Going Onset

This article first appeared in IF Magazine, 2009.

 With the portability of gear to be deployed onset, I think that some are losing sight of the overall goals of each stage of the filmmaking process, and are possibly creating more chaos than necessary. Despite recent hype from some players, it is far better to make a distinction in our minds of where best each operation should take place, to hit the goals of the overall production.

What processes are best to come onset to help make the shoot more efficient, and what processes are best kept nearset, just next door even, but away from the intensity and pace of a busy shoot?

not your grandma's grading
 The film set is a chaotic place, of course. Money being spent at a rapid rate, measured in the thousands of dollars per minute. Directors are trying to get their shots and keep the actors focused. Producers are trying to keep the shoot rate up and the daily schedule shot. Everybody else is trying to do their jobs and not get in the way.

Into this, because of digital technology, we’re not throwing all sorts of processes that used to occur back in the facility. Colour grading. Encoding of dailies. QC. VFX plate approval.

While it makes perfect sense that digital shooting has untethered a lot of these processes and brought them closer to the shoot, it doesn’t mean that these things should be occurring directly onset.

Colour grading for a start. The time it takes to hand back proper, decently graded, consistent dailies to an editorial department is very different to the shooting schedule of a camera department onset- these two things by themselves move at very different rhythms. A dailies grade should give a consistent look for the scenes, as negotiated between the creative team, camera department and dailies colourist. Too often grading onset chases it’s own tail, has a camera department experimenting with ‘looks’ that need to be re-graded anyway back at the nearset, and fails to achieve it’s goal- consistency of colour for an editorial department to start cutting.

And the worst-case scenario is that a DP looking at a graded signal on set isn’t quite aware that lifting a light a further 10% and seeing that light change represented through a particular grade on his onset grader’s monitor doesn’t represent the exposure of the shot actually being recorded by the camera sensor.

This disconnect can lead to the camera department unknowingly seeing a graded image that seems correctly exposed, but leaving a huge headache for a DI unit down the process. Things move so fast on set that the margin of error for a colourist to try and impress a DP with a look, but conceal exposure problems in the captured ‘raw’ image is considerably increased. I’m am not theorising here- this is happening on digital shoots as colour grading comes onset, and is a real issue.

Also when you put into the equation the colour management issue, it’ll soon render the grading onset to be a moot point- is the grader using REC709 so that the grade is meaningful for the dailies, but not representing the entire range of the camera sensor, or is the grader using P3/ XYZ, meaning someone will have to grade a REC709 version for dailies down the track anyway? What is the purpose of all of this time and money being spent onset? A CDL is not a LUT, not now, not ever.

Far better to give a DP a set of emulation LUTs, simulating known negative and print stock combinations, let them use the light meter as they would on a traditional shoot to guide them, and then communicate with the dailies colourist near set. Setting your colour management in pre-production and calibrating the camera department to this management will save a lot of costly, valuable time onset, and make the nearset dailies process much more efficient. Far more than putting even the most powerful grading desk onset ever will.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the dailies process isn’t just about grading or making H264’s for someone’s iPad or iPhone. The main purpose of the dailies process is to set together all of the picture, sound and now considerable metadata elements from the chaotic shoot environment, and organise them for the filmmaking process going forward. This process at best takes into account the multiple deliverable elements and colourspaces that will necessarily need to be addresses in the filmmaking process, from executive dailies to VFX plate delivery to DI, and gets everything ready from the film shoot, for the much longer post production process ahead.

If dailies gets completely sucked into the chaotic, onset environment, this process of organisation can be compromised, making the rest of the filmmaking process considerably more chaotic and hellish. We’ve all worked on a film that hasn’t quite been organised that well, and know the pain that it can lead to down the track, pain that only compounds and multiplies the longer you leave it to organise these issues.

A well established nearset team, calibrated to work directly behind the shoot whenever the onset team can deliver, located as close as possible to the set, can still be delivering material out to everyone within hours of raw material being received. Let’s not forget this process used to take 12-15 hours only two years ago, and a good nearset team should be able to nail it in a third of that time.

Establish a good nearset team close by, communicate well with them, and the whole process can enjoy the benefits of digital shooting, without the counterproductive crowding-out of a set that seems to be happening at the moment.