Some primetime shows push the envelope with storylines that challenge social norms and status-quo thinking, and the technology used in producing these shows is often just as risky. This month, Post caught up with a number of crews that are producing and posting television series with a tapeless workflow.
Here, they share their experiences using some of the latest digital cinema cameras — including Arri’s Alexa and Red’s Epic — and creating data files that easily make their way through editorial, effects and color grading. In each case, they detail their tapeless workflow and weigh in on whether the rewards of the final product were worth the risk of shooting data.
Todd McMullen is cinematographer on the new NBC series Prime Suspect, a crime drama starring Maria Bello, who plays a tough detective trying to solve murders and at the same time gain respect in a male-dominated field.
Directed by Peter Berg and produced by his Film 44, the first season will include 13 episodes. When we caught up with McMullen, the production was halfway through Episode 6, and he was gearing up for a nighttime shoot. The pilot for Prime Suspect was shot on location in New York City. The production team is now faced with recreating that big-city look on an LA stage and surrounding locations.
McMullen is shooting Prime Suspect with Alexa. He worked with Berg on Friday Night Lights, a series that was shot on 16mm, so this new project represents his first experience with the Arri digital camera. “The Alexa is a great system,” he says of his experience thus far. “It’s portable, and we are 100 percent handheld. This camera balances well, the operators like it and it’s able to get into smaller spots.”
The series initially shot eight days per episode, but that number has since come down to seven. McMullen uses two Alexas full time, which they rent from Panavision in Woodland Hills. Sometimes they have a third. He’ll also use a Canon 5D for foot-chase sequences.
“We did shoot the pilot in New York,” he recalls. “We utilized a lot those locations and made it look like the city that it’s supposed to be for this story. We are shooting the series in Los Angeles and we are obviously trying to make Los Angeles look as much like New York City as we can, and I think we’ve been able to accomplish that.”
The Alexas are capturing footage in the QuickTime ProRes 444 format onto SxS cards. “As far as I am concerned, it’s the best format out there,” McMullen says of the Alexa. “Workflow wise, it’s very user friendly. It’s a wonderful format for television.”
While the show is cut very tightly and without any long, continuous shots, McMullen says they will often run a scene from the top in order to give the actors some momentum. Each SxS card can record 14 minutes of footage, and “that’s plenty of time,” he says.
He describes the show’s workflow as “pretty streamlined” and opted not to have a DIT on the series because a look had already been established in final color.
“We kind of had this style that Peter Berg referenced when we started shooting — Last Tango in Paris,” explains McMullen. “We tried to keep the pilot that way as much as we could. It’s not overly saturated. It’s not soft lighting and colors. It’s not glossy or glamorous, but a real look.”
“We did some tests with it and I was immediately blown away because of the latitude and ease of use of the camera,” McMullen notes. “It’s the most filmic like camera on the market. It’s not about all the Ks — 2K, 3K, 4K, 5K. It wasn’t about the attachments or some big show using it. It was about a camera you could pick up and go shoot good images with. The images had contrast and depth, and had an organic feel.
“I don’t do a lot of in-camera stuff,” he continues. “That’s the great thing about the Alexa: the latitude and the way it captures the images digitally is so close to film that it’s just amazing. I get a nice exposure and set a color temperature that I like, and we shoot. I established a look with preproduction.”
A digital loader will grab the SxS cards after they are used and offload them into a Mac tower. “He offloads them to three separate drives,” explains McMullen. “One shuttle will go to post. Another is a backup drive, and then he has our master backup in his tower in case he needs to access anything. We’ve got double redundancy.”
From set, the files go to Universal Digital Services, located on the lot across from the show’s production office. They will create the dailies and color that was established early on. Universal Digital Services will create the Avid files for editorial, also located on the Universal lot, and upload them to a system that allows for review and approval. The show is not visual effects heavy, but does require post for inserting elements that reinforce the New York setting and to pull out the occasional palm tree captured during an LA shoot.
CBS’s Criminal Minds revolves around an elite team of FBI profilers who analyze top criminals in an effort to anticipate their next move. Season 7 premiered in mid September, and when Post caught up with producer Gigi Coello-Bannon, the production team was working on day two of an eight-day shoot for Episode 7.
Coello-Bannon has been on Criminal Minds since the pilot and has been able to watch the show’s success and loyal fan-base grow over the years. She describes the series — produced by ABC Studios in conjunction with CBS Studios — as “the little show that could,” initially being matched up against juggernaut Lost, and then quickly growing ratings that first year.
Production takes place on two large sets in Glendale, as well as on various locations. The first four seasons of Criminal Minds were shot on 35mm film. The production then switched to Sony’s F35 for Seasons 5 and 6, and this season, the show has gone entirely file-based, shooting 4K with Red’s new Epic camera.
“Every time we made the leap from one format to another, we did a lot of research,” says Coello-Bannon. “The scariest part was going to file. There were so many issues in the past — not so much shooting, but the flow afterwards.”
The folks at Red turned them on to Michael Cioni and the team at Light Iron (www.lightiron.com) in Hollywood. “I have to say, that kind of cinched the deal. They are pioneers in Red. Michael Cioni is a genius and took us through his facility and the gear, and came over to the set. [We] shot something and immediately ingested it into the Outpost box, and it was like, ‘Wow!’”
The show will shoot eight days per episode, and while Red Epics are the main cameras, an occasional Canon or GoPro may also be used, depending on the scene. Once footage is captured, a DIT operator immediately loads sound and picture onto a Lily Pad, an on-set solution provided by Light Iron that Cioni describes as a lightweight color suite designed to provide first-look dailies. “Camera negative is loaded onto the Lily Pad and looks are applied and saved as meta data, which can later be used in dailies processing, visual effects and ultimately the digital intermediate,” he notes.
“It serves many purposes,” says Coello-Bannon of the Lily Pad system. “A: to store it; B: to verify there is video and sound, and that the jam syncing is happening appropriately. Then the DP comes and creates color value,” she continues. “Normally it’s called a LUT value, [here] it’s called an RMD Red metadata.”
The color settings are saved to a Flash drive and this drive, along with the original Red Flash cards and the original sound files, are packed into a secure Pelican case and brought over to post production, which is located in the same space as the set and production offices.
There, another Light Iron solution — the Outpost suite — is set up next to editorial, where data manager Aaron Moore creates an assortment of file formats for different post production needs. Moore initially creates a back-up and then ingests the color value. He also triple checks sync so that by the time editorial gets the footage, it is in perfect sync and contains the color the DP has established.
DNx36 files are created for the Avid editorial. H.264 ProRes QuickTime files are generated for upload to ABC Studios’ Jelly Roll system, which allows for viewing of dailies on a computer. These files are also used for creating DVDs. And DNx175 files, without the LUT value or Red metadata color, are created for online and assembly later on.
In addition, DPX files are created for visual effects purposes. FuseFX in Burbank handles VFX for the series. “Criminal Minds is one of those shows, that while it may not show it, we have a lot of visual effects,” says Coello-Bannon. “Since [in the show] we fly from city to city every week, we are usually creating set extensions to create the look of that city, or we’ll burn in images on people’s cell phone or computers.”
Technicolor assembles the show once it’s locked, using the DNx175 files and an Avid Symphony. Technicolor Sound on the Paramount lot handles the mix.
“We are 100 percent file based until we air our broadcast master,” says Coello-Bannon. The show is delivered on HDCAM SR tape, and its assets, including all dailies, files and the final color-timed master are archived to LTO tape.
BORED TO DEATH
The HBO comedy series Bored to Death is entering its third season, and PostWorks (www.pwny.com) in New York City is again providing on-set editorial systems as well as dailies, color and finishing services.
The show was created by author Jonathan Ames, and stars Jason Schwartzman as a Brooklyn-based writer who moonlights as an unlicensed private detective. Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis also star.
Each of the first two seasons consisted of eight episodes, and while that may seem like a more relaxed schedule than other series, PostWorks’ executive VP for technology, Joe Beirne, says Season 3 is stepping it up with an increase in the number of visual effects featured in the episodes.
Bored to Death is shot on Arri Alexa cameras by DP Vanja Cernjul. Sean Donnelly serves as the series’ DIT.
The Arris Alexas record in the ProRes 4444 format, which Beirne describes as an RGB plus alpha channel format. “You can record a key channel as well,” he notes. “They shoot in Log C, which is the Arri digital negative format, and they have a couple of LUTs that they use to pull the data into a way they want it to read.”
PostWorks converts the footage in its Colorfront On-Set Dailies (OSD) systems. The studio’s dailies colorist, Andrea Acs, will also load all of DIT Sean Donnelly’s LUTs and check the material against style frames. Sync is also checked. “Then we produce deliverables out of the OSD, one of which is a DNx36 cutting room copy that is used by the Avid editors on the show.”
PostWorks provides several Avid NLEs and Unity storage to Bored To Death for editing on the soundstage where they shoot. “We also keep a copy of all the DNx36 media and we link it to the project that comes back from the Avids on the stage,” Beirne adds. “That linked project is the picture guide that we use to conform. We conform the show in DS Nitris and we flip the uncompressed MFX media to the FilmLight Baselight.”
Using several LUTs and a color decision list provided by the DIT, the show’s color is finished in a Baselight by John Crowley.
PostWorks also handles some of the series’ visual effects, as does Click 3X in New York City. “The editor that works on that show is George Bunce,” Beirne notes, “and he does most of the stuff in an iQ Pablo. He’s a senior conforming editor and VFX editor.”
PostWorks has an Avid Unity in-house, which it uses to QC the DNx36 media before sending it out to editorial. The Baselight and Quantel systems work off of a DVS StoreNext SAN on Data Direct hardware.
For delivery, PostWorks creates a 23.98 SR master. LTO-4 back-ups are made of all the camera data. Session files are backed up as well. All media is turned over to HBO at season’s end.
“We had discussed with HBO doing file-based deliverables, but right now, I think their QC pipeline is set up for tape. It would be more difficult for them to work from data,” Beirne notes.
Hollywood’s Electric Entertainment (www.electricentertainment.com) produces Leverage, the TNT series that brings together an odd-ball crew that solves crimes using individual skills developed as a criminal, technology expert, retrieval specialist and grifter.
The show recently completed production on its fourth season. When we interviewed post production engineer Bill Ritter, the series was mid-way through post on the new season, which will begin airing in November.
Leverage shoots with Red One and Epic cameras. The production may use as many as six or seven cameras for action sequences. Season 4 will include 18 episodes and Season 5, which will begin shooting in February, has 15 episodes slated for production. Each episode is shot over a seven-day span.
According to Ritter, a laptop/ingest station resides on set — Boston in the past and more recently Portland, OR — where footage from the Red cameras is offloaded and copied. The footage is then loaded to a 42TB SAN in-house at Electric Post where episodes are cut using Final Cut Pro 7. Three picture editors and three assistants rotate on the episodes undergoing post production.
Each episode is cut to 43 minutes in length, and Ritter says the upcoming season introduces a sixth commercial break, presenting challenges for both the writers of the show and its editors. The show is cut in the ProRes HQ codec and color correction is performed using Apple’s Color. “We are going back to the original 4K files and creating a 4444 file that gets sent to TNT on Aspera and they are airing it,” he explains.
Electric Post is still using Final Cut Pro 7, even though the studio has new builds of FCP X and maintains correspondence with Apple. “Our biggest concern is that there is some path to go back,” he explains. “Right now, not being able to use 7 and 10 together, that’s a big problem for us.”
Leverage’s audio is mixed at Electric Post using Steinberg’s Nuendo, though Ritter says a change could take place moving forward, with a switch to Avid Pro Tools and the Euphonix hardware control surface.
The show is mixed in 5.1 and stereo. An M&E track is also prepared for foreign delivery, with Modern Videofilm providing additional audio services.