Anatomy of posting a digital, indie feature film
This blog is named Digital Films and today’s post is definitely in keeping with that title. I wrapped up last year cutting an indie feature, called Scare Zone – a comedy/horror – or horror/comedy – film that is the brainchild of writer/director Jon Binkowski. Jon and I have worked on projects for years. His forte is creative design for theme parks and although he has written and directed a number of short films for park attractions, Scare Zone was his first full-length, dramatic feature film. The story takes place in a seasonal, Halloween-style, haunted house attraction. Our cast is an ensemble of young folks who’ve taken part-time jobs at the attraction for its short run; but, it turns out that someone is actually killing people at the Scare Zone.
Like all good low-budget films, Scare Zone benefited from good timing. Namely, that Jon was able to mount the production at Universal Studios Florida right after their annual Halloween Horror Nights park events. Some of the attraction sets are constructed in the soundstages and Scare Zone was able to take advantage of these during the window between the end of Halloween Horror Nights and the time when the sets were scheduled to be destroyed for another year. One key partner in this endeavor was area producer, Ben Kupfer, who produced and co-edited Scare Zone. As a low-budget film targeted for DVD distribution, Jon and Ben opted to shoot the film digitally, relying on two Sony XDCAM-EX1 and EX3 cameras for the look of this film.
Straight to the cut
Scare Zone started production in November and I’ll have to say that I have never worked on a film this fast before. I signed on as editor and colorist and started my first cut a week or so after taping commenced. Since this was a digital feature, we opted to cut this film natively (using the original compressed HD format from the camera) and not follow the more standard offline/online approach. Each day’s worth of shooting from the A and B cameras – housed on SxS cards from the EX cameras – was backed up to two Western Digital drives at the end of the day. Imagine Products’ ShotPut software was used, because this offered copy and verification to multiple drives and the ability to add some improved organization, such as adding tape name prefixes to files. Once files were backed up, the drives were sent over to the cutting room and media loaded to our storage array.
Although I’ve cut a lot of long form projects with Apple Final Cut Pro, this was actually the first dramatic feature (not including documentaries) that I’ve cut start-to-finish on FCP. Since I was cutting natively, we used the standard XDCAM import routine, which imports and rewraps the 1920×1080, 23.98fps, 35Mbps VBR MPEG2 files from the EX cameras into QuickTime media files. We also recorded double-system broadcast WAVE files for back-up audio, but only accessed these for a few lines – notably, when the footage was shot on GlideCam and the camera was untethered from any mics. In our native workflow, I was always cutting with final-quality footage and the quad-core Mac Pro had no trouble keeping up with the footage.
Both cameras accrued about 26 hours of combined raw footage. I finished my first cut in the equivalent of 15 working days. Basically, I was done in time for the wrap party! I have to point out that I’ve never cut a film this quickly and although FCP, tapeless media and/or native editing might have been a factor, I certainly have to extend kudos to an organized shoot, good directing and a talented cast. Jon did a lot of cutting in his head as he directed. As an editor, I prefer that a director not do too much of this, but I generally found that I had as much coverage as needed on Scare Zone. Our ensemble cast was on the money, which limited the number of takes. I rarely had more than four takes and most were good. This meant solid performances and good continuity, which lets a film like this almost cut itself. Since the storyline has to progress in a linear fashion over a 3-day period, there wasn’t a huge need to veer from the chronology of the original script.
Locking the picture
After turning in a solid first cut, Jon and Ben took a pass at it. Ben is also an experienced editor, so this gave them a chance to review my cut and modify it as needed. My mantra is to cut tighter, so a lot of their tweaks came in opening up some of the cuts. This was less of a stylistic difference and more because Jon’s pace was musically driven. Jon already had a score in his head, which required some more breath in certain scenes. In addition, a few ad hoc changes to the script had been made on the set. I was cutting in parallel to the production, so these changes needed to be incorporated, since they weren’t in my cut. In the end, after a few weeks of tweaking and some informal, “friends and family” focus screenings, the picture was locked – largely reflecting the structure of the first cut.
A locked picture meant we could move on to music, visual effects, sound design/mix and color grading. I tackled the latter. Working in a native form meant we could go straight to finishing – no “uprez” step required. I’ve had my ups and downs with Apple Color, but it was an ideal choice for Scare Zone. I split my timeline into 6 reels that were sent to Color for grading. Splitting up the timeline into reels of fewer than 200 edits is a general recommendation for long form projects sent to Color. Once in Color, I set up my project to render in ProResHQ. Color renders new media and these rendered clips with “baked in” color grading become the linked video files when you roundtrip back to FCP. Thus your final, graded FCP timeline will be linked to the Color renders and not the original camera files. This effectively gives you an additional level of redundancy, because you have duplicated the clips in the actual cut, in addition to the files imported from the camera.
The Sony EX cameras can be preset to a number of different Cine-Gamma style settings. At the front end, Ben and DP Mike Gluckman decided on a setting that was generally brighter and flatter than the desired, final look. This is a preset intended as an optimal starting point when post-production grading is to be used. It gives you the advantage of using the lower cost EX cameras in much the same way as you would use Sony’s expensive F900 or F23 CineAlta cameras. Unfortunately, there was no budget for film lens adapters or prime lenses, so standard video zooms were used. Nevertheless, the look was very filmic, given the rather tight quarters of our haunted attraction sets.
During grading, I generally brought levels down, making most of the film darker and less saturated. Typically, I would set a slight S-curve value in Color’s Primary In “room” as my first basic setting. This would increase the contrast of the picture and counteract the flatness of the Cine-Gamma setting used in camera. Effectively you are working to increase dynamic range in a way similar to film negative. This is a key issue, because the MPEG2 compression used by Sony in its XDCAM and EX cameras is not kind when you have to increase gain and gamma. By doing so, you tend to raise the noise floor and at times start to see the compression artifacts. If you start brighter and lower the “pedestal”, “lift” or “black” settings as you grade, you will end up with a better look and don’t run the risks caused by raising gamma. This is in keeping with the “expose to the right” philosophy that most digital shooters try to adhere to these days.
The proof of the look for us was at the first official screening held in one of Universal’s digital HD theaters. Scare Zone was encoded to Blu-Ray and run on a 2K Christie projector for our cast, crew, families and investors. The grading done to the Panasonic reference monitor held up quite well on a large theater screen. In the end, Scare Zone went from the first day of shooting to this “premiere” in about 3 ½ months. This is easily 1/3 the time that most films take for the same processes. Like all films, the next phase is sales and distribution – often the hardest. For now though, everyone involved was very happy with the positive response enjoyed at these screenings. Mixing up horror and comedy can be quite dicey, but judging by the audience reactions, it seems to have been pulled off! In any case, Scare Zone is another example to show that digital production and desktop tools have come of age, when it comes to entertaining the traditional film audience.
© 2009 Oliver Peters