How Music-Video Vet Don Wilson Managed a Stereo Workflow for Final Cut Pro

When Action 3D Productions hired an editor to cut the concert film Phish 3D, it made sense that they’d go to Don Wilson’s Americana Media. Wilson is an Emmy-winning producer-director-editor whose experience in the industry stretches back to the early days of MTV, when he was cutting promo clips for any number of top-tier acts. (His resume since then includes positions at Varitel and EDS Digital Studios, Craig Murray Productions, The Selluloid Group, and AMI.) As Wilson describes it, working in 3D was a technical complication rather than a creative one. And, as an early user of CineForm’s Neo3D editing workflow, Wilson was one of the guinea pigs who helped CineForm make Apple’s Final Cut Pro stereo-friendly. F&V talked to him about his career, his stereo workflow, and why he thinks cutting concerts in 3D is actually easier.
FILM & VIDEO: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up on this job.

Don Wilson: I come from the early days of music videos. A lot of people call me one of the founding fathers of the MTV style, and I take a little pride in that. I started doing music videos in 1981. I directed “Man in the Mirror” for Michael Jackson and edited quite a bit of his stuff. I directed and edited hundreds, if not thousands, of videos – Bon Jovi, Sting, a lot of the big, big acts. I was just at the right place in the right time.

Well, you helped twist my sensibilities, because in high school I was right there watching your work.

Right on, man! I can’t tell you how many people tell me that. We would do Ratt and Night Ranger and then Whitney Houston. We were doing it all, you know? I even did that “Baby Got Back.” I did quite a bit. We had a good thing going there for a while – until MTV and the record companies had a pissing match. I think in the end MTV won. MTV basically said, “We’re going to charge you [to play your videos].” And the record company said, “No, we’re going to charge you for free programming.” And MTV said, “Nah, we’ll just make our own shows.”

Ironically, they asked me to come work on the first two seasons of The Real World, which I did, and we joked, “No one will ever go for this format.” And now it’s the bane of our existence, this reality format.

Don Wilson, editor of Phish 3D

Those first two seasons of Real World were pretty good television, though.

They were rockin’, man. That was when Pedro had AIDS and didn’t tell [his housemates], and Puck never took a shower. I agree with you. That was real. It was all taped, so it wasn’t nonlinear, but it was hundreds and hundreds of tapes per episode, and it was really editing. Now, it’s like, “Make them say this. Try to make them say this.” A lot of what goes on in the reality world now, we call “Frankenbites,” where you take days of things people say and you chuck it all together to make it sound like something they really didn’t say. Reality, my ass!

It’s really loosely scripted television.

I could not agree with you more. Had it not been for the writers’ strike, I don’t think it would be where it is, but absolutely there are scripts that go on these things. Whatever. I’m tired of it.

So music video was a big thing. I ended up doing a lot of comedy, including Mad TV for a couple of years. I built a couple of my own studios with investors. And then I started doing a lot of documentary filmmaking. I won a bunch of awards not long ago for one about Katrina, where I hired local musicians [from New Orleans]. I grew up down there. They were all out of work because all the bars where they made their living were gone. We got an FTP site going and everyone did a track and we did the soundtrack for the film, and it just kicks butt. Good southern rock and roll. Mississippi Son is the name of that thing. We call it “music from the souls of survivors.'”

So you’ve got a ton of experience in music films.

And it’s a small business. We always joke that there’s only 100 people who really work in Hollywood. If you’re not available for a gig, you have a couple of people you recommend. People try and keep it in the family. And doing concert films isn’t something a scripted tv guy or comedy guy is going to be able to come in and figure out, especially when you’re under the gun. And on top of that, in 3D.

Wayne Miller is the producer, and he and I had crossed paths years ago in the music video days when I owned post houses and he would come and online there. I did the trailer for the Dave Matthews 3D movie and struck off a good chord with him. They called me to do the Phish thing because of how well we worked together.

Had you done any other 3D?

I had done a couple other small things for demonstration purposes, but nothing that ever went into theaters. Between you and me, [editing] 3D is easier. You don’t want to overcut things. You don’t want to give people epileptic fits. Wide shots are gorgeous. In 2D stuff, you avoid the wide shots. You want the good mediums and tights. Back in the day, I did Billy Joel Live from Leningrad USSR and Fleetwood Mac and all these big early concert music videos, and you couldn’t cut enough, man. They wanted more shots and more shots and more shots. In 3D you want less, sort of. If you have technology like CineForm’s, it makes it pretty easy for us. Of course, there’s always something to rear its head because it’s always new technology.

What were you actually cutting?

We would go to offline and I would simultaneously record the 3D stereoscopic files and an Apple ProRes file, so that I could throw it into Final Cut Pro and edit multicam without taxing it in “3D world.” We used two computers. I would roll one HDCAM SR with a stereo stream on one tape and take the right eye output for my ProRes and take the stereoscopic file for the CineForm file, recording them both at the same time so they had the same timecode, the same number, and the same name. When I was ready to look at a song in 3D, I would just hand it to my assistant via our network and in three minutes he would have it reconnected. You lie to it. You say, “Here’s where those ProRes files really live,” and of course they’re the CineForm files. Boom, you’re watching in 3D. That’s how we made it work so I didn’t have to pop into 3D world. It does involve faking Final Cut out. We were doing things they hadn’t done yet. As time went on, CineForm sent us updates. Finally, we could actually do our offline in multicam 3D. They had a code-writer at our disposal, and we were charting new territory with him. If we had started this thing a month later, I probably would have stayed in offline 3D the whole time. But, truthfully, once you know what works in 3D you don’t need to see it in 3D until the whole song’s together.

It sounds like you’re saying you were able to edit just like you would any other project.

In a sense, that’s true. Once you get over the fear of editing in 3D, you realize that if you just manage your technology you can edit like you edit in 2D. Obviously, you have to know what’s going to work. In 3D, if you have a handheld on stage and to the left of you is a big bass amp cabinet filling one-sixth of the screen, that base cabinet is going to screw up your picture. You can’t converge it. 3D is all about how you converge stuff. There’s a focal point, and everything behind [the point of convergence] and in front of it is either going to work in 3D or it’s not. So you look at it and say, “I think it will work. Let’s put the song together and look at it in 3D.” There were 50 shots we changed because they didn’t work in 3D.

CineForm made it work for us. Up until this, there were only secret, magic boxes people had that weren’t commercially available that you could do this with. The guys at CineForm were the first people I came across with off-the-shelf stuff to edit 3D. It was an enlightening experience, to say the least.

It was pretty interesting stuff when they debuted it at NAB in 2009.

Yeah, well, it’s night and day now. It’s phenomenal. You would never have to go out of the CineForm world. You could finish with the new products they introduced this year.

You mentioned convergence, and obviously one of the things that complicates post is manipulating the alignment of the left-eye and right-eye images from shot to shot.

It’s like keystoning. You have to fix every frame of every shot right now. It’s painful. We worked with the guys at a place called Evergreen Films, where we rooted ourselves for a while. They had a Smoke and a Lustre. We ran out of time there, and then we went to Modern Videofilm in Glendale, where they had a Quantel iQ. It’s an all-in-one box that I’m a big fan of all of a sudden. It has the Pablo built into it [for color-correction]. It rocks.

Did you stick with the CineForm format all the way into finishing?

We used CineForm files in the Smoke and the Lustre. When they first introduced [the Neo3D format], it lived in a YUV space, but now it lives in whatever space you want it to. At the get-go we did a split screen between uncompressed HD SR dual-stream and CineForm files, and no one could tell the difference. In the end we used the Cineform files. My assistant would assemble the show in 3D, using CineForm files. We would then export DPX files and send those over to the Smoke and let them converge them in color. So we stayed in CineForm the whole time. It was a fantastic time-saver – and way cool.