By Ken McGorry
Issue: April 1, 2002

A hate crime and a labor of love

Most of the dialogue in The Laramie Project is drawn from transcriptions of actual statements made by the citizens of Laramie, WY. Their words were recorded back in 1998 and afterwards as they tried to come to grips with the most horrific murder anyone in their town could remember - the deadly beating of gay college student Matthew Shepard. The murder and its trial produced a media storm of network news and international media attention and Shepard's death became a crucible for plain folks who were forced to contemplate the meaning of anti-gay hate crimes.

The Laramie Project is HBO's based-on-fact film of the encounters between the small city's residents and a visiting troupe of actors trying to tape enough candid quotes and collect other information to create a play about the killing.

The mission of the producers, who include Ross Katz, was to bring a documentary style film of the actors' efforts to the TV screen. And also to the theater screen for its debut at Sundance last January.

The show became a monumental post production challenge, not just for editor Brian Kates but for the people at Sunset Digital ( Ron Burdett, head of the facility, goes so far as to say, "Laramie was the most difficult challenge ever faced at Sunset."

The show had already been offlined when HBO gave the go-ahead to reversion it as 35mm film. One problem was Laramie was already made to be a TV show - DP Terry Stacey had even shot the 35mm footage in 4-by-3 for TV consumption. Another was that this verite-style work was born of a melange of formats, including most known video formats. Kates, an Avid whiz, had worked hard with director Moises Kaufman, a first-time film director who is also the writer and director for the real theater company, to get the most out of the Avid. Kates enhanced the material's dramatic tension by using subtle push-ins and pans across the actors' faces as they deliver their transcribed words. He also created "TV news style" montages of unsubtle TV coverage of Shepard's murderers' trial. It's almost Kates's homage to the digitally corny style of "grabby" news reporting - the swooping, intruding screens of reporters' faces trying to over-dramatize a situation that was already beyond conventional drama. Some of the news footage was original and some was re-created to look like TV news reports. At one point it all coalesces into a quad split.

During the murder trials, there were non-violent demonstrations on behalf of Matthew Shepard.

The problem was, you can do that in the Avid; you can't do that in film. Ninety-minute Laramie, with its 1,100 scenes, has about 400 scenes with either highly subtle or dramatic Avid moves (and dramatic color shifts) - more than 10 times what you'd take to an optical house to make a "film out" movie.

Laramie was to be all things to all distribution formats - 4-by-3 for SDTV showing on HBO; 16-by-9 for special high def simulcasts; and 1:85 film out for Sundance.

Hence the decision to try Sunset's digital intermediate process. The way to approach this was two-fold. First they had to ask the producers the unthinkable ("Can we have your original camera negative?") for a second go-round of telecine using Sunset's C-Reality operated by Craig Budrick. Then the film could take on a new life as a 24p digital master that could then benefit from Sunset's da Vinci 2K color corrector and the further subtleties of the Discreet Flame and Avid eight-bit DS.

Secondly, Kates had to pray that his Avid standard def OMF file of complex EDLs and effects would run smoothly through Sunset's HD online bay where Mike Kaidbey mans the Snell & Wilcox HD switcher.

"When we were editing on the Avid [offline, in NYC], we gave ourselves free reign to be as creative as we wanted to be," says Kates. "Moises and I fell in love with the idea of just a little bit of movement to indicate a fluid transition. We used lots of repositions, blow-ups, digital zooms and re-frames, as well as some radical color changes. Most of these things you can do in a conventional optical house, but they'd be difficult to create, and the sheer number of them made it almost impossible to go that route."

Another big challenge was a unified aspect ratio for the show's various output formats. "You're really juggling three different sizes," Kates says. "With 16-by-9, when you're doing re-sizes between two different sizes, you have to see what you're going to get before the thing is filmed out because there are too many places where you can make a mistake."

To take 4-by-3 video images into the digital world, Budrick performed tilt and scan, "kind of the opposite of pan and scan," Kates says.

Since the production company had never intended to do a digital intermediate master of this film, it had ended as a straight negative cut, "so we didn't create our video dailies in HD, we created standard Beta SP video dailies," says Kates. "We had to re-transfer all the footage used in the film to 24p HD."

With new HD masters, Kates and company began to online "almost exactly like a video online, only in 24p." A lot of this was "automatic" because Kates's Avid EDLs successfully translated into the HD online.

Kates did get less subtle when he represented the news media's invasion with many news-style quick cuts and a news logo esthetic. That," he says, " was made infinitely easier by doing a digital intermediate."

"We had a wonderful online editor in Michael Kaidbey," Kates adds. "It's mind blowing. It would be really hard to go back to a conventional negative cut after this."

Now that Sunset has proven that they can do it, Burdett can look back and smile, calling their digital intermediate process "the buzz du jour" in Hollywood. "At Sunset, we're the conversion experts - we know how to take anything and hand you film, video or data."