All over the map

A travelogue of the journey one film took from production, to post, to DVD.

The title of "Babel," the Paramount Vantage film that opened Oct. 27, refers to the Biblical tower built to reach heaven, which angered God and prompted him to cause confusion and disunity among humans by making them speak different languages.

In a sense, that's not an alien concept to those trying to translate dailies into finished product during the post process. Today's rapidly changing post industry means facilities have to support a growing range of both film and digital formats -- and hybrid workflows. That kind of state-of-the-art work means there are really no standards, and post houses are being called upon to support the individual creative challenges in each production.

Fortunately, there was plenty of good communication for those involved in "Babel's" production, which demanded location shoots in four countries, three film formats and the implementation of a film and digital hybrid post workflow that would enable the production to complete on a rapidly accelerated schedule -- in time for the Festival de Cannes, where it premiered in May and won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, as well as a best director award for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Following is a trip through the challenges of getting from Morocco, Mexico, Japan and the U.S. -- to Cannes.

March

"Babel" has been lensing on location in four countries, with cinematography led by director of photography Rodrigo Prieto (2005's "Brokeback Mountain"), who also collaborated with Inarritu on 2001's "Amores Perros" and 2003's "21 Grams." Various film formats have been put to use: three-perf Super 35, 35mm 18.5 anamorphic and Super 16mm, with spherical and anamorphic lenses, which give each country a unique look and lends the film creative texture.

The negative ships to Deluxe Labs in Los Angeles for processing, and production taps Gamma & Density Co.'s Cinematographer's Color Correction Program (better known as 3cP), an on-set software-based system that offers a cinematographer color-manipulation tools and the ability to send color-corrected stills to the colorist in order to communicate creative intent.

Using this method, Modern VideoFilm becomes involved; it is receiving the 3cP stills, coloring to the stills and sending dailies around the world. "Time was the biggest challenge because of the distance ... and because they were shooting a lot of film on a daily basis; it was not always easy to get the dailies there in a timely fashion," dailies colorist Eric Putz explains.

Although dailies are sent via Firewire to the film's editors, Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise, who are cutting in Los Angeles, shipping is required for coloring. The distance between Los Angeles and the locations means it can take up to a week for those dailies to arrive.

April

The Edit Decision List is supplied to Laser Pacific for conforming. Laser Pacific scans the conformed negative at 4K resolution for a 2K workflow and converts the film to a digital master file in the Academy aperture 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

Color timing begins around April 10, lasting for approximately three weeks. Freelance colorist Yvan Lucas (who has since joined Efilm's staff) works on the film with Prieto in a theatrical environment using Autodesk's Discreet Lustre in Laser Pacific's digital color-timing theater.

"It's quite common to scan full frame," Laser Pacific president Leon Silverman explains. "In this film, part of what was done internally was to scan in a custom way that started with 4K scans across the active area of the picture as opposed to the film frame. ... Resized to a 2K workflow, we were able to optimize image quality across distinct and diverse film formats."

"Some of the challenges we faced were directly related to the condensed schedule for delivering elements to Cannes," conformist Jeff Charles says. "It was a long feature; it had the mixed formats, and we had to optimize the scans for the creative intent. Subtitles (roughly 600) were another challenge with the time constraints, as they wanted English and Spanish for Cannes."

By April 24, film recording has started at Laser Pacific using an Arri film recorder. A 35mm negative is delivered to Deluxe Labs, where an answer print is created for Cannes. The next three months are devoted to nonpost work, promoting the film at events like Cannes.

August

Laser Pacific begins work on the "Babel" DVD deliverables even before the theatrical release. The company starts by taking files from the Lustre system and using a Specter/Pandora Pogle combination in a process that includes moving the images from a film to video color space.

"For the home video deliverables, we created a custom color-management system (to create) the very specific look of the feature, which is beautifully shot," Silverman says. He adds that this involves manipulating the color so that it will resemble what is created for film with the director's intended vision, but in a video color space.

Versions in 1:78 and 1:33 pan-and-scan are created and output from the Specter, one HDCAM SR reel for each film reel. Editorial follows in order to build the long-play version, which is mastered in HDCAM SR. Text is added in an Avid Nitris suite; QC is performed.

The final HDCAM SR deliverables -- essentially four, as the 1:78 and 1:33 version each had fully formed texted and textless versions -- are delivered to the studio for duplication in late September.

Nov. 10

Paramount Vantage released the film in select U.S. theaters on Oct. 27; today, it goes wide.
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