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September 2014
Issue: February 1, 2011

Commercial Workflows

By: Marc Loftus

Whether you are a DP, DIT, editor, colorist or effects pro working on a commercial project, the way footage is shot, stored and moved affects you — and the next person down the line. Newer digital film cameras, such as the Red, Epic, Alexa, Phantom and F23, and even lesser quality HD cameras like the 5D and 7D, are all being used to create spots these days, and all require special handling as media is moved throughout the production and post chain. This month, Post looks at commercial workflows and how pros are acquiring, saving, processing and delivering files in ways that present the least amount of hiccups for all parties involved, while still providing the highest quality that these cameras promise. 

THE DP

Karsten Gopinath (IATSE 600) is an LA-based director of photography who goes by the name “Crash” (www.crashdp.com). He’s been shooting a lot on Red recently, and when we caught up with him, he was shooting a Lifetime promo starring Heidi Klum. He also worked on a BET awards promo recently, and commercials for both Lincoln and Toyota. 

“I use a lot of different cameras,” he says. “I use Red, Alexa, Phantom, film cameras…you name it, I’ve used it all.”

Two years ago, Crash says 80 percent of the jobs he shot were on film, and 20 percent on Red. “Now, it’s gone the other way. It’s about 80 percent on Red and 20 percent on film. It’s been a big switch.”

Red workflows have come a long way in that time, he adds. “It used to be that people didn’t know or understand the Red workflow, and it was very complicated. You [would] bring it to a place and they would be totally confused by it. People would try to do the transcoding themselves, and they just wouldn’t understand to go back to the R3Ds to get the best picture quality when they were doing the online. They would just use the transcoded files, which are compressed.”

Today, facilities are much more up to speed. “Now, Red has kind of nailed it. Everybody knows how to use Red footage. If you are editing in Final Cut, you can just take the R3Ds right in.”

Crash will work with a technician on set to troubleshoot storage and transcoding issues. Often, it’s DIT Dean Georgopoulos. “We shoot on set and Dino takes the R3Ds and usually does some transcoding to different formats, depending on what the editorial wants. Different post houses like to do things in different ways. Some like to have it already color corrected a little bit and put into Apple ProRes files, so Dino will do that on set. He has a Red Rocket card and knows how to do that.”

Other times, post houses don’t want the footage transcoded, and in this case they’ll take the R3Ds and use them for the edit. “We used to have to take the footage and actually get it transcoded at a facility,” says Crash of early Red jobs. “There’s a place called LightIron that I use a lot. Michael Cioni is a really good guy. Now we kind of skip that step, although they are really good for archiving…he puts it down to digital tape.”

On a recent Lincoln spot, promoting the automaker’s entire line, the production shot five Red cameras simultaneously, along with an Alexa and a Canon 7D. A Canon 5D was also used for timelapse. “[There was] just an incredible amount of storage that we had to use and [Dino] was doing transcoding at the same time. So he had to take all of the footage that was coming off of all five cameras. It took him a long time to catch up. But, for the most part, the data management issues are pretty easy.”

Being an independent director of photography, Crash is able to pick and choose his camera packages based on the job. “I’ve found that the Red is really good for night — for dark areas the Red is fantastic,” he notes. “The Alexa is good with highlights.”

THE DIT

Dean Georgopoulos (www.red31.com) is an independent digital imaging technician based in the LA area. His career as an in-demand DIT grew out of his experience as a producer, and more so, as the owner of Red One camera #0031, which he got his hands on back in 2007.

Georgopoulos believed in the magic that Red was selling, and waited on line at NAB back in 2006 to hand over his $1,000 deposit, which made him one of the first owners of the new camera. “That allowed me to gain an advantage over rental houses and other people who were getting their cameras,” he explains. “I just happened to know my way around set, because I was a producer, and I was a computer geek. And I had done a stint for four years as a projectionist with digital cinema projectors and playback devices, so I was well versed in the whole color side and making things look good to a DP and director. Everything came together, and it was a perfect job for me.”

He’s since worked on commercials for Pepsi, Chevrolet, General Motors, Budweiser, Lexis, AT&T, LG and Coors Light, among many others. His Red One, in fact, was used on the David Fincher/Nike Fate spot two years back starring NFL players LaDainian Tomlinson and Troy Polamalu.

His initial experience with Red workflows involved collaboration with Plaster City Digital Post in LA, a Mac house with a renderfarm that could transcode the R3D files to a format that was palatable to the Avid or Final Cut Pro. The process wasn’t realtime however. He would also do his own transcoding, using a cart he built, configured with Red Rushes, Red Alert or Red Cine. 

Today, his cart features two 8-core Apple Mac Pros, each outfitted with a Red Rocket card, and G-Tech eS Pro RAIDs that run at 732MBs/sec. Performance is realtime. Six consumer-grade LCD and LED monitors provide visual feedback on set.

A typical Red-shot project will involve transferring the footage from the compact flash cards or drives used for acquisition and getting them in order for editorial. “On the last two jobs, I purchased an SSD module, which replaces the CF module on the side of the cameras. I have two 256SSD cards that now function as my media,” he explains. “They also sell a 1.8-inch SSD reader, called the Red Station, that goes into my computer via ESATA. I go ESATA into the Mac Pro and then Mini SAS out to my RAID. Then I go ESATA back out to the client drives. I require for production to buy me two G-Tech G-RAIDs and I put a mirror copy on both.”

Georgopoulos manages the files through a simple folder set-up. “I have three general folders: one will be for the R3Ds, which is the negative. One folder is for the ProRes and also the Avid media, which is the MXF and AIFFs. The other folder will be for the audio. Depending on the DP, there may be a folder for reference stills and XML files with some of the color information.” 

He makes sure he knows the edit house that will be working on a job downstream in post, and will prepare the files for their specific set up. “I have phone conversations with the editors,” he says regarding his preparation. “We go back and forth. In some cases I am doing the conform, so they’ll send me the ALE (Avid Log Exchange) and I’ll make the DPX files.”

And while the Red camera, along with the Alexa and Phantom, tend to be the most widely used, Georgopoulos is also well versed in handling workflows involving the Sony F23 and F35.

“My job is almost a QC agent,” he explains, “making sure there is nothing overexposed or underexposed, and being the eyes of the DP [who] isn’t necessarily focused on all the teeny little details. I am the back-up for him, making sure that he doesn’t make a little mistake. I don’t go out there screaming it, I’ll go whisper in his ear that it’s too hot or we need to take this or that down.”

DAILIES

Santa Monica’s New Hat (www.newhat.com), which opened in 2008, built a digital color correction pipeline that best accommodates today’s popular digital acquisition formats. 

The facility is home to three veteran colorists: Bob Festa, Beau Leon, and Michael Mintz, and while all three handle a diverse workload, Festa and Leon tend to specialize in commercials, with Mintz working on features. 

The studio recently completed work on two jobs that were shot using Arri’s new Alexa camera — one for Kia and another for La-Z-Boy. Technical director Mike Lafuente details the facility’s set-up, which is based around FilmLight Baselight 4 color correctors. “You can basically open up any job in any room across the facility,” says Lafuente. “The main difference is one of the rooms is a theater with a 2K projector, and the other two correction suites have broadcast monitors. Two are more geared toward commercials, where one is more geared toward theatrical.”

The Baselight systems have the Truelight library of Look Up Tables for previsualizing film images on electronic display devices.

For Alexa-shot projects, Lafuente says: “We’ve been getting QuickTimes right off the camera. We have the ability to accept a raw Alexa file, but nobody has been doing that yet. The Baselight has all the codes in it to playback the raw Alexa files on the fly, [but] up to this point, everybody that is shooting with the Alexa is outputting ProRes 4:4:4.”

In a dailies scenario, Lafuente says New Hat will color correct the footage and give it back to the client with the exact time-of-day timecode originally recorded. “They go off and cut it and come back with a work tape. Let’s say they did the dailies somewhere else? They come back, [and] what they’ll give us is just an EDL list. It can be a CMX3600. It can be an Avid AAF file, or it can be a Final Cut Pro XML file.”

The EDL will be brought into the Baselight system, along with an offline QuickTime. “The Baselight let’s you do a split screen,” Lafuente explains. “You can split up to nine images, but we usually do a split between two. One has your high-rez Red, for example, and on the other side would have the work picture, which is usually a H.264 QuickTime. We lock them together and go through the EDL and make sure everything looks good, hit the ‘Done’ button and everything is conformed. We usually can conform a spot in 10 minutes or so.”

The Baselight is able to handle raw footage in realtime, so there is no transcoding, says Lafuente. For Red jobs, New Hat will take the R3D files off the compact flash cards or from a hard drive and load them onto the facility’s SAN. In the case of Alexa projects, the footage usually comes in on a hard drive or on the SxS cards that the camera captures to.

“We are not actually making DPXs or anything. We are working off the raw files. We are the farthest upstream as you can get, other than coming directly off the camera, which doesn’t exist, but that is pretty much what we are doing there.” The studio’s SAN provides 4K playback, and each Baselight is also outfitted with its own local storage, offering similar performance.

New Hat worked with editorial house Spinich on a recent Kia spot that promotes the automaker’s Optima. The project was shot on Alexa and brought to the studio, where Festa performed color correction and created the dailies. Files came in on SxS cards.

“We dropped it on our SAN, Bob colored it with a one light, gave it a nice look, and we sent it off, I believe as ProRes for those guys,” Lafuente recalls. “They cut it and came back and gave us a standard CMX3600. We lined up the cuts and made whatever deliveries they needed, whether it’s HDCAM or QuickTime sequences.”

New Hat has worked with Spinich on a number of projects, including spots for Hyundai, and a project for Universal Studios that was shot with the Phantom camera.

“The Phantom camera doesn’t have timecode on it, so if we are going to do the dailies, we assign timecode to those files so when they come back they have something to cut to,” Lafuente explains. “Just like the Alexa and Red, we work with Phantom raw files. Let’s say they shot at 500 frames a second? We can play back at 30 or 23.98 or 24, whatever they like, and we give them back QuickTimes, or we could go back to out to tape. When they come back, it’s all on our SAN and it’s a very quick conform.”

Pre-production talks, says Lafuente, can help avoid workflows issues, particularly in sessions that might be more stressful when clients are sitting in. “It really helps to do that,” he says of the pre-production meetings.  “It’s always good to ask questions. There are a lot of surprises, so it’s good to cover all bases. We don’t like to say, ‘We don’t like to work with one format or another.’ We just say, ‘Bring us what you have and we’ll make it work.’”

FINISHING

Nutmeg Post’s Gary Scarpulla is a senior colorist with more than 20 year of experience under his belt. He is a long-time da Vinci user and worked at VCA/Teletronics, Image Editorial and Creative Group, before joining Nutmeg last July.

Scarpulla says he saw a change in the role of the colorist, as well as in workflows over the past few years. More and more, it was becoming necessary to perform composites and create titles, in addition to handling color correction. He also saw an increase in digitally-shot projects. He became an Assimilate Scratch user, recognizing that the newer digital workflows presented different challenges, and that Scratch addressed them head on.

“The beauty of Scratch is: there is not one format that it won’t take in and finish to. It affords me all of the luxuries and capabilities — and then some — of some more traditional hardware-based color grading systems,” he explains. 

Nutmeg is home to numerous Avid Nitris Adrenaline systems. There are more than a half-dozen on Scarpulla’s floor of the facility alone. His Scratch system is based on a 64-bit Windows 7 workstation with an Nvidia graphics card. The system is controlled through a Tangent four-panel array and is connected to a 12TB GlobalStor server, which each room in the facility has access to. A 50-inch Panasonic pro series plasma is used for monitoring. 

New workflows, says Scarpulla, can sometimes seem confusing to clients. “A lot of times, the client won’t really know the workflow. They are used to a film-based workflow, and are used to dropping the film off at the lab, and having the dailies done to [a] physical format, whether it’s HDCAM tape or Digi Beta.”

A recent Liberty Medical spot (pictured) was posted entirely in-house, and serves as a good example of what Scarpulla defines as his typical workflow. The project was challenging in that it incorporated a considerable amount of footage that was shot in front of a greenscreen. “They shot 4K R3D files with the Red camera,” he recalls. “We had the whole project in-house, so I was responsible for the dailies.”

Initially, he will copy all the R3D files to his server, bringing them in as native 4K Red files. He also has the option to work right from a source drive, in realtime, if he so chooses.

“You call it the dailies transfer,” he says of the files he creates for editorial. “I export Avid MXF files with a basic best light color grade on the footage, just to get them started in the edit.”

For the Liberty Medical spot, the color corrected dailies were given to a senior editor as 1920x1080, 23.98 Avid MXF files. “He did the cut with the client,” Scarpulla recalls. “There was some CGI work done and titling.”

After the edit is complete and picture is locked, the editor will give Scarpulla an EDL, which he imports back into Scratch and links up with the original 4K files. That conform, he says, takes place in a matter of seconds. “That is the thing that is taking people a little time to wrap their minds around,” he notes. “[Clients will] say, ‘I’ll just bring you the QuickTime.’ You are short changing the project…and the Red camera!”

Scarpulla says he can now “really dig into the 4K footage,” creating an aesthetic while also ensuring continuity between shots. 

“I like to get the raw Red footage more akin to a flat negative image that I would have worked on from a film-originated project,” he explains. “Flat blacks, soft whites, which gives me the ability to take the footage wherever I want.”

He values Scratch’s “media browser” feature, which allows him to strip out any metadata that’s attached to the footage, giving him more flexibility. “I‘ll strip all the metadata out and take in the files raw. Let’s say I take something in and it looks a little hot to me with the attached metadata? I have the ability to go back and change the ISO from a 500 to a 100 to give me a little more room to work.

“A lot of systems can deal with Red, [but] what I like about Scratch is that I can tailor the R3D files to get it closer to working with a flat negative. There’s no need for a LUT to look at the Red footage. I can go with what they did on the shoot or strip it off and go from scratch, no pun intended.”

Scratch’s compositing capabilities were particularly handy on the Liberty Medical project in working with the greenscreen footage. “A lot of the time, when you are doing the color grade on greenscreen footage, you are in the dark on how it is going to be used.” he notes. “[Our editor] put the background plates on the server for me, so when I did the color correction, I did a quick composite for every select take with the background that was going to be behind it to ensure the best possible results.”

Additional challenges involved balancing out contrasts and flesh tones, while still retaining a good, key-able green, and all the while maintaining a rich filmic contrast ratio. Keeping the white from clipping can be challenging, says Scarpulla, so “it’s an advantage of Scratch to be able to go into the metadata and knock down the ISO to get a little more detail in the whites to work with. It’s all realtime.”

Scarpulla feels there may be some misconceptions about Scratch’s color correction capabilities, simply because some of the system’s users are not long-time colorists. “The color correction tools are every bit as powerful — if not more so — when one approaches them with a colorist background,” he notes. “To me it’s up there in the top tier of all the other players. It’s about who is sitting behind it.”

The 4K footage provides additional advantages during the finishing process. Scarpulla says numerous blow-ups were performed in the edit of the Liberty Medical job, but when it came to the online, those blow-ups were actually reductions when culled from the original and much larger 4K files. “I had to pull the frame back to match their blow ups! We took medium shots and turned them into close ups with zero loss of quality.”

As for final delivery, Scarpulla says, typically, it’s going to be file-based. “I prefer either raw QuickTime or a DPX sequence,” he notes. “We also cater to the client’s needs, which can sometimes be ProRes HQ or Avid DNxHD, which are all worthy finishing formats. A lot of times, when you are dealing with the likes of HBO or MTV, they prefer HDCAM SR tape or D-5, and we have a full complement of VTRs here.”