HD in post, part I
Ever since film was replaced by video as the mastering medium of choice, editors have been exploring the best way to finish projects using digital technology. Now that high-definition post is mainstream, modern NLEs offer several options for posting, including desktop computer software, a combination of software and hardware acceleration, and powerful proprietary hardware processing.
Each approach features its own advantages. Three of these approaches are illustrated in the case studies that follow.
Thanks to the rapidly increasing power of computer processing, Apple's Final Cut Pro software is able to accomplish video mastering at a level previously possible only with a much higher capital investment. In Los Angeles, PlasterCITY Digital Post facility has found ways to use the editing software with great efficiency in online and offline editing, specializing in creating digital intermediates for independent films.
Five years ago, PlasterCITY's founders Michael Cioni and Ian Vertovec were considering establishing a high-end post-production workflow. They selected Final Cut Pro for its ability to online 8-bit HD video, which was not as common then as it is now. With AJA Video as a technology partner, they could equip their facility with Final Cut Pro workstations and AJA video cards for a fraction of the cost of a hardware-based nonlinear post house.
This has led the team to the concept of HD digital intermediate, by mastering onto Sony 4:4:4 HDCAM SR tape. They use it on two or three feature films each month, in addition to posting “The Sarah Silverman Program” for Comedy Central.
Each of PlasterCITY's 10 online/offline edit bays use the latest universal version of Final Cut Pro for Macs. One bay is dedicated to color correction, another to audio and the rest to online/offline editing. The program handles each editing process with the same software functionality.
PlasterCITY writes its own code for 20 percent of in-house processes. The team leverages the software-based capabilities of Final Cut Pro to maximize the power of multitasking a project without the overhead of large investments in tape decks. In fact, PlasterCITY only has one tape deck per tape format. And the post house can distribute processing-intensive operations such as composite rendering among 10 Apple workstations being fed by a large SAN using grid-style computing.
Recently, the team used this system to master the HD digital intermediate for Chris Paine's feature documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” narrated by Martin Sheen and released by Sony Pictures. The team used Adobe After Effects, Apple's Shake and Final Cut Pro to take footage — Web streams, DV video and 8mm film — and convert it into 1080i HD through KONA video cards to match the production's film transfers created by E-Film.
Because the film is about cars, one unique challenge was the legal need to blur more than 400 license plates. The team used Final Cut Pro to send the blur to Shake and then brought it back into the editing application. It became a one-click round-trip.
These time-savers were essential to meet the project's tight deadline. The entire online process was accomplished in less than four weeks, and PlasterCITY finished six weeks before screening at the Sundance Film Festival.
Keep Me Posted
Avid Technology's NLEs use a combination of software running on either Windows or Mac platforms along with the company's acceleration technology called DNA, short for digital nonlinear accelerator. This pairing offers the advantages of an editing user interface with hardware-based mastering capabilities.
Keep Me Posted, a division of FotoKem Laboratories, recently added an Avid Symphony Nitris to its compliment of high-end mastering systems at its Burbank, CA, facility. Editor Erik Peterson uses the Symphony with its Nitris accelerator to finish prime-time television episodic programming. He uses the system's Total Conform feature, which brings all of the editing decisions and effects created offline on an Avid Media Composer into the mastering system.
Because more than 90 percent of prime-time programming is cut on an Avid, this represents a significant savings in cost and time. More of the detailed work that only a few years ago was relegated to the online suite can now be accomplished in a far less expensive offline environment. Before Total Conform launched on the Symphony, however, that offline version was considered a rough cut that producers had to monitor through the mastering process in order to recreate it properly.
Now, even keyframed motion effects and complex 16:9 AniMatte composites can be polished while offline and brought directly into the finishing process with minimal tweaking. On one of last season's episodes of CBS' “Ghost Whisperer,” Peterson found the new Spectra-Matte keying tool in the Symphony Nitris to be invaluable. Working under tight deadlines, it let him make last minute changes in elaborately composited shots without having to send them back to the visual effects shop that created them. Thanks to the power of the system's Nitris acceleration, Peterson could analyze images down to the pixel level to control edge spill and make sure even the finest hairs came through the compositing process intact.
Peterson also mastered episodes of the dead-case crime series, “Bones,” for FOX. Here, he ran into the challenge of some elaborate multispeed effects, where the video's motion was ramped up and down. Not that long ago, this would have required massive amounts of disk space and an expensive online session. Today, the offline editor of “Bones” was able to create the effects while the producers were still making creative decisions, and the final version was then re-assembled automatically with Total Conform in Keep Me Posted's Symphony Nitris system.
FOX also wanted to experiment with Avid's DN×HD compression codec, which enables the final master to be compressed down to SD bandwidths and be transported and stored within a conventional infrastructure. The highest DN×HD rate — 220Mb/s — was used to compress episodes of “Bones.” And Peterson reports that even with that reduced amount of data, the high-definition images were visually indistinguishable from native HD. The ability to reduce the storage needed for HD shows without sacrificing quality could have an influence on how future shows are distributed and archived.
At Milagro Post, located just outside of Detroit, 13 Quantel workstations help the team meet the challenging needs of the motor city's image-conscious automobile industry. Quantel's use of proprietary hardware and the post house's own extensive storage capability with a PC for system control creates the power to handle the most demanding video formats and the flexibility to access a massive number of files.
The HD edit bays at Milagro Post include Quantel eQ edit systems with QColor panels attached for color correction as well as the eQ FX desktop application for effects creation. The team can master in 2K on Quantel iQ systems with the help of the new Pablo color corrector, which can handle up to 4K files. All Quantel applications use the same software interface with the differentiation in their capabilities coming from the hardware attached to them.
Recently, the group put its system's capabilities to the test by creating running footage packages for Ford. This involved 120,000ft of 35mm film containing glamour shots of the latest car models in various locations. Milagro Post imported all of this through a Spirit 2K datacine into its 64TB film SAN using Rorke drives. All of this was accessed by the iQ. Eventually, this material will be integrated into local and national Ford advertising campaigns.
Because car models change annually, this material has a short shelf life, yet it has to be constantly accessed for new commercials. In the rarefied atmosphere of car commercials, every eye-catching frame is critical to the success of a given spot, and all matte and compositing work has to be at the highest quality and resolution possible.
Having it all available online in real time means clients don't have to waste time while tape reels or RAID servers are changed between projects. It also allows the color specialist at the Pablo console to tailor the look of each selected shot to the specific commercial. As a side benefit, the color-correction system adheres to the 3-D color space specifications required by the Digital Cinema Initiative for digital cinema releases, another service that Milagro Post can provide thanks to its Quantel hardware-based approach.
Of course, when you're making a wish list for the ideal HD post-production system, you must take cost into account. But, as the competition in digital post heats up, there are software and hardware to meet increasingly sophisticated needs. And the field is by no means limited to the three workflows illustrated here. In the December issue of Broadcast Engineering, I'll offer additional case studies to help guide you through other solutions.
L.T. Martin is a freelance writer and post-production consultant.
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