THE DIGITAL CINEMA REPORT
Consultant Steve Shaw shows us what happened behind the scenes for the creating of Silence Becomes You, a joint-venture feature shot in various locations throughout Europe.
Silence Becomes You started principle photography late in December 2004, as a co-production deal between companies in the UK and Lithuania. It’s unique as it’s a 100 percent digital cinematography feature film.
All the images were captured using a Thomson Viper camera in uncompressed FilmStream RGB 4:4:4 Log 2.37 operation, with all digital intermediate post-production performed via Quantel iQ, assisted by additional digital image processing systems for 3D and 2D vfx work.
This project came to be because MotionFX, the UK post-production facility,invested in digital cinematography and digital intermediate equipment at the very start of its introduction to the market, with the purchase of a Viper camera and iQ DI system in mid 2003.
Late in 2004 MotionFX partnered with Digital Praxis, a digital film consultancy, with the intention of developing a full digital cinematography feature film, working in partnership with an existing film production company. With the knowledge gained from this initial testing a true scene-to-screen digital film production and post-production operation could grow and develop.
A partnership is reached
Dragonfly Films is a production company that was already in discussion with MotionFX. Stephanie Sinclaire, director and writer with Dragonfly Films, had a previous history with me from our on the Oscar short-listed short film The Dance of Shiva. Jack Cardiff who was DP The Dance of Shiva, also on Silence Becomes You.
The script was ideally suited to a digital cinematography project as it’s a psychological thriller set in a rambling old manor house. This made the use of digital cinematography an easier option, as the main restriction with its use at present is wider mobility since the camera is tethered to its uncompressed disc-based recording medium.
However, with Flash memory based recording close on the horizon in the form of camera packs, the time was right for a leap of faith to prove the basic technology and workflows in readiness for a sea-change in film production and post-production.
An agreement was reached where MotionFX would become co-producers for Dragonfly Films, enabling MotionFX and Digital Praxis to provide the guarantees necessary for the technology used in making the film. In this way MotionFX was able to assist in the film’s production while taking on all post-production, managing all the digital technology, from scene-to-screen.
With the agreements in place the workflow was decided. This involved some very key additional purchases by MotionFX. They included two additional Viper FilmStream digital cinematography cameras, two additional S.two D.mag DFR Digital Film Recorders with numerous additional D.mag packs and an A.dock backup and archive unit with Adic Scalar 24 LTO2 multiple tape Jukebox.
For production assistance a JVC HD digital film projector was purchased for immediate dailies review, with the intention of data being loaded into the off-line system for dailies review and archive backup.
For post-production there was the purchase of an additional Quantel iQ system for digital intermediate operation, three Digital Fusion 2D compositing stations, an iQ number one and several 5D Cyborgs, and 3D workstations.
Sister company Marina Studios in Carasco, northern Italy, was responsible for all audio post-production. This was performed in parallel with the on-line editing and DI in their THX certified 7.1 surround sound screening room. This has a Barco DP100 2K digital cinema projector, calibrated via Kodak KDM LUTs running directly on the Quantel iQ.
A truly scene-to-screen digital film operation.
The production workflow used two Viper cameras, in uncompressed Log RGB 4:4:4 FilmStream mode, capturing a 2.37 image direct to their respective S.two Digital Film Recorders.
We captured a 2.37 anamorphic image using spherical Zeiss DigiPrime lenses using the full resolution of the CCD sensor.
The S.two’s were housed in MotionFX developed wheeled rigs complete with batteries and chargers for non-mains powered operation – especially useful for roving shots. A number of different Viper camera looms were used depending on camera requirement. We had 10m to 40m multi-core for main set work, providing power and image paths, while a longer Dual HD SDI cable was provided for Steadi-cam and longer roving shots, with the Viper running local battery packs.
An AccuScene color viewfinder was used on the ’B’ camera, with an Astro combined waveform monitor and vectorscope used with the normal black and white viewfinder on ’A’ camera. This combination was used for the A camera to enable accurate technical level monitoring for main shots, while the AccuScene viewfinder provides level clip warnings and an image that is camera operator friendly, and therefore ideal for second unit work which requires a more ’un-structured’ approach to shooting. Often there was just a two-man team operating at remote locations with a Viper and S.two in the back of a car, with small monitor fed from the S.two’s down convert output. This mobility was accomplished by using large 24v dc battery packs capable of 3.5-hour continuous operation, which were also used to provide mains isolation when running on local supply.
A Sony LCD 23-inch flat panel monitor, mounted in a flight case, was used for on-set monitoring, specifically for the director and DP, partnered with the Astro waveform monitor for level checking.
We did have a small technical problem with this monitor and used an Apple LCD display and Black Magic HDlink converter for a couple of days. It was interesting to see the difference, with both monitors having benefits.
Specifically, the Sony has built-in audio capability and an image that was more appealing to the DP and director because the LUT modified to look closer to the true final image. The Apple/HDlink combination was preferred by the technical boys, especially because of its ability to run user defined LUTs, which means that the technical waveform monitoring is performed off of the raw camera signal.
Running the Sony monitor off 12v & 15.5v dc was also a big help when in remote locations. We felt this was not possible with the Apple and HDlink combination.
It was also very interesting that Arturo Smith, the DP, often chose to see the un-modified ‘green’ LOG image as he liked to see the full range being captured to understand the true level of shadow and highlight detail available in the recorded image. The talent and director preferred an image looking closer to the graded final.
There is work to go here, but the possibilities for better interactive viewing, combined with raw data technical monitoring are obvious.
Florian Rettich, who monitored images via the Astro for optimal signal levels, controlled the ‘A’ camera signal. He also controlled the S.two disc recorder via an Apple laptop. Flo, as he became known, is now a DFT – Digital Film Technician, and will have a film credit as such.
When running both cameras as A and B cameras on-set, both were connected to the monitoring station to enable quick signal checking of both setups.
At other times the two cameras were run as first and second unit cameras, shooting independently.
The S.two systems can also provide calibrated LUTs to show viewable images balanced for final projection cinematography, removing the LOG and green cast characteristics of the Viper, although as described above, these LUTs were often disabled to enable the full dynamic range image to be monitored.
For critical beauty shots, where light level wasn’t an issue, MotionFX-developed optical filters were used to balance the image color characteristics prior to capture. This is a preferable method for color balance, but does reduce the camera operation by about a stop, depending on the density of the filter being used, which in turn depends on the color temperature of the light.
A number of shots also required high-speed capture, and we approached this in two ways.
For dance and dream sequences we shot with Viper set to capture 60fps progressive, which when played back at 24fps gives a 2.5 times slowdown. This was ideal for these shots, and for true high-speed requirements we used the CineSpeed camera from Weinberger running at 500 frames per second. This was especially useful for vfx shots including flames and water, as well as a Mermaid shot in a swimming pool. We also shot at 30fps for minor slow motion effects when played back at 24fps.
To help with camera depth of focus, ND filters were also employed to enable the cameras to run as wide open as possible, although there was a discussion with the focus pullers, Uli Schmidt and Christine Wagner, about the preferred T-stop position for optimum focus. Their preference was a maximum of T-1.8 for sharpness, although the rest of us preferred higher values for depth of field. We joked that the focus pullers only wanted to make their job easier.
Audio was recorded by Clive Copland on a DAT recorder, which was also connected directly to the S.two DFRs to provide in-sync audio with the images. The audio was contained within the image dpx file header. This meant that when reviewing shots and loading into the off-line system the audio was always immediately available and always in-sync.
Timecode was also provided from the audio deck to maintain locked reference between the master DAT audio and digital images. This worked like a dream, even when shooting simultaneous two cameras on the same shot.
Each evening the day’s rushes were viewed as dailies with the JVC HD digital projector. This provided immediate feedback on the day’s shooting. The playback also fed images to the off-line system and was loaded in real-time via its HD compression codecs.
However, one over-looked problem was that with no Flex file being generated automatically from the S.two systems this automatic feed to the off-line system didn’t really work. To solve that a separate digitizing station was set-up for manual data loading and shot logging via a third S.two DFR. This worked very well, but S.two are now very aware of the batch-loading requirement and we have fingers crossed for a Flex file generation capability, or alternative batch load process, very soon.
After data capture into the off-line system uncompressed feeds were backed-up to the Adic LTO2 tape archive Jukebox via S.two’s A.Dock backup system. The D.mags were then available for re-use for the next day’s shooting.
The Adic LTO2 system generated two cloned tapes. One was a usable copy and the other was a safety, with checksum verification to ensure 100 percent accurate dupes of the original data.
Time wise, digitization to the off-line system was real-time with each D.mag recording approximately 35 minutes of material, although manual logging added to the time taken. The archive function took around 400 minutes per D.mag to generate the main and safety backups, which is 200 minutes more than it should be and was due to the two tape sets not being made simultaneously by the Adic. They were done sequentially due to present limitations with the A.dock software. This will soon be sorted I’m told, as we had Steve Roach and Mike Morrison from S.two come over and visit us on-set to see our workflow.
As an aside, discussions with the bonding company were not the issue many may have expected, as in reality the safety measures standard with such digital cinematography means that possible data losses are very limited. For example, a single half-hour S.two magazine was the realistic worst case loss and that was because we believe someone literally dropped the magazine into a river. In reality, a lot less worrying than a lab failure while processing 35mm.
The use of daily ‘dailies’ review via digital projection was a major benefit as well. It allowed the full production operation to see the progression of the film, while making sure all material was as expected and needed.
Having said that, due to the length of days being worked the dailies review process became intermittent at best, also partly due to the confidence the production team gained with the quality of the images being captured. A very positive endorsement for digital cinematography.
And, combined with on-set monitoring, it enabled material selection to be made via informed judgement, reducing the variables for off-line. We could happily delete those takes that were never going to be considered for on-line, such as fluffed lines, missed cues, bad focus pulls, etc.
This betters the more traditional celluloid film based dailies approach for all the reasons listed above.
Performing the off-line via compressed HD also helped as the quality was far superior to the normal SD approach used on traditional 35mm film projects.
The two Vipers were also used for simultaneous two camera shoots, both locked to timecode from the audio deck for synchronized recording. This worked flawlessly.
To say there were no problems during the production phase would be a lie, but none were that serious or critical.
Interestingly, it was the more traditional needs for off-line editorial that caused the first production problems.
There had been some initial confusion regarding the off-line workflow, with the kit specification initially being FCP, and then being changed to Avid.
I feel the problem with Avid off-line systems is that they are poor at 24fps operation since they’re SD based. This requires an NTSC 30fps approach using 3-2 pull-up to change frame rate from 24 to 30. This means the final edl is not 100 percent frame accurate.
The newer systems from Adobe and Apple can directly ingest 24fps HD material, using impressive compression codecs to provide true 24fps editing, with no frame timing issues as with the Avid approach.
The Avid kit was therefore rejected and Adobe offered to supply a Premier Pro system in its place.
However, learning a new editing system from scratch within such a short time-frame is not a practical proposition, and so editorial returned to the first choice of an Apple FCP system.
This editorial confusion was the first major issue for the production and resulted in a two-week delay in initiating off-line. Luckily this hasn’t affected anything long term, as the D.mags from the early days that weren’t loaded into the off-line during this two-week editorial delay were simply re-constituted later in the production for off-line loading.
With all that bleeding-edge technology being utilized on a major motion picture it’s interesting that the biggest problem was related to the more traditional requirements of film making.
The off-line editorial team also provided DVDs of the rushes and the growing edit to enable production to see where additional pick-up and coverage shots were required. This also helped with continuity checking.
The problem we had with this was that as FCP on a Mac uses Quicktime it was not possible to generate 24fps DVDs, so 3-2 had to be implemented. If we had gone with the Adobe off-line system on a PC we could have generated WM9 24fps clips, which would have been ideal.
This checking of material also highlights an area where a digital approach could further benefit the production operation, and we are now looking at generating a simultaneous lower resolution copy of all material for on-set checking. A small converter that will provide a real-time Firewire output from a video tap would be ideal, generating WM9 video clips for example.
Bringing the camera equipment into a warm interior environment from the freezing outdoors caused the first equipment-based issue.
For time-related requirements (too many shots, not enough time to do them) there was not enough acclimatization time given to the camera equipment which resulted in back-focus shifts during shooting, making the image appear slightly soft.
As it happens, these first interior scenes were to form part of a fantasy sequence, which was planned for post-production manipulation, so part of our job had been done for us. Lucky, and we allowed more acclimatization time from that point onwards, as you would for any film camera when moving between a dry low temperature external environment and a humid warm internal one.
It would also be fair to say that the tape based archive operation was not initially as slick as would later be.
The S.two A.dock backup system, working with the dual tape drive Adic LTO2 writer initially worked with only one tape drive, requiring each backup to be done twice, once for on-line use, and the second for safety copy.
This was exasperated by a faulty tape drive within the Adic system, and as this had not been planned for we started to drop behind with archiving, filling up more D.mag disc packs than anticipated.
However, S.two was very supportive and provided an additional backup system while they sorted the various issues. Great support, and we soon caught up with archiving.
We also had an AccuScene viewfinder fail to power-up which was very quickly replaced by the manufacturer.
It’s also worth saying that the manufacturers took the opportunity to spend some considerable time on-set seeing their products being used in a live environment to gain first-hand feedback. Their support was much appreciated in this ’bleeding-edge’ production.
This included Thomson coming over enmasse to see our workflow and show us a non-working prototype of the soon to be released Venom Flash Pack. Very interesting.
Another problem was to do with the amazing resolution of the capture medium. For example, during the first few days of shooting there were issues with skin textures seen on-screen. The problem was that the face powder being used was showing up on the final image, something not seen when shooting 35mm film. The solution was to use oil based face creams that produced a smoother finish. A fantastic problem to have.
There was a final problem with timecode, in that for reasons not worth going into, the master timecode source was initially re-set to zero hours each day, rather than increasing an hour for each day. This resulted in multiple timecode values existing within some D.mags, something that we will need to be aware of when performing the on-line from the off-line edl. Not a major problem, and something we corrected half way through the 39-day shoot.
It was probably the sound department that had the most issues with the digital film equipment as the fans in the S.two, and to a lesser extend the Viper cameras, are rather noisy when recording low-level dialogue.
The camera fans can be shut down, but this has to be done via the operational menus, and so is not really practical, while the S.two DFR fans cannot presently be shut down at all.
To overcome this the DFR units were positioned away from the set as much as possible, while the camera fans never really caused too much concern.
For the future S.two intends to provide a silent mode for the DFR, which will shut down the fans when the system is in record mode. I’m also hopeful that Thomson will do the same with Viper.
We believe the production demonstrated the validity of digital cinematography.
The equipment, including Viper cameras, S.two D.mags and operators, worked at minus 14-degrees Centigrade without problem. It got bounced around in the back of some very rickety old cars for 2nd unit work, was set-up in the middle of a wood in two feet of snow, got hooked to the back of a low-loader for through-the-windscreen two shots, and in all cases performed flawlessly. We ran on 12v & 24v DC batteries, local mains and production generator power, even suffering floating earth problems when on local power, all without failure or error.
The immediacy of the production workflow was praised by all involved, while the images generated, even before post-production color correction and viewed via basic LUTs, were classed as stunning by all that saw them.
In total there will be in the order of 25TB of footage recorded, amounting to more than 60 D.mags filled throughout the production phase, This adds up to a total of more than 33 hours of material. This represents a shooting ratio of about 18:1 and the equivalent of 180,000 feet of 35mm. All the data was backed up onto 240 individual LTO2 tapes, 120 per copy.
This is a very good example of the cost benefits of shooting digital cinematography. For any independent film production running a relatively small budget, as with Silence Becomes You, it would be impossible to shoot such an amount of 35mm film. Even with a relatively good lab deal the cost is going to be around 80 pence a foot for the negative film stock, processing and telecine to Beta tape for off-line. Film dailies, transportation, risk in transit insurance would all be extra. The likely total makes the traditional approach cost a minimum of £150,000 to the production company.
Going the digital cinematography route costs an average of £35 per minute of material to match the same result, making a total of £70,000. For independent film making this is a significant difference.
And that doesn’t take into account the benefits of immediacy, interactivity, short decision-making time scales, full quality dailies, etc, etc.
Digital cinematography works, and works well. We expected far more problems than we encountered and were amazed by the ease of the production process.
We have ideas on improving the process even further, as outlined above, and when we start our second digital cinematography feature we will be even slicker. There’s no looking back from this point.
And the Saturday night/Sunday morning socializing in Vilnius, which tended to include most of the UK and Lithuanian crew, was just amazing. If you’ve never been to Vilnius we would recommend it.
Post-production began during the production phase, with LTO2 tapes being send back to MotionFX’s UK operation for vfx and 3D work to begin. The off-line editorial was performed on location as described above.
As this is being written we are nearing the end of the production phase, with main post-production just beginning. It will be interesting to see if the fluid workflow attained so far can be maintained through to the end of production and into full post-production. Experience suggests it can, and we foresee no issues for the on-line, digital intermediate and vfx post-production.
The plan for post-production is very straightforward with a digital intermediate workflow approach as used for 35mm shot material scanned into digital.
But, with a digital cinematography approach the workflow is even simpler as the transfer of image data throughout the pipeline is very straightforward.
The off-line edl will be used to autoconform from the archived data tapes. The selected shots will be extracted directly into a Quantel iQ via an edl based pull list.
The extraction from the archive tapes will be via a 10TB NAS disc system used as a buffer store working in the background to the main iQ operation via a Gigabit Ethernet network with frame transfer rates close to real time. The beauty of the iQ approach is that we can initiate the post-production vfx and grading work as the material is being ingested; no waiting for the one process to finish before another can begin. This is a major benefit in reducing time scales and keeping costs low.
When the film is fully loaded within the iQ and autoconformed via the off-line edl it will be split-screen checked against the off-line video to ensure there are no edl errors. Also, at this stage any editorial alterations can be made, based on seeing the edit in real-time on a large projection screen.
The vfx shots will already have been sent to the assist workstations for processing, including the new Digital Fusion systems as well as 5D Cyborgs and Alias Maya 3D. Then they’ll be dropped back into the on-line edit as available, replacing the initial background plate loaded during the autoconform. This means we can use the background plate to set-up and grade or pan & scan before the vfx work is complete by simply swapping the shots over while keeping the applied settings. Yet another example of the benefits of our workflow approach using iQ as the hero suite for the DI work.
This work will be performed at MotionFX’s headquarters in London, working via a digital projection screening setup to a point where the film is complete except for the full final grade.
The final on-line, with vfx shots correctly placed within the film and a preliminary grade, will then be relocated to Marina Studios in Carasco, northern Italy for the final digital intermediate grade, using Marina’s critical digital screening room, and to link with their audio post-production.
You might ask why relocate just for the final grade? The answer is simple. Because we can.
Given the choice of a THX certified 7.1 critical screening room situated on the Italian Riviera, with great beachside hotels and restaurants, and cheap flights into Genoa, what would you choose?
Marina Studios will also be performing the audio pre-mix and final mix on the project, working from the on-set captured audio and later ADR performed in the UK. With the toys at their disposal the sound will be fantastic, matching the glorious images generated by Stephanie’s set design and costumes, as well as Lithuania’s amazing scenery, captured via Arturo’s digital cinematography.
The final film was due to fall out pf post-production before the end of March, complete and finalized. The director’s cut will follow, and be available shortly there after. Time scales are easy to compress when all the original digital information is so easily available. You want to make a change – it’s made. No way it could be that easy with the traditional film approach. Hunting through reels of negative to find and scan an alternate shot is something you can only do within the off-line process. We can do it on-line too. How cool is that?
Technical crew list
1st Unit DP: Arturo Smith
Camera Operator: Aldo Chessari
Focus Puller: Christine Wagner
2nd Unit DP: Ross Fall
Camera Operator: Uli Schmidt
Gaffer: Joe Allen
Digital Film Consultant: Steve Shaw
DFT (Digital Film Technician): Florian Rettich
VFX Supervisors: Steve Shaw, David Bush
Data Monkey: John O’Quigley
1st ADM (Assistant Data Monkey): Mike Morrison
2nd ADM: Steve Roach
Sound Mixer: Clive Copland
Boom Operator: Jerome McCann