Dallas Texas USA
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Moving to Dallas in 2008, to be closer to family, I was finding it difficult to get work. I was wondering about the rationality of leaving LA when I met writer, director, producer Alin Bijan, the owner of Media World Studios. That's the name of Alin's company, as well as a space for other people committed to the same artistic vision. One of those is Amin Emam, a great composer who also resides at Media World under his own company, 12-Elements. Working as part of this collective, I saw the chance to rise from my own ashes with a reborn passion.
Between us, we agreed that controlling as much of the production and post as possible and by owning the cameras, post production equipment and a sound stage allows us to make better movies, cheaper. Wait, that's not exactly right. It allows us to make better movies by spending money in other areas.
Alin came to me with a script he was working on, called Ghost of Goodnight Lane.
As I read it, it turned out to be about our haunted studio. Media World was converted by joining an old house and a metal warehouse together, and little things have happened to each one of us since. Two different sets of paranormal investigators -- including the team that had debunked Amityville -- confirmed the haunting. I'll just say that, in my opinion, if it is haunted, we have some very cool ghosts.
[Ed. note: If you're as curious about this as we were, check out http://ghostofgoodnightlane.com/.]
I asked Alin, "What kind of movie do you want to make about us?" (In his script, Alin becomes "Alan" and Jonny becomes "Johnny." Amin's character is still named Amin.) It's a story about filmmakers in a renovated studio, trying to make a movie even as members of the cast and crew are being killed by an angry ghost. So, it's a movie about people trying to make a movie in a haunted studio, actually being shot in our haunted studio. Perfect.
Writer Director Producer Alin Bijan checking the shot for a driving scene.
Alin said, "Let's do something where we shoot on weekends and edit a couple of days a week, very simple and organic. We can shoot on a Canon 5D DSLR, and have a great time making a movie."
Now, I had just gotten back from SXSW in 2010, where I saw Elektra Luxx, a film by Sebastian Gutierrez. It looked great, and in the Q & A Sebastian discussed shooting the feature with a Canon 5D DSLR for around $12,000. Sign me up for a 5D! I'm ready, let's shoot.
But after I got my hands on one, Alin did some tests with it, and was not satisfied that this would be the right camera for shooting out particular feature. He did some additional research and came across the Sony PMW-F3, an affordable video camera with a Super 35mm CMOS sensor. At around $24K, the F3 already sounded like a more affordable solution than RED or ARRI Alexa, especially because the price includes PL adaptor, and three Sony PL Primes: 35, 50 and 85 mm, T2.0. (The F3 without a lens lists for $16,800.)
I've shot a lot of film, both 16mm and 35mm, so when I saw that out of the box the F3 shoots XDCAM at 4:2:0 at around 35mb/s, my first reaction was, "Really? Like an EX3?" The EX3 is a great camera, but this was frustrating. It was clear that the F3 had much more brain sensor power than it was using, and we wanted to tap into that brain. The potential was clearly there, though, so Alin decided to go for it.
When the camera arrived, it was like the holidays. The Sony boxes sat in Alin's office that morning, and we would casually walk by every so often to see if he was in yet. I opened the door as he was pulling up, I mentioned "BOXES" and "SONY," and he was off like a 7 year old. Immediately, the discussion was, "What can we shoot, RIGHT NOW! Let's get this camera to work."
Sony F3 S-LOG in "THE REVOLT" Redrock Micro cage.
It just so happened that I had a commercial that week to put the F3 to its first test. It passed, and with flying colors! Forget my reservations. I was amazed how great this camera shot straight out of the box, recording to SxS with the lenses that came with the camera.
As things continued to develop on our SAG production, Alin was able to secure actors such as Billy Zane (Titanic), Lacey Chabert (Mean Girls), Danielle Harris (Halloween), Matt Dallas (Kyle XY), and Richard Tyson (Something about Mary). Things were getting mammoth and this gave "Ghost of Goodnight Lane" a lot of momentum. That's when we also learned that Sony was going to offer an S-LOG upgrade for the F3. Now THIS was really big news.
Matt Dallas, Lacey Chabert and Danielle Harris exiting the studio as Billy Zane helps Lynn Andrews to safety.
So what was the big deal? A lot of video cameras shoot in a color space like REC 709 for HD, a "linear" color space which does indeed produce beautiful images for monitors like HD televisions. However it is very easy to overdrive the brights, and drop shadows all the way to black. This is far less of a dynamic range than the human eye, which is one reason why video can look so artificial. The information in those blown out or clipped areas is gone forever.
Images recorded in LOG (logarithmic color space) offer much more range, to pull out details in the brightest and darkest part of the pictures in post - in some cases, even more than the eye could see during the shoot. As a result, LOG works much more like film. Sony's approach to recording LOG images, which they call S-LOG, was first introduced in digital cinema cameras like the SRW-9000, the F23 and F35. Think of S-LOG as a digital film negative, with the entire tonal range of what the CCD sensor is capturing. In that way, S-LOG turns the F3 into a digital film camera.
The S-LOG option for the F3 also means that you can now use the dual-link 3G SDI ports on the back of the F3 to output 4:4:4 signals that capture the entire tonal range of that 35mm chip. The S-LOG option also adds a stop to the F3's standard range, for a total of 13.5 stops, about the same as the RED Epic, and very nearly as much range as Alexa, for much less money.
Shooting two Sony F3 S-LOG cameras side by side with different cinematic lenses, and the ARRI MB-14 matte box (right).
I heard about the S-LOG option in early spring, and contacted Sony to see when it would be available. I first heard September 2011, I thought, "Dang, that sucks!" It would really be awesome to have S-LOG and open up new possibilities for us, but we wanted to be in principal photography in June. (We later had to reschedule for August to accommodate actors' schedules.)
We spoke to Peter Crithary, Sony Marketing Manager for Production, and told him about our production, and wanting to shoot S-LOG with the F3. It turned out that we would in fact be the first feature to shoot with it. Outside of NAB, no one else had shot with the F3 in S-LOG. He was very excited, and was able to get the upgrade to us before its official release.
Now it was time to get to work.
Billy Zane on the set.
In the initial testing of S-LOG, we quickly realized that the combination of uncompressed and ProRes444 that we were planning to use was going to create massive files.
Top: Cinedeck EXTREME in action.
One option we considered was recording to HDCAM SR tapes, but we wanted more codec options. We went with two Cinedeck EXTREME recorders, because they were the first on the market to record multiple high-res codecs including uncompressed 4:4:4, Apple ProRes 4444, AVID DNxHD and Cineform to an SSD drive. This works! Now SSD drives are treated like film magazines at the recorder, with the big difference being that you can offload and start working with the full resolution footage immediately, minus the lab.
Every time we spoke to Charles D'Autremont, the inventor of the Cinedeck, during shooting, he would tell us about new and exciting things they are working on. Honestly, I have to say that as the editor on this film, Cinedeck has made my job a lot harder. Now that I can be cutting during production, I'm expected to be cutting during production.
One last hurdle: we needed cages for the cameras and no one we knew of had made a SONY F3 cage with the features we wanted. I have always been a fan of Redrock Micro, and when I contacted them at their facility in Texas, I was greeted with excitement. Redrock had us come out to the facility, and we worked for two days making "The REVOLT RIG." Fully loaded, it weighed in at just under 50 pounds, and it had the versatility to easily go from sticks to handheld.
Lacey Chabert pushing a dolly loaded with a Sony F3 with S-LOG option loaded into the REVOLT RIG in the "Ghost of Goodnight Lane" movie-within-a-movie.
The rig also allowed for easy movement of the camera to fit the different lenses from Panavision we were using, and a Preston remote focus, as well as allowing us to mount a Cinedeck recorder, a 7" OLED SONY monitor and a 7" TV Logic monitor. So yeah, 50 pounds.
F3 IN ACTION
After everything was in place, I was very thankful we had over three weeks to prep and work with this new equipment. Alin was working with the SONY F3 in S-LOG and shooting tests with some actors to get the look and feel of the film in place. As it was coming together, I asked Alin what he thought of the camera, and here's what he had to say.
As the director, I wanted the best image and camera equipment I could possibly have, and as the producer I wanted a camera package that fits the budget. That's when I found the Sony F3 with S-LOG. I decided that owning this camera made sense, as I had multiple upcoming film projects to produce.
I absolutely love the image the SONY F3 gives me, with the expanded tonal range that the S-LOG option adds.
I also like the size of the SONY F3. It can be simple and light weight, or can be accessorized to become a full-blown digital cinema camera. For us, that includes cinema prime lenses using the F3's PL mount.
I have shot all my other features on film, and this camera shoots like a 35mm film camera. I am a much happier filmmaker now that I don't have the cost of film associated with my productions, and the fact that the camera turns on quickly without a long boot-up period is also a big plus for staying in motion during the actual shooting.
The Sony F3 on dolly and below...
The Sony F3 on Steadicam.
Since Alin was obviously very happy with his camera, we needed a foolproof system for managing the files coming from our two F3s to our two Cinedecks.
Footage would come to the DIT station on SSD, and be offloaded to multiple locations at the same time, using checksums to ensure data integrity. Then the media would be synced and binned out on the spot.
We also recorded to internal SxS cards in XDCAM HD, to be doubly sure that we were getting all the footage. This actually saved us once during the production.
Alin Bijan directing Billy Zane on the set of "Ghost of Goodnight Lane."
With this much happening, we needed to talk with someone about different storage solutions, and Katie Watson from G-Technologies stepped up to help us figure this out. By using an ATTO R680 raid card on the main editing station, we striped two 12TB G-SPEED eS Pro drives together, giving us 24TB of storage and a R/W speed of 990 Mb/s in RAID 5. This worked GREAT for us, allowing us to edit multiple streams of 4:4:4 HD, while also keeping the footage backed up to multiple locations.
At 8 AM on Monday August 5th, principal photography for Ghost of Goodnight Lane
began. Two F3 cameras sat poised waiting to shoot the first shot of the day, with Bill Ambrose at the DIT cart in a shaded area fired up with battery backup, and Cris Knight, the digital loader and my assistant editor, ready to go. Alin took the helm as the director and we were off to the races.
So how did the real-world images coming from the F3 with S-LOG option look? As production went on, the cameras shot in a myriad of locations and circumstances, from daylight to dark rooms, and in my opinion, the footage looked as good as anything coming from a Sony F35.
Alin Bijan working out the shot with the camera crew. Please click on image above for larger view.
Viewing the footage on the DIT cart on a 25" Sony BVM-L231 monitor set up to view S-LOG, the footage looked incredible. In fact, the First Assistant Cinematographer Danny Horne --"Dangerous Dan" -- starting pulling focus watching the 25" BVM monitor at the DIT cart instead of the 7" PVM 740 OLED monitor on the camera.
Overall, I feel we have gone full circle from 35mm film back to digital 35mm. With the S-LOG option, the F3's video features are disabled, and you're left with a true digital cinema camera. Remember the days of choosing film stock? Well, with LUTs (lookup tables) in S-LOG, you are essentially doing the same thing, with much more flexibility and much less cost. Bring your light meter.
"I would like to thank the Academy."
I couldn't resist saying that. I may never get to say it again. I'm bringing up the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to talk about "ACES" -- the Academy Color Encoding Specification. Since we'd gone to the effort of capturing the widest range of color we could, we wanted to preserve it for final grading and online. ACES describes a color space that's virtually unlimited, for maximum accuracy. IIF, the Image Interchange Framework, describes the workflow built around ACES.
Brina Palencia doesn't want to die.
We knew that that was how we wanted to work, but we weren't sure how to get there. The first challenge was to get from a super-wide color space to something that you can look at on a monitor, which is always going to involve some kind of compromise. In the world of ACES, specific characteristics for a camera and its optics are used to create an Input Device Transform, or IDT, so you can work with the light values that were actually captured, whether or not the monitor can display them.
There was no IDT for the F3 when we began. Because the picture from the F3 looked so much like the F35 to me, and because both use Sony S-LOG, I wondered if we could get away with applying the S-LOG/S-GAMUT IDT to the F3. I asked about this in the Creative COW forums, and got schooled. I was told in no uncertain terms that this would not work. Since I didn't have an F3 IDT, I decided to try it anyway. Ouch! It looked like something from a Polaroid camera in the early 70s in kind of a cool, music video kind of way, but definitely not at all what I was looking for.
Curtis Clark, ASC and chair of the ASC's Technology Committee, has been actively working with the Academy on ACES from the cinematographer's end. I spoke with him about creating the F3 IDT, which they are now working on. He had a good laugh when I told him about the "Polaroid" effect from my attempt to apply the F35 IDT.)
Sony F3 on a Matthews Tulip crane.
We're working on a camera IDT so that we can get the best results in grading of course. Matt Maclain, our colorist, and in my opinion a rock star, is willing to push the boundaries, and sees a great many new possibilities for advanced workflows with IIF-ACES. We have been working with Chief Engineer Chris Doros behind the scenes at Filmworkers Club here in Dallas on their BaseLight system - which just happens to be the first grading system to support an ACES workflow, so Peter Postma, the US Product Manager for FilmLight, has also been working with us and the Academy on getting an IDT for the F3.
(As I was wrapping up this article, Blackmagic Design announced support for ACES in DaVinci Resolve, but I haven't had a chance to look at it.)
In the meantime, we're having a blast watching it all take shape, and are really appreciating how hard everyone is working on an IDT for the F3. We are going to jump all over this thing as soon as it's ready. Be looking for a full report.
The crew prepares for yet another horrifying death scene.
THE EDIT BEGINS
As we look back at this last year, starting with Alin's script, the number of incredible things that have come together has been staggering. We are now in post and the ball is in my court.
I am always glad when a production ends, and I can go hide in my hole to edit. This is the most exciting part of the moviemaking process to me, because as the editor, I get to mold the story into a film.
Sometimes you have to hide while you're editing, as people that worked on the production are always coming by to see how the film is coming along. This time, it's has been enjoyable, because I keep hearing the same thing on this production as I keep hearing the same thing over and over again: "Wow, that image looks impressive!" Even before we have the ACES IDT nailed. In working with Gary Mandel over at Sony and viewing on a BVM-L231 monitor in S-LOG mode with Harris scopes, has helped us to see the true potential of the image that was recorded.
Now I have to get back to editing, so there's a movie to grade. The Sony F3 S-LOG footage is a pleasure to work with even before grading. It really is gorgeous, and I think you'll see that it's a big part of you enjoying Ghost of Goodnight Lane
as much as I know you will.
Dallas, Texas USA
"I started with a music video for D.H. Peligro from the Dead Kennedys," says Jonny. "From there I worked on videos for people from KMFDM to Godsmack to Blackalicious to Will Smith. Later, I started a show in Los Angeles called Revolt TV, filled with sketch comedy and music videos. I found myself shooting, directing, producing and editing my own content, and what started as a job became a consuming passion. I look at each job as a puzzle, and as tools evolve, find myself using both the newest and the oldest workflows."