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

Preparing Digital Camera Files

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The modern direction in file-based post production workflows is to keep your camera files native throughout the enter pipeline. While this might work within a closed loop, like a self-contained Avid, Adobe or Apple workflow, it breaks down when you have to move your project across multiple applications. It’s common for an editor to send files to a Pro Tools studio for the final mix and to a colorist running Resolve, Baselight, etc. for the final grade. In doing so, you have to ensure that editorial decisions aren’t incorrectly translated in the process, because the NLE might handle a native camera format differently than the mixer’s or colorist’s tool. To keep the process solid, I’ve developed some disciplines in how I like to handle media. The applications I mention are for Mac OS, but most of these companies offer Windows versions, too. If not, you can easily find equivalents.

Copying media

df0815_media_6_smThe first step is to get the media from the camera cards to a reliable hard drive. It’s preferable to have at least two copies (from the location) and to make the copies using software that verifies the back-up. This is a process often done on location by the lowly “data wrangler” under less than ideal conditions. A number of applications, such as Imagine Products’ ShotPut Pro and Adobe Prelude let you do this task, but my current favorite is Red Giant’s Offload. It uses a dirt simple interface permitting one source and two target locations. It has the sole purpose of safely transferring media with no other frills.

Processing media on location

df0815_media_5_smWith the practice of shooting footage with a flat-looking log gamma profile, many productions like to also see the final, adjusted look on location. This often involves some on-site color grading to create either a temporary look or even the final look. Usually this task falls to a DIT (digital imaging technician). Several applications are available, including DaVinci Resolve, Pomfort Silverstack and Redcine-X Pro. Some new applications, specifically designed for field use, include Red Giant’s BulletProof and Catalyst Browse/Prepare from Sony Creative Software. Catalyst Browse in free and designed for all Sony cameras, whereas Catalyst Prepare is a paid application that covers Sony cameras, but also other brands, including Canon and GoPro. Depending on the application, these tools may be used to add color correction, organize the media, transcode file formats, and even prepare simple rough assemblies of selected footage.

All of these tools add a lot of power, but frankly, I’d prefer that the production company leave these tasks up to the editorial team and allow more time in post. In my testing, most of the aforementioned apps work as advertised; however, BulletProof continues to have issues with the proper handling of timecode.

Transcoding media

df0815_media_2_smI’m not a big believer in always using native media for the edit, unless you are in a fast turnaround situation. To get the maximum advantage for interchanging files between applications, it is ideal to end up in one of several common media formats, if that isn’t how the original footage was recorded. You also want every file to have unique and consistent metadata, including file names, reel IDs and timecode. The easiest common media format is QuickTime using the .mov wrapper and encoded using either Apple ProRes, Panasonic AVC-Intra, Sony XDCAM, or Avid DNxHD codecs. These are generally readable in most applications running on Mac or PC. My preference is to first convert all files into QuickTime using one of these codecs, if they originated as something else. That’s because the file is relatively malleable at that point and doesn’t require a rigid external folder structure.

Applications like BulletProof and Catalyst can transcode camera files into another format. Of course, there are dedicated batch encoders like Sorenson Squeeze, Apple Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder and Telestream Episode. My personal choice for a tool to transcode camera media is either MPEG Streamclip (free) or Divergent Media’s EditReady. Both feature easy-to-use batch processing interfaces, but EditReady adds the ability to apply LUTs, change file names and export to multiple targets. It also reads formats that MPEG Streamclip doesn’t, such as C300 files (Canon XF codec wrapped as .mxf). If you want to generate a clean master copy preserving the log gamma profile, as well as a second lower resolution editorial file with a LUT applied, then EditReady is the right application.

Altering your media

df0815_media_3_smI will go to extra lengths to make sure that files have proper names, timecode and source/tape/reel ID metadata. Most professional video cameras will correctly embed that information. Others, like the Canon 5D Mark III, might encode a non-standard timecode format, allow duplicated file names, and not add reel IDs.

Once the media has been transcoded, I will use two applications to adjust the file metadata. For timecode, I rely on VideoToolShed’s QtChange. This application lets you alter QuickTime files in a number of ways, but I primarily use it to strip off unnecessary audio tracks and bad timecode. Then I use it to embed proper reel IDs and timecode. Because it does this by altering header information, processing a lot of files happens quickly. The second tool in this mix is Better Rename, which is batch renaming utility. I use it frequently for adding, deleting or changing all or part of the file name for a batch of files. For instance, I might append a production job number to the front of a set of Canon 5D files. The point in doing all of this is so that you can easily locate the exact same point within any file using any application, even several years apart.

df0815_media_1_smSpeed is a special condition. Most NLEs handle files with mixed frame rates within the same project and sequences, but often such timelines do not correctly translate from one piece of software to the next. Edit lists are interchanged using EDL, XML, FCPXML and AAF formats and each company has its own variation of the format that they use. Some formats, like FCPXML, require third party utilities to translate the list, adding another variable. Round-tripping, such as going from NLE “A” (for offline) to Color Correction System “B” (for grading) and then to NLE “C” (for finishing), often involves several translations. Apart from effects, speed differences in native camera files can be a huge problem.

A common mixed frame rate situation in the edit is combining 23.98fps and 29.97fps footage. If both of these were intended to run in real-time, then it’s usually OK. However, if the footage was recorded with the intent to overcrank for slomo (59.94 or 29.97 native for a timebase of 23.98) then you start to run into issues. As long as the camera properly flags the file, so that every application plays it at the proper timebase (slowed), then things are fine. This isn’t true of DSLRs, where you might shoot 720p/59.94 for use as slomo in a 1080p/29.97 or 23.98 sequence. With these files, my recommendation is to alter the speed of the file first, before using it inside the NLE. One way to do this is to use Apple Cinema Tools (part of the defunct Final Cut Studio package, but can still be found). You can batch-conform a set of 59.94fps files to play natively at 23.98fps in very short order. This should be done BEFORE adding any timecode with QtChange. Remember that any audio will have its sample rate shifted, which I’ve found to be a problem with FCP X. Therefore, when you do this, also strip off the audio tracks using QtChange. They play slow anyway and so are useless in most cases where you want overcranked, slow motion files.

Audio in your NLE

The last point to understand is that not all NLEs deal with audio tracks in the same fashion. Often camera files are recorded with multiple mono audio sources, such as a boom and a lav mic on channels 1 and 2. These may be interpreted either as stereo or as dual mono, depending on the NLE. Premiere Pro CC in particular sees these as stereo when imported. If you edit them to the timeline as a single stereo track, you will not be able to correct this in the sequence afterwards by panning. Therefore, it’s important to remember to first set-up your camera files with a dual mono channel assignment before making the first edit. This same issue crops up when round-tripping files through Resolve. It may not properly handle audio, depending on how it interprets these files, so be careful.

These steps add a bit more time at the front end of any given edit, but are guaranteed to give you a better editing experience on complex projects. The results will be easier interchange between applications and more reliable relinking. Finally, when you revisit a project a year or more down the road, everything should pop back up, right where you left it.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Adobe Anywhere and Divine Access

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Editors like the integration of Adobe’s software, especially Dynamic Link and Direct Link between creative applications. This sort of approach is applied to collaborative workflows with Adobe Anywhere, which permits multiple stakeholders, including editors, producers and directors, to access common media and productions from multiple, remote locations. One company that has invested in the Adobe Anywhere environment is G-Men Media of Venice, California, who installed it as their post production hub. By using Adobe Anywhere, Jeff Way (COO) and Clay Glendenning (CEO) sought to improve the efficiency of the filmmaking process for their productions. No science project – they have now tested the concept in the real world on several indie feature films.

Their latest film, Divine Access, produced by The Traveling Picture Show Company in association with G-Men Media, is a religious satire centering on reluctant prophet Jack Harriman. Forces both natural and supernatural lead Harriman down a road to redemption culminating in a final showdown with his long time foe, Reverend Guy Roy Davis. Steven Chester Prince (Boyhood, The Ringer, A Scanner Darkly) moves behind the camera as the film’s director. The entire film was shot in Austin, Texas during May of 2014, but the processing of dailies and all post production was handled back at the Venice facility. Way explains, “During principal photography we were able to utilize our Anywhere system to turn around dailies and rough cuts within hours after shooting. This reduced our turnaround time for review and approval, thus reducing budget line items. Using Anywhere enabled us to identify cuts and mark them as viable the same day, reducing the need for expensive pickup shoots later down the line.”

The production workflow

df0115_da_3_smDirector of Photography Julie Kirkwood (Hello I Must Be Going, Collaborator, Trek Nation) picked the ARRI ALEXA for this film and scenes were recorded as ProRes 4444 in 2K. An on-set data wrangler would back up the media to local hard drives and then a runner would take the media to a downtown upload site. The production company found an Austin location with 1GB upload speeds. This enabled them to upload 200GB of data in about 45 minutes. Most days only 50-80GB were uploaded at one time, since uploads happened several times throughout each day.

Way says, “We implemented a technical pipeline for the film that allowed us to remain flexible.  Adobe’s open API platform made this possible. During production we used an Amazon S3 instance in conjunction with Aspera to get the footage securely to our system and also act as a cloud back-up.” By uploading to Amazon and then downloading the media into their Anywhere system in Venice, G-Men now had secure, full-resolution media in redundant locations. Camera LUTs were also sent with the camera files, which could be added to the media for editorial purposes in Venice. Amazon will also provide a long-term archive of the 8TB of raw media for additional protection and redundancy. This Anywhere/Amazon/Aspera pipeline was supervised by software developer Matt Smith.

df0115_da_5_smBack in Venice, the download and ingest into the Anywhere server and storage was an automated process that Smith programmed. Glendenning explains, “It would automatically populate a bin named for that day with the incoming assets. Wells [Phinny, G-Men editorial assistant] would be able to grab from subfolders named ‘video’ and ‘audio’ to quickly organize clips into scene subfolders within the Anywhere production that he would create from that day’s callsheet. Wells did most of this work remotely from his home office a few miles away from the G-Men headquarters.” Footage was synced and logged for on-set review of dailies and on-set cuts the next day. Phinny effectively functioned as a remote DIT in a unique way.

Remote access in Austin to the Adobe Anywhere production for review was made possible through an iPad application. Way explains, “We had close contact with Wells via text message, phone and e-mail. The iPad access to Anywhere used a secure VPN connection over the Internet. We found that a 4G wireless data connection was sufficient to play the clips and cuts. On scenes where the director had concerns that there might not be enough coverage, the process enabled us to quickly see something. No time was lost to transcoding media or to exporting a viewable copy, which would be typical of the more traditional way of working.”

Creative editorial mixing Adobe Anywhere and Avid Media Composer

df0115_da_4_smOnce principal photography was completed, editing moved into the G-Men mothership. Instead of editing with Premiere Pro, however, Avid Media Composer was used. According to Way, “Our goal was to utilize the Anywhere system throughout as much of the production as possible. Although it would have been nice to use Premiere Pro for the creative edit, we believed going with an editor that shared our director’s creative vision was the best for the film. Kindra Marra [Scenic Route, Sassy Pants, Hick] preferred to cut in Media Composer. This gave us the opportunity to test how the system could adapt already existing Adobe productions.” G-Men has handled post on other productions where the editor worked remotely with an Anywhere production. In this case, since Marra lived close-by in Santa Monica, it was simpler just to set up the cutting room at their Venice facility. At the start of this phase, assistant editor Justin (J.T.) Billings joined the team.

Avid has added subscription pricing, so G-Men installed the Divine Access cutting room using a Mac Pro and “renting” the Media Composer 8 software for a few months. The Anywhere servers are integrated with a Facilis Technology TerraBlock shared storage network, which is compatible with most editing applications, including both Premiere Pro and Media Composer. The Mac Pro tower was wired into the TerraBlock SAN and was able to see the same ALEXA ProRes media as Anywhere. According to Billings, “Once all the media was on the TerraBlock drives, Marra was able to access these in the Media Composer project using Avid’s AMA-linking. This worked well and meant that no media had to be duplicated. The film was cut solely with AMA-linked media. External drives were also connected to the workstations for nightly back-ups as another layer of protection.”

Adobe Anywhere at the finish line

df0115_da_6_smOnce the cut was locked, an AAF composition for the edited sequence was sent from Media Composer to DaVinci Resolve 11, which was installed on an HP workstation at G-Men. This unit was also connected to the TerraBlock storage, so media instantly linked when the AAF file was imported. Freelance colorist Mark Todd Osborne graded the film on Resolve 11 and then exported a new AAF file corresponding to the rendered media, which now also existed on the SAN drives. This AAF composition was then re-imported into Media Composer.

Billings continues, “All of the original audio elements existed in the Media Composer project and there was no reason to bring them into Premiere Pro. By importing Resolve’s AAF back into Media Composer, we could then double-check the final timeline with audio and color corrected picture. From here, the audio and OMF files were exported for Pro Tools [sound editorial and the mix is being done out-of-house]. Reference video of the film for the mix could now use the graded images. A new AAF file for the graded timeline was also exported from Media Composer, which then went back into Premiere Pro and the Anywhere production. Once we get the mixed tracks back, these will be added to the Premiere Pro timeline. Final visual effects shots can also be loaded into Anywhere and then inserted into the Premiere Pro sequence. From here on, all further versions of Divine Access will be exported from Premiere Pro and Anywhere.”

Glendenning points out that, “To make sure the process went smoothly, we did have a veteran post production supervisor – Hank Braxtan – double check our workflow.  He and I have done a lot of work together over the years and has more than a decade of experience overseeing an Avid house. We made sure he was available whenever there were Avid-related technical questions from the editors.”

Way says, “Previously, on post production of [the indie film] Savageland, we were able to utilize Anywhere for full post production through to delivery. Divine Access has allowed us to take advantage of our system on both sides of the creative edit including principal photography and post finishing through to delivery. This gives us capabilities through entire productions. We have a strong mix of Apple and PC hardware and now we’ve proven that our Anywhere implementation is adaptable to a variety of different hardware and software configurations. Now it becomes a non-issue whether it’s Adobe, Avid or Resolve. It’s whatever the creative needs dictate; plus, we are happy to be able to use the fastest machines.”

Glendenning concludes, “Tight budget projects have tight deadlines and some producers have missed their deadlines because of post. We installed Adobe Anywhere and set up the ecosystem surrounding it because we feel this is a better way that can save time and money. I believe the strategy employed for Divine Access has been a great improvement over the usual methods. Using Adobe Anywhere really let us hit it out of the park.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Birdman

Birdman-PosterIt’s rare, but exhilarating, when you watch a movie with a unique take on film’s visual language, without the crutch of extensive computer generated imagery. That’s precisely the beauty of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The film is directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams) and features a dynamic ensemble cast dominated by Michael Keaton’s lead performance as Riggan Thomson. While most films are constructed of intercutting master shots, two-shots and singles, Birdman is designed to look like a continuous, single take. While this has been done before in films, approximately 100 minutes out of the two-hour movie appear as a completely seamless composite of lengthy Steadicam and hand-held takes.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a movie star who rode to fame as the comic book super hero Birdman; but, it’s a role that he walked away from. Searching for contemporary relevance, Riggan has decided to mount a Broadway play, based on the real-life Raymond Carter short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film takes place entirely at the historic St. James Theater near Times Square and the surrounding area in New York. Principal photography occurred over a 30-day period, both at the real theater and Times Square, as well as at Kaufman Astoria Studios. The soundstage sets were for the backstage and dressing room portions of the theater. Throughout the film, Riggan struggles with the challenges of getting the play to opening day and dealing with his fellow cast members, but more notably confronting his super ego Birdman, seen in person and heard in voice-over. This is, of course, playing out in Riggan’s imagination. The film, like the play within the film, wrestles with the overall theme of the confusion between love and affection.

Bringing this ambitious vision to life fell heavily upon the skills of the director of photography and the editors. Emmanuel Lubezki, known as Chivo, served as DoP. He won the 2014 Cinematography Oscar for Gravity, a film that was also heralded for its long, seemingly continuous shots. Stephen Mirrione (The Monuments Men, Ocean’s Thirteen, Traffic) and Douglas Crise (Arbitrage, Deception, Babel) teamed up for the edit. Both editors had worked together before, as well as with the director. Mirrione started during the rehearsal process. At the time of production, Crise handled the editing in New York, while Mirrione, who was back LA at this time, was getting dailies and checking in on the cut as well as sending scenes back and forth with changes every day.

It starts with preparation

Stephen Mirrione explains, “When I first saw what they wanted to do, I was a bit skeptical that it could be pulled off successfully. Just one scene that didn’t work would ruin the whole film. Everything really had to align. One of the things that was considered, was to tape and edit all of the rehearsals. This was done about two months before the principal photography was set to start. The rehearsals were edited together, which allowed Alejandro to adjust the script, pacing and performances. We could see what would work and what wouldn’t. Before cameras even rolled, we had an assembly made up of the rehearsal footage and some of the table read. So, together with Alejandro, we could begin to gauge what the film would look and sound like, where a conversation was redundant, where the moves would be. It was like a pre-vis that you might create for a large-scale CGI or animated feature.”

Once production started in New York, Douglas Crise picked up the edit. Typically, the cast and crew would rehearse the first half of the day and then tape during the second half. ARRI ALEXA cameras were used. The media was sent to Technicolor, who would turn around color corrected Avid DNxHD36 dailies for the next day. The team of editors and assistants used Avid Media Composer systems. According to Crise, “I would check the previous day’s scenes and experiment to see how the edit points would ‘join’ together. You are having to make choices based on performance, but also how the camera work would edit together. Alejandro would have to commit to certain editorial decisions, because those choices would dictate where the shot would pick up on the next day. Stephen would check in on the progress during this period and then he picked up once the cut shifted to visual effects.”

Naturally the editing challenge was to make the scenes flow seamlessly in both a figurative and literal sense. “The big difference with this film was that we didn’t have the conventional places where one scene started and another ended. Every scene walks into the next one. Alejandro described it as going down a hill and not stopping. There wasn’t really a transition. The characters just keep moving on,” Crise says.

“I think we really anticipated a lot of the potential pitfalls and really prepared, but what we didn’t plan on were all the speed changes,” Mirrione adds. “At certain points, when the scene was not popping for us, if the tempo was a little off, we could actually dial up the pace or slow it down as need be without it being perceptible to the audience and that made a big difference.”

Score and syncopation

To help drive pace, much of the track uses a drum score composed and performed by Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez. In some scenes within the film, the camera also pans over to a drummer with a kit who just happens to be playing in an alley or even in a backstage hallway. Sanchez and Iñárritu went into a studio and recorded sixty improvised tracks based on the emotions that the film needed. Mirrione says, “Alejandro would explain the scene to the drummer in the studio and then he’d create it.” Crise continues, “Alejandro had all these drum recordings and he told me to pick six of my favorites. We cut those together so that he could have a track that the drummer could mimic when they shot that scene. He had the idea for the soundtrack from the very beginning and we had those samples cut in from the start, too.”

“And then Martín [Hernández, supervising sound editor] took it to another level. Once there was an first pass at the movie, with a lot of those drum tracks laid in as an outline, he spent a lot of time working with Alejandro, to strip layers away, add some in, trying a lot of different beats. Obviously, in every movie, music will have an impact on point of view and mood and tone. But with this, I think it was especially important, because the rhythm is so tied to the camera and you can’t make those kinds of cadence adjustments with as much flexibility as you can with cuts. We had to lean on the music a little more than normal at times, to push back or pull forward,” Mirrione says.

The invisible art

The technique of this seamless sequence of scenes really allows you to get into the head of Riggan more so than other films, but the editors are reserved in discussing the actual editing technique. Mirrione explains, “Editing is often called the ‘invisible art’. We shape scenes and performances on every film. There has been a lot of speculation over the internet about the exact number and length of shots. I can tell you it’s more than most people would guess. But we don’t want that to be the focus of the discussion. The process is still the same of affecting performance and pace. It’s just that the dynamic has been shifted, because much of the effort was front-loaded in the early days. Unlike other films, where the editing phase after the production is completed, focuses on shaping the story – on Birdman it was about fine-tuning.”

Crise continues, “Working on this film was a different process and a different way to come up with new ideas. It’s also important to know that most of the film was shot practically. Michael [Keaton] really is running through Times Square in his underwear. The shots are not comped together with green screen actors against CGI buildings.” There are quite a lot of visual effects used to enhance and augment the transitions from one shot to the next to make these seamless. On the other hand, when Riggan’s Birdman delusions come to life on screen, we also see more recognizable visual effects, such as a brief helicopter and creature battle playing out over the streets of New York.

Winking at the audience

The film is written as a black comedy with quite a few insider references. Clearly, the casting of Michael Keaton provides allusion to his real experiences in starting the Batman film franchise and in many ways the whole super hero film genre. However, there was also a conscious effort during rehearsals and tapings to adjust the dialogue in ways that kept these references as current as possible. Crise adds, “Ironically, in the scenes on the rooftop there was a billboard in the background behind Emma Stone and Edward Norton, with a reference to Tom Hanks. We felt that audiences would believe that we created it on purpose, when if fact it was a real billboard. It was changed in post, just to keep from appearing to be an insider reference that was too obvious.”

The considerations mandated during the edit by a seamless film presented other challenges, too. For example, simple concerns, like where to structure reel breaks and how to hand off shots for visual effects. Mirrione points out, “Simple tasks such as sending out shots for VFX, color correction, or even making changes for international distribution requirements were complicated by the fact that once we finished, there weren’t individual ‘shots’ to work with – just one long never ending strand.  It meant inventing new techniques along the way.  Steven Scott, the colorist, worked with Chivo at Technicolor LA to perfect all the color and lighting and had to track all of these changes across the entire span of the movie.  The same way we found places to hide stitches between shots, they had to hide these color transitions which are normally changed at the point of a cut from one shot to the next.”

In total, the film was in production and post for about a year, starting with rehearsals in early 2013. Birdman was mixed and completed by mid-February 2014. While it posed a technical and artistic challenge from the start, everything amazingly fell into place, highlighted by perfect choreography of cast, crew and the post production team. It will be interesting to see how Birdman fares during awards season, because it succeeds on so many levels.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2014, 2015 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2014

df_stuff14_1_smAs we head toward the end of the year, it’s time to look again at a few items you can use to spruce up your edit bay.

Let’s start at the computer. The “tube” Mac Pro has been out for nearly a year, but many will still be trying to get the most life out of their existing Mac Pro “tower”. I wrote about this awhile back, so this is a bit of a recap. More RAM, an internal SSD and an upgraded GPU card are the best starting points. OWC and Crucial are your best choices for RAM and solid state drives. If you want to bump up your GPU, then the Sapphire 7950 (Note: I have run into issues with some of these cards, where the spacer screws are too tall, requiring you to install the card in slot 2) and/or Nvidia GTX 680 Mac Edition cards are popular choices. However, these will only give you an incremental boost if you’ve already been running an ATI 5870 or Nvidia Quadro 4000 display card. df_stuff14_2_smIf you have the dough and want some solid horsepower, then go for the Nvidia Quadro K5000 card for the Mac. To expand your audio monitoring, look at Mackie mixers, KRK speakers and the PreSonus Audiobox USB interface. Naturally there are many video monitor options, but assuming you have an AJA or Blackmagic Design interface, FSI would be my choice. HP Dreamcolor is also a good option when connecting directly to the computer.

The video plug-in market is prolific, with plenty of packages and/or individual filters from FxFactory, Boris, GenArts, FCP Effects, Crumplepop, Red Giant and others. I like the Universe package from df_stuff14_3_smRed Giant, because it supports FCP X, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects. Red Giant continues to expand the package, including some very nice new premium effects. If you are a Media Composer user, then you might want to look into the upgrade from Avid FX to Boris Red. Naturally, you can’t go wrong with FxFactory, especially if you use FCP X. There’s a wide range of options with the ability to purchase single filters – all centrally managed through the FxFactory application.

df_stuff14_4_smFor audio, the go-to filter companies are iZotope, Waves and Focusrite to name a few. iZotope released some nice tools in its RX4 package – a state-of-the-art repair and restoration suite. If you just want a suite of EQ and compression tools, then Nectar Elements or Nectar 2 are the best all-in-one collections of audio filters. While most editors do their audio editing/mastering within their NLE, some need a bit more. Along with a 2.0 bump for Sound Forge Pro Mac, Sony Creative Software also released a standard version of Sound Forge through the Mac App Store.

df_stuff14_5_smIn the color correction world, there’s been a lot of development in film emulation look-up tables (LUTs). These can be used in most NLEs and grading applications. If that’s for you, check out ImpulZ and Osiris from Color Grading Central (LUT Utility required with FCP X), Koji Color or the new SpeedLooks 4 (from LookLabs). Each package offers a selection of Fuji and Kodak emulations, as well as other stylized looks. These packages feature LUT files in the .cube and/or .look (Adobe) LUT file formats and, thus, are compatible with most applications. If you want film emulation that also includes 3-way grading tools and adjustable film grain, your best choice is FilmConvert 2.0.

df_stuff14_6_smAnother category that is expanding covers the range of tools used to prep media from the camera prior to the edit. This had been something only for DITs and on-set “data wranglers”, but many videographers are increasingly using such tools on everyday productions. These now offer on-set features that benefit all file-based recordings. Pomfort Silverstack, ShotPut Pro, Redcine-X Pro and Adobe Prelude have been joined by new tools. To start, there’s Offload and EditReady, which are two very specific tools. Offload simply copies and verifies camera-card media to two target drives. EditReady is a simple drag-and-drop batch convertor to transcode media files. These join QtChange (a utility to batch-add timecode and reel IDs to media files) and Better Rename (a Finder renaming utility) in my book, as the best single-purpose production applications.

df_stuff14_7_smIf you want more in one tool, then there’s Bulletproof, which has now been joined in the market by Sony Creative Software’s Catalyst Browse and Prepare. Bulletproof features media offload, organization, color correction and transcoding. I like it, but my only beef is that it doesn’t properly handle timecode data, when present. Catalyst Browse is free and similar to Canon’s camera utility. It’s designed to read and work with media from any Sony camera. Catalyst Prepare is the paid version with an expanded feature set. It supports media from other camera manufacturers, including Canon and GoPro.

df_stuff14_8_smFinally, many folks are looking for alternative to Adobe Photoshop. I’m a fan of Pixelmator, but this has been joined by Pixlr and Mischief. All three are available from the Mac App Store. Pixlr is free, but can be expanded through subscription. In its basic form, Pixlr is a stylizing application that is like a very, very “lite” version of Photoshop; however, it includes some very nice image processing filters. Mischief is a drawing application designed to work with drawing tablets, although a mouse will work, too.

©2014 Oliver Peters

DaVinci Resolve 11

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With the release of DaVinci Resolve 11, Blackmagic Design has firmly moved into the ranks of nonlinear editing. In addition to a redesigned logo and splash screen, Resolve 11 sports more editorial tools than ever before. Now for the first time it is worthy for consideration as your NLE of choice. I have covered previous releases of Resolve, so I’ll only briefly touch on color correction in this article.

As before, DaVinci Resolve 11 comes in four versions: Resolve Lite (free), Resolve Software ($995), Resolve (with the control surface for $29,995) and the Linux configuration. Both free and paid versions support a variety of third-party control surfaces, with the most popular being the Avid Artist Color and the Tangent Devices Element panels. Resolve Lite supports output up to UltraHD (3840 x 2160). It includes most of the features of the paid software, except collaboration, stereo 3D and noise reduction. Although you can operate Resolve without any third-party i/o hardware, if you want external monitoring or output to tape, you’ll need to purchase one of Blackmagic Design’s PCIe capture cards or Thunderbolt i/o devices.

Color Match

df_resolve11_2_smThe interface is divided into four modules: media, edit, color and deliver. All color correction occurs in the color module. Here you’ll find a wealth of grading tools, including camera raw settings, color wheels, primary sliders and more. Color Match is a new correction tool. If you included a color chart when you shot your footage, Resolve can use the image of that chart to set an automatic correction for the color balance of the scene.

Color Match features three template settings for charts, including X-Rite ColorChecker, Datacolor SpyderCheckr and DSC Labs OneShot. If you used one of these charts and it’s in your footage, then select the appropriate set of color swatches in the Color Match menu. Next, select the Color Chart grid from the viewer tools, which opens an overlay for that chart. Corner-pin the overlay so that the grid lines up over the color swatches in the image and hit the Match button. Resolve will instantly adjust its curves to correct the color balance of the shot, so that the chart in the image matches the template for that chart in Resolve. Now you can copy this grade and apply it to the rest of the shots within that same set-up.

Although this isn’t a one-shot fix, it’s intended to give you a good starting point for your grade. While this feature demos really well and is certainly a whizz-bang attention-getter, it has the most value for novice users or for DITs who need to get a quick grade for dailies while on location.

Editing

df_resolve11_3_smThe biggest spark of interest I’ve seen for Resolve 11 is due to the editing tools. As an NLE, it’s somewhat of a mash-up between Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Pro X. It copies a lot of X’s design aesthetic and even some features, like clip skimming in the media bins; yet, it is clearly track-based. For editors who like a lot of FCP X, but are put off by Apple’s trackless, magnetic timeline, Resolve 11 becomes a very tantalizing, cross-platform alternative.

Resolve 11’s edit module most closely aligns with Final Cut Pro 7, although there is no multi-cam feature, yet. The keyboard commands mirror the FCP 7 set, as do menu options and much of the working style. One big improvement is a very advanced trim mode, which offers good asymmetrical trimming. If you start a project from the beginning in Resolve 11, you can easily import media, organize clips into bins/folders, add logging information and, in general, do all of the nuts-and-bolts things you do in every editing application.

The interface uses a modal design and supports dual and single monitor configurations. Although there are numerous panels and windows that can be opened as needed, the general layout is fixed. Certain functions are restricted to the edit module and others to the color module. For example, transition effects, titles and generators would be added and adjusted in the edit module, while working with a standard timeline. Color correction and other image effects are reserved for the color module, which uses a node-based hierarchy. Resizing and repositioning can be done in either.

Resolve includes an inspector pane on the right side of the timeline viewer that is much like that of FCP X. Here you’ll find composite, transform, cropping, retiming and scaling controls. If you select a transition, then its adjustment controls appear in the inspector panel. Resolve supports the OpenFX video plug-in architecture. Third-party transitions will show up in the edit mode’s OpenFX library, while the filters only show up when you are in the color mode. Like FCP X, inspector controls are limited to sliders, color pickers and numerical entry, with no allowance for custom third-party plug-in interfaces.

My biggest beef is performance. Resolve 11 is optimized to pass the highest quality images through its pipeline, which seems to impede real-time playback, even with ungraded footage. In other NLEs, hitting play or the space bar brings you to full-speed, real-time playback in a fraction of a second. In Resolve it takes a few seconds, which is clearly evident in its dropped-frame indicator. Even with proper real-time playback, video motion does not look as smooth and fluid in the viewer as I would expect. There are a number of factors that affect this, including drive performance (high-performance storage is good), GPU performance (one or more high-end cards are desirable) and age of the machine (a new top-of-the-line system is ideal). Resolve is also not as gracious with a wide range of native media types as some of the other NLEs.

df_resolve11_4_smColor grades will affect performance. What if you start grading in the color mode and bounce back into the edit mode? This has the same impact on the computer as applying several filters in a traditional NLE. Add a stack of effects on most NLEs and playback performance through those clips is often terrible until you render. To mitigate this issue, Resolve includes smart caching, which is a similar sort of background render as that of FCP X. The software renders clips with a grade or an effect applied anytime the machine is idle.

Audio in Resolve 11 is still in the very early stages. There is no audio plug-in architecture. Hopefully Blackmagic will add AU and/or VST support down the road. Having multiple audio tracks also hurts system performance. Complex audio in the timeline quickly choked my system. Having even a few tracks caused the audio to drop out during playback. Resolve employs a similar track design to Adobe Premiere Pro. This means adaptive tracks, where a single timeline track can contain one mono channel, two stereo channels or multiple surround channels. This is an interesting design, but it seems to impact round-tripping between other applications. For example, I’ve exported multi-channel timelines via XML. In this process, when I brought that timeline into FCP 7 or Premiere Pro, these tracks only showed up as mono tracks with one channel of audio.

Roundtrips

df_resolve11_6_smWhere Resolve 11 really shines is in its roundtrip capabilities. It can take media and edit list formats from a range of systems, then let you process the media and finally output a new set of media files and corresponding lists. EDL, AAF, XML and FCPXML formats are supported, making Resolve 11 one of the better cross-application conversion tools. For instance, you can edit in FCP X, conform and grade in Resolve 11 and then output that in a compatible format to finish in the same or different NLE, such as Media Composer, Smoke, Premiere Pro, etc. Of course, with Resolve 11, you could simply finish in Resolve and output final deliverables from right within the application. That’s clearly the design goal Blackmagic had in mind.

Personally, I still prefer to use the roundtrip method, but there are a few wrinkles in this process. I have already mentioned audio issues. Another is resizing, such as FCP X’s “spatial conform” and Premiere Pro’s “scale to frame size”. These are automatic timeline functions to fit oversized images into smaller timeline frames, such as putting 4K media into a 1080 timeline. This feature automatically down-scales the source image so that either horizontal or vertical dimensions match. Unfortunately some of this information gets lost in the translation between applications.

df_resolve11_8_smI recently ran into this on two jobs with 4K RED media and Resolve 11. The first was a project cut in FCP X. The roundtrip went fine, but when the newly rendered 1080 media was back in FCP X, the application still thought it needed to enable spatial conform, which had been used in the offline edit. Disabling spatial conform caused FCP X to blow up the 1080 media 200%. The simple fix was just to leave spatial conform on and let FCP X render this media on export. There were no visible issues that I could detect.

The second was a music video project that the director had cut on Premiere Pro CC2014. There was extensive reframing and repositioning throughout. Importing this timeline into Resolve 11 was a complete disaster and would have meant rebuilding all of this work to reframe images. Ultimately I opted to use SpeedGrade CC2014 on this particular job, since it correctly translated the Premiere Pro timeline via Adobe’s Direct Link feature.

As a general rule, I would recommend that if you know you are going outside of the application, do not use any of these automatic resizing tools in the offline NLE. Instead, manually set the scale and position values, because Resolve does an excellent job of interpreting these parameters when set during the offline edit.

OpenFX

df_resolve11_5_smBlackmagic added the OpenFX architecture with Resolve 10, but now that Resolve 11 is out, new developers are joining the party. On my test system I installed both the FilmConvert 2.0 plug-in and the Boris Continuum Complete 9 package. The filters are accessed in the color modules and are applied to nodes, just like other grading functions. Although other host versions of the FilmConvert filter include color wheels within the filter’s control panel, they are excluded in the OpenFX version. You do get the camera and film emulsion presets. This is my favorite film emulation and grain plug-in and it makes a suitable complement to Resolve.

Boris FX’s BCC 9 for Resolve includes most of the same filters as for other hosts, including the new FX Browser. You can launch it from inside the Resolve interface, but when I tried to use it, the browser crashed the application. I’m running the public beta of 11.1, so that could be part of it. Otherwise, the filters themselves worked fine. So, if you need to add a glow, cartoon effect or spray paint noise to a shot, you can do so from inside Resolve with BCC 9.

OpenFX filters installed for other applications also show up in Resolve. I discovered this during my review of the HP Z1G2 workstation. Sony Vegas Pro 13 was installed, which also uses OpenFX. The NewBlueFX filters that were installed for Vegas also showed up in Resolve 11 on that machine.

A key point to remember it to apply OpenFX filters in a separate node. If you need to change the filter, simply delete the node and create a new one for a different filter. That way you won’t lose any of the correction applied to the clip.

Collaboration

df_resolve11_7_smResolve 11 enables collaboration among multiple users on the same project. This requires a paid version of Resolve 11 for each collaborator, a network and a shared DaVinci Resolve database. To test this feature, I enlisted the help of colorist and trainer Patrick Inhofer (Tao of Color, Mixing Light). Patrick set up a simple ethernet network between a Mac Pro and a MacBook Pro, each running a paid version of Resolve 11. You have to set up a shared project and open both Resolve seats in the collaboration mode. Once both systems are open with the same project, then it is possible to work interactively.

This is not like two or more Avid Media Composers running in a Unity-style sharing configuration. Rather, this approach is intended for an editor and a colorist to be able to simultaneously work on one timeline at the same time. One person is the “owner” of the project, while anyone else is a “collaborator”. In this model, the “owner” has control of the editing timeline and the “collaborator” is the colorist working in the color module. You could also have a third collaborator logging metadata for clips.

df_resolve11_9_smIn the collaboration mode, a bell-shaped alert icon is added to the lower left corner of the interface. Whenever the colorist adds or changes a correction on one or more clips and publishes his changes, the editor receives an alert to update the clips. When the update is made, the colorist’s changes become visible on the clips in the editor’s timeline. If the editor makes editorial changes to the timeline, such as trimming, adding or deleting clips, then he or she must save the project. Once saved, the colorist can reload the project to see these updates.

As long as you follow these procedures, things work well; however, in our tests, when we went the other direction, updates didn’t happen correctly. For example, color changes made by the editor or timeline edits made by the colorist, did not show up as expected on the other person’s system. Collaboration worked well, once we both got the hang of it, but the feature does feel like a 1.0 version. Updating changes worked, but you can also reject a change by choosing “revert”. This is supposed to take the clip back to the previous grade. Instead, it dropped the grade entirely and went back to an un-corrected version of the clip with all nodes removed.

DaVinci Resolve 11 is a powerful new version of this best-in-class color grading application. Although you might not edit a project from start-to-finish in Resolve, you certainly could. For now, Blackmagic Design is positioning Resolve as an NLE designed for finishing. Edit your creative cut in Media Composer, Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro – mix in Logic Pro X, Pro Tools or Audition – and then bring them all together in Resolve 11. As we all know, clients like to tweak the cut until the very end. Now the grading environment can enjoy more interactivity than ever before.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Gone Girl

df_gg_4David Fincher is back with another dark tale of modern life, Gone Girl – the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel. Flynn also penned the screenplay.  It is the story of Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) – writers who have been hit by the latest downturn in the economy and are living in America’s heartland. Except that Amy is now mysteriously missing under suspicious circumstances. The story is told from each of their subjective points of view. Nick’s angle is revealed through present events, while Amy’s story is told through her diary in a series of flashbacks. Through these we learn that theirs is less than the ideal marriage we see from the outside. But whose story tells the truth?

To pull the film together, Fincher turned to his trusted team of professionals including director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, editor Kirk Baxter and post production supervisor Peter Mavromates. Like Fincher’s previous films, Gone Girl has blazed new digital workflows and pushed new boundaries. It is the first major feature to use the RED EPIC Dragon camera, racking up 500 hours of raw footage. That’s the equivalent of 2,000,000 feet of 35mm film. Much of the post, including many of the visual effects, were handled in-house.

df_gg_1Kirk Baxter co-edited David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall – films that earned the duo two best editing Oscars. Gone Girl was a solo effort for Baxter, who had also cut the first two episodes of House of Cards for Fincher. This film now becomes the first major feature to have been edited using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Industry insiders consider this Adobe’s Cold Mountain moment. That refers to when Walter Murch used an early version of Apple Final Cut Pro to edit the film Cold Mountain, instantly raising the application’s awareness among the editing community as a viable tool for long-form post production. Now it’s Adobe’s turn.

In my conversation with Kirk Baxter, he revealed, “In between features, I edit commercials, like many other film editors. I had been cutting with Premiere Pro for about ten months before David invited me to edit Gone Girl. The production company made the decision to use Premiere Pro, because of its integration with After Effects, which was used extensively on the previous films. The Adobe suite works well for their goal to bring as much of the post in-house as possible. So, I was very comfortable with Premiere Pro when we started this film.”

It all starts with dailies

df_gg_3Tyler Nelson, assistant editor, explained the workflow, “The RED EPIC Dragon cameras shot 6K frames (6144 x 3072), but the shots were all framed for a 5K center extraction (5120 x 2133). This overshoot allowed reframing and stabilization. The .r3d files from the camera cards were ingested into a FotoKem nextLAB unit, which was used to transcode edit media, viewing dailies, archive the media to LTO data tape and transfer to shuttle drives. For offline editing, we created down-sampled ProRes 422 (LT) QuickTime media, sized at 2304 x 1152, which corresponded to the full 6K frame. The Premiere Pro sequences were set to 1920 x 800 for a 2.40:1 aspect. This size corresponded to the same 5K center extraction within the 6K camera files. By editing with the larger ProRes files inside of this timeline space, Kirk was only viewing the center extraction, but had the same relative overshoot area to enable easy repositioning in all four directions. In addition, we also uploaded dailies to the PIX system for everyone to review footage while on location. PIX also lets you include metadata for each shot, including lens choice and camera settings, such as color temperature and exposure index.”

Kirk Baxter has a very specific way that he likes to tackle dailies. He said, “I typically start in reverse order. David tends to hone in on the performance with each successive take until he feels he’s got it. He’s not like other directors that may ask for completely different deliveries from the actors with each take. With David, the last take might not be the best, but it’s the best starting point from which to judge the other takes. Once I go through a master shot, I’ll cut it up at the points where I feel the edits will be made. Then I’ll have the assistants repeat these edit points on all takes and string out the line readings back-to-back, so that the auditioning process is more accurate. David is very gifted at blocking and staging, so it’s rare that you don’t use an angle that was shot for a scene. I’ll then go through this sequence and lift my selected takes for each line reading up to a higher track on the timeline. My assistants take the selects and assemble a sequence of all the angles in scene order. Once it’s hyper-organized, I’ll send it to David via PIX and get his feedback. After that, I’ll cut the scene. David stays in close contact with me as he’s shooting. He wants to see a scene cut together before he strikes a set or releases an actor.”

Telling the story

df_gg_5The director’s cut is often where the story gets changed from what works on paper to what makes a better film. Baxter elaborated, “When David starts a film, the script has been thoroughly vetted, so typically there isn’t a lot of radical story re-arrangement in the cutting room. As editors, we got a lot of credit for the style of intercutting used in The Social Network, but truthfully that was largely in the script. The dialogue was tight and very integral to the flow, so we really couldn’t deviate a lot. I’ve always found the assembly the toughest part, due to the volume and the pressure of the ticking clock. Trying to stay on pace with the shoot involves some long days. The shooting schedule was 106 days and I had my first cut ready about two weeks after the production wrapped. A director gets around ten weeks for a director’s cut and with some directors, you are almost starting from scratch once the director arrives. With David, most of that ten week period involves adding finesse and polish, because we have done so much of the workload during the shoot.”

df_gg_9He continued, “The first act of Gone Girl uses a lot of flashbacks to tell Amy’s side of the story and with these, we deviated a touch from the script. We dropped a couple of scenes to help speed things along and reduced the back and forth of the two timelines by grouping flashbacks together, so that we didn’t keep interrupting the present day; but, it’s mostly executed as scripted. There was one scene towards the end that I didn’t feel was in the right place. I kept trying to move it, without success. I ended up taking another pass at the cut of the scene. Once we had the emotion right in the cut, the scene felt like it was in the right place, which is where it was written to be.”

“The hardest scenes to cut are the emotional scenes, because David simplifies the shooting. You can’t hide in dynamic motion. More complex scenes are actually easier to cut and certainly quite fun. About an hour into the film is the ‘cool girls’ scene, which rapidly answers lots of question marks that come before it. The scene runs about eight minutes long and is made up of about 200 set-ups. It’s a visual feast that should be hard to put together, but was actually dessert from start to finish, because David thought it through and supplied all the exact pieces to the puzzle.”

Music that builds tension

df_gg_6Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails fame are another set of Fincher regulars. Reznor and Ross have typically supplied Baxter with an album of preliminary themes scored with key scenes in mind. These are used in the edit and then later enhanced by the composers with the final score at the time of the mix. Baxter explained, “On Gone Girl we received their music a bit later than usual, because they were touring at the time. When it did arrive, though, it was fabulous. Trent and Atticus are very good at nailing the feeling of a film like this. You start with a piece of music that has a vibe of ‘this is a safe, loving neighborhood’ and throughout three minutes it sours to something darker, which really works.”

“The final mix is usually the first time I can relax. We mixed at Skywalker Sound and that was the first chance I really had to enjoy the film, because now I was seeing it with all the right sound design and music added. This allows me to get swallowed up in the story and see beyond my role.”

Visual effects

df_gg_7The key factor to using Premiere Pro CC was its integration with After Effects CC via Adobe’s Dynamic Link feature. Kirk Baxter explained how he uses this feature, “Gone Girl doesn’t seem like a heavy visual effects film, but there are quite a lot of invisible effects. First of all, I tend to do a lot of invisible split screens. In a two-shot, I’ll often use a different performance for each actor. Roughly one-third of the timeline contains such shots. About two-thirds of the timeline has been stabilized or reframed. Normally, this type of in-house effects work is handled by the assistants who are using After Effects. Those shots are replaced in my sequence with an After Effects composition. As they make changes, my timeline is updated.”

“There are other types of visual effects, as well. David will take exteriors and do sky replacements, add flares, signage, trees, snow, breath, etc. The shot of Amy sinking in the water, which has been used in the trailers, is an effects composite. That’s better than trying to do multiple takes with the real actress by drowning her in cold water. Her hair and the water elements were created by Digital Domain. This is also a story about the media frenzy that grows around the mystery, which meant a lot of TV and computer screen comps. That content is as critical in the timing of a scene as the actors who are interacting with it.”

Tyler Nelson added his take on this, “A total of four assistants worked with Kirk on these in-house effects. We were using the same ProRes editing files to create the composites. In order to keep the system performance high, we would render these composites for Kirk’s timeline, instead of using unrendered After Effects composites. Once a shot was finalized, then we would go back to the 6K .r3d files and create the final composite at full resolution. The beauty of doing this all internally is that you have a team of people who really care about the quality of the project as much as everyone else. Plus the entire process becomes that much more interactive. We pushed each other to make everything as good as it could possibly be.”

Optimization and finishing

df_gg_2A custom pipeline was established to make the process efficient. This was spearheaded by post production consultant Jeff Brue, CTO of Open Drives. The front end storage for all active editorial files was a 36TB RAID-protected storage network built with SSDs. A second RAID built with standard HDDs was used for the .r3d camera files and visual effects elements. The hardware included a mix of HP and Apple workstations running with NVIDIA K6000 or K5200 GPU cards. Use of the NVIDIA cards was critical to permit as much real-time performance as possible doing the edit. GPU performance was also a key factor in the de-Bayering of .r3d files, since the team didn’t use any of the RED Rocket accelerator cards in their pipeline. The Macs were primarily used for the offline edit, while the PCs tackled the visual effects and media processing tasks.

In order to keep the Premiere Pro projects manageable, the team broke down the film into eight reels with a separate project file per reel. Each project contained roughly 1,500 to 2,000 files. In addition to Dynamic Linking of After Effects compositions, most of the clips were multi-camera clips, as Fincher typically shoots scenes with two or more cameras for simultaneous coverage. This massive amount of media could have potentially been a huge stumbling block, but Brue worked closely with Adobe to optimize system performance over the life of the project. For example, project load times dropped from about six to eight minutes at the start down to 90 seconds at best towards the end.

The final conform and color grading was handled by Light Iron on their Quantel Pablo Rio system run by colorist Ian Vertovec. The Rio was also configured with NVIDIA Tesla cards to facilitate this 6K pipeline. Nelson explained, “In order to track everything I used a custom Filemaker Pro database as the codebook for the film. This contained all the attributes for each and every shot. By using an EDL in conjunction with the codebook, it was possible to access any shot from the server. Since we were doing a lot of the effects in-house, we essentially ‘pre-conformed’ the reels and then turned those elements over to Light Iron for the final conform. All shots were sent over as 6K DPX frames, which were cropped to 5K during the DI in the Pablo. We also handled the color management of the RED files. Production shot these with the camera color metadata set to RedColor3, RedGamma3 and an exposure index of 800. That’s what we offlined with. These were then switched to RedLogFilm gamma when the DPX files were rendered for Light Iron. If, during the grade, it was decided that one of the raw settings needed to be adjusted for a few shots, then we would change the color settings and re-render a new version for them.” The final mastering was in 4K for theatrical distribution.

df_gg_8As with his previous films, director David Fincher has not only told a great story in Gone Girl, but set new standards in digital post production workflows. Seeking to retain creative control without breaking the bank, Fincher has pushed to handle as many services in-house as possible. His team has made effective use of After Effects for some time now, but the new Creative Cloud tools with Premiere Pro CC as the hub, bring the power of this suite to the forefront. Fortunately, team Fincher has been very eager to work with Adobe on product advances, many of which are evident in the new application versions previewed by Adobe at IBC in Amsterdam. With a film as complex as Gone Girl, it’s clear that Adobe Premiere Pro CC is ready for the big leagues.

Kirk Baxter closed our conversation with these final thoughts about the experience. He said, “It was a joy from start to finish making this film with David. Both he and Cean [Chaffin, producer and David Fincher’s wife] create such a tight knit post production team that you fall into an illusion that you’re making the film for yourselves. It’s almost a sad day when it’s released and belongs to everyone else.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

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Needless to say, Gone Girl has received quite a lot of press. Here are just a few additional discussions of the workflow:

Adobe panel discussion with the post team

PostPerspective

FxGuide

HDVideoPro

IndieWire

IndieWire blog

ICG Magazine

RedUser

Tony Zhou’s Vimeo take on Fincher 

©2014 Oliver Peters