LONDON — What if Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald, each armed with directing Oscars, entrusted shooting their new film to literally thousands of unknowns? And what if they also distributed hundreds of cameras to people around the world who lacked computers and Internet access? The result could be, no, should be total chaos.
InsteadLife in a Day is now headed for Sundance 2011 all buttoned up and ready for professional scrutiny. Besides the considerable professional chops of producer Scott and director Macdonald, the editing team, headed by Avid veteran Joe Walker (pictured), deserves a salute for imposing order on chaos. The innumerable different cameras and frame rates alone would be enough to send fainter hearts for the door.
But Walker made some good decisions while winnowing down the 81,000 clips posted on YouTube (www.youtube.com/ lifeinaday) from 4,500 hours to “only” about 300 hours of content. One was latching onto Twixtor, an inexpensive software product from RE:Vision Effects that, among other things, uses optical flow technology to interpolate frames of HD video and impart the look of 24p to footage of differing frame rates
The free cameras the production sent out — typically to non-technical people in rugged locales such as Afghanistan — turned out to be a brainstorm. Walker settled on Fujifilm still cameras he liked (they shoot video), retailing at around $120, and distributed 470 of them. Afghanistan turns out to be a starkly beautiful locale in which to shoot (video), Walker later discovered. The Fujifilm camera recipients got to keep their cameras while returning two SD cards — with as much as 16 Gigs of 1920x1080p 24fps video — to the production team. “It blows up beautifully,” Walker says, though the “sound is not fantastic.”
Most chosen contributors used their own cameras and, once contacted by the production team, placed their original clips on an FTP site. Walker feels “the most successful camera on this show is the Canon 5D Mark II — absolutely outstanding in terms of the quality of the material.”
Walker used ContentAgent from Root6 as the front-end hub for managing the ingest and export of the gargantuan amount of user-generated content that flooded Life in a Day’s YouTube site. ContentAgent promises to free up editors for more creative storytelling — a must in this case.
YouTube furnishes typical descriptive text for all videos, but the production team needed a more searchable database for categorization purposes. They used CatDV from SquareBox to customize clips with additional text panes, including: country of origin; time of day; type of camera; plus a production researchers’ description of a clip’s content.
Walker’s equipment supplier on Life in a Day was Sixteen19, located in New York and LA as well as London, which specialized in setting up the production’s eight-Avid workflow. “Ramon Huggins was an absolute asset to our production,” Walker says. “He managed to rig up endless Avids at a moment's notice, and spent hours and hours wiring up kit that he wasn't even supplying!”
HELP FROM TWIXTOR
In Walker’s YouTube messages to the video-shooting troops, his key point was that the production wanted a frame rate of 24 when at all possible. “They completely ignored me,” Walker chuckles, “we actually got 60 different frame rates!”
Gwillym Hewetson, Walker’s first-assistant editor on Life in a Day, found Twixtor invaluable in solving the movie’s multiple-frame-rate issues. “Every piece of software we applied to our images still created blended frames when we downconverted,” Hewetson laments. “We needed clean, unblended frames to work from. Like a normal effects workflow, we went with TIFFs. All the TIFF sequences were exported at their native clip frame rate and frame size, and imported into our 24-frame HD project. This way we got a clean frame in our Avid to work with. We then applied the Twixtor effect and replaced artifact frames with clean frames wherever we could — Twixtor did the rest.” Hewetson adds that in the few cases where Twixtor couldn’t fix a clip’s issues they used Avid motion effects.
“Twixtor did an amazing job with the downconverting,” he says, “and made in many places a seamless image that would be hard for most people to identify as a different frame rate than our native 24. In the end it was several methods that helped us reach our final product, but 92 percent of our problems were solved with Twixtor.”
“I’m a major fan,” adds assistant editor Marc McDermott. “I’ve already told friends in post production houses about our experience. We had 60 different frame rates to deal with!”
Walker also used Twixtor sometimes for a little trick it’s become well known for —slowing things down. For instance, when he had finished a speaker’s on-camera sound bite but the lip flap continued, Walker would slow down the frames to still the lips.
STORY OF A DAY
But what was the story? Can thousands of people — mostly amateurs — tell any kind of cohesive story?
Walker says they can — and the team often chose very emotional, personal material. Still, just imagine the sheer weight of 81,000 videos, albeit resting on the experienced shoulders of talent like Scott, Macdonald and Walker. Entries were given a star rating and some are of very high quality. The content “is not the typical YouTube experience,” Walker says. “I think, the way the appeal was made by Kevin and Ridley in their trailers, they attracted a lot of filmmakers,” including Red camera users. “Some shots are so amazing and well shot” they could be used in big-budget commercials.
Walker and company also looked for structure — one storyline, understandably, is the passage of July 24’s 24 hours. The staff found one “fantastic shot” for starters — the full moon at midnight, filling the screen — submitted by a Dutch videographer who managed to capture the silhouette of a passing airliner as it diagonally bisected the orb.
Daily doings from around the world often start with what Walker termed “ablutions,” such as brushing teeth or showering. Later, there’s lunch. July 24, 2010 was a Saturday so there were more activities outside of work to be documented, including a barefoot skydiver in freefall.
Darkness falls in Life in a Day, changing the mood. One dramatic sequence Walker cut involves footage from an outdoor concert/rave held in Germany called “Love Parade.” Planned to accommodate 300,000 attendees, about 1.5 million actually showed up and a stampede ensued in a tunnel resulting in 19 deaths and hundreds injured.
As Life in a Day was locking picture by mid-December, the documentary comprised 900 clips, submitted by approx 400 users. Often, clips would be used to make montages meant to introduce a segment. The final runtime was coming in around 90 minutes — not bad for a trip around the world. Technicolor London graded the movie on Spectre.
One thing Walker took away from his time on Life in a Day was “how poor sound is” when you put a camera, with its built-in mic, in the hands of amateurs. But as Walker prepares to start on a new movie by writer/director Steve McQueen (Walker edited his Hunger in 2008), he has one vow: “I’ll never complain again!”