PostWorks on Feature Finishing Techniques for Nonfiction TV
Peacock Productions Shows Employed Canon C-Log Workflow, Nucoda Film Master Color and Restoration Tools
High-resolution digital cinema cameras, raw recording and sophisticated color-grading systems are familiar in feature-film and scripted-television production. They're less common in the world of nonfiction television production, with its notoriously tight budgets and rapid turnarounds. But that's starting to change. Lower-cost technology and more efficient workflows are helping nonfiction shows catch up with those high-end techniques.
Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall, a one-hour real-life crime series airing on Investigation Discovery, and The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, a four-hour documentary special that recently premiered on Discovery, were produced by Peacock Productions, an NBC production unit specializing in documentaries, reality series and other nonfiction programming. They went through final post-production processing at PostWorks in New York, where feature-style tools and workflows were employed.
Most nonfiction TV is shot using the Rec. 709 format specific to HDTV, where what you see is what you get. But Deadline: Crime is recorded with Canon EOS C300 cameras in Canon Gamma Log (C-Log), a logarithmic color space. C-Log is not a raw format. It's more affordable, but it delivers many of the same benefits—including high-dynamic range, a flat image, low contrast and subdued sharpness—that maximize latitude in post-production. The colorist has access to more image information, and therefore has greater ability to set and adjust looks.
“We wanted the show to have a filmic look,” explained Peacock Productions Post-Production Supervisor Brandt Gassman. “We didn’t want it to look like video or something that you’d see on network TV, but rather like an independent film.”
PostWorks takes advantage of C-Log by grading the show on a Nucoda Film Master system in a manner similar to the way they would grade a feature film. Working directly with the original camera files, PostWorks senior finishing editor and colorist Sean R. Smith applies a C-log-to-Rec. 709 LUT to establish a basic look, and then makes fine adjustments.
“It’s a unique workflow for a show of this type,” said Smith. “The C-log color results in a flat image so that when you begin the grading pass, all options are available. It gives us tremendous latitude with the look of the show.”
The higher dynamic range of C-log is particularly evident in low-light and low-contrast settings, such as those featured in the shows crime-scene re-enactments that often occur at night or in otherwise dimly lit environments. Using the Film Master toolset, Smith can draw details out of the shadows and enhance the mood. For very dark shots, he applies DVO Clarity and DVO Regrain to reduce image noise. “It gave those scenes a soft, velvety look once the final grade was applied,” he said.
The Presidents’ Gatekeepers also went through a pass on PostWorks’ Film Master, not for color-grading, but to take advantage of the system’s restoration toolset. A behind-the-scenes account of what it’s like to serve as chief of staff in the White House, the documentary included a large number of news clips and other archival materials, much of it decades old and in poor condition.
“The majority of the historical news material we got from NBC’s archive was stored on Beta SP tape,” recalled Gassman. “In some instances, the material had been transferred from other tape sources and was second- or third-generation. Some elements were originally transferred from film.”
Smith used Film Master restoration tools to eliminate accumulated dust and other artifacts. Although much of that processing was automated, some scenes required special treatment.
Gassman recalls an aerial shot of the White House, used prominently at the beginning of the documentary’s first installment. “Although originally recorded on 35mm film, the version we were provided from a third-party source was SD and from a degraded second-generation tape that had not been transferred properly,” he explained. “We used Film Master to de-noise it and to mitigate a cadence problem caused by that transfer.”
A scene from a 1970s episode of 60 Minutes featuring former First Lady Betty Ford was marred by jarring video artifacts. “We treated it for video dropouts and things of that nature,” said Smith. “We used a combination of automated processing on the Nucoda system and manual restoration on Avid Symphony to address all of the issues.”
But the restoration was approached with a light touch. “The directors didn’t want us to restore the news footage to a fully pristine state,” he noted. “They wanted to retain some of the inherent flaws of the original formats to maintain its look as historical material. We didn’t want it to look like it was shot yesterday.”
Final editorial for both shows was performed by Smith on an Avid Symphony. Sound work was also completed at PostWorks with Jared Seidman as sound designer, sound editor and re-recording engineer.