House of Cards
The political dramatic series House of Cards comes with an unusual pedigree: it's Netflix's first "home-grown" original series and debuts all its 13-episode season at once, on the streaming platform. Focused on political corruption in contemporary Washington, D.C., House of Cards is based on a BBC miniseries and stars Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara. Netflix has committed to 26 episodes and production on Season 2 will begin in the Spring.
The first two episodes were directed by David Fincher, who is also an executive producer of the series along with screenwriter Beau Willimon, Joshua Donen, Eric Roth, Spacey, Dana Brunetti, Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs and John Melfi. The drama is produced by Donen/Fincher/Roth, in association with Media Rights Capital for Netflix.
Fincher's creative stamp is also visible in the series, which was shot with the RED Epic and boasts an innovative digital pipeline. "David has been doing digitally acquired movies since Zodiac," says post production supervisor Peter Mavromates, who has worked with Fincher since The Game in 1997. "Over the years, we had custom-built our pipelines. As the rest of the world caught up, it became more efficient to tap into other people who were solving lots of problems and building more efficient systems."
For House of Cards, that meant relying on FotoKem for its latest version of nextLAB software for media management, which now offers automated transfer of dailies to PIX System's digital collaboration service. Developed in-house at FotoKem, nextLAB is an on-set and near-location solution for file-based workflows, which manages digital files and metadata for ARRI, Sony, Canon and Silicon Imaging cameras as well as RED and incorporates ACES (the Academy's Color Encoding System) architecture. PIX System is a secure digital collaboration platform that has been used on more than 700 productions.
Kevin Spacey as "Francis Underwood" and Robin Wright as "Claire Underwood" in a scene from Netflix's "House of Cards." Chapter 1 synopsis: "When the newly elected President reneges on a promise, Francis and Claire decide to sever all allegiances and toss the rules out the window." Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix
Assistant editor Tyler Nelson went to Baltimore where House of Cards was shooting, to set the system up on that end, while Mavromates set up the pipeline in Los Angeles to make certain that the post team could pull out all the metadata they needed for its FileMaker database software application. "Material shot on the RED Epic would come to me as an SSD drive, delivered to our Baltimore production office," says Nelson. "Upon receiving it, I'd bring it into the nextLAB system along with the WAV audio broadcast files recorded on set. NextLAB marries picture and sound into one piece of edit media."
Nelson reports that the production collaborated with FotoKem and PIX on finding a way to share metadata. "Any data that that went into the nextLAB system would be manicured and passed along to PIX and our FileMaker codebook for later reference and use," said Nelson, who notes that NextLAB also automatically populates files with a standard Scene/Take/Camera format that is easier to organize than the original RED file numbers. "In addition to that, we'd take all the script notes and put any additional info associated with that clip," says Nelson. "That would include whether it was a circle take, the lens info and if it was printed or not. All that would appear in one centralized location. Over the course of the show, FileMaker gathered 20,000 to 30,000 records, all searchable."
Nelson notes that although his post production team has used similar utilities in the past, all of them had shortcomings. That included problems marrying the WAV files with picture files based on timecode, he says. "When we met with Tom Vice, President and General Manager of nextLAB for FotoKem, we described all the pitfalls we'd encountered in the past," he says. "We wanted to make sure the system was capable of handling the metadata for 13 episodes, which is basically a 13-hour movie. NextLAB also auto-populated the metadata from the WAV file, so there was less human error."
"NextLAB was an expansion of the automation we'd had in the past," Mavromates says. "FotoKem has jumped ahead of a lot of the systems out there. I know there are competitors doing amazing things but nextLAB is one of the top options out there these days.
Kate Mara as "Zoe Barnes" and Kevin Spacey. In Chapter 2, Francis uses a young reporter, Zoe Barnes, to spin a story that puts the White House on its heels. Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix
Dailies were one of the functions that the editorial team used nextLAB for. "It produced viewable dailies on the PIX system, which was another plus of the system," says Nelson. "It automatically uploads the dailies to PIX which made it easier to manage. Essentially we put the two forms of media, the RAW material and broadcast WAV files, compared them to make sure there is no human error or additional information missing. With presets determined prior to the first day of photography, we could transcode them as viewing dailies for pix. All this happens in the background while we could continue with the next batch of files. And it also archived our RAW media to LTO 5, not automatically, but plug-and-play. NextLAB is a robust system where you can do multiple things at the same time."
"As these systems become more sophisticated, I have access to the dailies, so I don't have to bother Tyler or anyone else on the team to be able to look at material," adds Mavromates. "I was largely removed from the dailies process because it is so efficient. I don't have to check in on dailies anymore except for the occasional hiccup."
Does this increasingly efficient way of working shave days off post. "No," says Mavromates. "But it makes me more efficient with my time. I'm largely involved in all the visual effects, so I can watch dailies quickly to determine if there are VFX shots that need to be dealt with. Driving plates, for example, have to be turned around quickly for production, where they use them to create lighting. By virtue of having PIX in the pipeline, it all happens more efficiently. In the old days, I would have to take an edit assistant out of the loop to go look at this material and make Quicktimes. Now I can do that independent of them and then go to them to get the media that's been archived."
That makes the pipeline more "financially efficient," Mavromates says. "It's hard to estimate how much we're saving," he says. "So much goes into deciding the pipeline, including the comfort level of the director and cinematographer. What's happening in our pipeline is that the cinematographer and director have decided on pre-set looks that are applied accordingly in our pipeline. I've worked on other larger movies where that comfort level isn't there and they want someone to color time on an almost shot by shot basis. These are things you can't put a dollar amount on."
Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in a scene from Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix
"But by having your own system and employees you have a huge amount of flexibility," he adds. "If we have a large amount of footage, we don't just have the three hours scheduled in the facility to color dailies and then have to wait in line to get back in a room. We're not paying the facility for storage to keep all the media online. Being able to view dailies independently are financial and logistical factors, and those things overlap a lot. For me to have one person come in on a Saturday to catch up for the week is a lot cheaper than to have a facility open up on a Saturday."
Mavromates and Nelson both agree on what would make the pipeline event more efficient. "We never have enough bandwidth," says Mavromates. "At least not as much as we'd like to have. Getting the media to the edit room is a different issue. On Dragon Tattoo, for example, the edit media would catch up via a Fed Ex hard drive."
Nelson reports that they used nextLAB for a commercial in New York, using two systems in tandem. "It was sharing the same media and doing the same work with twice the speed essentially," he says. "If there is any way to tap into multiple pipelines to increase the bandwidth to upload, that would be advantageous. Bandwidth has been and probably always will be one of the big issues."
Bandwidth is indeed one of the obstacles to the post production workflow, especially as productions move to 4K, 3D and HFR, all huge consumers of it. This is a problem not easily solved, but one that will be harder to ignore going forward.
Title graphic: Kevin Spacey in a scene from Netflix's "House of Cards." Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix