How actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut came together in an upstate New York facility in a barn

Higher Ground, the directorial debut of Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga, is heading to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, opening today in Park City, Utah. Shot on  RED ONE MX by DP Michael McDonough and cut on Avid Media Composer 5 by editor Colleen Sharp, the film began production as a Final Cut show, and therein lay the problem. How do you get already converted ProRes files back into Media Composer without adding another few weeks to an already tight production schedule? The folks at BCDF Pictures, a new production facility in remote Kerhonkson, New York, where the film was shot and finished, figured out a way. And thanks to BCDF’s Jeremy Newmark, the film’s post-production and digital imaging supervisor, as well as its online editor, the workflow also allowed colorist Adam Hawkey to grade remotely from RED RAW files stored in dedicated storage at the upstate facility.

Outpost in the Woods

BCDF Pictures is a bit of a new kid on a decidedly exurb block, but given Farmiga’s track-record with independent film, it was a perfect match for both the director and facility. Founded by Claude and Brice Dal Farra-Claude had bought the former Arabian horse farm in Kerhonkson four years ago and had offered space there for Brice’s nonprofit, Anthropedia, a producer of mind and wellness DVDs-BCDF is now run by the brothers and their partner, Lauren Munsch. Jeremy Newmark is post supervisor. The company is currently finishing post on Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, a Jane Fonda/Catherine Keener comedy shot in nearby Woodstock, and could see up to five more films in production this year.

With Farmiga already attached, producers Matt Parker and Carly Hugo of The Group Entertainment sought financing from the Dal Farra brothers and quickly realized that the facility’s RED MX cameras and post setup were an economical answer to the production’s needs. “When I arrived in Kerhonkson for preproduction,” says Hugo, “there was still a lot of construction going on around me. It was a bit of a leap of faith going to a barn in upstate New York to see about financing our film and getting it made.” But the logistics-BCDF is only seven minutes from Farmiga’s house in Accord-were ideal. The timing, a little less so, but still urgent: Farmiga was four months pregnant when shooting began, and Hugo admits, “we did a lot of creative things with Spanx during the two months of filming.”

Farmiga with DP Michael McDonough on set near the director’s home and the Kerhonkson
facility (photo by Molly Hawkey for HG Entertainment).

BCDF’s primary building is a 35,000-square-foot barn made of corrugated steel that once housed those horses. It’s still being built out, but now includes four editing suites, a screening room, and several production offices. A separate building houses a full sound studio with a voiceover booth, two mixing rooms and a live room. Everything is networked on dedicated storage for the two primary Final Cut editing systems and, says Newmark, can be directly piped into the theater through the network. “We’ve been setting up the facility for several years now,” Newmark says. “But in the last year, we made a big push to get it to a highly functioning level.” During that process, he says, “a few of the guys from PostWorks,” including director of technology Matt Schneider, “came up to audit the facility for us, to make sure that the route we were going down was the right one, but also to help us tweak anything that needed improving. Up until that point, we were doing much smaller projects the best that we knew how. We had never had anyone come in from the outside and vet what we were doing. Lucky for us, they said everything we were doing was pretty much right on target. More important, Matt said it proves that you don’t have to be in the city and can be in the middle of nowhere and make this kind of production and post happen.”

Newmark has been “hammering out RED workflows,” he says, since BCDF took its first delivery of a camera three years ago. “We sold our original Sony F900s and are exclusively shooting RED from here on out. We chose RED purely for price/performance reasons. We ran it through a lot of testing before we sold our first F900.” BCDF now has two upgraded RED MX cameras in house. Originally a videographer, Newmark says he’s “a big advocate of getting the best image possible out of the camera.” With RED’s well-known compatibility with Final Cut, BCDF originally set up Higher Ground as a Final Cut production and footage was processed as ProRes with that workflow in mind.

Then Avid editor Colleen Sharp came on board three weeks into production, and the show had to quickly change its course.

Ramping Up Fast on Media Composer 5

When he first started seven years ago at BCDF’s nonprofit sister company and foundation, Anthropedia, Newmark cut projects on Avid systems. “We were an Avid shop shooting HD on Sony F900 cameras,” he says, “but we made the switch to Final Cut several years later for purely financial reasons. Before Avid’s management changed, to be honest, we were just not sure if certain promises could be delivered. It was a tough decision for us, but we were a very small company with very little money, so it was a huge investment for us to initially go with an Adrenaline. We took delivery of one of the first DNxHD boards. But we really wanted to finish uncompressed, and what we needed was a DS system. We didn’t have the money to upgrade to DS, so we changed course with Final Cut,” while still retaining its older Avid system.

Media Composer 5 was released three days before Sharp started, “not how I would usually choose to start a project,” admits Newmark. “But when Colleen, who cuts primarily on an Avid, came on the show, we wondered, ‘Can we do this on Media Composer 5? We knew it was coming and I’d been asking Matt Schneider at PostWorks about MC5. He couldn’t tell me much, though he’d been working with it for months in beta at that point, and we still didn’t know exactly when it would ship.”

Newmark estimated he and Sharp needed at least three days to test things out before they could completely commit to cutting the show on MC5, especially given the fact that the RED footage was in the process of being converted to ProRes files. “We really didn’t have much of a choice at that point,” says Newmark, “so we upgraded an older version of Avid and we came up with a solution to pull the ProRes files in. It’s not a workflow I’d necessarily choose to do again, but we were able to make it work. We were essentially using AMA throughout the whole show. But it was the right choice, given the time crunch: our Final Cut system crashes every day. Colleen’s MC5 setup never crashed; it was rock solid, even as a point zero release.”

Sharp edited on a Mac tower and monitored out to a 42-inch Panasonic plasma. She says she was able to do most of what she wanted during the edit with the new version of the software, even though she did not warm to several new features added in MC5 to woo Final Cut users, like Smart Tools. “I turned the Smart Tools off right away, so I could trim the way I was used to without all the OVERWRITE or INSERT arrows popping up,” she says. “It was like a Final Cut invasion, which I realize will appeal to those who learned on Final Cut. To me, they were just distracting. And I’ve heard many other Avid-only editors having the same reaction.” Several other newer features eluded her, she says, mostly due to the show’s time constraints. “I do a lot of rolling as I trim, to be more fluid with dialog and picture, but I wasn’t totally up to speed with the new trim tool.”

Camera operator Jeff Dutemple behind the RED as Farmiga prepares for a scene (photo
by Molly Hawkey for HG Entertainment).

Getting the audio out of AMA wasn’t easy either, adds Newmark. “We had a few issues with not being able to render certain effects or audio,” he says. “Once editorial was done, on my end, we had to start handing over things for final mixing and DI, and there were quite a few audio issues, particularly getting audio out of AMA. But we made it work. The scary thing to me was, I laid out this workflow and mentioned to Matt Schneider what I wanted to do, and he said, ‘Well, that’s definitely an interesting way of doing it and I can assure you that no one else has ever done that before!'” (Incidentally, another film headed to Sundance, The Ledge, was shot on RED and started as a Final Cut show before the post team insisted on switching to a Media Composer 5 workflow.)

Since Newmark was also in the process of prepping for the Beresford film during this time, he set up a collaborative system that let him work with Sharp and others at BCDF while he was out of the office or just busy with another workflow inside the barn. “We’re a pretty small shop, so I’ve got the network set up so I can pretty much screen share and hop onto any of the Macs. I’ve also got VPN set up, for when I’m in the city working on sound and finalizing things. We moved an edit suite down to the city for finishing, but all the RAW media is still upstate. When we’re dealing with things in the DI to verify a shot, I can easily hop on and pull the RAW file. The first time I did it to Colleen, however, I was just in the next room, and she freaked out a little bit.” Sharp adds, “I’d be finishing for the day and logging out and there would be a little word document that would pop up on my screen saying ‘Good night, Colleen!’ And I could write back to him.”

Actors Mckenzie Turner and John Hawkes in a scene from the film.

Would it have been easier for Sharp just to jump over to Final Cut, given BCDF’s recent move to newer Apple systems? Not necessarily. She did one show on Final Cut years ago but she-and the producers-agrthat the thought of ramping up during such a tight schedule wasn’t feasible. “Because we had a pretty good budget for this film,” says Newmark, “we could upgrade easily. And the fact that Avid had opened up to third-party hardware for monitoring out meant that we actually had to spend very little money to get Colleen up and running on the Avid setup.” He says BCDF spent $500 on the MC5 upgrade fee, and another $500 for the Matrox MXO2 mini box, which was all they needed to move back fully into the Avid environment.

Playing Catch-Up During Conform

Though Newmark understands that plenty of people, especially for TV work, will convert files to DNx or ProRes and finish out from there, he says the emergence of ARRI RAW and RED RAW formats necessitated the offline/online workflow BCDF has in place. “That’s what we essentially did here, for Higher Ground, where we were going back to the RAW RED files for the DI. Then it was just me playing catch-up on the workflow to get the files out of the Avid back to conform to the RED files.” That actually wasn’t a very hard problem in itself, he says. “Sure, it would have saved many headaches to start with DNx files, but those were the circumstances. And from what I’ve been told, Avid is hammering out a lot of ProRes-related issues that were in the first two versions of MC5.” But since BCDF shoots only on RED, Newmark says, “if I know it’s going to be an Avid edit, then I’m going to choose DNx. It’s a great codec, works flawlessly and gives you a very high-quality 1080 image to work with. For offlining a movie, it’s all you need.” Then he adds, laughing, “And you actually get all the benefits of real-time effects while you work, something that wasn’t exactly available to us in our setup.”

Higher Ground was graded on a Digital Vision Nucoda system. Colorist Hawkey (Mullholland Dr., Maria Full of Grace, The Celestine Prophecy) had colored two of McDonough’s previous pictures; he is also Farmga’s brother-in-law. “That was a no-brainer,” says Newmark of bringing Hawkey on board, “since we got the facility for free and we got his talent for next to nothing. He and I were able to work out a very efficient RED workflow for him to be grading off the RED Raw files.” Given his knowledge of the camera system, Newmark was involved early in production with McDonough to not only help him get the looks he and Farmiga wanted but also “to make the transfer from the camera, through editorial on to DI. In this case, we could move our systems down to the city and have access back to the barn.”

Actor Joshua Leonard and Farmiga in a scene from the film (photo by Molly Hawkey for
HG Entertainment).

Newmark says there’s a very good chance BCDF will eventually put in its own DI suite, “but since we have things set up so we can do a good portion of the grade at the barn and then come down to New York to verify that on a better projector for one day, as opposed to 15 days, that makes a difference. When we did this DI with Vera’s brother-in-law, I was able to online everything back to the RAW files,” he says, “trim those files down, send everything to him, and he was able to click, click, click and rebuild it. He admitted he’d done at least a dozen RED shows and it’s never been this easy. The RED workflow is actually pretty simple, but not everyone using it knows how to work with it, whether how to shoot with the camera or how to get the material out to offline.”

As RED continues to improve its color science, adds Newmark, “so that the gamma curves and LUTs applied to view the images in the camera will follow through with the files to editorial, you’ll get an even better image right off the bat. That’s one of the beauties of RED or ARRI. It’s not like we’re shooting on Sony, where you really have to dial your look into the camera and know how to get that image out to maximize your latitude during the color. The RAW systems have made it a lot easier.”

Most of the looks, says Newmark, were already set and pretty much in place for the edit and the dailies. “Michael McDonough took a few more liberties with it, after being away from it for a while. His last few movies have been dark, with very little color, and on this one, it’s all about bright, saturated tones.” Adds Sharp, “It’s been my experience that DPs tend to favor darker images. Vera wanted brighter tones, so they met in the middle.”

Farmiga’s last win at Sundance, a Special Jury Prize in 2004 for her performance in Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, was also shot by McDonough, whose bleak, moody work for last year’s Sundance winner, A Winter’s Bone, has already earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination. This time around, the drug is love and religion. Farmiga’s new film is a retelling of Carolyn Brigg’s memoir about her struggles with her evangelical faith. Higher Ground will begin screening this Sunday, January 23, at the festival.