Spotlight: Postproduction

The rise of digital cameras poses new challenges for feature postproduction

Like many cash-strapped filmmakers, the producers of the indie thriller "Brazen Bull" took advantage of digital cameras to shave costs. But when their film arrived at post house HTV Illuminate, the digital footage came with its own set of problems.

The movie, shot with the RED One and the Sony EX-1 digital cameras, was recorded in two distinct file formats corresponding to the two different cameras. "The production is reliant on us to make it work," HTV Illuminate CEO Jim Hardy says. "They choose the cameras and leave it up to us to try to solve it in post."

Figuring out those solutions has become a major issue in the postproduction community.

Digital cameras are gaining ground on celluloid thanks to such benefits as cost savings, immediate viewing on set and longer shooting times. But in postproduction, the workflow for celluloid, which has been standardized over 100 years of production, goes out the window.

"Each digital camera has its own specific way to record, not like film," says Denis Leconte, vp software development at Prime Focus. "Essentially you have to build the workflow around each camera."

Whether it's a tape-based camera like the Panavision Genesis or Sony F-35, or one of the file-based cameras such as the RED One, Phantom or ARRI-21, as long as the digital cameras defy standardization, there can be no standardization of the digital post workflow. More than ever, productions must rely on post houses to figure out how to move footage from dailies through finishing without losing timecode and metadata.

And the situation isn't getting any easier.

"Technology is changing on an hourly basis," says Anthony Davis, director of feature services at Ascent Media. "The real trick becomes sifting through what camera vendors tell you and what reality is as far as workflow. They promise the sky, but there's a lot of scrambling to make it work."

Ascent is one of several post companies that design workflows on a project-by-project basis, following the project from on-set and dailies through DI and conform.

Burbank's Fotokem opened NextLAB a year ago specifically to handle the new post workflows required by digital camera capture. "We were finding it was very confusing for a lot of people," Fotokem senior vp Rand Gladden says. "The workflow for file-based cameras was undefined within the industry, and NextLAB is the intermediary between the facility and the client."

In New York, production/post house Merge Creative created a cost-effective workflow based on the Panavision Genesis camera for use on indie feature "(Untitled)." The company is now offering that workflow expertise to other indie filmmakers.

"We get consulting questions for productions shooting with digital cameras," Merge partner Gavin Rosenberg says. "We've seen a need over the last couple of years to extend that as a service."

Similarly, Michael Cioni, founder and president of Lightiron Digital, created Lightwork as a consultancy to clients that are interested in bringing some of the post services -- usually dailies and editorial -- on the set.

Unlike film production, creating a post workflow for a digital camera starts with the camera itself, often long before the shoot.

"You have all these digital formats and they're all very different from each other," Rosenberg says. "There are a million options out there, and unless you handle them properly throughout the post process, you'll incur a lot of hidden costs."

At Fotokem, NextLAB vp operations Tom Vice notes that the cameras themselves can cause problems that, unless addressed in production, become much more expensive in post. That includes dead pixels that aren't visible on smaller on-set monitors and under-exposed images that create noise.

"The cinematographers rely on us heavily to find the sweet spot in the camera," Vice says. "With the new file-based cameras, they need the reassurance that we're handling this as we would film. They rely on us for that feedback."

A.J. Ullman, vp creative services at HTV Illuminate, has found himself "fixing" shots on productions that didn't see the camera problems in on-set playback. "But on the projector, it was blinding," he says. "We were able to fix it, but the only way they could have fixed it would be to reshoot the movie."

Digital cameras also can complicate workflow when the production uses cameras from more than one manufacturer. Mixing footage from two or more types of cameras can require multiple steps or even proprietary code to retain original timecode and metadata as it moves into either Avid or Final Cut Pro editorial.

As a result, post experts urge productions to come to them for tests before shooting.

"We put it through what we are anticipating the workflow to be," Ullman says. "We cover anything that might come up, to make it easy for them and easy for the post workflow."

Digital technology also is challenging postproduction houses by creating new competitors. Software-based tools allow any filmmaker to buy and set up a home studio. Some digital camera manufacturers now tout their new technology as a way to make a movie without relying on professional postproduction.

"We realized the trend was that our clients were becoming our biggest competitors," Lightiron Digital's Cioni says. "The tapeless tools are very democratizing. But we say, if the service can be done by the client, it should be. We're not afraid to educate them. They still need the post house for the high-end finishing and mastering because of the infrastructure."

Despite the education, post houses still find themselves correcting blunders made on set. "Especially with file-based formats, the idea a lot of people have is that they can do it themselves," Ascent Media's Davis says. "But there are a lot of factors involved. People may try to convert a file themselves and lose important information. When metadata is lost, for example, we can't track it back to the source footage."

Complications also can arise when a project is taken to one post house for editing, another for color correction and another for finishing. Since every house has its own way of handling digital camera output, a lot of time and money can be spent getting the process synched.

"If it's done somewhere else in a completely different way, we have to reverse engineer it to find a way that fits our workflow," Davis says. "You can edit for weeks and find that what was edited will be very difficult and costly to get together for color and conform."

Another challenge for digital camera post is the immense amount of storage required for the high-resolution files. Even as storing footage gets cheaper, there are costs involved in properly moving high-resolution files from device to device.

"You get what you pay for, even with the hardware going faster," Prime Focus' Leconte says. "What people want to get out of the footage isn't possible at home. If you're finishing a big budget film, you need to be in a room with a colorist."

That level of complexity is ensuring that as digital cameras become more popular, the postproduction pipeline will remain the domain of the pros -- at least for the foreseeable future.

"Our role is to make sure that what happens on set and in editorial works when it goes into color and conform," Davis says. "And that takes a strategic plan to make it happen."