Today’s Independent Filmmaker – Choosing the correct RED Workflow Part 1

The approaching Fall usually signals the end of the shooting season here in the Midwest. Most productions aim to head into post production in the upcoming months and that usually signals our busy season here at the studio. With the Michigan film incentive tanked, the list of big Independent films is down from last year and that’s allowed us to spend a good bit of time refining our workflow and working closer with DP’s to deliver a better solution for them. And as new DOP’s and Producer learn to work with bigger budgets and more ambitious projects, it’s imperative that they find successful workflows and we help them to find them, together.

Early in the year, we wanted to see what workflow performed best for our clients. Being primarily a VFX company we have our own internal workflow that revolves around 32 bit Linear based formats such as OpenEXR or Tif and for grading 10bit DPX. But recently an increased amount of RED work has come into the studio often from DOP’s we have never worked with before. Last year saw everything from REC 709 baked DPX’s to CameraRGB and PDLOG LUTed 8 Bit Jpeg shots coming in. True, the look is just that, a look (if we get the r3ds) and the metadata can be changed at any time (CameraRGB can be changed to REC 709 easily inside REDCine) But the choices the DOP made while looking at this “Look” are forever. DOP’s who light via the 720p output of the camera could almost be considered a plague now. Whether it’s ArriRaw, Canon StuLog or Technicolor color science, DOP’s who don’t test or know what the color science is doing inside the camera, and adjust their style to match, are all too common.The last thing we want to see is a look of surprise on the DP’s face as he sees his footage on a 10 bit Cinetal display for the first time. (as opposed to their own 14 inch LCD MacBook Pro)

At the beginning of the year we set out to develop a workflow best suited to the Indie producer but which allowed us to deliver a good product. We hoped to be able to engage Producers and DOP’s before they shot as to solidify the workflow. Some had time, some did not. After the conversations we took some RED footage we shot from last year and treated it like it had come in from the three most common color science choices. The results….

Dailies/ProRes Transcode REC709 Gamma

No Brainer here, if we setup the files this way, we had the best reaction to dailies, the grade versus the FCP offline and/or VFX Shots that were delivered back to the client. The reason- the shots at all times most closely resembled the shots as seen in the onset monitor and the editors FCP/Avid pass. But the loss of latitude in the highlights or dark areas, the baked in contrast, coupled with the response curve mimicking video more than film, left the final prints looking more like a good 5D shoot than a 4k image lens on a film lens. This is also the quickest workflow because so many decisions have already been made.

Dailies/ProRes Transcode REDGamma2

Definitely an improvement, the REDGamma2 curve allowed us to be able to get a curve closer to film and take advantage of the latitude available with the MX Sensor. Only in a side by side could the clients see a difference in the onset look (Rec709) provided by the RED monitor with all of them choosing the REDGamma2 as a more film like image. True, RED considers the Color2/Gamma2 to be the closest Linear curve to film. While not log, doing VFX using this curve was definitely doable and meant that transcoding to 32bit OpenExr, gave us our VFX plates and finals for grading at the same time. This allowed us to grade in After Effects or Nuke, without a Speedgrade pass.

Dailies/ProRes Transcode REDLogFilm

Our preferred format, it closely resembles the latitude of film and gives the greatest response back on grading. If you construct a beautiful shot, REDLogFilm will give it back to with the love, discarding the harsh edge of film. Not quite the Eterna look (yet) but REDLogFilm also gives us the best environment to grade and composite our vfx shots. Most major film post houses work in Log or Lin 1.0, and that allows them to squeeze every ounce of beautiful out of the negative. The drawback- The image in no way matches the on set image. Untreated, it looks milky and flat. To the untrained eye it is a disaster. But it is the color science we (and most of the industry) probably would like to be handed to deal with. To DOP’s working in Independent Film, asking the Director and the Producer to trust him to turn the milky image to beauty is a battle they have to fight if they want their images to compete.

The solution. For now we recommend REDGamma2 with REDColor2 as the color science. It strikes a nice balance between the DOP’s need to show an image that is vibrant and contrasty, but will not have the shock factor associated with learning that they had more latitude in the camera than what they saw thru the monitor. The majority of our clients are seasoned pros who know these things, but as new DOP’s and Producer learn to work with bigger budgets and more ambitious projects, it’s imperative that they find successful workflows. We are trying to educate our DP clients to get to know the curve of REDLogFilm and REDGamma2 so they can light for the extra latitude, even though they can’t see it on the set. Much like the old lady, good old film, trusting a light meter and experience will yield great results.

Part 2: We’ll grade the Log RED Footage, dealing with the image in several solutions such as Adobe, Sony, Iridas and Finally Final Cut Pro.

(Note:) We decouple the Quicktime gamma on all our workstations in order to not let Apples 1.8 Gamma influence our decisions.


A Little bit of Color in my Life

Having done quite a few Grading jobs for Indie Film and taught the fundamentals of color for the last three years at workshops and as a Professor, I’m often astounded when the subject of Color grading tools come up, especially when that conversation is usually between the Producer and myself and not the Director of Photography. The tendency to say “We’ve got Colorista” or “Apple Color comes with FCP”, “Our editor will just tweak the colors at the end or he’ll just do it in FCP!” is almost as common as the hiring of a DP because he has a RED or a 5D with Lenses these days.

Here’s where the decision to “Finish on your own” if you are an indie filmmaker can turn into a nightmare

While Colorista and Color are wonderful tools and they have saved my butt many times, Stu Machowitz (the creator of Colorista) never intended for them to replace a DaVinci or the skilled artist that uses one. Colorista and Color’s toolset is impressive, especially given it’s price, but the fact that sophisticated but necessary task such as tracking are difficult, if not impossible to do easily in these programs, frame those tools as Primary and simple shot grading tools more specifically.

Sophisticated re-lighting or painting with light, in essence, recreating the mood or making a shot into a work of art, similar to a painting are the domain of the Colorist, not just making every shot balance out before a Quicktime is rendered

Tangent 200 Colorist Board

That is not say that your feature or short can not be done in Color or Colorista by your Editor or yourself, quite the opposite. But given the fact that more times than not, an Indie shoot is rife with let’s say “Less than ideal conditions” means that your footage is going to need MORE, not less attention in the grading stage. And that demands an artist, a Colorist, not an editor or producer “watching tutorials” minutes before starting a primary. My point usually to the Producer is to be as concerned with finishing as they are with sound. Both make or break a film. Both need capable professionals in tune with capturing an audience. Color decisions that make sense in a Quicktime environment such as FCP (like stacking 3way Color nodes to get a look), can prove disastrous if then that Quicktime is used for a DCI theater presentation (Film Festival). XYZ colorspace not with standing, the false gamma given by Quicktime has been known to make have many filmmakers scratching their heads trying to find out why the image on the movie screen was so flat.

Rum Runner Title Sequence

Rum Runner
Shot on Canon 5D, Zeiss Lenses,
Courtesy of ACK, ACK Productions

Color Correction

I wanted to pick an example which is reflective of the experience most Indies are having these days. The above image is from Rum Runner, a wonderful short directed by up and comer, Andrew Fenske, debut DOP’d by Kevin Coyne and Produced by Gina Brinker. Veteran Canon shooter John Turk served as Steadicam and Camera Operator for Kevin which allowed him to spend a great deal of time researching his look, but unfortunately as time constraints threatened the production, Kevin had to adjust on the fly. As a result, although lit adequately, he was not able to get the look he had hoped for in camera. The edit was done in Final Cut Pro and then sent to Apple Color where I performed a quick Primary and Secondary Grade on the film in order to get it out for a festival showing. But because Kevin and I had talked extensively before, during and after the production phase, I had a good ideal of what he was looking for and planned to go back later and do a full grade My workflow in Color was as follow, establish a Primary Grade, using the ProRes 442 online files with a roundtrip back to FCP in ProRes 422 with a gamma of 2.6 for theater delivery. Once the festival was done, I went back and looked at my notes for the shoot and CineSync reviewed all the shots. Below is the result.

Review session of colorBecause a lot of the shots on the production were done on a stabilizer and/or with a handheld approach, tracking a lot of the Color correction changes would be necessary. Faces, adding lighting to walls, corners, etc. would require a track first to compensate for the camera drift. Here’s where the decision to “Finish on your own” if you are an indie filmmaker can turn into a nightmare. While Colorista, MBLooks and Boris can use the AE tracker to apply an Adjustment layer with color changes applied to it, the process means stepping out of the plugin, tracking, then going back to the Color software. Not to mention that finding a reliable tracking point on a face is an adventure upon itself. The novice quite often chooses to just do a Primary using Magic Bullet Looks for getting a safe (Film, Television, web) deliverable rather than tackle a series of time consuming, tracking task along with stacking of Colorista nodes to get a look. The Colorist takes many different factors into account, such as concatenation (the negative result resulting from stacking plugins of same mathematical process on top of each other) 8 bit banding, and chooses the tool best suited to getting the job done. Sometimes Colorista is the best tool, sometimes DaVinci.

The second grade of Rum Runner saw the shots converted from the Canon master into Tif files (I usually like to use 10bit DPX files, especially if the master is RED, ArriRaw or some format that can give me a Log file. Since CineStyle was not available when we shot, the files were already encoded REC709, so Tif worked as a grading solution. I also want true 10bit images so I needed to bypass the ProRes Quicktime curve and acquire in as close to original master look as possible. The files were then taken into Scratch (my tool of choice for Canon 5D grading) and then a series of mattes, secondary scaffolds (Power windows), a key matted Diffusion pass (to smooth out skin) and a lens flare was added. A paint pass to fix skin blemishes was done and finally the color was graded for DCI (Theater, Film Festival) and REC709 (Television) and two different passes were output to digital files.

While the snapshot above does not reflect the finished shot, it is a significant improvement of the first grading session that I would call equal to what most indie filmmakers do. Quick, down and dirty. And while the software chosen helps, the point is that in order to compete, one has to emulate as much as the Hollywood experience as possible, for audiences will not except anything less. Grading is an art form and while the failure to do it well won’t destroy your film, a good Colorist can most definitely propel your film from ho hum to memorable.