London-based workflow provider Digilab and manufacturer Codex teamed up to create a rock-solid pipeline for Zero Dark Thirty, which shot in rugged conditions on location in India and Jordan. Digilab's James Eggleton and Codex's Marc Dando describe how they created a custom pipeline to meet the production's needs.
In the darkest hour of the night, elite Navy SEALs raid Osama Bin Laden's compound.
As the Navy SEALS approach Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, Zero Dark Thirty depicts the stealth with which they moved towards an unknown building in the dead of night. Shooting in near-darkness posed a challenge for cinematographer Greig Fraser who solved the problem by choosing to shoot with the ARRI Alexa with Codex Onboard Recorders. The production also relied on Digilab, a U.K. provider of high-end workflows that has frequently dealt with remote locations, along with vendor Codex, to come up with a pipeline they could rely on.
Digilab digital supervisor
"It was known from the outset that many scenes would be shot in very low light conditions, taking full advantage of the sensitivity of the Alexa sensor," explains Digilab digital supervisor James Eggleton. "Cinematographer Greig Fraser was keen to record ARRIRAW to Codex Onboard recorders to ensure that the maximum amount of image information was preserved for the DI." He notes another advantage. "ARRIRAW gave us the flexibility to print up or down during the Dailies sessions, or change color temperature metadata, as if the material had been shot that way," he says.
To provide maximum freedom of movement for the camera operators, Codex worked with Digilab and Panavision to develop a lightweight backpack to hold the recorder, which, in some circumstances, was tethered to the camera. The custom backpacks could also hold the camera batteries, video transmitters, and other accessories. "The backpacks could be worn by a camera assistant, with only a lightweight cable loom to run to the camera head," says Eggleton. "They replaced the Codex Digital original aluminum shells to use when weight needed to be kept to an absolute minimum."
Eggleton notes that due to the highly mobile nature of the shoot (which required the production to ship lots of equipment), server room equipment like SANs and tape robots just wouldn't be able to hold up to the rigors of travel. "A minimal but robust setup was required," he says. "Codex Digital Labs were the obvious choice."
Codex President Marc Dando
Zero Dark Thirty producer Colin Wilson, meanwhile, contacted Codex President Marc Dando to ask for help in setting up a dailies and data pipeline that would stand up to conditions that would be "reasonably brutal from a digital equipment point of view."
"Colin had previously used Codex on World War Z," says Dando. "Panavision in London was the camera vendor for supplying equipment to Zero Dark Thirty, and they always use Codex on their features. It was not an accident; it was a de facto choice." Dando also felt confident working with Digilabs. "They're well equipped to deal with these difficult conditions," he says. "They set the digital lab up in India where there was no stable electricity. They've worked in remote parts of Africa and Central Europe."
As Eggleton noted, Dando designed the pipeline around the Codex Digital Lab, which was chosen to ingest all the material, in part because it's been designed to be rack-mounted in a fly case. "Everything about the system is designed to be used on or near set in remote locations," says Dando. "And it's a solid workhorse, very reliable, battle-tested and has been used on all sorts of jobs."
"What we were attempting to do is make an efficient and cost effective pipeline that would allow someone to shoot a high amount of content on a daily basis and make sure it was safe and archived in a timely fashion," he continues. "Any data workflow is all about planning and being organized and efficient. Because of the nature of the shooting, it was important to have material QCed for focus and to identify any problems."
The production also wanted to ensure that Fraser always had a good color reference. A series of "looks" reliant on the ACES color space was put together in London, which enabled the Lab team to produce a one-light "with reasonably simple adjustments" on location.
"The Data Lab was kitted out with two Codex Digital Lab-3 systems, six Codex Storage-10 drives, Colorfront On-Set-Dailies running on a Mac Pro, and some small SAS RAID systems for Dailies playback storage," says Eggleton. "A calibrated 42" Dolby PRM4200 reference monitor was used for viewing, dailies grading and QC. An ACES color pipeline was used for the Dailies grade." (According to Colorfront managing director Aron Jaszberenyi, Colorfront software was used for "sound sync, color grading, QC and dailies deliverables.")
Everything about the [Digilab] system is designed to be used on or near set in remote locations, says Marc Dando. Also essential to the color pipeline was the Dolby PRM4200 reference monitor because of its durability and ability to stay in synch even after rugged shipping conditions.
Dando points out how essential to the color pipeline the Dolby PRM4200 reference monitor was. "This Dolby monitor has been shipped around to many locations," says Dando. "And it stays in synch even when it's been shipped. It's also the only monitor on the market with a complete P3 color gamut."
He also notes that having two Codex Digital Labs on location allowed for backup should there be problems in the field in India or Jordan. "When you're in a remote location in Northern India, the last thing you want to do is worrying about shipping spares," he says.
Eggleton reports that the primary responsibilities of the Lab department were to copy picture data to two separate storage systems, give all clips meaningful names (as per editorial naming conventions), produce 2x verified LTO tape copies of the data, visually QC all images, sync sound, apply a dailies grade, and render to Avid DNxHD MXF media. Three Digilab Technicians staffed the Data Lab, working in shifts, at times covering 24-hour days.
Seen through the greenish glow of night vision goggles, Navy SEALs prepare to breach a locked door in Osama Bin Laden's compound.
From his command post inside the CIA, Mark Strong directs the fight against the world's most dangerous man.
"Most of the shoot was 4-camera, sometimes splitting into two units," says Eggleton. "Whenever a splinter unit strayed further afield, one of the Lab Technicians would follow with a Codex Lab and Storage-10 packs. This allowed Storage-10 packs to be rotated between the two units, with tape archiving, QC and file deliverables being handled at the main base."
"Each day the ARRIRAW data from recorded Onboard Datapacks was collated to a Codex Storage-10 Diskpack (10TB RAID-3 protected) and to direct-attached SAS storage," he continues. "Once there were two verified copies, the Onboard Datapack could be cleared and returned to set. Datapacks were delivered to the Lab in two splits: at lunch break, and again at wrap. This meant that the morning's material could be graded and be ready to view by the DP and Director on wrap."
Typically one Codex Lab machine was dedicated to archiving the previous day's material while the other was used to organize and clone the data from the current shooting day, says Eggleton. "During the busiest sections of the shoot, both Labs were busy either cloning data or archiving to tape 24-hours a day," he says. "System logs from the Codex and Mac machines were sent on a daily basis to the Digilab London office, so that Lab processes including archiving and data verification could be crosschecked with the LTO tapes that were being shipped back to London. All digital assets were tracked throughout the shoot from the London base."
Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain (center) plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives (Christopher Stanley, LEFT and Alex Corbet Burcher, RIGHT) who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden. Nearly 24 million ARRIRAW images (approximately 276 hours) were captured over the course of the shoot.
Zero Dark Thirty was the first production to use Codex's LTFS tape offloader module. Eggleton reports that nearly 24 million ARRIRAW images (approximately 276 hours) were captured over the course of the shoot, on a shooting average of 4-hours per day, and the Codex Lab systems were used to archive all of this ARRIRAW material to LTO-5 tape in LTFS format.
The partnership of Digilabs and Codex made the most of the shooting ARRIRAW in remote locations. Executive producer Wilson notes how the collaboration worked. "Digilab put together a no nonsense workflow and thought of everything," he said. "It's great to have a team who will work with the camera crew to solve problems. They were very flexible and able to adjust to changes with ease."
Flying a stealth blackhawk helicopter, Joel Edgerton (left), and his brother Nash Edgerton, play the SEAL Team Six soldiers raiding Osama Bin Laden's compound.
Manufacturers have traditionally struggled to stay abreast of customer needs by rolling out new features and versions. Sometimes clients can't wait, when their need requires a customized solution. The ability to deliver that for a single production not only spells progress of the product itself, but opens up doors for how future directors and producers can plan production pipelines. As demonstrated to great effect with Zero Dark Thirty, it can be a win-win, for the production and the product.
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