When the High-End Tools Don't Fit the Occasion, Work With What You've Got

Technical supervisor Clark Graff devised a tapeless workflow for Captain Abu Raed, a Jordanian film produced by GigaPix Studios (Chatsworth, CA) that played in competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, using custom-built digital film recorders both to capture footage from the production’s Arriflex D-20 cameras and to conform the feature using Adobe Premiere Pro CS3.
Wait a minute. The film was shot on D-20s, edited on Avid Media Composers, and then conformed in Adobe Premiere Pro?

“I was more surprised than anyone!” Graff told Film & Video. For recording footage on set, Graff custom-built Windows XP boxes running QuickClip Pro from Drastic Technologies, which makes them work as high-capacity digital film recorders. (They’re called GNS_DFRs, which stands for Graff Network Services Digital Film Recorders.) Graff installed AJA Xena 2Ke cards due to their combination of price-effectiveness and reliability. “They use beautiful cables and really solid connectors, and that matters to me,” he explains. “I spent years on the road as a rock-and-roll guy, so doing film stuff I know the equipment is going to get the crap knocked out of it.” He used the 2ke to downconvert the full-resolution camera footage to SDI for input into the production’s Avid 9000XL Media Composer systems.

“We did the edit in SD, uncompressed, so it looked really nice,” Graff says. “The theory was, we were going to export OMF into QuickClip [for the conform] – but they hadn’t gotten that feature going yet. At that point, we went, ‘OK. What are we going to do now?'”

Graff eventually hit on the idea of comforming the project in Premiere Pro CS3, since AJA had developed plug-ins to import DPX files and edit them natively in Premiere. “We thought, ‘Well, that might be kind of crazy.’ But I was in a hurry to get going. So I downloaded a demo, loaded it right onto the disk recorder, and connected it to the other disk recorders. I used the CMX 3600 [EDL] out of the Avid, opened it up on the timeline in Premiere and, boom, it was all there. And away I went. I hit ‘batch’ and started to batch-digitize the whole thing.” Another GNS_DFR connected to the box running Premiere Pro operated just like a VTR.

“It took a couple of days to go through that whole process,” Graff recalls. “When I got all of that set up, we exported the CMX 3600 out of Premiere into [Iridas] SpeedGrade to do the grading. That had its challenges. But when I rendered all the stuff out and opened it back up [in Premiere], chose “relink to media” and relinked all that stuff to the new, rendered-out footage, it popped up on the timeline. I thought, ‘Wow.’ And then I started to make cuts, because the director started to change things. And I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll lay in the subtitles.'”

For subtitling, Graff used Belle Nuit Subtitler, a $150 program from a French developer that exports a CMX 3600 EDL and a raft of TIFF files containing the subtitles. “I loaded them into a bin and ran the CMX and, boom, Premiere put them on the second timeline,” Graff says. “I went, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.'”

One glitch in the system was a minor problem that occurred when the cameras, shooting in the Jordanian desert, overheated and introduced some glitches into the footage. “The CCD block heated up and spit out a bunch of weird, spurious data. There were about 1000 frames of it, and it was in the middle of shots that we couldn’t do again,” Graff says. He started to talk to a friend at PixelFarm about a restoration application called PFClean, and wondered if it could fix the problem. “Urban Olsson, the assistant technical director, learned the software and did that. It was amazing – it was frightening how good it worked. So I had to recut that back in using Premiere. I conformed this whole movie, laid in the subtitles, output the HD QuickTimes for 424 Studios [in Los Angeles] where we did the final audio mix, and then I did the audio layback – right in Premiere. How cool is that?”

Cool enough that Graff has already lined up a Premiere angle for workflow on the next GigaPix feature, which starts shooting in February: “We’re going to have Premiere on each one of these disk recorders, and when the director wants to have something assembled on set we’re going to do it like that, right on the disk recorder: full-resolution, 4:2:2 to his monitor. You can edit the whole movie on set if you want.”

Graff was also favorably impressed by the footage from the D-20, which he said looked great after a film-out at Fotokem. “We used an earlier version of the D-20 that only had two ASAs, 100 and 200. That was fine because the DP we had is a gaffer, and he lit things really well. We didn’t have problems with noise in the blacks, and it wasn’t crushed. I personally don’t like grain, so I’m really happy. If it’s my choice, I’ll never shoot film again.”

For more information:
Graff Network Services

Gigapix Studios

AJA Xena 2Ke

Drastic Technologies QuickClip Pro

Avid Media Composer

Adobe Premiere Pro CS3

Belle Nuit Subtitler

PixelFarm PFClean

Iridas SpeedGrade