Simplifying lens-to-post workflow

“Workflow” has become a catchall term for anything that replaces physical media being passed from process to process like a baton in a relay race.

Products now come with a description of the associated workflow, with claims of how fast you can turn around your production. Not unnaturally, users are looking for enhancements over tape workflows. Where is the gain if transcoding and file copying takes as long as ingesting a tape?

Many camera vendors, especially with low-cost cameras, choose long GOP codecs with high compression and 8-bit sampling. This allows for long-record durations to low-cost removable media like solid-state memory cards and optical media. Such choices are fine for newsgathering and documentary, but any program genre that requires extensive editing and effects as well as color grading should use less compression, I-frame coding and at least 10-bit sampling.
NAB 2012 saw further product releases to enable the lens-to-post workflow, including support for 4K production.

Delivering higher quality

One of the changes in workflow that is delivering higher quality to post is the use of editing codecs with field recorders. A whole raft of field recorders (that is now available) provides a means of capturing more data from the camera. Many recorders include uncompressed recording alongside ready-for-edit ProRes or DNxHD hardware encoding within the device.

The power of laptops and portable workstation means that some aspects of post can be performed on set. 64-bit operating systems, quad core processors and powerful graphics cards have transformed what can be done with a laptop.

Thunderbolt has added a new dimension, bringing an extremely fast connectivity previously found with Fiber Channel connections.
The digital intermediate technician (DIT) can utilize the high transfer speeds of Thunderbolt to back up memory cards and SSDs to portable drive arrays for escrow, or just for working copies. Thunderbolt also provides a connection to a full-size monitor for focus checks and critical viewing. A laptop now offers a low-cost and lightweight platform to replace a cart full of gear. The director and DoP can get instant replays to check lighting and exposure.

Shot logging and rough cuts can start during the shoot, helping to compress production timescales. Any problems with shots can be fixed immediately while at the location.

Camera operators have a wide range of field recorders available to choose from including: AJA, Atomos, Blackmagic, Cinedeck, Convergent Design, and Sound Devices.

New at NAB was the AJA Ki Pro Quad. A complement to cameras like Canon’s new EOS C500, it captures raw files up to 4K resolution, and debayers in hardware for local monitoring and transcodes to ProRes for editing. Convergent Designs showed the Gemini Raw, capable of recording 2K/4K files.

At NAB, Blackmagic Design surprised everyone with the launch of its Cinema Camera, a well-kept secret. This camera adds a new tool to the DSLRs shooter’s kit, but unlike similar priced cameras, it makes the raw data available. Rather than creating highly-compressed AVCHD 4:2:0 files, users can output RAW files wrapped as CinemaDNG, or edit-ready ProRes or DNxHD. Indie shooters can grade the output for more cinematic effects, formerly only possible with high-end cameras. Many lower-budget productions still want to use green screen, and having more sensor data available make it easier to pull a clean matte.

Productions are now free from the many constraints that tape imposed on workflow and can truly start to benfit from a file-based workflow. Crews can choose more flexible ways to shoot and post produce, without needing to sacrifice video quality, yet reducing cost. Tape imposed a serial workflow, but cameras that shoot files open the way for parallel operations including logging / shot selection and grading to start alongside the ongoing shoot.

However, there are pitfalls. The new workflows must be carefully designed to provide security for the original camera files, and to deliver them safely back to post. It is all too easy to lose an SD card, more difficult with an HDCAM cassette. Careful checking of file integrity and a planned backup routine are vital if the benefits of tapeless production are to be enjoyed.