SILENCE BECOMES YOU
May 2, 2005
SILENCE BECOMES YOU
By James Careless
Would you shoot your studio’s first feature film using a brand new digital cinematography system – one that offers interesting visual and production possibilities but also the risks associated with any new application? This was the dilemma that recently confronted Stephanie Sinclaire, founder of UK studio Dragonfly Films and co-producer of the 2000 Oscar finalist short film The Dance of Shiva.
Sinclaire was about to start shooting Silence Becomes You, a film she had written, was producing and was going to direct with actors Alicia Silverstone, Sienna Guillory and Joe Anderson. Silence Becomes You is the story of two reclusive sisters living in an isolated New England mansion who seduce a man for the sole purpose of getting them pregnant. Of course, the sisters’ tidy plan goes awry when love and lust come into play.
At about the same time, UK post house MotionFX had teamed up with film consultancy Digital Praxis. Together, with a yet-to-be-determined film studio, they planned to shoot a feature film using Thomson Viper cameras in FilmStream mode. (Viper’s FilmStream mode captures full resolution, uncompressed video – RGB 4:4:4 10-bit log – and transfers it to a disk recorder using Dual Link HD-SDI. Additionally, its CCDs, which consist of 1920 horizontal pixels and 4320 vertical sub-pixels , allow the Viper to support a 2.37 Cinemascope aspect ratio without the need to use anamorphic lenses. In effect, what the Viper gains by using sub-pixels is the ability to support multiple aspect ratios using spherical lenses.) As the first-ever feature to be shot using Viper’s FilmStream mode, the film would demonstrate the quality, portability and flexibility of FilmStream HD video.
As fate would have it, Digital Praxis founder and CEO Steve Shaw had worked with Sinclaire on The Dance of Shiva. Having read her script for Silence Becomes You, and mindful that the film’s mansion setting would fit well with FilmStream’s mobility restrictions – currently the cameras are tethered to large hard disk recorders that are not easy to tote around – Shaw spoke with MotionFX about choosing Silence Becomes You to be the first FilmStream feature project. They then approached Stephanie Sinclaire with the idea that MotionFX would co-produce.
“I knew it was risky, but it was also fun and exciting to shoot in a different kind of format,” Sinclaire says. “Besides, shooting in uncompressed HD appealed to me because it provided a more film-like look than conventional video would.”
Shooting in FilmStream:
Since it takes place inside a mansion set with very few second unit location sequences, Silence Becomes You lent itself well to FilmStream production. The reason is that FilmStream is not exactly portable. To be precise, the Thomson Viper FilmStream digital cameras were connected to S.two D.MAG DFR digital film recorders via “umbilical” cables so that the camera operators didn’t have to carry the DFRs around the set. For field work, Sinclaire’s second unit mounted a DFR on a wheeled cart.
On the set, the scenes were shot using two Viper cameras equipped with spherical Zeiss DigiPrime lenses. Sometimes the two cameras shot simultaneously, providing two views of the same scene for easy editing later. At other times, the cameras were shared between the film’s first and second units, with the on-set production accomplished with a single Viper.
The Viper A camera output was fed to a normal B&W viewfinder, an Astro combined waveform monitor and a vectorscope. Meanwhile, the B camera feed was sent to an AccuScene color viewfinder. “This combination was used so that the A camera provided accurate technical monitoring for main shots and the B camera, with the AccuScene viewfinder, provided level clip warnings and an image that was camera operator-friendly,” says Shaw. A Sony 23-inch flat-panel LCD monitor mounted on a flight case, partnered with the Astro waveform monitor for level checking, was used for on-set monitoring, “specifically for the director and DP Arturo Smith,” adds Shaw.
For beauty shots, MotionFX developed optical filters for the Viper cameras to balance the color characteristics prior to capture; since the filters reduced the camera’s light sensitivity by about a stop, they were used only for those instances “where light level wasn’t an issue,” Shaw notes.
A number of shots required high-speed capture, which the production team approached in two ways. For visual effects shots – including flames, water and a mermaid in a swimming pool – the team used a Weinberger CineSpeed digital camera running at 500fps. Meanwhile, dance and dream sequences were captured at 60fps on the Vipers for 24fps playback. HD-DPM+ image sensors provide Viper’s overcranking support. One of FilmStream’s modes allows the camera to capture 1920 horizontal pixels by 720 vertical lines at 60fps. To arrive at the 720p standard, the FilmStream camera’s output switches to 1280×720 at 60fps. During post, these 60 frames per second can be slowed to 24fps, thus achieving a 2.5x slow motion. Although there is some loss of resolution in the slow-motion mode, since the CCDs keep running on 1920 pixels horizontally, the visible loss is small.
Cinematographer Jack Cardiff served as The Dance of Shiva’s DP. Given how successfully he and Sinclaire had collaborated on that project, she was happy to hire Cardiff as visual consultant for Silence Becomes You. In this role, Jack Cardiff got a lot of hands-on experience with the Viper/FilmStream digital process and the ability to knowledgeably compare it to conventional 35mm cinematography.
So what’s his take on this form of digital cinematography? “Presently, the film camera and lens do a superior job because we are fully aware of their capabilities and flexibilities,” Cardiff replies, “and by using certain learned techniques, we are able to capture distortions and flaws that we use for our purposes to create various effects. In most cases, because the digital format is self-correcting, those effects must be created in the editing room, which is now the digital lab. This eliminates some of the cinematographer’s ability to be spontaneously creative.”
“Our little tricks on film took the industry more than 100 years to develop; now the challenge is to create those effects digitally,” he adds. “Then and only then will we be able to develop our own new styles and techniques using this digital format. Concurrently, we must remain aware of the fact that presently every problem cannot be solved with a digital camera and lens or even in the digital lab; at present, there still remain effects that you cannot yet get digitally, effects that are possible only using film.”
On the upside, it was possible to produce FilmStream dailies very easily for viewing via a JVC HD digital film projector. “The playback from the dailies was also fed into our offline editing system in compressed HD form,” says Shaw. “The uncompressed FilmStream video was then backed up onto an Adic LTO2 tape archive jukebox using S.two’s A.Dock backup system. The D.mag media units were then available for re-use for the next day’s shooting.” The Adic LTO2 generates two clone tapes, “with checksum verification to ensure 100 percent accurate dupes of the original data,” he adds.
In general, there were no major problems for Sinclaire and company while shooting. However, postproduction was another matter. The problem had to do with setting up the proper offline editorial workflow. The equipment spec, initially Apple Final Cut Pro, was later changed to Avid. According to Shaw, the problem with Avid offline systems is that, because they are SD-based, they are poor at 24fps operation and final EDLs are therefore not 100 percent frame-accurate. Newer systems from Adobe and Apple, however, can ingest 24fps HD material directly. The Avid kit was rejected because of its 24fps timing issues, and Adobe then offered to supply a Premiere Pro system in its place. Unfortunately, the editorial team didn’t have the time to learn a new system from scratch, so the team returned to the first choice of Final Cut Pro. There was a two-week delay in initiating offline while the various options were considered.
The actual post was done using an offline-generated EDL loaded into a Quantel iQ DI editing server. “The extraction from the LTO2 archive tapes was done using 10TB NAS disk systems,” says Shaw. “It served as a buffer store that was connected to the iQ using a Gigabit Ethernet network.” Meanwhile, visual effects shots were produced separately by MotionFX using Digital Fusion, 5D Cyborg and Alias Maya 3D, then dropped into the online iQ edit as needed. The final edit was done at Marino Studios in Carasco, Italy, along with the insertion of a THX-certified 7.1-channel surround sound audio track.
Conclusions (to Date)
For Stephanie Sinclaire, shooting in FilmStream has been a groundbreaking adventure. Working in this uncompressed HD format provided Silence Becomes You with a level of visual quality that wouldn’t be economically possible on 35mm. In a very real way, working digitally has allowed her to do more with less.
Has it been a scary experience? “I think there’s always something nerve-wracking taking place on a film set, no matter what medium you’re shooting in,” Sinclaire replies. “Fortunately, the MotionFX people were always ready to help when problems arose with the equipment.”
This said, Sinclaire is pleased with the results she’s achieved using FilmStream and the extra attention it has generated for Silence Becomes You. “I won’t be surprised if the whole tech world turns out to see the film, to decide whether the risk we ran was justified or not!”