Issue: February 1, 2009


Ready for a new take on the stranger-in-a-strange-land concept? Outlander is a science-fiction adventure about a man from a different galaxy who crash-lands on Earth during the reign of the Vikings. By accident, he brings with him an alien predator that he must destroy with the help of a Viking tribe. With a cast that includes Jim Caviezel and John Hurt, Outlander is unlike other action/adventure films in that it combines a variety of genres - sci-fi, mythology, action, drama - in what director Howard McCain has dubbed "sci-mythic."

The intricate film has nearly 600 visual effects shots and was shot using a range of source formats, including HDCAM and Super 35mm film. To help achieve its distinctive visual appeal, the film's conceptual art and design was created by a team of artists behind the Star Wars trilogy (Iain McCaig and Ninth Ray). The film was edited entirely in HD on four Avid Media Composer systems using the DNxHD codec.

"HD was really the only way to go for this movie," says editor David Dodson. "Because of the number of visual effects shots and because of how complex and dense the imagery was, we really needed a system that would allow us to get into finer detail to evaluate shots precisely. Editing in HD, I could easily evaluate everything from performance to focus to whether or not someone's costume was on wrong."

But it wasn't just the visual quality of the work that influenced the decision to go HD: budget and time savings were also factored in. The Avid DNxHD 115 codec − which provides HD image quality at bandwidths typically associated with SD − delivered significant storage efficiency and made working in HD possible.

"We didn't have the budget to do as many film-out tests initially as we would have liked," explains Dodson. "So, when we had to decide what system to cut on, it seemed obvious that wringing as much resolution as possible out of the offline process would save us money in terms of checking visual effects shots as they were being done. SD would have slowed us down. Working in HD in 1920 x 1080, even though it's compressed, was still light years ahead of any other solution that was affordable."

Dodson, who had never cut a show in HD before, worked with Los Angeles-based Pivotal Post, the rental house that provided the Avid systems for the project, to test the Avid DNxHD codec prior to implementing the workflow. "The 115 resolution looked amazing," he recalls. "And the responsiveness of the [Media Composer] machine in HD was also impressive. HD and the Avid DNxHD process was the clear and obvious solution."

Media Management

In addition to editing and previewing visual effects in HD, the editors also used the Media Composer systems to import animatics and storyboards, and to take advantage of the system's basic effects and compositing tools to create such effects as super-impositions and double-exposures. "We used the SpectraMatte feature every day to do temp comps to send to Spin [the visual effects company in Toronto]," says Dodson. "It was a very effective workflow."

Outlander had two production units, each shooting with three or four cameras, which resulted in nearly one million feet of source footage. All of this material had to be brought into the Media Composer systems, including various resolutions from the visual effects comps. "There was no way I was going to entrust that much material with this level of complexity to anything other than the best in media management," says Dodson. "It had to be an Avid, and that was never an issue. We were never slowed down. We could just drop the material into the timeline. No matter what came into our suite, we were able to work with it almost immediately."

Because of the multiple cameras involved, the Media Composer system's multicam feature also proved valuable for the editors. "We sometimes had to deal with as many as four cameras on a scene at a time, so the Multicam option was fantastic for reviewing takes and deciding what and how to cut," explains Dodson. "It was very easy and what's particularly nice is that the system will accommodate whatever workflow you're used to. You can map the keyboard any way you want and access the multicam feature from your desktop or screen to make its use very organic and personalized to how you work, which I really appreciated." With the Media Composer system, the multicam feature also enables editing teams to work in any resolution, providing added flexibility.

The Super 35mm film was transferred to HD at Toronto-based Deluxe Labs, which used its own Media Composer system to encode the material in Avid DNxHD 115 format. The dailies were then sent back to the crew on location via FireWire drives. These drives rotated between location editing and the lab throughout the shoot. 

Since most of the film was shot on location in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the initial challenge was to ensure a quick turnaround time from the lab in Toronto, 785 miles away, for the large volume of material being shot and processed daily.

"We'd get gigs and gigs of material back every day from the lab," says Dodson. "When you have material from so many cameras at different frame rates and formats, and you're integrating 4-perf projects into 3-perf projects, you really want to know that the system is keeping track of thousands of shots, hundreds of visual effects, and all the various elements being shot daily. One mistake can create a domino effect that could take weeks to unravel. But, we didn't have any problems whatsoever in accurately tracking everything on our Media Composer [systems]."
Screening the dailies was an equally seamless process. "I can't describe how easy it was," says Dodson. "We played the sequences right out of the Avid [system] in the native Avid DNxHD 115 format from our editing room directly into the screening room right down the hall, and we had remote control of any machine that we wanted. We'd just load a sequence, like we were going to cut, and play it on our 2K projectors. The picture quality was so good, even on a 20-foot wide screen, that we never had to go back to do a 1:1 conform. We could even make changes with the producers in the screening room from our remote setup that was being executed from our CPU back in the editing suites."

The HD Advantage

Of his first time editing an HD film, Dodson says, "I'll never go back. It's like you wish you'd been here sooner. It's hard to believe that it has taken this long for it to become de rigueur in the business. Avid DNxHD has been around for a while and has really made it practical to work in HD, so it was a trend that was bound to take hold. Now that it's here, it's very natural, and the Avid DNxHD process is very responsive - you don't sense that you're dealing with [enormously large] files or anything of that kind. Plus, you just get such wonderful accuracy in everything that you do by cutting in HD. For me, it offers nothing but benefits."

Dodson particularly appreciates how the latest HD media workflows have been seamlessly integrated into the Avid interface without detracting from the creative process. "The Avid is a mature system so it doesn't have to stand up and scream, 'Look at me. Look at all I can do and all my bells and whistles.' It allows you to take charge. The most important focus for me is always on the story, and the Avid [system] has always been about that first. That's why I keep returning to it."