Skellig

Sky are at it again with high definition fantasy drama, but this time with wings. Skellig has been made for HDTV but also for the cinema which makes everything much more complicated, production wise and politically. We spoke to VFX Editor Keith Mottram who designed a cutting edge workflow for the rushes which impacted on how the film was shotA couple of years ago Sky dipped their toes in to high definition drama and produced a couple of Terry Pratchett adaptations shot in HD with the ARRI D20, as it was then. They have now returned to HD drama with another adaptation of a book called Skellig. Annabel Jankel, of Live From Abbey Road fame, held the screen rights for Skellig and persuaded Sky to invest in making it. Sky has repeated the Hogfather deal with them keeping broadcast rights here and internationally, there is also an international cinema release planned for later this year.

It’s the words cinema release that starts putting pressure on everybody because you know then you’re up against film in it’s own backyard. Although Hogfather looked good on Sky HD, whether or not it would have benefitted from a cinema release is debatable. 

Keith Mottram is somebody this magazine has talked to before from his editing of Live From Abbey Road, so he already had a connection with Annabel and came on board not as editor but as a VFX and Post Supervisor. So not only was Skellig to go in to cinemas but there was going to be CGI and a rumoured flying scene. 

Keith is also well versed in where digital cinematography is headed and was to supplement his VFX job with some very innovative HD workflows from the set to VFX vendors, mostly The Mill in London. “I unfortunately didn’t have the relative credits to get the editor job but I was going to be involved in some way, shape or form and the obvious place for me to be was in the FX realm where I’ve always had on foot in.

“When we were spec’ing up the job there were a couple of things I wanted to try – I also had very good relationships with Apple themselves. So I proposed very early on a way we could streamline this production and actually save money to get more of it on to the screen, especially as it was going to be seen in cinemas. There is a difference between theatrical quality FX and say ‘Doctor Who’ quality FX! It does cost a significant amount of money and we needed to makesure we had all those resources available. 

“The thinking was that the way you can overspend on any film includes things like re-shoots through lack of preparation etc... On set there’s not much I can do about that but I could provide a way of everyone seeing rushes straightaway and seeing them in sparkling high definition. I proposed using the AJA IO HD system for on set rushes, for immediate dailies and as the start of a full hi-def workflow which would enable everyone to be working at the highest quality picture possible to hopefully save any problems happening down the line. 

“So in practice what this meant was when we were shooting in muddy fields in Wales we had instant access on large LCD screens to playback. The Arri D21 cameras were fed through HDCAM SR straight in to the AJA boxes where we were recording full HD with ProRes. 

So that enabled the FX people and crew to see what exactly they were getting in terms of focus etc… Also what it meant was that we had the rushes straight back in to our edit suites whenever we wanted them. Usually that did end up being at the end of the day just for convenience  sake. Sometimes we had rushes come back half way through the day, sometimes I was on set actually doing some bash edits and bash comps for the sequences I was actually working on.

VFX SEQUENCES

“So being a fantasy film there are obviously some significant effects sequences in it which initially were I did by editing storyboards in conjunction with our effects supervisor and team at The Mill. When it came to the flying sequences for instance we only had about a day to sort it out when usually we would have a week with green screen. So you really have to be able to quickly knock these shots together, be able to key things up very quickly, to be able to intercut with all your pre-vis’ and storyboards right there on set and get as close as you can in that kind of way to bridge the funding gap you have on a non-Hollywood feature. The whole workflow was I suppose something that would have scared some people, it was a little going in to the unknown but I had full confidence in the system. Bar a few tiny hiccups it was fine and everyone was shocked at the quality they ended up  working with. 

Keith Mottram’s trolley with HDCAM SR decks, AJA IO HDs, Apple MacBook Pros and lots of mud“We ended up using two picture editors for creative reasons and even though they were used to working on Final Cut Pro systems had never sat with a 42inch LCD screen and seen the high definition pictures like that. Interestingly that really changes the editing process because you’re seeing that much more information – it’s unusual especially in British productions to be working at this kind of level. You hear about things like Fincher’s film when you’re cutting on DVCPRO HD but we were doing 1920x1080 offline/online effectively. Those files we captured on set stayed the whole way through the chain until the final grade where for reasons of latitude we re-conformed off the SR tapes to grade on Baselight at The Mill with Mick Vincent.

“I was in Wales sending over HD files down the pipe to The Mill so they could be working on very high quality shots straightaway. So we had HD files and low resolution proxies for speed going to and from The Mill in London and Cardiff with that level of immediacy. So this was good for checking problems before any sets were taken down, thing like that. We were getting mostly bits of pre-vis from The Mill at that time. For key sequences we had an FX Supervisor on set in Wales.

SAVING MONEY

“I’m not a producer so it’s hard to say how much money this system ultimately saved but I would say that the result speaks for itself and we wouldn’t have got the standard we achieved for the budget we had without working in this way. I think it really shaped the way the film was going while we were shooting because it was that much closer to a finished result. We didn’t have that offline feel to the work which always feels like you’re thinking a step a head and are saying ‘It’s going to look like this in the future’. You’re actually seeing it and saying ‘Damn that’s great or damn that’s awful’. You can make those decisions much quicker and it actually changed the structure of what we were shooting, you can even decide whether you are going to need a scene or not based on the fact that you’re getting that much more vibrance from the images.

“Also I think it helped for the people who weren’t so used to working with HD. I’m obviously more of an advocate and more of a convert than most people and there were a lot of people who were rather be shooting on 35mm. There were economic reasons against that and also some contractual reasons with Sky needing it to originated in HD, I’m not sure. 

“But for me the D21, bar a few glitches which I think would have been ironed out by shooting straight to data rather than SR – it’s just a fantastic camera, it really is. Obviously it’s not as light as an Arri 235 but you can make your judgement through your viewfinder, you can bring everything up on your scopes, you know exactly what you’re getting. If you can’t lug a D21 and SR deck up a hill then really you’re in the wrong job! I don’t believe 35mm is quicker as I’ve done both things and I think there a lot of politics involved. 

“The resolution of the camera is great, you can debate all you want about how many lines you need for a good print out but with Master Primes the sharpness is really there. 

“Compared to a RED, well there is no comparison. One has a cinematic quality the other looks like it’s been shot with a PC. They are very different cameras. 

“If I’m honest there were a few minor problems which were to do with the SR. We actually lost a day’s shoot through corruption on one of the decks which was a nightmare but the D21s never went down and we had no issues with the fans or anything like that.

“We used the Flash mags sometimes but using lots of Flash Mags can be quite a significant additional cost. The other reason for not using the mags, especially the Venom packs that we were using was that I don’t think they are 100 percent reliable. But it’s always hard to decide what’s human or machine error in situations on set and to tell you the truth unless I was called for I was actually in the comfort of my suite - indoors.”

HDCAM SR PROBLEMS

The DP was Steve Laws who usually shoots for TV and he partnered with Paul Snell who was the DIT looking after the decks. In effect he became the data wrangler once Keith showed him how the AJA boxes worked. 

Keith, “The only issues for me on the D21s and I think they are addressing it are the issues of highlight handling. For me the talk of SR being lossless isn’t true. There is compression which is quite significant when you’re going out to film. I had discussions with Mick at The Mill about this and he brought up problems that there are with the green channel which was very interesting. Which in reality means that the greens in grass or whatever would pop, not in RGB colourspace but when you’re getting ready for the film LUT version. He was finding that the greens were popping quite loudly. Of course when you tried to pull them back into more natural colourspace you start affecting skin tones and things like that. 

“That was a problem and the initial thought was that it was to do with the actual camera itself but it seems it could be the SR manipulating parts of different colour channels. It’s something I need to investigate further. 

NO DATA CAPTURE

For the shoot Keith wanted to go down the route of data capture but found some reluctance from the Bond company. “The Bonds companies are still really funny about it, I had a bizarre conversion with our Bond company. They called me because the people in production couldn’t answer the questions, so I had the Bond company firing all these questions about what happens with tape etc…

Director Annabel Jankel was unsure about the technology but the high quality on set rushes helped calm the nerves“As a result we had to clone all our SR tapes which is strange because you don’t clone a load of 35mm stock when  you shoot it! There is a certain amount of education that has to be done. I suppose it’s fair enough because we’ve had film for so long, it’s part of our culture, part of film schools, people grow up with it. We’re going to have a generation 20 years from now who are going to look back and laugh at things like this. But at the moment we are in a conversion period and dealing with people who have done nothing but shoot with film for decades. 

“If it was up to me I would have wanted to thoroughly test systems like the Codex and the STWO products. I would have probably pushed for a Codex as I heard that Gluetools (www.gluetools.com) has released a package for converting Arri RAW files straight in to Final Cut Pro. Things like that are just amazing. Imagine the ability to match back from your ProRes to Arri RAW for example, then you’re really getting the best of both worlds. So I think if Codex is as rugged as an SR deck, then it’s crazy to use SR. I don’t believe having a tape on your shelf is a security anymore, even at the beginning of the production that’s the way I thought of it ‘The nice thing about tape is that you know what you’re getting’. But as soon as you lose a day and it’s because your SR deck’s gone, you think ‘what’s the difference’. It’s easier to check back that your data is all correct than it is to go through a tape. 

“It was a horrible moment when we realised that there was corruption on the SR deck and we’d lost a whole days shoot. Obviously with insurance there was a re-shoot but it was a delicate scene which was one of the final scenes of the film. A very tender scene between actors Kelly Macdonald and John Sim. We did the re-shoot and the director wasn’t happy, she didn’t feel she’d caught that moment again. Those little glances which makes such a highly emotional scene, it’s the finale of the film. It’s the bit that says ‘We’re alright now’. 

“There was a stage where we thought we might have to work with the ProRes footage and try to grade that to match. It would have been possible certainly for the TV version but very difficult for the film out version. In the end we went through all the tapes and fortunately we managed to paint out the drop outs. On just two particular shots we were very lucky as the drops outs were very minor. Other parts of the tapes were completely unusable. The rest of scenes we had to re-shoot. I don’t think they ever managed to conclude that the problem was.

“With data I now feel more confident bizarrely enough because we never had any drops out using the AJA workflow and that was data capture.”

WORKFLOW

The basic set up was two brand new FCP systems established in a production building in the ITV Wales building in Cardiff. Each suite was packed with eight Gigs of RAM and AJA boards. Each one had internal three terabyte RAIDs. On set there two MacBook Pros, which were, connected via the AJA boxes to the SR decks. They were capturing on set and logging on set as they went along. The results were then sent back on Firewire drives to the edit suite. 

The Mill were the main FX vendor for Skellig. Above are green screen, comps and the final shot“I did some tests and this seemed to me the best way, less wires so less things to be pulled out. They captured straight to the internal disks as 1920x1080 4:2:2 SQ and then at breaks they were run off onto Firewire drives that were sent back during the day or at the end of the day. Also copies went on to another Firewire disk that went back home with the DoP so he could check and make sure that his stuff was matching location to location. You can imagine how beneficial this was to the DoP who has to match this stuff. This impacts down the line as well as you may save time in the grade as you’re not fighting things. 

“This on set capture workflow works in so many ways, the benefit to the editorial department, to the production department, even the art department. Everyone was used to seeing DVDs and for our art department to look at an image in HD when they’re building their models or set extensions was great as they knew exactly what they needed to work with. You couldn’t tell if you only had normal offline quality DVDs, which is often the case. It usually depends where you are in the food chain to what quality you get to see.

“To me it’s ludicrous to work any other way. Sky were the only people we really had to answer to in London, on set were getting to see stuff that blew them away which helped PR wise. Also if you get that far why not cut out all DVDs, cut out bikes going to London, so the next thing I investigated was a system with The Mill called BEAM. So all rushes in London were seen on BEAM. All I had to do was batch convert all the rushes through Apple Compressor on a preset and they went up. All the execs that needed to see could and immediately in very high quality H.264, at around 640 pixels across which is better than any offline DVDs that you’re waiting two days for.” 

HDR RECORDING

So the great conversion to digital goes on with growing pains throughout the signal chain. There are huge on set politics to be dealt with and film diehards will always say it ‘would’ve been better on film’.

Keith has only good things to say about the Arri D21 camera not just for the quality but how it can be budgeted for: “Anyone who thinks that digital capture won’t be better than film is dreaming. It’s not perfect yet but it will be as perfect as we are going to get. We will very soon be able to do HDR kind of recording and then you’ll be able to get more information from a highlight then you’ll ever get from film. 

“The D21? It would be great if it was bit smaller, a bit lighter but what you’re getting from it and what you can achieve and how you can budget for it means for me it’s one of the most versatile cameras around for this level of production and higher.”


Posted on May 3, 2010 and filed under case study, cinematography, prores.