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December 2014
Issue: October 1, 2008

POSTING HDTV SERIES

By: Ken McGorry
As the world turns to HD - the government mandate kicks in next year - we find that television post production pros are all over it, offering HD services to all comers. And on the front end, episodic producers have shown leadership, or at least intense curiosity, in acquiring on an HD format. Shows shooting on traditional 35mm or Super 16 have made the move to HD post production cycles that have proven to be stable and reliable despite their relative newness. Post houses know that reliability is the standard by which they live or die in television post - an airdate is an airdate. So it behooves the pros running the shops to have their HD post process nailed down and airtight to honor airdates. End of story.

Or is it?

Turns out there are so many ways to skin a cat - and so many different kinds of cats to skin - that there is no generic workflow for HD post.  There is no giant Monty Python-style meat grinder taking in footage on one end and delivering perfectly formed high definition television programs on the other end. Rather, we find each program, each production company and each post facility finding their own way to a high def deliverable. Just ask around.

THE POST GROUP
As one of LA's most venerable post houses with its big emphasis on finishing television programs, The Post Group also employs a savvy mixture of "legacy" technology and techniques with the latest high def gear. Their efforts include employing bridge technology to link such workflows as Axial linear online with HDCam SR 24p deliverables. The Post Group finishes such network episodics as "Fear Itself, House, Numb3rs, The Game, Eleventh Hour" and the original "CSI" in HD along with such cable fare as "Modern Marvels" on the History Channel (in 1080i) and "Head Case," the improvisational dark comedy, on Starz.

"There's definitely been a change," Post Group EVP, business development, Michael Levy says. "The major broadcast networks have been airing in HD for quite a while but what has changed is the cable networks - we've seen a significant movement in the last one to two years. Pretty much any new projects that we're starting up we're posting in HD." Not all the shows posting at the Post Group currently air in HD, "but the point is they want HD delivery masters today."

Many basic-cable networks now have their own 700-club HD channels on cable and more narrow-casting networks, like the Food Channel and LOGO are "pretty much all requiring delivery in HD," Levy says.

HDCam SR is the most common delivery format - clients value its 12 audio channels.
The Post Group's senior editor, Randy Magalski, says, "You can make anything from a 1080/24p master and HDCam SR also has lighter compression." The big network shows are delivered in 1080/24p, he says, although they are shown in 1080i or 720P.

"One big event," Levy says, "was the advent of dramatically less expensive HD cameras. There are [viable] $10,000 HD camera systems today and that certainly wasn't the case a few years ago."

Magalski says acquisition-format choice is still a function of budget: "If you have the budget you are going to choose the highest esthetic which is still 35mm film." If you want to save a little money, he says you might go with Sony F-23 or Panavision's Genesis or RED. A little further down the budgetary scale he sees XDCam, P2 and HDV in use.

Levy says that RED is not widely used in television at this point but adds, "that will change." And Magalski says "There is no great realtime [RED] workflow. I'm sure that it can be done but nobody's doing it yet because it is virgin territory. People don't want to be the first on the block when faced with the unrelenting schedule of a TV episodic."

CSI's WORKFLOW

"CSI" is a good example of a classic TV series that mixes classic 35mm acquisition with a hybrid form of online. To finish "CSI," the Post Group goes linear, exploiting its good old tape-based Axial edit controller/Snell & Wilcox switcher room full of VTRs.
First, The Post Group telecines the show's footage - they use Thomson's Spirit and Cintel's DSX -- to HDCam SR in 4:2:2 color space while simultaneously transferring to DVCam and to Avid's standard-def MST (Media Station Telecine). The SD MST serves as pre-digitized offline media which is delivered on FireWire drives to editorial.

Magalski says that SD offline will fade away in the next year or two: "There will be a paradigm shift away from offlining in standard def to offlining in high def at a more compressed resolution.  Today the vast majority are SD offlines.

"A linear bay will almost always be faster for a straight narrative show," like "CSI," Magalski says. "Fade up, do your cuts and dissolves, and fade out." A linear online is faster because "you can have multiple decks and the amount of shuttle time is radically decreased so you can get the show done a lot faster. But you cannot do a lot of things you can do in a nonlinear bay," he says, "like you can't dirt-fix as fast; I can't track a patch over a boom mic in a linear bay, I can't recreate their Sapphire effect."

Sometimes the Post Group will take primarily the effects-related portions of a "CSI" episode into the nonlinear bay -- either Symphony Nitris, DS Nitis of Final Cut HD -- while the rest of the show stays linear. Magalski says the "CSI" production team has its edit - and its effects - so buttoned down at this point that a traditional linear conform is feasible. Less experienced show producers may give the Post Group a roughed-out effect and ask them to perfect it in Symphony or DS Nitris.

"CSI's" old-school workflow makes the most of the Post Group's tape-based infrastructure and offers the show's production team a measure of comfort. However, "new projects, by and large, are moving away from that kind of workflow," Levy says, and moving toward nonlinear online.

For "Numb3rs," Magalski says, the production team follows the 35mm/telecine workflow and "then we online in Symphony Nitris, specifically for "Numb3rs," and we do everything editorially out of the Symphony, outputting a master that then goes to da Vinci for tape-to-tape color correction. Color correction for television is still generally linear, although that's an area that will be changing." He adds that, although the newer PC-based color systems have their enticements, da Vinci is his current choice for TV episodics because "boy is it reliable."

FEAR ITSELF

NBC's fright-anthology, "Fear Itself," is a good example of a show that's been done in linear assembly and a DS Nitris assembly. Magalski says "DS Nitris gives you the advantage of an RGB 4:4:4 workflow; Symphony does not. Shows are broadcast in 4:2:2 color space, but 4:4:4 can be a major benefit when working with a VFX house." "Fear Itself," is shot on film and transferred to HDCam SR.

While Avid guarantees that its Symphony software will do a 100 percent conform, when working on the DS, Magalski says, "there are a few effects that don't translate across so you have to recreate some effects manually."

"But," Levy says, "the DS offers a much more expanded toolset compared to the Symphony Nitris. One of the main reasons people do an online on the DS platform is to avail themselves of powerful effects tools."

"On "Fear Itself" that was a huge advantage," Magalski says. "In the traditional linear online workflow, once the edited master is created, to do all the effects associated with it - and they have lots of effects - the DS is very comparable to a Flame or Inferno." Specifically, Magalski points to painting out unwanted objects, wire removal, removing crew, as well as higher-end effects such as monitor burn-ins that require extensive tracking, color correction and rotoscoping. "It is a true compositing application." 

Levy adds, "For an episodic television show on a tight deadline, they have the option to leave certain effects to be dealt with in online. They may have sent out their scripted VFX to a vendor that's been working on those shots for weeks, but they may have some things that either got overlooked or unscripted things that have to be fixed in post."

Levy and Magalski agree that the increasing number of formats, frame-rates and codecs is probably the dominant issue facing the post production industry right now. It can seriously affect simple cutaways to stock footage. Still, as Magalski phrases it, "We want it to be seamless. We are given the responsibility in that we are the last stop."

MAD MEN: PERIOD    

"We had a fantastic time. It's a pretty heady experience," says "Mad Men" producer in charge of post production, Blake McCormick. He and his "obsessive-compulsive" coworkers had a huge night after the 60th Emmy Awards named "Mad Men," after only one season on AMC, "best dramatic series." But, whether a series garners industry recognition or not, "they're all really, really hard" to produce, says the TV veteran.

A big part of the effort that goes into "Mad Men," a "period" show set in a retro, pre-Beatles New York in 1962, is a relentless focus on getting the details right rather than allowing a single glaring anachronism to get in the frame. Things that may need to be removed or replaced might include an errant ketchup bottle; too-modern ceiling sprinkler-system heads; or a background tree that should be foliage-free in a New York winter. All aspects of the show, McCormick says, from production design meetings all the way to compositing and final color correction at Laser Pacific, "are very, very coordinated." 

"Mad Men," true to its milieu, is shot on film -- three-perf Super 35. Chris Manley is the second season's DP and former "Sopranos" DP, Phil Abraham, just received an Emmy for his work on the "Mad Men" pilot. McCormick cites film as key to the look of "Mad Men." "For certain projects, I would never want to forego what you get on film."  Each 48-minute episode is produced on a seven-day schedule - and then there's the post.

Dailies pass through Laser's Thomson Spirit 2K and get a one-light on a da Vinci 2K by Mace Johnson. DP Manley provides still photos from his shots - enhanced in Photoshop - to give a visual of the look he has in mind. Dailies metadata is tracked within MTI Film's Control Dailies system (www.mtifilm.com) which makes the colorist's job more efficient and generates Flex files for use in Avid editorial. While TV episodics once generated about 45 minutes of dailies, McCormick recalls, today's shows create two hours or more per day.

Dailies are mastered to HDCam SR and backed up to DVCam. For editing, the same dailies pass generates Avid MST media files on Fire Wire hard drives.

Since AMC has offices in both Hollywood and New York, "Mad Men" dailies will go cross-country via Sample Digital's (www.sampledigital.com) secure content delivery network and also, a day later, as over-nighted DVDs.

MAD MEN OFFLINE

The series employs three editors - Malcolm Jamieson, Christopher Nelson and Cindy Mollo -- working in episodic rotation with three assistants. The team works on new Mac-based Avid Adrenalines using version 2.8.3 and the episodes are stored on and shared from an Avid Unity Server with 1.6TB of storage.

The editors' cut is given three production days and the director then gets four. Creator/writer/executive producer Matthew Weiner's time with a cut could span a 10-day period while he keeps other episodes running.

VISUAL EFFECTS

Background replacements and major matte paintings - adding a Manhattan skyline for instance - count as big, traditional effects on "Mad Men." However, McCormick says, "All shows are visual effects shows now. Whether it's removing a non-period detail; painting something out [like] a smoke detector; stabilizing a camera bump; to me, that constitutes a visual effect."  McCormick also focuses on that which is not focused on in a two-shot: if the performance is good in an over-the-shoulder, but something is amiss in the foreground, that distraction is dealt with. "Sometimes elements of the frame are replaced to ensure that people are watching what we want people to watch."

Large-scale matte painting is done at Stargate Digital (www.stargatefilms.com). Laser Pacific tackles the many smaller "production enhancement" shots, such as vintage-1962 analog TV picture burn-ins, using its connection to Kodak's VFX services at Cinesite. Flame, Smoke or Shake may be used and McCormick sometimes calls such stitched-back-together shots "Frankenediting." Such VFX may be created during the online where the production hands off an HDCam SR and receives back magically altered shots which are then integrated back into the master - all at Laser Pacific. "The advantage of having your visual effects team directly associated with your post facility makes integrating materials much smoother," McCormick says. Carlo Hume and Mike Pryor are VFX producers on "Mad Men." 

The Laser "supercomputer" handles the online assembly including traditional dissolves, etc., and more challenging VFX take place in the DS Nitris, in 4:2:2, translating offline effects work done in Adrenaline.

AUDIO

Final sound is done at Todd AO Hollywood with supervising sound editor Jason George and Ken Teaney and Geoff Rubay. All the show's sounds - including background ambience - receive the same "obsessive attention to detail" right up to the last moment the episode is delivered. 

COLOR

Matthew Weiner "will use every single tool at his disposal to enhance storytelling," McCormick says. That includes "small tweaks and adjustments in the color of a scene to enhance what's going on in the lives of our characters."  Tim Vincent performs "Mad Men's" final color correction on Lustre at Laser Pacific. McCormick describes Lustre's nonlinear color correction as "pretty remarkable. It's Photoshop on steroids; it has kind of unlimited window opportunities, unlimited layers. If you do make changes, you can take apart those changes more readily. It's all the things you'd associate with the nonlinear workflow added to the color correction process. What blows me away about the Lustre is its ability to kind of organically manipulate light and images. It almost looks as if someone went back in time and added a light on a set; it has such a dimensionalized quality to it." McCormick adds that the most important aspect is who's driving the machine: "Tim Vincent does an extraordinary job of taking advantage of that tool set and delivering what we want."

GOSSIP GIRL

Trey Coscia, associate producer on "Gossip Girl," now in its second season on the CW, has been with the series since the production of its pilot. Coscia's been working in television for over 10 years. His last show shot on film was "Invasion" for NBC in the 2005-06 season and his first show that was "shot purely HD" was "Justice" on Fox in the 2006-07 season. "Justice" was shot on a Genesis 24p camera; "Gossip Girl" is being shot on Sony's F-23 and airs in high def.

"I think a lot of producers, directors and DPs are trying to get that film look," Coscia says, "and they're used to what it looks like being shot on film." If an HD shoot is not lit properly, it can "look a little video," he says. But when a DP gets it down, "it looks fantastic and it can look just like film and you can fool people. A lot of people think "Gossip Girl" is a beautifully shot show and it looks great and I attribute that to Ron Fortunado, our DP."

As with "Justice," however, "Gossip Girl" is HD video and, while Coscia and company are happy with the blacks they're getting, he is more cautious about  "blowing out the whites" and possibly losing detail in, for instance, a shot including the sky or white clothing.

Coscia and crew, who work in LA, start their day with a hard drive with dailies on it from the shoot in New York. "We shoot in New York, they are obviously three hours ahead; they break at lunch, send a few tapes and some sound into our post facility, PostWorks, New York. Our session usually starts at around 6:00 or 7:00 New York time. Dailies would start the telesync process [in New York] around 4:00 or 5:00 our time. It's a really fast turnaround - there's no lab, you don't have to wait three hours for the film to go through the soup."

In "telesync," PostWorks transfers circle takes from the HDCam SR 4:2:2 masters and sync audio which was recorded to DVD RAM. "We also have a guide track on the camera master SR as well," Coscia says.  That's telesync - there is no telecine. Three to five hours of inexpensive telesync yields two to three hours of dailies.

The DP is asked to do a minimal color correct in camera. "We have a DIT [digital imaging technician], Barry Minnerly, on set looking at the feed on an HD monitor and really seeing the raw picture that is laying to tape. You can see what you're getting right away." Circle takes from the HDCam SR camera master are recorded onto a new HDCam 4:2:2 dailies master along with the audio from the DVD RAM. The new HDCam travels out to LA and is used in the final assembly.

GOSSIP DAILIES

"The way we get dailies is PostWorks creates the HDCam and at the same time they make a 16:9 DVCam for editorial. The DVCam arrives overnight in LA the next day. But PostWorks also creates digitized Avid files "that they pipe over the Internet to FotoKem in LA," Coscia says. "We're posting at a Fotokem sister facility called Keep Me Posted. At 7:00 in the morning they pull it down off the server, dump it to a hard drive and all of our dailies are ready to go at 8:00 in the morning. They also make a DVD that we can dub and distribute to the network and studio and our executives out here."

The dailies acquired over the Internet, are compressed at 14:1 but "they look great. We've been told by the network and the studio that our cuts look fantastic - it's pretty and beautiful" long before the show is finished for air.

"Gossip Girl" employs three editors, working on different episodes in a rotation, with the aid of two assistants. Editors Timothy Good, Rachel Goodlett and Harry Jierjian cut their episodes in 16:9 SD on Avid Adrenaline.

Coscia also works closely with co-producer Jonathan Brody.

ASSEMBLY

Coscia and his post supervisor, Terri Murphy, oversee online. "Once a show is locked, we send a bin out of our Avid over to Keep Me Posted. We assemble the show on a Symphony which takes an Avid list and brings it up so we're actually assembling in a nonlinear world - in a high def Avid. There's no loss. Once we get the timeline and the show how it should be, and smooth out any speed effects or transitions or opticals, we play it back out from the Symphony to an HDCam SR." As with other series, SR's 12 channels facilitate the "number of audio configurations" that the network requires - all on one tape.

For "Gossip Girl," Symphony "is perfect," Coscia says. "We don't have that many crazy transition effects, but the opticals that we do [in offline] all come right across. You don't have to do a separate session and recreate all these opticals. Everything can be manipulated in the timeline and, once you have the final product, you play it out to tape." What with the success of his offline operation, Coscia foresees a time when offline work may be done in high def and the visit to the post facility might be only for color correction.      

GOSSIP COLOR

The assembled episode, now back on SR, then undergoes from 12 to 16 hours of color timing "and tweaking and really giving the show its fine-tuned look," Coscia says. The work is done at Keep Me Posted on a da Vinci 2K by Tom Overton. That could include smoothing outdoor shots where sunlight is waning, making the colors pop, including the blacks and the whites.

SAVING

"With shooting to tape, the big thing is you save money," Coscia says. "You can put 40-minute loads in." A real time savings, Coscia says is, "We get our dailies first thing in the morning - they're waiting for us on a hard drive at 8:00 in the morning! The editor can start right away." Another benefit, once you get to online, is "there's no dirt fix." No one has to sit and spot dirt, hair or film scratches, although there occasional "pixel hits." 
Sixteen to 24 total hours of dailies ultimately yield a 42.5-minute episode of "Gossip Girl" which is delivered on HDCam SR.

PSYCHED UP

"Psych," soon to enter its third season on USA Networks, is a comedy/drama featuring a young police "consultant" whose acute powers of observation seemingly put him on a psychic plane when investigating serious crimes.

Co-producer Geoff Garrett says the show is shot on Super 16mm with audio going to DVD RAM. "Psych" footage undergoes Spirit telecine at Technicolor in Vancouver where sound is synced with picture onto an HDCam SR 23.98 master. Technicolor also down-converts the digital sound and picture to DVCam for editorial. "Along with that we get a standard Flex file," Garrett says. "We're using Final Cut Pros and the file is a database of all the picture, sound and scene-and-take-number information which is loaded into the offline system and tracked by the assistant. When we go to online the show, the online editor and sound department have all the proper timecodes to reference back to the original material for when we go [back] up to HD and do our sound conform."

Garrett says their process is pretty traditional for a film show, which benefits from the film look, film lenses, and Super 16's speed and portability. "Psych" is shot on location in Vancouver with two cameras and posts down in LA. .

OFFLINE

After waiting a day for the day's shoot to be processed and telecined , "everyone's able to view the dailies via an internal system at NBC Universal called Dailies Plus the very next day," Garrett says.

"Psych's" three editors, David Crabtree, Eric Jenkins and Dexter Adriano, get their hands on the DVCams in the morning two days after the shoot and then digitize the material into their Final Cut Pros.

"Psych" offlines in standard def. Since they have 7 TB of storage, Garrett's team brings in the footage at full DV resolution. "When you're wondering whether or not it's in focus, you're looking at a good-quality picture to make that judgment.

As with other weekly series, "Psych" employs three editors working on three different episodes with two assistants. There can be five or six episodes in various stages of completion. "We bring in our dailies 16:9 squeezed," Garrett says. "We can un-squeeze it in our 16:9 bays and the [offline] editors are able to see it in that format." Editorial works in 23.98 fps, which matches "exactly back to our masters, to-the-frame, every single time." Their FPCs use Blackmagic cards that remove 3:2 pulldown during digitizing.

ONLINE

"Psych" onlines in Final Cut HD. "Any repositionings or speed-ups or changes to the picture, we online on a Final Cut Pro HD system," he says. Offline work "directly translates one-to-one over to online because it's the exact same software, the exact same settings, and that way the editors' creative input is carried across directly. There's not as much interpretation as there used to be with online editors where you have to match a blow-up, a speed change or a transition and you hope you get it correct. Our method is an exact match every time.

PSYCH FX

"Sean Vision" is the effect you see when the show's hero zeros in on a small-but-crucial clue. The audience gets to see, along with Sean, telltale shards of glass in a zoom-in on a shirt, for instance. The series has about 25 VFX per episode as well as generic greenscreen work, driving composites and the like. "Psych" also employs plug-ins to create a grainy flashback effect.

One extravagant effect in a recent episode shows a daredevil motorcyclist attempt to propel himself and his bike through a ring of fire. In this shot, completed by Spin in Vancouver, we see that the performer's gas tank is leaking dangerously just before it explodes in midair. "We pull either HD QuickTimes or DPX files at a 10-bit rate from our HD masters and deliver that to our VFX company. They deliver back to us uncompressed HD QuickTime files that cut right back into our Final Cut Pro system." Once all the approvals are made, Spin can post the finished shots on an FTP site "and we simply download them and give them to the online editors. I can download effects files in my office." 

Fotokem in Burbank cleans up any dirt in a "Psych" video assembled master (VAM) using the DRS and performs color correction is da Vinci 2K.

A Final Cut Pro HD specialist Pete Fausone at Fotokem also creates HD titles.  
"HD post is the rule, not the exception today," Garrett says. "You've made the show in a format that's going to withstand the test of time."

SONS OF ANARCHY

Craig Yahata is associate producer on FX Network's "Sons of Anarchy," an hour-long drama (with darkly comedic undertones) about an outlaw motorcycle gang operating out of the small city fictitiously located outside of Oakland. "Sons of Anarchy" also serves as the gang's name.

The show is shot on Genesis by DP Paul Maibaum and the team record LUT information on set to create a file that accompanies the circle takes on their way to transfer to D-5 and, ultimately, color timing, Yahata says. "The DP does a lot of shading on the set," and the LUT file helps maintain and augment the look Maibaum's going for. As with so many such episodics, Maibaum is recording onto HDCam SR from the Genesis.

The "Anarchy" offline is done on Avid Adrenaline using DVCam tapes, Yahata says. "When we lock the show, we rebuild it in online with the D-5s." 

Ironically, Yahata has early experience in high-def-for-broadcast on "Diagnosis: Murder," in 1999 for CBS and later worked on "The Shield," also on FX for many seasons: "one of the last standard-def shows on the air." "The Shield's" 16mm acquisition was more of an esthetic choice meant to establish a gritty, contrasty, documentary mood, including film transfer on an old Quadra telecine and a decision to stick with an about-to-be-discontinued Kodak stock valued for its graininess.

"Sons of Anarchy," though low-budget, shoots for a grander, almost old-western esthetic that swings between wide outdoor shots (on the road, for instance) and intimate tight shots. Smaller cameras are themselves rigged to motorcycles, for verisimilitude, to convey the feeling of life on the road. "Anarchy" has seven-day shoots and generates 90 minutes to three hours of dailies per day.

EDITING ANARCHY

"Anarchy" uses three editors, one each working on different episodes in different stages of completion. "It's kind of a standard television-show pattern," Yahata says.

"Once we are lock the show we do the online process basically overnight," Yahata says. Then a spotting sessions follows with sound effects and dialogue. Then music is added - often with needle-drop instead of scoring. "Music plays a pretty part in our show," he says. "Anytime some badass bikers are going on a ride, we'll get some appropriate music to drive the scene. Bob Theil is the music supervisor and, even as we're cutting the show, we may send him a QuickTime and say 'Hey, we're looking for something that really plays to this tone or mood.' He'll come up with some choices."

COLOR, VFX, SOUND

After online the episode is now in full-res high def and the picture goes off to color timing at Modern VideoFilm with Ken Schneider. "He works directly with the DP and our post supervisor, Grace Whitehouse, and she makes sure whatever notes from offline get translated. Color timing is more about the storytelling and the mood."

Yahata adds, "If we have some visual effects, once we get closer to locking the show and the shot, we send whatever effects to our VFX house, ZOIC." "Anarchy" is not a VFX show but it does call for occasional explosions and wire removal.

"Anarchy" records its own sound effects, especially the distinctive sound of show's Harley Davidsons. Making sure sound is right is a big part of Yahata's job. The show's audio post is done at Smart Post Sound in Burbank and Erich Gann is sound supervisor. "Sons of Anarchy's" final mix is done at the Larson Studio Stages with head mixer Sherry Klein on dialogue and music and Brian Harman on effects and Foley.

Thanks to streaming and the use of servers, distributing cuts and dailies has gotten much better. "You'll get an email saying 'it's ready' and then you can start viewing the dailies right there." "Sons of Anarchy" masters to HDCam SR and is delivered for broadcast as 1080i.