Hail, Caesar!

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Combine kidnapping, mystery, farce, and a good measure of quirkiness, and you’ve defined the quintessential Coen Brothers script. Complete with a cast of Coen alums, Hail, Caesar! is just such a film. Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest is set in the motion picture factory town of Hollywood in the 1950s. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio fixer tasked with finding Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of the studio’s biggest money-makers. Whitlock has been kidnapped in the middle of production of a Bible epic by a group called “The Future”. Of course, that’s not Mannix’s only dilemma, as he has other studio problems he needs to deal with, such as disgruntled director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and personal issues by starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson).

The Hail, Caesar! story idea has been kicking around for over a decade before the Coens finally brought it into production. Along with being a concept that fits right into their wheelhouse, it’s also a complex production. In this story about the Golden Age of Hollywood, much of the film involves movies within the movie. The tale weaves in and out of multiple productions being filmed on the fictional Capitol Pictures lot.

In keeping with the texture of films of that era, Hail, Caesar! was shot on film by long-time Coen director of photography, Roger Deakins (True Grit, No Country for Old Men, The Ladykillers). Deakins’ first choice might have been the ARRI ALEXA, but agreed that film was the appropriate solution and so shot with an ARRI 535-B to Kodak Vision3 negative stock. Fotokem handled development with EFILM covering telecine transfer, finishing, and digital intermediate color correction.

Time for a fresh change

Although they are lovers of the film image, Joel and Ethan Coen were also among the first to embrace Apple Final Cut Pro in their transition to digital editing for the film Intolerable Cruelty. They had been using Final Cut Pro up until Inside Llewyn Davis; however, it had become sufficiently “long in the tooth” that it was time for a change. This brought them to Adobe Premiere Pro CC. I recently interviewed Katie McQuerrey about this shift. She is credited as an additional or associate editor of numerous Coen films (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Burn After Reading) – a role which she describes as being Joel and Ethan’s right-hand person in the cutting room. For Hail, Caesar!, this included interfacing with Adobe and handling the general workflow so that Premiere Pro was a functional editing tool for the filmmakers.

df0916_hailcaesar_6McQuerrey explains, “After Apple stopped supporting Final Cut Pro 7 we knew it was time to change. We looked at Final Cut Pro X, but because of its lack of audio editing functions, we knew that it wasn’t right for us. So, we decided to give Premiere Pro a try. David Fincher had a successful experience with Gone Girl and we knew that Walter Murch, who is a friend of the Joel and Ethan’s, was using it on his next film. I’ve edited on Avid, Final Cut, and now Premiere Pro and they all make you adjust your editing style to adapt to the software. Joel and Ethan had only ever edited digitally on Final Cut Pro, so Premiere Pro provided the easiest transition. [Avid] Media Composer is very robust for the assistant editor, but a bit restrictive for the editor. I’m on an Avid job right now after a year away from it and miss some of the flexibility that Premiere Pro offers. You really come to appreciate how fluid it is to edit with. I think both Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro are better for the editor, but they do add a bit more stress on the assistants. Of course, Joel and Ethan were generally shielded from that.”

df0916_hailcaesar_2One of the unknowns with Premiere Pro was the fact that Hail, Caesar! was being shot on film. Avid has tried-and-true methods for tracking film keycode, but that was never part Premiere Pro’s architecture. Assistant editor David Smith explains, “EFILM scanned all of the negative at 2K resolution to ProRes for our cutting purposes. On an Avid job, they would have provided a corresponding ALE (Avid Log Exchange list) for the footage and you would be able to track keycode and timecode for the dailies. For this film, EFILM sync’ed the dailies and provided us with the media, as well as a Premiere Pro project file for each day. We were concerned about tracking keycode to turn over a cut list at the end of the job. Adobe even wrote us a build that included a metadata column for keycode. EFILM tracks their transfers internally, so their software would reference timecode back to the keycode in order to pull selects for the final scan and conform. At their suggestion, we used Change List software from Intelligent Assistance to provide a cut list, plus a standard EDL generated from Premiere Pro. In the end, the process wasn’t that much different after all.” EFILM scanned the selected negative clips at 4K resolution and the digital intermediate color correction was handled by Mitch Paulson under Roger Deakins’ supervision.

Adapting Premiere Pro to the Coen Brothers workflow

df0916_hailcaesar_3It was Katie McQuerrey’s job to test drive Premiere Pro ahead of the Coens and provide assistance as needed to get them up to speed. She says, “Joel was actually up to speed after a day or so. Initially we all wanted to make Premiere Pro work just like Final Cut, because it appears similar. Of course, many functions are quite different, but the longer we worked with it, the more we got used to some of  the Premiere Pro ways of doing things. As functionality issues came up, Adobe would make adjustments and send new software builds. I would test these out first. When I thought they would be ready for Joel and Ethan to use, we’d install it on their machines. I needed to let them concentrate on the edit and not worry about software.”

Joel and Ethan Coen developed a style of working that stems from their film editing days and that carried over into their use of Final Cut Pro. This was adjusted for Premiere Pro. McQuerrey continues, “Ethan and Joel work on different computers. Ethan will pick selected takes and mark ins and outs. Then he saves the project and dings a bell. Joel opens that project up to use as he assembles scenes. With FCP you could have multiple projects open at once, but not so with Premiere. We found out from Adobe that the way to handle this was through the Media Browser module inside of Premiere. Joel could browse the drive for Ethan’s project and then access it for specific sequences or selected shots. Joel could import these through Media Browser into his project as a non-destructive copy, letting Ethan continue on. Media Browser is the key to working collaboratively among several editors on the same project.” Their edit system consisted of several Mac Pro “tube” models connected to Open Drives shared storage. This solution was developed by workflow engineer Jeff Brue for Gone Girl and is based on using solid state drives, which enable fast media access.

df0916_hailcaesar_5As with all films, Hail, Caesar! posed creative challenges that any application must be able to deal with. McQuerrey explains, “Unlike other directors, Joel and Ethan wait until all the shooting is done before anything is cut. I wasn’t cutting along with dailies as is the case with most other directors. This gave me time to get comfortable with Premiere and to organize the footage. Because the story includes movies within the movie, there are different aspect ratios, different film looks and color and black-and-white film material. Editorially it was an exciting project because of this. For example, if a scene in the film was being ‘filmed’ by the on-camera crew, it was in color and should appear to play out in real-time as you see the take being filmed. This same sequence might also appear later in a Moviola viewer, as black-and-white, edited film. This affected how sequences were cut. Some shots that were supposed to be real-time needed to look like one continuous take. Or someone in the film may be watching a rough cut, therefore that part had to be cut like a rough cut. This is a film that I think editors will like, because there are a lot of inside jokes they’ll appreciate.”

Fine tuning for the feature film world

df0916_hailcaesar_4One criticism of Adobe Premiere Pro CC has been how it handles large project files, particularly when it comes to load times. McQuerrey answers, “The Open Drives system definitely helped with that. We had to split the film up into a separate projects, for cuts, sound, visual effects, music, etc. in order to work efficiently. However, as we got later into the post we found that even the smaller projects had grown to the size that load times got much slower. The remedy was to cull out old versions of sequences, so that these didn’t require indexing each time the project was opened. Periodically I would create archive projects to keep the oldest sequences and then delete most of the oldest sequences from the active project. This improved performance.”

The filmmaking team finished Hail, Caesar! with a lot of things they liked about their new software choice. McQuerrey says, “Joel likes some of the effects features in Premiere Pro to build transitions and temp comps. This film has more visual effects than a usual Coen Brothers film, including green screens, split screens, and time remaps. Many of the comps were done in Premiere, rather than After Effects. Ethan and Joel both work differently. Ethan would leave his bins in list view and do his mark-ups. On the other hand, Joel also really liked the icon view and hover scrubbing a lot. Temp sound editing while you are picture editing is very critical to their process. They’ll often use different takes or readings for the audio than for the picture, so how an application edits sound is as important – if not more so – than how it edits picture. We had a couple of bumps in the road getting the sound  tracks interface working to our liking, but with Adobe’s help in building new versions of software for us, we got to the place where we really appreciated Premiere’s sound tools.”

Katie McQuerrey and I wrapped up the interview with an anecdote about the Coens’ unique approach to their new editing tool. McQuerrey explains, “With any application, there are a number of repetitive keystrokes. At one point Joel joked about using a foot pedal, like on an old upright Moviola. At first we laughed it off, but then I checked around and found that you could buy custom control devices for video game play, including special mice and even foot controls. So we ordered a foot pedal and hooked it up to the computer. It came with it own software that let us map command functions to the pedal. We did this with Premiere’s snapping control, because Joel constantly toggles it on and off!” It’s ironic, given the context of the Hail, Caesar! story, but here you have something straight out of the Golden Age of film that’s found itself useful in the digital age.

Click here for Adobe’s behind-the-scenes look.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Vinyl

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The decade of the 1970s was the heyday of the rock music business when a hit record nearly made you a king. It was the time right after Woodstock. Top bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones commanded huge stadium shows. The legendary excesses of the music industry are most often encapsulated as “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll”. Now the New York music and record company scene of that era has been brought to the screen in the new HBO series, Vinyl. The series was created by Mick Jagger & Martin Scorsese & Rich Cohen and Terence Winter.

Vinyl is told largely through the eyes of Richie Finestra (played by Bobby Cannavale, Daddy’s Home, Ant-Man), the founder and president of the fictional American Century Records. He’s a rags-to-riches guy with a gift for discovering music acts. In the pilot episode, the company is about to be sold to Polygram, but a series of events changes the course of Finestra’s future, which sets up the basis for the series. It’s New York in the 70s at the birth of hip-hop, disco, and punk rock with a lot of cultural changes going on as the backdrop. The series features an eclectic cast, including James Jagger (Mick’s son) as the leader singer of a raw, New York punk band, The Nasty Bits.

The pilot teleplay was written by Terence Winter and George Mastras, based on a story developed by Cohen, Scorsese, Jagger, and Winter. This feature-length series kick-off was directed by Scorsese with Rodrigo Prieto (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Wolf of Wall Street) as director of photography. Martin Scorsese is certainly no stranger to the music industry with projects like Woodstock, The Last Waltz, The Blues, and Shine A Light to his credit. Coupled with his innate ability to tell entertaining stories about the underbelly of life in New York, Vinyl makes for an interesting stew. The pilot was a year in production and post and sets the tone for the rest of the series, which will be directed by seven other directors. This is the same model as with Boardwalk Empire. Scorsese and Jagger are part of the team of executive producers, with Winter as the show runner.

Producing a pilot like a feature film

df0816_VINYL_2I recently interviewed David Tedeschi (George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Public Speaking), editor for the pilot episode of Vinyl. Kate Sanford and Tim Streeto are the editors for the series. Tedeschi has edited both documentary and narrative films prior to working with Martin Scorsese, for whom he’s edited a number of documentaries, such as No Direction Home and Shine A Light. But the Vinyl pilot is his first narrative project with Scorsese. Tedeschi explains, “The concept started out as an idea for a feature film. It landed at HBO, who was willing to green-light it as a full series. We were able to treat the pilot like a feature and had the luxury of being able to spend nearly a year in post, with some breaks in between.”

Even though Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions approached it like a feature, the editorial staff was small, consisting mainly of Tedeschi and one associate editor, Alan Lowe. Tedeschi talks about the post workflow, “The film was shot digitally with a Sony F55, but Scorsese and Prieto wanted to evoke a 16mm film look to be in keeping with the era. Deluxe handled the dailies – adding a film look emulation that included grain. They provided us with Avid DNxHD 115 media. Since most scenes were shot with two or three cameras, Alan would sync the audio by slate and then create multicam clips for me, before I’d start to edit. We were working on two Avid Media Composers connected to Avid ISIS shared storage. For viewing, we installed 50” Panasonic plasma displays that were calibrated by Deluxe. The final conform and color correction was  handed by Deluxe with Steve Bodner as colorist.”

df0816_VINYL_3He continues, “Scorsese had really choreographed the scenes precisely, with extensive notes. In the dailies process we would review every scene, and he would map out selects and then we’d work through it. In spite of being very specific about how he’d planned out a scene, he would often revisit a scene and look at other options in order to improve it. He was very open minded to new ways of looking at the material. Overall, it was a pretty tight script and edit. The first director’s cut was a little over two hours and the final came in at one hour and fifty-two minutes plus end credits.”

Story and structure

The pilot episode of Vinyl moves back and forth through a timeline of Finestra’s life and punctuates moments with interstitial elements, such as a guitar cameo by a fictionalized Bo Diddley. It’s easy to think these are constructs devised during editing, but Tedeschi says no. He explains, “I would love to take credit for that, but moving back and forth through eras was how the script was written. The interstitial elements weren’t in the script, but were Marty’s idea. He found extra time in the shooting schedule to film those and they worked beautifully in the edit.”

df0816_VINYL_4Many film editors have very specific ways they like to set up their bins in order to best sort and organize elected footage. Tedeschi’s approach is more streamlined. He explains, “My method is usually pretty simple. I don’t do special things in the bins. I will usually assemble a sequence of selected dailies for each scene. Then I’ll mark it up with markers and sometimes may color-code a few clips. On Vinyl, Alan would do the initial pass to composite some of the visual effects, like green screen window composites. He also handled a lot of the sound design for me.”

Vinyl is very detailed in how actual events, bands, people, and elements of the culture are represented and integrated into the story – although, in a fictionalized way. It’s a historical snapshot of the New York in the 70s and the culture of that time. Little elements like The King Biscuit Flower Hour (a popular radio show on progressive rock radio stations back then) playing on a radio or a movie marquee for Deep Throat easily pin-point the time and place. Anyone who’s seen the Led Zeppelin concert documentary, The Song Remains the Same, will remember one of the Madison Square Garden backstage scenes with an angry and colorful Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin’s manager). His persona and a similar event also made it into the story, but modified to be integral to the plot.

df0816_VINYL_5Accuracy is very important to Scorsese. Tedeschi says, “We have done documentaries about music and some of these people are part of our lives. We would all hear stories about some pretty over-the-top things, so a lot of this comes directly from their memories. The biggest challenge was to be faithful to New York in 1973.  It’s become this mythical place, but in Vinyl that’s the New York of Scorsese’s memory. We’ve certainly altered many actual facts, but even the most outrageous events that happen in the pilot and the series are rooted in true, historical events. We even reviewed historical footage. There was a very methodical approach.” Aside from the entertaining elements, it’s also a pretty solid story about how record companies actually operate.  He adds, “We had a screening towards the end of the editing process for the consultants, who had all worked in the record business. I knew we had done well, because they immediately launched into a lively discussion about contracts and industry standards and what names had been changed.”

This is a story about music and the music itself is a driving influence. Tedeschi concludes, “There is almost constant source music in the background. Scorsese went through each scene and we painstakingly auditioned many songs. One thing folks might not realize is that we sourced all of the recorded music that was used in their original formats. If a hit song was originally released as a 45 RPM record or an LP, then we’d track down a copy and try to use that. A few songs even came from 78 RPM records. We found a place that could handle high-quality transfers from such media and provide us with a digital file, which we used in the final mix. Often, a song may have been remastered, but we would compare our transfer with the remaster. The objective was to be faithful to the original sound – the way people heard it when it was released. After all, the series is called Vinyl for a reason. This was the director’s vision and how he remembered it.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X Keyboard Tips

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As most editors know, customizing your NLE keyboard settings can improve efficiency in how you use that tool. Final Cut Pro X already gives you a large number of existing commands mapped to the keyboard, but, as with any NLE, they are not all in places that work best for every editor. Therefore, it’s preferable to customize the toolset for what will work best for you.

The choices among the basic keys plus the modifier keys are extensive, but interestingly the “F” or function keys are not already mapped. This leaves you fertile ground to add your own commands without changing the standard map. Of course, the number of function keys you have depends on your keyboard. The Apple extended keyboard (the one with the number keypad) has 19 function keys. The smaller Bluetooth keyboards only have 12.

In my case, I’ve decided to map a few useful tools to some of the F-keys, as well as the shifted-function positions. Most of these are interface-related, but not entirely. FCPX doesn’t let you create and save custom workspace layouts like FCP7 or Adobe Premiere Pro CC, however, there are a lot of interface panels that can be displayed or hidden depending on the task at hand. By mapping these tools to the function keys, you get nearly the same effect as swapping workspaces, because it reconfigures your screen layout at the click of a button. Unfortunately you still can’t move modules from where Apple has chosen to have them appear.

I work with dual screens more often than not in a fixed edit bay. This lets me get the most out of the various FCPX windows and modules. If you own both an Apple laptop and an iPad, the Duet Display app also enables you to pair the two devices into a dual display arrangement. This eliminates the need to drag along an external screen for location editing gigs. Therefore, you can still get the maximum benefit of these layouts.

Here are the commands I’ve currently mapped. These work for me and, of course, might change in the future as I tweak my workflow. You’ll note that a number of these commands already have existing keyboard locations, so mapping these to a function key is redundant. Quite true, but I find that placing these concisely into the F-key row makes switching between them easier and you’ll be more likely to use them as a result.

The basic F-key row (no modifier key):

F1 – Show Events on Second Display

F2 – Show/Hide Viewer on Second Display

F3 – Show/Hide Event Viewer

F4 – Show/Hide Inspector

F5 – Show/Hide Effects Browser

F6 – Show/Hide Timeline Index

F7 – Show/Hide Video Scopes

F8 – Replace from Start*

F9 – Replace from End*

*These last two selections are edit commands.

The F-key row plus the Shift modifier:

Shift-F1 – Clip Appearance: Waveforms Only

Shift-F2 – Clip Appearance: Large Waveforms

Shift-F3 – Clip Appearance: Waveforms and Filmstrips

Shift-F4 – Clip Appearance: Large Filmstrips

Shift-F5 – Clip Appearance: Filmstrips Only

Shift-F6 – Clip Appearance: Clip Labels Only

As you can see, I use the shifted function keys to switch between the various timeline appearance settings that are available from the lower right pop-up menu. It’s nice that once you adjust the size of the filmstrips or waveforms using the slider, that setting stays until changed. Therefore, you can go between a large waveform view and the thin clip label (aka “chiclet”) view, simply by switching between these function keystrokes.

Customized keyboard maps can be saved and recalled for easy access. You can also create more than one customized keyboard preset.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Adobe Premiere Pro CC Tips

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Adobe Premiere Pro CC is the dominant NLE that I encounter amongst my clients. Editors who’ve shifted over from Final Cut Pro “classic” may have simply transferred existing skills and working methods to Premiere Pro. This is great, but it’s easy to miss some of the finer points in Premiere Pro that will make you more productive. Here are seven tips that can benefit nearly any project.

df0616_ppro_1LUTs/Looks – With the addition of the Lumetri Color panel, it’s easy to add LUTs into your color correction workflow. You get there through the Color workspace preset or by applying a Lumetri Color effect to a timeline clip. Import a LUT from the Basic Correction or Creative section of the controls. From here, browse to any stored LUT on your hard drive(s) and it will be applied to the clip. There are plenty of free .cube LUTs floating around the web. However, you may not know that Look files, created through Adobe SpeedGrade CC in the .look format, may also be applied within the Creative section. You can also find a number of free ones on the web, including a set I created for SpeedGrade. Unlike LUTs, these also support effects used in SpeedGrade.

df0616_ppro_2Audio MixingPremiere Pro features very nice audio tools and internal audio mixing is a breeze. I typically use three filters on nearly every mix I create. First, I will add a basic dynamic compressor to all of my dialogue tracks. To keep it simple, I normally use the default preset. Second, I will add an EQ filter to my music tracks. Here, I will set it to notch out the midrange slightly, which lets the dialogue sit a bit better in the mix. Finally I’ll add limiting to the master track. Normally this is set to soft clip at -10db. If I have specific loudness specs as part of my delivery requirements, then I’ll route my mix through a submaster bus first and apply the limiting to the submaster. I will apply the RADAR loudness meter to the master bus and adjust accordingly to be compliant.

df0616_ppro_3Power windows – This is a term that came from DaVinci Resolve, but is often used generically to talk about building up a grade on a shot by isolating areas within the image. For example, brightening someone’s face more so than the overall image. You can do this in Premiere Pro by stacking up more than one Lumetri Color effect onto a clip. Start by applying a Lumetri Color effect and grade the overall shot. Next, apply a second instance of the effect and use the built-in Adobe mask tool to isolate only the selection that you want to add the second correction to, such as an oval around someone’s head. Tweak color as needed. If the shot moves around, you can even use the internal tracker to have your mask follow the object. Do you have another area to adjust? Simply add a third effect and repeat the process.

df0616_ppro_4Export/import titles – Premiere Pro titles are created in the Title Designer module and these titles can be exported as a separate metadata file (.prtl format). Let’s say that you have a bunch of titles that you plan to use repeatedly on new projects, but you don’t want to bring these in from one project to the next. You can do this more simply by exporting and re-importing the title’s data file. Simply select the title in the bin and then File/Export/Title. The hitch is that Adobe’s Media Browser will not recognize the .prtl format and so the easiest way to import it into a new project is to drag it from the Finder location straight into the new Premiere Pro project. This will create a new title inside of the new project. Both instances of this title are unique, so editing the title in any project won’t effect how it appears elsewhere.

df0616_ppro_5Replace with clip – I work on a number of productions where there’s a base version of a commercial and then a lot of versions with small changes to each. A typical example is a spot that uses many different lower third phone numbers, which are market-specific. The Replace function shaves hours off of this workflow. I first duplicate a completed sequence and rename it. Then I select the correct phone number in the bin, followed by selecting the clip in the timeline to be changed. Right-click and choose Replace with Clip/From Bin. This will update the content of my timeline clip with the new phone number. Any effects or keyframes that have been applied in the timeline remain.

df0616_ppro_6Optical flow speed changes – In a recent update, optical flow interpolation was added as one of the speed change choices. Other than the obvious uses of speed changes, I found this to be a get way of creating slower camera moves that look nearly perfect. Optical flow can be tricky – sometimes creating odd motion artifacts – and at other times it’s perfect. I have a camera slider move or pan along a mantle containing family photos. The move is too fast. So, yes, I can slow it down, but the horizontal motion will leave it as stuttering or blurred. However, if I slow it to exactly 50% and select optical flow, in most cases, I get very good results. That’s because this speed and optical flow have created perfect “in-between” frames. A :05 move is now :10 and works better in the edit. If I’m going to use this same clip a lot, I simply render/export it is as a new piece of media, which I’ll bring back into the project as if it were a VFX clip.

df0616_ppro_7Render and replace – Premiere Pro CC is great when you have a ton of different camera formats and want to work with native media. While that generally works, a large project will really impede performance, especially in the editing sequence. The alternative is to transcode the clips to an optimized or so-called mezzanine format. Adobe does this in the sequence rather than in the bin and it can be done for individual clips or every clip within the sequence. You might have a bunch of native 4K .mp4 camera clips in a 1080p timeline. Simply select the clips within the timeline that you would like to transcode and right-click for the Render and Replace dialogue. At this point you have a several options, including whether to use clip or sequence settings, handle length, codec, and file location. If you choose “clip”, then what you get is a new, trimmed clip in an optimized codec, which will be stored in a separate folder. This becomes a great way to consolidate your media. The clip is imported into your bin, so you have access to both the original and the optimized clip at the original settings. Therefore, your consolidated clips are still 4K if that’s how they started.

This also works for Dynamic Link After Effects compositions. Render and Replace those for better timeline performance. But if you need to go back to the composition in order to update it in After Effects, that’s just a few clicks away.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Producing a Short Mini-Doc with the AJA CION

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AJA surprised the industry in 2014 when it rolled out its CION digital cinema 4K camera. Although not known as a camera manufacturer, it had been working on this product for over four years. Last year the company offered its Try CION promotion (ended in October), which loaned camera systems to qualified filmmakers. Even though this promotion is over, potential customers with a serious interest can still get extended demos of the camera through their regional AJA sales personnel. It was in this vein that I arranged a two-week loan of a camera unit for this review.

I’m a post guy and don’t typically write camera reviews; however, I’m no stranger to cameras either. I’ve spent a lot of time “shading” cameras (before that position was called a DIT) and have taken my turn as a studio and field camera operator. My interest in doing this review was to test the process. How easy was it to use the camera in actual production and how easy was the post workflow associated with it?

CION details

The AJA CION is a 4K digital camera that employs an APS-C CMOS sensor with a global shutter and both infrared-cut and optical low-pass filters. It can shoot in various frame sizes (from 1920×1080 up to 4096×2160) and frame rates (from 23.98 up 120fps). Sensor scaling rather than windowing/cropping is used, which means the lens size related to the image it produces is the same in 4K as in 2K or HD. In other words, a 50mm lens yields the same optical framing in all digital sizes.

df0516_CION_Chellee5The CION records in Apple ProRes (up to ProRes 4444) using a built-in Pak media recorder. Think of this as essentially an AJA KiPro built right into the camera. Since Pak media cards aren’t FAT32 formatted like CF or SD cards used by other cameras, you don’t run into a 4GB file-size limit that would cause clip-spanning.  You can also record AJA Raw externally (such as to an AJA KiPro Quad) over 3G-SDI or Thunderbolt. Video is linear without any log encoding schemes; but, there are a number of gamma profiles and color correction presets.

df0516_CION_prod_1It is designed as an open camera system, using standard connectors for HDMI, BNC, XLR, batteries, lens mounts, and accessories. CION uses a PL lens mount system, because that’s the most open and the best glass comes for that mounting system. When the AJA rep sent me the camera, it came ready to shoot and included a basic camera configuration, plus accessories, including some rods, an Ikan D5w monitor, a Zeiss Compact Prime 28mm lens, 512GB and 256GB solid-state Pak media cards, and a Pak media dock/reader. The only items not included – other than tripod, quick-release base plate, and head, of course – were camera batteries. The camera comes with a standard battery plate, as well as an AC power supply.

Learning the CION

The subject of this mini-doc was a friend of mine, Peter Taylor. He’s a talented luthier who builds and repairs electric and acoustic guitars and basses under his Chellee brand. He also designs and produces a custom line of electric guitar pedals. To pull this off, I partnered with the Valencia College Film Production Technology Program, with whom I’m edited a number of professional feature films and where I teach an annual editing workshop. I worked with Ray Bracero, a budding DP and former graduate of that program who helps there as an instructional assistant. This gave me the rest of the package I needed for the production, including more lenses, a B-camera for the interview, lighting, and sound gear.

Our production schedule was limited with only one day for the interview and B-roll shots in the shop. To augment this material, I added a second day of production with my son, Chris Peters, playing an original track that he composed as an underscore for the interview. Chris is an accomplished session musician and instructor who plays Chellee guitars.

df0516_CION_prod_2With the stage set, this provided about half a day for Ray and me to get familiar with the CION, plus two days of actual production, all within the same week. If AJA was correct in designing an easy-to-use cinematic camera, then this would be a pretty good test of that concept. Ray had never run a CION before, but was familiar with REDs, Canons, and other camera brands. Picking up the basic CION operation was simple. The menu is easier than other cameras. It uses the same structure as a KiPro, but there’s also an optional remote set-up, if you want a wireless connection to the CION from a laptop.

4K wasn’t warranted for this project, so everything was recorded in 2K (2048×1080) to be used in an HD 2.35:1 sequence (1920×817). This would give me some room to reframe in post. All sync sound shots would be 23.98fps and all B-roll would be in slow motion. The camera permits “overcranking”, meaning we shot at 59.94fps for playback at 23.98fps. The camera can go up to 120fps, but only when recording externally in AJA Raw. To keep it simple on this job, all recording was internal to the Pak media card – ProResHQ for the sync footage and ProRes 422 for the slow motion shots.

Production day(s)

The CION is largely a “what you see is what you get” camera. Don’t plan on extensive correction in post. What you see on the monitor is typically what you’ll get, so light and control your production set-up accordingly. It doesn’t have as wide of a dynamic range as an ARRI ALEXA for example. The bottom EI (exposure index) is 320 and that’s pretty much where you want to operate as a sweet spot. This is similar to the original RED One. This means that in bright exteriors, you’ll need filtering to knocking down the light. There’s also not much benefit in running with a high EI. The ALEXA, for instance, looks great at 800, but that setting didn’t seem to help the CION.

df0516_CION_Chellee13_smGamma profiles and color temperature settings didn’t really behave like I would have expected from other cameras. With our lighting, I would have expected a white balance of 3200 degrees Kelvin, however 4500 looked right to the eye and was, in fact, correct in post. The various gamma profiles didn’t help with clipping in the same way as Log-C does, so we ultimately stayed with Normal/Expanded. This shifts the midrange down to give you some protection for highlights. Unfortunately with CION, when highlights are clipped or blacks are crushed, that is actually how the signal is being recorded and these areas of the signal are not recoverable. The camera’s low end is very clean and there’s a meaty midrange. We discovered that you cannot monitor the video over SDI while recording 59.94-over-23.98 (slow motion). Fortunately HDMI does maintain a signal. All was good again, once we switched to the HDMI connection.

CION features a number of color correction presets. For Day 1 in the luthier shop, I used the Skin Tones preset. This is a normal color balance, which slightly desaturates the red-orange range, thus yielding more natural flesh tones. On Day 2 for the guitar performance, I switched to the Normal color correction preset. The guitar being played has a red sunburst paint finish and the Skin Tones preset pulled too much of the vibrance out of the guitar. Normal more closely represented what it actually looked like.

df0516_CION_Chellee4During the actual production, Ray used three Zeiss Super Speed Primes (35mm, 50mm, and 85mm) on the CION, plus a zoom on the Canon 5D B-camera. Since the locations were tight, he used an ARRI 650w light with diffusion for a key and bounced a second ARRI 150w light as the back light. The CION permits two channels of high-quality audio input (selectable line, mic, or +48v). I opted to wire straight into the camera, instead of using an external sound recorder. Lav and shotgun mics were directly connected to each channel for the interview. For the guitar performance, the amp was live-mic’ed into an Apogee audio interface (part of Chris’ recording system) and the output of that was patched into the CION at line level.df0516_CION_Chellee8

The real-time interview and performance material was recorded with the CION mounted on a tripod, but all slow motion B-roll shots were handheld. Since the camera had been rigged with a baseplate and rods, Ray opted to use the camera in that configuration instead of taking advantage of the nice shoulder pad on the CION. This gave him an easy grasp of the camera for “Dutch angles” and close working proximity to the subject. Although a bit cumbersome, the light weight of the CION made such quick changes possible.

Post production

df0516_CION_FCPX_2As an editor, I want a camera to make life easy in post, which brought me to Apple Final Cut Pro X for the finished video. Native ProRes, easy syncing of two-camera interviews, and simple-yet-powerful color correction makes FCPX a no-brainer. We recorded a little over three hours of material – 146 minutes on the CION, 37 minutes on the 5D and 11 minutes on a C500 (for two pick-up shots). All of the CION footage only consumed about 50% of the single 512GB Pak media card. Using the Pak media dock, transfer times were fast. While Pak media isn’t cheap, the cards are very robust and unless you are chewing through tons of 4K, you actually get a decent amount of recording time on them.

I only applied a minor amount of color correction on the CION footage. This was primarily to bring up the midrange due to the Normal/Expanded gamma profile, which naturally makes the recorded shot darker. The footage is very malleable without introducing the type of grain-like sensor noise artifacts that I see with other cameras using a similar amount of correction. Blacks stay true black and clean. Although my intention was not to match the 5D to the CION – I had planned on some stylized correction instead – in the end I matched it anyway, since I only used two shots. Surprisingly, I was able to get a successful match.

Final thoughts

df0516_CION_Chellee6The CION achieved the design goals AJA set for it. It is easy to use, ergonomic, and gets you a good image with the least amount of fuss. As with any camera, there are a few items I’d change. For example, the front monitoring connectors are too close to the handle. Occasionally you have to press record twice to make sure you are really recording. There’s venting on the top, which would seem to be an issue if you suddenly got caught in the rain. Overall, I was very happy with the results, but I think AJA still needs to tweak the color science a bit more.

In conjunction with FCPX for post, this camera/NLE combo rivals ARRI’s ALEXA and AMIRA for post production ease and efficiency. No transcoding. No performance hits due to taxing, native, long-GOP media. Proper file names and timecode. A truly professional set-up. At a starting point of $4,995, the AJA CION is a dynamite camera for the serious producer or filmmaker. The image is good and the workflow outstanding.

Click this link to see the final video on Vimeo.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Carol

df0116_carol_smFilms tend to push social boundaries and one such film this season is Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler. It’s a love story between two women, but more importantly it’s a love story between two people.  The story is based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, who also penned The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. Todd Haynes (Six by Sondheim, Mildred Pierce) directed the film adaptation. Carol was originally produced in 2014 and finished in early 2015, but The Weinstein Company opted to time the release around the start of the 2015 awards season.

Affonso Gonçalves (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone), the editor on Carol, explains, “Carol is a love story about two women coming to terms with the dissatisfaction of their lives. The Carol character (Cate Blanchett) is unhappily married, but loves her child. Carol has had other lesbian affairs before, but is intrigued by this new person, Therese (Rooney Mara), whom she encounters in a department store. Therese doesn’t know what she wants, but through the course of the film, learns who she is.”

Gonçalves and Haynes worked together on the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce. Gonçalves says, “We got along well and when he got involved with the production, he passed along the script to me and I loved it.” Carol was shot entirely on Super 16mm film negative, primarily as a single-camera production. Only about five percent of the production included A and B cameras. Ed Lachman (Dark Blood, Stryker, Selena) served as the cinematographer. The film negative was scanned in log color space and then a simple log-to-linear LUT (color look-up table) was applied to the Avid DNxHD36 editorial files for nice-looking working files.

Creating a timeless New York story

Cincinnati served as the principal location designed to double for New York City in the early 1950s. The surrounding area also doubled for Iowa and Pennsylvania during a traveling portion of the film. Gonçalves discussed how Haynes and he worked during this period. “The production shot in Cincinnati, but I was based at Goldcrest Films in New York. The negative was shipped to New York each day, where it was processed and scanned. Then I would get Avid editorial files. The cutting room was set up with Avid Media Composer and ISIS systems and my first assistant Perri [Pivovar] had the added responsibilities on this project to check for film defects. Ed would also review footage each day; however, Todd doesn’t like to watch dailies during a production. He would rely on me instead to be his eyes and ears to make sure that the coverage that he needed was there.”

He continues, “After the production wrapped, I completed my editor’s cut, while Todd took a break. Then he spent two weeks reviewing all the dailies and making his own detailed notes. Then, when he was ready, he joined me in the cutting room and we built the film according to his cut. Once we had these two versions – his and mine – we compared the two. They were actually very similar, because we both have a similar taste. I had started in May and by September the cut was largely locked. Most of the experimenting came with structure and music.”

The main editorial challenges were getting the right structure for the story and tone for the performances. According to Gonçalves, “Cate’s and Rooney’s performances are very detailed and I felt the need to slow the cutting pace down to let you appreciate that performance. Rooney’s is so delicate. Plus, it’s a love story and we needed to keep the audience engaged. We weren’t as concerned with trimming, but rather, to get the story right. The first cut was two-and-a-half hours and the finished length ended up at 118 minutes. Some scenes were cut out that involved additional characters in the story. Todd isn’t too precious about losing scenes and this allowed us to keep the story focused on our central characters.”

“The main challenge was the party scene at the end. The story structure is similar to Brief Encounters (a 1946 David Lean classic with the beginning and ending set in the same location). Initially we had two levels of flashbacks, but there was too much of a shift back and forth. We had a number of ‘friends and family’ screenings and it was during these that we discovered the issues with the flashbacks. Ultimately we decided to rework the ending and simplify the temporal order of the last scene. The film was largely locked by the sixth or seventh cut.”

As a period piece, music is very integral to Carol. Gonçalves explains, “We started with about 300 to 400 songs that Todd liked, plus old soundtracks. These included a lot of singers of the time, like Billie Holiday. I also added ambiences for restaurants and bars. Carter (Burwell, composer) saw our cut at around the second or third screening with our temp score. After that he started sending preliminary themes to for us to work into the cut. These really elevated the tone of the film. He’d come in every couple of weeks to see how his score was working out with the cut, so it became a very collaborative process.”

The editing application that an editor uses is an extension of how he works. Some have very elaborate routines for preparing bins and sequences and others take a simpler approach. Gonçalves fits into the latter group. He says, “Avid is like sitting down and driving a car for me. It’s all so smooth and so fast. It’s easy to find things and I like the color correction and audio tools. I started working more sound in the Avid on True Detective and its tools really help me to dress things up. I don’t use any special organizing routines in the bins. I simply highlight the director’s preferred takes; however, I do use locators and take a lot of handwritten notes.”

Film sensibilities in the modern digital era

Carol was literally the last film to be processed at Deluxe New York before the lab was shut down. In addition to a digital release, Technicolor also did a laser “film-out” to 35mm for a few release prints. All digital post-production was handled by Goldcrest Films, who scanned the Super 16mm negative on an ARRI laser scanner at 3K resolution for a 2K digital master. Goldcrest’s Boon Shin Ng handled the scanning and conforming of the film. Creating the evocative look of Carol fell to New York colorist John J. Dowdell III. Trained in photography before becoming a colorist in 1980, Dowdell has credits on over 200 theatrical and television films.

Unlike other films, Dowdell was involved earlier in the overall process. He explains, “Early on, I had a long meeting with Todd and Ed about the look of the film. Todd had put together a book of photographs and tear sheets that helped with the colors and fashions from the 1950s. While doing the color grading job, we’d often refer back to that book to establish the color palette for the film.” Carol has approximately 100 visual effects shots to help make Cincinnati look like New York, circa 1952-53. Dowdell continues, “Boon coordinated effects with Chris Haney, the visual effects producer. The ARRI scanner is pin-registered, which is essential for the work of the visual effects artists. We’d send them both log and color corrected files. They’d use the color corrected files to create a reference, preview LUT for their own use, but then send us back finished effects in log color space. These were integrated back into the film.”

Dowdell’s tool of choice is the Quantel Pablo Rio system, which incorporates color grading tools that match his photographic sensibilities. He says, “I tend not to rely as much on the standard lift/gamma/gain color wheels. That’s a video approach. Quantel includes a film curve, which I use a lot. It’s like an s-curve tool, but with a pivot point. I also use master density and RGB printer light controls. These are numeric and let you control the color very precisely, but also repeatably. That’s important as I was going through options with Todd and Ed. You could get back to an earlier setting. That’s much harder to do precisely with color wheels and trackball controls.”

The Quantel Pablo Rio is a complete editing and effects system as well, integrating the full power of Quantel’s legendary Paintbox. This permitted John Dowdell and Boon Schin Ng to handle some effects work within the grading suite. Dowdell continues, “With the paint and tracking functions, I could do a lot of retouching. For example, some modern elements, like newer style parking meters, were tracked, darkened and blurred, so that they didn’t draw attention. We removed some modern signs and also did digital clean-up, like painting out negative dirt that made it through the scan. Quantel does beautiful blow-ups, which was perfect for the minor reframing that we did on this film.”

The color grading toolset is often a Swiss Army Knife for the filmmaker, but in the end, it’s about the color. Dowdell concludes, “Todd and Ed worked a lot to evoke moods. In the opening department store scene, there’s a definite green cast that was added to let the audience feel that this is an unhappy time. As the story progresses, colors become more intense and alive toward the end of the film. We worked very intuitively to achieve the result and care was applied to each and every shot. We are all very proud of it. Of all the films I’ve color corrected, I feel that this is really my masterpiece.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Sicario

df0416_sicario_1_sm

Sicario is an emotional and suspenseful look into the dark side of the war on drugs as told by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies). It teams a by-the-book FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) with an interagency task force led by CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin). The shadowy mix of characters includes Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) – an enigmatic contractor working with Matt. As the special operation proceeds with increasingly extra-legal means, we learn that there’s more to Alejandro than meets the eye – part former crusading prosecutor and part hitman. Kate and the audience are forced to question the morality of whether the ends justify the means as told through an increasingly tense and suspenseful story.

From Wagner to Hollywood

The key to driving such a thriller is often the editor, which in this case was Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave, Hunger, Harry Brown). I had a chance to discuss Sicario with Walker as he took a break from cutting the next Villeneuve film, Story of Your Life. Walker’s road to Hollywood is different than many other top-level, feature film editors. While editors often play musical instruments as a hobby, Walker actually studied to be a classical composer in his native England.

df0416_sicario_7Walker explains, “It’s always been a hard choice between films and writing music. I remember when I was ten years old, I’d run 8mm films of the Keystone Cops at slow speed with Richard Wagner playing against it and kind of get depressed! So, these were twin interests of mine. I studied classical composing and balanced two careers of editing and composing up until the mid-2000s. I used my music degree to get a job with the BBC where I moved into assistant editor roles. The BBC is very cautious and it took me eleven years before finally being allowed to cut drama as an editor. This was all on 16mm film and then I moved into digital editing, first with Lightworks and later Avid. I always wanted to work on bigger films, but I felt there was a glass ceiling in England. Big studio films that came in would always bring their own editors. The big break for me was 12 Years a Slave, which provided the opportunity to move to Los Angeles.”

Controlling the story, characters and rhythm

df0416_sicario_6Sicario has a definite rhythm designed to build suspense. There are scenes that are slow but tense and others that are action-packed. Walker explains his philosophy on setting the pace, “Since working with Steve McQueen (director, 12 Years a Slave) I’ve been known for holding shots a long time to build tension. This is contrary to the usual approach, which says you build tension by an increasingly faster cutting pace. Sometimes if you hold a shot, there’s even more tension if the story supports it. I’ll even use the trick of invisible split screens in order to hold a take longer than the way it was originally shot. For example, the left side of one take might hold long enough, but something breaks on the right. I’ll pull the right side from a different take in order to extend the end of the complete shot.”

Another interesting aspect to Sicario is the sparseness of the musical score, in favor of sound design. Walker comments, “Music is in an abusive relationship with film. Putting on my composer hat, I don’t want to tell the audience what to think only by the music. It’s part of the composite. I try to cut without a temp score, because you have to know when it’s only the music that drives the emotion. I’ll even turn the sound down and cut it as if it was a silent movie, so that I can feel the rhythm visually. Then sound effects add another layer and finally music. In Sicario, I made use of a lot of walkie-talkie dialogue to fill in spaces – using them almost like a sound effect.  Jóhann Jóhannsson (composer, Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher) was thrilled to get a clean output without someone else’s preconceived temp score, because it allowed him to start with a clean palette.”

df0416_sicario_3Editing shapes the characters. Walker says, “Taylor Sheridan’s script was fantastic, so I don’t want to do a disservice to him, but there was a continual process of paring down the dialogue and simplifying the story, which continued long into the edit. Benicio Del Toro’s character says very little and that helps keep him very mysterious. One of the biggest cuts we made in the edit was to eliminate the original opening scene, shot on the coast at Veracruz. In it, Alejandro (Del Toro) is interrogating a cop by holding his head underwater. He goes too far and kills him.  So he drags the lifeless body to the shore only to resuscitate him and begin the interrogation again. A strong and brutal scene, but one that told too much about Alejandro at the outset, rather than letting us – and Kate (Emily Blunt) – figure him out piece by piece. We needed to tell the story through Kate’s eyes. The film now starts with the hostage rescue raid, which better anchors the film on Kate.  And it’s not short of its own brutality. At the end of the scene we smash cut from a mutilated hand on the ground to Kate washing the blood out of her hair in the shower. This very violent beginning lets the audience know that anything could happen in this film.”

A carefully considered production

Sicario was produced for an estimated $31 million. While not exactly low budget, it was certainly modest for a film of this ambition. The majority of the film was shot in New Mexico over a 49-day period, starting in July of 2014. Final post was completed in March of this year. Roger Deakins (Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall), the film’s director of photography, relied on his digital camera of choice these days, the ARRI Alexa XT recording to ARRIRAW. The editorial team cut with transcoded Avid DNxHD media using two Avid Media Composer systems.

df0416_sicario_4Joe Walker continues, “This was a very carefully considered shoot. They spent a lot of effort working out shots to avoid overshooting. Most of the set-ups were in the final cut. They were also lucky with the weather. I cut the initial assembly in LA while they were shooting in New Mexico. The fine cut was done in Montreal with Denis for ten weeks and then back to LA for the final post. The edit really came together easily because of all the prep. Roger has to be one of our generation’s greatest cinematographers. Not only are his shots fantastic, but he has a mastery of sequence building, which is matched by Denis.”

“Ninety percent of the time the editorial team consisted of just my long-time first assistant Javier [Marcheselli] and me. The main focus of the edit was to streamline the storytelling and to be as muscular and rhythmic with the cutting as possible. We spent a lot of time focused on the delicate balance between how much we see the story through our central character’s eyes and how much we should let the story progress by itself.  One of the constructs that came out of the edit was to beef up the idea of surveillance by taking helicopter aerials of the desert and creating drone footage from it.  Javier is great with temp visual effects and I’m good with sound, so we’d split up duties that way.”

df0416_sicario_8“I’m happy that this was largely a single-camera production. Only a few shots were two-camera shots. Single-camera has the advantage that the editor can better review the footage. With multi-cam you might get four hours of dailies, which takes about seven hours to review. When are you left with time to cut? This makes it hard to build a relationship with the dailies. With a single-camera film, you have more time to really investigate the coverage. I like to mind-read what the direction was by charting the different nuances between takes.”

It shouldn’t matter what the knives are

Walker is a long-time Media Composer user. We wrapped up with a discussion about the tools of the trade. Walker says, “This was a small film compared to some, so we used two Avid workstations connected to Avid’s ISIS shared storage while in LA. It’s rock solid. In Montreal, there was a different brand of shared storage, which wasn’t nearly as solid as ISIS. On Michael Mann’s Blackhat, we sometimes had sixteen Avids connected to ISIS, so that’s pretty hard to beat. I really haven’t used other NLEs, like Final Cut, but Premiere is tempting. If anything, going back to Lightworks is even more intriguing to me. I really loved how intuitive the ‘paddles’ (the Lightworks flatbed-style Controller) were. But edit systems are like knives. You shouldn’t care what knives the chef used if the meal tastes good. Given the right story, I’d be happy to cut it on wet string.”

df0416_sicario_2The editing application isn’t Walker’s only go-to tool. He continues, “I wish Avid would include more improvements on the audio side of Media Composer. I often go to outside applications. One of my favorites is [UISoftware’s] MetaSynth, which lets me extend music. For instance, if a chord is held for one second, I can use MetaSynth to extend that hold for as much as ten, twenty seconds. This makes it easy to tailor music under a scene and it sounds completely natural. I also used it on Sicario to elongate some great screaming sounds in the scene where Alejandro is having a nightmare on the plane – they are nicely embedded into the sounds of the jet engines – we wanted the message to be subliminal.”

df0416_sicario_5Joe Walker is a fan of visual organization. He explains, “When I’m working with dailies, I usually don’t pre-edit select sequences for a scene unless it’s a humongous amount of coverage. Instead, I prefer to visually arrange the ‘tiles’ (thumbnail frames in the bin) in a way that makes it easier to tuck in. But I am a big fan of the scene wall. I write out 3” x 5” note cards for each scene with a short description of the essence of that scene on it. This is a great way to quickly see what that scene is all about and remind you of a character’s journey up to that point. When it comes time to re-order scenes, it’s often better to do that by shifting the cards on the wall first. If you try to do it in the software, you get bogged down in the logistics of making those edit changes. I’ll put the cards for deleted scenes off to the side, so a quick glance reminds me of what we’ve removed. It’s just something that works for me.  Denis has just spent the best part of a year turning words into pictures so he laughs at my wall and my reliance on it!”

(It’s also worth checking out Steve Hullfish’s excellent interview with Walker at his Art of the Cut column.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters