Chasing Ghosts


The motion picture community has been transitioning from photochemical finishing to electronic post for the past several years. Electronic scanning, conforming and color-correction, which is generally referred to as the digital intermediate process, seems out of the budgetary reach of most independent filmmakers. DI budgets for blockbusters are often in the half-a-million dollar range, and getting a top quality DI done for under a quarter million is as elusive as the Holy Grail. Many innovative filmmakers are seeking alternatives in desktop solutions and one such example is the breakthrough indie film, Chasing Ghosts. The film is scheduled for a theatrical release in September and will be the first of its kind to go through a complete DI workflow entirely on the Apple PowerMac platform.


Chasing Ghosts is the brainchild of director and editor Kyle Jackson and his producing partner Alan Pao. It stars Michael Madsen (Kill Bill 1 & 2) in a crime drama reminiscent of old black-and-white noir films like Double Indemnity. Jackson and Pao wanted to achieve the same sort of tonal quality, but with a contemporary look, making Chasing Ghosts a prime candidate for digital intermediate post. DI would offer the film’s Wingman Productions the ability to use digital color grading (color correction) instead of traditional color timing at the lab. The production team researched the options around Los Angeles and estimates for a basic DI ran up to $300,000. Fortunately, one small post house, Tunnel Post, accepted the challenge to come up with a DI solution that was feasible on an indie budget without sacrificing quality.


The desktop solution for digital intermediates


I had a chance to discuss the Mac-oriented desktop approach with Kyle Jackson. “We could have shot Chasing Ghosts on HD and probably avoided a lot of hassles, but in order to get the right look, we opted for Super 35mm negative. The film needed a gritty look, which is helped by the organic nature of film grain, plus we wanted the wider aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Once that decision was made, we researched a workflow that would get us a DI, but still stay within our budget. I’ve been with Apple’s Final Cut Pro since before version 1.0 as a beta tester, so that was my logical editing tool. To keep the film-to-tape transfer cost down, we used DV dailies for our offline editing source tapes. Since I was editing on Final Cut, I also made extensive use of Cinema Tools to track our film numbers. Chasing Ghosts was edited on my trusty dual-processor G4 equipped with the first version of the AJA Kona card. This gave us good-looking standard-definition video to watch as I was working through the rough cut.”


Once Jackson locked the cut, the fun was ready to start. The first step in any typical DI workflow involves scanning the negative into 2K-resolution (2048×1556 pixels) digital files. This requires the editor to generate a negative cut list that the scanning facility can use to find the corresponding selected scenes and takes. There are approximately 1500 shots used in the final approved version of Chasing Ghosts. Jackson worked with Magic Film and Video to generate the proper scanning lists (from Cinema Tools) that were then used by Lowry Digital (the scanning facility). After scanning, the files were delivered to Tunnel Post on FireWire drives where the raw footage was transferred back into the Macs for effects and clean-up work, such as dust-busting (digitally “painting out” dirt picked up on the negative). The post team used Apple’s Shake compositor for these steps. Next came the crucial stages of assembly and color grading. At this point, these high-resolution digital files would typically have taken a turn and been moved onto expensive, high-end gear. To stay on the Mac for the rest of their DI approach, Chasing Ghosts was able to take advantage of Silicon Color’s innovative new FinalTouch color correction system that runs on Apple PowerMac G5s.


This was early on in FinalTouch’s development and one big missing step was a way to match the scanned files – which consisted of numbered image sequences – back into a timeline that corresponded to the rough cut. These files didn’t contain either keycode or timecode information. The solution turned out to be a custom piece of software written by Silicon Color, which took a spreadsheet file used to track the scanned files and convert that into a timeline used by the FinalTouch system. This software utility has since been incorporated into shipping versions of FinalTouch. Although this assembly function is a crucial aspect of FinalTouch, its real forte is color grading. Silicon Color’s current versions of FinalTouch include products for standard-definition video, high-definition video and 2K film and offer a full range of professional primary and secondary color correction tools. The video versions feature tight integration with Final Cut’s XML lists, while the film version supports different color spaces and film file formats. FinalTouch 2K is the only complete Mac-based DI product. In addition to color-correction and list support, there are special effects modules for pan/scan/zoom/rotation, color filtering, motion tracking, and blur and vignetting effects.


Color grading on the Mac


During the color grading process, Tunnel Post set up a G5 configured with FinalTouch and the then, newly-released AJA Kona 2 card. Most readers will associate Kona 2 with Final Cut Pro as a video capture and output card, but actually any company that handles image information under Apple’s OS X can write drivers and codecs that work in conjunction with Kona 2. Lowry Digital’s film scans were delivered in the Cineon 10-bit logarithmic data format. These files were played by FinalTouch, which was controlling output through the Kona 2 card, so that grading could be monitored on a high-resolution Sony CRT. The Kona 2 card would downsample the Cineon files into uncompressed high-definition video playing in close-to-real-time. The playback speed was dependent on drive performance and the number of color-correction filters applied to the clips. 


Jackson continued, “We were going for a look that would resonate with modern audiences. We want the audience to be unsure whether or not our protagonist is really a good guy, so we were going for a stylized, edgy look. This wasn’t a graphic-novel-on-film, like Sin City. Not stark black-and-white. Instead we stayed in color, so filming was done with normal contrast. During the grading, we desaturated the colors and pushed the contrast – a little like Sky Captain, but definitely the real world instead of a synthetic world and not such a painted or glowing appearance to the image. We brought in Teague Cowley as a freelance colorist to drive the FinalTouch system and were quite impressed with the results.” Some will question the accuracy of a CRT in matching a projected image, but Jackson told me that in the end this wasn’t an issue. “We researched using a flat panel display for correction but didn’t like the rendition of the blacks. There aren’t enough steps to properly definite small differences in dark areas. Because a CRT is only an 8-bit digital display you have other issues when you are trying to color correct 10-bit log files from film scans. Peak whites that we thought were blown out on the monitor, like the exterior light in a window, actually retained some detail to the image when we saw the film print. In effect, the CRT gave us the opposite situation from that of a flat panel display.”


Meeting your deliverables


After color grading, Silicon Color’s FinalTouch rendered the timeline with all adjustments into a DPX file format used in the final film recording stage. Kona 2 was also able to play these DPX files so that final correction could be checked on a video monitor after the rendering was completed. A film’s deliverables typically include various videotape masters for broadcast and home video distribution. At the time that post on Chasing Ghosts was being wrapped, AJA and Silicon Color were still working on a DPX-to-HD conversion utility, so turning the film files into HD video deliverables was handled through Adobe After Effects. In the future this won’t necessarily require After Effects. I questioned Jackson about whether one color grading setting worked for all formats. “Right now everyone is working out their own solutions. During our research phase, we ran some uncorrected test films through CFI [an LA film lab] and calibrated our monitor to match those results. This way we were reasonably sure that the color grading we were seeing on the monitor would be the same as on the projected prints. In the end, only one reel was a little off and required some minor density correction by the lab. The same corrections held for the TV deliverables, too. Our only video adjustments were to tweak the gamma levels, which was done as part of the file conversion in After Effects.”


So did the budget gamble work out? According to Jackson, the portions of the budget earmarked for production and post came to about $1 Million, so a DI costing a quarter of that would have been out of the question. “Even after all the deals you may be able to work, there are always certain hard costs that you can’t get away from. For us the hard cost of scanning and film recording came to around $75,000. In total, counting our costs, freelancers and other items, the complete DI with all deliverables was under $125,000. So…less than half of what most studios assume will be the lowest cost for the same process. Using tools like AJA’s Kona 2 and Silicon Color’s FinalTouch let us work at the highest possible quality and stick with our indie desktop workflow.”


Jackson and Pao are so convinced that Chasing Ghosts hit on a winning formula for up-and-coming filmmakers that their Wingman Productions and Tunnel Post have entered into a partnership with Switch Studios in Venice, California to offer the same desktop DI pipeline to other directors. The new digs provides a facility infrastructure and faster computers, but Jackson isn’t about to stray from what he believes are the new indie mainstays – Final Cut Pro HD, Cinema Tools, Kona 2 and FinalTouch .


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)