We were no strangers to epic location shoots.
Digital Film Tree is a wall-to-wall post-production company based in Hollywood, California -- digital dailies for editing, offline and online finishing, color correction and graphics, and a variety of high-definition services. Our history as a post house is also deeply steeped in research, development, and consulting. We’re always testing, exploring and figuring problems out, often ahead of the evolving technology. We developed our own workflows to get projects all the way through the production pipeline. Of course every project is different, so I'm one of several custom workflow consultants to put these together.
Our biggest project had been Cold Mountain, directed by Anthony Minghella, and edited by Walter Murch. We worked closely with Walter to design its post workflow, and he's one of our heroes: his resume includes Apocalypse Now, the Godfather films, The Conversation and many more of our favorite films.
In one way, Cold Mountain wasn't entirely a “post” process. Walter started editing the final film on the first day of shooting in Transylvania, Romania. Over the course of six months on location, we designed and maintained a network of 4 FCP desktops and 4 laptops, working on everything from dailies to the final edit as it emerged every day. We couldn't have been prouder when Walter's work was nominated for an Academy Award.
[If you have more interest in this topic, you should seek out Charles Koppleman’s book “Behind The Seen. “ This entertaining book tells the entire tale of Murch creating Cold Mountain on Final Cut Pro.]
We worked on other very visible, highly complex projects along the way, including “Full Frontal” for Steven Soderbergh, “Napoleon Dynamite," and “Scrubs,” the first top-10 network show to be edited entirely in Final Cut Pro. Currently we also post WC’s Everybody Hates Chris, another all-digital TV show that is shot on the Viper digital camera. There have also been scores of smaller independent features that have given us every bit as much pride. We enjoy helping filmmakers achieve their visions, regardless of the size of their productions.
Even with all of this under our belts, our biggest challenge was still ahead. In the spring of 2007 J&J Productions approached us for editorial and workflow consulting on their upcoming feature, The Forbidden Kingdom. (TFK)
(click image for trailer)
Shot in China, TFK was set to be one of the most significant Chinese-American productions in recent memory. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon helped spread martial arts epics from their Asian roots to the rest of the world. The Forbidden Kingdom was going to mark a major milestone: two of the world's most popular martial arts stars, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, together for the first time.
It was going to be big in more ways than one. We had to be part of a workflow, spread across China, Korea, Australia and the US. DigitalFilm Tree’s founder and CEO Ramy Katrib immediately realized the immense magnitude of the project. “There were aspects of that reminded us of Cold Mountain on global scale, so we started calling it our Asian Cold Moutain.”
Rob Minkoff directed The Final Kingdom. His other credits include The Lion King and the Stuart Little movies.“DigitalFilm Tree's supervision of the workflow and our Final Cut Pro setup always provided me with the files, shots, and information I required, wherever I was. They made the technology serve the creativity of our film."
The Forbidden Kingdom is a story about an American teenager obsessed with martial arts films. One day while visiting a pawnshop in Chinatown, during his hunt for kung fu discount DVDs, he's transported magically to ancient China and finds himself part of an oddball band of warriors on the path to free the Monkey King.
Unlike some violent kung fu movies, TFK was intended as family-friendly from the very beginning. This was especially important to Jet Li, who has two young daughters. “Having made so many violent movies in my career to date, I thought it was about time I made a film that families with children will be able to enjoy together. This is the film that I am making for my two girls.”
TFK carries with it some of the biggest names of the recent successes in cinema. The director of photography was Peter Pau whose credits include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The fight choreographer was Yuen Wo Ping, celebrated as the greatest martial arts choreographer in the world and renowned for his work on movies such as The Matrix series and Kill Bill 1 and 2.
The executive producer on the film was Rafaella De Laurentiis, daughter of the noted film producer Dino De Laurentiis. She had crossed paths with DigitalFilm Tree on her previous film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (another one of our consulting and workflow success stories) and spoke highly of our work on TFK."I wanted to use Final Cut Pro since it allowed us flexibility and stability on our remote location in Mainland China. DigitalFilm Tree was instrumental in setting-up our Final Cut Pro workstations and Editorial workflow. I don't know how we would have functioned so well without them."
While much of The Forbidden Kingdom was created on the sound stages of Hengdian World Studios, numerous spectacular locations in China were chosen for exterior scenes: the Gobi desert in Dunhuang, the Nine Bends River, the waterfall at Xianju, the greens of Wuyi Mountains, the Bamboo Camp at Anji and the Plum Blossom Garden at Fangyan.
Hengdian World Studios a rural town, an almost five-hour drive from Beijing and the luxury amenities that many may have come to expect on film shoots, was turned into a world-class studio. The Jet Li movie Hero was shot in Hengdian. The studio also boasts a 9/10th replica of the original Forbidden City.
The Forbidden Kingdom represents the first time Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in a feature film.
Using the Panavision Genesis digital camera
TFK production chose the Panavision Genesis camera as its primary acquisition tool. (Some high-speed action sequences were shot in Super 35mm celluloid film.)
The Genesis camera is described by Panavision as “a film camera that shoots digital.” With a super 35-mm sized, 12.4 megapixel, true RGB sensor and the ability to use all preexisting 35mm spherical lenses, this camera has been quickly adopted by cinematographers. The Genesis camera has proven itself on films such as Superman Returns, Apocalypto and Grind House.
One big attraction for this camera is its sensor. The CCD is the size of a Super 35mm film frame. And Panavision notes that this sensor is a true RGB, as opposed to the more common Bayer pattern sensors. Bayer pattern sensors have half as many Red and Blue pixels as they have Green ones. The Panavision sensor has equal number of pixels for each one of the primaries, R, G and B.
Shown above is the Panavision Genesis camera, described by its makers as “a film camera that shoots digital.”
The Genesis camera can output 4:4:4 RAW RGB files, which are often captured to the SSR-1 solid-state recorder made by Panavision. The SSR-1 mounts directly onto the back of the camera.
TFK production chose instead to record from the Genesis camera to the Sony SRW-1 HDCAM-SR tape deck.
Director Rob Minkoff and Director of Photography Peter Pau on location for The Forbidden Kingdom. Pau’s previous credits include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
David Rosenblatt, assistant editor on the film, explains, “Traditionally when you shoot in China, in order to have the film properly bonded, you have to have all of your processing done in the United States, or Europe or somewhere else. That creates a massive problem, in terms of just the basic coordination of how do you get film in and out of customs and the process of dailies is quite cumbersome.
"But with the Genesis it is a whole different story. Peter Pau the director of photography coined this term that instead of dailies, we now had “immediatelies.” The idea being that except for the short time it took us to process the files, the entire production could be seeing the footage in a very short time.”
Peter Pau was the first cinematographer in Asia to be using the Genesis. “I am very pleased by the quality of the CCD and of course, the lenses of Panavision, the one-hour-recording capability and the possibility for it to run at 48fps in real frames. It’s a reliable and safe system that we have tested with the heat and dust in the desert, the moisture at the waterfalls and mountain valley and the heavy-duty usage in the non-air-conditioned stages in hot summer.
"There is no danger of shipping it out and having the “negatives” processed and so far no dust or scratches reported.”
Director Rob Minkoff and Director of Photography Peter Pau, seen here with the Panavision Genesis camera. Pau was the first DP in Asia to use the Genesis camera.
Designing the Editorial Systems
One of our many daunting tasks was to design the editorial systems.
For DFT’s Post Systems Engineer, Sazeer Kader, the single most important consideration during the design of TFK’s editorial system was the remoteness of their editorial location: Hengdian World Studios was 6500 miles from any viable support and means of technical help. The systems had to design with simplicity of maintenance in mind. And yet they had to be robust enough to stand up to the rigors of the production.
Katrib explains,“Many discussions took place between DFT engineers and TFK editorial team. In the end it was decided to put together a simple, redundant and reliable editing network.”
Shown is the layout of the design of the three editorial systems we designed and configured for the project.
The XServe Raid storage was divided into two parts; one for the editor and the other for the assist. The footage was duplicated on both portions.
As can be seen in the diagram, the edit stations were populated with large capacity internal SATA drives. The digitizing station (with the fastest and largest drives) was used to capture the materials to its internal drives. From here the footage was given to the assist and to the editor’s side of the Xserve raid. The three systems were connected through a simple, easy to maintain, CAT-6, Gig E, Ethernet network.
The editor and the digitizing stations were equipped with the Kona 3 cards.
Ramy and the rest of us at DFT spent a week with The Forbidden Kingdom's editors. We carefully went over the design of the network and the post workflow. As Ramy notes, “It's rare that the design and solution for one project to automatically meet the needs of another, so we have to design custom workflows that work best for each project. After working through the design, we verified everything prior to their flight to China.”
Assistant editor David Rosenblatt says: “Having Final Cut Pro on board allowed us a lot of flexibility in terms of how we processed the material. In our case we used the Panasonic DVC-PRO HD codec, which I found an excellent and efficient way to have a really nice picture in editorial and for production.”
Ramy Katrib, founder and CEO of DigitalFilm Tree, seen here in the company’s main server and data storage room
"The Forbidden Kingdom" Workflow Highlights
• TFK was shot on a Panavision Genesis camera.
• Footage was captured to HDCAM-SR format at 4:4:4 sampling rate and 23.976 fps.
• The Genesis camera recorded directly to the Sony SRW-1 tape deck mounted to the back of the camera.
• Sound was recorded to a Fostex PD-6 recorder. The Fostex PD-6 time code was used as the master time code and fed to the smart slate as well as the SRW-1 deck.
• Audio was recorded and delivered to the editorial on DVD-RAM disks, as Broadcast Wave (BWav) files.
• Editorial had two HDCAM-SR Decks; a Sony SRW-1 for playback and SRW-5000 for recording.
• The first item on the list of tasks for editorial was to clone the HDCAM SR tapes. The camera masters were then put away and the clones were captured into the edit system.
• The clones were captured into the edit stations using the Kona3 capture card and FCP.
However, in between, the signal was passed through a Panavision Gamma Box and a LUT was applied to each shot.
Each day the editorial received a LUT log from the camera crew, which indicated what LUT was applied to each shot.
The editorial team matched the LUT during capture from the clones to FCP. LUT info was also kept in one of the FCP columns for future tracking.
• Footage was captured into FCP as DVCPRO HD files at 720p.
• The BWAVE Files were passed through an XML utility written by Zack Fine, the apprentice editor, to correct the fields, and then brought into FCP.
• Since the time code on the picture and sound was the same, the "Auto Sync" feature in FCP was used to sync the sound files to the video clips. A 2-frame offset was found in the system where sound was often 2 frames early. This was manually tweaked and fixed. (This 2-frame offset was expected as part of the on-set capture method.)
• Camera groupings were created for clips if the scenes happened to have multiple cameras.
• Clips were then organized into Scene bins and sent to Eric Strand, the lead editor on TFK.
• The assistant editor created a Cinema Tools database for video and sound files. This was done to ensure proper change lists for audio in the future.
• There were some elements that were shot on Super35mm film, mostly high speed sequences. These were telecined via a 2k Spirit and laid off to HDCAM SR Tapes. Editorial then ingested them as DVCPRO HD 720 files.
• Eric Strand, the lead editor, proceeded to edit the film.
• For all big screen previews, the DVCPRO timeline was laid off to HDCAM SR 1080, 4:2:2 via the Kona 3 card. The HDCAM SR tape was then projected digitally onto the large screen for audience previews and test screenings.
• For smaller previews, a DVCPRO QuickTime was laid off o a FW drive and played out of a Mac, via DVI to the projector's DVI connector.
• An entire separate workflow and naming convention was created by VFX editor Jason Pelham to track effects shots. This workflow allowed for HDCAM SR footage to be disbursed to various VFX vendors. When these shots were returned by the VFX vendors, they were converted back to DVC PRO HD and inserted back into the timeline. The returning VFX shots had to be color corrected by using Apple’s Color to match the rest of the scene in the offline edit.
NOTE: The use of Apple’s Color in a way was necessitated by the inherent design of Panavision’s Gamma Box, which was used to create and apply Look Up Tables (LUTs) on-set to the Genesis camera.
During the shooting phase the Gamma Box was used to create and apply the LUTs to each shot. This LUT info was sent as a LUT log to editorial, where they used another Gamma box to apply the same LUTs as they captured the footage into FCP.
However, the design of the Panavision gamma box is strictly as a “pass through” device. Which means that during the VFX editing phase, back in LA, they would have had to, one, needed the gamma box back in the editorial. And two, even if they had the gamma box, the shots would have had to pass through it to tape and then recaptured back into FCP. That represents quite a cumbersome workflow specially when you have over 800 VFX shots. It seemed the logical way to fix the problem by simply utilizing Apple’s Color to match the shots.
• Final output and Digital Intermediate (DI) Finish:
For all footage that had originated from the HDCAM SR tapes, a CMX 3600 EDL was exported. This EDL was ingested into Quantel box and the tapes were recaptured for final online and color correction. For reference FotoKem, the online house, was also provided QuickTime movies. After the color correction the digital files were transferred to film stock.
• All sound was sent via OMF at 48k and 24bit. These were files that had a straight digital path from the Fostex PD6 to the DVD-RAM to FCP to output.
• For the super 35 mm originated materials, Cinema Tools cut lists were sent via the database that editorial had created and maintained throughout. These cut lists were used to scan negatives to 2k and incorporated into the HDCAM SR timeline in the Quantel box.
Eric Strand was chosen as the lead editor for TFK. Strand’s credits include Donnie Darko, Lethal Weapon 4 and Deep Blue Sea.
Much like the Jason character in The Forbidden Kingdom, Strand was a big fan of Bruce Lee movies and had his room plastered with Bruce Lee posters when he was young. Having studied martial arts for a total of 7 years himself, Eric has always wanted to work on a martial arts film, so he is extremely proud to be the Editor on The Forbidden Kingdom.
He says, “When I first started this film, knowing it was going to be shot with the Panavision’s Genesis camera, and edited on Final Cut Pro, I knew there were several companies to choose from. I was very familiar with DigitalFilm Tree, and well aware of their outstanding work with Walter Murch on Cold Mountain. It helped put my mind at ease that we were going to be working with a team of creative experts that had been there from the beginning, using Final Cut Pro on big motion pictures.”
Director Rob Minkoff (left) and editor Eric Strand (right) in the final editing phases of TFK at DigitalFilm Tree.
In many ways the editorial team was serving as its own digital “telecine” facility. They had to perform duties like cloning of the masters, creating their own databases, syncing, and similar duties that are often done overnight at a telecine facility. Strand feels that the added work to the editorial because of this was much bigger than anticipated.
Strand also had to reckon with the differences between US and China when it came to shooting of action sequences. "In China the action sequences are shot in what is known as the 'Hong Kong style,' where they shoot everything in short little bits. Each little bit goes to each little bit goes to each little bit, as opposed to American style where you have multiple cameras and tons of tons of film, which gives you more options. In the 'Hong Kong style' of shooting for fight sequences, there is pretty much only one way to go. But having these fragmented pieces and then trying to figure out how they go together is the big challenge.”
The huge milestone of having two of world’s biggest action stars in the same film was not without its own pressures. Says Strand, “When we started there was a lot of concern of Jackie Chan and Jet Li starring together for the first time in an American production. We have a big responsibility to the genre and we’re all working extra hard to make sure that we do not disappoint the audience.”
Other challenges, for the editorial team were more personal. Strand describes the time they spent at Hengdian’s World Studios as “an adventure, difficult at times.”
“There were about 20 westerners on the film and hundreds of Chinese. The food that was catered was more for the Chinese. We had to learn to eat items that were new to us. There were not any options in town when came to restaurants, so we had to live a different lifestyle than what we’re used to in the States.”
With no forms of entertainment around, the crew ended up getting bicycles and spent their day offs riding through the outskirts of town.” People would stop and look at us,” Strand says,” We were definitely the foreigners. But we got to see the real China, as opposed to the big cities.”
After the production wrapped in China, the TFK editorial faced an interesting challenge in moving their equipment back to the States, particularly because at the time they understood that editorial would be moving back and forth between LA and Beijing. TFK editorial elected to just move their hard drives and keep all other gear in China. All of the drives were shipped back to us at DigitalFilm Tree in LA. Our engineers recreated clone systems of their editorial in China, except on entirely different Macs workstations.
Ramy says, “It was quite an honor to host the TFK editorial and VFX team at DFT for the entire creative editorial and effects tracking process. It is a lot easier to provide minute by minute support in-house, than at an external and remote facility.”
Editor Eric Strand and producer Raffaella De Laurentiis at the DigitalFilm Tree facility during the editorial phase of The Forbidden Kingdom
Apple’s Color to the Rescue!
During the offline editorial process, the assistants found themselves utilizing other tools that are part of the FCP studio offerings.
Zack Fine, the apprentice editor on TFK, explains, “We were receiving VFX shots back from the many different facilities that don’t have a LUT applied. Those RAW DPX files don’t have the particular look that the DP has decided for each of the scene, for this preliminary version. We have been getting these shots back and I have been taking them back into Apple’s Color, and adjusting them so that they match the rest of the shots in the edit.” From here these shots are cut back into the timeline.
During crunch times for preview screenings one of our lead colorists, Patrick Woodard, lent a hand using Apple’s Color, to color correct the returned VFX shots from various vendors.
“TFK assistant editors would place the new un-color corrected shots in track 2 of the FCP timeline, while leaving the properly color corrected shots in track 1 and media manage the project over to me. I would take the FCP project into Color, and knew that I just had to match the shot on track 2 to the rest of the sequence on track 1.”
Often times, Woodard used nothing more than his eye to match the shots. But he found two tools quite helpful for this. “The first one was the curves feature in Color. It allowed me to look at the S-curve of a shot from Genesis and match that curve in Color.” The second tool was the Tektronix WFM-7120 waveform and vectorscope. “I used the parade display in WFM-7120 extensively to match the shot in track 2 to the sequence on track A."
DigitalFilm Tree’s lead colorist, Patrick Woodard, assisted TFK with color correction for their previews screenings. Apple’s Color application was used by Woodard.
Solving Spelling Problems with XML:
Not everything ran quite as smooth. Often times there were challenges, sometimes requiring ingenious solutions.
Zack Fine, explains, “ We found ourselves doing a lot of data entry, particularly with the sound imports. We were supposed to be getting XML data out of the sound files, but turned out that the software that converted the sound files for us was having problems because the XML files that was embedded in the sound files had a misspelling in it. “
That misspelling was traced to the hardware device. Fine wrote a piece of software that created a XML cross flow between the audio files and Final Cut Pro. That XML compatibility in FCP saved the assistant editors all of the manual data entry they had been doing previously.
Fine says, “That may seem like a small item, but when you have over 200 sound files coming in daily, that is a lot of manual entry.” The sound files XML issue went from a potential crisis to a non-issue, thanks to Fine’s ingenuity.
Zack Fine, the apprentice editor on TFK, seen here in DFT’s edit bay, says that Final Cut Pro’s XML compatibility allowed him to avert a crisis on the film, by writing a simple XML import-export script.
Before his stint with The Forbidden Kingdom, Zack worked as a quality assurance team member for Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Motion teams. As a QA tester, he had test every single menu item as well as buttons and sliders in FCP, testing each feature in FCP in many different ways. That methodology helped him on TFK.
“I have worked with FCP before for years. But I have never worked with editors that have primarily used Avid before. It’s always interesting to see how people work when they sit down at a FCP station. And there are always seven different ways of doing one thing in FCP. But it is interesting to see what limitations that happen when you take people that are used to working the exact certain way, say in Avid, and they come to FCP and it doesn’t work; maybe for that particular method, that particular way of working does not work out, as well as they are used to. They discover that there are many other way of doing it, but that it is a matter of adaptation.”
Creating the Visual Effects for TFK:
For a movie like TFK, rich in fantasy and mythical elements, one would automatically assume a large number of special effects. And at over 850 shots, the VFX task was just as complex and demanding as anything else on this feature.
Senior visual effects supervisor, Ron Simonson explains, "In such a film, the type of visual effects scenes vary greatly, encompassing 3D virtual backgrounds, matte paintings, complete 3D environments, 3D weapons and effects such as fire, water, lava, smoke and debris, 3D digital character doubles and 3D face replacements.”
Jason Pelham was the visual effects editor on TFK. He operated as the go-between for labs, VFX vendors and editorial. He also handled the traffic to get all the appropriate frames from the lab and divide them up between the vendors.
Another of his primary tasks was to update the edited timelines with effects, and at times, temps, as they were delivered back to TFK by different VFX vendors. Due to the complexity and the demanding nature of the effects, the work was divided up between Seoul, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. South Korea was the center for all 3D work, while Hong Kong handled wire removal and some 3D environment work. Los Angeles vendors handled the face replacements and wire removals.
Pelham also worked on FCP to keep up with all of his tasks. He took the latest cuts from Strand as FCP projects and keep them updated with the shots he would receive back from the VFX companies. He describes himself as an “Avid guy” and The Forbidden Kingdom represents his first time visual effects editing with FCP. “The biggest hurdle for us in FCP was the lack of ability to share projects. Just not being able to keep the same project open from three or four machines and all of us being able to work in that project.”
Visual effects editor Jason Pelham had the daunting task of traffic managing over 800 special effects shots for TFK.
In closing: The Forbidden Kingdom's opening
April 18th has been slated for the global premiere of The Forbidden Kingdom. With some special stars together and high hopes, the big challenge of the film remains quite clear to everyone.
Assistant Editor David Rosenblatt highlights the cultural challenge of the film this way: “The Forbidden Kingdom is like trying to take a character that to the Chinese people and the Chinese Culture is like Santa Claus, Frankenstein, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, all rolled into one. And now to have to show it from an American perspective.
“The Chinese know everything about these characters, all the little details. This is all very new to us as American audience and as filmmakers as well. So trying to adopt the true nature of the story, but make it into a package presentable to a foreign audience, as well as the Chinese audience, has been the unique challenge of this project.”
Producer Raffaela De Laurentiis is confident however that they have managed to create just the right balance. “Making the first film in which Jackie Chan and Jet Li are starring together is in itself already special. But being both a martial arts film and a contemporary American film makes this film unlike any martial arts film before. All we want to do is to make a good movie; a fun, good movie that will appeal to both the East and the West, and I think we have done it.”
On Saturday, April 11th, a cast and crew screening was held for The Forbidden Kingdom, at the Leonard H. Goldenson theater at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in North Hollywood.
With all of the movie credits we have to our name, it is still a rare experience for us at DFT to make it to some of these more social events. More often then not by the time the big star-studded screenings occur, we’re insanely busy with some new project. Such was the situation for us on the day of the screening. On the day of the screening, typical of DFT, some of us had been up for days, working on our new project --which will remain secret at this time!
A few of us were able to clean up and make it to the screening. It’s always a joy to see a film completed and finished, after you have spent months working on it. And it still amazes us how completely drawn you get into a film that you had so much involvement with, and a film that you saw in a thousand small pieces.
The film was full of humor and wit. The contrast of a serious Jet Li and a comic Jackie Chan struck a perfect balance. The kung fu sequences were masterfully choreographed and edited. And the story was appealing to all. We saw many kids roaming the aisles before the start of the film and they seemed pretty happy afterwards. All in all, we hope the film will be a big success.
Ramy says, “We were proud to play our part in creating TFK. Final Cut Pro is still establishing itself as the center of major filmmaking workflows, and there's still work ahead of us as new cameras, formats and digital intermediate processes continue to emerge.”
Even after FCP becomes Hollywood's tool of choice, big films like The Forbidden Kingdom, and even the much larger number of indie projects, will continue to need custom workflows. People who work on films with these workflows are finding bigger challenges and greater rewards as their roles expand, and as they get to work with their favorite software on their favorite films.