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October 2014
Issue: August 1, 2006

INDEPENDENTS SAY: HEART-POUNDING EFFORTS

By: Ken McGorry

HOLLYWOOD — He's a bad guy. The hero of Crank, a new all-digital indie film from Lakeshore Entertainment, is a hit man named Chev who finds he's been hit himself — by a rival using an exotic neurotoxin that will stop his heart as soon as his heart rate calms down to a certain level. 

The plot involves Chev's heart-pounding efforts to find an antidote and get the guy who poisoned him (and also make up with his girlfriend). So the star, Jason Statham (Transporter), spends the duration of Crank exerting himself: running, fighting, driving things very fast, and getting into an altercation with his rival aboard a private helicopter whose pilot reacts by flying the thing up to an exceedingly high altitude. In one sequence Chev propels his huge, vintage '72 Buick into a mall and up an escalator. Co-director Mark Neveldine characterizes the movie's pace as "a bullet from a gun" — the story's four-hour span is told in 85 minutes.

From acquisition to post, the action never let up for DigitalFilm Tree either. "Crank is an extremely interesting project on both technical and artistic fronts," says Ramy Katrib, a founder of DFT and an executive producer on the film. As proof Katrib points to Statham's climactic fall — not on greenscreen, but on a cable dangling down to the real streets of LA. He also stresses that Crank joins the few and the brave this summer — like Superman Returns — that shot on HDCAM SR.

According to Travis Baumann, DFT's VFX super on Crank (who also served as compositor, designer and producer on the film), the directors shot the film in Sony's SR format using three Sony F-950 cameras. On many action shots the filmmakers also used a versatile Sony "T-cam," a light, maneuverable unit comprising an HD lens on a length of cable attached to the main body of the camera. Co-directors Neveldine and Brian Taylor shot much of Crank themselves — working alongside DP Adam Biddle. 

"The whole way the directors took on the filmmaking process was like nothing I've ever worked on," says Baumann, "and I've worked on quite a few features shot on film. Having the HD SR capabilities, you literally have the directors strapping the camera onto their back and putting on roller blades and being dragged behind a motorcycle; getting handheld [T-cam] action that you've never really seen before. That T-cam is so mobile relative to a film camera or even a 950, which is still a large-body camera." 

In contrast to an 8,000-foot-high copter sequence, where the directors were "hanging out" of the copter shooting the actors, the motorcycle sequence involves a dangerously intimate POV as the T-cam follows the action from a very low altitude.

SHUTTER SPEED ENHANCES INTENSITY

"Another thing that enhances the speed of the film," Baumann says, "is they cranked the shutter speed up to between 200 and 500." Well above a norm like 180, the accelerated shutter speed gives the action a "staccato" feel, Baumann says, that's free from the fluidity and motion blur of standard action shots. "You get a crisp, clean image of someone in motion." When Chev emerges from a swimming pool, water falls off him "like diamonds" rather than in smooth streams.

You see the individual droplets of water. "We had a large car detonation in one scene and you can actually see the pixels of dust in the air in the finished HD SR image," Baumann adds. "Glass shatters, you see every little cube of glass punch out of that window. It's perfect for the mood of this film, it really brings the intensity and the edginess to it. Baumann says the F-950 offers in-camera CCD effects like "detail crispening" and "edge crispening." 

Nick Theodorakis was vital as DIT (digital imaging tech), Baumann says, in handling all camera irising, exposure, CCD effects, setting shutter rates and actually rolling all tapes when it was time to record.

And there were a lot of tapes. Since the Crank shoot was HD SR rather than film, the directors "would shoot everything," Baumann says.  "They would have three, four cameras going at any moment."

CRANKING UP VFX

DFT did 110 VFX shots, with some overflow work going to Café FX and to Sub Par (a division of Lakeshore). DFT also created Maya CG shots depicting Chev's beating heart — shots which serve to alert the audience to his worsening condition. For the mall-escalator action sequence, DFT had a full-size prop escalator built on a greenscreen stage for later compositing.

While Autodesk's Combustion serves as the compositing "workhorse" at DigitalFilm Tree (www.digitalfilmtree.com), Baumann is adept at Flame compositing, too, and he used Flame V.9.55 on Linux for certain shots, particularly for realtime image warping in 3D. "It is awesome," he says, "I had realtime 2K playback; I had the ability to work even faster than the last Infernos I'd been on. The latest version of Flame is 64-bit — you can use eight Gigs of RAM simultaneously. It's the pinnacle of compositing." 

Combustion is a DFT favorite since it allows some warping and runs on high-end PCs. "It's the same color corrector, keyer, a lot of the tools straight out of the Flame, just at less high speed. It uses standard local storage. SATA II or FireWire 800 can be used."

That said, Baumann believes that today, forgetting speed for the moment, "there are tools in Combustion that exceed the Flame. It has a great paint program. You can work on really elaborate composites without having to pre-process anything. The open architecture allows you to pull in any QuickTime, any file format, Photoshop files in their layers, Illustrator files, [and] instantly make Flash graphics out of them."

THE DFT PIPELINE

DFT's Ramy Katrib, who served as executive producer on Crank, is the house Mac expert, while Baumann is the PC/Linux guru.

Baumann and Katrib swear by their ADIC StorNext software which resides on everyone's computers at DFT and allows VFX teams to work in any environment seamlessly and to see each other's files, be they PC, SGI, Linux or Mac, and work at two-Gig-per-second fiber speed without any file-transfer woes.

To post Crank, DFT rented an HDCAM SR deck and cloned all the tapes from editorial. Crank was cut on Avid's Nitris by Brian Berdan. Berdan's Nitris work, besides telling the basic story of Crank, also sets the mood with Avid effects that, in an earlier day, might be considered work for a visual effects house. The effects allow viewers to see the world through Chev's twisted POV, advancing the experience of his threatened death. The offline edit was translated to online at Laser Pacific, which conformed the film and handled various GenArts Sapphire effects and split-screen images.

DFT hooked up the HD SR output direct to the AJA Kona card, which captures HD SR (eight-bit, 4:2:2) in full 10-bit, 4:4:4 compression. Such compression is "almost imperceptible," Baumann says, "it has such detail in it you're not seeing pixels block up or giving you a huge difference between [it and] film."  

EDLs go direct into Final Cut Pro and the DFT team then captures direct off the HD SR tapes into 10-bit, 4:4:4 QuickTime. Those QTs can be directly accessed via codec in that format by all DFT software (except for Flame which requires DPX). VFX editing was done at DFT in Final Cut by Lakan de Leon.

"DigitalFilm Tree has always been big with Final Cut," says Katrib, "but our company has become a multi-platform utopia! The same way we have our Mac network on XSAN seamlessly sharing between artists, we developed a relationship with ADIC and implemented StorNext that allows, on the same fiber network, multiple platforms like PC, Linux and Mac."