Dateline NBC Gets "FILMLOOK"

Tight turnaround times and limited budgets prevent most news magazine producers from straying from tried-and-true production workflows. For example, a typical Dateline NBC segment is shot with Betacam SP cameras. The producer then creates a paper log of the footage, writes a script, and spends the edit session in an Avid Media Composer suite with a Dateline NBC editor.

Daniel Slepian, producer of a segment for the show entitled "Death in the Desert," wanted to do something different. He chose another route for the program, which chronicles the murder of a family in Las Vegas. This story, told without a voice-over narration, was shot on location. Detectives on the case were taped as they viewed the footage and made commentaries on it.

Slepian's first decision was to switch the formats for location acquisition from Betacam SP to Sony DVCAM. Shooting in the DV-based format enabled him to change the post process dramatically. With FireWire-enabled DV playback and Avid Xpress DV on a laptop, Slepian was able to digitize, screen, and log the resulting footage at his convenience. "I could work in a hotel room, in an airplane, or at home," he said. "Almost every night, I worked late, organizing media on my own, without an editor. If sections didn't work, I could move them around."

Slepian put together a rough "radio cut" that enabled him to get a general idea of how the story flowed, and, more importantly, to figure out what segments needed to be bridged. That determined the questions he would have to ask the detectives in upcoming interviews. "This didn't take the place of an editor," he said. "Without editor Rob Allan, we never would have been able to air it. This was simply an editorial tool for me to save time and money by digitizing all the media on my own and putting the story together."

Slepian then played back the DVCAM footage for the police detectives, asking the questions needed to elicit responses to bridge the segments and taping those responses, this time with a Beta SP camera. The completed interviews were then cut into the appropriate spots in the footage.

Slepian's next innovation solved the problem of how to treat the end result, which featured two different video formats. "I had this idea that I wanted the field footage to look like film," he said. "It would make it more intimate and more dramatic. It would help tell the story."

Based on the advice of a senior producer, he tapped Filmlook, the Burbank, CA company that has been offering a proprietary process to give video the look of film since 1989. Founded by Robert Faber and Anna Poore, the company has worked on a wide range of television projects, from ESPN's Sports Century College series to Lifetime's upcoming New Unsolved Mysteries. According to Faber, the company's tape-to-tape post service stands out because it is based on realtime hardware as well as patented technology. The ability to make changes in realtime means that a producer, director, or cinematographer can supervise a Filmlook session. For Slepian, in New York, Filmlook completed several "test" samples, highlighting different adjustments for different looks.

"They looked at different options and decided which one they preferred," said Filmlook Engineer Vince Douglas. "Our process worked well with this kind of documentary job."

Filmlook is able to tweak a wide variety of criteria to impact the ultimate look, including simulation of both 24 and 30 fps. "By reconstructing fields and frames into 24 fps, some material shot in video can introduce the strobe of film," said Faber. "That's where we'll use 30 fps. And we can easily jump back and forth between 24 and 30 simulation rates÷and do it seamlessly."

Another variable is gray scale. "We bend the gamma curve in such a way that we are mimicking a typical film density curve," said Faber. "This obviously doesn't work perfectly for every kind of scene, so we've got multiple settings of these curves with a variety of adjustments that we'll apply on a scene-by-scene if not shot-by-shot basis." Altering contrast and gray scale may also alter color saturation, so Filmlook also does some basic primary RGB color correction.

Simulated grain pattern can be dialed in, from minimal to moderate. "We usually keep it at a low setting, almost subliminal," said Faber. And a flicker simulation introduces a random effect that can also be dialed from nil to moderate.

Douglas said that the look for "Death in the Desert" included a standard setting flicker, medium level of grain, a fair amount of color correction, and a combination of 24 and 30 fps. Slepian was quite pleased with the results. "It was very subtle, but it looks different from a traditional news magazine show shot on Beta SP," he said. "Although the viewer could never tell."

To maximize capabilities for the interested film producer, Filmlook recently added a Da Vinci 2K suite to its facilities, to offer more sophisticated image manipulation and HD capabilities. Though it's too early to tell how popular Filmlook will be for HD-acquired programming, Faber is able to report that the DV format has enjoyed an upswing in popularity, for everything from direct-to-video projects to cable/broadcast television projects.

For his part, Slepian reports that his fellow producers at Dateline NBC and NBC News are interested in the efficiencies he was able to achieve by his pioneering use of DVCAM and Avid Xpress DV. Will DV-based formats replace Beta SP as an acquisition format? "I don't know the answer to that," said Slepian, who's already working on another Dateline hour in DVCAM. "But I'm addicted to it."

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