Assistant Editor Julian Smirke Talks Enterprise Workflow

Star Trek took the editorial team on a wild, sometimes bumpy, adventure that included battling workflow bottlenecks, alliances with visual effects outfits, warp-speed sync issues and fighting off intergalactic pirates. We spoke with first assistant editor Julian Smirke about boldly going to the final editorial frontier.
What was the technical set up for editorial on Star Trek?
We started back in Oct 2007, about a week before production started. At the time we were on the latest version of Avid Media Composer, version 2.7.5 on Adrenaline systems. Later on we upgraded to v2.7.8, which wasn’t a big leap but it did solve some of the minor issues we were having. It was the first show our crew had been on that was high-def, so we did have to get our heads around the way the file system works with that. It was a little bit scary at the time but after a couple weeks it was fine.

At the beginning the Adrenaline systems seemed to crash a lot. We had a lot of bus thread errors at the start. Some of those errors were cleared up when we upgraded.

We had a decent sized editing crew, two editors, three assistant editors including myself, and a production assistant for the picture editing crew. In the same offices we had a visual effects editor and visual effects assistant (Martin Kloner & Elana Lessem). We were all running Avid Media Composers with Adrenaline running off of a Unity system.

What was the general workflow for you on this project?
The film was telecined at Fotokem, which digitized everything into an Avid that matched the specifications we had in the edit room and provided drives with the media in bins. Lucy [Wojciechowski], the other first assistant, and I would work on organizing the dailies for the editors, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey.

We’d start with synching the dailies up again. The lab does a fairly decent job synching but because they don’t have time there are sometimes takes that are slightly off. We would re-synch them, slipping a frame or two here and there.

On such a large visual effects show, how did you coordinate with the VFX companies?
All of our visual effects were taken care of by our in-house visual effects editor and his assistant. They would deal with the turnover of all the effects to the various VFX houses that we were using. Mainly we were using ILM but there were three other companies producing shots ‘ Lola, Svengali FX and Digital Domain. Having the visual effects editors there to handle our more than 1000 shots was a big help. The VFX editor was doing all of the comps, making them look decent until they could get finalized by the VFX houses. A big part of the VFX editor’s and assistant’s job is turning shots over to [to the VFX companies] and getting shots back from them. And it is a constantly changing process getting in new shots with all the revisions. We also had the visual effects producer and VFX coordinator in the same offices so it was all very coordinated and made it all work smoothly.

At one point we had to gear up for a studio screening. Of course you don’t want any of the missing VFX shots in there for that so the VFX department hired a couple visual effects artists that would provide temp visual effects shots using, Shake, Combustion or After Effects so that didn’t stick out like a sore thumb during the studio screening.

You mention that there were some problems with the systems you had. Can you elaborate on that?

We had a ton of material on one Unity system and seven people pulling the same stuff, so there is the possibility that people were pulling the same media at the same time, which could have caused some problems. But the system just seemed quite slow. Occasionally things would crash or the pinwheel would just spin for a while. There was nothing very specific about the errors where we could pinpoint what it was. I’m sure there was but we never nailed it down. With the upgrade things did improve a bit.

We did work with Digital Vortechs who were great. They rented us the Avids and provided tech support. We had discussed moving all the operating systems to version 3.0 and making the operating systems Leopard but because it was such a big show with so much media it would have been awful to have something go wrong where media got corrupted or something didn’t work. Most likely it would have been fine but when you are on such a large show if something bad did happen it would have been a very bad situation. We would have been able to fix it, but it just would have been a lot of late nights and there was too much stuff going on to risk it. And it really wasn’t that bad. Things were a just a little slow

Was there anything you did to try to speed up the machines?
There were fixes that Lucy and I did to help the situation like making new projects and not bringing over all the user settings and not bringing over the entire contents of the project other than certain little files; not bringing over the Avid project settings; starting from scratch and building the project and user settings in a fresh new project and then bringing the bins over into that new project. We’d do that quite often and it seemed to help the speed of things. Also, in doing that you are making your project size slightly smaller because there are a lot of log files that get accumulated every time a user opens a bin. So it was little things that we were doing to try and speed things up.

You mentioned some sync issues you had. Can you talk more about that and how you solved those problems?

The lab did a fantastic job but it is pretty common when you have a whole day’s worth of footage that some stuff isn’t quite perfect and is off a by a frame or two. Essentially as an assistant it is so much easier to nip it in the bud right at the beginning before all the material goes to the editors. It’s more of a pain when you give the footage to the editors and it comes back to you at some point down the line. Then it is a real hassle to go back and fix it all. Plus as an assistant you don’t want an editor passing the footage back to you for that reason.

There are so many ways to sync in the Avid. I find the quickest way is using the Perf Slip tool in the Avid. You can also pull out the waveform if the clap of the slate isn’t exactly clear. When you find the first modulation of sound where the sticks hit and usually that is not on a whole frame, it is right dead in a line, or a perf, and there are four perfs in one frame of 35mm film. So if you find that exact perf and match it up to that then you know you are in sync. It could be argued that it is overkill but I’d rather have it perfect and not worry about it.

We also group the clips after it is all in sync. If you have camera A, B and C you can make a group clip so the editor can toggle through camera A, B and C on the same take. When you group clips there’s a function in the Avid where you can do it by timecode. On certain shows you can just sync it by timecode and it works great. But sometimes it doesn’t and on this show it didn’t work great because there are too many variables along the way that can throw things out ‘ from the on-set timecode, what gets transferred to the DVD-RAM, to what happens in the telecine process.

Also we had an issue with audio timecode with the dailies. There is a field in the ALE for sound timecode. We were recording 24-frame timecode on set and that version of the Avid couldn’t take 24 frame timecode for sound. The way they got around it was to just put it in a different field, an auxiliary timecode field in the ALE file. The sound TC field could only take 30 non-drop frame. The telecine place knew about this issue so they took the timecode into those auxiliary fields so we would just have to be aware of where it all was. So it was just a learning curve when we got the dailies and we see the burned in timecode that is going up to 29 frames when it should only be going up to 23. Our project was 1080p/23.976.

Another issue was steps taken to reduce the risk of the film being pirated.

Security-wise we made sure all the footage we gave out to the music or sound effects guys were in black-and-white. Eventually we did give them color but it was just another security precaution to make sure things weren’t going to get out. Of course all the footage had massive block letters with the name of who it was going out to. And it wasn’t just on the top and bottom it was through the entire image. Otherwise you just crop the top and bottom.

We had a lot of ADR sessions and some of those were done internationally because some of the actors were overseas. For those we were extremely cautious with and we actually blacked out the entire screen and made a little circle around the actors face and tracked the circle to their face so that is the only thing that was being seen. It’s a little scary when you are dealing with another country, another company and department that you have never met doing the recording. So it was a lot of tedious work involved but you do feel better about sending it out.