WORKFLOW SERIES ARTICLE 1c: Focus on feature films
In issue #153 of IF Magazine (June-July 2013), IF launched an exclusive workflow series written by one of Australia's leading post-production and digital media practitioners, John Fleming. To be released in four instalments, the series will explore the different approaches to workflow associated with digital content production. This first article looks at the main influences and identifies the building blocks for a future focussed digital workflow. Other articles will take a more detailed look at the workflows associated with specific genres. Find the second instalment of the series in IF #154 (August-September), on sale now.
Feature Film Snapshots
In creating a finished feature film many hours of content must be carefully distilled into a hundred minute Master. From a creative perspective, allowing the ongoing evolution of the idea until the very last moment is seen by many Directors as highly desirable. The following ‘snapshots’ provide insights into some key trends that look to support this ideal.
VFX Supervisor Chris Godfrey set up the Bazmark VFX unit specifically to support the needs of The Great Gatsby. The breadth of this facility was made possible by affordable technology and the availability of talented and experienced specialists.
On one level the unit was responsible for allocating parcels of VFX shots to seven different vendors in Australia and North America. However having his own team and specific pieces of technology, allowed Chris to directly manage the look and quality of all VFX shots and then respond quickly to changing priorities in the creative process.
Digital Effects Supervisor/Pipeline TD, Tony Cole commented that “we were more responsive to internal discussions and understood the technical detail in the project when things had to move quickly during the grade and mix.”
In a day to day sense Bazmark VFX was the ‘staging’ area for all the VFX work. However it was also involved in a diverse range of pre-vis activities and completed over 400 of the 1600 plus VFX shots.
In addition to this, Gatsby was shot in native 3D (as opposed to 3D conversion) so the VFX shots, over 50 % of all shots, went through their SGO Mistika for 3D corrections prior to being handed over to the VFX vendors. Also as a part of this process was a ‘balance grade’ set by Chris and Tony to ensure consistent pre-grades across all vendors.
Editorial is the creative hub. They see everything coming and going. Increasingly they remain active throughout the finishing process; continually updating VFX shots as they are finished so the Director can continually assess and, if need be, refine the cut. With each change new cut lists are issued. Throughout this process, investor and audience test screenings have to look and sound as good as possible even though they are often far from complete.
The editor and the director’s ‘free thinking’ focus on storytelling fronts many layers of complexity.
In simple terms this complexity comes from the need for Editorial to interface with all the different technologies used in other departments across the workflow.
To allow the creative process to continue until close to delivery, sound and picture post must happen concurrently. Changes in the picture timeline need to be reflected in a sound timeline that is often extremely complex with many layers of dialogue, effects and music. The more transparent the synchronising of picture and sound timelines, the more it will reduce the time taken to implement cut changes.
Edit assistants also have to check every last detail before AAF files move downstream to the different DI and Sound systems. Big VFX projects further increase the complexity.
Both technology companies and Services companies are focussed on developing elegant connections between their systems and Editorial. Avid, in particular, appears close to addressing some of the issues in the new versions of Media Composer and Pro Tools. However, it all remains very much work in progress.
There is a trend for VFX and Animation specialists to integrate the digital intermediate (DI) process into their workflows. Xavier Desdoigts, Animal Logic’s Director of Technical Operations explains “This allows the DI, or what we prefer to call the Finishing process, to be more ‘progressive’ and runs alongside the overall process. Whilst there is clearly a concentration of grading occurring towards the end of the project, the colour management and the ongoing look of the project is clearly considered part of the grading process. By integrating the DI process into the visual effects and animation environment it is possible to achieve a greater level of grading accuracy. Matte shapes from compositing systems allow for key elements to be isolated and treated separately. We see grading as an extension of the lighting and compositing pipeline".
Gatsby Post Production Supervisor, Henry Karjalainen and 3D DI Lead Colourist Adrian Hauser wanted to achieve something similar. To this end, Henry fostered a unique collaboration. Driven by the need for a large grading theatre to satisfy the viewing needs of 3D grading and reviews, the Cutting Edge DI facility was set up in one of Soundfirm’s mixing stages on the Fox Studios Lot. This placed the DI facility close to Bazmark VFX, and lead VFX vendor Animal Logic. Further, Soundfirm’s Mistika was used to do 3D geometry corrections on the remaining non VFX shots.
Adrian explained, “with a little over half the shots in the film being delivered from VFX and the cut being progressively 'locked' until only one week out from delivery meant the conform was truly a 'rolling' conform. We were constantly updating the cut and adding new VFX shots whilst grading and 3D sweetening the film.”
Adrian’s customised Baselight conform tools automatically updated the spools with VFX updates and edit changes as they came from Editorial. The tools meant that grading and stereo adjustment metadata tracked with the changes. To support the grading process Bazmark VFX was making sure the required mattes were available to enable meticulous grading of the final images.
A key focus of workflow is to simplify the preparation of deliverables and reduce the time to create them. The Great Gatsby DI Masters were delivered using a high speed link between the DI facility and Los Angeles. Henry Karjalainen saw this as “critical to maximising the time available to the creative team to finesse the final Master and removed a lot of stress out of delivery”.
The process was further streamlined by delivering only one set of Left, Right and Mono images but with a series of different LUTs that allowed colour transforms for the 2D, 3D and Digital and Film versions. This reduced the time spent on rendering, QC and data transfer.
Technicolor LA created the digital cinema Masters and the film deliverables. The various video Masters were also sent to Warners video facility in LA as digital file sequences. Although a big budget Studio project, it seems to point to a future model which is increasingly driven by globalised content delivery.
The nature of any given workflow depends on the inherent creative dynamic, production priorities and finesse related to the content being produced. And with the speed of technology evolution the decision around what workflow is most appropriate at any given time changes on a regular basis. This will tend to dictate if content producers prefer to have a company package everything or choose an independent specialist who can build a custom solution from the latest options available.
As an observation, well managed facilities established specifically for a single project can enhance the creative process and allow Producers to extract the maximum value from their ‘idea’.
However, while the individual practitioners involved gain knowledge and experience, the overall knowledge generated tends to dissipate as these specialists become increasingly mobilised. Each project tends to start afresh.
Professional Services companies accumulate and refresh knowledge. This is how they generate value from their business and indeed for the industry. It’s a fundamental of developing the next generation of specialists.
Hopefully the industry finds an acceptable balance to ensure creative recognition and economically sustainability. In part a solution may come from Workflow and Asset Management Systems. But that’s another story.
This article first appeared in IF Magazine issue #153. To see the second instalment of the workflow series, check out IF Magazine #154, on sale now.