How Balls of Fury Streamlined Its All-Digital Pipeline

Leave it to a studio executive to articulate the anxiety Hollywood feels when it considers high-res cameras and new digital workflows. “I’ve heard stories,” said Jeff Roth, VP of Post at Focus Features, “about DPs sitting in a little black tent getting the look of the movie instead of actually shooting the movie.”
Roth was speaking to the group of digital mavens gathered on the weekend before NAB at the Digital Cinema Summit in Las Vegas – an assortment of cinematographers, engineers and other specialists in production and post. He was detailing his experience overseeing post for Balls of Fury, a comedy due in September that was shot using the Panavision Genesis. And it was clear he’s not a fan of the little-black-tent method of filmmaking.

Camera Comfort Level
The strategy on Balls of Fury, Roth said, was for the crew to run tests with the Genesis to figure out how they’d rate the chip in photographic terms (it turned out to be ASA 500) and then do some film-outs to test their conclusions. “Once we realized what the limits of the camera and the chip were, we didn’t have to worry too much [about the look] on set,” he says.

Colorist David Cole said cinematographer Thomas Ackerman rated the camera’s dynamic range at about eight stops (which is less than 35mm film) and elected to overexpose the image slightly because the tests showed those images were slightly less noisy than underexposed footage. “We actually liked it – the noise from the different exposures is quite filmic,” he said.

Sitting on the same panel, Panavision Director of Product Development Nolan Murdoch gave his blessing to the idea that the Genesis shouldn’t require an entirely new workflow for production, requiring lots of specialized knowledge of color space in the video village. “The Genesis was designed to be a film camera replacement,” he said. “We expect the film camera crew to take ownership of the product. There is no on-set coloring, and no on-set painting. We encourgae the traditional film crew to take over the functions. If there is a DIT, that person is typically responsible for the LUTs. It's a comfort factor.”

(Comfort was important on this set, noted the film's associate producer, Steve Gaub, joking that “when you say the word LUT, directors’ brains start cramping.”)

Just Nuts About LUTs
Two LUTs were applied during production for Balls of Fury. The “input LUT” simply gives the camera’s “Panalog” image a more filmlike gamma curve. Next, a “visualization LUT” applied the actual intended “look” for a given scene.

A clone of the 4:4:4 HDCAM SR master was made and then used to create 4:2:2 DVCPRO 720p HD dailies with a LUT “baked in” during digitization. Dailies were edited and screened out of Final Cut Pro on a plasma monitor. There was some trepidation on set, Gaub admitted, until it became clear that the pipeline resulted in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get proposition when the footage was filmed out.

“The previs tables on set and the dailies really do map to what you’ll finally get” on film, Cole said. “Once they saw the film-out tests, that was all we needed. The multiple LUTs became sort of a previs tool for Tom [Ackerman]. He’d say, ‘I want to do this in post. Show me what it will look like.'”

Straight-Up For VFX
No such LUTs for the visual-effects team. Aaron Weintraub at Toronto visual-effects facility Mr. X, who was working with Genesis imagery fo the first time, told the audience his team worked exclusively with raw, 4:4:4 images from the camera. “It was straight linear color space,” he said. “And we had to make sure what we delivered back was pixel-for-pixel identical, except for our changes.” For his own part, Cole said he couldn’t see the difference after the VFX work had been applied: “Sometimes the film stuff has changes that shouldn’t be there – but there was nothing different in these files, for me, at all. I couldn’t tell.”

The result was a streamlined Genesis workflow that reduced headaches instead of creating new ones. “We wanted to keep the pipeline as simple as possible,” Roth said. “[Shooting digital] wasn’t the big time-saver that people think it is.”