Did you pick the right camera? Part 3

Let me wrap up this three-parter with some thoughts on the media side of cameras. The switch from videotape recording to file-based recording has added complexity with not only specific file formats and codecs, but also the wrapper and container structure of the files themselves. The earliest file-based camera systems from Sony and Panasonic created a folder structure on their media cards that allowed for audio and video, clip metadata, proxies, thumbnails, and more. FAT32 formatting was adopted, so a 4GB file limit was imposed, which added the need for clip-spanning any time a recording exceeded 4GB in size.

As a result, these media cards contain a complex hierarchy of spanned files, folders, and subfolders. They often require a special plug-in for each NLE to be able to automatically interpret the files as the appropriate format of media. Some of these are automatically included with the NLE installation while others require the user to manually download and install the camera manufacturer’s software.

This became even more complicated with RED cameras, which added additional QuickTime reference files at three resolutions, so that standard media players could be used to read the REDCODE RAW files. It got even worse when digital still photo cameras added video recording capabilities, thus creating two different sets of folder paths on the card for the video and the still media. Naturally, none of these manufacturers adopted the same architecture, leaving users with a veritable Christmas tree of discovery every time they popped in one of these cards to copy/ingest/import media.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am totally a fan of ARRI’s approach with the Alexa camera platform. By adopting QuickTime wrappers and the ProRes codec family (or optionally DNxHD as MXF OP1a media), Alexa recordings use a simple folder structure containing a set of uniquely-named files. These movie files include interleaved audio, video, and timecode data without the need for subfolders, sidecar files, and other extraneous information. AJA has adopted a similar approach with its KiPro products. From an editor’s point-of-view, I would much rather be handed Alexa or KiPro media files than any other camera product, simply because these are the most straight-forward to deal with in post.

I should point out that in a small percentage of productions, the incorporated metadata does have value. That’s often the case when high-end VFX are involved and information like lens data can be critical. However, in some camera systems, this is only tracked when doing camera raw recordings. Another instance is with GoPro 360-degree recordings. The front and back files and associated data files need to stay intact so that GoPro’s stitching software can properly combine the two halves into a single movie.

You can still get the benefit of the simpler Alexa-style workflow in post with other cameras if you do a bit of media management of files prior to ingesting these for the edit. My typical routine for the various Panasonic, Canon, Sony, and prosumer cameras is to rip all of the media files out of their various Clip or Private folders and move them to the root folder (usually labelled by camera roll or date). I trash all of those extra folders, because none of it is useful. (RED and GoPro 360 are the only formats to which I don’t do this.) When it’s a camera that doesn’t generate unique file names, then I will run a batch renaming application in order to generate unique file names. There are a few formats (generally drones, ‘action’ cameras, smart phones, and image sequences) that I will transcode to some flavor of ProRes. Once I’ve done this, the edit and the rest of post becomes smooth sailing.

While part of your camera buying decision should be based on its impact on post, don’t let that be a showstopper. You just have to know how to handle it and allow for the necessary prep time before starting the edit.

Click here for Part 2.

©2019 Oliver Peters

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Did you pick the right camera? Part 2

HDR (high dynamic range) imagery and higher display resolutions start with the camera. Unfortunately that’s also where the misinformation starts. That’s because the terminology is based on displays and not on camera sensors and lenses.

Resolution

4K is pretty common, 8K products are here, and 16K may be around the corner. Resolution is commonly expressed as the horizontal dimension, but in fact, actual visual resolution is intended to be measured vertically. A resolution chart uses converging lines. The point at which you can no longer discern between the lines is the limit of the measurable resolution. That isn’t necessarily a pixel count.

The second point to mention is that camera sensors are built with photosites that only loosely equate to pixels. The hitch is that there is no 1:1 correlation between a sensor’s photosites and display pixels on a screen. This is made even more complicated by the design of a Bayer-pattern sensor that is used in most professional video cameras. In addition, not all 4K cameras look good when you analyze the image at 100%. For example, nearly all early and/or cheap drone and ‘action’ cameras appear substandard when you actually look at the image closely. The reasons include cheap plastic lenses and high compression levels.

The bottom line is that when a company like Netflix won’t accept an ARRI Alexa as a valid 4K camera for its original content guidelines – in spite of the number of blockbuster feature films captured using Alexas – you have to take it with a grain of salt. Ironically, if you shoot with an Alexa in its 4:3 mode (2880 x 2160) using anamorphic lenses (2:1 aspect squeeze), the expanded image results in a 5760 x 2160 (6K) frame. Trust me, this image looks great on a 4K display with plenty of room to crop left and right. Or, a great ‘scope image. Yes, there are anamorphic lens artifacts, but that’s part of the charm as to why creatives love to shoot that way in the first place.

Resolution is largely a non-issue for most camera owners these days. There are tons of 4K options and the only decision you need to make when shooting and editing is whether to record at 3840 or 4096 wide when working in a 4K mode.

Log, raw, and color correction

HDR is the ‘next big thing’ after resolution. Nearly every modern professional camera can shoot footage that can easily be graded into HDR imagery. That’s by recording the image as either camera raw or with a log color profile. This lets a colorist stretch the highlight information up to the peak luminance levels that HDR displays are capable of. Remember that HDR video is completely different from HDR photography, which can often be translated into very hyper-real photos. Of course, HDR will continue to be a moving target until one of the various competing standards gains sufficient traction in the consumer market.

It’s important to keep in mind that neither raw nor log is a panacea for all image issues. Both are ways to record the linear dynamic range that the camera ‘sees’ into a video colorspace. Log does this by applying a logarithmic curve to the video, which can then be selectively expanded again in post. Raw preserves the sensor data in the recording and pushes the transformation of that data to RGB video outside of the camera. Using either method, it is still possible to capture unrecoverable highlights in your recorded image. Or in some cases the highlights aren’t digitally clipped, but rather that there’s just no information in them other than bright whiteness. There is no substitute for proper lighting, exposure control, and shaping the image aesthetically through creative lighting design. In fact, if you carefully control the image, such as in a studio interview or a dramatic studio production, there’s no real reason to shoot log instead of Rec 709. Both are valid options.

I’ve graded camera raw (RED, Phantom, DJI) and log footage (Alexa, Canon, Panasonic, Sony) and it is my opinion that there isn’t that much magic to camera raw. Yes, you can have good iso/temp/tint latitude, but really not a lot more than with a log profile. In one, the sensor de-Bayering is done in post and in the other, it’s done in-camera. But if a shot was recorded underexposed, the raw image is still going to get noisy as you lift the iso and/or exposure settings. There’s no free lunch and I still stick to the mantra that you should ‘expose to the right’ during production. It’s easier to make a shot darker and get a nice image than going in the other direction.

Since NAB 2018, more camera raw options have hit the market with Apple’s ProRes RAW and Blackmagic RAW. While camera raw may not provide any new, magic capabilities, it does allow the camera manufacturer to record a less-compressed file at a lower data rate.  However, neither of these new codecs will have much impact on post workflows until there’s a critical mass of production users, since these are camera recording codecs and not mezzanine or mastering codecs. At the moment, only Final Cut Pro X properly handles ProRes RAW, yet there are no actual camera raw controls for it as you would find with RED camera raw settings. So in that case, there’s actually little benefit to raw over log, except for file size.

One popular raw codec has been Cinema DNG, which is recorded as an image sequence rather than a single movie file. Blackmagic Design cameras had used that until replaced by Blackmagic RAW.  Some drone cameras also use it. While I personally hate the workflow of dealing with image sequence files, there is one interesting aspect of cDNG. Because the format was originally developed by Adobe, processing is handled nicely by the Adobe Camera Raw module, which is designed for camera raw photographs. I’ve found that if you bring a cDNG sequence into After Effects (which uses the ACR module) as opposed to Resolve, you can actually dig more highlight detail out of the images in After Effects than in Resolve. Or at least with far less effort. Unfortunately, you are stuck making that setting decision on the first frame, as you import the sequence into After Effects.

The bottom line is that there is no way to make an educated decision about cameras without actually testing the images, the profile options, and the codecs with real-world footage. These have to be viewed on high quality displays at their native resolutions. Only then will you get an accurate reading of what that camera is capable of. The good news is that there are many excellent options on the market at various price points, so it’s hard to go wrong with any of the major brand name cameras.

Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 3.

©2019 Oliver Peters

NAB Show 2019

This year the NAB Show seemed to emphasize its roots – the “B” in National Association of Broadcasters. Gone or barely visible were the fads of past years, such as stereoscopic 3D, 360-degree video, virtual/augmented reality, drones, etc. Not that these are gone – merely that they have refocused on the smaller segment of marketshare that reflects reality. There’s not much point in promoting stereo 3D at NAB if most of the industry goes ‘meh’.

Big exhibitors of the past, like Quantel, RED, Apple, and Autodesk, are gone from the floor. Quantel products remain as part of Grass Valley (now owned by Belden), which is the consolidation of Grass Valley Group, Quantel, Snell & Wilcox, and Philips. RED decided last year that small, camera-centric shows were better venues. Apple – well, they haven’t been on the main floor for years, but even this year, there was no off-site, Final Cut Pro X stealth presence in a hotel suite somewhere. Autodesk, which shifted to a subscription model a couple of years ago, had a demo suite in the nearby Renaissance Hotel, focusing on its hero product, Flame 2020. Smoke for Mac users – tough luck. It’s been over for years.

This was a nuts-and-bolts year, with many exhibits showing new infrastructure products. These appeal to larger customers, such as broadcasters and network facilities. Specifically the world is shifting to an IP-based infrastructure for signal routing, control, and transmission. This replaces copper and fiber wiring of the past, along with the devices (routers, video switchers, etc) at either end of the wire. Companies that might have appeared less relevant, like Grass Valley, are back in a strong sales position. Other companies, like Blackmagic Design, are being encouraged by their larger clients to fulfill those needs. And as ever, consolidation continues – this year VizRT acquired NewTek, who has been an early player in video-over-IP with their proprietary NDI protocol.

Adobe

The NAB season unofficially started with Adobe’s pre-NAB release of the CC2019 update. For editors and designers, the hallmarks of this update include a new, freeform bin window view and adjustable guides in Premiere Pro and content-aware, video fill in After Effects. These are solid additions in response to customer requests, which is something Adobe has focused on. A smaller, but no less important feature is Adobe’s ongoing effort to improve media performance on the Mac platform.

As in past years, their NAB booth was an opportunity to present these new features in-depth, as well as showcase speakers who use Adobe products for editing, sound, and design. Part of the editing team from the series Atlanta was on hand to discuss the team’s use of Premiere Pro and After Effects in their ‘editing crash pad’.

Avid

For many attendees, NAB actually kicked off on the weekend with Avid Connect, a gathering of Avid users (through the Avid Customer Association), featuring meet-and-greets, workshops, presentations, and ACA leadership committee meetings. While past product announcements at Connect have been subdued from the vantage of Media Composer editors, this year was a major surprise. Avid revealed its Media Composer 2019.5 update (scheduled for release the end of May). This came as part of a host of many updates. Most of these apply to companies that have invested in the full Avid ecosystem, including Nexis storage and Media Central asset management. While those are superb, they only apply to a small percentage of the market. Let’s not forget Avid’s huge presence in the audio world, thanks to the dominance of Pro Tools – now with Dolby ATMOS support. With the acquisition of Euphonix years back, Avid has become a significant player in the live and studio sound arena. Various examples of its S-series consoles in action were presented.

Since I focus on editing, let me discuss Media Composer a bit more. The 2019.5 refresh is the first major Media Composer overhaul in years. It started in secret last year. 2019.5 is the first iteration of the new UI, with more to be updated in coming releases. In short, the interface has been modernized and streamlined in ways to attract newer, younger users, without alienating established editors. Its panel design is similar to Adobe’s approach – i.e. interface panels can be docked, floated, stacked, or tabbed. Panels that you don’t want to see may be closed or simply slid to the side and hidden. Need to see a hidden panel again? Simply side it back open from the edge of the screen.

This isn’t just a new skin. Avid has overhauled the internal video pipeline, with 32-bit floating color and an uncompressed DNx codec. Project formats now support up to 16K. Avid is also compliant with the specs of the Netflix Post Alliance and the ACES logo program.

I found the new version very easy to use and a welcomed changed; however, it will require some adaptation if you’ve been using Media Composer for a long time. In a nod to the Media Composer heritage, the weightlifter (aka ‘liftman’) and scissors icons (for lift and extract edits) are back. Even though Media Composer 2019.5 is just in early beta testing, Avid felt good enough about it to use this version in its workshops, presentations, and stage demos.

One of the reasons to go to NAB is for the in-person presentations by top editors about their real-world experiences. No one can top Avid at this game, who can easily tap a host of Oscar, Emmy, BFTA, and Eddie award winners. The hallmark for many this year was the presentation at Avid Connect and/or at the show by the Oscar-winning picture and sound editing/mixing team for Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s hard not to gather a standing-room-only crowd when you close your talk with the Live Aid finale sequence played in kick-ass surround!

Blackmagic Design

Attendees and worldwide observers have come to expect a surprise NAB product announcement out of Grant Petty each year and he certainly didn’t disappoint this time. Before I get into that, there were quite a few products released, including for IP infrastructures, 8K production and post, and more. Blackmagic is a full spectrum video and audio manufacturer that long ago moved into the ‘big leagues’. This means that just like Avid or Grass Valley, they have to respond to pressure from large users to develop products designed around their specific workflow needs. In the BMD booth, many of those development fruits were on display, like the new Hyperdeck Extreme 8K HDR recorder and the ATEM Constellation 8K switcher.

The big reveal for editors was DaVinci Resolve 16. Blackmagic has steadily been moving into the editorial space with this all-in-one, edit/color/mix/effects/finishing application. If you have no business requirement for – or emotional attachment to – one of the other NLE brands, then Resolve (free) or Resolve Studio (paid) is an absolute no-brainer. Nothing can touch the combined power of Resolve’s feature set.

New for Resolve 16 is an additional editorial module called the Cut Page. At first blush, the design, layout, and operation are amazingly similar to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. Blackmagic’s intent is to make a fast editor where you can start and end your project for a time-sensitive turnaround without the complexities of the Edit Page. However, it’s just another tool, so you could work entirely in the Cut Page, or start in the Cut Page and refine your timeline in the Edit Page, or skip the Cut Page all together. Resolve offers a buffet of post tools that are at your disposal.

While Resolve 16’s Cut Page does elicit a chuckle from experienced FCPX users, it offers some new twists. For example, there’s a two-level timeline view – the top section is the full-length timeline and the bottom section is the zoomed-in detail view. The intent is quick navigation without the need to constantly zoom in and out of long timelines. There’s also an automatic sync detection function. Let’s say you are cutting a two-camera show. Drop the A-camera clips onto the timeline and then go through your B-camera footage. Find a cut-away shot, mark in/out on the source, and edit. It will ‘automagically’ edit to the in-sync location on the timeline. I presume this is matched by either common sound or timecode. I’ll have to see how this works in practice, but it demos nicely. Changes to other aspects of Resolve were minor and evolutionary, except for one other notable feature. The Color Page added its own version of content-aware, video fill.

Another editorial product addition – tied to the theme of faster, more-efficient editing – was a new edit keyboard. Anyone who’s ever cut in the linear days – especially those who ran Sony BVE9000/9100 controllers – will feel very nostalgic. It’s a robust keyboard with a high-quality, integrated jog/shuttle knob. The feel is very much like controlling a tape deck in a linear system, with fast shuttle response and precise jogging. The precision is far better than any of the USB controllers, like a Contour Shuttle. Whether or not enough people will have interest in shelling out $1,025 for it awaits to be seen. It’s a great tool, but are you really faster with one, than with FCPX’s skimming and a standard keyboard and mouse?

Ironically, if you look around the Blackmagic Design booth there does seem to be a nostalgic homage to Sony hardware of the past. As I said, the edit keyboard is very close to a BVE9100 keyboard. Even the style of the control panel on the Hyperdecks – and the look of the name badges on those panels – is very much Sony’s style. As humans, this appeals to our desire for something other than the glass interfaces we’ve been dealing with for the past few years. Michael Cioni (Panavision, Light Iron) coined this as ‘tactile attraction’ in his excellent Faster Together Stage talk. It manifests itself not only in these type of control surfaces, but also in skeuomorphic designs applied to audio filter interfaces. Or in the emotion created in the viewer when a colorist adds film grain to digital footage.

Maybe Grant is right and these methods are really faster in a pressure-filled production environment. Or maybe this is simply an effort to appeal to emotion and nostalgia by Blackmagic’s designers. (Check out Grant Petty’s two-hour 2019 Product Overview for more in-depth information on Blackmagic Design’s new products.)

8K

I won’t spill a lot of words on 8K. Seems kind of silly when most delivery is HD and even SD in some places. A lot of today’s production is in 4K, but really only for future-proofing. But the industry has to sell newer and flashier items, so they’ve moved on to 8K pixel resolution (7680 x 4320). Much of this is driven by Japanese broadcast and manufacturer efforts, who are pushing into 8K. You can laugh or roll your eyes, but NAB had many examples of 8K production tools (cameras and recorders) and display systems. Of course, it’s NAB, making it hard to tell how many of these are only prototypes and not yet ready for actual production and delivery.

For now, it’s still a 4K game, with plenty of mainstream product. Not only cameras and NLEs, but items like AJA’s KiPro family. The KiPro Ultra Plus records up to four channels of HD or one channel of 4K in ProRes or DNx. The newest member of the family is the KiPro GO, which records up to four channels of HD (25Mbps H.264) onto removable USB media.

Of course, the industry never stops, so while we are working with HD and 4K, and looking at 8K, the developers are planning ahead for 16K. As I mentioned, Avid already has project presets built-in for 16K projects. Yikes!

HDR

HDR – or high dynamic range – is about where it was last year. There are basically four formats vying to become the final standard used in all production, post, and display systems. While there are several frontrunners and edicts from distributors to deliver HDR-compatible masters, there still is no clear path. In you shoot in log or camera raw with nearly any professional camera produced within the past decade, you have originated footage that is HDR-compatible. But none of the low-cost post solutions make this easy. Without the right monitoring environment, you are wasting your time. If anything, those waters are muddier this year. There were a number of HDR displays throughout the show, but there were also a few labelled as using HDR simulation. I saw a couple of those at TV Logic. Yes, they looked gorgeous and yes, they were receiving an HDR signal. I found out that the ‘simulation’ part of the description meant that the display was bright (up to 350 nits), but not bright enough to qualify as ‘true’ HDR (1,000 nits or higher).

As in past transitions, we are certainly going to have to rely on a some ‘glue’ products. For me, that’s AJA again. Through their relationship with Colorfront, AJA offers two FS-HDR products: the HDR Image Analyzer and the FS-HDR convertor. The latter was introduced last year as a real-time frame synchronizer and color convertor to go between SDR and HDR display standards.  The new Analyzer is designed to evaluate color space and gamut compliance. Just remember, no computer display can properly show you HDR, so if you need to post and delivery HDR, proper monitoring and analysis tools are essential.

Cameras

I’m not a cinematographer, but I do keep up with cameras. Nearly all of this year’s camera developments were evolutionary: new LF (large format sensor) cameras (ARRI), 4K camcorders (Sharp, JVC), a full-frame mirrorless DSLR from Nikon (with ProRes RAW recording coming in a future firmware update). Most of the developments were targeted towards live broadcast production, like sports and megachurches.  Ikegami had an 8K camera to show, but their real focus was on 4K and IP camera control.

RED, a big player in the cinema space, was only there in a smaller demo room, so you couldn’t easily compare their 8K imagery against others on the floor, but let’s not forget Sony and Panasonic. While ARRI has been a favorite, due to the ‘look’ of the Alexa, Sony (Venice) and Panasonic (Varicam and now EVA-1) are also well-respected digital cinema tools that create outstanding images. For example, Sony’s booth featured an amazing, theater-sized, LED 8K micro-pixel display system. Some of the sample material shown was of the Rio Carnival, shot with anamorphic lenses on a 6K full-frame Sony Venice camera. Simply stunning.

Finally, let’s not forget Canon’s line-up of cinema cameras, from the C100 to the C700FF. To complement these, Canon introduced their new line of Sumire Prime lenses at the show. The C300 has been a staple of documentary films, including the Oscar-winning film, Free Solo, which I had the pleasure of watching on the flight to Las Vegas. Sweaty palms the whole way. It must have looked awesome in IMAX!

(For more on RED, cameras, and lenses at NAB, check out this thread from DP Phil Holland.)

It’s a wrap

In short, NAB 2019 had plenty for everyone. This also included smaller markets, like products for education seminars. One of these that I ran across was Cinamaker. They were demonstrating a complete multi-camera set-up using four iPhones and an iPad. The iPhones are the cameras (additional iPhones can be used as isolated sound recorders) and the iPad is the ‘switcher/control room’. The set-up can be wired or wireless, but camera control, video switching, and recording is done at the iPad. This can generate the final product, or be transferred to a Mac (with the line cut and camera iso media, plus edit list) for re-editing/refinement in Final Cut Pro X. Not too shabby, given the market that Cinamaker is striving to address.

For those of us who like to use the NAB Show exhibit floor as a miniature yardstick for the industry, one of the trends to watch is what type of gear is used in the booths and press areas. Specifically, one NLE over another, or one hardware platform versus the other. On that front, I saw plenty of Premiere Pro, along with some Final Cut Pro X. Hardware-wise, it looked like Apple versus HP. Granted, PC vendors, like HP, often supply gear to use in the booths as a form of sponsorship, so take this with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I would guess that I saw more iMac Pros than any other single computer. For PCs, it was a mix of HP Z4, Z6, and Z8 workstations. HP and AMD were partner-sponsors of Avid Connect and they demoed very compelling set-ups with these Z-series units configured with AMD Radeon cards. These are very powerful workstations for editing, grading, mixing, and graphics.

©2019 Oliver Peters

The Handmaid’s Tale

With tons of broadcast, web, and set-top outlets for dramatic television, there’s a greater opportunity than ever for American audiences to be exposed to excellent productions produced outside of Hollywood or New York. Some of the most interesting series come out of Canada from a handful of production vendors. One such company is Take 5 Productions, which has worked on such co-productions as Vikings, American Gothic, Penny Dreadful, and others. One of their newest offerings is The Handmaid’s Tale, currently airing in ten, hourlong episodes on Hulu, as well as being distributed internationally through MGM.

The Handmaid’s Tale is based on a dystopian novel written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood. It’s set in New England during the near future, when an authoritarian theocracy has overthrown the United States government and replaced it with the Republic of Gilead. The population has had declining births due to pollution and disease, so a class of women (the handmaids), who are considered fertile, are kept by the ruling class (the Commanders) as concubines for the purpose of having their children. This disturbing tale and series, with its nods to Nazi Germany and life behind the Iron Curtain, not to mention Orwell and Kubrick, stars Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, The One I Love, Girl, Interrupted) as Offred, one of the handmaids, as she tries to survive her new reality.

The tone of the style and visuals for The Handmaid’s Tale was set by cinematographer-turned-director, Reed Morano (Frozen River, Meadowland, The Skeleton Twins). She helmed three of the episodes, including the pilot. As with many television series, a couple of editors traded off the cutting duties. For this series, Julian Clarke (Deadpool, Chappie, Elysium) started the pilot, but it was wrapped up by Wendy Hallam Martin (Queer As Folk, The Tudors, The Borgias). Hallam Martin and Christopher Donaldson (Penny Dreadful, Vikings, The Right Kind of Wrong) alternated episodes in the series, with one episode cut by Aaron Marshall (Vikings, Penny Dreadful, Warrior).

Cutting a dystopian future

I recently spoke with Wendy Hallam Martin about this series and working in the Toronto television scene. She says, “As a Canadian editor, I’ve been lucky to work on some of the bigger shows. I’ve done a lot of Showtime projects, but Queer As Folk was really the first big show for me. With the interest of outlets like Netflix and Hulu, budgets have increased and Canadian TV has had a chance to produce better shows, especially the co-productions. I started on The Handmaid’s Tale with the pilot, which was the first episode. Julian [Clarke] started out cutting the pilot, but had to leave due to his schedule, so I took over. After the pilot was shot (with more scenes to come), the crew took a short break. Reed [Morano] was able to start her director’s cut before she shot episodes two and three to set the tone. The pilot didn’t lock until halfway through the season.”

One might think a mini-series that doesn’t run on a broadcast network would have a more relaxed production and post schedule, akin to a feature film. But not so with The Handmaid’s Tale, which was produced and delivered on a schedule much like other television dramatic series. Episodes were shot in blocks of two episodes at a time with eight days allotted per episode. The editor’s assembly was due five days later followed by two weeks working with the director for a director’s cut. Subsequent changes from Hulu and MGM notes result in a locked cut three months after the first day of production for those two episodes. Finally, it’s three days to color grade and about a month for sound edit and mix.

Take 5 has its own in-house visual effects department, which handles simple VFX, like wire removals, changing closed eyes to open, and so on. A few of the more complex VFX shots are sent to outside vendors. The episodes average about 40 VFX shots each, however, the season finale had 70 effects shots in one scene alone.

Tackling the workload

Hallam Martin explained how they dealt with the post schedule. She continues, “We had two editors handling the shows, so there was always some overlap. You might be cutting one show while the next one was being assembled. This season we had a first and second assistant editor. The second would deal with the dailies and the first would be handling visual effects hand-offs, building up sound effects, and so on. For the next season we’ll have two firsts and one second assistant, due to the load. Reed was very hands-on and wanted full, finished tracks of audio. There were always 24 tracks of sound on my timelines. I usually handle my own temp sound design, but because of the schedule, I handed that off to my first assistant. I would finish a scene and then turn it over to her while I moved on to the next scene.”

The Handmaid’s Tale has a very distinctive look for its visual style. Much of the footage carries a strong orange-and-teal grade. The series is shot with an ARRI ALEXA Mini in 4K (UHD). The DIT on set applies a basic look to the dailies, which are then turned into Avid DNxHD36 media files by Deluxe in Toronto to be delivered to the editors at Take 5. Final color correction is handled from the 4K originals by Deluxe under the supervision of the series director of photography, Colin Watkinson (Wonder Woman, Entourage, The Fall). A 4K (UHD) high dynamic range master is delivered to Hulu, although currently only standard dynamic range is streamed through the service. Hallam Martin adds, “Reed had created an extensive ‘look book’ for the show. It nailed what [series creator] Bruce Miller was looking for. That, combined with her interview, is why the executive producers hired her. It set the style for the series.”

Another departure from network television is that episodes do not have a specific duration that they must meet. Hallam Martin explains, “Hulu doesn’t dictate exact lengths like 58:30, but they did want the episodes to be under an hour long. Our episodes range from about 50 to 59 minutes. 98% of the scenes make it into an episode, but sometimes you do have to cut for time. I had one episode that was 72 minutes, which we left that long for the director’s cut. For the final version, the producers told me to ‘go to town’ in order to pace it up and get it under an hour. This show had a lot of traveling, so through the usual trimming, but also a lot of jump cuts for the passage of time, I was able to get it down. Ironically the longest show ended up being the shortest.”

Adam Taylor (Before I Fall, Meadowland, Never a Neverland) was the series composer, but during the pilot edit, Morano and Hallam Martin had to set the style. Hallam Martin says, “For the first three episodes, we pulled a lot of sources from other film scores to set the style. Also a lot of Trent Reznor stuff. This gave Adam an idea of what direction to take. Of course, after he scored the initial episodes, we could use those tracks as temp for the next episodes and as more episode were completed, that increased the available temp library we had to work with.”

Post feelings

Story points in The Handmaid’s Tale are often exposed through flashbacks and Moss’ voice over. Naturally voice over pieces affect the timing of both the acting and the edit. I asked Hallam Martin how this was addressed. She says, “The voice over was recorded after the fact. Lizzie Moss would memorize the VO and act with that in mind. I would have my assistant do a guide track for cutting and when we finally received Lizzie’s, we would just drop it in. These usually took very little adjustment thanks to her preparation while shooting. She’s a total pro.” The story focuses on many ideas that are tough to accept and watch at times. Hallam Martin comments, “Some of the subject matter is hard and some of the scenes stick with you. It can be emotionally hard to watch and cut, because it feels so real!”

Wendy Hallam Martin uses Avid Media Composer for these shows and I asked her about editing style. She comments, “I watch all the dailies from top to bottom, but I don’t use ScriptSync. I will arrange my bins in the frame view with a representative thumbnail for each take. This way I can quickly see what my coverage is. I like to go from the gut, based on my reaction to the take. Usually I’ll cut a scene first and then compare it against the script notes and paperwork to make sure I haven’t overlooked anything that was noted on set.” In wrapping up, we talked about films versus TV projects. Hallam Martin says, “I have done some smaller features and movies-of-the-week, but I like the faster pace of TV shows. Of course, if I were asked to cut a film in LA, I’d definitely consider it, but the lifestyle and work here in Toronto is great.”

(Here’s an updated interview with the editors by Steve Hullfish during season 2.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Fear the Walking Dead

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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

More 4K

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I’ve talked about 4K before (here, here and here), but I’ve recently done some more 4K jobs that have me thinking again. 4K means different things to different people and in terms of dimensions, there’s the issue of cinema 4K (4096 pixels wide) versus the UltraHD/QuadHD/4K 16:9 (whatever you want to call it) version of 4K (3840 pixels wide). That really doesn’t make a lot of difference, because these are close enough to be the same. There’s so much hype around it, though, that you really have to wonder if it’s “the Emperor’s new clothes”. (Click on any of these images for expanded views.)

First of all, 4K used as a marketing term is not a resolution, it’s a frame dimension. As such, 4K is not four times the resolution of HD. That’s a measurement of area and not resolution. True resolution is usually measured in the vertical direction based on the ability to resolve fine detail (regardless of the number of pixels) and, therefore, 4K is only twice the resolution of HD at best. 4K is also not sharpness, which is a human perception affected by many things, such as lens quality, contrast, motion and grading. It’s worth watching Mark Schubin’s excellent webinar on the topic to get a clearer understanding of this. There’s also a very good discussion among top DoPs here about 4K, lighting, high dynamic range and more.

df_4kcompare_1A lot of arguments have been made that 4K cameras using a color-pattern filter method (Bayer-style), single CMOS sensor don’t even deliver the resolution they claim. The reason is that in many designs 50% of the pixels are green versus 25% each for red and blue. Green is used for luminance, which determines detail, so you do not have a 1:1 pixel relationship between green and the stated frame resolution of the sensor. That’s in part why RED developed 5K and 6K sensors and it’s why Sony uses an 8K sensor (F65) to deliver a 4K image.

The perceived image quality is also not all about total pixels. The pixels of the sensor, called photosites, are the light-receiving elements of the sensor. There’s a loose correlation between pixel size and light sensitivity. For any given sensor of a certain physical dimension, you can design it with a lot of small pixels or with fewer, but larger, pixels. This roughly correlates to a sensor that’s of high resolution, but a smaller dynamic range (many small pixels) or one with lower resolution, but a higher dynamic range (large, but fewer pixels). Although the equation isn’t nearly this simplistic, since a lot of color science and “secret sauce” goes into optimizing a sensor’s design, you can certainly see this play out in the marketing battles between the RED and ARRI camps. In the case of the ALEXA, ARRI adds some on-the-sensor filtering, which results in a softer image that gives it a characteristic filmic quality.df_4kcompare_2

Why do you use 4K?

With 4K there are two possible avenues. The first is to shoot 4K for the purpose of reframing and repositioning within HD and 2K timelines. Reframing isn’t a new production idea. When everyone shot on film, some telecine devices, like the Rank Cintel Mark III, sported zoom boards that permitted an optical blow-up of the 35mm negative. You could zoom in for a close-up in transfer that didn’t cost you resolution. Many videographers shoot 1080 for a 720 finish, as this allows a nice margin for reframing in post. The second is to deliver a final 4K product. Obviously, if your intent is the latter, then you can’t count on the techniques of the former in post.

df_4kcompare_3When you shoot 4K for HD post, then workflow is an issue. Do you shoot everything in 4K or just the items you know you’ll want to deal with? How will this cut with HD and 2K content? That’s where it gets dicey, because some NLEs have good 4K workflows and others don’t. But it’s here that I contend you are getting less than meets the eye, so to speak.  I have run into plenty of editors who have dropped a 4K clip into an HD timeline and then blown it up, thinking that they are really cropping into the native 4K frame and maintaining resolution. Depending on the NLE and the settings used, often they are simply blowing up an HD shot. The NLE scaled the 4K to HD first and then expanded the downscaled HD image. It didn’t crop into the actual 4K native resolution. So you have to be careful. And guess what, if the blow up isn’t that extreme, it may not look much different than the crop.

df_4kcompare_4One thing to remember is that a 4K image that is scaled to fit into an HD timeline gains the benefits of oversampling. The result in HD will be very sharp and, in fact, will generally look better perceptually than the exact same image natively shot in an HD size. When you now crop into the native image, you are losing some of that oversampling effect. A 1:1 pixel relationship is the same effective image size as a 200% blow-up. Of course, it’s not the same result. When you compare the oversampled “wide shot” (4K scaled to HD) to the “close-up” (native 4K crop), the close-up will often look softer. You’ll see defects of the image, like chromatic aberration in the lens, missed critical focus and sensor noise. Instead, if you shoot a wide and then an actual close-up, that result will usually look better.

On the other hand, if you blow up the 4K-to-HD or a native HD shot, you’ll typically see a result that looks pretty good. That’s because there’s often a lot more information there than monitors or the eye can detect. In my experience, you can commonly get away with a blow-up in the range of 120% of the original image size and in some cases, as much as 150%.

To scale or not to scale

df_4K_comparison_Instant4KLet me point out that I’m not saying a native 4K shot doesn’t look good. It does, but often the associated workflow hassles aren’t worth it. For example, let’s take a typical 1080p 50” Panasonic plasma that’s often used as a client monitor in edit suites. You or your client may be sitting 7 to 10 feet away from it, which is closer than most people sit in a living room with that size of a screen. If I show a client the native image (4K at 1:1 in an HD timeline) compared with an separate HD image at the same framing, it’s unlikely that they’ll see a difference. Another test is to take two exact images – one native HD and the other 4K. Scale up the HD and crop down the 4K to match. In theory, the 4K should look better and sharper. In fact, sitting back on the client sofa, most won’t see a difference. It’s only when they step to about 5 feet in front of the monitor that a difference is obvious and then only when looking at fine detail within the shot.

df_gh4_instant4k_smNot all scaling is equal. I’ve talked a lot about the comparison of HD scaling, but that really depends on the scaling that you use. For a quick shot, sure, use what your NLE has built in. For more critical operations, then you might want to scale images separately. DaVinci Resolve has excellent built-in scaling and lets you pick from smooth, sharp and bilinear algorithms. If you want a plug-in, then the best I’ve found is the new Red Giant Instant 4K filter. It’s a variation of their Instant HD plug-in and works in After Effects and Premiere Pro. There are a lot of quality tweaks and naturally, the better it does, the longer the render will be. Nevertheless, it offers outstanding results and in one test that I ran, it actually provided a better look within portions of the image than the native 4K shot.

df_4K_comparison-C500_smIn that case, it was a C500 shot of a woman on a park bench with a name badge. I had three identical versions of the shot (not counting the raw files) – the converted 4K ProRes4444 file, a converted 1080 ProRes4444 “proxy” file for editing and the in-camera 1080 Canon XF file. I blew up the two 1080 shots using Instant 4K and cropped the 4K shot so all were of equal framing. When I compared the native 4K shot to the expanded 1080 ProRes4444 shot, the woman’s hair was sharper in the 1080 blow-up, but the letters on the name badge were better on the original. The 1080 Canon XF blow-up was softer in both areas. I think this shows that some of the controls in the plug-in may give you superior results to the original (crisper hair); but, a blow-up suffers when you are using a worse codec, like Canon’s XF (50 Mbps 4:2:2). It’s fine for native HD, but the ProRes4444 codec has twice the chroma resolution and less compression, which makes a difference when scaling an image larger. Remember all of this pertains to viewing the image in HD.

4K deliverables

df_4K_comparison-to-1080_smSo what about working in native 4K for a 4K deliverable? That certainly has validity for high-resolution projects (films, concerts, large corporate presentations), but I’m less of a believer for television and web viewing. I’d rather have “better” pixels and not simply “more” pixels. Most of the content you watch at theaters using digital projection is 2K playback. Sometimes the master for that DCP was HD, 2K or 4K. If you are in a Sony 4K projector-equipped theater, most of the time, it’s simply the projector upscaling the content to 4K as part of the projection. Even though you may see a Sony 4K logo at the head of the trailers, you aren’t watching 4K content – definitely not, if it’s a stereo3D film. Yet, much of this looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

df_AMIRAEverything I talked about, regarding blowing up HD by up to 120% or more, still applies to 4K. Need to blow up a shot a bit in a 4K timeline? Go ahead, it will look fine. I think ARRI has proven this as well, taking films shot with the ALEXA all the way up to Imax. In fact, ARRI just announced that the AMIRA will get in-camera, on-the-fly upscaling of its image with the ability to record 4K (3840 x 2160 at up to 60fps) on the CFast 2.0 cards. They can do this, because the sensor starts with more pixels than HD or 2K. The AMIRA will expose all of the available photosites (about 3.4K sensor pixels) in what they call the “open gate” method. This image is lightly cropped to 3.2K and then scaled by a 1.2 factor, which results in UltraHD 4K recording on the same hardware. Pretty neat trick and judging by ARRI’s image quality, I’ll bet it will look very good. Doubling down on this technique, the ALEXA XT models will also be able to record ProRes media at this 3.2K size. In the case of the ALEXA, the designers have opted to leave the upscaling to post, rather than to do it in-camera.

To conclude, if you are working in 4K today, then by all means continue to do so. It’s a great medium with a lot of creative benefits. If you aren’t working in 4K, then don’t sweat it. You won’t be left behind for awhile and there are plenty of techniques to get you to the same end goal as much of the 4K production that’s going on.

Click these thumbnails for full resolution images.

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©2014 Oliver Peters

Amira Color Tool and your NLE

df_amiracolor_1I was recently alerted to the new Amira Color Tool by Michael Phillips’ 24p blog. This is a lightweight ARRI software application designed to create custom in-camera looks for the Amira camera. You do this by creating custom color look-up tables (LUT). The Amira Color Tool is available as a free download from the ARRI website (free registration required). Although the application is designed for the camera, you can also export looks in a variety of LUT file formats, which in turn, may be installed and applied to footage in a number of different editing and color correction applications. I tested this in both Apple Final Cut Pro X and Avid Media Composer | Software (v8) with good results.

The Amira Color Tool is designed to correct log-C encoded footage into a straight Rec709 offset or with a custom look. ARRI offers some very good instructions, white papers, sample looks and tutorials that cover the operation of this software. The signal flow is from the log-C image, to the Rec709 correction, and then to the CDL-based color correction. To my eye, the math appears to be floating point, because a Rec709 conversion that throws a shot into clipping, can be pulled back out of clipping in the look tab, using the CDL color correction tools. Therefore it is possible to use this tool for shots other than ARRI Amira or Alexa log-C footage, as long as it is sufficiently flat.

The CDL correction tools are based on slope, offset and power. In that model slope is equivalent to gain, offset to lift and power to gamma. In addition to color wheels, there’s a second video look parameters tab for hue intensities for the six main vectors (red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta). The Amira Color Tool is Mac-only and opens both QuickTime and DPX files from the clips I tested. It worked successfully with clips shot on an Alexa (log-C), Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMD Film profile), Sony F-3 (S-log) and Canon 1DC (4K Canon-log). Remember that the software is designed to correct flat, log-C images, so you probably don’t want to use this with images that were already encoded with vibrant Rec709 colors.

FCP X

df_amiracolor_4To use the Amira Color Tool, import your clip from the application’s file browser, set the look and export a 3D LUT in the appropriate format. I used the DaVinci Resolve setting, which creates a 3D LUT in a .cube format file. To get this into FCP X, you need to buy and install a LUT filter, like Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. To install a new LUT there, open the LUT Utility pane in System Preferences, click the “+” symbol and navigate to where the file was saved.df_amiracolor_5_sm In FCP X, apply the LUT Utility to the clip as a filter. From the filter’s pulldown selection in the inspector, choose the new LUT that you’ve created and installed. One caveat is to be careful with ARRI files. Any files recorded with newer ARRI firmware are flagged for log-C and FCP X automatically corrects these to Rec709. Since you don’t want to double up on LUTs, make sure “log processing” is unchecked for those clips in the info tab of the inspector pane.

Media Composer

df_amiracolor_6_smTo use the custom LUTs in Media Composer, select “source settings” for the clip. Go to the color management tab and install the LUT. Now it will be available in the pull-down menu for color conversions. This color management change can be applied to a single clip or to a batch of clips within a bin.

In both cases, the source clips in FCP X and/or Media Composer will play in real-time with the custom look already applied.

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©2014 Oliver Peters