Shine A Light

 

Once again the Rolling Stones rock the house. First in Berlin to open the 58th Berlin International Film Festival and now around the country. I’m not talking about stadiums, but rather Martin Scorsese’s new concert film Shine A Light. Scorsese was instrumental in inventing the rock ‘n roll concert film genre as an editor on Woodstock and the director of The Last Waltz. Now he continues his passion for the art form by teaming up with none other than Mick and Keith to bring you up close and personal with the world’s greatest rock ‘n roll band.

 

This isn’t your average production. Scorsese pulled together an Oscar-winning crew, headed up by cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator, JFK). Cameras were manned by a crew that included John Toll (The Last Samurai, Braveheart), Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong), Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, The Painted Veil), Robert Elswit (Magnolia, Good Night and Good Luck), Emmanuel Lubezki (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sleepy Hollow) and Ellen Kuras (Summer of Sam, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Live recording was handled by Grammy-nominated recording engineer Bob Clearmountain. Rounding out this ensemble was editor David Tedeschi, who most recently had worked with Scorsese on the acclaimed Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.

 

I caught up with David Tedeschi as he was wrapping up the bonus features for the Shine A Light DVD. Tedeschi is a New York-based editor who mainly works on feature films, documentaries and music projects. He first hooked up with Scorsese on The Blues, which was being posted at the same time as Scorsese was working on The Aviator. Something must have worked, because Tedeschi was tapped to cut No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and now Shine A Light. David filled me in on Scorsese’s approach to this production. “Marty didn’t want to film a Rolling Stones concert in a huge arena. There have been many Rolling Stones concert films – mostly in stadiums and large venues. He wanted a smaller, more intimate stage and that’s where the idea to film in the Beacon Theater in New York was conceived. This gave Marty a chance to show these guys for who they are – and lend an immediacy to the performances. It’s really a very positive and exciting film about how these four guys go out and make music. They are the real deal, with Mick singing and moving around on the stage like a 20-year-old – and Keith, Ronnie and Charlie going out there every night with great passion. That really comes across in Shine A Light.”

 

“Marty has a very clear vision of what he wants as a director. He’s a great film historian and is inspired by a lot of films, but at the same time he always wants to do something fresh. Marty decided that adding the element of comedy would give a concert film something different – another way to see rock ‘n roll. The behind-the-scenes footage and the archival clips are often funny.” Some of that can be seen in the Shine A Light trailer, as Scorsese’s reactions are juxtaposed with comments from Jagger and others for a very humorous result.

 

18 Cameras – No Waiting

 

Shine A Light was filmed in a smaller theater over two performance nights. Given the resolution of modern HD cameras, you would think this would have been a natural application for the Sony CineAlta models, as Robert Altman had done on A Prairie Home Companion. Instead, Scorsese and Richardson opted to stick with film. In fact, seventeen 35mm cameras rolled along with one Panavision Genesis during both nights. More than 100,000 feet of film ran through the gates – as much as a typical dramatic production, shot over several weeks and months.

 

The edited film is about two hours long, based largely on the running length of the songs in the concert. Tedeschi explained, “Getting to the two hour length was an intuitive process. We had planned to lose one song, since the entire performance would otherwise be too long. That was easy, but then it turned out that we actually had to lose two songs, which was a tough decision. At least people will get to see them in the DVD extras.”

 

David continued, “They had actually scheduled four days of rehearsals for the cameras, but in the end, the first night really ended up being like a dress rehearsal. The second night was a much better performance, so 98% of the cut comes from that second night.” I know from experience that no matter how many cameras you have, you still run into situations where you want another angle. David laughed, “Yes, I ran into that, too, but the truth is that Bob Richardson is a bold, dynamic cinematographer. The footage was beautifully lit and working with this team of such great talent was a pleasure, because they delivered superb footage. They did have a modified zone coverage plan for the cameras and Marty was in radio contact with them, of course. But he had such faith in them that he was able to trust their instincts and let them explore, as well. As a result, the performances and the shots they were able to get were more spontaneous than just a series of planned camera moves. In fact, there was a Plan B involving a back-up shoot. The concern was that we might need to shoot some extra angles, such as really tight shots of the Stones, because there weren’t any ‘in your face’ handheld cameras on the stage during the actual performances. In the end, everyone was happy with the material we were able to capture and there was no need to use Plan B.”

 

The Basement

 

Post production followed a rather unique path thanks to Scorsese’s frequent visual effects collaborator, Rob Legato (The Aviator, The Departed). Together with producer Ron Ames, Legato is a proponent of many desktop tools and operates a small visual effects facility out of his house, known as The Basement. Legato explained their approach, “Sparkle, Bob Richardson’s preferred colorist at Complete Post, transferred all the film dailies to HDCAM-SR tape in the 10-bit RGB 4:4:4 mode, which becomes the equivalent of a digital negative. He also provided SD dailies for David to capture into the Avid. During the course of the editing, we would take David’s Avid sequence and boil down the nearly 300 source tapes into only two main source tapes. These were basically clones of the originals, so there was no quality loss in this step.”

 

The Basement’s editor, Adam Gertel, used an Apple Final Cut Pro workstation and a Sony HDCAM-SR deck to do this. Their Mac is configured with a high-speed Ciprico MediaVault RAID and a Blackmagic Design Multibridge Extreme capture/output unit – ideal for handling the data throughput and preserve the color integrity of the 10-bit 4:4:4 media. The key to this method was to create new Avid-compatible logs so that it was easy to locate any shot on the new tapes, as well as find additional shots on the original transfer masters, if needed.

 

Legato continued, “Once the film was consolidated onto two tapes, it was easier to reconform the film in Final Cut as David and Marty made additional changes to the cut. Our final color correction was done on a daVinci. Since the source was tape and not media files on a hard drive, any last minute updates could be made in Final Cut, output to HDCAM-SR and then color-corrected on the daVinci in real-time. Although the HDCAM-SR format is only high definition (1920 x 1080) and not a true 2K film file, it’s still more than acceptable for a film-out. The format is still wider than the actual 1828 pixel width of a release print.” The Basement also handled about 80 shots that required some repair or treatment and called upon their Adobe toolkit (After Effects, Photoshop and Illustrator) to create effects and titles for the film.

 

Completing the Cut

 

Tedeschi did all his cutting on an Avid Media Composer Adrenaline HD system connected to Avid Lanshare shared storage. David explained the rationale to cut in standard definition, “I had to use the multicam feature all along the way and that simply works best on Adrenaline when you stay in standard definition. I needed the responsiveness for Marty and by staying in standard def we were able to see nine camera angles at any given time playing back in real-time. We did our screenings in high definition, though, using Avid’s DNxHD 175 resolution. We would do these screenings at least once a month – and sometimes once a week. The image looked wonderful.” The edit lasted ten to twelve months, but in spite of the time, David tells me there were no surprises. “Every decision was incremental. The band also believed in Marty’s vision, although they had their own insights into the material. We flew to Italy with Bob Clearmountain to screen it for the Stones while they were on tour. The screening was at Technicolor’s screening room in Rome and luckily it was a great sounding room!”

 

Music, of course, is the most important element to the film and this required plenty of interaction between the mix and the image. Tedeschi pointed out that, “As we made picture changes, it would impact the mix. Generally, Marty would try to accentuate an instrument in the mix if it was featured in a shot, so Bob Clearmountain ended up doing a number of remixes to adjust to our various versions. It’s a great track and all of the concert sound in the film comes from the live recording. In order to get the truest reaction during our screenings, we would present the film in 5.1 surround. I was lucky to have Nick Damiano as my first assistant. He used to work at Sony Studios in New York and knows the audio world extremely well, so he was able to help communicate with Clearmountain, as well as prepare the Avid timeline for our 5.1 screenings. Nick was especially helpful in the tricky sound transitions between the documentary sections and the concert.”

 

Shine A Light is being released by Paramount Classics as well as by Imax, however music films aren’t off the table for either David Tedeschi or Martin Scorsese. Even as the Rolling Stones echo in the background, both move on to their newest project together, a documentary about George Harrison.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

The Aviator Triumphs with Desktop Technology

VFX on The Aviator

At the beginning of last year, I was wrapping up the commercial cut on some Mississippi economic development spots, when the director, Ron Ames, pulled out his PowerBook to show me some pre-visualization shots for a little movie called The Aviator. There I saw a QuickTime movie of what has become the XF-11 crash sequence used in the film. It was an interesting break in an otherwise typical commercial edit session and I didn’t think too much more about it. Fast-forward a year. Martin Scorsese has released his film about the early Howard Hughes. When I saw it in the theaters, right away I recognized the finished version of the scene I was shown a year before. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Ron get a nice credit as Visual Effects Producer. As it turns out, The Aviator effects team made extensive use of desktop tools, which gave me a good opportunity to speak with Ron about some of the technology they employed.

 

In spite of the high profile and reasonably large budget of The Aviator Martin Scorsese creates his films and builds his team much like any other independent filmmaker. There is a small cohesive team of professionals, which pull off the filmmaking. For the record, Ron Ames was the Visual Effects Producer and VFX First Assistant Director, working in tandem with Rob Legato (Visual Effects Supervisor / Second Unit Director). Together, they helmed the team responsible for producing 405 effects shots, as well as hundreds of second unit shots (inserts of dials, controls, hands doing things and so on). In addition, the film was posted using digital intermediate technology with an unusual approach to color-grading. Scorsese wanted to achieve the look of two-strip and three-strip Technicolor films typical of the 1920’s and 1930’s for many of the scenes. The responsibility for developing this look also fell to Legato’s unit, in addition to the actual effects shots. The Aviator isn’t really viewed as an effects film, but 405 shots is a comparable number to films that are considered to be special effects intensive. This seemed all the more impressive after Ron told me that their total effects budget was only $8 million. This may sound like a lot of money, but it’s truly miniscule when you compare that to other film budgets.

 

Off-the-shelf Hardware and Software

 

Howard Hughes was a man who used the cutting edge technology of his day to achieve his vision and much of the film is about that, so it was only fitting that Scorsese’s effects team used today’s cutting edge technology to produce this film. Ames and Legato put together a small in-house unit of effects designers working with a combination of off-the-shelf technology. This included Mac and PC workstations and a small render farm. According to Ron, “We are pretty open to all the tools and used what was appropriate for the task. This included both Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Xpress DV, but the real ‘Rosetta stone’ for us was Adobe After Effects. Everything went through that at some point. Our render farm was a pretty small affair – about 11 processors. Towards the end, when we were in a crunch mode – if you walked in with a computer, it was usually put to work [laugh].”

 

Ron explained that the effects load was divided up among several companies. Sony Imageworks and CafeFX handled most of the heavy CGI shots, like the Hell’s Angels (Hughes’ first film, a WWI epic) aerial combat scenes. “The rest we did ourselves with the help of a handful of smaller vendors.” Since Rob Legato is also a cinematographer, the effects unit tried to create as many in-camera, “practical” effects as possible. There was extensive use of models and miniatures, such as in the XF-11 crash scene and the Hercules flying boat finale. The glue that held all of this in-house work together was their off-the-shelf IT infrastructure and a 1.3 TB Medea VideoRaid RTRX storage array. According to Ames, “ We had the SCSI version of the Medea arrays and everything we did went through these drives. They were working flawlessly on a 24/7 basis. Next time we’ll probably take a look at their Fibre Channel versions, particularly the recently released VideoRaid FCR2 or FCR2X arrays; but the SCSI arrays worked great for our needs, including real-time playback of HD dailies.”

 

High Definition Screenings

 

The use of HD played a key role in the post of The Aviator. All the film footage was scanned at 2K resolution and delivered as Cineon files. The effects elements were composited and then rendered from 2K to HD-resolution QuickTime movies using After Effects.  These files were then dropped into Final Cut for assembly and playback. Although Legato’s effects team was in Los Angeles, Martin Scorsese was cutting the film in New York with his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. She prefers to cut on a Lightworks system, so I was curious what the workflow was for editing the effects. “It was really pretty impressive,” Ron explained. “We got all the vendors to provide us temp composites in a two-week period for each of the effects shots. This gave Thelma something to place into the rough cut for Marty’s initial screenings, so that everyone had a good idea how the scenes would play out.”

 

When it came time to really screen the film with more completed effects, Legato and Ames flew to New York and spent a week reviewing and tweaking shots. “We took all the shots with us on numerous FireWire drives, including the Medea G-RAID 500GB drives. In New York we took an EDL from Lightworks and conformed the movie in Final Cut on a G5 installed in the screening room. This system used a Pinnacle CineWave card connected to an HD projector. As we screened the movie, we would address any changes in the effects, since the drives we had brought also included the elements to make up the shots. Some of these changes could be done in New York and others were changed in Los Angeles. So during that five-day period, we would get daily deliveries of FireWire drives. At the same time, both of our laptops were rendering away back in the hotel room. Then we would drop the fixed or replacement shots into the timeline for immediate feedback. During these screenings we were also able to show Marty how the color-grading was going to look by using After Effects and Final Cut. In essence, we were able to make ‘live’ changes for him and immediately see the results in full HD resolution.”

 

After Effects as the Key to the Technicolor Look

 

When it was time for initial audience screenings of the film, the 2K files were rendered to a Qubit playback server at HD resolution. These audiences viewed an HD projection, which Ron told me looked amazingly close to the quality of the 2K files. A lot of press has already been given to the two-strip and three-strip color-grading techniques. This was a look worked out between Rob Legato and Bob Richardson (the director of photography). Legato created LUTs (look-up tables) in After Effects which were then used by Stephen Nakamura, the colorist at Technicolor Digital Intermediates, to create the final look of the film. Most people think of the “Technicolor look” as vibrant, saturated colors, which is actually the look of the three-strip process. Technicolor achieved this using three black-and-white films, which – through optical filtering – created a composite color image, not unlike how RGB components of an electronic picture create a single full-color image. The earlier two-strip techniques used two black-and-white elements instead of three. This reproduced flesh tones reasonably well, but not items like green grass. That look is quite a bit harder to achieve electronically and it is here that the combination of work done in After Effects and color-timing paid off, essentially requiring two color-correction passes. This technique is quite obvious in the film’s golf course scenes, when Howard Hughes meets Katherine Hepburn. A more detailed behind-the-scenes look at creating these and other effects can be found online at www.aviatorvfx.com.

 

Desktop Tools Aid in Fast Turnaround

 

Another way in which desktop tools impacted the film was the creation of a new scene intended to show the attention Hughes was getting from early Hollywood. This bridge scene between two portions of the film wasn’t in the original script and, therefore not shot, so the effects team was tasked to come up with a solution. In a three-day period, this scene was shot, edited and cut into the film. Moviegoers will recognize this as the montage of newspapers and other shots about Hughes. Several of the effects team members, including the effects editor, cut versions of this using Avid Xpress DV and Apple Final Cut Pro, which were reviewed by Scorsese and Schoonmaker. In the end, a modified combination of several of their ideas ended up as part of the final scene.

 

Ron Ames summed it up this way, “The Aviator is a film that’s as much about the technology as the man. Without the technology of today, a film like this couldn’t have been made for the budget we had and still deliver the emotional impact we wanted. Processes like the color-grading came about because that was an emotional tie-in to Marty’s youth. It’s how he remembered seeing those films when he went to the movies as a kid. After seeing the result of Rob’s efforts, he was tickled that it looked just the way he remembered it. We wouldn’t have been able to do this just a few years ago, because the lab processes are long gone and the electronic tools didn’t exist. We were also happy that our indie-film mentality worked out well. The workstations, the render farm, the Medea RTRX and G-RAID drives – they all played a part. They cranked around the clock for about a year and a half and performed flawlessly. Today everyone can get access to the tools, but it’s how you use them to tell the story that counts.”

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)