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The New Production Methodology

The New Production Methodology

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DV.com - Inspiring and Empowering Creativity
Scott Billups

The New Production Methodology
The head-on collision of film and video has created a train wreck of jumbled methodologies. Nowhere is this more evident than in the conflicted world of high-definition production, where a No-Holds-Barred Smack-Down Battle of Standards has been raging for more than a quarter-century. Bit depth, color space, bandpass (the amount of data flowing through a channel), and sample rates have become the weapons of choice as behemoth corporations stake claim to an expanding digital landscape.

Evoking NASA Mission Control, the amount of post equipment on the set for Red Riding Hood is a telling indication of Hollywood's future.

This article does not focus on high-definition technology. Rather, it is about high-definition context and methodology. The Why and How are far more significant than the What. As Frank Lloyd Wright put it, "The truth is more important than the facts." But to get to the truth of HD, you must first put down your glossy brochure and endure my oversimplified primer. Skip ahead if you already know this.

Scotty's abridged HD primer Digital media represents visual and auditory reality as binary quanta. Any physical event that can be seen or heard can be sampled and described by numbers. The more numbers you use to describe something, the more accurate the description becomes. But numbers can never exactly describe an original event. Of all the terms used to describe HD, the one that gets abused the most is resolution. It is an obscure term to be sure, one that is wielded more often by ad agencies than production professionals. The resolving power of a lens plays a significant part in determining resolution, as do the four main quantifiable aspects of a video signal. These aspects must be simultaneously taken into consideration to be relevant.

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The number of pixels is generally described as a horizontal to vertical ratio. The two most common HD frame sizes are 720 x 1280 pixels and 1080 x 1920 pixels. Today, most of these pixels get generated by cameras from Sony, Panasonic, and Thomson.

While cameras such as the Thompson Viper have changed the way films are made, they haven't eliminated the cables that camera operator Joe DeGenero must deal wtih.

The compression ratio is basically a numerical expression of the degree to which the image data set has been reduced. Any digital image is, by definition, compressed in the sense that there is less information contained in it than there was in the original. In general, higher compression factors (20:1) allow data to flow faster, while lower compression ratios (2:1) give a better picture. The data rate is the amount of information created each second. The Thompson Viper FilmStream Camera has a top data rate of 1.5 Gb per second. The Sony HDW-F900 CineAlta imaging unit pumps out a video stream at 1.2 Gb/sec, but since the on-board HDCAM recorder captures a data rate of only 140 Mb/sec, you need to use another recorder, such as a D-5 or HDCAM SR VTR or a disk recorder to record higher data-rate signals. Panasonic's DVCPRO HD records at 100 Mb/sec. For reference to standard-definition formats, Digital Betacam weighs in at 90 Mb/sec, while DVCPRO50 and Sony MPEG IMX both create and record data at 50 Mb/sec. The amount of luminance and color information is usually described by three sets of numbers separated by colons, as in DVCAM 4:1:1 or Viper FilmStream 4:4:4. The vast majority of cameras downconvert the RGB (red, green, blue) signal that streams off the CCD chips into a greatly reduced Y, B-Y, R-Y component video signal. Y represents the image's inherent light range (luminance), while R-Y (red minus luminance) and B-Y (blue minus luminance) each represent one of the two color difference signals. Since Y encompasses R, G, and B, a simple math equation, (R-Y) + (B-Y) = G, yields green.

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Pierre de Lespinois, on the set of the Discovery Channel series Walking with Cavemen, has been producing episodic television in HD since 1997.

A standard-definition video signal with a representation of 4:2:2 has its luminance sampled at 13 MHz and the color differences sampled at 3.375 MHz. For every four samples of the luminance reference channel, there are two reference samples of the blue and two of the red. For reference, DVCAM is 4:1:1 in NTSC and 4:2:0 in PAL. Digital Betacam, DVCPRO50 and MPEG IMX are 4:2:2. As we move over to the world of high definition, you also see ratios such as 4:2:2. However, since HD data rates are up to six times higher than SD, a 4:2:2 HD image has a whole lot more picture information than a 4:2:2 SD image. With that in mind, Sony HDCAM is 3:1:1. Panasonic's DVCPRO HD is 2:1:1, but with sampling frequencies of 74 MHz and 37 MHz, it has one of the broadest color spaces. The new Sony HDC-F950 and the Viper both generate 4:4:4, although the Sony signal has more data compression. There are numerous other factors that contribute to resolution, but these main ingredients should give us enough context to push on.

Digital dinosaurs The bandpass of television is increasing to the point where there is a significant crossover between cable/network programming and theatrical release. Without fear of contradiction, there is no one in the industry who has a longer or more successful track record of pushing the crossover envelope than Pierre de Lespinois. From his award-winning breakthrough HD series, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, to his two acclaimed series for the Discovery Channel, When Dinosaurs Roamed America and Before We Ruled the Earth, de Lespinois has pushed HD further, faster, and more economically than anyone. His current project is a four-hour mini-series, Dinosaur Planet. to an expanding digital landscape.

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Dave Stump, the DP for Red Riding Hood says, "We're coming to the point where everything in a movie becomes an effect shot".

With de Lespinois' permission, I have taken a little journalistic liberty and strung together a series of his thoughts gathered from several conversations. "When we started working on The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne back in 1997, we knew that HD was coming. We ended up doing a side-by-side shootout between HD video and 35 mm film and decided then and there that HD was the future of production. We ended up using the Sony HDW-700A cameras, which were still a baby step compared to today's systems." "We eventually realized that the shortcomings of HD didn't have as much to do with the signal integrity or the cameras as it did the lenses. We needed more than just ENG lenses where the difference between focusing for 15 feet and infinity was about a quarter-inch of twist. There was no calibration, no foot markings. You can't do a drama with that kind of equipment. We ended up going to Optex in England and had them repackage some film-style lenses for us to use in the show." Now that HD looks like it will be around for a while, lens manufacturers such as Canon and Fujinon have come up with some amazingly sharp glass. Many people assume that film lenses are sharper than HD lenses, but they aren't. Head-to-head comparisons have shown time and again that film lenses are considerably softer. As de Lespinois says, "I love primes, but when you're looking at an object 10 feet away through a low-resolution black-and-white viewfinder, you can't tell if it is focused or not. By using digital cinema-style HD zoom lenses, you can zoom in for a focus and then pull out for framing, knowing that you've got a crisp image."

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Advanced motion systems such as this Rollvision remote head are keystones of contemporary production.

Few elements add more production value than dynamic camera moves. Over the years, de Lespinois has developed many unique ways to move the camera and further engage the audience. Some of these techniques involve the popular CableVision camera suspension system and the first SteadiCam-style rig specifically designed for HD cameras. The conventional method of programming a motion-control camera move so that it can be repeated, and then using the same data to drive backgrounds and elements in post, has given way to motion encoding systems that allow much more freedom of camera movement. Says de Lespinois, "Motion is an essential element in today's effects-heavy productions. Audiences expect cinematic moves and will only tolerate so many lock-down shots."

The new methodology "In conventional film methodology, production and postproduction occur in a linear sequence over separate periods of time," says de Lespinois. "You shot everything on location, then you came back, built elements, and started editing your film. We've found that by combining production and postproduction, we are not only getting a more efficient film but a much better film. The number of re-shoots goes way down, and since we are there telling the story, the coverage and cutaways and reversals all become a more integral part of the process." Currently, de Lespinois is expanding on the idea of moving initial postproduction onto the set and is working with Sony to create a mobile HD production facility. "A digital set is a smarter place than an analog set. More people have more information about what is going on. The old school, the film-style approach, was "don't worry, I got the shot." It was all about magical chemicals and job security. For me, the more eyes I have on a shot the better. I trust my crew; that's why they're there."

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All the pixels in the world won't do you much good without a great piece of glass up front. Jules Verne was the first commercial use of lenses designed specifically for digital HD productions.

He works in an RGB colorspace. "Because we tend to do primarily effects-driven films, we've found that 4:4:4 10-bit RGB acquisition is far superior to the greatly reduced colorspace of YUV. Since computers work in a 4:4:4 RGB colorspace, and since all of our effects are done with computers, there is very little opportunity for the image to get degraded. Ten-bit images obviously have more dynamic range, and for layering and compositing are substantially superior. Ten bit, 4:4:4 RGB compares quite favorably to film. I think that this is where our efforts lie for the foreseeable future." Like many involved in HD production, de Lespinois says the current weakness is not with the camera, resolution, or image quality, but storage. Both the Thomson Viper and the new Sony HDC-F950 cameras can generate 10-bit 4:4:4 images, and that creates an enormous amount of data. "There is no doubt that we are in the last generation of tape. RAM is always good and will no doubt help us through the interim, along with direct disk recorders. But when you're shooting a feature, you're looking at a hundred hours of footage. You need to take into consideration the archival requirements as well. Next up are probably technologies such as the blue-laser discs." to an expanding digital landscape. Concurrent with the predicted move away from tape, compression algorithms such as wavelets are delivering high compression ratios with extremely low image-quality loss. Wavelets break a signal down into a series of frequency bands with a layering mechanism that corresponds to the number of coding passes. It's processor intensive, but Silicon Valley is constantly tackling that problem. "The thing I like most about wavelets is that it offers substantial compression without the visible blocking artifacts associated with other technologies," says de Lespinois. "When you see a 10-bit 4:4:4 RGB wavelets-compressed image printed to film and then projected, it is magical. The image quality is absolutely pristine." I recently attended a projection test of some shots from de Lespinois's Dinosaur Planet at LaserPacific, a post house in Hollywood. A digital clip was projected using the latest DLP projector. Then several film prints of the same shot were projected. Some of the film clips were printed from uncompressed digital files and some from files compressed with

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LaserPacific's own wavelets compression process. Aside from the subtle grain signature of the Kodak Vision2 film stock seen mostly in lighter areas, the print made from a file with wavelets compression was indistinguishable from the uncompressed print. The blacks were not only uncrushed, but seemed richer. The whites maintained data through the entire gamma range. The truly amazing thing is that the original image sequence was well over a minute long and weighed in at 43 GB. The wavelets file that the film test was printed from was exactly the same length, but was only 968 MB. Do the math. Be amazed. According to de Lespinois, while HD lets films get made on much smaller budgets, without preparation, the potential cost savings can be lost. "In the last year and a half, both my film company here in LA, Evergreen Films, and Meteor, our production company in Canada, have worked on more than 90 films, due in no small fact to the unparalleled efficiency of HD. Since we aren't dealing with huge budgets, we need to keep everything highly efficient. We storyboard everything, then pre-visualize it and make sure that by the time we go to shoot that everyone is making the same movie." "Preproduction is the most important step in the process and you can always tell the people who don't have good preproduction by how much money they spend. We run across people all the time who are anxious to go out and start shooting, but unless they've done their homework, they are headed for some very expensive mistakes."

HD in the studio system The methodology practiced by de Lespinois seems so sound that you might wonder why Hollywood studios don't immediately adopt it. Like all successful mega-corporations, the studios are looking for a portfolio of low-risk opportunities to put before their investors. Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt are quantifiable investments. Leading-edge technology is not. For over a century, the studios have run on a formula that splits the budget four ways. Give or take a few percent depending on which side of the Hollywood sign you worked, 30 percent went to above-the-line salaries, 30 percent to preproduction and publicity, 30 percent to production, and the remaining 10 percent to post. That wasn't really a very bad formula when studios were dealing with a medium such as film, which doesn't have all that much work left after the principal photography has wrapped. All they needed is a studio full of musicians for a week or two, an editor, and a few assistants. Ten percent was usually quite enough. Then along came the pixel, and many movies began to take on their personality in post. "We'll fix it in post" became part of the standard patois. Then Spielberg shows up with his pet Velociraptor and all hell breaks loose. You could still make a movie the old-fashioned way, but the really big bucks were in visual effects.

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On the set and on location, de Lespinois's crew for Dinosaur Planet is already engaged in post.

The budgets began to even out to a four-way, 25-percent split. More special effects in your movie meant that you made more money at the box office, and so everyone was happy. But then the balances began to slide again. The past few years have seen a number of very successful films that have dedicated almost 30 percent of their budgets to post. Bigger and more spectacular special effects are a marketable commodity that (sometimes) guarantees a targeted box office pull. The one constant with digital encroachment is that any industry it invades becomes more efficient. There is usually a period during which early adopters reap heavy rewards. In film, the inaugural period of digital integration was a bonanza for many, even though everyone was merely overlaying conventional methodology with a thin layer of technology. Now it's different. Digital is changing the fundamental structure of the motion picture manufacturing process that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison developed more than a hundred years ago. Moving a substantial amount of post into principal photography is the first real change in motion picture methodology since that time. This trend will change the face of production forever. This change is not limited to visual effects extravaganzas. I recently had an opportunity to work on project that was anything but.

Red Riding Hood Red Riding Hood is basically a contemporized, musical version of the classic children's story, with newcomer Morgan Thompson as Red, Lainie Kazan ( Gigli, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as Grandma, and Joey Fatone ('N Sync, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as the Wolf. The show was shot almost entirely on bluescreen using two genlocked Thomson Viper Cameras that recorded in 4:2:2 HDStream mode to D-5 HD tape and in 10-bit RGB 4:4:4 FilmStream mode to solid-state CineRAM Digital Recorders. The cameras were linked to a tracking system that moved the 3D virtual sets and environments in near realtime. Although the show was shot at 23.98 fps progressive, a signal was downconverted to 29.97 through two Evertz Afterburners to facilitate onset viewing and pre-composition. An engineering station pulled a rudimentary key and overlaid the image with the 3D CG background. The downconverted viewing monitors were a crowded jumble of timecode and metadata burn-ins. "At least no one can possibly lose their place in the post process," cracks Dave Stump, the show's Director of Photography. Stump, one of the film industry's most respected VFX cinematographers, was an
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excellent choice to DP this project. His effects camera work on projects such as X-Men, Blade, Mars Attacks, Stargate, and Free Willy gives him a unique vantage point for observing the steady integration of digital technology. He won a technical Academy Award for developing the encoding technology that enables effects camerawork. He knows what he's talking about. "We are right at the break-even point, where 'fix it in post' isn't necessarily the most cost-effective choice," he says. "Do you put the bulk of your budget into a production that fulfills many of the requirements of post, or do you split your budget and hope there's enough left over from production to complete your post? We're coming to the point where everything in a movie becomes an effect shot, especially if you go to digital intermediates." As is becoming more common in the world of HD production, Red Riding Hood used a two-camera approach modified to accommodate the new technologies. One camera remains on the ground in a dolly configuration. The other camera is mounted on a digitally-controlled Aerohead remote head at the end of a 30-foot jib arm. This dual approach expands the style and types of moves available and allows the greater assortment of dynamics that today's audiences expect.

The crew for Dinosaur Planet finds that having post on location reduces the number of re-shoots and speeds up production.

By shooting on bluescreen, you effectively reduce the number of set ups, so production moves much faster than on conventional sets. Since the encoding system could only drive the 3D backgrounds for one camera at a time, director Randal Kleiser would get his A camera shot and then while A reset, get the B camera shot. With a long string of innovative and technically challenging movies to his credit (Grease, Blue Lagoon, BigTop Pee-wee, Honey I Blew Up the Kid ), Kleiser looks at this process as a glimpse into Hollywood's future. "Unlike the transition to digital, which was mostly about the recording medium," he says, 'this is about the basic approach to making movies. We're actually bringing a significant amount of postproduction onto the set and merging it with production. "We are redefining the workflow, and I can only see it becoming more integrated as filmmakers realize the creative and financial advantages to working this way. Cutting and pasting the performances of two actors into the same shot, shooting an entire day at magic hour, sets and locations limited only by imagination, not budget - the list goes on and on."

Waiting on Moore's Law Red Riding Hood camera operator Joe DeGenero probably has as much time operating the new Viper cameras as anyone in Hollywood. Echoing the views of the DP, DeGenero

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says, "Peripheral systems throughout the industry are on the fast track, but there are a number of fundamental changes that we need. Digital cinema isn't just big video." "Unfortunately, they haven't invented all of the technology that we need," he continues. "We don't have a dozen or so companies that we can call and have bring their hard disk solutions over. Image delay, the actual time that it takes the signal to leave the chips and make its way around all the systems, is a real problem, as is the noise that all this technology brings onto the set. I feel like we're waiting for Moore's Law to catch up with us." All of this methodology has been tried before but never at HD resolutions, on this scale, and with this degree of accuracy. Back in 1994, I worked on a pilot for a Dungeons and Dragons spin-off that was shot entirely on bluescreen with a very early motion-encoding system. The camera's RGB signal was recorded directly to a massive collection of computers performing compositing tasks. The process allowed us to view semi-finished shots ten minutes after we'd shot them. However, in addition to being excessively cumbersome and time-consuming, the system was extremely expensive. Red Riding Hood is a breakthrough project because it comes at the exact point in time where the speed of computer processing and the technology of high definition have evolved enough to allow this new methodology that is as cost-effective as it is efficient. Red Riding Hood used the highest commercial HD resolution, the most advanced software, the most cutting-edge hardware, and top-notch people. Yet, thanks to this new production methodology, producing this full-length feature motion picture cost less than the last 30-second commercial I worked on. Scott Billups is a Los Angeles-based director and visual effects artist. You can learn more about Billups and his work at his Web site, www.pixelmonger.com
Copyright 2003, CMP Media LLC

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