Fear the Walking Dead


When AMC cable network decided to amp up the zombie genre with The Walking Dead series, it resulted in a huge hit. Building upon that success, they’ve created a new series that could be viewed as a companion story, albeit without any overlapping characters. Fear the Walking Dead is a new, six-episode series that starts season one on August 23. The story takes place across the country in Los Angeles and chronologically just before the outbreak in the original series. The Walking Dead was based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels by the same name and he has been involved in both versions as executive producer.

Unlike the original series, which was shot on 16mm film, Fear the Walking Dead is being shot digitally with ARRI ALEXA cameras and anamorphic lenses. That’s in an effort to separate the two visual styles, while maintaining a cinematic quality to the new series. I recently spoke with Tad Dennis, the editor of two of the six episodes in season one, about the production.

Tad Dennis started his editing career as an assistant editor on reality TV shows. He says, “I started in reality TV and then got the bump-up to full-time editing (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, America’s Next Top Model, The Voice). However, I realized my passion was elsewhere and made the shift to scripted television. I started there again as an assistant and then was bumped back up to editing (Fairly Legal, Manhattan, Parenthood). Both types of shows really do have a different workflow, so when I shifted to scripted TV, it was good to start back as an assistant. That let me be very grounded in the process.”

Creating a new show with a shared concept

Dennis started with these thoughts on the new show, “We think of this series as more of a companion show to the other and not necessarily a spin-off or prequel. The producers went with different cameras and lenses for a singular visual aesthetic, which affects the style. In trying to make it more ‘cinematic’, I tend linger on wider shots and make more selective use of tight facial close-ups. However, the material really has to dictate the cut.”

df3615_ftwd_3Three editors and three assistant editors work on the Fear the Walking Dead series, with each editor/assistant team cutting two of the six shows of season one. They are all working on Avid Media Composer systems connected to an Avid Isis shared storage solution. Scenes were shot in both Vancouver and in Los Angeles, but the editing teams were based in Los Angeles. ALEXA camera media was sent to Encore Vancouver and Encore Hollywood, depending on the shooting location. Encore staff synced sound and provided the editors with Avid DNxHD editorial media. The final color correction, conform, and finishing was also handled at Encore Hollywood.

Dennis described how post on this show differed from other network shows he’s worked on in the past. He says, “With this series, everything was shot and locked for the whole season by the first airdate. On other series, the first few shows will be locked, but then for the rest of the season, it’s a regular schedule of locking a new show each week until the end of the season. This first season was shot in two chunks for all six episodes – the Vancouver settings and then the Los Angeles scenes. We posted everything for the Vancouver scenes and left holes for the LA parts. The shows went all the way through director cuts, producer cuts, and network notes with these missing sections. Then when the LA portions came in, those scenes were edited and incorporated. This process was driven by the schedule. Although we didn’t have the pressure of a weekly airdate, the schedule was definitely tight.” Each of the editors had approximately three to four days to complete their cut of an episode after receiving the last footage. Then the directors got another four days for a director’s cut.

df3615_ftwd_5Often films and television shows go through adjustments as they move from script to actual production and ultimately the edit. Dennis feels this is more true of the first few shows in a new series than with an established series. He explains, “With a new series, you are still trying to establish the style. Often you’ll rethink things in the edit. As I went through the scenes, performances that were coming across as too ‘light’ had to be given more ‘weight’. In our story, the world is falling apart and we wanted every character to feel that all the way throughout the show. If a performance didn’t convey a sense of that, then I’d make changes in the takes used or mix takes, where picture might be better on one and audio better on the other.”

Structure and polish in post

In spite of the tight schedule, the editors still had to deal with a wealth of footage. Typical of most hour-long dramas, Fear the Walking Dead is shot with two or three cameras. For very specific moments, the director would have some of the footage shot on 48fps. In those cases, where cameras ran at different speeds, Dennis would treat these as separate clips. When cameras ran at the same speed (for example, at 24fps for sync sound), such as in dialogue scenes, Susan Vinci (assistant editor) would group the clips as multicam clips. He explains, “The director really determines the quality of the coverage. I’d often get really necessary options on both cameras that weren’t duplicated otherwise. So for these shows, it helped. Typically this meant three to four hours of raw footage each day. My routine is to first review the multicam clips in a split view. This gives me a sense of what the coverage is that I have for the scene. Then I’ll go back and review each take separately to judge performance.”

df3615_ftwd_4Dennis feels that sound is critical to his creative editing process. He continues, “Sound is very important to the world of Fear the Walking Dead. Certain characters have a soundscape that’s always associated with them and these decisions are all driven by editorial. The producers want to hear a rough cut that’s as close to airable as possible, so I spend a lot of time with sound design. Given the tight schedule on this show, I would hand off a lot of this to my long-time assistant, Susan. The sound design that we do in the edit becomes a template for our sound designer. He takes that, plus our spotting notes, and replaces, improves, and enhances the work we’ve done. The show’s music composer also supplied us with a temp library of past music he’d composed for other productions. We were able to use these as part of our template. Of course, he would provide the final score customized to the episode. This score would be based on our template, the feelings of the director, and of course the composer’s own input for what best suited each show.”

df3615_ftwd_2Dennis is an unabashed Avid Media Composer proponent. He says, “Over the past few years, the manufacturers have pushed to consolidate many tools from different applications. Avid has added a number of Pro Tools features into Media Composer and that’s been really good for editors. There are many tools I rely on, such as those audio tools. I use the Audiosuite and RTAS filters in all of my editing. I like dialogue to sound as it would in a live environment, so I’ll use the reverb filters. In some cases, I’ll pitch-shift audio a bit lower. Other tools I’ll use include speed-ramping and invisible split-screens, but the the trim tool is what defines the system for me. When I’m refining a cut, the trim tool is like playing a precise instrument, not just using a piece of software.”

Dennis offered these parting suggestions for young editors starting out. “If you want to work in film and television editing, learn Media Composer inside and out. The dominant tool might be Final Cut or Premiere Pro in some markets, but here in Hollywood, it’s largely Avid. Spend as much time as possible learning the system, because it’s the most in-demand tool for our craft.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2015 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

Fresh Dressed

df0515_frdress_2_smThe Sundance Film Festival is always a great event to showcase not just innovative dramas and comedies, but also new documentaries. This year brought good news for Adobe, because 21 of the documentaries to be shown were edited on Premiere Pro, which is more than double last year’s count. One such film is Fresh Dressed, which chronicles the history of hip-hop fashion from its birth in the Bronx during the 1970s to its evolution into a mainstream industry. It digs underneath the surface to look into other factors, like race and the societal context. Fresh Dressed was the first film written and directed by veteran producer Sacha Jenkins (Being Terry Kennedy, 50 Cent: The Power and the Money). The film features interviews with Pharrell Williams, Nas, Daymond John, Damon Dash, and Karl Kani, among others. It includes archival footage and some animation.

I recently spoke with Andrea B. Scott (Florence Arizona, A Place at the Table), who was brought in to complete the editing of the film to get it ready in time for Sundance submission. Scott explains, “Sacha and the team started shooting interviews in September of 2013. Initially there was another editor on board, who handled the first pass of cutting and organization of the project. I came to the film in May of 2014 after a basic assembly had been completed. This film was being produced by CNN and they recommended me. I definitely agree with the sentiment that editing is a lot like ‘writing with pictures’. It was my job to streamline the film and help craft the narrative, and bring Sacha’s vision to life as a moving story.”

df0515_frdress_1_smScott has worked on several documentaries before and has her own routine for learning the material. She says, “I usually start by watching the interviews through a couple of times, making notes with markers, and also by reading interview transcripts and highlighting certain passages. Then, I’ll pull selects to whittle down the interview to the parts that are most likely to be used in any given section. On Fresh Dressed, because I started with an assembly and needed to work quickly to get to a rough cut, I relied heavily on interview transcripts – going through the film section-by-section and interview-by-interview, and pulling selects – going back and forth from reading the transcript to watching the interview. Fresh Dressed involved about 30 interviews and totaled approximately 200 hours of raw footage. A lot of the archival search had already been done by the time I came on board, so I also had to watch through that footage and had a lot of good material to pull from.”

All film editing involves a working relationship between the editor and the director and Fresh Dressed was no exception. Scott continues, “It’s always a process of gaining the trust of the director. I come from the suburbs and I’m a bit younger than some of the crew, so it was a steep learning curve for me to understand the history of the hip-hop culture and fashion. It basically evolved from the urban gang culture of the 1970s, moved out from New York City, and went global from there. Inevitably, as the editor, you bring fresh eyes to the project and part of the editing process is to refine. The goal was to tell the story without voice-over, so we used the interviews to create that narrative thread. I put in a lot more archival material than was there before, which served to enliven the film with moments of nostalgia and infuse it with a fun energy. In a written script or book there can be a lot of side stories, which make sense on paper and are easy for the reader to follow and digest. But, the film we were making had to be more direct, with a linear timeline. Part of what I did was to strip away tangents that take you away from the main story.”df0515_frdress_3_sm

Scott’s touch also extended to the music. “The film was originally delivered to me with wall-to-wall music,” she explains. “I stripped out the music at first, so I could really think about story. Then I added temp score back in places to help steer the audience and underscore certain moments with another level of meaning.  In the end, we hired a talented composer, Tyler Strickland, to write the bulk of the score, and we also used some popular tracks from critical moments in the history of hip-hop.”

This was Scott’s first experience with Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Her prior experience had been with Apple Final Cut Pro (the “legacy” version). She found it to be a relatively easy transition. “The production company had already started the edit on Premiere Pro and so I continued with it. I welcomed being pushed to a new editing platform. It took about a week for me to get the hang of it. Since we were on a short deadline by that time, I simply ran it like I was used to running Final Cut. I really didn’t have the time to learn all of its nuances. I used the FCP keyboard settings, so everything felt natural to me. There’s a lot about Premiere Pro that I really like now. For example, the way it works with native media and using Adobe Media Encoder to export files.” The workstations were connected to shared storage, allowing the Scott to access material from any computer in the production office.

df0515_frdress_4_smEditors considering a shift to Premiere Pro CC sometimes question how its performance is with long-form project. Scott responds, “I was editing on an iMac and performance was fine. One tip I found that helps to speed up the loading of a large project is to discard old sequences. When I edit, I generally duplicate sequences and continue on those as I make changes. So on a large project you tend to build up a lot of sequences that way. While it’s good to save the past few versions in case you need to go back, you still have a lot of the oldest ones that simply aren’t ever needed again. These tend to slow down the speed of loading the project as all the media is relinked each time you launch it. By simply getting rid of a lot of these, you can improve performance.”

To handle the final stages of post, Scott exported an OMF file from Premiere Pro CC to be used by the audio mixer and and an XML file for the colorist. The final color correction of Fresh Dressed is being handled by Light of Day in New York. They will also complete the conform and recreate all moves on archival stills.

Scott concludes, “The film was, for the most part, made in New York, which makes sense, because Fresh Dressed really is a New York story at its heart.  Working on this film, I gained another level of love for New York, a deeper appreciation for all the many stories that start in this city, and for the deeper context that surrounds those individual stories.  Plus I had a lot of fun along the way.”

Read more about Fresh Dressed at Adobe’s Premiere Pro blog.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Filmmaking is Team Art


One of the sad byproducts of the circle of life is that relatives, friends and colleagues precede you to that great film production in the sky. As you get older, that sadly increases in frequency. In the recent past I’ve seen my parents go. They meant a lot to me and the way they faced life’s challenges has always been an inspiration to me. But that’s a post for another time. Each passing of a friend hits you just a little harder.

This past weekend Florida lost a true legend in the business – Ralph R. Clemente. He was the program director and professor for the Film Production Technology program at Valencia College – a unique film production program that he crafted together with the then Dean, Rick Rietveld. The program grew out of a grant program sponsored by the Walt Disney Company, followed by Universal Studios in the heady “Hollywood East” days of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Central Florida. This program eventually became a formal certificate program under Valencia’s wing.

Ralph was born in Germany at the end of World War II and made his way into acting and then later into filmmaking. His family emigrated to the United States and, after many years, he ended up in south Florida teaching film production at the University of Miami. Valencia recruited him to set up the program in Orlando and, as they say, the rest is history. Unlike many other college film programs that are geared towards turning out auteurs, Valencia’s program has always targeted developing the working stiffs of the film industry – DPs, gaffers, grips, editors, production managers, and so on.

df1815_ralph_2While other film programs produce student films as their bread-and-butter, Valencia’s program was structured from the beginning as a partnership with professional filmmakers. Under Ralph’s guidance over several decades, the program has produced 47 feature films in productions that paired key working crew members with student staffs. This mentorship structure usually breaks down into a student/pro split of about 60/40. In these productions, students worked alongside talented pros, but were also exposed to legendary actors and actresses – including Julie Harris, Mickey Rooney, Sally Kellerman, Ed Begley, Jr., Charles Nelson Reilly, and many others – and leading directors, like George Romero, Robert Wise and Reza Badiyi.

For many students the training they received in Ralph’s University of Miami and/or Valencia College programs paid off well. Alumni include many working professionals in Florida, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. This includes folks working at every crew position, as well as some who have made it up the ladder to become noted directors and production managers in their own right.

I’ve had the good fortune to edit four of the films produced through the program, including two directed by Ralph. The last of these is still in post production. I’ve also provided other post production services on numerous other films produced through the program. Even when Ralph wasn’t the director, they still benefitted from his guiding hand and assistance to the producers and directors of those projects.

As a filmmaker, Ralph always valued the collaborative side of the art and craft. He was fond of considering it a “team art” and not the dictatorial vision of only one person. He imbued this feeling to his students and practiced it as a director. In our editor/director relationship, I always found him to be open to ideas, but he was also the kind of director who’d often need to “sleep on it”. This frequently resulted in creative inspiration that tended to solve the challenges the next day.

df1815_ralph_3Several aspects get less attention in the various online memorial comments I’ve seen. Ralph – a Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran – had a soft spot in his heart for the plight of many of his fellow veterans and sometimes found ways to build those stories into his scripts as a way of honoring his comrades. When classes weren’t tied up with specific film projects, Ralph also involved them in the production of numerous pro bono videos for various charities, such as the Coalition for the Homeless. This was not only his way of giving back, but also teaching students that film production had the potential to do good in ways that were more important than box office success.

What most who knew him will remember is that Ralph was the consummate people-person. He was very gifted at navigating the triad of college politics, mentoring students, and professional filmmaking. He was an experienced “schmoozer” – in the best sense of the word. He could manage to get the necessary resources to get the job done. Students and friends called him “the humble Bavarian” – thanks to his heritage and southern-tinged, Schwarzenegger-like accent. Many were fond of mimicking his casual accented greeting of “Howya doin’, howya doin’?”. All meant only as a compliment and never received with offense. But funny remembrances aside, there was no more passionate avocate for Florida filmmaking than Ralph. He loved the stories of his adopted state and the quaint little towns that time passed by, which still made for great film locations. His efforts included tireless lobbying to legislators for the benefit of the film community, such as the state film incentive program.

df1815_ralph_4Ralph’s passing came too suddenly due to illness, but he died doing what he loved, with active projects still in production. His time on this Earth left its mark with countless students who are now working film and television pros. All consider him a friend and mentor that set them on the path of their career. For those of us who worked with him on many projects and regarded him as a friend, his passing leaves a big void in the community that will be hard to fill. If there’s a Director’s Guild in Heaven, his card is waiting.

Ralph, my friend, rest in peace.

(Photo credits: Christian Saab, Brian Osmon, Valencia College, Mike Acevedo)

©2015 Oliver Peters



Every once in awhile a movie comes along that has the potential to change how we in the film and video world work. Focus is one such movie. It’s a romantic caper film in the vein of To Catch a Thief or the Oceans franchise. It stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie as master and novice con artists who become romantically involved. Focus was written and directed by the veteran team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) who decided to use some innovative, new approaches in this production.

Focus is a high-budget, studio picture shot in several cities, including New Orleans and Buenos Aires. It also happens to be the first studio feature film that was cut using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. The production chose to shoot with ARRI Alexa cameras, but record to ProRes 4444, instead of ARRIRAW (except for some VFX shots). At its launch in 2011, Final Cut Pro X had received a negative reaction from many veteran editors, so this was a tough sell to Warner Bros execs. In order to get over that hurdle, the editorial team went through extensive testing of all of the typical processes involved in feature film post production. They had to prove that the tool was more than up to the task.

Proving the concept

df1515_focus_5_smMike Matzdorff, first assistant editor, explains, “Warner Bros wanted to make sure that there was a fallback if everything blew up. That ‘Plan B’ was to step back and cut in either [Apple] FCP 7 or [Avid] Media Composer. Getting projects from Final Cut Pro X into Media Composer was very clunky, because of all the steps – getting to FCP 7 and then Automatic Duck to Avid. Getting to FCP 7 was relatively solid, so we ran a ‘chase project’ in FCP 7 with dailies for the entire show. Every couple days we would import an XML and relink the media. Fortunately FCP X worked well and ‘Plan B’ was never needed.”

df1515_focus_8_smGlenn Ficarra adds, “The industry changes so quickly that it’s hard to follow the progress. The studio was going off of old information and once they saw that our approach would work and also save time and money, then they were completely onboard with our choice.” The editorial team also consulted with Sam Mestman of FCPworks to determine what software, other than FCP X, was required to satisfy all of the elements associated with post on a feature film.

df1515_focus_4_smThis was a new experience for editor Jan Kovac (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as Focus is his first Hollywood feature film. Kovac studied film in the Czech Republic and then editing at UCLA. He’s been in the LA post world for 20 years, which is where he met Ficarra and Requa. Kovac was ready to be part of the team and accept the challenge of using Final Cut Pro X on a studio feature. He explains, “I was eager to work with John and Glenn and prove that FCP X is a viable option. In fact, I was using FCP X for small file-based projects since the fall of 2012.”

Production and post on the go

df1515_focus_1_smFocus was shot in 61 days across two continents, during a three-month period. Kovac and three assistants (Mike Matzdorff, Andrew Wallace, Kimaree Long) worked from before principal photography started until the sound mix and final delivery of the feature – roughly from September 2013 until August 2014. The production shot 145 hours of footage, much of it multicam. Focus was shot in an anamorphic format as 2048 x 1536 ProRes 4444 files recorded directly to the Alexa’s onboard cards. On set the DIT used the Light Iron Outpost mobile system to process the files, by de-squeezing them and baking in CDL color information. The editors then received 2048 x 1152 color-corrected ProRes 4444 “dailies”, which were still encoded with a Log-C gamma profile. FCP X has the ability to internally add a Log-C LUT on-the-fly to correct the displayed image. Therefore, during the edit, the clips always looked close the final appearance. Ficarra says, “This was great, because when we went through the DI for the final grading, the look was very close to what was decided on set. You didn’t see something radically different in the edit, so you didn’t develop ‘temp love’ for a certain look”.

df1515_focus_6_smA number of third-party developers have created utilities that fill in gaps and one of these is Intelligent Assistance, which makes various workflow tools based on XML. The editors used a number of these, including Sync-N-Link X, which enabled them to sync double-system sound with common timecode in a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Only a little use of Sync-N-Link X was made on Focus, because the DIT was using the Light Iron system to sync dailies.) Script data can also be added to Final Cut Pro X clips as notes. On Focus, that had to be done manually by the assistants. This need to automate the process spurred Kevin Bailey (Kovac’s assistant on his current film) to develop Shot Notes X, an application that takes the script supervisor’s information and merges it with FCP X Events to add this metadata into the notes field.

During the months of post, Apple released several updates to Final Cut Pro X and the team was not shy about upgrading mid-project. Matzdorff explains, “The transition to 10.1 integrated Events and Projects into Libraries. To make sure there weren’t any hiccups, I maintained an additional FCP X ‘chase project’.  I ran an alternate world between 10.0.9 and 10.1. We had 52 days of dailies in one Library and I would bring cuts across to see how they linked up and what happened. The transition was a rough one, but we learned a lot, which really helped down the line.”

Managing the media

df1515_focus_2_smFinal Cut Pro X has the unique ability to internally transcode quarter-sized editorial proxy files in the ProRes Proxy format. The editor can easily toggle between original footage and editorial proxies and FCP X takes care of the math to make sure color, effects and sizing information tracks correctly between modes. Throughout the editing period, Kovac, Ficarro, and the assistants used both proxies and the de-sequeezed camera files as their source. According to Kovac, “In Buenos Aires I was working from a MacBook Pro laptop using the proxies. For security reasons, I would lock up the footage in a safe. By using proxies, which take up less drive space, a much smaller hard drive was required and that easily fit into the safe.”

df1515_focus_3_smBack at their home base in LA, four rooms were set up connected to XSAN shared storage. These systems included iMacs and a Mac Pro (“tube” version). All camera media and common source clips. like sound effects libraries. lived on the XSAN, while each workstation had a small SSD RAID for proxies and local FCP X Libraries. The XSAN included a single transfer Library so that edits could be moved among the rooms. Kovac and Ficarra shared roles as co-editors at this stage, collaborating on each other’s scenes. Kovac says, “This was very fluid going back and forth between Glenn and me. The process was a lot like sharing sequences with FCP 7. It’s always good to keep perspective, so each of us would review the other’s edited scenes and offer notes.” The other two systems was used by the assistants. Kovac continues, “The Libraries were broken down by reel and all iterations of sharing were used, including the XSAN or sneaker net.”

Setting up a film edit in FCP X

df1515_focus_9_smAs with any film, the key is organization and translating the script into a final product. Kovac explains his process with FCP X, “The assistants would group the multicam clips and ‘reject’ the clip ranges before ‘action’ and after ‘cut’. This hides any extraneous material so you only have to sort through useable clips. We used a separate Event for each scene. With Sam and Mike, we worked out a process to review clips based on line readings. The dialogue lines in the script were numbered and the assistants would place a marker and a range for every three lines of dialogue. These were assigned keywords, so that each triplet of dialogue lines would end up in a Keyword Collection. Within a scene Event, I would have Keyword Collections for L1-3, L4-6, and so on. I would also create Smart Collections for certain criteria – for instance, a certain type of shot or anything else I might designate.”

Everyone involved felt that FCP X made the edit go faster, but it still takes time to be creative. Ficarra continues, “The first assembly of the film according to the script was about three hours long. I call this the ‘kitchen sink’ cut. The first screening cut was about two-and-a-half hours. We had removed some scenes and lengthened others and showed it to a ‘friends and family’ audience. It actually didn’t play as well as we’d hoped. Then we added these scenes back in and shortened everything, which went over much better. We had intentionally shot alternate versions of scenes just to play around with them in the edit. FCP X is a great tool for that, because you can easily edit a number of iterations.”

Engineered for speed

df1515_focus_10_smWhile many veteran editors experienced in other systems might scoff at the claims that FCP X is a faster editor, Mike Matzdorff was willing to put a finer point on that for me. He says, “I find that because of the magnetic timeline, trimming is a lot faster. If you label roles extensively, it’s easier to sort out temporary from final elements or organize sound sources when you hand off audio for sound post. With multi-channel audio in an Avid, for example, you generally sync the clips using only the composite mix. That way you aren’t tying up a lot of tracks on the timeline for all of the source channels. If you have to replace a line with a clean isolated mic, you have to dig it out and make the edit. With FCP X, all of the audio channels are there and neatly tucked away until you need them. It’s a simple matter of expanding a clip and picking a different channel. That alone is a major improvement.”

Ficarra and Kovac are in complete agreement. Ficarra points out, “As an editor, I’m twice as fast on FCP X as on Avid. There’s less clicking. This is the only NLE that’s not trying to emulate some other model, like cutting on a flatbed. You are able to move faster on your impulses.” Kovac adds, “It keeps you in the zone.”

The final DI was handled by Light Iron, who conformed and graded Focus. The handoff was made using an EDL and an FCPXML, along with a QuickTime picture reference. Light Iron relinked to the original anamorphic camera masters and graded using a Quantel Rio unit.

Filling in the workflow gaps

A number of developers contributed to the success of FCP X on Focus. Having a tight relationship with the editing team let them tailor their solutions to the needs of the production. One of these developers, Philip Hodgetts (President, Intelligent Assistance) says, “One of the nice things about being a small software developer is that we can react to customer needs very quickly. During the production of Focus we received feature requests for all the tools we were providing – Sync-N-Link X, Change List X and Producer’s Best Friend. For example, Sync-N-Link X gained the ability to create multicam clips, in addition to synchronizing audio and video, as a result of a feature request from first assistant Mike Matzdorff.” This extended to Apple’s ProApps team, who also kept a close and helpful watch on the progress of Focus.

df1515_focus_11_smFor every film that challenges convention, a lot of curiosity is raised about the process. Industry insiders refer to the “Cold Mountain moment” – alluding to the use of FCP 3 by editor Walter Murch on the film, Cold Mountain. That milestone added high-end legitimacy for the earlier Final Cut among professional users. Gone Girl did that for Adobe Premiere Pro and now Focus has done that for a new Final Cut. But times are different and it’s hard to say what the true impact will be. Nevertheless, Focus provided the confidence for the team to continue on their next film in the same manner, tapping Final Cut Pro X once again. Change can be both scary and exciting, but as Glenn Ficarra says, “We like to shake things up. It’s fun to see the bemused comments wondering how we could ever pull it off with something like FCP X!”

For those that want to know more about the nuts and bolts of the post production workflow, Mike Matzdorff released “Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow”, an e-book that’s a step-by-step advanced guide based on the lessons learned on Focus. It’s available through iTunes and Kindle.

For some additional reading on the post production workflow of Focus, check out this Apple “in action” story, as well as Part 1 and Part 2 of FCP.co’s very in-depth coverage of how the team got it done. For a very in-depth understanding, make sure you watch the videos at PostPerspective.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

df0615_panthers_3_smDocumentaries covering subject matter that happens within a generation usually divides the audience between those who personally lived through the time period and those who’ve only read about it in history books. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one such film. If you are over 50, you are aware of the media coverage of the Black Panther Party and certainly have opinions and possibly misconceptions of who they were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class, if which case, you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The American Experience, Freedom Summer, Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this new Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for Sundance presentation. Tunsil has worked his way up from assistant editor to editor and discussed the evolution in roles. “I started in a production company office, initially helping the assistant editor,” he says. “Over a period of seven or eight years, I worked my way up from assistant to a full-time editor. Along the way, I’ve had a number of mentors and learned to cut on both [Apple] Final Cut Pro and [Avid] Media Composer. These mentors were instrumental in my learning how to tell a story. I worked on a short with Stanley [Nelson] and that started our relationship of working together on films. I view my role as the ‘first audience’ for the film. The producer or director knows the story they want to make, but the editor helps to make sense of it for someone who doesn’t intimately know the material. My key job is to make sure that the narrative makes senses and that no one gets lost.”

df0615_panthers_2_smThe Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews (about 40 total subjects). Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is largely told by lesser known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events. The total post-production period took about 40 to 50 weeks. Tunsil explains, “Firelight Films (the production company) is very good at researching characters and finding old subjects for the interviews. They supplied me with a couple of hundred hours of footage. That’s a challenge to organize so that you know what you have. My process is to first watch all of that with the filmmakers and then to assemble the best of the interviews and best of the archival footage. Typically it takes six to ten weeks to get there and then another four to six weeks to get to a rough cut.”

Tunsil continues, “The typical working arrangement with Stanley is that he’ll take a day to review any changes I’ve made and then give me notes for any adjustments. As we were putting the film together, Stanley was still recording more interviews to fill in the gaps – trying to tie the story together without the need for a narrator. After that, it’s the usual process of streamlining the film. We could have made a ten-hour film, but, of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

df0615_panthers_5_smLike many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but acknowledged they don’t tell the whole story. He says, “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the LA headquarters of the party and the ensuing shootout. When asked how he felt, he talks about his feeling of freedom, even though the event surrounding him was horrific. That feeling clearly comes across in the emotion on his face, which transcends the mere words in the transcript. You get to hear the story from the heart – not just the facts. Stories are what makes a documentary like this.”

As with many films about the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Panthers weaves into its fabric the music of the era. Tunsil says, “About 60% of the film was composed by Tom Phillips, but we also had about seven or eight period songs, like ‘Express Yourself’, which we used under [former Panther member] Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland. I used other pieces from Tom’s library as temp music, which we then gave to him for the feel. He’d compose something similar – or different, but in a better direction.”

df0615_panthers_6_smTunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor, which he used for The Black Panthers. He explains, “I worked with Rebecca Sherwood as my associate editor and we were both using Media Composer version 7. We used a Facilis Terrablock for shared storage, but this was primarily used to transfer media between us, as we both had our own external drives with a mirrored set of media files. All the media was at the DNxHD 175 resolution. I like Avid’s special features such as PhraseFind, but overall, I feel that Media Composer is just better at letting me organize material than is Final Cut. I love Avid as an editing system, because it’s the most stable and makes the work easy. Editing is best when there’s a rhythm to the workflow and Media Composer is good for that. As for the stills, I did temporary moves with the Avid pan-and-zoom plug-in, but did the final moves in [Adobe] After Effects.”

df0615_panthers_1_smFor a documentary editor, part of the experience are the things you personally learn. Tunsil reflects, “I like the way Stanley and Firelight handle these stories. They don’t just tell it from the standpoint of the giants of history, but more from the point-of-view of the rank-and-file people. He’s trying to show the full dimension of the Panthers instead of the myth and iconography. It’s telling the history of the real people, which humanizes them. That’s a more down-to-earth, honest experience. For instance, I never knew that they had a communal living arrangement. By having the average members tell their stories, it makes it so much richer. Another example is the Fred Hampton story. He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the party who was killed in a police shootout; but, there was no evidence of gunfire from inside the building that he was in. That’s a powerful scene, which resonates. One part of the film that I think is particularly well done is the explanation of how the party declined due to a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. This was in part as a result of an internal misinformation campaign instigated by the FBI within the Panthers.”

df0615_panthers_4_smThroughout the process, the filmmakers ran a number of test screenings with diverse audiences, including industry professionals and non-professionals, people who knew the history and people who didn’t. Results from these screenings enabled Nelson and Tunsil to refine the film. To complete the film’s finishing, Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and then brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills and up-converting the standard definition archival footage.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters