"No one has done eleven-and-a-half weeks of post with a digital intermediate and 700 visual effects shots, ever!" declares Pat Sandston confidently. What he really means is until now. Sandston is the enthusiastically animated associate producer in charge of post production for Jerry Bruckheimer's production company JBFilms (www.jbfilms.com). His two high-profile summer movies, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Bad Boys II, are forging a new post pipeline both out of necessity and the desire to get closer sooner to the finished picture. By taking full advantage of both JVC's D-VHS format and digital intermediate technology, Sandston and JBFilms are making better pictures faster and cheaper.
Pirates of the Caribbean used JVC's digital dailies system to streamline a demanding post process. ILM handled visual effects, including skeletons that come to life.
Sandston, who has been running post for Jerry Bruckheimer since 1995's Crimson Tide, is a veteran of 18 feature films. He reports that the post on Pirates is the tightest he's ever done. "We did [1998's] Armageddon in 16 weeks. We had 585 visual effects. We worked around the clock. That was a legendary post." But Pirates, which stars Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush, had 115 more visual effects to produce and a month less time.
Sandston made a key decision to bypass film or even SD dailies and instead transfer all film negative to high definition D-VHS dailies using JVC's password-protected Pro-HD system.
"The Pro-HD D-VHS system," says Larry Librach, JVC's assistant VP of business development for broadcast and entertainment, "is intended to be a mass market consumer technology that we have adapted to have a broad range of professional applications."
MGM, Warner Bros. and Universal are in the process of assessing and integrating the D-VHS systems into their post production and screening pipeline, and post facilities FotoKem, Crest National and LaserPacific are already providing Pro-HD D-VHS services to their clients. Sandston was introduced to the technology through David Leener, a colleague at JBFilms, and immediately jumped on it for post.
On set (L-R) are Johnny Depp, director Gore Verbinski and Geoffrey Rush.
So let's get the big questions out of the way. How is it that a $950 retooled VHS deck can display four hours of HD 1080i? Part of the answer is in the word "display."
"The expensive HD cameras are a frame-bound DV architecture," says Librach. "The D-VHS machine however uses a bit-stream technology to record and play back an MPEG-2 encoded file at 25Mb per second."
Okay, but Librach says "record." So why can't this format be used for production instead of the $64,000-plus HDCAM?
"Because to encode MPEG-2 you need a $40,000 MPEG-2 encoder," says Librach. "This format does not have timecode; it does not have a 4:2:2 interface. This is a technology that is affordable for display, not production." (But that's just for now. Earlier this year, JVC released a Pro-HD MPEG-2 camcorder, the JY-HD10U, that sells for around $3,800. They are currently evaluating the market for a more advanced three-chip camera.)
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN
Sandston worked with JVC and Hollywood post facility LaserPacific (www.laserpacific.com) to design a dailies system to meet Pirates' creative needs and deadline. "Most of the interest in this process grows out of time pressures and cost pressures on how to do previews economically, but we have found that the real interest now comes from the creative filmmaker's ability to use this process to create a much more polished preview," says Leon Silverman, senior VP at LaserPacific. He says his facility has worked on nearly 20 feature films in the past 18 months, providing custom solutions to companies using digital dailies and previews by providing HD telecine transfer, D-VHS and DVD dailies, digital intermediates, and HD and SD projection systems.
Much of Pirates' action takes place at night. DP Dariusz Wolski collaborated with LaserPacific on the look he wanted to achieve through color correction.
On Pirates LaserPacific transferred the camera negative to HD D-5 and digitized that to Avid Meridian media. Those files were loaded on to FireWire drives, sent to JBFilms and put on Sandston's Avid systems. This gave Pirates editors Craig Wood, Stephen Rivkin and Arthur Schmidt a much better image to edit with than if it had come off of Beta SP or even Digi Beta dailies.
That quality enabled them to screen early cuts right off the Avid. "We took the projector [D-ILA G150CL] from JVC and ran the output of the Avid through it and did screenings for ourselves. Then in our screening room we did two tests for a small audience - there were so many visual effects you couldn't show it to a large audience until they were done.
"What it did was allow us to do this 11-week post," Sandston emphasizes. "I could never have pulled off the preview, filled all the visual effects and had a screening if we were on film because I could never get everything out to 2K fast enough."
In one case, reports Silverman, it was 5pm the day before a preview. One of the effects shots, from the primary effects house on the film, Industrial Light & Magic, hadn't been updated. ILM sent the shot via a fiber connection to LaserPacific where it was quickly cut into the picture.
On Armageddon, Sandston says, there were five Avid editors cutting the picture digitally and 24 assistant editors working concurrently in film, constantly chasing the digital edit, making prints and getting ready for previews. On Pirates he had three Avid editors and just two assistant editors working in film. "This way I've got a smaller but much more focused group. If you go up to the editing suites for Bad Boys II (which did go digital IP, but stayed with film dailies) there's 900,000 feet of film on the floor, on the Pirates side there's 10,000 feet of film." Bottom line is that Sandston saved a lot of money on Pirates and that money went back into visual effects and the shooting.
All of Pirates' dailies were viewed in HD, either on monitors or JVC's D-ILA HD projectors.
Sandston made the decision to go digital intermediate on Pirates of the Caribbean and Bad Boys II. However, in both cases the choice was based more on creative vision than time pressure. Technique (Technicolor) is making the digital intermediate for Pirates and Company 3 is doing Bad Boys II.
Bad Boys II director Michael Bay and DP Amir Mokri couldn't get the look they wanted to achieve unless they were using a digital intermediate. The same thing is true with Pirates, relates Sandston.
For example, according to Sandston, Pirates director Gore Verbinski wanted to achieve a look that would have been very hard to get optically at the lab. "We have a curse in the movie that's driven by the moonlight. We had to draw two distinct looks: the moonlight at night and nighttime without the moon. It's a very integral part of the story. It's something where we wanted to pull red and blue out of the negative. You couldn't do that at the lab."
Sandston continues, "We went to LaserPacific with the director of photography Dariusz Wolski and we spent three weeks before shooting just setting looks that we wanted them to apply when they transferred the negative to D-5 HD."
Each day Wolski would shoot a Polaroid on the set and send it down to LaserPacific to set the look for the transfer. So color correction was done at the transfer point from negative to dailies. This got them closer to the final look of the film during principal photography.
THE BENEFITS OF DIGITAL
JVC equipped all the decision makers in the post production process with Pro-HD D-VHS players, HD monitors and D-ILA HD projectors. So everyone was looking at Pirates' HD dailies and previews either on HD monitors or projected in HD. "Jerry, when he was looking at the dailies, saw them D-VHS. I would watch dailies on the HD monitor in my office," says Sandston. "Even Michael Eisner saw previews in HD."
He says the publicity junket for Pirates is on HD. On Bad Boys II and Pirates he reports they're building all the marketing trailers, all the international teasers, all the TV spots off the digital intermediate file.
"What it does," continues Sandston, "is give us a consistent look from the campaign, which starts from your first TV spots, all the way to the release print. That's another big benefit of staying in this digital world. You do have one consistent look that you are delivering to your audience."
They also need to deliver the DVD version of each movie a couple weeks after they wrap. "The whole new strategy of DVD with all the studios is a window as early as three or four months after release, and the digital intermediate is another way to be ready for that," he explains.
At the time of this interview, Sandston was preparing for the Pirates premiere at Disneyland. He was faced with getting a bright image onto an 80-foot screen on Tom Sawyer's Island with 185-foot throw over the lagoon. Fifteen hundred seats were to be in front of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. "If I tried to put 35mm film through a projector it would melt. If I made a 70mm print I couldn't get enough light through it. So I'm going to take two HD projectors, sync 'em up, and run it off of a [QuVis] QuBit system from the digital intermediate.
"Is it the death of film? I don't think so. I still think that film is a great base medium to shoot all your stuff on and archive all your materials. You come out with a beautiful image. But we are definitely headed to d-cinema."
Ultimately, he says, he will be working in that 2K space from dailies, through editing, right up to the point of final print to film or transcode to QuBit. "And that's a lot for technology to do for you," he says wryly.
In the immediate future, Sandston is going to deploy this technology into the post cycle on the six television shows he's in charge of posting, including the hit CSI. "Jerry is very supportive of new technology and pushing the edge. So when he looks at the final version of CSI every week we should show it to him on D-VHS."
And for his next films he's setting up projectors in the Avid bays. "I'm putting one in Antoine Fuqua's room for King Arthur and Jon Turteltaub's room for National Treasure." He adds that the technology is "cheap efficient and you can see sooner what the theatrical experience will be like."