely sources.

df0715_cionThe newest of these is AJA, which delivered the biggest surprise of NAB 2014 in the form of their CION 4K/UltraHD/2K/HD digital camera. Capitalizing on a trend started by ARRI, the CION records directly to the edit-ready Apple ProRes format, using AJA Pak solid state media. The CION features a 4K APS-C sized CMOS sensor with a global shutter to eliminate rolling-shutter artifacts. AJA claims 12 stops of dynamic range and uses a PL mount for lenses designed for Super 35mm. The CION is also capable of outputting AJA camera raw at frame rates up to 120fps.  It can send out 4K or UHD video from its four 3G-SDI outputs to the AJA Corvid Ultra for replay and center extraction during live events.

df0715_alexaThe darling of the film and high-end television world continues to be ARRI Digital with its line of ALEXA cameras. These now include the Classic, XT, XT Plus, XT M and XT Studio configurations. They vary based on features and sensor size. The Classic cameras have a maximum active sensor photosite size of 2880 x 2160, while the XT models go as high as 3414 x 2198. Another difference is that the XT models allow in-camera recording of ARRIRAW media. The ALEXA introduced ProRes recording and all current XT models permit Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD recording.

df0715_amiraThe ALEXA has been joined by the newer, lighter AMIRA, which is targeted at documentary-style shooting with smaller crews. The AMIRA is tiered into three versions, with the Premium model offering 2K recording in all ProRes flavors at up to 200fps. ARRI has added 4K capabilities to both the ALEXA and AMIRA line by utilizing the full sensor size using their Open Gate mode. In the Amira, this 3.4K image is internally scaled by a factor of 1.2 to record a UHD file at up to 60fps to its in-camera CFast 2.0 cards. The ALEXA uses a similar technique, but only records the 3.4K signal in-camera, with scaling to be done later in post.

df0715_alexa65To leapfrog the competition, ARRI also introduced its ALEXA 65, which is available through the ARRI Rental division. This camera is a scaled up version of the ALEXA XT and uses a sensor that is larger than a 5-perf 65mm film frame. That’s an Open Gate resolution of 6560 x 3102 photosites. The signal is captured as uncompressed ARRIRAW. Currently the media is recorded on ALEXA XR Capture drives at a maximum frame rate of 27fps.

df0715_bmd_cc_rear_lBlackmagic Design had been the most unexpected camera developer a few years ago, but has since grown its DSLR-style camera line into four models: Studio, Production 4K, Cinema and Pocket Cinema. These vary in cosmetic style and size, which formats they are able to record and the lens mounts they use. df0715_bmdpocketThe Pocket Cinema Camera is essentially a digital equivalent of a Super 16mm film camera, but in a point-and-shoot, small camera form factor. The Cinema and Production 4K cameras feature a larger, Super 35mm sensor. Each of these three incorporate ProRes and/or CinemaDNG raw recording. The Studio Camera is designed as a live production camera. It features a larger viewfinder, housing, accessories and connections designed to integrate this camera into a television studio or remote truck environment. There is an HD and a 4K version.

df0715_ursaThe biggest Blackmagic news was the introduction of the URSA. Compared to the smaller form factors of the other Blackmagic Design cameras, the URSA is literally a “bear” of a camera. It is a rugged 4K camera built around the idea of user-interchangeable parts. You can get EF, PL and broadcast lens mounts, but you can also operate it without a lens as a standalone recording device. It’s designed for UltraHD (3840 x 2160), but can record up to 4,000 pixels wide in raw. Recording formats include CinemaDNG raw (uncompressed and 3:1 compressed), as well as Apple ProRes, with speeds up to 80fps. There are two large displays on both sides of the camera, which can be used for monitoring and operating controls. It has a 10” fold-out viewfinder and a built-in liquid cooling system. As part of the modular design, users can replace mounts and even the sensor in the field.

df0715_c300Canon was the most successful company out of the gate when the industry adopted HD-video-capable DSLR cameras as serious production tools. Canon has expanded these offerings with its Cinema EOS line of small production cameras, including the C100, C100 Mark II, C300 and C500, which all share a similar form factor. Also included in this line-up is the EOS-1D C, a 4K camera that retains its DSLR body. The C300 and C500 camera both use a Super 35mm sized sensor and come in EF or PL mount configurations. The C300 is limited to HD recording using the Canon XF codec. The C500 adds 2K and 4K (4096 cinema and 3840 UHD) recording capabilities, but this signal must be externally recorded using a device like the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q+. HD signals are recorded internally as Canon XF, just like the C300. The Canon EOS C100 and C100 Mark II share the design of the C300, except that they record to AVCHD instead of Canon XF. In addition, the Mark II can also record MP4 files. Both C100 models record to SD cards, whereas the C300/C500 cameras use CF cards. The Mark II features improved ergonomics over the base C100 model.

df0715_5dThe Canon EOS-1D C is included because it can record 4K video. Since it is also a still photography camera, the sensor is an 18MP full-frame sensor. When recording 4K video, it uses a Motion JPEG codec, but for HD, can also use the AVCHD codec. The big plus over the C500 is that the 1D C records 4K onboard to CF cards, so is better suited to hand-held work. The DSLR cameras that started the craze for Canon continue to be popular, including the EOS 5D Mark III and the new EOS 7D Mark II. Plus the consumer-oriented Rebel versions. All are outstanding still cameras. The 5D features a 22.3MP CMOS sensor and records HD video as H.264 MOV files to onboard CF cards. Thanks to the sensor size, the 5D is still popular for videographers who want extremely shallow depth-of-field shots from a handheld camera.

df0715_d16Digital Bolex has become a Kickstarter success story. These out-of-the-box thinkers coupled the magic of a venerable name from the film era with innovative design and marketing to produce the D16 Cinema Camera. Its form factor mimics older, smaller, handheld film camera designs, making it ideal for run-and-gun documentary production. It features a Super 16mm sized CCD sensor with a global shutter and claims 12 stops of dynamic range. The D16 records in 12-bit CinemaDNG raw to internal SSDs, but media is offloaded to CF cards or via USB3.0 for media interchange. The camera comes with a C-mount, but EF, MFT and PL lens mounts are available. Currently the resolutions include 2048 x 1152 (“S16mm mode”), 2048 x 1080 (“S16 EU”) and HD (“16mm mode”). The D16 records 23.98, 24 and 25fps frame rates, but variable rates up to 32fps in the S16mm mode are coming soon. To expand on the camera’s attractiveness, Digital Bolex also offers a line of accessories, including Kish/Bolex 16mm prime lens sets. These fixed aperture F4 lenses are C-mount for native use with the D16 camera. Digital Bolex also offers the D16 in an MFT mount configuration and in a monochrome version.

df0715_hero4The sheer versatility and disposable quality of GoPro cameras has made the HERO line a staple of many productions. The company continues to advance this product with the HERO4 Black and Silver models as their latest. These are both 4K cameras and have similar features, but if you want full video frame rates in 4K, then the HERO4 Black is the correct model. It will record up to 30fps in 4K, 50fps in 2.7K and 120fps in 1080p. As a photo camera, it uses a 12MP sensor and is capable of 30 frames a one second in burst mode and time-lapse intervals from .5 to 60 seconds. The video signal is recorded as an H264 file with a high-quality mode that’s up 60 Mb/s. MicrosSD card media is used. HERO cameras have been popular for extreme point-of-video shots and its waterproof housing is good for 40 meters. This new HERO4 series offers more manual control, new night time and low-light settings, and improved audio recording.

df0715_d810Nikon actually beat Canon to market with HD-capable DSLRs, but lost the momentum when Canon capitalized on the popularity of the 5D. Nevertheless, Nikon has its share of supportive videographers, thanks in part to the quantity of Nikon lenses in general use. The Nikon range of high-quality still photo and video-enabled cameras fall under Nikon’s D-series product family. The Nikon D800/800E camera has been updated to the D810. This is the camera of most interest to professional videographers. It’s a 36.3MP still photo camera that can also record 1920 x 1080 video in 24/30p modes internally and 60p externally. It can also record up to 9,999 images in a time-lapse sequence. A big plus for many is its optical viewfinder. It records H.264/MPEG-4 media to onboard CF cards. Other Nikon video cameras include the D4S, D610, D7100, D5300 and D3300.

df0715_varicamPanasonic used to own the commercial HD camera market with the original VariCam HD camera. They’ve now reimagined that brand in the new VariCam 35 and VariCam HS versions. The new VariCam uses a modular configuration with each of these two cameras using the same docking electronics back. In fact, a costumer can purchase one camera head and back and then only need to purchase the other head, thus owning both the 35 and the HS models for less than the total cost of two cameras. The VariCam 35 is a 4K camera with wide color gamut and wide dynamic range (14+ stops are claimed). It features a PL lens mount, records from 1 to 120fps and supports dual-recording. For example, you can simultaneously record a 4K log AVC-Intra master to the main recorder (expressP2 card) and 2K/HD Rec 709 AVC-Intra/AVC-Proxy/Apple ProRes to a second internal recorder (microP2 card) for offline editing. VariCam V-Raw camera raw media can be recorded to a separate Codex V-RAW recorder, which can be piggybacked onto the camera. The Panasonic VariCam HS is a 2/3” 3MOS broadcast/EFP camera capable of up to 240fps of continuous recording.  It supports the same dual-recording options as the VariCam 35 using AVC-Intra and/or Apple ProRes codecs, but is limited to HD recordings.

df0715_gh4With interest in DSLRs still in full swing, many users’ interest in Panasonic veers to the Lumix GH4. This camera records 4K cinema (4096) and 4K UHD (3840) sized images, as well as HD. It uses SD memory cards to record in MOV, MP4 or AVCHD formats. It features variable frame rates (up to 96fps), HDMI monitoring and a professional 4K audio/video interface unit. The latter is a dock the fits to the bottom of the camera. It includes XLR audio and SDI video connections with embedded audio and timecode.

RED Digital Cinema started the push for 4K cameras and camera raw video recording with the original RED One. That camera is now only available in refurbished models, as RED has advanced the technology with the EPIC and SCARLET. Both are modular camera designs that are offered with either the Dragon or the Mysterium-X sensor. The Dragon is a 6K, 19MP sensor with 16.5+ stops of claimed dynamic range. The Mysterium-X is a 5K, 14MP sensor that claims 13.5 stops, but up to 18 stops using RED’s HDRx (high dynamic range) technology. df0715_epicThe basic difference between the EPIC and the SCARLET, other than cost, is that the EPIC features more advanced internal processing and this computing power enables a wider range of features. For example, the EPIC can record up to 300fps at 2K, while the SCARLET tops out at 120fps at 1K. The EPIC is also sold in two configurations: EPIC-M, which is hand-assembled using machined parts, and the EPIC-X, which is a production-run camera. With the interest in 4K live production, RED has introduced its 4K Broadcast Module. Coupled with an EPIC camera, you could record a 6K file for archive, while simultaneously feeding a 4K and/or HD live signal for broadcast. RED is selling studio broadcast configurations complete with camera, modules and support accessories as broadcast-ready packages.

df0715_f65Sony has been quickly gaining ground in the 4K market. Its CineAlta line includes the F65, PMW-F55, PMW-F5, PMW-F3, NEX-FS700R and NEX-FS100. All are HD-capable and use Super 35mm sized image sensors, with the lower-end FS700R able to record 4K raw to an external recorder. At the highest end is the 20MP F65, which is designed for feature film production.df0715_f55 The camera is capable of 8K raw recording, as well as 4K, 2K and HD variations. Recordings must be made on a separate SR-R4 SR MASTER field recorder. For most users, the F55 is going to be the high-end camera for them if they purchase from Sony. It permits onboard recording in four formats: MPEG-2 HD, XAVC HD, SR File and XAVC 4K. With an external recorder, 4K and 2K raw recording is also available. High speeds up to 240fps (2K raw with the optional, external recorder) are possible. The F5 is the F55’s smaller sibling. It’s designed for onboard HD recording (MPEG-2 HD, XAVC HD, SR File). 4K and 2K recordings require an external recorder.

df0715_fs7The Sony camera that has caught everyone’s attention is the PXW-FS7. It’s designed as a lightweight, documentary-style camera with a form factor and rig that’s reminiscent of an Aaton 16mm film camera. It uses a Super 35mm sized sensor and delivers 4K resolution using onboard XAVC recording to XQD memory cards. XDCAM MPEG-2 HD recording (now) and ProRes (with a future upgrade) will also be possible. Also raw will be possible to an outboard recorder.

df0715_a7sSony has also not been left behind by the DSLR revolution. The A7s is an APS-C, full frame, mirrorless 12.2MP camera that’s optimized for 4K and low light. It can record up to 1080p/60 (or 720p/120) onboard (50Mbps XAVC S) or feed uncompressed HD and/or 4K (UHD) out via its HDMI port. It will record onboard audio and sports such pro features as Sony’s S-Log2 gamma profile.

With any overview, there’s plenty that we can’t cover. If you are in the market for a camera, remember many of these companies offer a slew of other cameras ranging from consumer to ENG/EFP offerings. I’ve only touched on the highlights. Plus there are others, like Grass Valley, Hitachi, Samsung and Ikegami that make great products in use around the world every day. Finally, with all the video-enabled smart phones and tablets, don’t be surprised if you are recording your next production with an iPhone or iPad!

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Adobe Anywhere and Divine Access

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Editors like the integration of Adobe’s software, especially Dynamic Link and Direct Link between creative applications. This sort of approach is applied to collaborative workflows with Adobe Anywhere, which permits multiple stakeholders, including editors, producers and directors, to access common media and productions from multiple, remote locations. One company that has invested in the Adobe Anywhere environment is G-Men Media of Venice, California, who installed it as their post production hub. By using Adobe Anywhere, Jeff Way (COO) and Clay Glendenning (CEO) sought to improve the efficiency of the filmmaking process for their productions. No science project – they have now tested the concept in the real world on several indie feature films.

Their latest film, Divine Access, produced by The Traveling Picture Show Company in association with G-Men Media, is a religious satire centering on reluctant prophet Jack Harriman. Forces both natural and supernatural lead Harriman down a road to redemption culminating in a final showdown with his long time foe, Reverend Guy Roy Davis. Steven Chester Prince (Boyhood, The Ringer, A Scanner Darkly) moves behind the camera as the film’s director. The entire film was shot in Austin, Texas during May of 2014, but the processing of dailies and all post production was handled back at the Venice facility. Way explains, “During principal photography we were able to utilize our Anywhere system to turn around dailies and rough cuts within hours after shooting. This reduced our turnaround time for review and approval, thus reducing budget line items. Using Anywhere enabled us to identify cuts and mark them as viable the same day, reducing the need for expensive pickup shoots later down the line.”

The production workflow

df0115_da_3_smDirector of Photography Julie Kirkwood (Hello I Must Be Going, Collaborator, Trek Nation) picked the ARRI ALEXA for this film and scenes were recorded as ProRes 4444 in 2K. An on-set data wrangler would back up the media to local hard drives and then a runner would take the media to a downtown upload site. The production company found an Austin location with 1GB upload speeds. This enabled them to upload 200GB of data in about 45 minutes. Most days only 50-80GB were uploaded at one time, since uploads happened several times throughout each day.

Way says, “We implemented a technical pipeline for the film that allowed us to remain flexible.  Adobe’s open API platform made this possible. During production we used an Amazon S3 instance in conjunction with Aspera to get the footage securely to our system and also act as a cloud back-up.” By uploading to Amazon and then downloading the media into their Anywhere system in Venice, G-Men now had secure, full-resolution media in redundant locations. Camera LUTs were also sent with the camera files, which could be added to the media for editorial purposes in Venice. Amazon will also provide a long-term archive of the 8TB of raw media for additional protection and redundancy. This Anywhere/Amazon/Aspera pipeline was supervised by software developer Matt Smith.

df0115_da_5_smBack in Venice, the download and ingest into the Anywhere server and storage was an automated process that Smith programmed. Glendenning explains, “It would automatically populate a bin named for that day with the incoming assets. Wells [Phinny, G-Men editorial assistant] would be able to grab from subfolders named ‘video’ and ‘audio’ to quickly organize clips into scene subfolders within the Anywhere production that he would create from that day’s callsheet. Wells did most of this work remotely from his home office a few miles away from the G-Men headquarters.” Footage was synced and logged for on-set review of dailies and on-set cuts the next day. Phinny effectively functioned as a remote DIT in a unique way.

Remote access in Austin to the Adobe Anywhere production for review was made possible through an iPad application. Way explains, “We had close contact with Wells via text message, phone and e-mail. The iPad access to Anywhere used a secure VPN connection over the Internet. We found that a 4G wireless data connection was sufficient to play the clips and cuts. On scenes where the director had concerns that there might not be enough coverage, the process enabled us to quickly see something. No time was lost to transcoding media or to exporting a viewable copy, which would be typical of the more traditional way of working.”

Creative editorial mixing Adobe Anywhere and Avid Media Composer

df0115_da_4_smOnce principal photography was completed, editing moved into the G-Men mothership. Instead of editing with Premiere Pro, however, Avid Media Composer was used. According to Way, “Our goal was to utilize the Anywhere system throughout as much of the production as possible. Although it would have been nice to use Premiere Pro for the creative edit, we believed going with an editor that shared our director’s creative vision was the best for the film. Kindra Marra [Scenic Route, Sassy Pants, Hick] preferred to cut in Media Composer. This gave us the opportunity to test how the system could adapt already existing Adobe productions.” G-Men has handled post on other productions where the editor worked remotely with an Anywhere production. In this case, since Marra lived close-by in Santa Monica, it was simpler just to set up the cutting room at their Venice facility. At the start of this phase, assistant editor Justin (J.T.) Billings joined the team.

Avid has added subscription pricing, so G-Men installed the Divine Access cutting room using a Mac Pro and “renting” the Media Composer 8 software for a few months. The Anywhere servers are integrated with a Facilis Technology TerraBlock shared storage network, which is compatible with most editing applications, including both Premiere Pro and Media Composer. The Mac Pro tower was wired into the TerraBlock SAN and was able to see the same ALEXA ProRes media as Anywhere. According to Billings, “Once all the media was on the TerraBlock drives, Marra was able to access these in the Media Composer project using Avid’s AMA-linking. This worked well and meant that no media had to be duplicated. The film was cut solely with AMA-linked media. External drives were also connected to the workstations for nightly back-ups as another layer of protection.”

Adobe Anywhere at the finish line

df0115_da_6_smOnce the cut was locked, an AAF composition for the edited sequence was sent from Media Composer to DaVinci Resolve 11, which was installed on an HP workstation at G-Men. This unit was also connected to the TerraBlock storage, so media instantly linked when the AAF file was imported. Freelance colorist Mark Todd Osborne graded the film on Resolve 11 and then exported a new AAF file corresponding to the rendered media, which now also existed on the SAN drives. This AAF composition was then re-imported into Media Composer.

Billings continues, “All of the original audio elements existed in the Media Composer project and there was no reason to bring them into Premiere Pro. By importing Resolve’s AAF back into Media Composer, we could then double-check the final timeline with audio and color corrected picture. From here, the audio and OMF files were exported for Pro Tools [sound editorial and the mix is being done out-of-house]. Reference video of the film for the mix could now use the graded images. A new AAF file for the graded timeline was also exported from Media Composer, which then went back into Premiere Pro and the Anywhere production. Once we get the mixed tracks back, these will be added to the Premiere Pro timeline. Final visual effects shots can also be loaded into Anywhere and then inserted into the Premiere Pro sequence. From here on, all further versions of Divine Access will be exported from Premiere Pro and Anywhere.”

Glendenning points out that, “To make sure the process went smoothly, we did have a veteran post production supervisor – Hank Braxtan – double check our workflow.  He and I have done a lot of work together over the years and has more than a decade of experience overseeing an Avid house. We made sure he was available whenever there were Avid-related technical questions from the editors.”

Way says, “Previously, on post production of [the indie film] Savageland, we were able to utilize Anywhere for full post production through to delivery. Divine Access has allowed us to take advantage of our system on both sides of the creative edit including principal photography and post finishing through to delivery. This gives us capabilities through entire productions. We have a strong mix of Apple and PC hardware and now we’ve proven that our Anywhere implementation is adaptable to a variety of different hardware and software configurations. Now it becomes a non-issue whether it’s Adobe, Avid or Resolve. It’s whatever the creative needs dictate; plus, we are happy to be able to use the fastest machines.”

Glendenning concludes, “Tight budget projects have tight deadlines and some producers have missed their deadlines because of post. We installed Adobe Anywhere and set up the ecosystem surrounding it because we feel this is a better way that can save time and money. I believe the strategy employed for Divine Access has been a great improvement over the usual methods. Using Adobe Anywhere really let us hit it out of the park.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters