In-house Post House
September 20, 2010
CBS primetime drama "NCIS: Los
Angeles" is using JVC ProHD camcorders
to produce the "surveillance
video" monitored by undercover
agents who are on a mission to thwart
criminals that threaten national security.
The visual narrative of the series relies
heavily on this surveillance footage
which, according to the show's writers,
is procured by a variety of sources ranging
from security monitoring systems
in banks and parking lots to "spycams"
worn by the agents and installed in vehicles.
The video is regularly displayed at
the headquarters of their "Office of Special
Projects," making it an element that
has to be on set, ready for playback during
A dedicated playback unit was created
to provide the surveillance video to the
set. Footage shot alongside the first unit
on location is processed into clips with
graphics, text, maps and photo montages
during the first part of the shoot. It's
quickly prepared for the portions of the
episode shot inside the "NCIS:Los Angeles"
headquarters, appearing on video
monitors that include a large translucent
screen, a touchvision screen and a wallsized
CREATING 'THE LOOK'
Surveillance tapes as used on the set of "NCIS: Los Angeles"
During the show's first season (2009-2010), Director of Photography Victor
Hammer experimented with a variety
of recording devices, including some
consumer-grade security cameras, to create
different "looks" for the surveillance
footage. But—in the interest of efficiency,
quick turnaround and budget concerns—the process had to be simplified.
The playback unit's "Plan B" opted
for footage from four small JVC GYHM100U
HD camcorders that serve as
stand-ins for any kind of surveillance
recording device. JVC footage was degraded
and otherwise altered in post
production as needed. These camcorders
output to dual SDHC memory cards formatted
in Native Final Cut Pro. The playback
unit also had a file-based in-house
processing network built around Apple's
Final Cut Pro editing system.
"We tried to standardize so there'd be
the least amount of holdup," said co-producer
The workflow totally bypasses
transcoding and post house input. An
"NCIS:Los Angeles" staffer hands the
flash cards from the JVC GY-HM100U
camcorders to the show's editorial department,
which downloads the .MOV
files, edits them into finished segments
on Final Cut Pro and saves them as digital files. These finished clips are
taken to the set and played back using
FCP during shooting.
Whitmyre said the Final Cut
Pro workflow for playback definitely
saves time and money (by his estimate
$5,000-$10,000 per episode). In addition,
he said, it simplifies the process,
enables greater creative flexibility, and
The bane of post production finishing,
according to Whitemyre, is accommodating
changes and scheduling: the
fight for time in an edit bay, plus the
ability to book tech personnel. With
the show's current approach, this is not
an issue. "There's no need to schedule a
room," he said. "Many people can work
on it at the same time. And the system
accommodates change much easier
than any tape-based model."
Every editor and every assistant
editor has a workstation. In fact, Whitmyre
said he rented two extra stations
dedicated to data processing (rendering,
converting to various output formats)
and "anything else that comes up."
Savings in the workflow also freed
up financial resources for plug-ins and
filters, both for visual effects and for further
optimizing the process, extending
the already robust platform provided by
Final Cut Pro and Adobe's After Effects
digital motion graphics and compositing
John McKnight, one editor dedicated
to the "NCIS:Los Angeles" playback
unit, cited Nattress Productions'
Film Effects as a bonus for creating "the
look." Red Giant Software's Magic Bullet,
he said, helps degrade the JVC footage
to a scratchy rendition while providing
the ability to customize footage for
output to DVD or film. Kafwang's Eureka
aids transitions; Singular Software's
Plural Eyes helps sync audio to video.
Digital Heaven's Final Print effectively
"creates a list with markers" that
can be saved in various formats. And
Digital Rebellion's FCS Maintenance
Pack helps maintain the Final Cut Studio
systems by locating corrupt clips
within a sequence, salvaging data from
damaged files, managing plug-ins and
providing other handy services.
Many of these perks were provided
by Hollywood-based network designer
and post house DigitalFilm Tree, according
to McKnight. "They supplied
us with about 95 percent of the filters
in Final Cut Pro and After Effects on
top of what's standard," he said.
DigitalFilm Tree CEO Ramy Katrib
agreed that "there's a lot of specialty
software" on the playback system, including
written by one of his company's partners.
"A nonlinear editing system combined
with networked nonlinear finishing
is ideal," said Whitmyre. "You
never have to worry about making
last minute changes or running out of
tools. It's good for the budget and for
maintaining one's sanity."