Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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As most readers know, “whiskey tango foxtrot” is the military way to communicate the letters WTF. Your imagination can fill in the rest. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the movie, is a dark comedy about the experiences of a female journalist in Afghanistan, based on Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Paramount Pictures tapped the writing/directing team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Focus, Crazy, Stupid, Love., I Love You Phillip Morris) to tackle the film adaptation, starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alfred Molina.

df1116_wtf_2Glenn Ficarra explains the backstory, “When the military focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq there was a void in coverage. Barker was looking for a change in her life and volunteered to embed as a correspondent in Kabul. When she got there, she wasn’t quite ready for the high-adrenaline, partying lifestyle of many of the journalists. Most lived in dorms away from the general Afghan population. Since there weren’t that many females there, she found that there was a lot of interest in her.” This is the basis of both the book and the film – an Afghanistan story with a touch of Animal House and M*A*S*H.

Filming in Afghanistan would have been too dangerous, so production shifted to New Mexico, with Xavier Grobet (Focus, Enough Said, I Love You Phillip Morris) as the director of photography. The filmmakers also hired a female, Muslim journalist, Galereh Kiazand, as the second unit photographer to pick up B-roll in Kabul, which added to the authenticity. In addition, they also licensed stock shots originally filmed for The Kite Runner, but not used in that film. Ficarra adds, “We built two huge sets for Kabul and Kandahar, which were quite convincing, even to vets and Afghans who saw them.”

df1116_wtf_9With efficiencies realized during Focus, the team followed a similar course on this film. Ficarra explains, “We previously pulled the editing in-house. For Whiskey Tango Foxtrot we decided to do all the visual effects in-house, too. There are about 1,000 VFX shots in the film. It’s so great to simply bring on more artists as you need them and you only have to pay the crew. At its peak, we had about 20 Nuke artists working on shots. Doing it internally opens you up to more possibilities for minor effects that enhance shots. You would otherwise skip these if you were working with an outside effects house. We carried this approach into the filming as well. While traveling, it was great to quickly pick up a shot that you could use as B-roll. So our whole mentality has been very much like you work in film school.”

Adjusting the workflow for a new film

df1116_wtf_3The duo started production of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot on the heels of completing Focus. They brought along editor Jan Kovac, as well as use of Apple Final Cut Pro X for editing. This was the off-the-shelf version of Final Cut Pro X available to all customers at the time of the production – no special version or side build. Kovac explains what differed on this new film, “The biggest change was in camera formats. Instead of shooting [Apple] ProRes 4444, we switched to using the new ProRes 4444 XQ codec, which was deployed by ARRI on the ALEXAs. On Focus, we recorded ARRIRAW for the green screen shots. We did extensive testing with this XQ codec prior to production and it was perfect for even the green screen work. Most of the production was shot with two ALEXAs recording in a 2K theatrical format using the ProRes 4444 XQ codec.”

Light Iron provided a DIT on set who took the camera files, added a basic color LUT, synced production sound, and then generated viewing dailies, which were distributed to department heads on Apple iPads. The DIT also generated editorial files that were in the full 2K ProRes 4444 XQ resolution. Both the camera original files and the color-corrected editorial files were stored on a 160TB Accusys ExaSAN system back at the film’s post headquarters. Two Mac Minis served as metadata controllers. Kovac explains, “By always having the highest quality image to edit with, it meant that we could have the highest quality screenings at any given time. You always see the film in a state that is very close to the final product. Since visual effects were being handled in-house, it made sense to have the camera original files on the SAN. This way shots could quickly be pulled for VFX work, without the usual intermediate step of coordinating with the lab or post house that might otherwise store these files.”

df1116_wtf_6Another change was that audio was re-synced by the editing team. First assistant editor Kevin Bailey says, “The DIT would sync the production mix, but when it got here, I would sync up all the audio tracks using Sync-N-Link X. This syncs by timecode, making the process fast. I would group the cameras into multicam clips, but as many as 12 isolated audio tracks were also set up as separate angles. This way, Jan could easily switch between the production mix and individual mics. The only part that wasn’t as automatic was that the crew also used a Blackmagic Pocket Camera and a Sony A7 for some of the shots. The production was running at a true 24.0 fps frame rate, while these smaller cameras only shot 24 frames at a video rate of 23.98. These shots required adjustment and manual syncing. The reason for a true 24.0 frame rate was to make it easy to work with 48fps material. Sometimes the A-camera would run at 24fps while the B-camera ran at 48fps. Speeding up the B-camera by a 2X factor gets it into sync, without worrying about more complicated speed offsets.” In addition to these formats, the Afghanistan second unit footage was shot on a RED camera.

df1116_wtf_5Bailey is an experienced programmer who created the program Shot Notes X, which was used on this film. He continues, “Our script supervisor used Filemaker Pro, which exports a .csv file. Using Shot Notes X, I could combine the FCPXML from Final Cut with the .csv file and then generate a new FCPXML file. When imported back into Final Cut, the event would be updated to display scenes and takes, along with the script notes in the browser’s notes column. Common script codes would be used for close-ups, dolly shots, and so on. Filtering the list view by one of these codes in Final Cut would then display only the close-ups or only the dolly shots for easy access.” Bailey helped set up this pipeline during the first few weeks of production, at which point apprentice editor Esther Sokolow took over the dailies processing. Bailey shifted over to assist with sound and Sokolow later moved into a VFX editor role as one of several people doing temp VFX.

From trailer to home base

df1116_wtf_8During production in New Mexico, Kovac worked out of an editorial trailer equipped with a single Mac Pro and an 8TB G-Raid drive. There he was cutting using the proxy files that Final Cut Pro X can generate internally. During that 47-day period, Kovac was doing 90% of the editing. The amount of footage averaged about three hours and 40 minutes per day. In April, the unit moved back to home base in Los Angeles, where the team had two Mac Pro edit suites set up for the editors, as well as iMacs for the assistants.

John Requa and Glenn Ficarra are “hands-on” participants in the editing process. Kovac would cut in one room, while Ficarra and Requa would cut in the other. After the first preview, their collaboration slowly changed into a more traditional editor-director format. Even towards the end, Ficarra would still edit when he found time to do so. Post ended just before Christmas after a 35-week post schedule. Glenn Ficarra explains, “John and I have worked together for 30 years, so we are generally of one mind when we write, direct, or edit. Sometimes John would cut with me and I’d be the ‘fingers’ and other times he’d work with Jan. Or maybe I’d work with Jan and John would review and pick takes. So our process is very fluid.”

df1116_wtf_4The Whiskey Tango Foxtrot team worked deeper into temp sound and visual effects than before. Kovac explains, “Kevin is very comfortable with sound design during the edit. And he’s a good Nuke artist, too. While I was working on one reel, Kevin could work on a different reel adding in sound effects and creating monitor comps and screen replacements. A lot of this work was done inside of Final Cut using the SliceX and TrackX plug-ins from CoreMelt. We were able to work in a 5.1 surround project and did all of our temp mixes in 5.1.” The power of the plug-ins let more of the temp effects be done inside Final Cut  Pro X, resulting in a more efficient workflow with less need for roundtrips to other applications.

All media and render files were kept on the ExaSAN storage, but external of the Final Cut Pro X library files, thus keeping those small. The library files were stored on a separate NFS server (a Mac Mini using NFS Manager) with a separate FCPX library file for each reel of the film. This enabled the editors and assistants to all access any FCPX library file, as long as someone else wasn’t using it at that time. A shared iTunes library for temporary sound effects and music selections was stored on the SAN with all machines pointing to that location. From within Final Cut, any editor could browse the iTunes library for music and sound effects.

When it came time for sound and picture turnovers, X2Pro Audio Convert was used to pass audio to the sound design team as an AAF file. Light Iron’s Ian Vertovec handled final color correction on their Quantel Pablo Rio system. He was working off of camera original media, which Light Iron also stored at their facility after the production. Effects shots were sent over as DPX image sequences.

Thoughts on the cut

df1116_wtf_7The director’s cut for Whisky Tango Foxtrot ran about three hours, although the final length clocked in at 1:52:00 with credits. Kovac explains, “There were 167 scripted scenes in the original script, requiring a fair amount of trimming. Once you removed something it had consequences that rippled throughout. It took time to get it right. While it was a tougher film from that standpoint, it was easier, because no studio approval process was needed for the use of Final Cut Pro X. So it built upon the shoulders of Focus. Final Cut has proven itself as a valuable member of the NLE community. Naturally anything can be improved. For example, optical flow and auditions don’t work with multicam clips. Neither do the CoreMelt plug-ins.” Bailey adds, “For me the biggest selling point is the magnetic timeline. In areas where I would build up temp sound design, these would be the equivalent of ten tracks deep. It’s far easier to trim sections and have the audio follow along than in any other NLE.”

Glenn Ficarra wrapped up with these thoughts. He says, “A big step forward on this film was how we dealt with audio. We devised a method to keep as much as possible inside FCPX, for as long as possible – especially for screenings. This gave us more cutting time, which was nice. There was no need for any of the in-between turnovers I’ve gone through on other systems, just to prepare the movie for screenings. I like the robust third-party approach with Final Cut. It’s a small, tight-knit community. You can actually get in touch with a developer without going through a large corporation. I’d like to see Apple improve some features, like better match-back. I feel they’ve only scratched the surface with roles, so I’d like to see them develop that more.”

He concludes, “A lot of directors would like to cut for themselves, but find a tool like Avid impenetrable. It doesn’t have to be that way. My 12-year-old daughter is perfectly comfortable with Final Cut Pro X. Many of the current workflows stem from what was built up around film and we no longer work that way. Why adhere to the old film methods and rules? Filmmakers who are using new methods are those that aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They are willing to push the boundaries.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters