Producer's Final Blog: Capturing Waco Mammoths in HD

KWBU-TV in Waco, Texas, recently co-produced a special HD video about the historic Waco Mammoth Site for the Mayborn Museum at Baylor University -- a production that was noted in a series of blogs in HD Notebook last spring. Located at the confluence of the Brazos and Bosque rivers, the Waco Mammoth Site has unearthed the remains of 23 Columbian Mammoths. The HD production, co-produced by Kristen Cox at 16X9 Productions in Los Angeles, will serve as an introduction to museum visitors and help raise funds to preserve the site. The HD project is now completed, according to Joani Livingston, production supervisor at KWBU-TV and executive producer for the Mammoth film:

"It's been a good little bit since we last spoke. As a refresher, you'll remember we shot our Mammoth short film in HD (1080i), then downconverted to SD for use on DVD for fundraising purposes, as well as in the museum theater. Meticulous preparations have been made for transference to full HD playback at a later date. At the end of my last blog entry, we were in picture lock, lacking only the score for the piece. And so, off to L.A. I go.

"Producer Kristen Cox had made arrangements for studio time at Studio City Sound. Composer Mark Vogel brought in Luke Touzer as sound editor to transpose melodies in rhythmic time into digital timelines. Before we arrived in the studio, I had e-mailed Luke the short film with timecode burned in as a QuickTime file.

"That evening he called me on my cell saying it had downloaded as a 'txt' file. I explained this was normal for a large-sized project, and all he had to do was rename it with a '.mov' extension and he'd be good to go. We came in with rough ideas of what we wanted the Mammoth theme to sound like -- 'heavy,' 'plodding,' 'laborious,' and 'hip' were but a few of our reference words, and Mark nailed it.

"Employing one of the habits of highly effective producers ('begin with the end in mind'), we took the Mammoth theme for the closing credits and revisited it throughout in various forms leading up to the big finish. After another theme was composed for the transitions between segments echoing a '24' [TV series] style, finely detailed nuances were added.

"One segment I absolutely wanted to make sure had the right undertone was toward the end when the museum director was talking passionately about the Mammoth site being a magical place. 'You can almost hear them,' she says, and proceeds to talk about a torrential downpour which may have trapped them there at the site. It is such a powerful moment and I felt it was vital to underscore musically what she was saying. A rain stick subtly portends danger. A French horn cries out for help. It was brilliantly done, and is one of the best parts of the video, in my opinion. A toy piano reprising the Mammoth theme (complete with deliberate, wrong notes) when host Jeff Schmidt is talking Mammoth facts with wide-eyed children is the icing on the proverbial cake.

"The music was mixed and mastered as AIFF files onto two separate CDs -- one with the music, the other with sound effects. Each had a sync point for the start of the video and was laid down in real time to match the visual images from beginning to end. Upon returning to Central Texas, the layback was easy to sync and I had volume control over each sound effect, in addition to fading music in and out.

"The Internet was unbelievably useful with our animation. Effects supervisor Richard Kidd was e-mailed the voiceover track as a reference when building the animation of Mammoths popping up all over a vintage explorer's map. The same approach was taken when developing the animation of sauntering Mammoths to the end credits theme.

"In like manner, we would download low-res QuickTime files of the animation pop-up clues, cartoon Mammoths, map and closing animation to give approval over which version or look we liked best. Once we settled on the look, feel and speed of the animation, hi-res files could be downloaded from Richard's Web site and laid perfectly into the video timeline. It was an enormous time and money-saving approach allowing us to have access to one of the best animators for our clients at the Mayborn Museum.

"When we mentioned to Richard the video would first be run in SD and then re-rendered as HD at a later date, initially we received the animation in 4:3 aspect ratio. So, we had to explain the SD version was only temporary, and we hoped to settle soon on a format of HD playback for the museum in hi-def. But until that time, we needed the animation in 16:9 SD ready to rework into HD once the mode of playback was decided.

"The project for the Mayborn Museum is now completed. From start to finish, it was a highly collaborative effort -- not only with the creative team, but also with the vast technical tools at our disposal."