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Monday, April 25, 2005

Slatemen of SSS

Assistant Camera, Hugh Braselton with the smart slate.

Assistant Director, Ales Orr, on Day one of shooting.

Grip/Electric, Tony Holley in Florida.

Grip/Electric Mike Brune (future star of Blood Car)

Tony Holly again, on the beach. Everyone looks really good on 35 mm.

Mike Brune again. Great lighting by DP Evan Lieberman and gaffer Jon Swindall.

Forgot the slate, no time to find it, that's me clapping as a slate.

Actors Mary Kraft, Cynthia Evans and Jonathan Green slate themselves for a drive 'n' talk take.

Last one for sex appeal.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Finishing in hi-def

Another week has gone by and Stomp! Shout! Scream! is another inch closer to being done. I saw more animation story boards this week and heard more soundtrack music. Nothing too huge to report there, so I’ll talk technical about how this film will be finished.

The decision process started back before the first frame was shot. At some point while writing the script, I decided that this movie should be produced as if it was made in 1966-- period costumes, music, locations, etc. Since it was going to be made with limited resources, reproducing the schedule constraints and shooting style of the era’s low budget films would be necessary and stylistically appropriate. I always assumed the movie, at best, would be shot on super-16mm film-- for budget reasons and to maintaining the wide-screen look and feel of film. DP Evan Lieberman and producer Arma Benoit worked their favor magic and delivered a budget that allowed us to shoot on 35mm. Evan pushed hard for 35mm so he could perfectly emulate the bright, over-saturated, primary colors of the ‘60s beach party movies. Shooting 35mm over super-16mm gave me the option of a more traditional finishing process-- cutting the original camera negative as the final conform of the film, as opposed to a video-only post production. The best part of having that option was that I didn’t need to make that film-vs-video decision until well into post production.

Before any decisions can be made on how to finish the film for screenings, I had to speculate how and where the film would be seen. I always saw Stomp! Shout! Scream! as a festival circuit, midnight movie kinda film, with home video/DVD being another way many folks would see the movie. Coupled with the fact that so few films get picked up for distribution, I decided early on to settle for a video finish with the option to get back to the original film negative if the opportunity presented itself.

So here’s the process so far:
1) Cinefilm Atlanta did a ‘one-light’ film transfer (quick and with only the most basic of color correction) of the 35mm film negative to digi-beta video tape, letterboxed for 1:1.85 aspect ratio. Usually, time code (numbers that track each frame of video) and key code (also called edge numbers, which track each frame of film) are put along the bottom edge of the frame. These were left off our transfers because it was thought that these digital beta tapes would eventually be source tapes for the final conform.

2) With the film-to-tape transfer came Flex Files—computer spreadsheets that track the video’s time code (which runs at 30 frames per second [fps]) and the corresponding film key code (which runs at 24 fps). I used Apple’s Cinema Tools software to import the Flex Files and turn them into batch digitize logs that could be imported into Final Cut Pro. I digitized all of the film transfer tapes (about 7 hours) into Final Cut Pro 4.5 at the Cartoon Network production office using Blackmagic Design’s Decklink Pro video card. Normally, you would have to digitize at 30 fps, then re-compress all your footage into a quicktime that runs at 24 fps using Cinema Tools. This is done so that one frame in the computer equals one film frame. The Decklink Pro card comes with a codec (a quicktime format, like MPEG) that digitizes at 24 fps, eliminating one long, tedious step. Next, I had to move all my film footage from the office to my computer at home, which could only edit at DV resolution. I used FCP’s Media Manager to export my project and all my footage into the DV codec and carried it home on a firewire hard drive. I linked the digitized/exported clips to the Cinema tools database and I was ready to edit, with the option of either finishing on video (via an EDL [edit decision list] and the digibeta transfer tapes) or by cutting the film negative (via a negative cut list and a professional negative cutter). I’m editing on a 3 year old Power Mac G4 that feeds video to a Panasonic DV tape deck & a regular old TV via a firewire cable. I’m storing my footage (a couple hundred megabytes) on Medea SCSI drives, but firewire drives would work just as well.

3) The next step was syncing up the video with the location audio, which was recorded on DAT tapes. I digitized the DAT tapes with an old DAT deck at the office using an optical cable that plugged directly into the PowerMac G5. Since I didn’t have deck control and therefore no time code reference, the smart slate used in production (an electronic clapper that has an LED readout showing the rolling time code on the DAT tapes) would not match the TC on my digitized audio. Luckily, the smart slate rarely worked correctly and whomever was slating the scenes would resort to doing an “old fashion”, which means you actually slap the sticks on the clapper together, giving you a visual and audio sync point. Between PA Juston Rindlesbach and myself, we spent about 40 hours syncing the audio and video together. One of the great benefits of working in Final Cut Pro at DV resolution was the ability to copy the whole project and all the digitized footage onto a firewire drive and let Juston take it home and sync takes on his laptop, sitting at his kitchen table.

4) I edited the film. I’ve always described myself as not so much a writer/director, but as an editor with control issues. I really went through the last 2 1/2 years of hard work to get to this point-- so that I would have something to edit, at home, without anyone to answer to. It was truly enjoyable, although with limited numbers of takes and a 75-80 minute movie, I only wish there was more for me to do.

This is were the film stands now. The editing is 95% done. The final pieces of the score will be delivered soon and the picture will then be locked. I’ve decided to spend the money to get to a High Definition master of Stomp! Shout! Scream! It’s expensive (about $6,000) but nowhere near the cost of getting a 35mm film print, ($20,000+) and it allows for more control over editing in the opening and closing credit sequences and color correction of the entire film. I’m gambling a bit on the spread of HD projectors into the film festival circuit, where the majority of my screenings will take place (hopefully), but I think the potential markets for a beach party rock and roll monster movie that’s on High Definition out-way the risks. Here’s how I’ll get there:

5) Cinefilm will re-transfer all the 35mm film negative to Sony HDCAM SR tapes with time code that matches my original film transfers to D-beta. There are other HD formats, but if I’m going to go to HD, I should go for the highest quality available and that’s the Sony HDCAM SR. Normally transferring everything would be prohibitively expensive and you would only transfer the shots used in the final film, but because our shooting ratio was so low (like 4 to 1), it will be quicker to just re-transfer everything, probably about 10 hours of unsupervised transfer time.

6) The thing that makes working in HD so expensive is that only the high-end post production houses can justify purchasing the tape decks. Sony HDCAM or Panasonic D5 decks run somewhere around $100,000. Finding one of these post houses that can work in uncompressed HD and that’s interested in donating time to no-budget indie feature film is not easy. So for the conform, I’ve weaseled my way into a weekend session at [a nameless cable network broadcasting facility located in Atlanta] in their AVID DS suite. The easiest way to move the project from Final Cut Pro to the DS is with a good ol’ EDL. It simply lists the time code and tape number of each shot and where it belongs on the master tape. The latest edit of Stomp! Shout! Scream! has 490 cuts, one dissolve and one fade to black. Simple, with no CGI, no special effects. That’s how Roger Corman would’ve done it and that’s how I’m doing it now.

7) The final step in finishing the video will be to return to Cinefilm with a conformed HD master tape and spend a day or two in color correction. (Concurrent with finishing the video, the sound mix will be completed, but that’s probably another whole, boring journal entry just like this one.)

The reasoning behind all this time and money is to take advantage of High Definition’s ability to be screened in theaters, big and beautiful, on HD video projectors. Plus the thirst for any HD product on television has become voracious. Finally, if the stars align just exactly right and Stomp! Shout! Scream! wins the equivalent of the indie film lottery and gets some kind of theatrical distribution, the path to striking multiple 35mm film prints from an HD master is relatively straight forward.

I’ve been scouring the internet for detailed info just like this from other independent film makers without a lot of luck. Hopefully, this all makes some kind of sense and I’ve helped someone out there.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Scoring, Animated credits

As I mentioned in my last journal, these entries may be few and far between while Stomp! Shout! Scream! makes the last few steps toward the finish line of post production. I didn’t realize it’d be 6 weeks before I’d have anything to talk about.
The film’s score is almost done. Composer John Cerreta has done great work. We’ve met maybe 6 times and at least once a meeting, I giggle to the point of out-and-out laughter. Not because what he’s done is goofy, clown-ish music, but because it’s so perfect for what we’re aiming at.

The animated opening credit sequence is progressing well also. Designer Evan Miga at Racial Axis has done a great job story boarding the sequence. I saw the first rough movements of the animated band playing last week. Animator Todd Redner is using the original footage we shot for the scene as reference to wonderful effect. I can’t thank everyone at Radical enough for the added production value this will give the final film. It’s really going to look great.

Here’s the remaining schedule: another 2-3 weeks to finish the score, 4-5 weeks to complete the animation, Cinefilm Atlanta will re-transfer all the original 35mm film to Hi-Definition tape, the edit will be conformed on HD (more on this later), a day or two of HD tape-to-tape color correction at Cinefilm, and finally I’ll start to mix the sound. As I’ve said before, these last steps are the ones that really make this film so much more than the sum of it’s parts.