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August 2014
Issue: September 1, 2006

HD FOR TELEVISION

By: Christine Bunish
The big news about HD [finishing] for primetime dramas is that it's not news anymore," says Blake McCormick, COO for television services at Ascent Media Creative Services Group. "I worked on the studio side for Warner Bros. Television when the transition to HD started, and it was frustrating to hear post folks say, 'You can't do that in HD.' We had moved backwards in terms of the tools that were available to us. But things have normalized, and the HD workflow is fully baked. The process is mature and back to what we were accustomed to. If a show is finished in SD today, that's the anomaly."

The vast majority of projects McCormick sees at the Ascent facilities that service television (Level 3 Post, Encore Hollywood, Riot) are acquired on film. "Film is still the ultimate HD format," he notes. "But digital acquisition has and will continue to improve and can offer cost and workflow advantages that film may be hard pressed to meet."

With increased shooting for TV on all types of video formats, McCormick finds that "staffing facilities, figuring out the required resources — the labor and equipment" — can be a daily challenge. "Six years ago we might have had a one-hour drama shot on 4-perf Super 35mm with one hour of SD dailies to tape every day. Now a show may shoot with [Panavision] Genesis as their primary cameras with additional cameras shooting either 3-perf and 4-perf Super 35mm and, just for kicks, a prosumer HDV camera shooting playback. A stunt may be recorded on a Photo-Sonics camera to hard drive. All this material crosses the threshold of the post facility, and it's our job to have it come out the next morning, ready for the post process on the same schedule as that one format/one hour of dailies project from six years ago. Everyone's workload has changed to accommodate that."

STUDIO 60

Ascent's Burbank-based Level 3 Post (www.level3post.com) will be following the model set by the pilot for Warner Bros.'s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip when Aaron Sorkin's and Thomas Schlamme's new one-hour series, a behind-the-scenes look at a late-night sketch comedy show, debuts on NBC.

"Ninety-nine percent of our primetime work is HD, so we've got the workflow down," says online editor Heydar Adel. "If something was not in HD it would be abnormal. We'd have to scramble!"

For the pilot of Studio 60, dual-standard transfers were performed by colorist George Manno primarily. He transferred the Kodak 7218 S16mm stock on Cintel C-Reality with da Vinci 2K to Panasonic D5, Digital Betacam and DVCAM, the latter 16x9 letterbox with key logs for editors' cassettes. The series will switch to Kodak 5218 35mm stock for acquisition.

"I am very fortunate to be working with DP Thomas Del Ruth, an Emmy winner for The West Wing, on Studio 60," says Manno. "The people on Studio 60 are pretty much the whole West Wing team, and we did The West Wing for the entire run of the show, so the process we're following is pretty standardized except for establishing a new look for Studio 60. They still like high contrast, very rich colors, but the behind-the-scenes action looks very dramatic and kind of shadowy. And there's a lot of video playback on the set."

Manno's not kidding. "We have 110 TV monitors in and around the sets," reports Warner Bros. producer Patrick Ward, who runs the post production department for Studio 60. "Depending on the production and our scheduling needs, a lot of material may not be ready to play back on the screens when we shoot. So our VFX supervisor Armen Kavorkian and Level 3 help us out with playback insertion."

Ward notes that Studio 60 has purchased and kitted out for its needs "one of the most sophisticated video trucks utilized in television." Attached to its main stage at Warner Bros, the truck permits a four-camera live video feed while the show is shooting on film, thus enabling the playback. For the pilot, Adel used Autodesk Inferno and Avid DS Nitris to insert some playback elements in post; he expects to do far more such work when the series rolls out.

Adel built the pilot in DS Nitris from the HD master based on the editors' cuts. "We use Nitris for six or seven shows," he says. "The offline editors can get creative with their internal Avid effects and Nitris can recreate them quickly for the conform." After Adel did the final conform for the pilot, Manno performed the final color correction and then the show returned to Adel for a dirt pass in DS Nitris. Deliverables for the series will include a 1080i HDCAM SR master for NBC.

Ascent's McCormick notes that post houses also have to "be prepared for alternate distribution channels like iPod and networks' broadband Websites. "You create a beautiful 1080 24p picture and somebody will say, 'Now can you make it MPEG-2?'"

On the horizon is potential HD DVD and BluRay DVD dailies delivery, although McCormick speculates that high-resolution DVD formats may be leapfrogged by digital distribution. "File-based movement of material will be an important step forward, starting with dailies and then meeting future distribution requirements out of an asset management system — encoding once and creating whatever additional formats you need. With concerns about security — some studios have already clamped down on the distribution of dailies on DVD — digital distribution would deliver both security and immediacy."

LINCOLN HEIGHTS

Although this drama about a cop's family living in an urban American neighborhood won't debut on cable's ABC Family until January, Burbank-based Matchframe Video (www.matchframevideo.com) is over the half-way mark in posting the initial order of 13 episodes of Lincoln Heights.

"Almost everything on the networks is going to HD post, and now we're starting to see cable and satellite TV programming switching to HD post production as well," says Matchframe Video's VP of sales, Larry Mazzeo. "They're doing it for archiving and for foreign markets: an HD master is the best you can get. You can make any kind of deliverable from it."

Matchframe Video transfers the show's 35mm dailies to HDCAM SR, an increasingly popular mastering medium, and to Avid Media Station XL hard drives for the editors. "More requests for HDCAM SR are coming from producers these days," Mazzeo reports. "It's a bit less compressed than D5 and offers more audio channels.

"Our Spirit telecine with Aaton-based keylink represents a lot of our own RandD," he adds. "Going out to the Media Station XL is still hard for some facilities. It's not as common as you might think. We've spent a lot of time with Avid and our engineering staff to make sure the process is seamless."

After the editors cut an episode at the Lincoln Heights production offices, Matchframe Video assembles the master from the HDCAM SR tapes using Avid Symphony Nitris. "We offer several HD finishing solutions: Smoke HD, an HD linear bay, DS Nitris, Symphony Nitris and Final Cut HD," Mazzeo points out. Symphony Nitris was selected for Lincoln Heights because "once the editors give us their sequences and list in Avid, it translates 100 percent straight across."

Tape-to-tape color correction is performed with da Vinci 2K Plus. "The video color corrected master is textless, so we then go back and drop in the titles and credits for the texted master," says Mazzeo. "The producers mix while we're finishing, then we make the deliverables. It's a normal workflow."

The key to making that workflow successful is that "when you do the dailies transfer, you have to make sure all the technical information is correct so when the editors get it and when it comes back to us everything plays together well," Mazzeo says.

BROTHERS AND SISTERS, SIX DEGREES, HEROES

"We haven't done a non-HD finish for a couple of years except for an occasional project," reports Greg Ciaccio, VP of post production operations at Technicolor Content Services (www. technicolor.com). "We haven't had any SD-only bays for the last three years."

Technicolor has built up an enviable roster of one-hour dramas finishing in HD. The list includes the hit Lost, the returning Crossing Jordan, and the new series Brothers and Sisters, Six Degrees and Heroes.

For the new fall season Technicolor has also established custom post solutions for longtime clients Boston Legal on ABC and CSI: Miami on CBS. "They shoot on 35mm at Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach, and they used to have to pick up multiple reels of dailies per day, which meant a lot of trips, a lot of delays," Ciaccio recalls. "We've extended our private Technicolor Production Network [TPN] out to Disney and Raleigh, with other studios to follow. Once we're done with a reel of telecine we fiber the DVD image and cutting dailies back to Raleigh via TPN. They put the material on a drive and start cutting it or burn a DVD. It dramatically shortens the process."

Another step in the workflow that speeds the post process is that "Avid EDLs are sent to us as soon as the editors are close to a locked cut," says Ciaccio. "We start digitizing the footage, and the minute they're locked we just do a quick change list. This makes the assemblies, on Avid DS or Symphony Nitris, go very quickly."

A further bonus is that "virtually all the Avid effects are translated naturally to DS or Symphony Nitris so there's no need for an extra effects session," Ciaccio notes.

BONES

The Fox forensic mystery hit Bones begins its second season following essentially the same HD post process established last year. Bones is shot primarily on 35mm 3-perf or 4-perf, telecined to D5 on a Grass Valley Spirit DataCine at Level 3 Post, cut at 20th Century Fox by three editors and two assistants, posted at Level 3 and mixed at Sony Sound Studios. Look FX crafts the extensive VFX including the hologram-like Angelators, 3D reconstructions of the victims whose remains have been found.

"The mandate now is for all companies to post in HD," says associate producer David Jeffery, who started posting shows in HD about four years ago. "We finish Bones in D5 for fewer compression issues and a better picture. Fox requires 720 HD 16x9 and Digi Beta 4x3 delivery dubs."

Jeffery reports that everyone is "very happy with the way the show is working this year. We get outstanding dailies from dailies colorist Rick Smith at Level 3 Post, and senior colorist Tony Smith at Riot gives us a very rich look working closely with our new DP Gordon Lonsdale."

The editors at Fox, who cut on Avid Media Composer Meridiens supplied by New Edit and linked by Unity shared storage, are charged with "balancing the show's quirky humor, drama and sci/tech aspect," Jeffery notes. They also face challenges on two other levels. "It's an effects show, and we have to allow time for processing notes and refining the effects," he points out. "We try to keep things as structured as possible but sometimes go down to the wire to get the best possible effects. Bones is also a forensics show, so details are important. We do a lot of inserts and graphics to help tell the stories."

This season Bones will have an uncompressed DS Nitris assembly at Level 3 Post. But the series is posted using various platforms. "We used Symphony HD a couple of times last year at Keep Me Posted," Jeffery recalls. "It depends what the show brings us each week, although normally we depend on the Nitris for most of our assemblies."

Last season's two finale shows were assembled using DNxHD. "We had heard different things from people in town about DNx, that we'd notice a loss of resolution depending on the compression introduced, that there would be generational loss," reports Jeffery. "Several reality shows have used DNx, but I believe we were the first one-hour drama series to try it. The studio encouraged us and said if we felt the image quality suffered at any step in the process we could re-online and perform any part of the post process over again in order to make air. Please bear in mind we had very short turnaround times for these last two shows, often under a week, so time was critical.

"First-season DP Denny Hall, the engineers and QC technicians felt the DNx process didn't noticeably hamper the image quality," he continues. "With all these approvals, I felt confident that the image quality would hold up on air."

The producers were "very impressed" by DNx, and Jeffery says second-season DP Lonsdale "will look at the possibility of using the technology again. One of the key benefits of DNx is that it is possible for a facility to digitize and store a great amount of footage without spending a significant amount of money on the purchase of additional drives. In other words, multiple shows could be stored on a system at one time, which is important for a facility during a busy television season. Moreover, it is conceivable that a few years down the road, one-hour drama shows could be performing HD assemblies in-house using this technology."

HBO

The majority of series on HBO are now mastered and posted in HD, reports Bruce Richmond, senior VP of HBO Entertainment Productions. With HD post production, "the ability to service ancillary deliverables is extremely robust," he notes. "And the color correction tools, whether the da Vinci or [Autodesk] Lustre, offer much more control.

"HD post has become pretty routine for us," he observes. "We've been doing it for so long that we've developed quite an understanding of it. We started with Band of Brothers, way back when HD post was much harder."

HBO has also been increasing its HD acquisition. "We've done our largest amount of HD capture this year," Richmond says. "We try to match the capture medium — film or digital — with the visual tone of the piece."

The cablenet's hit series The Sopranos, Deadwood and Big Love are still shot on S35mm, although they are finished in HD. Entourage is shot on 35m, but its current third season is its first with an HD finish.
Lucky Louie, which debuted this summer, was shot with Sony's HDW-F900 HD camera. 

"Lucky Louie is a multicamera sitcom taped before a live audience. The nature of the show is ideal for taking advantage of the benefits of digital cameras and their accompanying workflow," says Gena Desclos, VP of post production at HBO Entertainment Productions. "The show is posted as we would any other show: downconvert to SD for the Avid offline, match the EDL back to the HDCAM dailies masters for the online and create a 1080i HDCAM SR for final delivery."

The second season of Rome is in production now at Cinecitta in its namesake city. The series is still being shot on S35mm but its post process has changed from its first season. 

"Last year the [Avid] editors were based in Rome," Desclos notes. "By taking advantage of some advanced technologies we're now able to have the editors here in LA while the producers remain in Rome. It wasn't easy to get editors to commit to spending a year in Rome away from their families, and it was expensive. So we came up with a solution to edit and look at cuts in realtime on two different sides of the ocean."

Now editors in Rome digitize and sync dailies as they normally would but in this process they then use Digital Rapids to encrypt and securely transfer OMF files via Sohonet directly to LA where the dailies are waiting for the Avid editors the next morning. 

"With the time difference working in our favor, they can send encrypted files to us from Rome overnight. We receive them the first thing the next morning as we would if the show was shooting locally," says Desclos. "We transfer the metadata of the cut back to Rome via the same path. We also use Sony's IPELA [videoconferencing system] to play down live video over IP for realtime, fullscreen collaborative viewing simultaneously in Rome and LA. Both sites see and hear each other via iChat or telephone. So far it's working really well although it takes some adjustment not having the producers and editors in the same room — other than on the video monitors."

For security, the series' D5 masters are stored in Rome until the show wraps production. Then the D5 masters and the film will be shipped separately to LA where Encore Hollywood will handle the online and Technicolor will handle the color correction; Sony Sound will mix. VFX are being created in HD resolution by a London-based team at The Senate.

Richmond is looking forward to an eventual tapeless workflow. "The next generation of capture devices will prove to be very exciting. Their portability, bigger chip sizes and increased exposure latitude will be compelling reasons to use them. And computers are continually increasing their power for lower-cost post."

SHOWTIME

At Showtime Networks (www.showtime.net), "we basically shoot everything we produce in-house on HD now," says Mike Rauch, executive VP, motion picture production. "The Brotherhood, The L Word, the second season of Sleeper Cell and our new series Dexter and The Tudors are shooting with Panavision HD cameras. Weeds is also shot by Lions Gate on HD. It doesn't make sense not to shoot HD for a series."

Sleeper Cell shoots its surveillance sequences on SD, which is bumped up to HD and cut into the show. "It was an intentional choice to shoot it SD instead of degrading HD footage," notes Sleeper Cell associate producer and post production consultant Chad Tomasoski. "The result helps sell that it's low-resolution surveillance footage."

Rauch recalls that "it was much more challenging to get the production area on board with HD" than post. "We really had to twist the arms of some producers and DPs; we set up screenings, we took them to Panavision. It's tough to get people to change what they're used to doing." On the other hand, "post production embraced HD quickly. They just fell right into it."

Shows usually get to pick their post vendors, he reports. The L Word finishes at Rainmaker in Vancouver with a combination of linear and Avid DS assembly, The Brotherhood and Weeds at Laser Pacific with its proprietary Super Computer assembly, Sleeper Cell at Technicolor Content Services with DS assembly, Dexter at The Post Group with a combination of linear and DS Nitris assembly, and The Tudors at Technicolor Toronto with linear online assembly.

The typical post workflow finds shows doing dailies sessions where camera masters are synched up and then downconverted, usually to DVCAM, for editing on Apple's Final Cut Pro or Avid. Sources are NTSC 30 frames interlaced; they are loaded into Avid as a 24-frame project so when editors lock picture and output EDLs for assembly the timecodes will match exactly to the HD dailies masters.

The Tudors, which explores the lives of the Henry VIII and his family, is currently shooting in Ireland with Toronto-based Core providing the series' wide array of visual effects. "When you're shooting VFX on a TV budget it's much more economical to do in HD than film," Rauch points out. "If we had to shoot The Tudors on film we probably couldn't have afforded it."

Laser Pacific downconverts Weeds' HD dailies for DVCAM editors' cassettes and DVDs. After show editors cut an episode in Weeds' production offices, Laser Pacific takes their EDLs into its Super Computer for assembly. Some episodes require Laser Pacific to create Flame opticals for complex monitor burn-ins or routine fixes. The company also handles color timing and titling. Larson Sound performs the mix with Laser Pacific closing the loop with air dubs for Lions Gate and Showtime.

Laser Pacific's Super Computer speeds the half-hour show's finish. "When you're doing a linear assembly for a 30-minute show you're looking at six to eight hours, but we assemble from four HDCAM decks to our Super Computer and it only takes about an hour," points out Laser Pacific account services representative Rebecca Moon.

According to Rauch, the difference in production costs for a one-hour episode shot on 35mm and HD is "probably about $50,000." So the motivation to acquire on HD is substantial. "Within the next couple of years just about everything will be shot on HD," he forecasts. "As much as I love 35mm, it doesn't make economic sense anymore. Once the new cameras become more economical, like the new Panavision with film lenses and no back focus, even movies will probably be shot on HD."