The production and post industries have been implementing remote workflows for a number of years now, but without question, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated their adoption as a way to continue working during the worldwide lockdown. This month, we look at a number of companies that are offering solutions that help productions cut down on the number of workers needed on set, or enable those in distant locations to collaborate, review or approve content as it evolves.
Streambox software/subscription simplifies remote review
Streambox (streambox.com) has introduced Spectra, a new virtual streaming media application for cloud and desktop workflows. Spectra enables post production sessions from anywhere — at the highest quality — without the need for external hardware or difficult-to-manage and expensive fiber networks.
Spectra delivers the quality needed by decision makers in collaborative post workflows, be it for remote color grading, editing, VFX or sound productions. In conjunction with Streambox Cloud Services or on-prem production workstations, creatives can participate in virtual reviews without the need for special equipment.
Spectra’s remote reviewing capabilities overcome a number of existing challenges that stand in the way of experiencing high color quality, low latency and multi-channel sound. Creative professionals can get started with by entering a modest monthly subscription, which enables secure live sessions over even a public internet.
Spectra offers a high-performance software encoding app/service designed to interface with a variety of source applications and hardware. In addition to the Spectra app/service, Streambox provides application-specific plug-ins to interface Spectra with third-party applications or devices, such as Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro and other Creative Suite apps, Blackmagic Design video cards, and Apple’s iSight or other USB cameras.
In addition to SDI and other baseband sources, Spectra can work with NDI source streams over IP for multipoint cloud reviews or point-to-point sessions.
Streambox Spectra works on Apple Silicon-, Intel- and AMD-based systems with Apple MacOS or Microsoft Windows 10 operating systems, with upcoming support for Linux. Spectra supports up to 12-bit, 4:4:4 color with HDR, and up to 4K DCI resolution. Other capabilities include up to 16 audio channels, including 7.1, 5.1 AAC or PCM audio, and support for zero delay, 128-bit or optional AES 256 encryption.
Frame.io debuts Camera to Cloud solution
Frame.io, the maker of a cloud-based video review and approval platform, recently announced Frame.io Camera to Cloud (C2C), a secure camera-to-cloud workflow that lets customers instantly upload and stream images from on-set cameras to creative post production teams anywhere in the world. C2C provides two services. First, it enables instant proxy uploads the moment cameras stop rolling. In addition, Frame.io C2C can live stream footage to an authorized user’s device on or off set, allowing customers to watch production as it’s happening. This is beneficial to productions working during COVID, as it reduces the number of people needed on set.
Getting footage from a camera into post production can be a time-consuming process that requires backing up files, transferring them to a hard drive, and shipping them to another facility. Frame.io C2C eliminates that, letting customers simultaneously view a live stream of footage as it is being shot, while automatically capturing and uploading proxies as soon as the camera stops rolling.
The camera-to-cloud workflow requires a Frame.io C2C-certified device connected to compatible cameras from Arri, Red and Sony. Once authenticated, certified devices such as the Teradek Cube 655 and Sound Devices 888 or Scorpio recorders will record, encode and send timecode-accurate H.264 proxy files with matching filename metadata directly to Frame.io via an encrypted and secure connection using LTE, 5G or WiFi. This allows for near realtime delivery of editable proxy files to a producer, dailies facility or editor anywhere in the world.
In addition, Frame.io users with proper credentials can view a live stream of footage while it’s being shot from the comfort of their computer, iPhone or iPad — whether they are on set or halfway around the world.
“In today’s socially-distanced world — where remote work has become the norm and the number of people on-set is limited— Frame.io C2C is a game changer,” states Emery Wells, CEO of Frame.io. “Camera to Cloud gives film, television and commercial productions a seamless new way for creative teams to do their best work, no matter where they are.”
Manufacturers interested in building Frame.io C2C Certified software and hardware can find details at the company’s Website (developer.frame.io). C2C features are included at no additional charge for customers with a paid Frame.io account. Flexible, new monthly enterprise plans let customers and studios purchase the service they need for the duration of their production. C2C is currently in beta and will roll out this spring.
Nice Shoes’ grading capabilities evolve
Nice Shoes (www.niceshoes.com), based in New York City, has been offering remote color grading services for many years, allowing its agency clients to work with talent at any of its different locations, including New York, Toronto and Chicago, as well as through partner sites in Austin, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami and Minneapolis.
Initially, the service involved connecting two of the locations together for remote sessions, but over time it evolved, and now clients can be almost anywhere when it comes to participating in a grading session.
“That was the early days of ‘remote’,” explains Nice Shoes executive producer Katie Hinsen (pictured). “You had to be ‘facility to facility’. A few years ago, Nice Shoes developed a system whereby you can do it via the internet, and have a smart TV or your iPad. A big part of that was demand from agencies.”
With no off-the-shelf products available to create a remote grading solution at the time, Hinsen says the Nice Shoes engineering team went to work, tweaking existing technology to get it to do what was needed.
“In terms of our remote system now, it’s either/or,” she explains, noting that clients can be at their own location, at Nice Shoes, or at a partner facility. “We give them guidelines on how to set up the room and how to set up whatever monitor they are using. We have recommended monitors, including the iPad Pro, because it is very color accurate. And our stream is extremely color accurate. It goes directly from the back of the colorist’s machine. It streams right to the client.”
When it comes to ultimately signing off on a project, the client can go into a facility to view the content in a DI theater or on an HDR monitor if necessary.
“You are never going to get exactly the same way its appearing, but neither is the audience,” says Hinsen of the remote sessions, when compared to attended sessions within a facility. “The audience also doesn’t get the professional reference monitor experience, so if you are at home, watching it on your TV, you are getting the experience that the audience is getting anyway.”
Nice Shoes has long been home to FilmLight’s Baselight system for grading, and more recently, Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve. The studio recently broadened its services beyond commercial grading to target long-form content, and Hinsen says Resolve will be an important part of those workflows going forward, as well as for maximizing the studio’s resources across multiple locations.
“Resolve’s ‘shared projects’ and ‘collaboration mode’ has really helped us,” Hinsen notes. “Everybody is logged into the same server, remotely, and we can follow the sun in a way.”
Senior colorist Maria Carretero recently remotely graded the feature film Waikiki using DaVinci Resolve Studio. The drama from Hawaiian filmmaker and Sundance Institute Native Lab fellow Christopher Kahunahana gives a look into the gritty realities of life in paradise. Carretero was based in New York, while Hinsen, as DI producer, was located in Los Angeles, and Kahunahana in Hawaii. The team collaborated over its secure, color accurate video link to view the output from DaVinci Resolve Studio. The film is an example of how the studio was able to take advantage of its talent in different locations and time zones.
A similar example would be Carretero’s work on Asaf Avidan’s Lost Horse music video, which was shot and posted remotely during the quarantine, with director Adi Halfin based in Berlin.
Lexhag virtualizes on AWS
Alexis Haggar established boutique UK-based visual effects studio Lexhag (https://lexhag.co.uk) in 2009 as a resource for filmmakers looking to solve creative problems. The studio often combines both digital and practical effects for its film and television clientele.
Recent work includes the BBC period drama Poldark (pictured at top) and Netflix’s star-crossed lovers saga The Innocents. Its latest project, set to air later this year, is Too Close, a three-part psychological thriller for ITV and Snowed-In Productions. For this project, Lexhag moved to a remote workflow based entirely on Amazon Web Services (AWS).
“We’re now 100-percent on AWS, and our old kit is being repurposed for on-set work,” Haggar explains. “AWS does the heavy lifting so that we can focus on creating.”
Lexhag’s journey to the cloud dates back to 2014, when they began using AWS (https://aws.amazon.com) primarily for back-up storage. After attending the AWS re:Invent conference in 2018, Haggar was inspired.
“Once I saw the breadth of what AWS was doing in content creation, I knew it was the move for us,” says Haggar. “We were looking to virtualize our setup given how expensive it is to rent space in Soho, not to mention outfit that space with the render power we needed, and nothing else came close. I’ve been experimenting with AWS since then, and the lockdowns of 2020 were the catalyst to make the full switch. Now we use our time capturing and creating, instead of managing brick and mortar locations or workstations.”
Initially, Lexhag and a production partner teamed with Arch Platform Technologies to help with its cloud transition and create a two-minute, fully-CG, proof-of-concept trailer. Built on AWS, Arch provides its customers with managed access to cloud-based content production workflows.
“It was super easy for our artists to spin up a virtual workstation through the Arch layer, and they quickly got used to working without a giant machine under their desk,” Haggar explains. “That said, we’re tinkerers at heart and our team is pretty tech-savvy, so it made more sense for us to build our own bespoke setup specific to our market. This provided us with more freedom and flexibility to customize our workflow. We also moved our pipeline to Linux, which was a priority, and now we can tap into its raw power.”
Replicating its on-premises workflow in the cloud, including more than a decade’s worth of legacy material, required a bit of planning. In preparation, Lexhag engaged IT solutions provider TransAct to move more than 170TB of data stored in various formats on local hardware to an Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) bucket. Haggar and his team have since pruned and tiered the data, with most files going into an Amazon Glacier Deep Archive.
Along with S3 storage, Lexhag’s Linux-based workflow includes virtual workstations powered by Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) G4dn instances, Amazon FSx for file throughput, and a fleet of EC2 Spot Instances for tiered rendering. The team manages render resources with AWS Thinkbox Deadline and taps Autodesk Shotgun for project management. Other applications used by Lexhag artists include Autodesk Maya, 3ds Max and Arnold; Foundry’s Nuke and Hiero; SideFX’s Houdini; and Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve and Fusion.
“I love the way that all of the AWS services fit under one virtual roof,” Haggar concludes. “There are so many untapped worlds to explore within the AWS ecosystem, such as automation and robotics, and as we understand these different aspects, we can ripple that knowledge into other parts of our business.”
Amazon Prime’s The Expanse overcomes shutdown
The long-awaited fifth season of Alcon Entertainment’s sci-fi series The Expanse (pictured below) completed shooting last March, but the post process faced a considerable slowdown when COVID struck. The ten-part season, which premiered in December on Amazon Prime, went ahead with barely a hiccup.
Season 5's ten episodes were cut by a team of three editors. Nicholas Wong was one of them. Wong, who is an independent editor based in Toronto, cut Episodes 2, 5 and 8, spending three or four days on a rough assemblies and then another four with the director, followed by two days with the producer.
Company 3 Toronto — which provides dailies, color, conform/editorial and sound mixing — went into rapid-response mode once the pandemic hit, moving all work offsite and setting up colorist Joanne Rourke and re-recording mixer Steve Foster’s houses to serve as a color bay and mixing stage respectively.
“When COVID hit and everything was shutting down, we knew we had to work fast to continue posting and delivering our show to Amazon,” says Alicia Hirsch, the series’ post production consultant. “Security, efficiency in the remote workflow and maintaining the quality of our show was paramount.”
“This was truly an enormous endeavor,” says Greg Hull, VP, engineering & technology. “We have set up remote sessions for our clients based in other locations before, but this was the first time we have architected a workflow at this level, with so many artists, technicians and support personnel collaborating remotely.”
Post began as soon as the worldwide shutdowns were put in place. The company’s engineers removed the DaVinci Resolve panel and delivered it, following the strictest safety protocols, along with reference monitors to Rourke’s house. Likewise, they set up senior online editor Motassem Younes at home with his GVG Rio 4K, so he could begin conforming episodes and incorporating the many visual effects. A mixing console, along with two complete ProTools systems, were delivered to Foster’s house to pre-mix in 5.1. The mix would later be completed in Dolby Atmos at the facility, after lockdown orders were lifted.
Calibrated displays and video decoders were delivered to showrunner Naren Shankar, cinematographer Jeremy Benning, VFX supervisors Bret Culp and Robert Crowther, and associate producer Gary Mueller, all of whom could work together from the safety of their own homes as Rourke graded the UHD HDR show. Additional members of The Expanse team patched into color sessions via Company 3-calibrated Apple iPad Pros, using cloud-based video apps.
“Typically for the last several seasons, I would go in and sit with Joanne and review each episode,” says Benning. The remote workflow “enabled us to work the same way. I felt like I was next to her in the room. I would run a Zoom call simultaneously and then she would play the scenes on her end and we could discuss everything the same way — in realtime.”
“We hung up some blackout curtains, had my internet speed increased, and had a wall of insulation installed to block the noise,” Rourke recalls.
After dealing with the logistics of setting up the workstation at home, the full pipeline was tested.
“The equipment was quite stable, and I was able to work fully offsite with no interruption,” she reports. “We were able to stream realtime UHD, HDR from my home.”
Rourke worked as closely as she would within the Toronto facility with Younes. Updates were transferred from the facility to encrypted storage.
“We spent much of the day either on the phone or texting,” Rourke acknowledges. Project manager Amanda Champion was also instrumental in coordinating these sessions.
“It certainly required adaptation by everyone involved, including the clients,” Rourke adds, noting that the unusual circumstances soon became increasingly transparent. “Once we got in a rhythm, we were excited that this indeed would be an effective way to work.”
As the colorist for the series’ entire run, Rourke had collaborated on all the different looks that repeat in Season 5, as well as the new approaches.
“Whenever we’ve had slight changes in the look,” notes Benning, “it’s been driven by the story. We don’t seek to invent a look for the sake of inventing a look. Since we’re jumping from storyline to storyline. We’re always trying to define each place with its own distinct sort of look.”
The current season is set more on Earth than previous seasons.
“We used color to help fine-tune the gritty, rundown quality they wanted for Baltimore and the color palette of Mars, where the cinematography made use of a lot of soft sidelight,” Rourke says, noting that she was able to collaborate remotely as this approach evolved in essentially an identical method to the one used since the show’s first episode.
“Joanne does a pass on her own before I show up,” says Benning. “When I look at [the images], I’m not starting the process from scratch. Joanne’s done a lot of the heavy lifting. Then a lot of the work is about me wanting to tweak things that might have bugged me when we were shooting, but I knew I could refine with her.”
“Company 3 met all of our expectations,” Hirsch sums up. “We were able to move forward and deliver our highly acclaimed, VFX-heavy show to Amazon on time.”