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.