AE/ DIT

I moderated a discussion between Assistant Editors and Digital Image Technicians recently for the Post New York Alliance.

You can hear it on the podcast here (Episode 1): https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/post-new-york-alliance-podcast/id898485210

A lot of interesting things came out of this discussion, and it certainly highlighted the need for both roles to reach out to each other during pre-production and early set up.

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Are you media binging?


Bring On  The Binge.

The New York times and other outlets have been publicizing the recent Netflix release of House Of Cards, and talking about the related phenomenon of Media Binging- the unrestrained devouring of a few seasons worth of Breaking Bad, Walking Dead and other hit series in one sitting.

This got us to thinking- Is Media Binging real? Is It a problem?

To most people, media binging brings to mind a self-destructive and unrestrained content consumption bout lasting for at least a couple of days during which time the heavily involved watcher “drops out” by not working, ignoring responsibilities, squandering money, and engaging in other harmful behaviors such as fighting for the remote or watching Teen Mom marathons.

These may be the telltale signs that you have a Media Binging problem. Have you ever:

  • watched more than three episodes in one sitting?
  • felt guilty about how much content you’re consuming?
  • lied about having watched Jersey Shore?
  • found that your content consumption just creeps up on you- starts with an episode of House, and then leads to an all out rewatching of the entire four seasons of The Wire?
  • woken up in the middle of the night, in someone else’s apartment, and you don’t know what episode you’re up to?

Do you:

  • watch alone?
  • let responsibilities slide, like paying your bills or bathing?
  • stay up late to watch ‘one more episode’, while your partner has gone to bed?
  • watch an episode while it’s still downloading?
  • watch second screen material while watching the main series on the TV?
  • find that watching whole genres of content at one time has affected your work, or relationships?
  • find that you’re starting to talk to people with an accent like the Dowager Countess, or in street slang like Jessie Pinkman?

Has your media consuption ever led to:

  • people close to you becoming concerned about your Winterfell fan fiction?
  • live tweeting while watching a series?
  • review TV shows for the Huffington Post?
  • tweet spoilers without the requisit SPOILER ALERT notice?
  • want to re-watch LOST again, to get the magic back?

Increasing public information and awareness regarding the risks of media binging, conducting interviews of young people suspected of harmful media consumption patterns during DVD boxed set sales and trying to persuade them to accept individual counseling in media addiction counseling services are effective strategies for reducing the harm of media binging.

 

New Camera Test

Colour chartBack home in New York this week, where I went to a camera test seminar downtown, comparing most of the new generation of digital cameras and DSLRs side by side, also throwing two 35mm film stocks in there as well.

What was interesting was that the company doing the tests was a camera rental company, who actually stated up front that they were ‘only concerned with image quality, and wouldn’t be covering workflow’ in the discussion.

But if you’re comparing, say, Sony’s new F3 camera against a Red One against an ARRI Alexa against 35mm, all with different colour spaces, gamma curves, processing options, compression and dynamic ranges, that can be manipulated via various metadata and after-the-shoot control options, all with a very real effect on the image, then the workflow is absolutely a determinant of the image quality. 

To put these images side by side with no discussion of, or even interest in discussing, the workflow used to get to these images is missing the point a bit. And anyone who tells you differently is probably just trying to sell you something.

Database as Film Deliverable?

How long will it be before studios start requiring a database as a deliverable item?

Stanley Kolowski's funhouse.

With digital acquisition comes an increased stream of data- not only picture and sound data but metadata from every device and department. This is significant within a production, but increasingly studios and networks need access to this metadata as well, to sort through the volume of material afterward that they get delivered, for legal, compliance, promotional and other internal purposes. As one studio VFX guy said to me the day before a huge 160 day digital shoot was about to kick off, “Are you ready to drink from the firehose?” The data stream is huge, persistent and keeps on a-comin’.

We’re also seeing each of the studios and networks building in various ways their own asset management/ digital rights management systems at various levels. There is an acknowledgement now of a lifecycle of data that exists within any one production, across multiple productions, and then is needed after production to sell, market, distribute and archive the films for future sales cycles.

Remember, organising the data manually into hierarchies is so 1999- there’s no longer any way of getting an intern to sit down and file this type of data into an asset management-like hierarchical system and expect to keep up. There’s so much data that the poor intern could go her whole life and not catch up with the data coming in every day, let alone historical data that was there before she started. It’s more about preparing this data to be fed out to a few different systems, so that data can be formatted in ways suitable for the end use. The studio exec will be pulling the data available on the studio system into a local, department specific application, which formats in relevant ways.

Looking forward, it’s obvious that some kind of database/ xml stream will be put onto the contract deliverables list to producers, alongside the physical and Ip deliverables required, which will post the data and metadata onto a studio  system. The studio system will be able to track data from it’s inception on set right through ideally to point of sale over IP, delivering into someone’s house from a shopping cart.

The studio system would not just be one huge, honking software program, but a platform of related software products that are all open and interoperable, and created for the studio to develop it’s own digital strategies under. The advantage this has for a studio is huge- with everything speeding up, becoming more fluidly digital, there is a need for systems not people, to track this data, and the requirement will come from the studio to production to supply this in pre-formatted ways. And once this is a studio requirement, it’ll be very quickly commercialised as a service first of all, then as a commodity adjunct to the existing gear hire and workflow requirements of production to their vendors. And it will be smart vendor companies that will develop turnkey products in this domain, to enable the formatting of individual, gear-specific formats into a standard data stream, ready to import onto the studio data and asset management system.

Like cities giving access to bus and train timetables creates a whole slew of apps for the consumer to navigate their city, once this kind of data is available to studio personnel, there’s no telling what new applications they will need to navigate this ocean of data. All I know is that there are huge opportunities for the right companies and partners to help them deal with this new problem, one piece of the puzzle at a time.

Tentpole Cameras and Commodity Culture

This article first appeared in IF Magazine Australia, 2009

As filmmakers, we are living in an unprecedented time of change.

That’s how these articles always start out. The article that tells you that everything you knew about the business and artistry of making films has changed forever because a single new camera, a new device or a new way of working is sweeping all before it. The article might claim a new dawn of ‘democratised’ filmmaking, as though filmmaking had stood still for 80 years. But it’s never been about one particular camera, device, or editing platform, and like every overnight sensation, this ‘sudden’ change has been building for at least the last ten years.

There are two powerful forces, that together, are changing the ways films are made. On the one hand the economics of technology places enormous pressure on manufacturers to get specialist and costly technology commoditised and quickly into the hands of consumers (think advanced visual effects software and powerful computing). On the other mass-market consumer technologies are increasingly used by professional filmmakers to increase production flexibility, and to reduce cost (think Final Cut Pro, and small, light digital cameras).

The thing that’s happening now in filmmaking, and that is most relevant to Australian filmmakers, is that the processes and technologies that are used to make huge international blockbusters are becoming so cheap, that in a matter of six months to a year they become available to just about everyone. The rapid commoditisation of these advanced systems make it almost impossible for any facility to complete by simply providing access to the systems and technology alone anymore.

Take digital shooting- it was eight years between 2002’s Attack Of The Clones, shot on the now ubiquitous F900, and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, shot on a pro-sumer Sony EX3 and widely released with all the production values that you’d expect on a much larger, more expensive film. Sony had taken eight years to put what they’d learned in developing a high-end, $USD100,000 camera, into a lower end, sub-$USD10,000 full 1080p camera. Sony had realised a while ago that the research they’d done would only pay off over time if it enabled them to sell even more moderately priced, mass produced cameras to a professional or enthusiast consumer market. So the commodification of the high end film technology enabled them to fund their high end R&D, shift more units, and for more people to have access to this technology to make their films. And with the now usual software and firmware updates, as well as kit being designed for retrofitted upgrades to optimise and improve the product in small increments over time, these cameras become a very solid investment for people to take their creativity into their own hands.

Another example: I was the post production supervisor on Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, for Walden Media in the later half of 2009. Walden had developed the workflow to take advantage of many of these bleeding edge technologies into a very powerful file-based workflow. Based on their workflow plans, I built a mini-facility on the lot from the ground up in an empty production office, with the help of a talented engineer, Chad Andrews from Sixteen19. The build specified five Avids, a full Nucoda digital colour grading suite, and a Codex digital recorder console that we would receive the hard disks from set into. Over an ethernet connection we could tap in to the Codex disc recorder onset, which was recording everything from the camera down to a removable disc, and the DP Dante Spinotti could walk across the car park and see the last shot of the day at full resolution in a grading suite if he wanted to check anything, some two minutes after he had left the sound stage. We were dropping graded dailies to Los Angeles within 5 hours of wrap- every day. With the dateline putting LA 10 hours behind the Gold Coast, the Executives for Walden and Fox would wake up in the morning and see that day’s dailies. As the Head Of Dailies for Fox said, it was like we were in ‘Some kind of crazy time machine!’.

Codex Onboard

But aside from geeking out, the real advantage to all of this was the speed with which the crew were able to respond to what was shooting that day. The editorial team, located in the post area, could be cutting directly behind the shoot, then send temp edits back to set to show what was working, what wasn’t, then do something about it on set on the same day. This speed gave the shoot a really responsive quality of constant feedback and monitoring that no one had really experienced before.

This is the most important and practical advantage, and one that is rarely discussed. Digital technology  provides the ability to really respond to what’s going on, on the ground, immediately. This technology supports the collaborative process, it gives the director maximum flexibility in telling their story, while allowing greatly enhanced communication with an often remote production office and editorial rooms.

“But that’s a $100mil+ film!”, I hear you yelling.

On Dawn Treader we used a bit of kit called the Codex Lab. It interfaces with almost any digital camera, records the camera raw files and can spit out a full range digital file format with full meta-data as well as do all the file format conversions necessary for editorial and VFX. This was an expensive and complex bit of kit- at the time a full investment would near $AUD100,000+.

But again the economics of technology are such that big profits are really only made by manufacturers when they can ‘design once, and sell many’. Technology is a volume business and manufacturers make profits only if they can reduce cost of components, and sell to a mass-market.  In a way it’s the profit pressure to get the technology into the hands of consumers that really drives innovation. And this is what has happened to the Codex Lab.  A year after shooting on Dawn Treader wrapped, the Codex Lab, which was encased in a full road case, has just been released in a much smaller hardware and software model called the Codex Transfer Station and can plug into and run on almost any Mac- for a fraction of the cost. It has most of the features of the larger version we used on the Narnia film, and would do everything that an Australian indie film needs for feature production but will fit into a Crumpler laptop bag. This brings the speed and efficiencies of a huge Hollywood film to bear on much smaller, tighter productions.

Combine this with the ability now to have these devices automate a lot of processes, so that as soon as you plug your camera drive into your desktop caddy, the device automatically pulls the data off the drive and makes your editorial and creative review files based on a pre-defined, automated workflow. It will start to build an archive of your filmed master material, can put it up on an online asset management system, the possibilities are endless, and the process actually becomes easier and easier to manage.

It means for indie filmmaking in particular, which is always done on a tightrope, that instead of getting into the edit weeks after shoot and realising that you have to do pickups or reshoots, for example, but don’t have the time, the sets, the money, the cast, or the nervous energy anymore to return to shoot, you would have been told as you were shooting that something is not going to work, and you could make plans to fix it then and there onset, when you’re there. This alone would obviously benefit the time-strapped indie director or producer immensely.

There will be some in the industry, with huge investments in legacy gear, that will feel threatened by these changes. These businesses will need to adapt and transition to the new environment if they are to remain viable. They will need to shift focus onto commodity computing and automated workflows on one hand, and talent retention on the other. It’ll be a fine line to tread, and the traditional Big Lab will increasingly be under pressure from a multitude of smaller operators with lower overheads working directly for productions.

Ultimately I believe that these changes will most benefit filmmakers themselves. It will give filmmakers more creative choice, faster turn-around, higher-quality outputs all at significantly reduced cost. And you don’t need to be Gareth Edwards, who admittedly did work in London as a VFX operator for years before making Monsters. You just need to do what filmmakers have always done- find and develop a relationship with the people with skills like Gareth Edwards. And there are hundreds of them in Australia alone, just waiting for their chance to shine. This makes it an interesting time as well for VFX and post production operators, those at the coalface, on the machines, who can leave dark rooms, blinking into the light, and join production teams as consultants with valuable skills now relevant directly to any production.

 But despite all this talk of technology, I won’t be the first or the last to say that filmmaking at it’s very heart is about trying to tell stories to an audience that wants to be moved, to be excited, to be titillated and challenged. Your audience want stories that are so relevant to them and their lives within a culture, that they’ll pay twelve bucks to go see them, to be able to re-tell the stories they’ve seen to their friends and work colleagues on a Monday morning. That hasn’t changed at all. The barriers to entry are lowering, the technology is available, but still the most important story is the one you’re going to tell your audience.

 Some references:

Ex3 Camera:

Codex Disc recorder:

Rise Of The Workflow Producer

This article was first published in Inside Film Magazine, Australia- (http://if.com.au/), 2011

 

We landed through Heathrow Thursday, and spent the Royal Wedding Weekend in an Ealing Studios rehearsal room, booting up gear, pulling cables, software updating, and going over the last minute things we needed to buy the next day to set up. The keys to the cutting room came late, and we had a full day’s and night installation to get done to make it to pre-shoot day. Besides, we’d promised the editor it’d be up and running Monday. Our trucks arrived with two burly South African removalists, and two on-loan runners from Technicolor turned up with a trolley. Soho is no joke with the skinny stairwell, and we had to disassemble our server half way up just to get it up and around a corner. We’d moved in on that first day with two mac towers, two avids, a server, and we had a 50 day shoot starting the next day. This is how films are now made.

Earlier this year at the Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat in Palm Springs, a getaway conference for film technologists and the post community in LA, the shift was palpable. In the wide selection of speakers and panelists, everyone was talking about their own, special, bespoke, unique, ‘snowflake’ workflows and practices for digital shooting- no two workflows are the same. The proliferation of digital formats, of commodity computers running mass-market software and yet another generation of digital cameras coming through the ranks have split at the seams the 100 year traditions of filmmaking, and people are finding all sorts of innovative ways of working that embrace both ‘film discipline’ and the responsiveness, flexibility and innovation of digital capture.

Locally, we hired a colour scientist who was able to handle all of the colour management for the Alexa camera through a £600 plugin for shake on his Mac tower. He had worked at a larger VFX house for a few years, but prefers freelancing now and is in demand by smaller workflow companies such as ours, who hire him by the week. We worked with 4KLondon, the Digital Image Technician agency, who were able to match us up with an excellent freelance guy who was our eyes and ears on set, who chased the director of photography around with his cart, showing him his beautifully shot images in realtime on a calibrated monitor, and determined the colour balance that the DP wanted. And we set up ourselves, to pull this all together, to create the dailies and most importantly, the data archive of the digital negative, the primary asset of the production.

The standardisation of 35mm and 16mm for shooting and printing formats in the early 20th Century was a boon to the business of distributing films. It meant leaving behind many formats (9.5mm! 26mm Freise- Green! Dufay Colour!), but gave an economy of scale for the business. Digital shooting has been a wild west for a little while now, with every camera manufacturer working in a slightly different colour space, resolution and proprietary format. This year at HPA the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences introduced to the world their IIF- ACES colour workflow for digital cameras, which allows manufacturers to still maximise the depth and precision of their images and sensors, but provides clear pathways for the careful handling of those images in post production. IIF-ACES is an excellent attempt to at once institute a standard of colour management and reproduction for digital cameras, and at the same time still allow individual camera companies to push the boundaries of what their camera can do.

The customisation of the camera and it’s images within the boundaries set out by the standard still gives an enormous range of creativity and technical calibration for the technician and artist. And as the talent that used to be locked up in VFX and Post houses becomes freelance, smaller, more lightweight ‘insurgent’ teams area assembling all over the place to get films made. If I worked in a lab, I would say I was worried.

After 10 weeks, we’ll move to New Mexico. Well, I say move: The dailies team will stay here on the 3rd floor in Berwick Street, a block up from the markets. An operator that we know in LA will go across to New Mexico, where we’ve booked a high speed uplink, and will upload the ARRI RAW files directly to the dailies & cutting room in London after shoot every day.This bandwidth is getting cheaper all the time, and satellite can be booked like you’d order a book from Amazon, and is certainly much cheaper than sending the data across state lines to a lab in California, or flying the dailies team into New Mexico. After they’ve shot for a week, action will resume in London. We’ll be all done and gone in 11 weeks, and moved onto the next job, in another location, with another format, another workflow and different problems to solve.

With so many different formats and options, how does one production actually ever get started? There’s no one industry standard workflow anymore. HPA was abuzz with talk of how this works, and a new position that is gaining precedence: the Workflow Supervisor. This is the person who would be able to deal with all of the technical and creative issues when deciding to shoot digitally. They would liaise between the DP, the editor, producer and director, and would have to support each position with specific knowledge, and a very strong communicated idea of the way everything fits together. It’s a strange mix of networking IT, Avid support, cinematography, VFX and production skills embodied in one person, and these people do exist. They would not only take a film right through from the camera tests to the finished Digital Cinema masters technically, but also be able to assemble small and medium sized teams where ever they are, to get the job done. Some of these people are still directing a facility to the proper workflow, but more and more the workflow supervisor is responsible for setting up and managing the workflow from conception to build to execution.

Naturally there are only a few of these people at the moment, who can just pop up a shop, work together for a short amount of time, and then disband and go do something else, but it’s the same as people who crew on set in shooting production have been doing most of their careers, working in groups that assemble just for the film at hand. Now that digital pipelines have freed the brave to venture out from beyond a facility’s walls, they can see that their skills and experience are very valuable and can slot in to a production.

And leading this whole team, putting it together, planning the pipeline, executing and getting the film started and then maintained, is the Workflow Supervisor. If you’re planning a digital shoot, and you haven’t talked to anyone yet who can perform this role for you, you’re nowhere near ready to dive into the shoot. They will not only save you money and time, but they’ll get your film made while they are doing it.

Next month it’s Pittsburg, and then a film in Vancouver. The summer may be a surfing film in Northern California, but by November it’s definitely Alaska for the teen comedy. It’s a way of working that has been known in the film industry, but not by the technology people on the back end. The mobile sector is a small but rapidly growing sector of the film industry with a few companies jockeying for position and market share. With contraction evident everywhere else in the big-ticket end of film technology, a light-weight, scalable, movable and robust service that will be whereever the film is, that works directly with the filmmakers, without expensive premises or million dollar kit, has got to be a way forward.

– See more at: http://www.sixteen19.com/blog-entry/rise-workflow-producer#sthash.gexmjDvt.dpuf

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.