Go with the Flow
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 9 (September 2005)

Go with the Flow

Establishing an HD work flow can be as straightforward as hooking a FireWire cable to your camcorder and capturing your source material to a workstation, thanks in part to the flexibility of the IEEE-1394 standards, which allow you to control the machine and transfer media, time code, and metadata over a single thin strand. For other more complex applications, wrangling different breeds of HD signals can involve advanced engineering.

To see how two distinctly different companies approach HD work flow in their operations, I visited with two studios: The Post Group, the newest Hollywood “production campus” being set up by the Cooper Brothers, and Digital Neural Axis (DNA), an intriguingly high-tech boutique facility on the California coast, where high definition is often used as the off-line medium for award-winning effects creation.

The Post Group, a veritable icon in the Hollywood film and video production community for more than 30 years, has new owners with a penchant for streamlining work flow. Recently purchased by filmmaker entrepreneurs Matt and David Cooper, The Post Group combines Lightning Media DVD replication, IO Film’s film scanning services, Novastar Sound, and Santa Monica-based production company The Vault to create a synergistic relationship among the facilities. The result is a communal filmmaking environment that offers one-stop production and postproduction services, along with a well-rounded approach to working with HD and establishing a consistent work flow.

“It’s well known that productions for television are rapidly adopting HD as their source material, so our companies are all focused on handling it efficiently,” says Richard Greenberg, executive vice president of The Post Group and its affiliated companies. “When footage comes into The Post Group, whether on film or any of the existing HD media, like Sony’s new HDCAM SR 4:4:4 RGB format, The Post Group is capable of providing HD postproduction services-either linear or nonlinear-for that source material at its native resolution,” he explains. “Throughout the process, we keep our HD work flow in whatever format the client chooses.”

Establishing the HD work flow requires a series of processes that must be carefully assessed and considered on a job-by-job basis. Is the source file digital or film? What are the delivery destinations? Will content be repurposed at a later date?

To begin, film-originated material is scanned into HD or 2k files at IO Film or The Post Group and processed to an Avid Media Composer Adrenaline HD, Avid DS Nitris, or Apple Final Cut Pro 5 in preparation for high-definition post. If the project is destined for high-definition delivery, after the client has finished the off-line editing, the source files are assembled at The Post Group using the original HD material.

Momentum VFX, at The Post Group, incorporates everything from 2k, 4 k, and HD streams into its work flow. This shot is one of many created for NBC.

If the project is to be recorded out to celluloid, IO Film will feed the 2k files into a Nucoda Film Master system for assembly, color correction, and the creation of digital intermediates (DI), from which HD versions also can be derived.

Greenberg believes that tailoring the HD work flow to suit a client’s needs is well worth the effort, but there will always be instances that require special treatment. “For example, when it comes to editing, there are some projects, such as adding credits to the end of a show, that are still better suited for the tape-based linear editing bay. At The Post Group, this consists of an Accom Axial 3000 controller, a Pinnacle HD Deko 500 character generator, and a Snell & Wilcox 1010 HD switcher. On the other hand, a nonlinear disk-based approach is usually more efficient for shows that have complex effects. For those, we will suggest using the Avid DS Nitris or Apple Final Cut Pro on a G5.”

The groups of facilities that compose The Post Group offer services Greenberg suggests are invaluable to independent producers. “I look at us as a hospital, and our clients are the patients,” explains Greenberg. “Our associates are the surgeons and staff. Sometimes independent producers think they can perform complex operations on their own. But when they end up in an emergency situation, they are often left without backup. We are here to do the surgery right the first time.”

Riding the edge of the HD work flow evolution is Ken Nakada, the managing director and visual effects designer at Momentum VFX, which is housed at The Post Group.

There was a time when all the files Momentum received were scanned from film negatives to 2k files. Today, however, approximately half of the film scanning Momentum receives is output to HD, which is a 60 percent lower resolution than 2 k output and easier to handle on a workstation. Once Momentum is finished with the HD files, they go back to the recording facility to be up-converted to 2 k, to record out to film.

“The HD work flow is going in multiple directions,” explains Nakada. “We are starting to deal with more 2k material from the Grass Valley Viper FilmStream camera for both film and HD finished projects. It has such a high uncompressed color and resolution depth that you never need negatives and can stay digital from ingestion to final master.” He continues, “At the same time, we have other clients who are shooting movies on more compressed HDCAM. Our work flow needs to be able to handle all those formats based on the specific client’s needs.”

“Film is not going away,” Nakada insists. “However, 2k files scanned from film are being used less and less for productions intended to be released in high definition. Since there are many more systems that can work faster in HD, we are finding that our work flow is tending toward that resolution level. Of course, at the very end, even the HD material is up-converted to 4 k resolution files if they are destined to be recorded out to film.”

Nakada’s 2k, 4 k, and HD work flow streams across many systems and includes many types of data-from video to CG. His work flow configurations include Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s Discreet Inferno, Discreet Flame, and Discreet Fire systems, Apple’s Final Cut Pro HD with Blackmagic HD cards, and graphics workstations with software such as Newtek’s LightWave 3D, Alias’s Maya, Adobe’s After Effects and Photoshop, Apple’s Shake, and Autodesk Media and Entertain-ment’s Combustion.

Gregg Katano, one of the executive producers at Momentum VFX, helps to create all the HD visual effects for the NBC television show Medium, starring Patricia Arquette. “For our HD work flow, we are sent a copy of the edited master in either D5 or HDCAM, which we bring into our Inferno or Maya workstations along with the EDL, so we can build on top of the original plates,” he explains. “The off-line editors will send us rough composites done in their Avid systems, or post a QuickTime file on the Web showing their concepts for the effects. Then we come up with our interpretation of the effect and respond with a file to the FTP site. Once approved, we drop the finished version back into the copy of the master tape and send it back to the producers.”

Not far from the bright lights of Hollywood are Digital Neural Axis (DNA), a boutique visual effects and digital postproduction studio in Venice Beach, California, that is managing HD work flow in its own way. DNA prefers to keep the work load under one roof, which worked well in the creation of 68 visual effects shots for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning movie The Aviator.

“Our mission is to always be on the cresting wave of making real what the mind can conceive,” says Darius Fisher, founder and owner of DNA. “We take advantage of the increasing processing speed of computers and the most recent software to operate a home-based boutique incorporating the latest digital technology.”

A key to DNA’s work flow is its ability to use 1920x1080p HD as an off-line medium. “For The Aviator, we were originally given high-definition QuickTime files of the film’s dailies so we could do a mock-up of our effects for a preview screening,” recalls Fisher. “We used mostly Adobe After Effects on Apple G5 workstations for the compositing, and constantly referenced the edit being cut by the film’s editor, Thelma Shoonmaker, in New York City.”

Most of the shots DNA created took place inside a mocked-up flight simulator playing the role of the Spruce Goose cockpit positioned inside a gigantic greenscreen stage. Then, in order to see their shots playing in real time within the context of the story, Fisher and his associates rendered them as QuickTime HD files and positioned them into the Final Cut timeline.

DNA streamlines HD work flow by rendering QuickTime HD files, positioning them in a Final Cut timeline, and rendering final 2k image sequences in After Effects.

Once satisfied with the look, the compositing, and the way the shots were working within Schoonmaker’s editing, DNA rendered the final image sequences at 2k in After Effects. The work flow incorporated delivering QuickTime HD files for director Scorsese’s approval, and then a folder full of 2 k Cineon DPX files on G-Raid and LaCie FireWire drives for ultimate inclusion into the film’s final DI.

DNA finished a commercial for Ford that was posted using a distinctive HD work flow developed in conjunction with the spot’s director Rob Legato and post supervisor Ron Ames. “It was shot on 35mm film, then transferred to HDCAM SR tape to maintain the full RGB range of the negative,” explains Fisher. “Once the off-line edit was completed, we re-captured the whole sequence in Adobe Premiere using a Blackmagic HD card directly from the HDCAM SR tapes. That let us do all our finishing in the 4:4:4 RGB color space, and we did all our color correction at Complete Post on the high-definition spot’s master, just as if it had been a film project.

“Using the HDCAM SR tape format for transfers, we had more information available to us for the compositing phase of the job,” Fisher continues. “We used the project with HDCAM SR as a test bed to let us do the color correction on the effects shots and principal photography in one session, just as we would have if we were creating a DI.”

These days many facilities are finding HD work flow to be as technically streamlined as standard-definition DV work flow. But the goal of any work flow is not just arriving at the project’s final delivery, whether on a “production campus” or in a beach-house boutique. It’s the creativity involved in getting to that destination that counts.

Jay Ankeney is a freelance writer, editor, and postproduction consultant living outside of Los Angeles.