Final Cut Pro Workflow Supercharged with AJA KONA 3 cards

Max Payne is the latest example of Hollywood’s yen for adapting the video game for the silver screen. With Mark Wahlberg in the title role and directed by John Moore, this thriller-which also stars Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Ludacris and Nelly Furtado-was shot in 35mm 3-perf in Toronto.

Back in Los Angeles, editor Dan Zimmerman and first assistant editor Ian Silverstein got HD dailies, which were imported directly into their Final Cut Pro editing systems, thanks to SmartJog, which transferred the dailies from Toronto, and AJA’s KONA 3 card, which captured the HD playback into the systems.

AJA’s KONA 3, an uncompressed capture card for operation with PCI Express Mac Pro systems and Apple Final Cut Pro, supports any uncompressed SD or HD format including Dual Link HD and 2K. KONA 3 captures and plays back uncompressed 10-bit and 8-bit digital video and 24-bit digital audio, and includes several 10-bit broadcast quality features.

Zimmerman says he chose to cut on the Final Cut Pro system for many of its features. “I think it’s the best system to cut in HD,” he says. “The picture quality is superior and I love its versatility and cost-effectiveness. More importantly for me as an editor, I love the active timeline so I don’t have to go to a different mode to make changes to any given clip.”

What sealed the deal was AJA’s KONA 3 card. “We took advantage of some of the upgrades with the version 4 driver,” said Zimmerman. “The AJA KONA 3 card really does make the FCP system work seamlessly and effectively.” Zimmerman reports they worked in HD DVC Pro. “The codec seems to be a very stable and high quality version to cut with and there’s no reason to go higher than that,” he says. “For offline resolution, the DVC Pro is excellent.”

In addition to Zimmerman and Silverstein’s FCP systems, editorial also housed a system for visual effects editor Adriaan Van Zyl and a fourth system that acted as a render station. According to Silverstein, all three editing stations were equipped with AJA KONA 3 cards, with breakout boxes connected to HD monitors, all tied together via a 7 TB Apple Xsan.

“FCP was designed to be a plug-and-play software/hardware package,” says Silverstein. “Anybody with a Mac computer can cut on FCP. Professionals in the feature film business have to take it to a higher level, with larger computers to handle more material. But it’s still all basically plug-and-play. It’s very versatile and you can take it anywhere. If you have all the elements to make it work, It’s a fabulous system.”

The versatility of the FCP system is made possible because of the AJA card, says Zimmerman. “The nucleus of FCP is the KONA card in my opinion,” he says.

The FCP systems with AJA KONA 3 card got a work-out in “Max Payne.” In addition to 35mm 3-perf, the production also used the Phantom camera for two major fight sequences. These scenes were the most challenging to edit, says Zimmerman, who says the scenes were captured at 800 fps. “”Anything shot super slo-mo has to be dynamic,” he says. “In order for it to look cool, you have to use it in a very aggressive way. I had some fantastic footage to work with, but each individual sequence was one to one-and-a-half minutes and I had to sustain audience attention.”

The Phantom footage had been converted, via Phantom’s proprietary software, into DVCPRO Quicktime files (with a burn-in) and DPX sequences that were sent to visual effects facilities. “Out of all the shots, there were only two or three Phantom shots that were used without being touched,” says Zimmerman. “The majority of them went to a VFX facility.”

Because the movie is based off a video game, there are lots of guns and lots of shooting. “The photography and the editing of the movie tried to emulate what gamers were used to seeing on the video game,” says Zimmerman, who notes that all the guns in the movie were practical. “There’s a lot of gunplay in the movie and those sequences were very tricky. Unlike a movie like Commando where the hero is shooting at everyone and everyone is shooting at him but missing, we tried to make it look more believable that he could be up against a group of shooters and still get away.”

Zimmerman likes to point out that one of the sequences where the Phantom camera was used, you see the “bullet-time” popularized in “The Matrix” films. “Bullet-time was invented in the Max Payne game,” he says. “That was replicated by the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix but it originated from that game.”

With 300 visual effects shots, editorial was faced with importing and exporting footage back and forth with several visual effects facilities, some of which were located in Toronto. But the system performed flawlessly.

“The fantastic thing is that it’s all Quicktime-based, which is a standard in feature film making,” says Silverstein. “It’s the ‘lingua franca,’ and it does make it easier because our whole timeline is a Quicktime. All we have to do is hit export, and people can see what we’re doing without any external transcoding.”

Visual effects weren’t the only task on the movie that didn’t need transcoding, thanks to the AJA KONA 3 card. The card was also used in a unique way on the production: to output DVCPRO HD QuickTime media to integrate into the mix stage pipeline at Warner Bros. in Burbank. According to Silverstein, the tight integration between FCP and the KONA 3 card made for a seamless transfer of the HD footage to the mixing stages where it played back in HD without any additional transcoding.

The ability to playback HD files on the mixing stage provided another huge benefit. Mixers often work with taped footage that has lost so many generations that it’s difficult to see characters lips moving. Rather than working with the muddied look of footage that’s gone to tape, the HD playback was crystal clear. “And that’s even for background characters who may be out of focus,” says Silverstein. “It makes it very easy to mix and sync dialogue.”

Editorial would export a DVCPRO HD file to Warner Bros., which would load it up in minutes and then play back the HD QuickTime files with the stage’s 2K projector suing the KONA 3 card. “The process is almost immediate and we don’t have to produce a separate codec for the mixing stage,” says Zimmerman. “It’s easy to add new shots and make updates. And that adds up to time and cost savings which are considerable when you’re working at a professional dubbing facility.”

Zimmerman also reports that he used the real-time matte capability of KONA 3 to hide burn-ins for the director, to keep him from being distracted when reviewing the cut. “That’s a great way to put a title overlay into your sequence without having to render it prior to playback,” adds Silverstein.

Zimmerman and Silverstein also used the FCP/AJA KONA 3 combination when they edited AVPR: Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, making it the second consecutive film project with Fox utilizing that editing configuration. It’s an editing system that both Zimmerman and Silverstein hope they’ll be using again in the near future. “It’s a beautiful integration between FCP and the AJA KONA 3, and one that I hope is maintained for a long future,” says Zimmerman.