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On-Set Playback on the Front Lines for World War Z

Videohawks Principal Dan Moore on Zombies, Metadata and Custom Builds

World War Z, directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) and co-produced by its star, Brad Pitt, is a film of many moving parts, most of them hurtling by at alarming speeds. According to Video Hawks co-owner Dan Moore, who provided the on-set video assist and playback throughout production, the on-set world of the film was only slightly less frenetic than the zombie apocalypse portrayed on screen.

Video Hawks, a production and rental facility that provides video assist, workflow engineering, and DIT services for feature films, was founded in 1990 by its current president and CEO, Tom Loewy. Moore began work as a video assist operator in 1986 and joined Video Hawks as a principal in the early 1990s. He's since provided assist and playback on set for such directors as Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and James Cameron, first digitizing footage and assembling rough cuts on set during the early days of NLEs in the 1990s. Moore and the Video Hawks team have had experience with film, HD, direct-to-disk recording, stereo 3D and, on Avatar, virtual cinematography.

Partnering with sister company Technoprops, a technology firm founded by Glenn Derry, the Video Hawks team built two color-correction carts and a video cart at their 16,000-square-foot facility in Valencia. The carts traveled with the World War Z crew to the film's primary set in London. "We have a full metal and electronic fabrication facility and we can build a cart completely to spec," says Moore. "I'd love to work on a romantic comedy at the Beverly Hills Hotel, but anything with the words World and War isn't going to be shot in such an easy location. Add zombies to that equation, and you're asking for trouble. We have to have this battle-ready equipment that can take the pounding and handle the rough roads wherever we are."

Beyond playback and demoing physical effects so that Forster and DP Ben Seresin (and, initially, Robert Richardson, ASC, whom Seresin replaced) could fix shots on the fly, the Video Hawks gear weathered more than one extreme climate traveling with the production to multiple other locations, including hot and dusty Malta (a stand-in for Israel), at "sea" on a ship in Falmouth, England, Budapest in deep winter, and Glasgow, Scotland, whose Georgian architecture was a stand-in for Philadelphia. And then there was the evolving materialization of the zombies themselves, a mix of actors and stunt men and women in makeup and mocap suits that were eventually given full undead life by a legion of talented visual effects artists in post.

Video Hawks, along with its Technoprops and Derry, began consulting with the filmmakers one month before principal photography — with the ARRI Alexa M and Studio recording ARRIRAW and an Arriflex shooting Super 35 — began. "There were issues that needed to be addressed," says Moore. "They knew they needed a portable color-correction system that could perform without fail under some pretty harsh environments. They also wanted to transmit a number of video signals around the set, whether it be on location or on set in London, so we created a base station video cart that could receive signals from a bunch of HD transmitters and provide images to those who needed to see them. Setting up the antenna arrays and making sure the frequencies complied with all the local laws was pretty challenging, but it all worked as expected," he says. 

Moore credits Video Hawks' and Technoprops' past work on Avatar and other VFX-intensive projects with landing the contract for World War Z. "On Avatar, we needed to come up with a cart that was small and portable but also had all the bells and whistles Cameron wanted. We built it from the ground up then, but the basic concept is still something that we use today, not counting obvious software and hardware upgrades and custom frames." The video cart Moore and his team created for World War Z contains a similar number of Blackmagic Design components, including Micro Videohub and Smart Videohub routers, HDLinks and Mini Converters, as well as a Raptor HD video assist system, Panasonic monitors and APC power conditioners. "We had a few opportunities to swap in some other routers, but we always defaulted back to Blackmagic," he says. "For me, the routers and converters just have the reliability that's crucial when working on a big-budget film with an A-level director, but also in any environment where you can't afford to lose footage. They have the muscle, the flexibility and the dependability that I've grown accustomed to. It's worth the investment because I don't have to wonder if it will work. And HDLink is absolutely mandatory when people need to show something on a different screen and downconvert, crossconvert or upconvert footage."

The most challenging location for everyone had to be Malta, says Moore, where the road was bumpy and winding and filled with pot holes. "Add to that the dust, the explosions, the Ritter fans and the water tanks, and you really have to do your homework to make sure all the electronics will perform as expected," he says. "We always take all of that into account when we're designing the equipment." The other enemy, he says, is heat, especially when putting so many pieces of equipment together within such close proximity. "We try to keep the frames as open as possible so the carts wouldn't overheat, but we had to enclose this one somewhat and use a cover because of the dust and salt water."

The Live Color Correction cart, developed by Glenn Derry and Technoprops engineers, was based on the Ccolor cart designed for Marvel's The Avengers. Derry, who served as virtual production supervisor on Avatar, devised a way during effects shots to record all the metadata from the camera, including the lens size, f-stop, the position of the camera and other crucial information needed to accelerate the VFX process in post (Cinesite, MPC, Prime Focus and ILM contributed to the visual-effects effort). "This was really a run-and-gun production, with a lot of wireless everywhere," says Derry. "It was a big, hard show. We didn't do as much on-set color-correction as we did on Avengers. It was more about monitoring and picture quality and making sure everything laid off cleanly to the Codex." 

That front-end precision proved critical later on in post. "There were a number of frustrations during production ranging from script issues and cast schedules, but not having a clear idea of how to film the zombies was a challenge for everyone," says Moore. "The effects work of everyone above the line is phenomenal and they have my complete admiration. They seamlessly blended shots of actors in makeup and mocap with pure CGI. It's riveting work."

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