HBO's Digital Transition
HBO holds the highest reputation for television image quality, often based on an aesthetic very closely tied to their use of film. The stakes as they move toward digital pipelines are especially high as they very carefully consider their next steps, for both production and post.
Executives from HBO discussed their issues and more at a luncheon hosted by the Hollywood Post Alliance's Sales Career Resource Group. The panel was moderated by HPA President Leon Silverman, who is also General Manager, Digital Studios, Walt Disney Studios. HBO's Bruce Richmond, Senior Vice President, Production; Cynthia Kanner, Vice President, Post Production; Holly Schiffer, Vice President, Post Production; and Stephen Beres, Technology Architect, were joined by Glenn Kennel, ARRI President/CEO and Sara Priestnall, Vice President, Market Development, Codex Digital.
Silverman, who opened the conversation with a brief history of post production and its most dramatic technology advancements, started the conversation by asking Richmond how filmmakers at HBO have been introduced to new digital, data-centric workflows. "In the comedy area, we have always had indie filmmakers who wanted to leverage digital early on," Richmond answered. "The tough part then was that the cameras didn't fit into a professional posts production workflow. Post was trying to keep up with these mini-prosumer formats. Slowly but surely, that capture device got better and now we have as many people coming to us wanting to shoot digital as those who want to shoot film."
Steve Buscemi from Boardwalk Empire. ©HBO
"Three years ago, we did tests on all the flavors of digital, from the RED to ARRI D-21 to Panasonic's 3500 and Varicam," he continued. "If the director wasn't comfortable with digital, we would look at each other and think, this is the last time we're going to have that controversy over the flavor of capture. Like any situation, we have to make sure director is comfortable painting with that brush. It's difficult to force a filmmaker not comfortable with digital to shoot with digital and have a good result."
The advent of metadata and asset management will be the "last curve" to get filmmakers, production companies and post houses in-synch, said Richmond. "You'll have to capture that video stream, put it in the cloud to get transcoded," he said. "The post community is now upstream in the conversation. You can't do it any other way or you'll screw yourself up."
Kanner noted that when she started at HBO in 1994, there was an 18-week post schedule, and people were cutting on flatbeds. "Then they changed it to a 12-week post schedule, and I was envious of another show working on an Avid," she said. "Our people were working day and night. But from the beginning, I was always able to give the script to post when production gets it so you can budget properly."
Cynthia Kanner, Vice President, Post Production, HBO
The conversation has moved far beyond which digital camera to use, said Kanner. The Laramie Project, HBO's first DI, in 2002, caused the company to re-engineer to accommodate that "And there were only 1,700 visual effects in that project," she said. "Now I'm working on a film with many thousands of effects, and it never went to the lab. It was shot on the ARRI Alexa, went through the Codex Lab, to editorial, which did all the DPX files and cut them back into Final Cut, where Walter Murch is cutting it."
Christina Ricci stars in a scene from HBO's film version of The Laramie Project. ©HBO.
In response to a question about the next generation of filmmakers, Schiffer, who also teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, noted that, "students today have cut their teeth on computers." "They don't think about or look at film," she said. "They see stories told in a different way than filmmakers of yesterday who cut on Kems. They shoot digital and cut that way. I don't think they have a big history of observing brilliant films and learning from color space done photochemically. They have digital eyes."
To shoot Game of Thrones, she continued, HBO had "enormous internal conversations" about shooting in such remote locales in Ireland and Malta. "It was a deep period piece and people didn't want it to look digital," she said. They tested the ARRI Alexa cameras exhaustively. "And we argued," she said. "We weren't all in agreement. We arrived at digital after an enormous amount of work." A huge help in the remote locations was to have the Codex Digital Lab, which allowed them to have instant turnaround for material they otherwise would have had to fly hours away to the nearest film labs.
In HBO's "Game of Thrones," Eddard (Played by Sean Bean), of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell, and Warden of the North, must take on the difficult task of beheading a deserter. ©HBO
"We had nine hours on the Alexa and ran four units," she said. "It was a huge group but this was the only way to do it. We couldn't have broken film mid-day, and got it on a plane to London. It would have been a huge megillah."
"Had we gone with film, we wouldn't have been able to do the show," added Richmond. This season, Game of Thrones is again shooting with the ARRI Alexa and using the Codex Digital Lab, in Ireland and Croatia. "We're mobile and very fast and are improving dailies," said Schiller. "It's felt very groundbreaking for us."
Silverman asked Beres, the youngest member of the team, if anything is constant in this current environment of rapidly changing technologies. "Michael Cioni and I started in Christopher Coppola's garage," he replied. "Now we're in someone's garage in Northern Ireland. Whether you're doing it in a garage or a post house, the idea of sitting down and figuring out the right thing for the project at hand is the steady state. If you plug camera A into workflow A to produce result A, it's not naive but it's not the way of the future."
Stephen Beres, Technology Architect, HBO
"HBO is an image quality hallmark, largely because of the look of film," he added. "But it's still the talented individuals on the shows and in the studio that are committed to that hallmark of quality. By using the best tools in the most creative way is what makes HBO HBO. Those are the things that stay as standards." Silverman asked ARRI president Kennel how technology is serving as a bridge between production and finishing. "There are three ways," he said. "First, is to offer options. One format doesn't fit all the applications. Second, to offer compatible approaches, so people can work in both a traditional video or DI finishing path. We also offer the higher quality ARRI Raw and we're in the process of implementing the IIF-ACES workflow. Third, and most importantly, we work with partners. There are now 20 to 40 companies that work together to support our format."
One of those partners is Codex Digital, and Priestnall stressed that the company is all about providing workflows. "We love ARRI," she said. "And we've done work with the Sony F35. We don't just make recorders; we make it work, which is where the Lab comes in. With Codex Labs, you can be on-set, near-set or in a post house, and make all the deliverables you need."
Sara Priestnall, Vice President, Market Development, Codex Digital
"If you're worried that the traditional post house will go away, you still need trained people," she added. "It's still the same people who know how to use these tools." She recounted the story of a TV show that used Codex last year and thought they could do it all in house. When the workflow got more complicated, they moved it back to the post house. "The big brick building may go away," she said. "But the people won't go away and pieces of the brick building will go into the studio and on location."
When Silverman asked Kanner what the relationship with the lab was, her response was: which lab? "Frankly, when I found out I could watch dailies on an iPad, I went out and bought one right away," she said. "I have two films and two series going, and the lab was a different thing on all four shows. We have 12 different projects on Alexa now. Three years ago, they were all film. Now we're down to six shows on film. It's a significant shift."
The topic of archiving is also hot at HBO. "We have this major conversation every day," said Beres. "After the tsunami, recycling became a big thing, which brought up a whole set of issues. We didn't have a lot of fun dealing with it. We got through that. We were in a place with SR where we counted on a single manufacturer, with the idea that we'd slowly transition to data. Then it became the single most important thing we were doing. LTO became the method we went with, but all that metadata wasn't on LTO. We had to tell people how to structure it."
Leon Silverman, HPA President, General Manager, Digital Studio, Walt Disney Studios, moderates the panel.
But the archiving issue is far from done, said Kanner. "We're in the beginning of a two- year process to get to a meaningful place with LTO," she added. "People have been putting film away for more than 30 years. On the filmed miniseries side, every show has and continues to go out to film for long-term archive. As far as series go, some have gone out or matched to film. But that process is on hold to see if we're really going to migrate everything every two years. We're in an LTO world now. If metadata management becomes the main thing and you have to migrate every two years…there is so much volume on a series. Those are the conversations we have all the time.
Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce in HBO's Mildred Pierce. ©HBO
"We'll be talking about this for the rest of our careers," agreed Silverman."
Richmond wanted to assure the gathered post production crowd that they, as individuals, had a future in the industry even as the structure of a post house will likely evolve. "I've been working with the folks in this room for a long time and you're all still here," he said. "No question that post will be portable and, as computer power requires less electricity, it'll come out of big buildings. It will have to, to leverage how we're shooting."
His advice? "Make sure you're playing with this stuff and have the excitement over all this digital stuff." Schiffer agreed and added her perspective. "In filmmaking, we would all sit down with dailies, with everyone there, get on the same page and then go home, ready to start the next day of shooting," she said. "With all these small devices that pulls us apart, how do we keep the information flowing?
Hollywood Post Alliance luncheon at The Beverly Garland Holiday Inn (Ballroom), North Hollywood
"Technology changes," said Kennel. "Just accept that and get on it. There is still a place for the experience, skills and talents." Beres reiterated that people who recognize the potential of these new digital boxes are in a good spot to move into the future of post. "Those are the people who are truly unique," he said. "That's where this community is moving, and that's why you go to a facility with the breadth of engineering and creative services.