Mission Digital goes on location for 'Under the Skin'
Issue: June 1, 2014

Mission Digital goes on location for 'Under the Skin'

LONDON — Mission Digital (www.missiondigital.co.uk) provides comprehensive digital cinema services, including on-set labs and post production services. Their list of credits includes support for feature films, such as The Railway Man, 47 Ronin, Skyfall, and Hugo 3D, and the television series Babylon and Elementary, to name a few.

The studio believes technology is developed to serve creativity, and they work to build digital workflows that are tailored to the needs of the individual client and specific project. To that end, Mission Digital often builds flexible DIT carts and solutions.

Managing director Mark Purvis recently served as the lead DIT on the feature film Under the Skin, which was directed by Jonathan Glazer and stars Scarlet Johansson. The film is based on the novel of the same title and tells the story of an alien seductress who preys upon the population of Scotland. Her character evolves from being totally inhuman to one who gets a glimpse into humanity and tries to absorb human behavior and emotions, only to suffer man’s inhumanity to man.

Here, Purvis details some of the challenges the film presented.

POST: What challenges did you face as the DIT?

PURVIS: “They were numerous, but that’s what makes a project interesting, i.e. finding innovative solutions for any given need or situation. And that’s why filmmakers come to us — they know we’ll develop a bespoke solution to meet their specific needs. For this film, we had a lot of physical issues to consider, both for the camera/equipment and the rigorous labor required by us.

“Straight off, the look of Under the Skin was unique; it was shot much like a gritty, live documentary, both on the city streets of Glasgow and in the primeval-looking Argyle Forest of Scotland. And for the entire film, Jonathan Glazer wanted to project a very organic environment, one that an audience would view as if they were a fly on the wall. To accomplish this look, the shoot required eight very small cameras that could be hidden — custom designed and built by One of Us — and two Arri Alexa cameras. A Red Epic was also used for some of the final scenes with the alien in the forest.

“As the film begins, the alien is seeking her prey while driving a white van about Glasgow in which the camera crew and I had strategically placed the eight covert 2K cameras. While she engages in conversational encounters with a variety of men on the street or in clubs, these cameras capture the real-world scenes and natural reactions of the men. Nearly all these men are non-actors who are completely unaware of being filmed and of the alien’s true identity. With this style of shoot, the audiences are not voyeurs, but feel drawn into the scenes as if they are also on the street or in the van.”

POST: Was storage an issue?

PURVIS: “During these shoots with the eight covert cameras, we would get up to 6TBs of RAW data each day. We definitely had our work cut out for us. During the forest shoot, my assistant and I worked side by side with the DP and then for 11 days endured trudging in and out of the dense and bone-chilling Argyle Forest. The camera crew lugged in the two Arri Alexa cameras and the Red Epic for some final scenes. This is not a trek for the faint of heart. It was labor-intensive days with food, beverage and creature comforts extremely limited during this time. But it’s a good test of team camaraderie — we were in it together, helping each other out as much as possible.”

POST: Tell use about your gear?

PURVIS: “We carried a mobile DIT case into the forest with us, a considerable challenge in itself — trudging over tree root after tree root. And then during the shoot, we were managing all the RAW data from the three cameras. The downloads were executed in our nearby van by our lab tech and the dailies were processed by two lab operators out of a hotel room in Glasgow. For this process, we used enterprise-class transport drives that could store about 8TBs of data. Super-pro Grant McPhee managed all the data, and the dailies were diligently handled by the brilliant Chris Nunn and fastidious Neil Gray.”

POST:  How was the film’s look developed?

PURVIS: “[Assimilate’s] Scratch Lab enabled me to work very closely with DP Daniel Landin to create various versions of the looks as the data came off the camera and then develop the final look for the dailies. I was able to apply the LUTs on the two sets so that editorial and the lab were able to get a distinct idea of how the final material would look. The looks were passed on to the data wrangler and hotel room lab team.

“I also think the genius of the covert cameras in the van was the key ingredient for achieving this style of shoot — audience immersion into the scene — and the look Glazer wanted. Jon was so committed to using these cameras to achieve the look he envisioned and he had the confidence to pursue it. To say the cameras were being beta-tested on the film would be an understatement — they were literally being built next to us as we were prepping the film, just days before photography kicked off.”

POST: Why did you choose Scratch Lab for your DIT work?

PURVIS: “We have five Scratch Lab licenses and one full Scratch. For both products, the debayering is a stand out. It’s the best for debayering any camera format, which we needed for the enormous amount of RAW data from the hidden cameras and the Arri RAW and Red RAW data.

“This was the first use ever of the covert cameras, so the challenge was how do you debayer the RAW data from a camera no one has seen before? Jody Neckles knuckled down like nothing I had seen before, put together the digital workflow and worked as a team with Nacho Mazzini at Assimilate for the software algorithms and James Brooks at Drastic Technologies for the DDRs so that an immediate solution came together for the film shoot. And it worked! It was the most incredible level of service, commitment and support by all parties.

“For this film, the entire crew was working in tricky conditions — snow in the forest, dark nights in Glasgow, huge amounts of data every day, rerendering to get DNG files — so we’re more than glad to have high-performance tools that make our lives easier. Scratch Lab has all the necessary features working nicely in one system, so we were able to create the dailies with proper file­naming conventions, and very importantly, render in the background at high speeds so that we could continue working while the rendering was taking place. This was of huge value since we were working with such massive amounts of RAW data every day.”

POST: How did you manage the massive amount of RAW data?

PURVIS: “When in the city, we had our DIT cart in the back of the alien’s white van. We also had another van for downloads and QC. For the forest shoots, we moved the same van rig near the set and I carried the DIT mobile case into the forest with us. 

“Back in the hotel-room lab, we had a network of systems converting sequence files to DNG files and then used Scratch to get the debayering off the cameras. We also needed to show the constructs and move the data across multiple machines that were networked with scalable storage. 

“During the life of project we archived 280- to 320TBs of data to LTO through our robotic storage solution, which is ideal for on-set back-up of this tremendous amount of content. It’s also a good way to work in a constrained space.

“The lab operators used the looks I sent them to ensure color consistency throughout the material. They did the sound sync of the material and generated the stills that went out to Glazer and Landin nightly. As for Scratch, it automatically syncs sound and video clips with matching timecode tracks.”

POST: Could you focus exclusively on this project, or did you have other jobs going on too?

PURVIS: “At Mission Digital we usually have four to five films underway and any number of TV episodes at any given time. Scratch and Lab are scalable solutions and so is our artist crew, so we’re able to manage several projects simultaneously. We’re able to offer the support of a much larger facility but without the big corporation hassles so we can readily adapt to the needs of the clients.  

“We take great pride in having attracted and trained a collective of forward thinking technicians that deliver personal service. We’re a team of proactive problem solvers and are always striving to bring something new to the table, raise the bar and exceed expectations.”