Walter Murch On Laptops, Final Cut Pro and Digital Intermediates
Editor Walter Murch remembers approaching Cold Mountain with a bit of anxiousness. Murch, who made the drastic move from film-based KEMs and Moviolas to the nonlinear Avid in 1995, was set for another transition. He had decided to cut the film in Bucharest, near its Romanian shooting locations, using a custom installation of Final Cut Pro 3.
"I was going into it thinking,Ã¢Â€Â˜I’m editing a big film, in an ex-Soviet
bloc country, with a system that hasn’t been tested at this level
before,’" Murch recalls. "You know? Ã¢Â€Â˜OK, here I go!’"
The primary motivation was obvious- Final Cut systems are simply a lot
cheaper than Avids. With the help of L.A.’s Digital Film Tree, Murch
and his assistant Sean Cullen spec’d out an editing room with four
full-fledged Final Cut workstations – one for Murch, one for Cullen, a
third for digitizing footage, and a fourth for burning DVD copies of
dailies. In this case, the less expensive system wound up actually
being more flexible because it’s based in software. "Any laptop,
including old clamshell iBooks that are equipped with Final Cut, can
receive media," Murch explains. "We can download the media onto those
machines and work on them just as well as we can on the full set-ups
that we had. I think at one point we had maybe eight stations operating
for less than the cost of one Avid station."
Murch describes his use of Final Cut as "transparent," complaining only
about some limited audio functionality in Final Cut Pro 3. "I had some
equalization, but nothing like I’m used to on the Avid- and nothing
like what is available on Final Cut 4," he says. "And the ability,
which I use whenever I have it, to change the pitch of things and do
time-shifting of sound was very limited. But at that stage, it was a
limitation that I was perfectly willing to accept. Once I got back in
London, we had a sound crew and anything I wanted to do deeper work on
we would export to Pro Tools."
But Murch is decidedly enthusiastic about Final Cut’s implications for
post-production workflow. "The Avid has its own way of generating the
image that is unique to the Avid," he explains. "You have to go into
that mode to work on the Avid, and then you have to translate out of
it, whereas Final Cut simply works in QuickTime, so we can email things
back and forth to the effects guys. They work on it, and then we
re-import it and it drops right in with no problem at all." Also, he
says, Apple’s support for the XML protocol means third-party developers
will be encouraged to write the kinds of plug-ins that really make an
editorial system sing.
Using a digital intermediate for Cold Mountain offered a raft of
benefits throughout post. For one thing, it eliminated the extra
optical step usually required to print a Super 35 film. "We’ve bypassed
that completely," Murch says. "We’re going to make two negative
masters, one of them on estar [film base], which means we can make up
to 1000 prints off of that estar negative. They will be release prints,
but they’ll be only one generation old, which is fantastic."
In fact, no camera negative was actually cut. Final Cut EDLs were
handed off to London’s Framestore CFC, which scanned only the parts of
the negatives that were going to be used. That meant cinematographer
John Seale was able to make a first-pass answer print in August, while
the film was still a work in progress, rather than waiting for a cut
negative. "I can’t count the number of films where it just wasn’t
possible to have the DP come and do it because he was already working
on another show somewhere else in the world," Murch says. "Here we can
really begin timing the answer print at any time in the process.
"As the film changed, we would just send CFC the updates of the EDL.
They would re-conform it, rescan any new shots, and then just integrate
that within the flow. So it actually is extremely advantageous, setting
aside all of the wonderful things you can do [with a DI] in terms of
color balance and contrast and picking out various areas of the frame.
It turns the creation of the image into something that is as flexible
and dynamic in its possibilities as the final mix is with sound."
Eventually, Murch sees Final Cut-style systems achieving primacy in the
post process, as the whole idea of online versus offline editing
becomes obsolete. "There is no theoretical limit to the quality of the
image you’re working with," he says. "If we had enough horsepower- by
which I mean processing speed and hard-drive space- we could be working
in HD or even at 2K or 4K resolution. There’s no top end, and what I
see ultimately is that what comes out of the editing room is the
finished film. You simply one day say,Ã¢Â€Â˜We’re done,Ã¢Â€Â˜ and you make a copy
of that and clone it, and that’s what gets shown in theaters."
Moving Mountains Of Media
Murch’s $110,000 Cold Mountain system consisted of four Apple G4s with
dual 1 GHz processors and six 22-inch Mitsubishi tubes. Data was stored
on a Rorke FC 1.2 Terabyte SAN, which each G4 tapped into via a
fibrechannel PCI card. The G4s were outfitted with Aurora IgniterFilm
cards, which work at exactly 24 frames per second, rather than 23.976-
critical for syncing audio from production recorders.
Murch and Cullen produced the dailies soundtrack in Final Cut, then
output it to narrow hard drives. On location, Minghella and company
viewed the dailies on an Arri Locpro projector with the narrow drives
running on an Akai digital dubber. When the film came back to the
Bucharest lab the next day, it was telecined onto NTSC Beta SP. The
tapes were digitized through the Aurora cards at a data rate of 2 MB
per second. "It was slightly better than the picture quality of the
last Avid show I did, which was K-19," says Murch. "We could have gone
to 4 MB per second, but we calculated how much Anthony was going to
shoot and how much hard drive space we had, and that seemed to be the
break point for quality that was adequate for all kinds of uses."
Burned DVDs were sent to Minghella as a record of each day’s shoot, as
well as to the producers back in L.A.
There was plenty of material to sort through- about 600,000 feet was
shot for the two and a half hour film, which translates to a shooting
ratio of about 60:1. "It’s high," Murch acknowledges. "But I worked on
Apocalypse Now, which had a ratio of 100:1, and compared to
documentaries, which can have 300:1 ratios, it’s small. We had 1.2 TB
of storage and, in the end, I think the dailies load took up about 700
GB of that hard disk space. So there was 400 GB of headroom, at least."