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November 2014
Issue: January 1, 2007

EDIT THIS! - ZODIAC'S SIGN OF THE TIMES

By: Ken McGorry
WEST HOLLYWOOD — Director David Fincher developed a new workflow for all-data production recently, shooting some five TV campaigns with the Viper FilmStream 2K camera. Now what he and his crew learned on the job is paying off in feature film production. Fincher, like George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez before him, has taken the pledge: He will shoot no film when he’s shooting a film.

Fincher’s workflow on Zodiac, his new serial-killer thriller, goes a step further than his forbears. Indeed, Zodiac is a collection of 18 million .dpx files acquired by DP Harris Savides with Thomson Viper cameras in 4:4:4, 1920x1080p and cached on set onto S.two DFRs (digital film recorders) using D.Mag drives. The drives went to edit house Rock Paper Scissors, or RPS (www.rockpaperscissors. com), here, where the data entered an innovative post production pipeline devised by editor Angus Wall and freelance digital guru Andreas Wacker.

The first order of business for post supervisor and long time Fincher collaborator Peter Mavromates was to make sure they had robust, glitch-free image files to work with. One good reason for this attention was they intended to produce a drama that offers all the visual impact and subtlety of real film. Another reason was that Fincher was doing something pretty innovative himself — he was actually determining outtakes on the set and deleting them before anyone else saw them.

“The biggest question in terms of capturing data is: ‘Is your imagery safe?’” asks Mavromates rhetorically. “My job was making sure that imagery was stored safely and is entered into our post pipeline in a useable, valid manner. We had engineering staff from Rock Paper Scissors, Andreas Wacker and Joe Wolcott, who built our post pipeline and designed a system by which we would back up the data we got on the set and verify it. For Zodiac, because it was our first time, we took a very high level of verification; we actually went to pixel-for-pixel verification. That’s the scariest, biggest responsibility right there because the question is: ‘Do you have your negative?’”

The team would transfer what was on the S.two D.Mag, the raw data from the set, via the S.two A.Dock to LTO-3 library tape drives. From there, Mavromates says, two things happened: Staff would QC the images and also create two clones on LTO-3 drives, which were stored as “digital negatives” — that’s two “negatives” as back-up, with no third-party film processing fees. Those back-up files were “virgin, copied in their purest form. This is a huge, huge advantage.”

Wall says the archive process at RPS included “a complete read-back and bit-by-bit verification of the entire 144 TB of data — we didn’t lose a frame.” One clone was stored off-site for added safety.
Mavromates’ second order of business was “creating media that we can edit.” Editor Wall and company would also work with the data files off the D.Mag, this time downconverted via the S.two F.Dock to RPS’s Apple Xsan and rendered in Apple Shake/FCP into an editable format: DVCPRO HD.

KEEPING IT COMING

Wall and RPS took a lot more responsibility on Zodiac than some editorial houses. They were archiving “negatives,” creating dailies, providing data management, conforming and, oh yeah, editing the movie. Wall says his crew, including Brian Ufberg, Pete Warren, and Wyatt Jones, was indispensable. “In addition to their regular assistant duties, they dealt with everything the lab historically does, plus final conform, data management, etc. They even did many of the final effect shots.”

RPS engineers wrote their own program to conform the data, Mavromates says, “so, whereas other shows are going into another facility to conform each reel of data, we actually did it in-house.”
Zodiac reels going to Technicolor for grading arrived conformed and ready for DI.

There is also inherent anti-piracy protection built in to this all-data workflow, Mavromates says. “Security is a huge issue. Our imagery literally goes from the set into our editorial pipeline. So the number of people who handle the data is less than five and they’re all directly on our payroll.

RPS used Shake, Apple’s compositing program, in the downconversion from raw Viper D.Mag files to DVCPRO. “Our system generated Shake scripts to process each shot,” says Wall. “Creating the various QuickTimes involves a resize. Shake's resizing algorithms are among the best. This helps with compression, since it can focus on allocating data to image detail instead of zoom artifacts.”

DAILIES DOUBLE

“David initially planned Zodiac as a one-camera shoot,” Wall says, “but on week two the second [Viper] came out and never went back. We were processing dailies using our workstations as a renderfarm, but this doubled footage count demanded more.”

Wacker, who wrote the software for the system and was instrumental in its design, says Wall, “came up with a great solution for this: Use Mac Minis as render nodes. The Mac Minis did the work of a dedicated renderfarm at 40 percent of the cost.”

Scaling a pipeline this way proved much more efficient than a traditional tape environment, Wall says, comparing some Mac Minis to a $125K tape deck.

Fincher needed to comment on the editorial progress, even when he was at a remote location such as New Orleans shooting his next film. “Every frame, shot, sequence and related comment exists in a database,” says Wall. “This information was easily accessible to the edit crew via Web interface. PIX [an online interface] became the mailbox for comments on sequences as the edit developed — it has been very useful.”

Wall and his crew were continually optimizing their new pipeline as they worked. He says the biggest development was the creation of a digital conform tool. “This allowed Wyatt [Jones] to automatically conform the movie on the SAN and allowed us to make changes in the final instantaneously and without ever having to leave the editing room.”

DI COLOR

Raw Viper files look pea green. (See www.thomsongrassvalley.com/products/cameras/viper). As a result of extensive testing, Fincher packed his Vipers with magenta files to reduce that green effect. In addition, Mavromates says, “we would apply a LUT to make the files look more normal” for dailies and editing.
“David has often said he likes seeing the raw camera output, as he can see exactly what is being captured,” says Wall, adding that Fincher could very quickly gauge whether he was getting full tonal range. “That said, we made nine LUTs with David for use on-set and for dailies. It didn’t take long before he found his favorite and the rest of the dailies were rendered with that one LUT.”

Once a sequence was edited, Mavromates says, “we’d capture all this media back into our hard drives based on the EDL and conform all the data into a long string of files — this is something Angus’s people designed. There are hundreds of thousands of files there — each frame has a distinct file name/frame number. Then we’d take it to the DI house, Technicolor, and Stephen Nakamura.”

Nakamura is a veteran color man and a da Vinci 2K specialist who’s worked with Fincher for 10 years and has been at Technicolor since 2002. His first all-digital film was last year’s Superman Returns, which was shot on a Genesis camera, and he says that, shot properly, digital can look “very, very close to film.”
Sometimes when working with digital acquisition, Nakamura says, he may want to shift the gamma curve in darker scenes. But, in his work on Zodiac, “color correction was very straight forward. There’s nothing crazy I [was] doing to it. Harris [Savides] shot it and he did a tremendous amount of testing for exposure — interior, exterior, night, day — so they can understand what the camera can handle.” And the result is “really extraordinarily nice looking.”

If things get too dark with digital cameras, he cautions, “you’re in trouble. It gets extremely grainy and there’s not a lot of color information because it’s an electronic medium. Nobody said it has to look exactly like film — it’s a different medium altogether. But this is a beautiful-looking film. When people see it they will really be shocked how this [camera] captures the low lights.  You can see so much detail in dark scenes with very little grain.”

WORKING WITH VFX

Zodiac’s full CG shots were done at Matteworld (www.matteworld.com) and the major live action/CG integrated scenes were done at Digital Domain (www.digitaldomain.com). Mavromates says that many smaller shots were done by a number of small shops and freelance VFX artists.

“During the editing you’re making choices for the effects plates,” Mavromates says. One thing about working with data files that’s “fantastic” for Mavromates as a post supervisor is, “whenever I need to deliver plates to an effects company I’m not calling somebody to pull negative and line it up and sending it somewhere else to get it scanned and filling out a PO for each of those places and then moving it to the effects company. I’m literally going into my edit room and saying, ‘Can you copy this frame range onto a DVD or FireWire drive,’ and then I send it over. I can actually give the effects company the actual files they are going to work with.”

This allows effects specialists to provide accurate bids because they can really see the shot they are bidding on, not a poor copy. And if it’s determined an effects shot should be longer than originally conceived, Mavromates can easily copy over additional frames that will “match exactly” the frames the VFX house already has.

AN EXCITING TIME

Wall says, “The ‘creative part’ will always be hard, but the data workflow allows for a simpler and more holistic process. Equipment is commoditized, which means faster, cheaper, and better is possible. It really comes down to how elegantly the pieces of the process can be integrated and how willing people are to empower and be empowered by that. It is, as always, an exciting time.”

Today, Mavromates and company are using S.two’s new I.Dock (an “ingest dock”) on Fincher’s new Benjamin Button.The I.Dock does not require you first to render D.Mag data to DVCPRO for editing.
“Now we can batch digitize in realtime from the D.Mag into Final Cut Pro through a  [AJA] Kona card. So this process that took quite a few hours on Zodiac is slightly more than realtime on Benjamin Button. That’s fairly remarkable.”

Mavromates looks forward to a point when production companies will be able to afford enough storage to keep all the D.Mag image files available on SANs. “Just keep it all resident on the system itself.”
However, Mavromates sees 4K resolution on the Fincher horizon, especially for achieving enhanced color depth. “In that case we’ll take one step forward in quality and two steps back in terms of storage and data movement.”