Phil Spector

df_philspector_3Phil Spector became famous as a music industry icon. The legendary producer, who originated the “wall of sound” production technique of densely-layered arrangements, worked with a wide range of acts, including the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and the Beatles. Unfortunately, fame can also have its infamous side. Spector abruptly came back into public notice through the circumstances of the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson and his subsequent criminal trials, culminating in a 2009 conviction for second-degree murder.

The story of his first murder trial and the relationship between Spector (Al Pacino) and defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) form the basis for the new film by HBO Films. Phil Spector, which is executive produced by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), was directed by celebrated screenwriter/director David Mamet (The Unit, The Shield, Hannibal, Wag the Dog). Rather than treat it as a biopic or news story, Mamet chose to take a fictionalized approach that chronicles Spector’s legal troubles as a fall from grace.

One key member of the production team was editor Barbara Tulliver (Too Big to Fail, Lady in the Water, Signs), who has previously collaborated with Mamet. She started as a film editor working on commercials in New York, but quickly transitioned into features. According to Tulliver, “I assisted on David’s first two films and then cut my first feature as an editor with him, so we have established a relationship. I also cut Too Big to Fail for HBO and brought a lot of the same editorial crew for this one, so it was like a big family.”

df_philspector_4As with most television schedules, Phil Spector was shot and completed in a time frame and with a budget more akin to a well-funded independent feature, rather than a typical studio film. Tulliver explained, “Our schedule to complete this film was between that of a standard TV project and a feature. If a studio film has six weeks to complete a mix, a film like this would have three. The steps are the same, but the schedule is shrunk. I was cutting during the thirty-day production phase, so I had a cut ready for David a week after he wrapped. HBO likes to see things early, so David had his initial cut done after five weeks, instead of the typical ten-week time frame. Like any studio, HBO will give us notes, but they are very respectful of the filmmakers, which is why they can attract the caliber of talent that they do for these films. At that point we went into a bit of a hold, because David wanted some additional photography and that took awhile until HBO approved it.”

The production itself was handled like a film shoot using ARRI Alexa cameras in a single-camera style. An on-set DIT generated the dailies used for the edit. Although you wouldn’t consider this a visual effects film, it still had its share of shots. Tulliver said, “There were a lot of comps that are meat-and-potatoes effects these days. For instance, the film was shot in New York, so in scenes when Spector arrives at the courthouse in Los Angeles, the visual effects department had to build up all of the exteriors to look like LA. There are a number of TV and computer screens, which were all completed in post. Plus a certain amount of frame clean-ups, like removing unwanted elements from a shot.”

df_philspector_2Mamet wrote a very lean screenplay, so the length of the cut didn’t present any creative challenges for Tulliver. She continued, “David’s scripts are beautifully crafted, so there was no need to re-arrange scenes. We might have deleted one scene. David makes decisions quickly and doesn’t overshoot. Like any director, he is open to changes in performance; but, the actors have such respect for his script, that there isn’t a lot of embellishment that might pose editing challenges in another film. Naturally with a cast like this, the performances were all good. The main challenge we had, was to find ways to integrate Spector’s songs into the story. How to use the music to open up scenes in the film and add montages. This meant all of the songs had to be cleared. We were largely successful, except with John Lennon’s Imagine, where Yoko Ono had the final say. Although she was open to our using the song, ultimately she and David couldn’t agree to how it would be integrated creatively into the film.”

Phil Spector was cut digitally on an Avid Media Composer. Like many feature editors, Barbara Tulliver started her career cutting film. She said, “I’m one of the last editors to embrace digital editing. I went into it kicking and screaming, but so did the directors I was working with at the time. When I finally moved over to Avid, they were pretty well established as the dominant nonlinear edit system for films. I do miss some things about editing on film, though. There’s a tactile sense of the film that’s almost romantic. Because it takes longer to make changes, film editing is more reflective. You talk about it more and often in the course of these discussions, you discover better solutions than if you simply tried a lot of variations. In the film days, you talked about the dramatic and emotional impact of these options. This is still the case, but one has to be more vigilant about making that happen – as opposed to just re-cutting a scene twenty different ways, because it is easy and fast – and then not know what you are looking at anymore.”

df_philspector_1“Today, I cut the same way I did when I was cutting film. I like to lay out my cut as a road map. I’ll build it rough to get a sense of the whole scene, rather than finesse each single cut as I go. After I’ve built the scene that way, I’ll go back and tweak and trim to fine-tune the cut. Digital editing for me is not all about the bells-and-whistles. I don’t use some of the Avid features, like multi-camera editing or Script Sync. While these are great features, some are labor-intensive to prepare. When you have a minimal crew without a lot of assistants, I prefer to work in a more straightforward fashion.”

Tulliver concluded with this thought, “Although I may be nostalgic about the days of film editing, it would be a complete nightmare to go back to that. In fact, several years ago one director was interested in trying it, so I investigated what it would take. It’s hard to find the gear anymore and when you do, it hasn’t been properly maintained, because no one has been using it. Not to mention finding mag stripe and other materials that you would need. The list of people and labs that actually know how to handle a complete film project is getting smaller each year, so going back would just about be impossible. While film might not be dead as a production medium, it has passed that point in post.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine.

©2013 Oliver Peters

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Road Warrior Bags

df_ecbc_2I usually don’t write these types of product reviews. Most of my entries focus on post production software and techniques, but in a way this is related. As more and more editors ply their trade with the aid of portable devices, such as laptops, an important tool is your backpack or laptop bag. I generally freelance at other facilities; but, I have done the occasional on-site editing gig, too. Airline travel and stowing extras like headphones, small speakers and i/o devices are considerations. There are plenty of options on the market, but one company that was recently brought to my attention was ECBC, a vendor for backpacks, messenger bags, tote bags and notebook sleeves.

df_ecbc_1I have my share of NLE manufacturers’ swag bags from meetings, conferences and conventions. It just so happened that my favorite bag was giving out at about the time that ECBC’s rep contacted me about testing out their new K7 line. This gave me a chance to check out both the K7 Zeus messenger bag and K7 Hercules laptop backpack.

The K7 line is made from Kodra Nylon, which is lightweight material designed to be abrasion and water resistant. It’s a bit more like cloth than a standard ballistic nylon, such as they use in their B7 line. This makes the bags more lightweight. Secondly, the K7 series comes in smaller sizes, which befits the popularity of 13” and 15” MacBook Pros, small Windows laptops and tablets like Surface and the iPad. Both the backpacks and messenger bags use a spacer in the laptop compartment, so the same bag will fit 13” and 15” laptops, simply by using or removing the spacer.

I tend to run around town these days with only my iPad, which I use to surf the web, write, check e-mail and keep track of the calendar and contacts. I tested the Zeus messenger bag, which was perfect for the iPad, along with a collection of USB sticks, keys, umbrella and other run-around necessities. If I need the laptop for on-site, local production, then there’s plenty of room for the 15” MacBook Pro plus the iPad if I want to bring both. Traveling out of town? That’s where the Hercules backpack is just right.

df_ecbc_3Overall, I liked the construction quality of these bags. They use YKK zippers for a nice type fit and the front compartment zippers are specially designed to be more water resistant. Compartments are well designed and sewn in, with extra pockets for water bottles and all the organizational areas you need. The interior is nicely lined with padded nylon and the laptop compartments use a felt liner to “baby” your computer. That’s a cut above most cheaper bags. For example, my previous swag bag had a plastic inner liner, which started to crack and flake with age. That would never happen with the ECBC liner material.

An interesting feature on the backpacks is what is called a TSA-Compliant compartment. ECBC calls this their FastPass system. The laptop compartment of the backpack is the entire back panel of the bag. It zips completely open so that the laptop compartment lays flat going through the X-ray machine without the need to remove the laptop itself from the backpack. With a MacBook Pro in the back panel, you still have plenty of interior bag room for power supply, headphones, external drives and more. One last nice touch to point out is that the handles are padded. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you’ve hauled around a heavy bag with just a thin nylon handle to hold it, you’ll appreciate the padding. This prevents the cloth of the handle from cutting into your fingers.

df_ecbc_4My only quibble is that the messenger bag does not have a zipper to seal across the top the interior compartment. I presume that’s so you can easily remove a laptop and quickly go through security. It’s unlikely that you’d lose anything. The internal pockets are tight and closed. The top flap, which covers this access, closes snugly with heavy-duty plastic clasps and some of the most robust Velcro you’ve ever seen.

While there are plenty of top notch bags and packs on the market, the ones that ECBC sent for my review are worthy of the editor turned road warrior. Top flight construction that will protect your gear on the road. Not much more you can ask from a bag or backpack.

©2013 Oliver Peters

NAB 2013 Distilled

df_nab2013_1Another year – another NAB exhibition. A lot of fun stuff to see. Plenty of innovation and advances, but no single “shocker” like last year’s introduction of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Here are some observations based on this past week in Las Vegas.

4K

Yes, 4K was all over. I was a bit surprised that many of the pieces for a complete end-to-end solution are in place. The term 4K refers to the horizontal pixel width of the image, but two common specs are used – the DCI (film) standard of 4096 and the UltraHD (aka QuadHD) standard of 3840. Both are “4K”. Forgotten in the discussion is frame rate. Many displays were showing higher frame rates, such as 4K at 60fps. 120fps is also being discussed.

4K (and higher) cameras were there from Canon, Sony, RED, JVC, GoPro and now Blackmagic Design. Stereo3D was there, too, in pockets; but, it’s all but dead (again). 4K, though, will have legs. The TV sets and distribution methods are coming into position and this is a nonintrusive experience for the viewer. SD to HD was an obvious “in your face” difference. 4K is noticeably better, but not as much as SD to HD. More like 720p versus 1080p. This means that consumer prices will have to continue to drop (as they will) for 4K to really catch hold, except for special venue applications. Right now, it’s pretty obvious how gorgeous 4K is when standing a few feet away from an 84” screen, but few folks can afford that yet.

Interestingly enough, you can even do live 4K broadcasts, using 4K cameras and production products from Astro Designs. This will have value in live venues like sporting events and large corporate meetings. A new factor – “region of interest” – comes into play. This means you can shoot 4K and then scale/crop the portion of the image that interests you. Naturally there was also 8K by NHK and also Quantel. Both have been on the forefront of HD and then 4K. Quantel was demonstrating 8K (downsampled to a 4K monitor) just to show their systems have the headroom for the future.

ARRI did not have a 4K camera, but the 4 x 3 sensor of the ALEXA XT model features 2880 x 2160 photosites. When you use an anamorphic 2:1 lens and record ARRIRAW, you effectively end up with an unsqueezed image of 5760 x 2160 pixels. Downsample that to a widescreen 2.4:1 image inside a 4096 DCI frame and you have visually similar results as with a Sony or RED camera delivering in 4K. This was demonstrated in the booth and the results were quite pleasing. The ALEXA looked a bit softer than comparable displays at the Sony and RED booths, but most cinematographers would probably opt for the ARRI image, since it appears a lot closer to the look of scanned film at 4K. Part of this is inherent with ARRI’s sensor array, which includes optical filtering in-camera. Sony was showing clips from the upcoming Oblivion feature film, which was shot with an F65. To many attendees these clips looked almost too crisp.

In practical terms, most commercial, corporate, television or indie film users of 4K cameras want an easy workflow. If that’s your goal, then the best “true” 4K paths are to shoot with the Canon C500 or the Sony F55. The C500 can be paired with the (now shipping) AJA KiPro Quad to record 4K ProRes files. The Sony records in the XAVC codec (a variant of AVC-Intra). Both are ready to edit (importer plug-ins may be required) without conversions.

You can also record ARRI 2K ProRes in an ALEXA or use one of the various raw workflows (RED, Canon, Blackmagic, Sony, ARRI). Raw is nice, but adds extra steps to the process – often with little benefit over log-profile recording to an encoded file format.

Edit systems

With the shake-up that Apple’s introduction of Final Cut Pro X has brought to the market, brand dominance has been up for grabs. Apple wasn’t officially at the show, but did have some off-site presence, as well as a few staffers at demo pods. For example, they were showing the XAVC integration in an area of the Sony booth. FCP X was well-represented as part of other displays all over the floor. An interesting metric I noticed, was that all press covering the show on video, were cutting their reports on laptops using FCP X. That is a sweet spot for use of the application. No new FCP X news (beyond the features released with 10.0.8) was announced.

Adobe is currently the most aggressive in trying to earn the hearts of editors. The “next” versions of Premiere Pro, SpeedGrade, Audition and After Effects have a ton of features that respond to customer requests and will speed workflows. Adobe’s main stage demos were packed and the general consensus of most editors discussing a move away from FCP 7 (and even Avid) was a move to Adobe. In early press, Adobe mentioned working with the Coen brothers, who have committed to cutting their next film with Premiere.

The big push was for Adobe Anywhere – their answer for cloud-based editing. Although a very interesting product, it will compete in the same space as Quantel Qtube and Avid Interplay Sphere. These are enterprise solutions that require servers, storage, software and support. While it’s an interesting technology, it will tend to be of more interest to larger news operations and educational facilities than smaller post shops.

Avid came on with Media Composer 7 at a new price, with Symphony as an add-on option to Media Composer. The biggest features were the ability to edit with larger-than-HD video sources (output is still limited to HD), LUT support, improved media management of AMA files and background transcoding using managed folders (watch folders). In addition, Pro Tools goes to 11, with a new video engine – it can natively run Avid sequences from AAF imports – and faster-than-real-time bounce. The MC background transcode and the PT11 bounce will be time savers for Avid users and that translates into money saved.

Avid Interplay Sphere (announced last year) now works on Macs, but its main benefit is remote editing for stations that have invested in Interplay solutions. Avid is also bundling packages of ISIS storage, Interplay asset management and seats of Media Composer at even lower price points. Although still premium solutions, they are finally in a range that may be attractive to some small edit facilities and broadcasters, given that it includes installation and support.

The other NLE players include Avid DS (not shown), Quantel Pablo Rio, Autodesk Smoke 2013, Grass Valley EDIUS, Sony Vegas, Media 100 (not shown) and Lightworks. Most of these have no bearing in my market. Smoke 2013 is getting traction. Autodesk is working to get user feedback to improve the application, as it moves deeper into a market segment that is new to them. EditShare is forging ahead with Lightworks on the Mac. It looked pretty solid at the show, but expect something that’s ready for users towards the end of the year. It’s got the film credits to back it up, so a free (or near free) Mac version should shake things up even further.

One interesting addition to the market is DaVinci Resolve 10 gaining editing features. Right now the editing bells-and-whistles are still rudimentary, though all of the standard functions are there. Plus there are titles, speed changes with optical flow and a plug-in API (OpenFX). You can already apply GenArts Sapphire filters to your clips. These are applied in the color correction timeline as nodes, rather than effects added to an editing timeline. This means the Sapphire filters can be baked into any clip renders. The positioning of Resolve 10 is as an online editing tool. That means conforming, titling and trims/tweaks after grading. You now have even greater editing capabilities at the grading stage without having to return to an NLE. Ultimately the best synergy will be between FCP X and Resolve. Together the two apps make for a very interesting package and Apple seems to be working closely with Blackmagic Design to make this happen. Ironically the editing mode page looks a lot like FCP X would have looked with tracks and dual viewers.

Final thoughts

I was reading John Buck’s Timeline on the plane. Even though we think of the linear days as having been dominated by CMX, the reality was that there were many systems, including Mach One, Epic, ISC, Strassner, Convergence, Datatron, Sony, RCA and Ampex. In Hollywood, the TV industry was split among them, which is why a common interchange standard of the EDL was developed. For awhile, Avid became the dominant tool in the nonlinear era, but the truth is that hasn’t always been the norm – nor should it be. The design dilemma of engineering versus creative was a factor from the beginning of video editing. Should a system be simple enough that producers, directors and non-technical editors can run it? Sound familiar?

When I look at the show I am struck at how one makes their buying choices. To use the dreaded car analogy, FCP X is the sports car and Avid is the truck. But the sports car is a temperamental Ferrari that does some things very well , but isn’t appropriate for others. The truck is a Tundra with all the built-in, office-on-the-road niceties.

If I were a facility manager, making a purchase for a large scale facility, it would probably still be Avid. It’s the safe bet – the “you don’t get fired for buying IBM” bet. Their innovations at the show were conservative, but meet the practical needs of their current customers. There simply is no other system with a proven track record across all types of productions that scales from one user to massive installations. But offering conservative innovation isn’t a growth strategy. You don’t get new users that way. Media Composer has become truly complex in ways that only veteran users can accept and that has to change fast.

Apple FCP X is the wild card, of course. Apple is playing the long game looking for the next generation of users. If FCP X weren’t an Apple product, it would receive the same level of attention as Vegas Pro, at best. Also a great tool with a passionate user base, but nothing that has the potential of dominating market share. The trouble is Apple gets in its own way due to corporate secrecy. I’ve been using FCP X for awhile and it certainly is a professional product. But to use it effectively, you have to change your workflow. In a multi-editor, multi-production facility, this means changing a lot of practices and retraining staff. It also means augmenting the software with a host of other applications to fix the short-comings.

Broadening the appeal of FCP X beyond the one-man-band operations may be tough for that reason. It’s too non-standard and no one has any idea of where it’s headed. On the other hand, as an editor who’s willing to deal with new challenges, I like the fast, creative cutting performance of FCP X. This makes it a great offline editing tool in my book. I find a “start in X, finish in Resolve” approach quite intriguing.

Right now, Adobe feels like the horse to beat. They have the ear of the users and an outreach reminiscent of when Apple was in the early FCP “legacy” era. Adobe is working hard to build a community and the interoperability between applications is the best in the industry. They are only hampered by the past indifference towards Premiere that many pro users have. But that seems to be changing, with many new converts. Although Premiere Pro “next” feels like FCP 7.5, that appears to be what users really want. The direction, at least, feels right. Apple may have been “skating to where the puck will be”, but it could be that no one is following or the puck simply wasn’t going there in the first place.

For an additional look – click over to my article for CreativePlanetNetwork – DV magazine.

©2013 Oliver Peters