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July 2014
Issue: March 1, 2011

3D video assist for 'Pirates'

BEVERLY HILLS — A scurvy pirate crew? Check. Ships, cannons and exotic locations? Check, check and check. How about a video assist crew and cart able to handle the demands of a 3D shoot in the tropics? Although that would be about as difficult as locating a treasure chest on a deserted island, the producers of the latest film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise found just that with Ocean Video. 

Filming Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, scheduled for release this summer, was an ambitious endeavor in terms of production and effects. Shot in steaming jungles, at pristine beaches and on historical sets all over the world, the addition of 3D made an already challenging film’s production requirements forces to be reckoned with. 

These requirements led Pirates’ producers to search for production companies that could meet all the challenges of a regular Hollywood blockbuster, while also being able to handle the technology demanded for 3D filming. For the job of video assist, they chose Beverly Hills’ Ocean Video to provide the system and Chicago’s Kevin Boyd of KPB Digital Film to serve as lead operator. 

For 3D productions such as On Stranger Tides, there are currently only a few video assist specialists in the world capable providing a mobile 3D environment. Jeb Johenning, president of Ocean Video, is one of them. He integrated Blackmagic Design’s Micro Videohub into the development of the company’s 3D HD video assist cart, and credits the router with making his and the crew’s jobs dramatically easier.

What video assist does is all in its name. The purpose of the technology is to provide instant gratification to crew members — including directors, producers, camera operators and stereographers — and streamline the efficiency of operations. Video assist carts enable filmmakers to record and playback video footage within seconds of each other, then edit or re-shoot accordingly.

In developing the video assist cart for On Stranger Tides, the Ocean Video crew fit right in. Especially Johenning, who was already familiar with both water work and summer blockbusters. Before founding Ocean Video 15 years ago, he began his career in the waterbed industry, where he spent 25 wildly successful years in the fad-based business. When he met a sound mixer that told him about video assist technology being used with tape recorders, the industrial designer immediately saw an opportunity to move from tape to digital. From that point on, Johenning has dedicated himself to building digital video assist technology for Hollywood, and Ocean Video’s systems have been used on movie sets all over the world, from The Matrix Reloaded to Angels & Demons.

For this film, Ocean Video needed to build a system that would allow the film’s director, DP and technicians to be able to view the multiple camera feeds needed for 3D work. The system also had to be flexible enough to work in any location with a wide variety of cameras and other devices. Millions of dollars were going into each shot, and the video assist cart had to perform flawlessly.  

Bringing together the multiple sources and being able to switch views and route signals where needed is why Blackmagic Design’s Micro Videohub became an invaluable addition to the cart. Through the Micro Videohub, Ocean Video was given 16x16 SDI routing, re-clocking, built-in Ethernet, USB and serial router control interfaces, all in a compact solution that fit right into the video assist cart.

Ocean Video built a Mac-based cart around the Micro Videohub, which was directly interfaced through QTAKE, a software package allowing users to log, capture, playback, edit and process video output of digital cinema cameras. The cart was then connected to two Red cameras, which were shooting four video streams at once for 3D acquisition. The Micro Videohub was configured to take those four live streams and route live video back out to a monitor without ever having it pass through a computer. The system was so quick, in fact, that some members of the crew chose to set monitoring up in such a way that they were always looking at the live picture, ready to give instant feedback and make adjustments as they saw fit. 

It was very important for Johenning to give the On Stranger Tides crew as much flexibility as possible. “Sometimes you want to prep things for the director that you don't want other people looking at. I was able to tell the Micro Videohub to show everyone live while the director got a private look at reference material, and then would decide whether to re-shoot or modify the scene,” he explains. “Or you might be a in a situation where the producer is not available to watch what’s happening on set. The system let us grant satellite access and show the producer playback of various scenes, like magic. The technology on the cart allowed us to connect directly to the cameras and transfer metadata as it’s shooting to be captured in the computer, and use the Micro Videohub to route exactly what we tell it to.”

The connectivity of Blackmagic’s Micro Videohub makes it easy to move images around on set. “Unlike with hardcoded switchers from other vendors, you can change how the Micro Videohub communicates with other devices,” notes Johenning. “We were able to discreetly and specifically playback footage, and allow or restrict people from seeing things with relative ease.”

Because On Stranger Tides was shot entirely in 3D, and the crew was dealing with left and right eye images, the router had twice as much work to do. Johenning was drawn to the Micro Videohub because it could handle taking all camera feeds in, and software control made it possible to select what to do and where to go from there. 

“Having the ability to move stuff all around was very important,” he says. “Without the Micro Videohub we would have been constantly unhooking and re-hooking, and at the very least would have had to do twice the amount of button switching to move left and right eyes off of one patch onto another.

“Smart Control, Blackmagic Design’s forward-thinking software developer kit, gave us the idea to customize router control. The interface between technology on the cart and the Micro Videohub gave us foolproof routing and switching, and a level of control over hardware that’s hard to come by in the chaos of a movie set.”