HD AND INDEPENDENT FILMS
HD may just be The Great Enabler. The array of HD — and beyond — formats available today permit independent filmmakers to realize their visions as they pick and choose among myriad acquisition and post production options and deliver high-quality products to screens big and small.
THE GENE GENERATION
A sci-fi independent feature, The Gene Generation (www.genegeneration.com) presents a futuristic world populated with deadly DNA hackers and the assassins who hunt them. It stars Ling Bai and Perry Shen, with Faye Dunaway in a supporting role, and opens this month with limited theatrical release and a national DVD release.
“Today’s technology helps low-budget filmmakers make features that rival major productions,” declares co-writer/producer Keith Collea (www.redcamstudios.com). A veteran of many effects-intensive films, including Alien: Resurrection, Independence Day and Pearl Harbor, Collea also served as the new movie’s 2nd unit director, visual effects supervisor and post production supervisor.
With the lines now blurred between production and post production, it’s expertise like Collea’s that can maximize every dollar in the budget. “There are usually no post workflow experts on set during filming,” he says, “and there are times when an unnecessary on-set procedure can become costly because someone in post sent a memo that’s been misunderstood and results in costly delays that could have been avoided if there was one person who knew the entire workflow and could have cut through misunderstandings saving time, energy and money.”
The Gene Generation was shot with Sony’s HDW-F900 CineAlta HD camera by DP Tony Nako. “There are 600 to 700 VFX shots, and HD is a perfect fit for VFX shows and a limited budget,” Collea explains. “The film looks to be as exciting and beautiful as the blockbusters I’ve been working on for the past 15 years. It’s my way of saying, ‘This is what HD is capable of.’”
He established the post workflow in which tapes were ingested via AJA Video’s Kona 3 cards to an Apple Final Cut Pro system in a trailer on set in Los Angeles. “Footage was ingested to hard drives, the assistant editor, who was later promoted to editor, Carmelo Casalenuovo, created bins and the entire project was available on an immediate basis,” he says. “Between set-ups director Pearry Teo would walk to the editorial area and sit with Carmelo and crank out work. If he discovered he needed a shot or a special angle he could get it on the spot. This is the kind of thing I was doing on big films off the videotap.”
Casalenuovo ended up cutting most of The Gene Generation with input from Teo and Collea. “We lucked out — Carmelo was an assistant editor experienced on shows who wanted to move up,” notes Collea. An extensive array of VFX shots were done at World Wide FX in Sofia, Bulgaria, with Scott Coulter the VFX producer. Back in LA, Collea performed the color correction with Apple’s Color and guidance from Evangelos Achillopoulos of Motion FX Technologies S.A. in Athens, who created a Look Up Table (LUT) for him to use with the software.
Finished VFX shots were integrated and the online conform completed by assistant editor Ricky Hayner. “We had all the tools necessary for a full conform,” Collea points out. “The beauty of low-budget filmmaking is that if you have the knowledge you can do everything with off-the-shelf technology.” Collea exported the DPX files for the film-out and a REC709 version for the DVD.
Delivering and screening a low-budget feature can be expensive and cumbersome. “I used to have to rent an expensive and heavy HD deck, record the show out to the deck, make dubs and then rush the dubs, deck and monitor to the theater for a screening,” he recalls. “Then I had to carry all that gear up the typically tiny staircase to the projection booth, and I was always sore the next day!”
So Collea jumped at the chance to deploy AJA’s new Io HD, the next-generation of the popular Io video ingest and output devices first introduced by AJA four years ago as part of a fully portable movie projection system. “Now I can throw Io HD in my 35mm camera bag with my laptop and drive, motorcycle to the theater, pull out the laptop, Io HD and drive and boot up AJA TV or Final Cut Pro and play back the movie,” he explains. “It’s a flawless process. And better quality than going to tape because there’s no compression. I’m even able to open the editing program and make last-minute adjustments.”
In addition, he’ll be able to use Io HD with a laptop on future productions to do on-set editing.
HE’S SUCH A GIRL
A coming of age drama set in Chicago, He’s Such A Girl (www.hessuchagirl.com) is director Sean Carr’s debut film. Produced by Kinesis Entertainment, the feature began shooting in 2006, early in the evolution of Panasonic’s tapeless P2 format, at locations in the Windy City, Los Angeles and Hawaii.
DP Adam David Meltzer shot with two Panasonic AJ-HVX200 cameras. After watching tests comparing DVCPRO HD footage at Laser Pacific, Carr and Meltzer elected to go with Panasonic’s native 720/24pN codec. “The difference in resolution from 1080p did not appear overly noticeable, even after it was transferred and projected on 35mm film, and it certainly did not warrant the vast increase in storage demand,” notes Carr. At the time, only 8GB P2 cards were available.
“There were things we needed to figure out on the workflow front,” he recalls. “Early on, the P2 format seemed to be better integrated with Final Cut Pro, so we bought a pair of Final Cut systems — a workstation for our editor and a MacBook Pro for the set.” Meltzer devised his now-famous Meltzer Rules to guide filmmakers through the P2 workflow and ensure that data is not accidentally erased.
The DP’s process went as follows: he shot one P2 card, filled it up, then put it in a bag labeled ‘Download.’ The AC brought the bag to the P2 assist, who ingested it into the on-set Final Cut system and confirmed that there were no problems with any of the clips. The P2 card was then put in another bag labeled “Format,” which went back to the AC for formatting and reuse in the camera.
The downloaded footage always resided on two hard drives for safety. After initial playback, the files were duplicated onto a second drive, which remained with the P2 assist until the drive was full and it was turned over to a producer for archiving. “We kept back-ups of the original P2 and capture scratch files throughout principal photography,” Carr notes.
Editor Julie Rogers opted to cut on Final Cut Pro at full resolution. “That was a real luxury,” Carr reports. “The DVCPRO HD codec was sufficiently compressed and our computer sufficiently fast that we could cut at full resolution without a noticeable decrease in performance.” Compositing and limited rotoscoping were done with Adobe After Effects and file transfer was seamless.
The biggest hurdle for Carr in dealing with P2 was the file-naming convention. As these were early days, advanced asset management tools for P2 were only starting to become available. “We were shooting large volumes of material and the camera occasionally assigned identical names to different clips,” he explains. “When we had to re-ingest all of our footage with the upgrade from Final Cut 5 to 6 and the switch to Intel-based Macs, these identically named files had to be identified and renamed.”
Still, he considers this “a minor criticism” considering “the pair of cameras we had were marvels. What was most remarkable about the process was not having to deal with labs. The immediacy was wonderful — it’s truly the single biggest case for shooting HD. It’s a luxury that will be difficult to forego if I shoot film at some point.”
Carr and Meltzer teamed with colorist Paul Provost at Post + Beam for about 50 hours of color correction on an Apple Color-based system. Post sound was supervised by Brett Voss and Seann Dougherty; the re-recording mixer was Craig Mann.
He’s Such A Girl was mastered to 10-bit uncompressed QuickTime files and laid off to HDCAM SR. “We can print to 35mm off of it or convert to any other format,” Carr notes. The film’s representatives are currently negotiating offers for domestic and foreign distribution.
Director T.J. Martin didn’t choose an easy subject for his first feature film. The Forlorn from Anacapa Entertainment (www. anacapaentertainment.com) follows the Snowshoe Party, also known as The Forlorn Hope, who hiked out of the Sierras in an attempt to reach California’s Sutter Fort and Sacramento to seek help for the survivors of the infamous Donner Party. The feature stars Crispin Glover, Clayne Crawford, Mark Boone, Jr. and Christian Kane.
“Everything was shot on location. The weather and the mountains were the real antagonists,” notes producer John Emerson Moore. “We really hiked out in the Donner Pass on Sierra Club land. The Sierra Club was very supportive of the project along with the Sugar Bowl ski resort, which donated rooms for us. Southern Pacific Lumber brought us raw logs, and we built two cabins for sets, which we later donated to the Sierra Club as warming huts for cross-country skiers.”
Working in cold and snowy environments poses a challenge for any production. But this motion picture had chosen to shoot with a relatively new technology, which was untried in such conditions.
“DP Seamus Tierney had shot spots and music videos on Red and fell in love with the Red One camera,” says Moore. “So he did some research on how Red might react in the cold.” The production decided to go for it, and Tierney took to the mountains with two Red One cameras and a full Cooke lens package. Not to mention a supply of handwarmers for the stock of camera batteries.
“Seamus could shoot all day and not change hard drives,” Moore recalls. “At night we transferred each camera drive onto 1TB G-RAID drives, which held roughly three days worth of footage. Each shot was dated, numbered and in a folder of .r3d files. But the camera also created QuickTime proxies, which we loaded into Final Cut with a Red codec so we could do rough cuts on our Mac Book Pro. The proxies looked really beautiful!”
Moore reports that “everyone at Red Digital Cinema was so supportive, and the images we captured were just spectacular. Any new technology has a bit of a learning curve but we got a lot of advice from Red and from Red online forums, where everyone is sharing information.”
Moore did most of the proxy editing, which, he hastens to add, consisted largely of ensuring that the filmmakers got the shots they needed. “I checked shots with T.J. and Seamus, and you don’t need crazy skills to do that.” The Red One cameras were used as audio backup for DATs and their 24-bit 48K sound quality “was spectacular,” he adds. “It was nice to have the DATs plus the camera audio for proxy editing.”
When the files were transferred onto the G-RAIDs they were backed up twice, he points out. “One was the master, one was the back-up. We sent one back to Anacapa in Hollywood by car and one to 342 Media in Hollywood by plane. It’s a necessity to back-up things doubly.”
Editor Richard Conkling began cutting the feature at 342 Media using Apple Pro Res HQ 10-bit. At press time he had locked picture and was in the process of exporting DPX files for color correction. Concurrently, Andrew Hagen at Schtung is charged with sound design and audio post. The producers are aiming for an early 2009 completion and are speaking with several companies for domestic and international representation.
“I’d shoot on Red again in an instant,” says Moore, enthusiastically. “And the Final Cut process was problem-free and definitely economical.”
Having made his first film, Apartment Story, “when the DV revolution began,” writer/director/producer Kent Tessman opted to shoot his latest feature, Bull, on HD. The darkly comic neo noir-style tale of a stockbroker caught in a web of deception and murder, Bull (www.bullthemovie.com) was lensed by DP Tim Dashwood with a JVC HD100 ProHD camera and produced by The General Coffee Company Film Productions (www.generalcoffee.com).
“We explored different formats,” says Toronto-based Tessman. “I looked at Super 16mm but knew we would be going digital post to finish. So I looked at HD options and arrived at an ideal combination of cost and what was needed to get the film done. I wanted to make the sort of film you don’t necessarily see at a low-budget level. I wanted it to feel like a bigger and more expansive production.”
Shooting began in June 2006, a time when the HD100 was “really the first low-cost prosumer HD option” on the market, he reminds us. “It was 24p and gave the cinematic look we were going for. I shot test footage, some of which made it into the final film, and asked Tim to be the DP since he was an authority on the camera.”
Dashwood agreed that the HD100 was “the only camera that fit the bill. It was true 24p acquisition and had a reliable tape-based workflow. P2 cards weren’t going to work for the way we wanted to shoot.”
He also liked the camera’s removable lenses. “Since the film takes place partly in an office environment with small cubicles I could put on a high-quality 3.5mm-45mm Fujinon zoom lens to give me a really wide field of view that worked well in a small space.”
Dashwood likes to acquire a “digital negative” even though he was working in a linear color space with the camera. “I was able to manipulate the gamma enough to acquire a low-contrast image that gave me six or sometimes seven stops of latitude. So there was room to manipulate the image when Kent did the DI.”
For a filmic quality he turned down the camera’s detail circuit to eliminate artificial edge enhancement. He was “very careful to keep the lighting within a five- to six-stop range” and never blow anything out. And he was also cautious about “not crushing any blacks and having shadow detail captured on camera if we wanted it because there wasn’t a lot of room to play.”
Tessman did a lot of work to determine the post process. “We shot 720p HDV, which has MPEG-2 compression, so we wanted to get out of that to a robust DI format,” he explains. “I decided to use the Cineform codec for post, which holds up well over many generations and integrates extremely well with Adobe Premiere for realtime editing of multiple HD streams.”
Although Tessman is “tool agnostic” — he used Final Cut Pro on Apartment Story — his most powerful computer was Windows-based and he had Premiere Pro software on hand. In addition, Bull, while not an effects-heavy picture, had more than 130 VFX shots and Premiere’s integration with After Effects was “very strong.” After Effects would also serve as the main mastering tool.
Every night Tessman brought home tapes of the day’s shooting and transcoded them onto a hard drive, but he waited until production wrapped and he had “a decompression period” of tying up loose ends before he got down to cutting. “My goal was to do the editing and lock the picture before diving into VFX, color correction and sound editorial,” he says. “It’s easier to work from something as close to final as possible, and I wanted to get feedback on the film even if it wasn’t polished.”
One of the biggest effects sequences in Bull involved a glass-walled room overlooking Toronto harbor. “It was supposed to be in an isolated home; I didn’t want any neighbors but Toronto Island was in the background with houses and boats passing. So all that had to be painted out,” says Tessman. “It took probably a week to remove the background elements.” He performed most of the basic effects work in After Effects, including this sequence, and used After Effects, Autodesk Combustion or Eyeon Fusion for compositing. Digital artist Derek Lo did 3D modeling and animation of CG sets and other elements in Autodesk Maya.
Tessman was pleased with color correction in After Effects, which allowed him to work “at a very high degree of precision in up to 32-bit color. It’s not as fast a realtime system [such as] Lustre, but it’s way cheaper and I could tweak it to my heart’s content.”
Once color corrected and mixed, the film was output on tape for major film festival screenings in Montreal, Calgary and Hamilton, Ontario. Bull is still on the festival circuit.
Dashwood notes that “a film of this budget would have gone Super 16 in the past, but shooting HDV cut all the lab and transfer costs, and put money back into production value onscreen and into a quality cast. “At screenings, no one has ever mentioned to me that we must have shot on HD. They talk about the lighting, the acting, the story. So I consider the mission accomplished in that respect!”