Primetime: Starz's <i>Outlander</i>
Issue: June 1, 2016

Primetime: Starz's Outlander

Starz’s hugely popular hit drama Outlander (based on the bestselling book series by Diana Gabaldon) has returned for its sophomore season, where it continues the tale of Claire Randall, a 1940s English combat nurse who is suddenly swept back in time to 1743 Scotland, and her romantic Scottish warrior Jamie Fraser. Since its original airdate in 2014, the Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated and People’s Choice Award-winning series has earned the network a reported five million viewers per episode. And, its second season premiere episode set a Starz record for highest-ever viewership. This season, the show takes viewers beyond Scotland’s borders to France, as Claire and Jamie are set on changing the course of history by infiltrating the Jacobite rebellion and preventing the battle of Culloden that ultimately dooms Scottish life.

For the production and post teams, including a brand new, full-time visual effects supervisor (Richard Briscoe), some of the season’s greatest challenges were in developing the lavish sets, and creating worlds that were equally believable and stunning.
Elicia Bessette, co-producer on Outlander, recently spoke with Post from LA while finishing up the season’s final episode, about its workflow, moving into 4K and taking the storyline outside of the Scottish landscape.

Can you discuss some of the season’s biggest challenges?

“Yes, our challenges for this season were a little bit more intensive than last, and we’ve taken that next step with our set extensions. We were lucky with our first season in that Scotland hasn’t really changed much, with its beautiful, mountainous landscapes and castles. As you saw with Dneg [Post’s interview last year with Double Negative’s Jonathan Privett on the show’s VFX], the castles were there, but we had to make them look older or adjust certain things to make them true to the period.

“This season, the episodes take place in Paris. And, Paris today does not look like 18th century Paris, so we couldn’t exactly go there and shoot. Instead, what we chose was Prague, which pretty much looks just like 18th century Paris, with its cobblestone streets. It’s fabulous. So, a lot of the work consisted of getting rid of electric lights, any kind of elements in there that didn’t belong, and that means expanding from there on out. In some of the episodes, there’s this beautiful staircase, where you get to see the river and the bridges, that’s all done by our amazing DP in Prague. He did a great job. But this season is really all about our set extensions, where we have gone above and beyond. Episode 1, for example, the plane in the LaGuardia airport scene wasn’t even there, it was a greenscreen. It’s not like we’re going to find a 1948 Pan Am plane just sitting around for us. We also, obviously, didn’t shoot in [the Palace of] Versailles. That was also a completely-CG model. We have a visual effects supervisor (Briscoe) now working on the show full-time and he works directly with our VFX vendors. We just went to the next level this season and we absolutely love having his perspective, eye and talent. It’s really made the process a lot smoother.”

I loved in the first episode of Season 2, the transition that happens when Claire is getting off the plane at New York’s LaGuardia airport and she is reaching out to her husband and suddenly, she’s in France with Jamie. 

“Oh yeah, and with that score, that was one of my favorite scenes. Get the tissues out [laughs]. If you saw the actual location, it’s this tiny little harbor with no buildings. That’s a great scene.”

Are you using previs?

“Yes, we used it for the Versailles scenes. We had to combine not only the digital mapping of each of the buildings, but Richard also had to arrange the shoot with the horses and the people and carriages that were going to be put in against greenscreen. We used photogrammetry and previs to try and match it with the director’s [footage], using Ncam. They meshed, overlaid the CG Versailles.”

How much has the workflow changed from the first season to the second season?

“Last season, we shot on Arri Alexa (using ProRes 4:4:4 and delivering in 4:2:2) cameras. This season, we switched to the Arri Amira in UHD for the first seven episodes — the ‘Paris episodes’ I call them. That was something we all wanted to try — to take that next step, and it turned out really well. I think the footage looks great. And then for the last episodes, we switched to the Sony [PMW-] F55 [CineAlta] cameras and started shooting in full 4K. Going full 4K, that’s kind of the ultimate goal for all shows now.”

So, that’s what drove that change, the 4K?

“Yes, everybody’s moving towards that 4K world. We switched over, too. The F55 was the best fit for our crew. We still shoot a lot in Scotland, or Paris for exteriors, and we did do a shoot in Prague. But there’s still a lot of stuff in Scotland and the weather there is pretty intense. We have the gladiator of crews. They wanted to make sure they had a camera that could withstand the Scottish weather.”

How is the footage moving through the pipeline?

“Both processes are fairly similar. With the Amira, we process the dailies ourselves in Scotland, where we have a wonderful crew out there that includes our post supervisor, dailies assist and colorist. They create the LUTs on-set with our DIT and then it goes to our colorist. For the F55, we end up doing a dual recording for our dailies, and then the 4K would come straight to our colorist at MTI Film in LA. Our colorist processes everything there. I also have my other staff here in LA, which is my post supervisor Michelle Mason, our post coordinator Bryce Scherer-Brian, my co, co-producer [and editor] Michael O’Halloran and the editors.”

What are you using to cut on, as well as for color and finishing?

“We are editing on Avid, Version 7 right now. Color is Nucoda, which was new for me on this show. It works really well. Steven Porter (MTI Film), our colorist, is amazing. Every century or decade has a different look. I don’t know if you read the books, but there are a lot more decades and centuries coming up. Steven very much wants us to define the world each time we’re in a new place, which is why Paris was so much fun. We got to really pump the color. We even had Terry [Dresbach], our costume designer, in for a color session. The red dress [worn by Claire] was a big deal. We had to make sure we got that just right.

“We are all file-based this whole season, no tape, and one of the things we are  provided with is a massive FTP because we do pipe a lot of stuff back and forth. I can’t even imagine how many terabytes we have of storage, but it’s a lot, and we finish and send Starz a UHD file, because that’s their delivery requirement now, not full 4K, and then we require an IMF final file for Sony archives.”

What about storage? Are you using ISIS?

“Yes, here in the office we’re using ISIS. I’m not sure if we’re upgrading to NEXIS, maybe. That was one of the things we talked about when we switched from HD, knowing we were eventually moving into the 4K world — what do we do to store the drives? Do we store on drives like we were? Or, do we go with something like a NEXIS? We were looking into NAS storage, but at the time we didn’t know the workflow, so we were a little bit hesitant. Instead, this season, we did straight to drives, which is cumbersome, especially when we have publicity pulls and things like that. That’s something else we’re looking into next season, to see if we want that NAS storage.”

Any particular challenges on the series or major overhauls in the workflow from last season to this season?

“Yes, going into 4K — it’s the render time, the data management. We all knew it was coming, but you don’t know until you’re in the trenches. It was a little difficult this season.”

How big a role does audio play on the series?

“Very big. It’s all about creating that world and [Emmy-nominated composer] Bear [McCreary] has these Parisian harpsichords in the music, but also, there are these Scottish themes in there, too, so we don’t forget where these characters come from. The music is such an integral part in telling the story. With Bear, it’s so funny, because when we do the spots or get his notes about what he’s thinking, sometimes he’ll say, ‘I don’t think you need music in this part, just let it sit.’ It’s really funny to have a composer go, ‘No, this is good.’ He’s always right, though.”

Any major scenes you want to discuss in one of the early episodes?

“My favorite of the first three is Episode 2 in Versailles. I thought they did such a stunning job. It all came together — the costumes, sets, one of my favorites pieces of Bear’s. Then we end on this fireworks display, which is a huge visual effects scene. We shot fireworks in Scotland and it was raining and lightening. We had to delay it for two weeks, but visual effects really came through for us in the end. That was one of my favorite episodes.”

What stands out for you the most about working on this show?

“The best part about this show is that everybody wants it to look and sound and be as authentic and beautiful as it possibly can. When you’re in the trenches and you’re thinking you’re never going to finish this, it’s great to have the support from our producers.”