RED At The BBC
Posted on Dec 1, 2008 by Alex Fice
There is normal time and there is RED time, the speed of their and others development. In the time before the RED SDK had been given a fast track by most post production equipment vendors, RED workflows were still quite adventurous, workarounds and specialist programmes filled the gaps when incompatibility threatened.
At the time plans for the Wallander series didn’t include the RED camera – it was thought that 16mm would be the format, but then the BBC banned the use of 16mm, which gave producer Simon Moseley a big problem. “As I understand it the reason for the ban on 16mm was because it is not as stable as it should be when it’s being scanned. So the result was that we had to look around for another format, we didn’t immediately think that 35mm was going to be too expensive partly because there were a lot of deals around at the time to give film a new life.
“We also started looking at the different digital systems and saw one set of comparison tests that had been made by a guy in Sweden. In these tests RED compared very favourably and we thought it was superior to the other digital formats like the Arri D20 and the Genesis. The thing about these other systems was they still required tapes and an amount of cloning that had to be done which would have meant using a post production house. If you use a tape based camera system it is more expensive.
“But I think going with RED was based on more than cost, at the end of the day it was about the quality of the image which we were incredibly impressed by.
“To me it didn’t look very digital and certainly no more digital than scanned 35mm. The decision from there was fairly easy – it was a risk because it was an entirely new system and we were the first complete BBC TV drama to shoot on RED.”
The British dramatisation of the Henning Mankell’s books about the detective Kurt Wallander was to be co-produced by the Yellow Bird Television company in Sweden, Left Bank Pictures in the UK and Kenneth Branagh’s own production company who Simon Moseley works for.
SLUMDOG TO WALLANDER
UK DoP Anthony Dod Mantle was to shoot the movie and he was fresh from shooting Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in India which was 60 percent shot on the Silicon Imaging SI 2k camera: “It was tough persuading the BBC to use the RED system, me and Yellow Bird were ready to go with that camera five weeks before we began shooting and already had the people, the expertise and the knowledge ready to go. We spent the next five weeks and up to two days before shooting explaining to the BBC what we were doing and why we were doing it. There were trying to get me to shoot on the D20 which is a dinosaur, I love Arri but they wanted the D20 because they had a workflow that fitted. The D21 is really great upgrade but they suggested the D20. The RED was good to shoot on because of the way you can explore that chip. Dave Klafkowski from the Farm was very instrumental in making it happen as he does a lot for the BBC and they trust his opinion. The BBC were blowing up the image and looking in the corners and finding small artifacts which you can find in any electronic image. The RED does have inherently some issues but if you blow up a picture for long enough and you look at it hard enough you will find something. We felt we were mature and sensible enough to go with it and the pictures looked beautiful. There was a lot of questions going to and fro which we had already answered, it was very frustrating and an uphill ‘negativity’. It was a genuine concern mixed with a very skeptical feeling which I felt wasn’t creative. I approve of people being cautious especially people with the money, it was a high end BBC project but they should listen to people like me and a lot of other good post boys I had around who do know what they’re talking about.
“I also think that they were using us to learn from because they didn’t know anything about it, at one point they wanted me to come over and talk to them about it. Their boffins hadn’t green lit the camera and technically they were behind. I was with people in Sweden who knew what they were talking about, who were trouble shooters and who solve things.
“Danny Boyles film Slumdog Millionaire is a case in point where plans changed for good reason and digital was used. I could have gone into the slums in India with what the producers wanted me to, with a bit of MiniDV and put it together with film – we got away with it with 28 Days Later. But I just knew we would be in high contrast areas where I would end up with 30 percent of what my eye saw because the chips can’t cope with it. We found this SI 2K camera and really configured it to suit our needs. I was going to shoot about 30 percent with it and ended up doing 60 with 40 percent on Super 35mm 3-perf. Sometimes the tools you are using suit the script, they may not be the official tool to use or that the industry prescribes but sometimes certain stories need certain tools and people just have to wake up to that.
“The RED is still difficult to use handheld and I was doing a lot of that for Lars Von Triers’ Antichrist. It’s still fragile if you’re moving fast, but we built a rig and got on with it. It was tough physically and I’m not a weakling.”
“I’ve been shooting RED for the last five months on Wallander and Lars Von Trier’s new movie Anti Christ and the only clear weakness I can see, as I jumped from Danny’s film in India on the SI 2k with an extreme contrast situation to the RED chip was that I noticed I lost about one and half stops in the highlights quicker, whereas in the dark you can redeem, bring up stuff on the RED which is a great thing when you’re under pressure and want details in the shadows.
But it’s still got to be improved in the highlights and I think they are working on that. But things will happen fast, sooner or later you’ll have chips that can absorb more latitude or certainly as much as any film camera has ever done, its getting there.
“As for ergonomics I’d rather have a film camera, its getting better but still tough going compared to celluloid. I used Primes and also some of the high speeds because I like the slightly flarey look. I did a lot of flare work on the film anyway, I used a set of Lens Babies, there are like the poor man’s Swing Shift lenses. You’ll see the slightly weird out of focus stuff which was shot with these lenses.
“At last we’re away from the adapters and we’re getting a decent depth of field, I’ve spent the last few years playing around with those adapters trying to get the best out of them.”
The Farm was chosen to do the grade for Wallander and they did some of the conforms that weren’t done at The Chimney Pot in Sweden. But the Farm did become something of a hub of information exchange when the BBC were questioning the camera and it’s workflow. Dave Klafkowski is Creative Director of the Farm Group.
“They (The BBC) did some tests in extreme light and extreme low light and like most tests under those conditions you will find some issues. Some of the low light that I’ve seen particularly at 4K is noisy but only in the same way that 16 and 35mm would be. There is also some low light material in mist and smog that is very noisy, but I’ve seen that with any camera. We used a bit of noise reduction with the DVNRs within the Film Master but it’s never perfect.
“The truth is – the reason Wallander looks different is because of the scenery and because of the light in that part of Sweden at that time of the year. It has a small amount to do with the RED. There is something in the textural quality of it’s acquisition that makes Wallander look different. It’s the Swedish light and Anthony’s camera work. It’s a light you’ve never seen and I can’t believe that’s just the RED camera.
“The agreed workflow with the BBC was to shoot 4k, we conformed the DPXs at 2160 x1080 so we kept the aspect ratio all the way through and it only hit tape when it was delivered. So we did a down res but we only did a single scale down from the 4k. There was no more scaling after that point.
“We’re doing another drama for Left Bank Films with the RED shooting in Ireland and we have found that the 4k acquisition in perfect light is the best way to go, it would appear that acquiring in restricted light situations with movement, perhaps shooting off the shoulder, it is better to work in 2k because you’re pushing the camera less hard. This is just what I’m seeing coming out of Ireland we haven’t done any conclusive tests. But for TV the results are still cracking.
“So high detail and no or minimal movement shoot at 4k, otherwise shoot in 2k. This isn’t a problem for us as a post facility as long as we know what we’re getting. The data wrangler or assistant editor is the absolute key here.”
Producer Simon Moseley also understood that a new system needed testing: “The Swedes were very excited about using the RED as they had experience of it already but the worry was how the technical process was going to work, there was a concern that a huge amount of computer data was going to be produced that would be difficult to manage, but we realised storage had got smaller and smaller. Each of the three films that we shot ended up producing about 4TB of RED raw files. These days you can get that on one drive. There was the concern about how we were going to cut it because when we first started out, there wasn’t a recognised workflow in operation with AVID. We wanted to use AVID as we thought it was a better system. At the time you couldn’t import the RED material into an AVID and get the timecode through.
“I wasn’t convinced at the start of the process that the RED was the way to go. It was a nice idea but we didn’t think it was ready. Anthony was very keen on it, and it was a combination of his keeness and us needing to find another system that swayed the decision.
“The key was finding Markus. A lot of producers I had talked before we started felt traumatised by the backing up procedures that are needed but we had Markus. We bought a powerful Mac system and hired a Camper Van and it didn’t’ feel like such a big deal. What we had on set was not anymore or any heavier that we would have had on a normal film shoot.
“The camper followed the shooting around and the rushes would be dumped to the Mac in the camper. It’s like re-loading a mag except quicker. The footage would then go to a studio nearby for offlining and then make its way to Markus’ Chimney Pot facility for the conform.”
THE FARM’S RED WORKFLOW
With most post production equipment companies coming out with their own RED workflow after the SDK’s release Dave explained what the Farm does with RED: “When we get RED rushes in here we are currently using the Film Master but depending on workflow and timing I may just use some proprietary Mac software in order to extract the file. There’s a nice little bit of software from a company called Rubber Monkey [rubbermonkeysoftware.com] the software is called Monkey Extract. It’s is an EDL conforming tool. It works in conjunction with Red Alert and Red Cine. It’s a nice little App.
“We’ve got four Film Masters which will invariably be doing other things and if I need to tie them up for the processing time in order to process RED files, that’s a little bit counter productive. So I can use a couple of eight processor X Serves to do the crunching. At some point there is some processing to be done, now if you look at the way Scratch would do it, they would work with the native RED files all the way through and right at the last minute they would process them. I quite like that as a work flow. Once the code was made public I was very happy I didn’t need to introduce another piece of software in to my workflow. I like what Digital Vision has written, I can do a quick test conform either using a Film Master or Final Cut using the reference files. It’s a perfectly acceptable view, one eighth I think, you could probably even grade it, I wouldn’t dream of doing it but the colourimetry would be right.”
It is rumoured that the BBC has banned the RED camera from all internal productions [since this article has been published the BBC has confirmed that far from banning the RED they have already bought two cameras and are planning more RED productions] – you can understand their concern on using an untested product and workflow especially when their technical advisors wouldn’t give it their blessing and they had funded a large part of the production. A drama called Fathers and Sons is soon to be shown on ITV and that was shot on RED, it will be interesting to gauge their attitude to the new technology.
The three 90 minute Wallander dramas started last week and quite rightly got an airing on the BBC’s high definition channel so we can all make our minds up.
• The Daily Workflow – Stefan Ciupek
We had just came off the film Slumdog Millionaire, shot on the SI 2K camera where I also had to find a post production workflow. In the end it went smoothly. However the RED workflow at this quite early stage was quite tricky. The whole workflow situation during the prep of Wallander was still quite adventurous. Nobody had a perfect workflow or experience and the whole industry was on a trial and error course. Especially the offline editing / DVD dailies / online workflow – this turned in to a big research task.
Our hope was, that we would have been able to get some pre-graded rushes with some basic looks into the AVID. Unfortunately the render times for this would have been impossible to cope with. With the amount of material and data we had to handle we were in a constant continuous shooting mode and didn’t have time to really do onset DI.
We had a caravan with a top end Mac Pro setup and a big RAID. Our Data wrangler looked through all the footage with RED Cine, and gave us a call whenever he discovered an issue. Then usually I went in and checked the footage in 2K on the 24in screen through RED Cine. Sometimes we did some test grades with RED cine as reference for the later Post Pro work.
We mostly used the RED drives and downloaded them onto our RAID5 setup. There wasn’t any compiling of edits on-set, we just created a rushes sequence with our footage. The editing started next day on the AVID.
The biggest issue with the red workflow, is the heavy machinery you have to use to even view 2K at full debayer. On the SI 2K I could view 2K footage on a mediocre laptop. This very same machine wouldn’t even allow us to start RED Cine. I think the proper transcoding/rendering of footage is way too slow at full res. With the new SDK for Speed Grade you can only view/grade 1k in realtime, whereas nearly any other camera RAW format can get up to 2K on the same machine. The old Iridas hack on the RED Code, (which is not allowed to be distributed anymore) had a way better quality and 2K as opposed to the SDK kit. I think there is a big room for improvement. The whole workflow is still quite edgy and unnecessarily slow.
Other than that, the camera performed nicely even under tough conditions. The limited latitude and compression are my main critiques to it.
• The AVID workflow – Markus Vasques Osorio
The workflow was to collect the daily takes on a portable hard drive (all RAW material R3Ds). A separate folder was created with Quicktime proxies from this material. From this an ALE was created in a small application called Metacheater. That takes all the metadata from the Quicktimes (which AVID can not read natively) and adds them to the metadata of the imported AVID files. The ALE is then imported into AVID and the files are then transcoded into DVpal MXF files for editing.
We used Metacheater to create ALE instead of RED Rushes, proxies and ALE export. But as with everything in RED, things change all the time. RED Rushes has the advantage that you get lots more metadata in the clips in AVID including EdgeCode information. On the current Wallander (the Swedish version) we use the RED Rushes method with proxies and ALE.
The reason we used DVpal was time, currently AVID transcodes DVpal from RED proxies at about four times real-time and HD (DNxHD 1080) at about seven times real time, considering the amount shot everyday this would mean transcoding times of around 7-8 hours and double that in HD, locking down one of the AVID’s used. Once transcoded the editor does not need the R3D files to edit.
Of course there were two backups of the R3D files on RAID setups and at the end of the day all the material was backed-up to LTO tapes for archiving.
The workflow I did at the Chimney Pot [www.thechimneypot.com]started with getting the EDL and the bin from the locked material. This was then converted to an XML via FilmScribe which was then transformed with some scripts I wrote into REDline compatible scripts (RED’s own terminal scripting). Left was a script that exported DPX from the original RAW files. Before any exported was made the material was sorted into clip-lists with only material from the film. This was then checked in RED Cine for exposure etc… and the scripts were adjusted accordingly. The material was then exported to DPXs (PDlog685 2160 x 1080 full res) and conformed with the EDLs. The final Conform was done on Digital Vision Film Master and checked against the offline reference film. The final product from the Chimney was a full DPX sequence and a playout to HDCAM SR.
We did have a few problems with dark material in editing but this is not surprising considering we were down-rezing from 4096 x 2048 image to 720 x 576 in linear light. As for the camera, as you will see with Wallander the images are incredible. I would also like to add we filmed in total about 16 TB of material, which is about 10,000 minutes of material and we had no corrupt files at all.
The AVID workflow works really well and I strongly recommends it to anyone who is planning on shooting on RED, but I must emphasise the fact that the whole work flow needs someone who knows what he is doing from beginning to end to get a nice and problem free final product.