Workflow Development – DIT for a 13-episode series in the Midwest

This post has been a long time coming.  It was great to be on a set for 2 1/2 months that asked us to not talk about it until the big rollout – And to be involved with a project getting major play on Hulu.  I’m going to do a little brain-dump on what it was like to be DIT for Battleground, Hulu’s first original scripted series.   Here it is:
 

 

It seems like it never ends.  How do you deal with the footage coming from the camera, make it look as good as possible, and set the next person up for success?  What details are important (I care about codecs, timecode and reel number… but not everyone does), what ones aren’t (For a same-day turnaround project is Cinestyle for you?).  How many backups, where, when, and why?  Do you encode on-set to an editable codec, or leave that for later? Will I have a gamma shift rendering out of a program? Should I re-name footage in Final Cut? Why or why not? When in the world am I going to test all of this?  The questions go on and on.  The answers cost money, and which one is right for you is often dependent on how much you have.

 

I’ve been doing DIT work and helping local indie filmmakers figure out their workflows for quite a while.  I’ve been DIT for projects as large as 6+ cameras, or 4 DSLRs rolling pretty much constantly.  It has mostly been free or super-low (we’re talking <1k for an entire project) budget.  I help local indies develop workflows, work with their footage, figure out what they can or can’t do with their cameras, and how to deal with that really pesky file that was shot in a different format / framerate (what do you mean my camera was set up as Pal?).  It came as a bit of a surprise to me, though, when a local filmmaker recommended me as DIT for the 13-episode Hulu original series being shot in Madison.  I hadn’t done network gigs, I hadn’t done long-form, and I haven’t worked with people who I would think of as.. well… that much better than me.  Surprisingly enough, they jumped all over the having me on board, and I was pulled in to help the DP, Jeffrey Waldron, who while on the project won a Spirit Award for a doc that he shot.  It was amazing, but there were an awful lot of decisions to be made that most people don’t think about.  What kind of harddrives do we buy? How many? How many do we need to ship them to LA and back? How many copies do we need live at all times? What’s the workflow for cards when we get backed up? How do I and the assistant editor (do we need one of those, too?) deal with handing off footage on set when we both need it at the same time and we don’t have a SAN or NAS?

 

In the end, here’s what we did:  We shot 2x5DMkII cameras, with a couple backups around. We tested the Cinestyle profile, but since the director and several others were going to be monitoring on set, we wanted to show them an image as close to the final image as possible.  for that, we went with a modified neutral – similar to what I often shoot for quick turnaround projects (Lately I’ve been tweaking Cinestyle to be more saturated and contrasty, and it looks almost exactly like what’s in front of the camera.  I like to audition a couple of looks on set for the director and see what they think).  We pulled out a few clicks of green for interiors, and ran with it.  Every couple hours or so, we would hand off cards, wrapped in camera tape, with camera, date, mag, and reel #s on them, and I would use Shotput Pro do move them to 3 locations with MD5 verification. We ran into relatively few issues with this. I would also immediately check footage, make sure that focus was good (much of it was shot at the long end of a 70-200 f/2.8 lens on a 5D, wide open at 160 ISO.  Focus, you say? Good luck!)

 

For hard drives, we used a pair of OWC QX2 drives as 12TB Raid 0s as our main copy of the footage, then 8 G-tech 2TB drives as on-set backups and shuttle drives. Shooting 3-hours of footage per camera per day, and transcoding to ProRes 422, we went through a LOT of drive space.  We didn’t ship drives daily, but toward the end, since we shot everything completely out of order, we started wrapping episodes more often and then shipping drives with the final footage as soon as it was shot.  I kept an excel spreadsheet with totals amounts of footage shot, what mags, what day the drive was shipped with it, what day the drive returned, and more.  Did drives die or go down? Oh yeah.  One of the QX2s gave us major problems, but budgets were tight enough that we ran Disk Utility on them overnight (it took about 12 hours) until it would fail and say “Ok, we’re going to mount the drive so you can copy everything off. Do it now or else”.  And then we would keep working.  It really emphasized the importance of treating valuable hardware just so – I had a UPS hooked up everywhere we went for battery backup, and ended up being glad about 20-30 times, which would probably have done in the drive, not to mention a lot of our footage.

Encodes were done over the course of the day, and often I took footage home to continue naming and encoding at night. We re-named files in the Log and Transfer window as Episode.Scene-take Camera, so Episode 3 Scene 7 Take 14 A camera would be 3.7-14 and B camera would be 3.7-14b – making it very easy to see exactly where you’re at.  Once in Final Cut, we created a timeline, laid in A camera, synced audio files, then laid in B camera on track 2, synced to A.  Timecode, of course, being DSLR, was always off, but we made sure it was close so if there were audio naming problems or audio timecode issues, we could still figure everything out.  We would link audio to video, drag to a new bin for each camera, then multi-clip files. Each step needed to be checked and double-checked, because if any one is off by even a frame or two, it turned into a huge mess.  Then, to make things even more fun, we would break these multiclipped files out into individual projects by episode and scene, so then when I sent a drive, I could send an email with project files, and the editor dealing with Episode 3 could open just the scenes from 3 and copy them into their main project. Revisions, when needed (partway through the editors decided that the naming conventions we had agreed on needed to be changed) were a major mess.

 

For one day, we shot Red. We went through 5 hours+ of footage that day alone. It pushed the limits of a Macbook Pro as a DIT system, but we got through without a hitch, but only because of a 2nd FW800 bus via express34.  The encode for that, after spending a couple of hours working with the DP on creating looks, took 50 hours. Without planning it would have been a mess – Most of our drives were in LA, we were switching locations multiple times throughout the day, a lot of long, rolling takes, and the Assistant Editor, who had a lot of work to do with some of the remaining drives, wasn’t on set.  Everything had to be perfect… and it was.  For once, I ended up not even being the last person out the door, or having to take footage home to set up encodes overnight.  Let me tell you, with a wrap party that night, I am incredibly glad that I had 2 days that I couldn’t do any more than look at the computer and say “yup, still working” before sending footage, ready to edit, back to LA.

In the end, it was a success.  An insane lack of sleep (my normal life) means I have to have a very specific system to make things happen, and it saved us there as it does on every set that I’m on.  Footage is organized like crazy – by project, by date, then by camera and mag. I use a program with MD5 verification, then I verify file sizes, I verify the number of files, I verify the first and last file numbers, and I play files off of each destination before wiping a card.  Cards are always sent back clean and ready to format, so there is no doubt that they’re good to use.

 

All of that takes forethought that I often don’t see on smaller gigs. How many things have a small chance of going wrong, and how can I make sure none of them do?  I see people shoot all day on a 32 gig card and not backup until the next time they pull the card out a few days later.  We had a card problem once that would have meant no chance of re-shooting a scene if we didn’t obsess over the integrity of the data.

 

Now, for the next 5 weeks, I get to watch a show on Hulu every Monday night, and know that it wouldn’t have happened without my work.  Of course, every person on set can say that, but I was the only person handling every bit of data and ensuring it was where it needed to be so that when (because it’s when, not if) a drive fails, I can say “Oh, no worries. I’ve got it here.. and here.. and they’ve got it here and there in LA, too.”

 

There’s nothing like success.  Now I’m off to wrap another edit gig and try to find out what challenges I can find for next week.

 

About Randy Lee

Shooter. Editor. Colorist. Filmmaker. Coffee Addict. Workaholic.

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