Dealing with a post facility

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The do-it-yourself filmmaker might view the traditional lab or post facility as a place of last resort. That belief stems from a fear that – like a visit to a doctor or lawyer – every minute is billable. Most finishing facilities are actually easy to deal with and have the producer’s best interests at heart. They have been forging new workflows with file-based formats and are often the best-equipped to give a producer the desired creative and technical result.

 

Reasons to rely on outside resources include various advanced post services, like conforming a project for higher-quality or higher-resolution deliverables, color-grading and the production of digital intermediate masters. Sometimes, clients simply don’t know where to start, what to ask, or what’s expected of them. I posed some of these questions to a roundtable of post professionals, including Terence Curren, owner of Aphadogs (Burbank), Mike Most, chief technologist at Cineworks (Miami), Brian Hutchings, freelance colorist (Los Angeles) and Peter Postma, US product manager for Filmlight.

 

OP: Many clients don’t realize that post houses may offer up-front consultation as part of their sales effort. How do you approach that?

 

CURREN: We absolutely offer that service! Any post house that has the client’s welfare in mind does this. We find ourselves consulting on everything from cameras and recording formats, to file naming conventions. Every system has issues. We handle both FCP and Avid extensively and are familiar with a lot of potential pitfalls on either platform. When a client contacts us in advance, we can help to steer them clear of problems with their intended workflow. That can save them a lot of money in the long run.

 

HUTCHINGS: As a freelance colorist, I take on the roles of educator and salesman. Clients are increasingly making the transition from daVinci sessions to [Apple] Color. I do color timing on daVinci, Final Cut Studio and Avid systems and don’t have a financial interest in any particular piece of gear. Therefore, I can give a fairly unbiased opinion on the different paths available.

 

MOST: Clients these days often try to self educate. They read a lot on the Internet or elsewhere, or talk to others who have used the equipment they’re planning to use. Sometimes the knowledge they gain is accurate and useful, but often it’s either inaccurate or based on production or post conditions that differ from theirs. We try to steer them in a direction, so that what they do, how they do it, and the formats they use, flow easily into the finishing steps that we provide. Basically, we try to minimize surprises and make the process smoother, more efficient, and in many cases, more economical.

 

OP: What should the producer be prepared to supply for an online edit or a DI conform?

 

MOST: In general – if there is still such a thing – we need the original materials, an EDL, some visual copy of their offline cut as a reference, title copy (or graphics files, if they’ve created their own) and some idea as to how they’re finishing the sound. If the program is cut on an Avid, it’s useful to receive a bin with the final sequence in addition to a traditional EDL. Many less-experienced Final Cut editors use techniques, such as nesting, speed effects and other visual embellishments, which do not translate to an EDL in any kind of useful form. So with Final Cut, it helps to have a copy of the project file.

 

CURREN: Mike has covered the bases; however, with the new file-based formats that offer higher resolutions at smaller file sizes, we often receive the project with the media already attached. In this case our work starts by fine-tuning effects, adding any graphics, color correcting and the final mix of the audio. This saves money in the capture time and in double-checking against the offline for accuracy.

 

MOST: I do find that many users of newer formats, such as RED, are very confused about what they do and do not have to deliver to us to achieve the best quality with the least difficulty. They do a lot of work themselves to create elements that serve no purpose for us. This actually lengthens the amount of time it takes us to complete the conform. Hopefully in the future, there will be more communication prior to picture lock between clients and finishing facilities and much less bad guesswork.

 

OP: What are your guidelines for preparing the media and timelines before you start? How much time should be allowed for finishing and color grading?

 

CURREN: Our process is to re-import any files, then recapture any media from tape. With older analog formats like Betacam, we will actually ride levels on recapture to avoid any clipping of the video, which cannot be retrieved later in the process. Generally speaking, we figure about 100 clips captured per hour on Avid and about 90 on FCP. The more clips in a show, the longer this process takes. We will check the new timeline shot-by-shot against a copy of the offline output to verify that is correct, in sync and that effects properly translated. Next comes the color correction pass, titling and graphics. At this point we will watch the show with the client and then address any notes.

 

POSTMA: A commercial can be done in a day, though several days may be used for creative reasons. A feature film – including scanning, color correction and recording – can be done in three weeks. Again, it may be longer if you want to spend more time making creative color-correction decisions.

 

CURREN: An important side note about color correction needs to be made here. There are really three parts. Part one is to make it legal for whatever your distribution is going to be. Part two is to make it even, meaning all the shots in a given scene should look like they belong together. The first two steps are fairly objective. Part three is purely subjective. That’s where the magic can take place in color correction. Giving a slight green tint to a scary scene or a slight blue tint to two lovers silently arguing are examples of subjective choices. The creative part of the process can take a long time if allowed.

 

MOST: I can speak more to the feature film side of this question, because the time factors – once the conform is complete – are usually dictated by things like budgets. For a feature shot on film, we usually allocate 3-5 days to scanning (perhaps a day or two less for file restoration on a file based electronic feature), 2-3 days to conform, 5-10 days for color correction, 1-2 days to do final renders and create the HD master, and about a 5-7 days to do a film recording. All of those time factors can vary in either direction, depending on editorial complication, show length, creative choices, and, once again, budget.

 

OP: How do you handle grading of the same project for TV, digital cinema projection and film prints?

 

CURREN: Many post houses are claiming they are DI houses, but shouldn’t be. The trick with DI is to have tight control over the entire process, including the film lab. If you don’t, there are too many places where things can go wrong. Most of our work at Alphadogs is grading for television. We don’t claim to be a DI house. When we do feature work and the client plans to do a film-out, we will color correct the same way as for TV, but avoid clipping whites or crushing blacks. Afterwards, the client takes it to the lab they have chosen for a film-out, where a final scene-by-scene color pass is done. They save money by not having to color-grade every shot, since the scenes are already evened out.

 

MOST: Cineworks has a DI theater that’s specifically calibrated to Digital Cinema (P3) color space. We use a film print preview lookup table for projects going to film. During the session we’re basically looking at a preview of the eventual film print. The files are created in 10-bit log, film print density color space, and are used directly by a film recorder. We then use various custom lookup tables, along with minor color tweaks, to derive all other deliverables from those same files. The look remains consistent across all platforms. We usually generate an HD video version, which is then used for all other video deliverables – HD24, HD25, NTSC, PAL, full frame, letterbox, etc.

 

POSTMA: Filmlight’s Truelight color management system handles these conversions, so a DI facility that uses it should only need to color correct once and Truelight will handle the color conversion to the other spaces. It usually makes sense to color correct for the medium with the most color range (film or digital cinema) and then downconvert to video, web, etc. There may be some different creative decisions you’d like to make for the more limited mediums of video or the web. In that case, you can do a trim pass to tweak a few shots, but the Truelight color conversion should get you 90% of the way there.

 

OP: Should a producer worry about various camera color spaces, such as Panalog, REDlog or the cine-gamma settings in Sony or Panasonic cameras?

 

CURREN: This is a great reason to talk to post first. I’m a fan of leaving things in the native space through to your final finish; however, that can make for a very flat looking offline, which is disturbing to many folks. If so, you might need two versions of the files or tapes. One version – the master – should stay in the native space. The second – the offline editorial working files – should be changed over to video (601 or 709) space.

 

MOST: Color space issues should be for finishing facilities to deal with, but the use of custom gamma curves in electronic cameras presents some educational issues for shooters. We usually try to discuss these during a pre-production meeting, but they primarily affect dailies creation. For finishing, we can deal with all of these color spaces without much of a problem.

 

OP: If the intended distribution is 2K or 1920×1080 HD, should the producer be concerned about image sequence files (DPX, TIFF, etc.)?

 

MOST: No, not unless that’s the way the program is being recorded – as with an S.two or Codex recorder. It’s easier for editors to deal with wrapped movie files, QuickTime in the case of Final Cut or OMF and MXF in the case of Avid. We use the original material – in whatever form it was captured – for finishing. With film, of course, that’s obvious; but, for RED, we work directly from the .r3d files in our Assimilate SCRATCH system. That gives us access to all of the information the camera captured.

 

CURREN: DPX files hog a tremendous amount of storage space. If you capture digitally, with the RED camera, for instance, why not stay with the native RED codec? You won’t gain any quality by converting to DPX, but you will have to bake in a look limiting your color correction range later in the process?

 

OP: Who should attend the sessions?

 

MOST: For conforming, nobody needs to physically be there, but the editor or assistant editor needs to be available for any questions that come up. For color correction, we really want the director of photography to be with us, as the one who is really responsible for the look of the picture.

 

POSTMA: Cinematographer and director. You definitely don’t want too many people in the room or you can burn up time in a very expensive suite making decisions by committee.

 

CURREN: Who is signing the check? I’m not trying to be cheeky, it is just that someone makes the final decisions, or they have authorized someone to make the final decisions. That is who should be there at the end. For feature work, often the DP will get a pass at the color correction. In this case, it is wise for the producer to set some guidelines. The DP is going to try to make his stuff look the best he can, which is what he should be wanting. The colorist also wants the best look they can achieve. There is an old saying that applies here, “No film is ever done, they just run out of time or money.” There has to be a clear understanding of where the cut off point is. When is it good enough? Without that direction, the DP and the colorist can rack up quite a bill.

 

®2009 Oliver Peters

Originally written for DV Magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

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