One show, many formats
Issue: June 1, 2011

One show, many formats

CBS’s NCIS: Los Angeles, which just completed its second season, has an ambitious way of capturing the show — they use a multitude of digital cameras, including the Arri Alexa, the Canon 5D and 7D, the Sony F-900s, JVC’s GY100 and even GoPro cameras.

This makes for an interesting post process. All files are processed internally at DigitalFilm Tree in Hollywood, which they uniform to an offline ProRes LT file that is provided to the show's editors. “They lock in Final Cut Pro, they send us the FCP project file, we do the online, which allows us to bring in all the material at full resolution, digitizing off of SR tape at 10-bit uncompressed,” reports DigitalFilmTree's Patrick Woodard, who is colorist for NCIS: Los Angeles.

He describes what it's like to deal with all these these different formats. “NCIS: Los Angeles shoots directly to SxS cards with the Alexa. Those files are ProRes HQ because sometimes they want to be untethered from the deck when using a run and gun style. They also shoot on Canon cameras — I use a program 5DtoRGB by Rarevision, which transcodes it from H.264 to ProRes HQ. Those files go into the online. We do a similar process from the GoPro files, whose native files are H.264. We convert them to ProRes HQ. Sometimes they shoot film and we digitize that.”

Once the online in FCP is completed, the entire timeline is either 10-bit uncompressed or ProRes HQ. “After that I export a self-contained QuickTime at 10-bit uncompressed and bring that into the Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve and use an EDL to place the cut points — that gives me the ability to grade on a shot-by-shot basis at 10-bit uncompressed,” describes Woodard.

Because the show is shot on location at many locales throughout LA, the look of the series changes from episode to episode, making communication with NCIS: LA DP Victor Hammer essential for Woodard.

“The DP and his DIT, John Mills, create a LUT on set, which we bake into the dailies, but it's also a guide on how to go on scene. I can tell if they go warm, if they go cool, if they go saturated.”

In Resolve he can pull up the edit and see what the DP's intention was for that scene, and that gives Woodard guidance to start color grading on the raw files. But when looks get a little more complicated, Hammer and Mills will call with more detailed direction. An even with the show’s hectic production schedule, Hammer sits in regularly on color sessions at DigitalFilm Tree.