Adventures in 6K with Jackson, Wyoming's Brain Farm Cinema
COW Library : Cinematography : Kylee Peña : Adventures in 6K with Jackson, Wyoming's Brain Farm Cinema
Photo Credit John Schnack
Nestled in the wilderness of Jackson, Wyoming on the edge of Grand Teton National Park you might not expect to find a high end production house. Staffed with a small team of outdoor sport enthusiasts and adventure-seekers and fortified with the latest in 5K or 6K cameras and technology, the Jackson Hole Valley becomes a perfectly logical place for Brain Farm Digital Cinema, known for such work as the snowboarding film 'The Art of Flight', filled with the craziest of snow sports stunts by snowboarder Travis Rice, all captured and cut in house.
Travis Rice. Photo by Scott Serfas.
Whether it's a ski jump flyby or getting up close and personal to Jackson's native wildlife, getting the shot comes at great cost to Brain Farm, financially and mentally, especially when you put 6K acquisition into the mix. Pushing at the edges of growth in technology to make great films isn't without its growing pains. But by developing great relationships with companies like HP and experimenting with workflow changes, Brain Farm is beginning to shift its approach to dealing with the massive amounts of massive footage.
Shooting these athletes in the field is sometimes about luck, and sometimes about planning. "There is quite a bit of choreography between the team and athletes," said Brain Farm's head of production Chad Jackson. And there would have to be, considering teams are dragging equipment through miles of terrain, sometimes even by snowmobile. "These aren't Hollywood budgets. We do a lot more with less."
Brain Farm's head of production Chad Jackson
Whether the team's job is to execute a planned shot or be there to capture the moment when it happens, the talent behind the cameras is important because Brain Farm isn't shooting on just anything. Their arsenal includes the Red Dragon, Phantom Flex and Miro, Arri Alexa, and Cineflex Elite, among other tools. Brain Farm also has specialty vehicles for traveling and shooting on the road, like a customized Ford F250 with a Cineflex camera, or from the air, with various unmanned aerial cameras. Fujinon ultra wide lens, Arri Ultra and Master Primes, and Canon cinema lenses are within the team's rotation.
Photo Credit Danny Zaplac
Besides the expected challenges of shooting on a snow-covered mountain, media management becomes a concern, Jackson explains. Many of the cameras have a special process for offloading media and shoot a lot of big files, so manpower and hard drives are a must in the field.
Post production supervisor Danny Holland
Back in the climate-controlled Brain Farm headquarters, post production supervisor Danny Holland keeps things running in an offline to online workflow. All the media acquired in the field is transcoded to ProRes proxies and reconformed at the end – or that's how it's been so far. Holland says "Things are changing so quickly right now, I think there's a thought process like an old crochety IT guy like 'here's what works, what we're sticking with because we know it'll work.' And trying to be open to change and embracing new stuff as fast as you can has its advantages."
The edit bay
Brain Farm has been a Mac-centric facility until recently, when HP's Z820 Workstation was introduced to the mix. Holland, a long-time Apple user, was skeptical. "It really was like this alien in our environment for me," he explains only half-joking. One of the main concerns? How to actually integrate the Windows machine into the facility's ethernet-based shared storage. Turns out it wasn't so hard: an update to Mavericks and switching from AFP to SMB for connecting to the server, and a little intervention from Maxx Digital's Bob Zelin, and everything was working as expected.
Another question for Apple users moving to Windows: but what about my ProRes? For the last several years, ProRes has come to be at the center of acquisition, editorial, delivery and archival. It's a comfortable and ubiquitous codec -- for Macs. For Holland, the issue was a little confusing at first, jumping to Google at first and getting no good answers. Then he connected with Open Drives CTO Jeff Brue, who had been experiencing a similar issue. Brue recommended a plug-in from Miraizon. Holland commented, "For the most part, the ProRes Codec from Miraizon is pretty much 'plug and play.' Once installed, it just shows up in the drop down menu when exporting. It's pretty simple." He noted that Da Vinci Resolve doesn't currently support the plug-in, but his other apps including Adobe Creative Cloud are working smoothly.
Photo Credit Cameron Strand
"Consistency tends to keep things running smoothly in an offline to online workflow. Starting this integration with 80% of our media being in ProRes, it felt like the right decision to keep working with it as a mezzanine codec," Holland added. And while the solution is working well for Brain Farm, Holland hasn't dismissed the idea of building workflows around a different codec, like GoPro Cineform or Avid's newly announced DNxHR, which was previously not a contender since it was limited to HD resolutions.
And for a post supervisor, that's pretty much the extent of the technical difficulties. A little bit of codec questioning and some disk format concerns, and the integration has been happily unremarkable except for what it's added to Brain Farm's power. The first test came for Holland on a massive 4K conform in DaVinci Resolve. "It was a life saver for me to be able to work at that resolution and grade in Resolve, and I don't think any of the Mac Pros I had in house could have done that. Having the power of the Z820 was vital to the success of that work in 4K. That turned me, and I became a lot more open to the performance we got there," Holland explained.
Photo Credit Greg Wheeler
[For the sake of comparing Apples to ... non-Apples, Brain Farm's in house Mac Pros are the legacy style: 2x2.26Ghz quad core with 52GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD boot drive, and a GTX580 3GB RAM with a Red Rocket card. The HPZ820, now the previous generation in the Z workstations, was loaded with a dual Intel Zeon E5-2680 2.280Ghz processor, 64GB of RAM, 4 3TB drives as RAID5, Z Turbo Drive 256, an NVIDIA K5000 and Thunderbolt card. If you're the type that likes to keep score at home with all this.]
Windows being the biggest hurdle for getting historically Mac people to make the jump, Holland remarked that the adjustment wasn't as profound as he originally expected. "The software is where the creative aspects are happening, so if that's working okay and functioning as it should, the power and performance just allows for us to work at a high resolution with less difficulty. So whether it's rendering something out in a matter of minutes versus 30 minutes, that can make all the difference when you're trying to upload something to send to a client in time. Those little 30 minute renders for a five minute video can add up quickly. The speed gains have been nice because we can keep working and not have to worry about the time lag to deliver or watch something."
Photo Credit John Rodosky
With the kinks working out and the staff warmed up to the HP Workstation, what's next for Brain Farm now that they have more power on their side? For one thing, they're going to keep doing what they're doing with a little less worry. Jackson says, "We're less hesitant to shoot a lot in the field now that we have a faster, more powerful machine to transcode." And with the transcode bottleneck alleviated, Holland suggests maybe native editing is on the horizon as the team contemplates multiple 4K finishes in the coming months, an especially promising outlook for Brain Farm considering the power behind the newly released Z840 Workstations.
"I think everyone has to evaluate their budget and goals as they make decisions [about their system needs.] As we evaluate and look to the future and try to find a tool that could grow with us, I think we've got a nice solution with the HP Workstation....Working with [them] has been really nice because we have a dialogue for trying to solve things, and we get the space and expandability in which to do that."
Technology aside, Jackson and Holland are happy to continue shooting and cutting extreme sports in extreme places whatever the trade-offs. "I feel very fortunate. It could be drier content for sure," Holland laughed. Jackson added, "It's lots of work. Sometimes you ask if it's worth it, but then there's always a pay off."
This photo and top title graphic credit Ryan Sheets