DigitalFilm Tree was born from the idea of combining some key then-emerging technologies to create budget-conscious film editing workflows, on basic desktop computers, using tools like QuickTime and Final Cut Pro 1.0.
Some of our first breakthrough features were “Full Frontal” and “Rules of Attraction,” helmed by visionary and maverick directors who explicitly wanted to explore new workflows for independent production.
Our first major challenge was designing workflows that could be relied upon for traditional, large-scale feature film production. Working closely with editor Walter Murch, we were able to do this for Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain,” which established once and for all that Final Cut Pro could be a viable part of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.
The software itself is easy enough to use. Our challenge was providing the in-house expertise to resolve specifically film-related issues. These included cut list and negative cutting problems that could be traced back to improper telecine, or a less-than-thorough creation of the initial Cinema Tools database.
We saw many of these same issues on our first major HD project, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” which was shot on HDCAM at 24p, using the Sony F-900 camera. The biggest obstacle wasn’t managing all the effects and compositing, which is what you might think. It was that in 2004, none of the tools — Final Cut Pro, Cinema Tools, AJA Kona, the SANs we worked with — were qualified to work with HD.
The producers of Sky Captain were determined to live on the bleeding edge, and these solutions simply weren’t more than half-baked at the time. Fortunately, we were able to work closely with all the manufacturers involved, who were every bit as anxious as we were to pull it off...which we did.
Our recent work on “The Forbidden Kingdom,” starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan, added many additional layers of complexity.
We coordinated with the prodution team during the shoot deep in mainland China, where our responsibilities included making tape back-ups of the Panavision Genesis RAW files, and placing them physically in a safe to satisfy the insurance bond. We also coordinated a post team spread across China, the US, Korea and Australia.
Cinematographer Peter Pau, with Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and the Panavision Genesis
[Editor’s note: Zed wrote a full article for the Cow Library covering every aspect of this remarkable production.]
All of this put us in the right place, at the right time, to work with Final Cut Pro in the world of episodic production: all of the challenges of film production, now applied to the creation of two dozen “short films,” non-stop.
Episodic work brings so much more pressure that it’s no wonder that the same studios who signed off on Final Cut Pro-produced movies weren’t ready to use it on their TV shows.
The pressure on us: the same team of nine that used to post one episode of a single show each week now becoming responsible for posting three different network TV series, every week, at the same time.
We helped the medical comedy “Scrubs” become the first major TV series to be onlined in Final Cut Pro, starting in their second season. By the next season, we took on the role of consultants and created, designed and implemented an on-site Xsan system and network for two editors and two assistant editors.
Even though “Scrubs” originates on super 16mm, the final air master is delivered on Digital Betacam. At the same time, the studio requires film cut lists in case of a future film negative cut, which means that we had to build that into the workflow as well.
We offline QuickTime files from the dailies we process. These are sent to the Scrubs editorial for a creative edit. The Final Cut Pro project files are then emailed back to us for online and finishing. Our work has expanded to all post services, including visual effects. It is no small honor that Jon Michel won the 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Multi-camera Editing for his work on Scrubs
Along with a move from NBC to ABC beginning in 2009, “Scrubs” will also be moving from film to HD. The HD transition has the reputation for being difficult, but compared to film, it’s a breeze.
Scrubs, Season 8 on ABC
One of the things you can’t see as a viewer is that we’re carefully preparing the Cinema Tools databases and linking them to the QT files as we go, totally conformed to match back for film integrity.
That is, we have to confirm every single clip against the edge code, so that when going back to the sources for later cuts, producers can actually find the clips they need.
Now, with HD, the only thing we have to worry about is timecode. We capture video, we output video, end of story.
THE GREAT FLOOD
Every post house has its challenges, but nothing prepared us for what we call “The Great Flood of 2005.” We came in one morning to find over 6 inches of water across the entire facility. Let me tell you, walking from one room to another is a sloooow process when wading through 6 inches of water!
We did dailies in the parking lot and continued to online and deliver work to the clients, never missing a day or a deadline for the next 2 weeks, until we found a temporary space upstairs to move into.
DFT CEO Ramy Katrib and Patrick Woodward work in the parking lot
We found and purchased a 10,000 sq. ft. facility in 2007. We dubbed it “DFT 2.0,” because we now had the opportunity to build for the future we’d seen was coming: a data-centric environment, with the highest bandwidth possible. We built it around a facility-wide dual-fibre network.
Bandwidth wasn’t enough. We created a multi-platform shared environment to use our Mac, Windows, Linux and IRIX platforms at the same time, sharing files with no conversions or duplications.
We now had the network and workflow in place to go from posting a single TV show every week (“Scrubs”), to two a week, (“Everybody Hates Chris”) to three a week, (“Weeds”) with the same number of people and just a few more Macs.
None of our edit bays has a computer in it – only a keyboard, mouse, computer screen and a KVM box. The computers all live in the machine room.
This “Keyboard, Video and Mouse” system, tied together through our ethernet networks, allows us to view and control any computer from any screen and keyboard, anywhere in the facility. An operator can start a capture on one Mac, then with the tap of a key switch to another Mac to check on a rendering, then switch to a third to check dailies or color correction.
Similarly, our waveform/vectorscope sits in the machine room, and anyone from any bay can access it at any time. True, software such as Final Cut Pro and Color have their own waveform and vectorscope for monitoring brightness, color values and other values, but they are nowhere near as sensitive, reliable or accurate as hardware models.
Among the critical features of our Tektronix WFM7120 is a detailed error log. Based on values we can program (“legal”values can often vary a little bit from broadcast facility to another), this unit generates a very detailed error log for any program put through it.
Having a description of the error, and the timecode where it occurs, completely eliminates the days of sitting there on a stool to watch a show on scopes and hope to catch every error.
EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS
Produced by CBS Paramount and airing in the US on the CW network, “Everybody Hates Chris” is based on the life of comedian Chris Rock, who also narrates.
The speed with which “Everybody Hates Chris” is created surpasses anything we have seen or experienced before. The major concern has been that the show’s child stars grow and change so quickly. As a result, “Everybody Hates Chris” is shot and posted almost twice as fast as any other TV show we’re familiar with.
One of the biggest changes we made to our workflow was the addition of Apple’s Color to create the final color correction. Even in cases where Final Cut Pro is used for editing, final color work is often done in da Vinci, Lustre or other very expensive color correction suites. We believe that “Chris” is the first major network show using Color.
Apple Color and "Everybody Hates Chris"
Patrick Woodard, DFT’s lead colorist, did some tests for “Everybody Hates Chris” producers, director and director of photography. Everyone agreed that the results held up very well.
The production team for “Chris” had several reasons for taking the leap to Color. The first, obvious one was the savings: traditional color grading suites can cost upwards of $500/hr.
Another reason was that “Everybody Hates Chris” is shot digitally, first with the Thomson Viper camera and now with the Sony F23. The production felt that they would benefit from a complete digital workflow and all the flexibility of the digital process.
Flexibility was part of the third reason: speed. Keeping everything tied into the Final Cut Studio sped things up significantly.
Of course, one drawback of Color is that its output is not in real time. Fortunately, Patrick has been able to harness network and distributed rendering in Mac OS X to take care of the rendering.
We never planned on posting 3 TV shows at the same time! Yet because of shifted production cycles after the recent writer’s strike and an odd series of convergences, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
The shared-file system environment and workflow efficiencies we’ve developed allow the same 9 people that had previously been turning out one episode of TV each week now able to do three, while still keeping relatively sane hours.
The fourth season of “Weeds,” airing on Showtime and coming to a close as I write this, was our first with them. (The premiere of Season 4 brought the largest audience in Showtime history. Star Mary-Louise Parker is pictured below.)
They didn’t contact us for our FCP experience. Their editorial has been based around Avid systems, and it’s working for them. Rather, they came to us for our workflow expertise. Their goal was to find new ways of working more economically without sacrificing quality.
The production shoots on two Sony F23 cameras, currently at the top of the Sony CineAlta line. (At this writing, the F35 has yet to ship.) The show is recorded in 4:2:2 to the Sony SRW-1, which is an HDCAM SR format portable deck, typically filling 4-8 fifty minute tapes per day.
The HDCAM SR camera masters are delivered to us every night, where we create the DVCAM dailies that go to the Weeds cutting room.
(After considerations of various formats, we decided that DVCAM was the most efficient for editing. DVCAM decks are more affordable and the DVCAM format in general is more reliable and efficient than mini DV.)
In addition, digital “viewing” dailies are created and uploaded to a secure, encrypted web-based viewing system for “Weeds” producers, and for Showtime and Lionsgate execs.
“Weeds” typically has two main editors and two assistant editors, all using Avid Media Composer. When picture is locked, an assistant editor provides us with AAF files, 24 frame & 30 frame EDLs, an Avid Bin, and QuickTime reference files.
The show is assembled from the HDCAM SR tapes, captured at 4:2:2 via HD-SDI to the Apple uncompressed codec. We then conform, scene by scene, in FCP.
(Just as there was none for Weeds switching from Avid, there were no efficiencies to be gained by having us switch from FCP.)
Each week, the “Weeds” team completes two onlines — one each for two episodes. The first is the Promo Online, used for the “Next time on ‘Weeds’...” announcements. These involve general online assembly, without final color, VFX, or titles.
Second is the Final online, which includes all of the above.
The first step toward onlining is identifying the shots that need VFX or other treatment. These are treated first, then graded using Color.
While he is also working on “Everybody Hates Chris,” lead colorist Patrick Woodard breaks each episode of “Weeds” into four 7-minute “reels.” Since the output from Color needs rendering, this allows Patrick to color one reel, send it off for rendering, and start work on the next, keeping episodes from both shows moving forward at the same time.
A WEEK OF “WEEDS”
Below is a typical week for “Weeds.” The episodes are numbered so that “4008” is Season 4, episode 8. The “JT” referenced on Wednesday is post-production supervisor Jonathan Talbert.
4008: QC & Deliver
4009: Title; 4009: Finish Color
4011: Promo Assembly Lock
4009: Picture Review 10am
4009: Changes & laydown by 6pm for Sound
4010: Final Assembly Lock
4010: JT Spot Color & VFX Notes
4011: Promo Assembly Deliverables by 4pm for DHL delivery
4009: Sweetened Master returns in evening
4010: Assembly Dubs by 8am for Spotting
4009: DVD sent for closed captioning by 8am
4010: Color; 4010 Title
So, as we arrive at the end of this particular week, we’ve sent the final version of Episode 9 out for closed captioning, and are coming to the end of Episode 10.
Episode 11’s Promo Online is also nearing completion on a pace that will allow it to be shown as “Next time on Weeds” as soon as Episode 10 finishes airing.
And that’s just for “Weeds.” Don’t forget that the same team of nine of us is also posting and finishing full episodes of “Scrubs” and “Everybody Hates Chris simultaneously, every week.
DELIVERABLES, DELIVERABLES, DELIVERABLES!
When a TV show is finished, it is rare for the producers to walk away with just one tape. Far more often, there is a (very) long list of items that are to be extracted from the master, and sent to various locations, executives and broadcast facilities.
We have had to create a complex deliverables matrix and handbook for each of the three shows we work on every week. It goes all the way down to the precise machine room patches needed to accomplish the task.
“Weeds” has two lists of deliverables. One is the set of tapes and disks of various formats that are passed between members of the team during the post process. The other is the set for final delivery.
Here is an illustration of the deliverables for week one of “Weeds” this season.
Note that in addition to tape or disk format, there are numerous requirements for audio channels, timecode placements and VITC that have to be attended to for each item, for each of the two lists of deliverables.
Needless to say, each of the networks for whom we produce shows have different lists.
We have an extensive quality control check Monday mornings before the network begins working with the episodes we deliver.
The HDCAM-SR of the final master for Weeds that we deliver to Lionsgate also goes through an additional third-party QC check. We were proud that in just our second week with “Weeds,” we got the message from post supervisor Jonathan Talbert that the episode sailed through that third-party quality check without a single request for changes.
The only way we have been able to pull it off was organization, and clear communication between teams. Even though the teams were using different gear, each with their own workflows, we were able to develop a single joint workflow that served us both.
Did I mention that we’re doing this for three network shows each week?