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PP-Post to Production-Dollars and Sense

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In this final installment of a three-part series, Below the Line investigates the revolution taking place in production/postproduction workflow.It wasn’t that long ago that 1080P was being touted as the universal mastering format. Maybe that was a parallel universe, because the digital intermediate quickly superseded it, and nowadays 1080P is just another one of the output formats from a 2K DI.But the goal is the same—having a single source file that can be filmed out for theatrical release or downconverted to HD, SD, NTSC, PAL, DVD, rather than having to hire a colorist and rent time in a telecine bay to master each version separately.So you’d think that doing a DI would save you money. But that isn’t true.In most cases, the DI will cost more than a traditional lab process, even when you factor in the savings at the back end on the deliverables budget. That is, if you follow a traditional postproduction model. But in a lot of ways, the DI process is really more akin to the tradition visual effects model.Visual effects artists have been working with film scanners, and 4K data for years in order to acquire the pristine images they need for complex visual effects shots. Meanwhile data is still a new concept to most post houses.“The language that we’ve known for years in visual effects has not been disseminated across the board,” said Brian Gaffney one of the founders of Creative Bridge Studios. “In visual effects, we built a bridge to set up this workflow and I’m so surprised that, after all that’s been done, many people still don’t know the basics of a look-up table, or the difference between bit depths, or what these file formats all mean.”Creative Bridge is a new company that aims to bridge the gap between production and post and really exploit some of the advantages of the digital transition. The company’s roster includes Academy Award-winning visual effects artist, and one of the original founders of Digital Domain, Price Pethel, as well as industry heavyweight John Holm, with more than 33 major film credits to his name. Both are available for hire as “on-set color supervisors” and “digital intermediate technicians”—operating almost as consultants that can help make the whole process flow more smoothly.“We’re taking that vocabulary and language that we’ve mastered over the last 15 years in the visual effects world, and passing the knowledge on to production, and assisting them, saying ‘you can really change the economics of your model now,’” explained Gaffney.What Gaffney envisions is a lot more postproduction people on set with laptops crunching through the early grunt work of post at the front end, rather than doing it later at an expensive facility.“The idea is to do on-set capture, display and digital preview dailies that are already cut and color timed. The aim is that we can close the loop between the traditional post and production by doing a lot of this work before postproduction starts, on set,” he explained. “We can cut the dailies on our [Apple] Final Cut Pro system, maybe replace the backgrounds with Shake, quickly put a color up with [Assimilate’s] Scratch or Iridas, and then be able to preview these things with our Christie projector.“We’re tightening up the workflow between what was post and production and bringing it more to a Kinkos model, where you can literally walk in to a post house at the end and say, ‘I’m 95 percent done. Let’s throw this into your [Autodesk] Lustre and do some final tweaks if need be, instead of starting from scratch, which is how postproduction is trying to drive its business model right now,” he explained. “So instead of doing it at the $300,000 price point, we believe we can get that down to sub-$100,000, because we’re going to be doing a lot on the front end.”But while those kind of numbers sound great to a producer, that commoditization of postproduction is something that is bound to alarm some in the post business. Those are the types of services that really deliver a post house’s profit margin—the hours and hours of work in a “hero suite,” billed by the hour.In this business, people play their cards close to their chests, but the dirty little secret in postproduction is that almost no one is making money on digital intermediates (at least not at 2K). Even the big guys, with 2K data-centric workflows are starting to undercut each other just to keep the suites busy.In London, the competition for a bigger piece of that high dollar-value DI work has become particularly acute.Midnight Transfer head of production Greg Barrett reported that nowadays the big visual effects houses in London are starting to bundle DI services with the effects—in essence, as a loss leader.“It’s getting pretty fiercely competitive amongst all the facilities. We’re all kitted out with top gear to get a limited amount of work. There’s also a lot of squeezing going on from the big companies. They’re competing hard by slashing prices,” he explained. “I’m not sure how long that can go on.”Midnight Transfer started out as a digital dailies service, and the company recently launched a service called “DI from Day One” in an effort to go after a piece of that DI budget. The concept is that when you send your film off for dailies, instead of doing a cheap, quick telecine, the film will be scanned—leading directly into the DI process. “So when you come to your DI, you’ve already done a lot of the work,” said Barrett. But he admits, “It’s been difficult to sell. You’re taking money from the post/DI budget, into the dailies budget, because you don’t have to rescan your film, but getting that across to post supervisors and line producers is not easy.”Indeed, the idea of taking money out of one department’s budget and giving it to another is something that is bound to raise issues.“The people that are making these decisions are often pretty unknowledgeable about post anyway, and it is a pretty high-level technical discussion. So it’s difficult to communicate, even with post supervisors,” said Barrett. “And producers just want everything cheaper and cheaper.”But meanwhile, there is a whole class of video post houses that have long been tooled up for 4:2:2 HDTV production. For them, the upgrade to 4:4:4 HD RGB is quite an attractive option—propelling them into the DI space, competing against traditional film postproduction facilities with massive infrastructure investments to support 2K.HD RGB is a format that really came to life when Sony launched its HDCAM SR format—originally pitched as a recording media for CineAlta. But the deck was far more versatile than that, and over the past couple years, it has been adopted as a recording format for Thomson’s Viper, Panavision’s Genesis, and has seen wide adoption in the broadcast industry as a deliverable format in 4:2:2 mode—replacing the old Panasonic D5 decks at the likes of CBS and Turner Broadcasting.In fact, Sony’s marketing manager, content creation systems, Rick Harding reported that “worldwide demand for this unit is actually so large that we’re having trouble keeping up—demand escalated so fast. It was faster than any of us expected.”The format also offers several advantages in postproduction. Mainly, it’s far cheaper, and arguably, quite comparable to a 2K DI in terms of quality. Plus it’s more akin to the traditional HD videotape-based post workflow.L.A.-based Global Entertainment Partners has adopted 4:4:4 HD RGB as a DI pipeline, and company director of engineering Juan Carlos Astoquillca explained that the upgrade from a traditional HD video post house offering 4:2:2 to a DI facility offering 4:4:4 was quite simple and affordable
, but 2K is entirely different beast.“We would have to entirely redesign as a data-centric industry in order to move up to the new high-end of postproduction, or an existing facility equipped with 4:2:2 HD infrastructure can be upgraded to RGB 4:4:4 10-bit real-time video to accomplish comparable results,” said Astoquillca.He explained that the upgrade was often as simple as adding a second cable—going from a single HD-SDI link to dual-link HD-SDI.According to Astoquillca, where things really start getting interesting in terms of budgeting is when you combine shooting digitally with posting at 4:4:4.The appeal of shooting digitally and doing a DI is that ultimately when the producer looks at the entire budget, the money he saves shooting digitally negates some of the additional cost of doing a doing a DI, and the equation ends up quite comparable to shooting 35mm and doing a traditional process.Proponents of RGB 4:4:4 argue that in terms of the resolution that ultimately makes it on the screen—HD RGB at 1920 X 1080 compared to 2K at 2048 X 1536—the results are so close that no one can tell the difference.But meanwhile the savings can be significant, (or for the post houses it can mean the difference between profit and loss).“It’s my opinion that a DI could be incredibly affordable if you shoot HDCAM SR or one of the Viper formats. I would be able to give them a budget that’s out of this world. Everybody could do a DI if they shot HDCAM SR,” said Preston Kuntz, founder and owner of Karma Bank, a boutique color grading facility, which aims to make DI affordable for independent producers.“It’s really going to have an impact. A lot of film people really want to shoot on film, but they also really want to do DI, so they have to decide,” said Kuntz. “In my opinion, it would be smart to shoot HDCAM SR and do a DI.”“Shooting SR you won’t have any telecine costs for your dailies. You’ll just have downconvert for your tape,” he explained. “And then in the end, in the DI you won’t have a scanning cost which is huge—between $60,000 to $100,000. If you knock those out of the equation it saves you a lot of money.”Ultimately, all of this is a familiar cycle in postproduction. The big players always invest in technology early, when the costs are high. When the costs come down, boutiques move in, relentlessly poaching the lower-end work. Soon there’s overcapacity, which leads to a shakeout, followed by consolidation. And then, just when things settle down a bit, along comes the next bandwagon.But this time it’s a bit different in that it’s not clear that the big post houses have anywhere left to retreat to—there’s almost no point in going beyond 2K or perhaps 4K, since the human eye can’t discern the difference. Meanwhile color science is running up against the same barrier.“Post has always been in this mindset that if we build a better castle, everybody is going to come to our place,” said Gaffney. “The economics of post has been screwed up for years. Post needs to start thinking about infrastructure, and building the most versatile infrastructure that people can connect into easily. And they need to start building bridges back to production, saying, ‘we’ll work with you on production, and we’ll save you money on the post side.’”But as more and more post people start showing up on set with laptops, when does it become a hindrance to production?“That comes down to the director,” said Gaffney. “As long as he manages these people properly on set, I don’t think it’s a problem. But if it’s not managed properly, it can be a disaster.”

Written by Scott Lehane

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