HDR and RAW Demystified, Part 2

(Part 1 of this series is linked here.) One of the surprises of NAB 2018 was the announcement of Apple ProRes RAW. This brought camera raw video to the forefront for many who had previously discounted it. To understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ about raw, we first have to understand camera sensors.

For quite some years now, cameras have been engineering with a single, CMOS sensor. Most of these sensors use a Bayer-pattern array of photosites. Bayer – named for Bryce Bayer, a Kodak color scientist who developed the system. Photosites are the light-receiving elements of a sensor. The Bayer pattern is a checkerboard filter that separates light according to red/blue/green wavelengths. Each photosite captures light as monochrome data that has been separated according to color components. In doing so, the camera captures a wide exposure latitude as linear data. This is greater than what can be squeezed into standard video in this native form. There is a correlation between physical photosite size and resolution. With smaller photosites, more can fit on the sensor, yielding greater native resolution. But, with fewer, larger photosites, the sensor has better low-light capabilities. In short, resolution and exposure latitude are a trade-off in sensor design.

Log encoding

Typically, raw data is converted into RGB video by the internal electronics of the camera. It is then subsequently converted into component digital video and recorded using a compressed or uncompressed codec and one of the various color sampling schemes (4:4:4, 4:2:2, 4:1:1, 4:2:0). These numbers express a ratio that represents YCrCb – where Y = luminance (the first number) and CrCb = two difference signals (the second two numbers) used to derive color information. You may also see this written as YUV, Y/R-Y/B-Y or other forms. In the conversion, sampling, and compression process, some information is lost. For instance, a 4:4:4 codec preserves twice as much color information than a 4:2:2 codec. Two methods are used to preserve wide-color gamuts and extended dynamic range: log encoding and camera raw capture.

Most camera manufacturers offer some form of logarithmic video encoding, but the best-known is ARRI’s Log-C. Log encoding applies a logarithm to linear sensor data in order to compress that data into a “curve”, which will fit into the available video signal “bucket”. Log-C video, when left uncorrected and viewed in Rec. 709, will appear to lack contrast and saturation. To correct the image, a LUT (color look-up table) must be applied, which is the mathematic inverse of the process used to encode the Log-C signal. Once restored, the image can be graded to use and/or discard as much of the data as needed, depending on whether you are working in an SDR or HDR mode.

Remember that the conversion from a flat, log image to full color will only look good when you have bit-depth precision. This means that if you are working with log material in an 8-bit system, you only have 256 steps between black and white. That may not be enough and the grade from log to full color may result in banding. If you work in a 10-bit system, then you have 1024 steps instead of only 256 between the same black and white points. This greater precision yields a smoother transition in gradients and, therefore, no banding. If you work with ProRes recordings, then according to Apple, “Apple ProRes 4444 XQ and Apple ProRes 4444 support image sources up to 12 bits and preserve alpha sample depths up to 16 bits. All Apple ProRes 422 codecs support up to 10-bit image sources, though the best 10-bit quality is obtained with the higher-bit-rate family members – Apple ProRes 422 and Apple ProRes 422 HQ.”

Camera raw

RAW is not an acronym. It’s simply shorthand for camera raw information. Before video, camera raw was first used in photography, typified by Canon raw (.cr2) and Adobe’s Digital Negative (.dng) formats. The latter was released as an open standard and is widely used in video as Cinema DNG.

Camera raw in video cameras made its first practical introduction when RED Digital Cinema introduced their RED ONE cameras equipped with REDCODE RAW. While not the first with raw, RED’s innovation was to record a compressed data stream as a movie file (.r3d), which made post-production significantly easier. The key difference between raw workflows and non-raw workflows, is that with raw, the conversion into video no longer takes place in the camera or an external recorder. This conversion happens in post. Since the final color and dynamic range data is not “baked” into the file, the post-production process used can be improved in future years, making an even better result possible with an updated software version.

Camera raw data is usually proprietary to each manufacturer. In order for any photographic or video application to properly decode a camera raw signal, it must have a plug-in from that particular manufacturer. Some of these are included with a host application and some require that you download and install a camera-specific add-on. Such add-ons or plug-ins are considered to be a software “black box”. The decoding process is hidden from the host application, but the camera supplier will enable certain control points that an editor or colorist can adjust. For example, with RED’s raw module, you have access to exposure, the demosaicing (de-Bayering) resolution, RED’s color science method, and color temperature/tint. Other camera manufacturers will offer less.

Apple ProRes RAW

The release of ProRes RAW gives Apple a raw codec that is optimized for multi-stream playback performance in Final Cut Pro X and on the newest Apple hardware. This is an acquisition codec, so don’t expect to see the ability to export a timeline from your NLE and record it into ProRes RAW. Although I wouldn’t count out a transcode from another raw format into ProRes RAW, or possibly an export from FCPX when your timeline only consists of ProRes RAW content. In any case, that’s not possible today. In fact, you can only play ProRes RAW files in Final Cut Pro X or Apple Motion, but only FCPX displays the correct color information at default settings.

Currently ProRes RAW has only been licensed by Apple to Atomos and DJI. The Atomos Inferno and Sumo 19 units are equipped with ProRes RAW. This is only active with certain Canon, Panasonic, and Sony camera models that can send their raw signal out over an SDI cable. Then the Atomos unit will remap the camera’s raw values to ProRes RAW and encode the file. DJI’s Zenmuse X7 gimbal camera has also been updated to support ProRes RAW. With DJI, the acquisition occurs in-camera, rather than via an external recorder.

Like RED’s RECODE, Apple ProRes RAW is a variable bit-rate, compressed codec with different quality settings. ProRes RAW and ProRes RAW HQ fall in line similar to the data rates of ProRes and ProRes HQ. Unlike RED, no controls are exposed within Final Cut Pro X to access specific raw controls. Therefore, Final Cut Pro X’s color processing controls may or may not take affect prior to the conversion from raw to video. At this point that’s an unknown.

Conclusion

The main advantage of the shift to using movie file formats for camera raw – instead of image sequence files – is that processing is faster and the formats are conducive to working natively in most editing applications.

It can be argued whether or not there is really much difference in starting with a log-encoded versus a camera raw file. Leading feature films presented at the highest resolutions have originated both ways. Nevertheless, both methods empower you with extensive creative control in post when grading the image. Both accommodate a move into HDR and wider color gamuts. Clearly log and raw workflows future-proof your productions for little or no additional investment.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2018 Oliver Peters

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HDR and RAW Demystified, Part 1

Two buzzwords have been the highlight of many tech shows within this past year – HDR and RAW. In this first part, I will attempt to clarify some of the concepts surrounding video signals, including High Dynamic Range (HDR). In part 2, I’ll cover more about camera raw recordings.

Color space

Four things define the modern video signal: color space (aka color gamut), white point, gamma curve, and dynamic range. The easiest way to explain color space is with the standard triangular plot of the color spectrum, known as a chromaticity diagram. This chart defines the maximum colors visible to most humans when visualized on an x,y grid. Within it are numerous ranges that define a less-than-full range of colors for various standards. These represent the technical color spaces that cameras and display systems can achieve. On most charts, the most restrictive ranges are sRGB and Rec. 709. The former is what many computer displays have used until recently, while Rec. 709 is the color space standard for high definition TV. (These recommendations were developed by the International Telecommunications Union, so Rec. 709 is simply shorthand for ITU-R Recommendation BT.709.)

Next out is P3, a standard adopted for digital cinema projection and more recently, new computer displays, like those on the Apple iMac Pro. While P3 doesn’t display substantially more color than Rec. 709, colors at the extremes of the range do appear different. For example, the P3 color space will render more vibrant reds with a more accurate hue than Rec. 709 or sRGB. With UHD/4K becoming mainstream, there’s also a push for “better pixels”, which has brought about the Rec. 2020 standard for 4K video. This standard covers about 75% of the visible spectrum, although, it’s perfectly acceptable to deliver 4K content that was graded in a Rec. 709 color space. That’s because most current displays that are Rec. 2020 compatible can’t actually display 100% of the colors defined in this standard, yet.

The center point of the chromaticity diagram is white. However, different systems consider a slightly different color temperature to be white. Color temperature is measured in Kelvin degrees. Displays are a direct illumination source and for those, 6500-degrees (more accurately 6504) is considered pure white. This is commonly referred to as D-65. Digital cinema, which is a projected image, uses 6300-degrees as its white point. Therefore, when delivering something intended for P3, it is important to specify whether that is P3 D-65 or P3 DCI (digital cinema).

Dynamic range

Color space doesn’t live on its own, because the brightness of the image also defines what we see. Brightness (and contrast) are expressed as dynamic range. Up until the advent of UHD/4K we have been viewing displays in SDR (standard dynamic range). If you think of the chromaticity diagram as lying flat and dynamic range as a column that extends upward from the chart on the z-axis, you can quickly see that the concept can be thought of as a volumetric combination of color space and dynamic range. With SDR, that “column” goes from 0 IRE up to 100 IRE (also expressed as 0-100 percent).

Gamma is the function that changes linear brightness values into the weighted values that are translated to our screens. It defines numerical pixel value to its actual brightness. By increasing or decreasing gamma values, you are in effect, bending that straight-line between darkest and lightest values into a curve. This changes the midtone of the displayed image, making the image appear darker or lighter. Gamma values are applied to both the original image and to the display system. When they don’t match, then you run into situations where the image will look vastly different when viewed on one system versus another.

With the advent of UHD/4K, users have also been introduced to HDR (high dynamic range), which allows us to display brighter images and recover the overshoot elements in a frame, like bright lights and reflections. It is important to understand that HDR video is not the same as HDR photography. HDR photos are created by capturing several bracketed exposures of the same image and then blending those into a composite – either in-camera or via software, like Photoshop or Lightroom. HDR photos often yield hyper-real results, such as when high-contrast sky and landscape elements are combined.

HDR video is quite different. HDR photography is designed to work with existing technology, whereas HDR video actually takes advantage of the extended brightness range made possible in new displays. It is also only visible with the newest breed of UHD/4K TV sets that are HDR-capable. Display illumination is measured in nits. One nit equals one candela per square meter – in other words, the light of a single candle spread over a square meter. SDR displays have been capable of up to 100 nits. Modern computer displays, monitors, and consumer television sets can now display brightness in the range of 500 to 1,000 nits and even brighter. Anything over 1,000 nits is considered HDR. But that’s not the end of the story, as there are currently four competing standards: Dolby Vision, HDR10, HDR10+, and HLG. I won’t get into the weeds about the specifics of each, but they all apply different peak brightness levels and methods. Their nit levels range from 1,000 up to Dolby Vision’s theoretical limit of 10,000 nits.

Just because you own a high-nits display doesn’t mean you are seeing HDR. It isn’t simply turning up the brightness “to 11”, but rather providing the headroom to extend the parts of the image that exceed the normal range. These peaks can now be displayed with detail, without compressing or clipping them, as we do now. When an HDR master is created, metadata is stored with the file that tells the display device that the signal is an HDR signal and to turn on the necessary circuitry. That metadata is carried over HDMI. Therefore, every device in the playback chain must be HDR-capable.

HDR also means more hardware to work with it accurately. Although you may have grading software that accommodates HDR – and you have a 500 nits display, like those in an iMac Pro – you can’t effectively see HDR in order to properly grade it. That still requires proper capture/playback hardware from Blackmagic Design or AJA, along with a studio-grade, external HDR monitor.

Unfortunately, there’s one dirty little secret with HDR. Monitors and TV sets cannot display a full screen image at maximum brightness. You can’t display a total white background at 1,000 nits on a 1,000 nits display. These displays employ gain circuitry to darken the image in those cases. The responsiveness of any given display model will vary widely depending on how much of the screen is at full brightness and for how long. No two models will be at exactly the same brightness for any given percentage at peak level.

Today HDR is still the “wild west” and standards will evolve as the market settles in on a preference. The good news is that cameras have been delivering content that is “HDR-ready” for several years. This brings us to camera raw and log encoding, which will be covered in Part 2.

(Here is some additional information from SpectraCal and AVForums.)

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Bricklayers and Sculptors

One of the livelier hangouts on the internet for editors to kick around their thoughts is the Creative COW’s Apple Final Cut Pro X Debates forum. Part forum, part bar room brawl, it started as a place to discuss the relative merits (or not) of Apple’s FCP X. As such, the COW’s bosses allow a bit more latitude than in other forums. However, often threads derail into really thoughtful discussions about editing concepts.

Recently one of its frequent contributors, Simon Ubsdell, posted a thread called Bricklayers and Sculptors. In his words, “There are two different types of editors: Those who lay one shot after another like a bricklayer builds a wall. And those who discover the shape of their film by sculpting the raw material like a sculptor works with clay. These processes are not the same. There is no continuum that links these two approaches. They are diametrically opposed.”

Simon Ubsdell is the creative director, partner, and editor/mixer for London-based trailer shop Tokyo Productions. Ubsdell is also an experienced plug-in developer, having developed and/or co-developed the TKY, Tokyo, and Hawaiki effects plug-ins. But beyond that, Simon is one of the folks with whom I often have e-mail discussions regarding the state of editing today. We were both early adopters of FCP X who have since shifted almost completely to Adobe Premiere Pro. In keeping with the theme of his forum post, I asked him to share his ideas about how to organize an edit.

With Simon’s permission, the following are his thoughts on how best to organize editing projects in a way that keeps you immersed in the material and results in editing with greater assurance that you’ve make the best possible edit decisions.

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Simon Ubsdell – Bricklayers and Sculptors in practical terms

To avoid getting too general about this, let me describe a job I did this week. The producer came to us with a documentary that’s still shooting and only roughly “edited” into a very loose assembly – it’s the stories of five different women that will eventually be interweaved, but that hasn’t happened yet. As I say, extremely rough and unformed.

I grabbed all the source material and put it on a timeline. That showed me at a glance that there was about four hours of it in total. I put in markers to show where each woman’s material started and ended, which allowed me to see how much material I had for each of them. If I ever needed to go back to “everything”, it would make searching easier. (Not an essential step by any means.)

I duplicated that sequence five times to make sequences of all the material for each woman. Then I made duplicates of those duplicates and began removing everything I didn’t want. (At this point I am only looking for dialogue and “key sound”, not pictures which I will pick up in a separate set of passes.)

Working subtractively

From this point on I am working almost exclusively subtractively. A lot of people approach string-outs by adding clips from the browser – but here all my clips are already on the timeline and I am taking away anything I don’t want. This is for me the key part of the process because each edit is not a rough approximation, but a very precise “topping and tailing” of what I want to use. If you’re “editing in the Browser” (or in Bins), you’re simply not going to be making the kind of frame accurate edits that I am making every single time with this method.

The point to grasp here is that instead of “making bricks” for use later on, I am already editing in the strictest sense – making cuts that will stand up later on. I don’t have to select and then trim – I am doing both operations at the same time. I have my editing hat on, not an organizing hat. I am focused on a timeline that is going to form the basis of the final edit. I am already thinking editorially (in the sense of creative timeline-based editing) and not wasting any time merely thinking organizationally.

I should mention here that this is an iterative process – not just one pass through the material, but several. At certain points I will keep duplicates as I start to work on shorter versions. I won’t generally keep that many duplicates – usually just an intermediate “long version”, which has lost all the material I definitely don’t want. And by “definitely don’t want” I’m not talking about heads and tails that everybody throws away where the camera is being turned on or off or the crew are in shot – I am already making deep, fine-grained editorial and editing decisions that will be of immense value later on. I’m going straight to the edit point that I know I’ll want for my finished show. It’s not a provisional edit point – it’s a genuine editorial choice. From this point of view, the process of rejecting slates and tails is entirely irrelevant and pointless – a whole process that I sidestep entirely. I am cutting from one bit that I want to keep directly to the next bit I want to keep and I am doing so with fine-tuned precision. And because I am working subtractively I am actually incorporating several edit decisions in one – in other words, with one delete step I am both removing the tail from the outgoing clip and setting the start of the next clip.

Feeling the pacing and flow

Another key element here is that I can see how one clip flows into another – even if I am not going to be using those two clips side-by-side. I can already get a feel for the pacing. I can also start to see what might go where, so as part of this phase, I am moving things around as options start suggesting themselves. Because I am working in the timeline with actual edited material, those options present themselves very naturally – I’m getting offered creative choices for free. I can’t stress too strongly how relevant this part is. If I were simply sorting through material in a Browser/Bin, this process would not be happening or at least not happening in anything like the same way. The ability to reorder clips as the thought occurs to me and for this to be an actual editorial decision on a timeline is an incredibly useful thing and again a great timesaver. I don’t have to think about editorial decisions twice.

And another major benefit that is simply not available to Browser/Bin-based methods, is that I am constructing editorial chunks as I go. I’m taking this section from Clip A and putting it side-by-side with this other section from Clip A, which may come from earlier in the actual source, and perhaps adding a section from Clip B to the end and something from Clip C to the front. I am forming editorial units as I work through the material. And these are units that I can later use wholesale.

Another interesting spin-off is that I can very quickly spot “duplicate material”, by which I mean instances where the same information or sentiment is conveyed in more or less the same terms at different places in the source material. Because I am reviewing all of this on the timeline and because I am doing so iteratively, I can very quickly form an opinion as to which of the “duplicates” I want to use in my final edit.

Working towards the delivery target

Let’s step back and look at a further benefit of this method. Whatever your final film is, it will have the length that it needs to be – unless you’re Andy Warhol. You’re delivering a documentary for broadcast or theatrical distribution, or a short form promo or a trailer or TV spot. In each case you have a rough idea of what final length you need to arrive at. In my case, I knew that the piece needed to be around three minutes long. And that, of course, throws up a very obvious piece of arithmetic that it helps me to know. I had five stories to fit into those three minutes, which meant that the absolute maximum of dialogue that I would need would be just over 30 seconds from each story!  The best way of getting to those 30 seconds is obviously subtractively.

I know I need to get my timeline of each story down to something approaching this length. Because I’m not simply topping and tailing clips in the Browser, but actually sculpting them on the timeline (and forming them into editorial units, as described above), I can keep a very close eye on how this is coming along for each story strand. I have a continuous read-out of how well I am getting on with reducing the material down to the target length. By contrast, if I approach my final edit with 30 minutes of loosely selected source material to juggle, I’m going to spend a lot more time on editorial decisions that I could have successfully made earlier.

So the final stage of the process in this case was simply to combine and rearrange the pre-edited timelines into a final timeline – a process that is now incredibly fast and a lot of fun. I’ve narrowed the range of choices right down to the necessary minimum. A great deal of the editing has literally already been done, because I’ve been editing from the very first moment that I laid all the material on the original timeline containing all the source material for the project.

As you can see, the process has been essentially entirely subtractive throughout – a gradual whittling down of the four hours to something closer to three minutes. This is not to say there won’t be additive parts to the overall edit. Of course, I added music, SFX, and graphics, but from the perspective of the process as a whole, this is addition at the most trivial level.

Learning to tell the story in pictures

There is another layer of addition that I have left out and that’s what happens with the pictures. So far I’ve only mentioned what is happening with what is sometimes called the “radio edit”. In my case, I will perform the exact same (sometimes iterative) process of subtracting the shots I want to keep from the entirety of the source material – again, this is obviously happening on a timeline or timelines. The real delight of this method is to review all the “pictures” without reference to the sound, because in doing so you can get a real insight into how the story can be told pictorially. I will often review the pictures having very, very roughly laid up some of the music tracks that I have planned on using. It’s amazing how this lets you gauge both whether your music suits the material and conversely whether the pictures are the right ones for the way you are planning to tell the story.

This brings to me a key point I would make about how I personally work with this method and that’s that I plunge in and experiment even at the early stages of the project. For me, the key thing is to start to get a feel for how it’s all going to come together. This loose experimentation is a great way of approaching that. At some point in the experimentation something clicks and you can see the whole shape or at the very least get a feeling for what it’s all going to look like. The sooner that click happens, the better you can work, because now you are not simply randomly sorting material, you are working towards a picture you have in your head. For me, that’s the biggest benefit of working in the timeline from the very beginning. You’re getting immersed in the shape of the material rather than just its content and the immersion is what sparks the ideas. I’m not invoking some magical thinking here – I’m just talking about a method that’s proven itself time and time again to be the best and fastest way to unlock the doors of the edit.

Another benefit is that although one would expect this method to make it harder to collaborate, in fact the reverse is the case if each editor is conversant with the technique. You’re handing over vastly more useful creative edit information with this process than you could by any other means. What you’re effectively doing is “showing your workings” and not just handing over some versions. It means that the editor taking over from you can easily backtrack through your work and find new stuff and see the ideas that you didn’t end up including in the version(s) that you handed over. It’s an incredibly fast way for the new editor to get up to speed with the project without having to start from scratch by acquainting him or herself with where the useful material can be found.

Even on a more conventional level, I personally would far rather receive string-outs of selects than all the most carefully organized Browser/Bin info you care to throw at me. Obviously if I’m cutting a feature, I want to be able to find 323T14 instantly, but beyond that most basic level, I have no interest in digging through bins or keyword collections or whatever else you might be using, as that’s just going to slow me down.

Freeing yourself of the Browser/Bins

Another observation about this method is how it relates to the NLE interface. When I’m working with my string-outs, which is essentially 90% of the time, I am not ever looking at the Browser/Bins. Accordingly, in Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X, I can fully close down the Project/Browser windows/panes and avail myself of the extra screen real estate that gives me, which is not inconsiderable. The consequence of that is to make the timeline experience even more immersive and that’s exactly what I want. I want to be immersed in the details of what I’m doing in the timeline and I have no interest in any other distractions. Conversely, having to keep going back to Bins/Browser means shifting the focus of attention away from my work and breaking the all-important “flow” factor. I just don’t want any distractions from the fundamentally crucial process of moving from one clip to another in a timeline context. As soon as I am dragged away from that, there’s is a discontinuity in what I am doing.

The edit comes to shape organically

I find that there comes a point, if you work this way, when the subsequence you are working on organically starts to take on the shape of the finished edit and it’s something that happens without you having to consciously make it happen. It’s the method doing the work for you. This means that I never find myself starting a fresh sequence and adding to it from the subsequences and I think that has huge advantages. It reinforces my point that you are editing from the very first moment when you lay all your source material onto one timeline. That process leads without pause or interruption to the final edit through the gradual iterative subtraction.

I talked about how the iterative sifting process lets you see “duplicates”, that’s to say instances where the same idea is repeated in an alternative form – and that it helps you make the choice between the different options. Another aspect of this is that it helps you to identify what is strong and what is not so strong. If I were cutting corporates or skate videos this might be different, but for what I do, I need to be able to isolate the key “moments” in my material and find ways to promote those and make them work as powerfully as possible.

In a completely literal sense, when you’re cutting promos and trailers, you want to create an emotional, visceral connection to the material in the audience. You want to make them laugh or cry, you want to make them hold their breath in anticipation, or gasp in astonishment. You need to know how to craft the moments that will elicit the response you are looking for. I find that this method really helps me identify where those moments are going to come from and how to structure everything around them so as to build them as strongly as possible. The iterative sifting method means you can be very sure of what to go for and in what context it’s going to work the best. In other words, I keep coming back to the realization that this method is doing a lot of the creative work for you in a way that simply won’t happen with the alternatives. Even setting aside the manifest efficiency, it would be worth it for this alone.

There’s a huge amount more that I could say about this process, but I’ll leave it there for now. I’m not saying this method works equally well for all types of projects. It’s perhaps less suited to scripted drama, for instance, but even there it can work effectively with certain modifications. Like every method, every editor wants to tweak it to their own taste and inclinations. The one thing I have found to its advantage above all others is that it almost entirely circumvents the problem of “what shot do I lay down next?” Time and again I’ve seen Browser/Bin-focused editors get stuck in exactly this way and it can be a very real block.

– Simon Ubsdell

For an expanded version of this concept, check out Simon’s in-depth article at Creative COW. Click here to link.

For more creative editing tips, click on this link for Film Editor Techniques.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Tips for Production Success – Part 2

df2015_prodtips_2_smPicking up from my last post (part 1), here are 10 more tips to help you plan for a successful production.

Create a plan and work it. Being a successful filmmaker – that is, making a living at it – is more than just producing a single film. Such projects almost never go beyond the festival circuit, even if you do think it is the “great American film”. An indie producer may work on a project for about four years, from the time they start planning and raising the funds – through production and post – until real distribution starts. Therefore, the better approach is to start small and work your way up. Start with a manageable project or film with a modest budget and then get it done on time and in budget. If that’s a success, then start the next one – a bit bigger and more ambitious. If it works, rinse and repeat. If you can make that work, then you can call yourself a filmmaker.

Budget. I have a whole post on this subject, but in a nutshell, an indie film that doesn’t involve union talent or big special effects will likely cost close to one million dollars, all in. You can certainly get by on less. I’ve cut films that were produced for under $150,000 and one even under $50,000, but that means calling in a lot of favors and having many folks working for free or on deferment. You can pull that off one time, but it’s not a way to build a business, because you can’t go back to those same resources and ask to do it a second time. Learn how to raise the money to do it right and proceed from there.

Contingencies at the end. Intelligent budgeting means leaving a bit for the end. A number of films that I’ve cut had to do reshoots or spend extra days to shoot more inserts, establishing shots, etc. Plan for this to happen and make sure you’ve protected these items in the budget. You’ll need them.

Own vs. rent. Some producers see their film projects as a way to buy gear. That may or may not make sense. If you need a camera and can otherwise make money with it, then buy it. Or if you can buy it, use it, and then resell it to come out ahead – by all means follow that path. But if gear ownership is not your thing and if you have no other production plans for the gear after that one project, then it will most likely be a better deal to work out rentals. After all, you’re still going to need a lot of extras to round out the package.

Shooting ratios. In the early 90s I worked on the post of five half-hour and hourlong episodic TV series that were shot on 35mm film. Back then shooting ratios were pretty tight. A half-hour episode is about 20-22 minutes of content, excluding commercials, bumpers, open, and credits. An hourlong episode is about 44-46 minutes of program content. Depending on the production, these were shot in three to five days and exposed between 36,000 and 50,000 feet of negative. Therefore, a typical day meant 50-60 minutes of transferred “dailies” to edit from – or no more than five hours of source footage, depending on the series. This would put them close to the ideal mark (on average) of approximately a 10:1 shooting ratio.

Today, digital cameras make life easier and with the propensity to shoot two or more cameras on a regular basis, this means the same projects today might have conservatively generated more than 10 hours of source footage for each episode. This impacts post tremendously – especially if deadline is a factor. As a new producer, you should strive to control these ratios and stay within the goal of a 10:1 ratio (or lower).

Block and rehearse. The more a scene is buttoned down, the fewer takes you’ll need, which leads to a tighter shooting ratio. This means rehearse a scene and make sure the camera work is properly blocked. Don’t wing it! Once everything is ready, shoot it. Odds are you’ll get it in two to three takes instead of the five or more that might otherwise be required.

Control the actors. Unless there’s a valid reason to let your actors improvise, make sure the acting is consistent. That is, lines are read in the same order each take, props are handled at the same point, and actors consistently hit their marks each take. If you stray from that discipline, the editorial time becomes longer. If allowed to engage in too much freewheeling improvisation, actors may inadvertently paint you into a corner. To avoid that outcome, control it from the start.

Visual effects planning. Most films don’t require special effects, but there are often “invisible” fixes that can be created through visual effects. For example, combining elements of two takes or adding items to a set. A recent romantic drama I post-supervised used 76 effects shots of one type or another. If this is something that helps the project, make sure to plan for it from the outset. Adobe After Effects is the ubiquitous tool that makes such effects affordable. The results are great and there are plenty of talented designers who can assist you within almost any budget range.

Multiple cameras vs. single camera vs. 4K. Some producers like the idea of shooting interviews (especially two-shots) in 4K (for a 1080 finish) and then slice out the frame they want. I contend that often 4K presents focus issues, due to the larger sensors used in these cameras. In addition, the optics of slicing a region out of a 4K image are different than using another camera or zooming in to reframe the shot. As a result, the look that you get isn’t “quite right”. Naturally, it also adds one more component that the editor has to deal with – reframing each and every shot.

Conversely, when shooting a locked-off interview with one person on-camera, using two cameras makes the edit ideal. One camera might be placed face-on towards the speaker and the other from a side angle. This makes cutting between the camera angles visually more exciting and makes editing without visible jump cuts easier.

In dramatic productions, many new directors want to emulate the “big boys” and also shoot with two or more cameras for every scene. Unfortunately this isn’t always productive, because the lighting is compromised, one camera is often in an awkward position with poor framing, or even worse, often the main camera blocks the secondary camera. At best, you might get 25% usability out of this second camera. A better plan is to shoot in a traditional single-camera style. Move the camera around for different angles. Tweak the lighting to optimize the look and run the scene again for that view.

The script is too long. An indie film script is generally around 100 pages with 95-120 scenes. The film gets shot in 20-30 days and takes about 10-15 weeks to edit. If your script is inordinately long and takes many more days to shoot, then it will also take many more days to edit. The result will usually be a cut that is too long. The acceptable “standard” for most films is 90-100 minutes. If you clock in at three hours, then obviously a lot of slashing has to occur. You can lose 10-15% (maybe) through trimming the fat, but a reduction of 25-40% (or more) means you are cutting meat and bone. Scenes have to be lost, the story has to be re-arranged, or even more drastic solutions. A careful reading of the script and conceiving that as a finished concept can head off issues before production ever starts. Losing a scene before you shoot it can save time and money on a large scale. So analyze your script carefully.

Click here for Part 1.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Tips for Production Success – Part 1

df1915_prodtips_1_smThroughout this blog, I’ve written numerous tips about how to produce projects, notably indie features, with a successful outcome in mind. I’ve tried to educate on issues of budget and schedule. In these next two entries, I’d like to tackle 21 tips that will make your productions go more smoothly, finish on time, and not become a disaster during the post production phase. Although I’ve framed the discussion around indie features, the same tips apply to commercials, music videos, corporate presentations, and videos for the web.

Avoid white. Modern digital cameras handle white elements within a shot much better than in the past, but hitting a white shirt with a lot of light complicates your life when it comes to grading and directing the eye of the viewer. This is largely an issue of art direction and wardrobe. The best way to handle this is simply to replace whites with off-whites, bone or beige colors. The sitcom Barney Miller, which earned DP George Spiro Dibie recognition for getting artful looks out of his video cameras, is said to have had the white shirts washed in coffee to darken them a bit. The whiteness was brought back once the cameras were set up. The objective in all of this is to get the overall brightness into a range that is more controllable during color correction and to avoid clipping.

Expose to the right. When you look at a signal on a histogram, the brightest part is on the righthand side of the scale. By pushing your camera’s exposure towards a brighter, slightly over-exposed image (“to the right”), you’ll end up with a better looking image after grading (color correction). That’s because when you have to brighten an image by bringing up highlights or midtones, you are accentuating the sensor noise from the camera. If the image is already brighter and the correction is to lower the levels, then you end up with a cleaner final image. Since most modern digital cameras use some sort of log or hyper gamma encoding to record a flatter signal, which preserves latitude, opening up the exposure usually won’t run the risk of clipping the highlights. In the end, a look that stretches the shadow and mids to expose more detail to the eye gives you a more pleasing and informative image than one that places emphasis on the highlight portion.

Blue vs. green-screen. Productions almost ubiquitously use green paint, but that’s wrong. Each paint color has a different luminance value. Green is brighter and should be reserved for a composite where the talent should appear to be outside. Blue works best when the composited image is inside. Paint matters. The correct paint to use is still the proper version of Ultimatte blue or green paint, but many people try to cut corners on cost. I’ve even had producers go so far as to rig up a silk with a blue lighting wash and expect me to key it! When you light the subject, move them as far away from the wall as possible to avoid contamination of the color onto their hair and wardrobe. This also means, don’t have your talent stand on a green or blue floor, when you aren’t intending to see the floor or see them from their feet to their head.

Rim lighting. Images stand out best when your talent has some rim lighting to separate them from the background. Even in a dark environment, seek to create a lighting scheme that achieves this rimming effect around their head and shoulders.

Tonal art direction. The various “blockbuster” looks are popular – particularly the “orange and teal” look. This style pushes skin tones warm for a slight orange appearance, while many darker background elements pick up green/blue/teal/cyan casts. Although this can be accentuated in grading, it starts with proper art direction in the set design and costuming. Whatever tonal characteristic you want to achieve, start by looking at the art direction and controlling this from step one.

Rec. 709 vs. Log. Digital cameras have nearly all adopted some method of recording an image with a flat gamma profile that is intended to preserve latitude until final grading. This doesn’t mean you have to use this mode. If you have control over your exposure and lighting, there’s nothing wrong with recording Rec. 709 and nailing the final look in-camera. I highly recommend this for “talking head” interviews, especially ones shot on green or blue-screen.

Microphone direction/placement. Every budding recording engineer working in music and film production learns that proper mic placement is critical to good sound. Pay attention to where mics are positioned, relative to where the person is when they speak. For example, if you have two people in an interview situation wearing lavaliere mics on their lapels, the proper placement would be on each’s inner lapel – the side closer to the other person. That’s because each person will turn towards the other to address them as they speak and thus talk over that shoulder. Having the mic on this side means they are speaking into the mic. If it were on their outer lapel, they would be speaking away from the mic and thus the audio would tend to sound hollow. For the same reasons, when you use a boom or fish pole overhead mic, the operator needs to point the mic in the direction of the person talking. They will need to shift the mic’s direction as the conversation moves from one person to the next to follow the sound.

Multiple microphones/iso mics. When recording dialogue for a group of actors, it’s best to record their audio with individual microphones (lavs or overhead booms) and to record each mic on an isolated track. Cameras typically feature on-board recording of two to four audio channels, so if you have more mics than that, use an external multi-channel recorder. When external recording is used, be sure to still record a composite track to your camera for reference.

Microphone types. There are plenty of styles and types of microphones, but the important factors are size, tonal quality, range, and the axis of pick-up. Make sure you select the appropriate mic for the task. For example, if you are recording an actor with a deep bass voice using a lavaliere, you’d be best to use a type that gives you a full spectrum recording, rather than one that favors only the low end.

Sound sync. There are plenty of ways to sync sound to picture in double-system sound situations. Synchronizing by matched timecode is the most ideal, but even there, issues can arise. Assure that the camera’s and sound recorder’s timecode generators don’t drift during the day – or use a single, common, external timecode generator for both. It’s generally best to also include a clapboard and, when possible, also record reference audio to the camera. If you plan to sync by audio waveforms (PluralEyes, FCP X, Premiere Pro CC), then make sure the reference signal on the camera is of sufficient quality to make synchronization possible.

Record wild lines on set. When location audio is difficult to understand, ADR (automatic dialogue replacement, aka “looping”) is required. This happens because the location recording was not of high quality due to outside factors, like special effects, background noise, etc. Not all actors are good at ADR and it’s not uncommon to watch a scene with ADR dialogue and have it jump out at you as the viewer. Since ADR requires extra recording time with the actor, this drives up cost on small films. One workaround in some of these situations is for the production team to recapture the lines separately – immediately after the scene was shot – if the schedule permits. These lines would be recorded wild and may or may not be in sync. The intent is to get the right sonic environment and emotion while you are still there on site. Since these situations are often fast-paced action scenes, sync might not have to be perfect. If close enough, the sound editors can edit the lines into place with an acceptable level of sync so that viewers won’t notice any issues. When it works, it saves ADR time down the road and sounds more realistic.

Click here for Part 2.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Filmmaking Pointers

df_fmpointersIf you want to be a good indie filmmaker, you have to understand some of the basic principles of telling interesting visual stories and driving the audience’s emotions. These six   ideas transcend individual components of filmmaking, like cinematography or editing. Rather, they are concepts that every budding director should understand and weave into the entire structure of how a film is approached.

1. Get into the story quickly. Films are not books and don’t always need a lengthy backstory to establish characters and plot. Films are a journey and it’s best to get the characters on that road as soon as possible. Most scripts are structured as three-act plays, so with a typical 90-100 minute running time, you should be through act one at roughly one third of the way into the film. If not, you’ll lose the interest of the audience. If you are 20 minutes into the film and you are still establishing the history of the characters without having advanced the story, then look for places to start cutting.

Sometimes this isn’t easy to tell and an extended start may indeed work well, because it does advance the story. One example is There Will Be Blood. The first reel is a tour de force of editing, in which editor Dylan Tichenor builds a largely dialogue-free montage that quickly takes the audience through the first part of Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) history in order to bring the audience up to the film’s present day. It’s absolutely instrumental to the rest of the film.

2. Parallel story lines. A parallel story structure is a great device to show the audience what’s happening to different characters at different locations, but at more or less the same time. With most scripts, parallel actions are designed to eventually converge as related or often unrelated characters ultimately end up in the same place for a shared plot. An interesting take on this is Cloud Atlas, in which an ensemble cast plays different characters spread across six different eras and locations – past, present and future.

The editing style pulled off by Alexander Berner is quite a bit different than traditional parallel story editing. A set of characters might start a scene in one era. Halfway through the scene – through some type of abrupt cut, such as walking through a door – the characters, location and eras shift to somewhere else. However, the story and the editing are such that you clearly understand how the story continues for the first half of that scene, as well as how it led into the second half. This is all without explicitly shooting those parts of each scene. Scene A/era A informs your understanding of scene B/era B and vice versa.

3. Understand camera movement. When a camera zooms, moves or is used in a shaky, handheld manner, this elicits certain emotions from the audience. As a director or DP, you need to understand when each style is appropriate and when it can be overdone. Zooming into a close-up while an actor delivers a line should be done intentionally. It tells the audience, “Listen up. This is important.” If you shoot handheld footage, like most of the Bourne series, it drives a level of documentary-style, frenetic action that should be in keeping with the concept.

The TV series NYPD Blue is credited with introducing TV audiences to the “shaky-cam” style of camera work. Many pros thought it was overdone, with movement often being introduced in an unmotivated fashion. Yet, the original Law & Order series also made extensive use of handheld photography. As this was more in keeping with a subtle documentary style, few complained about its use on that show.

4. Color palettes and art direction. Many new filmmakers often feel that you can get any look you want through color grading. The reality is that it all starts with art direction. Grading should enhance what’s there, not manufacture something that isn’t. To get that “orange & teal” look, you need to have a set and wardrobe that has some greens and blues in it. To get a warm, earthy look, you need a set and wardrobe with browns and reds.

This even extends to black & white films. To get the right contrast and tonal values in black & white, you often have to use set/wardrobe color choices that are not ideal in a color world. That’s because different colors carry differing luminance and midrange values, which becomes very obvious, once you eliminate the color information from the picture. Make sure you take that into account if you plan to produce a black & white film.

5. Score versus sound design. Music should enhance and underscore a film, but it does not have to be wall-to-wall. Some films, like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are driven by a score of popular tunes. Others are composed with an original score. However, often the “score” consists of sound design elements and simple musical drones designed to heighten tension and otherwise manipulate emotion. The absence of score in a scene can achieve the same effect. Sound effects elements with stark simplicity may have more impact  on the audience than music. Learn when to use one or the other or both. Often less is more.

6. Don’t tell too much story. Not every film requires extensive exposition. As I said at the top, a film is not a book. Visual cues are as important as the spoken word and will often tell the audience a lot more in shorthand, than pages and pages of script. The audience is interested in the journey your film’s characters are on and frequently need very little backstory to get an understanding of the characters. Don’t shy away from shooting enough of that sort of detail, but also don’t be afraid to cut it out, when it becomes superfluous.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Film editing stages – Sound

df_filmsoundeditLike picture editing, the completion of sound for a film also goes through a series of component parts. These normally start after “picture lock” and are performed by a team of sound editors and mixers. On small, indie films, a single sound designer/editor/mixer might cover all of these roles. On larger films, specific tasks are covered by different individuals. Depending on whether it’s one individual or a team, sound post can take anywhere from four weeks to several months to complete.

Location mixing – During original production, the recording of live sound is handled by the location mixer. This is considered mixing, because originally, multiple mics were mixed “on-the-fly” to a single mono or stereo recording device. In modern films with digital location recordings, the mixer tends to record what is really only a mixed reference track for the editors, while simultaneously recording separate tracks of each isolated microphone to be used in the actual post production mix.

ADR – automatic dialogue replacement or “looping”. ADR is the recording of replacement dialogue in sync with the picture. The actors do this while watching their performance on screen. Sometimes this is done during production and sometimes during post. ADR will be used when location audio has technical flaws. Sometimes ADR is also used to record additional dialogue – for instance, when an actor has his or her back turned. ADR can also be used to record “sanitized” dialogue to remove profanity.

Walla or “group loop” – Additional audio is recorded for groups of people. This is usually for background sounds, like guests in a restaurant. The term “walla” comes from the fact that actors were (and often still are) instructed to say “walla, walla, walla” instead of real dialogue. The point is to create a sound effect of a crowd murmuring, without any recognizable dialogue line being heard. You don’t want anything distinctive to stand out above the murmur, other than the lead actors’ dialogue lines.

Dialogue editing – When the film editor (i.e. the picture editor) hands over the locked cut to the sound editors, it generally will include all properly edited dialogue for the scenes. However, this is not prepared for mixing. The dialogue editor will take this cut and break out all individual mic tracks. They will make sure all director’s cues are removed and they will often add room tone and ambience to smooth out the recording. In addition, specific actor mics will be grouped to common tracks so that it is easier to mix and apply specific processing, as needed, for any given character.

Sound effects editing/sound design – Sound effects for a film come from a variety of sources, including live recordings, sound effects libraries and sound synthesizers. Putting this all together is the role of the sound effects editor(s). Because many have elevated the art, by creating very specific senses of place, the term “sound designer” has come into vogue. For example, the villain’s lair might always feature certain sounds that are identifiable with that character – e.g. dripping water, rats squeaking, a distant clock chiming, etc. These become thematic, just like a character’s musical theme. The sound effects editors are the ones that record, find and place such sound effects.

Foley – Foley is the art of live sound effects recording. This is often done by a two-person team consisting of a recordist and a Foley walker, who is the artist physically performing these sounds. It literally IS a performance, because the walker does this in sync to the picture. Examples of Foley include footsteps, clothes rustling, punches in a fight scene and so on. It is usually faster and more appropriate-sounding to record live sound effects than to use library cues from a CD.

In addition to standard sound effects, additional Foley is recorded for international mixes. When an actor deliveries a dialogue line over a sound recorded as part of a scene – a door closing or a cup being set on a table – that sound will naturally be removed when English dialogue is replaced by foreign dialogue in international versions of the film. Therefore, additional sound effects are recorded to fill in these gaps. Having a proper international mix (often called “fully filled”) is usually a deliverable requirement by any distributor.

Music – In an ideal film scenario, a composer creates all the music for a film. He or she is working in parallel with the sound and dialogue editors. Music is usually divided between source cues (e.g. the background songs playing from a jukebox at a bar) and musical score.

Recorded songs may also be used as score elements during montages. Sometimes different musicians, other than the composer, will create songs for source cues or for use in the score. Alternatively, the producers may license affordable recordings from unsigned artists. Rarely is recognizable popular music used, unless the production has a huge budget. It is important that the producers, composer and sound editors communicate with each other, to define whether items like songs are to be treated as a musical element or as a background sound effect.

The best situation is when an experienced film composer delivers all completed music that is timed and synced to picture. The composer may deliver the score in submixed, musical stems (rhythm instruments separated from lead instruments, for instance) for greater control in the mix. However, sometimes it isn’t possible for the composer to provide a finished, ready-to-mix score. In that case, a music editor may get involved, in order to edit and position music to picture as if it were the score.

Laugh tracks – This is usually a part of sitcom TV production and not feature films. When laugh tracks are added, the laughs are usually placed by sound effects editors who specialize in adding laughs. The appropriate laugh tracks are kept separate so they can be added or removed in the final mix and/or as part of any deliverables.

Re-recording mix – Since location recording is called location mixing, the final, post production mix is called a re-recording mix. This is the point at which divergent sound elements – dialogue, ADR, sound effects, Foley and music – all meet and are mixed in sync to the final picture. On a large film, these various elements can easily take up 150 or more tracks and require two or three mixers to man the console. With the introduction of automated systems and the ability to completely mix “in the box”, using a DAW like Pro Tools, smaller films may be mixed by one or two mixers. Typically the lead mixer handles the dialogue tracks and the second and third mixers control sound effects and music. Mixing most feature films takes one to two weeks, plus the time to output various deliverable versions (stereo, surround, international, etc.).

The deliverable requirements for most TV shows and features are to create a so-called composite mix (in several variations), along with separate stems for dialogue, sound effects and music. A stem is a submix of just a group of component items, such as a stereo stem for only dialogue.The combination of the stems should equal the mix. By having stems available, the distributors can easily create foreign versions and trailers.

©2013 Oliver Peters