Technicolor – PostWorks on a Media Composer DNxHR Online Workflow for Nat Geo's Russia's Wild Arctic

In an effort to protect some of the last wild places in the world's oceans, National Geographic launched Pristine Seas, a series of expeditions and affiliated research to locate, assess and ultimately shelter those waters most at risk. The first film to chronicle the project's efforts, Russia's Wild Arctic, was shot by National Geographic Studios in 4K and recently finished by Technicolor – PostWorks New York for Ultra High Def viewing. It will air June 18 on Nat Geo Wild and on the Nat Geo Channel this fall.

The 48-minute documentary features National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Pristine Seas Director Dr. Enric Sala as he leads his team through the untouched waters surrounding Russia's northernmost point, the archipelago Franz Josef Land that lies between the Arctic Ocean and the Barents and Kara seas. A long-contested territory, it has been part of the Russian Arctic National Park since 2012. The documentary was executive-produced by Sala and Mark Bauman, and produced, co-written (with Geoff Luck) and shot by DP Neil Gelinas, with help from underwater photographer Manu San Felix. Gelinas did the original offline edit in Apple Final Cut Pro 7, before handing it off to Technicolor – Postworks New York's Senior Finishing Editor/Colorist Mike Nuget for the 4K conform, grade (in FilmLight's Baselight) and finish.

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Pristine Seas Director Dr. Enric Sala

This was the first time the post facility had finished in 4K in Avid Media Composer, which Technicolor – PostWorks Director of Technology Matt Schneider says only became possible with the release of Media Composer 8.3 in December and the subsequent 8.3.1 beta the facility received from Avid in February. We spoke with Nuget and Schneider about how they worked with Avid and FilmLight engineers to forge a new workflow for 4K broadcast delivery that brings Media Composer squarely back into the online suite.

StudioDaily: When did you first start talking about this 4K project with Nat Geo?

Matt Schneider: The first time that we spoke to Nat Geo about any kind of 4K was May of last year. That may have been part of a general swell of interest in possibly finishing shows that are filmed in 4K in 4K [4096×2160] or UHD [3840 x 2160]. Some of that interest may have been accelerated by a specification document that was released by Discovery, in which they had articulated some of the specifics of how shows should be filmed and finished. It gave some details about what kind of file would represent an online and what codec, what frame rate, and what frame size would be acceptable. What followed for facilities like ours in the summer months was kind of a fire drill, where we tried to figure out how you could finish this way if our editing tool of choice, Avid Media Composer, couldn't yet work that way. We figured out that you would have to conform and finish in non-Avid systems like Autodesk Flame or Lustre or both. But that would also mean that a lot of the visual effects created in the offline wouldn't auto-conform; they would have to be recreated visually. All of that would require more time and more cost. The original enthusiasm for finishing nonfiction shows in 4K lessened a bit by mid-summer, when the reality of this workaround set in. In essence, we would have to treat a Nat Geo show like a feature film.

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What happened when Avid released Media Composer 8.3 last December?

MS: This was Avid's first release to support creating any kind of media in a raster larger than HD, so that was a game-changer for us. Flash forward to February 2015, and Brad McIlvaine, Nat Geo's director of technical operations, came to us proposing a 4K finish for their documentary about the Pristine Seas expedition. We'd treat it as a trial run, so that the show could be ready before its US air date for a Russian cultural festival in Monaco in March [2015: The Year of Russia in Monaco]. At that point, Avid gave us a beta version of 8.3.1.

Did Avid customize any part of the beta release specifically for you and this project?

MS: That's an interesting question. I don't want to suggest that Avid custom-built a particular version of [their] software, but they sort of did, largely to correct some of the bugs that we had uncovered through our various tests of this workflow. Those fixes were eventually rolled into the release that came out publicly in March. So for a brief window of time we did indeed have a sneak peek on some bug fixes that were necessary to get the job done. Version 8.3 let you edit in UHD but it didn't give you a lot of options for exporting UHD. Version 8.3.1 now gives us the option to export some kind of media that is easy to swallow, as opposed to something large like uncompressed DPX. All the beta-testing that we've done in the past two months within the context of this particular job really culminated in the public release of this latest version.

How closely did you work with Avid software engineers?

Mike Nuget: When we dove head-first into this project, we alerted them that we were moving full speed ahead on this, so they basically were on call for the entire time we were doing the conform. Matt and I spent weekends doing testing to figure out all the different ways to get media in and working correctly, playing on the timeline correctly, rendering correctly, and holding together as we built effects. If and when we ran into problems, Avid was right there to troubleshoot and fix our bugs, for the most part, within 24 hours. We got the eventual release about three weeks before it was public. They were essentially tweaking it as we needed and it was kind of cool to be on the forefront with them working this out.

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Once you ironed out the bugs, what most surprised you about the workflow?

MN: Not much, to be honest. It worked the way we wanted it to. The AMA linking and the transcoding to the new DNxHR HQX [Avid's lossy 10-bit UHD/4K codec] worked great and let us stay in 10-bit the whole time. We wanted to move over to the full Baselight for the grade, and FilmLight worked right along with us to resolve any bugs on their end. We weren't familiar with the ability to build titles with NewBlue Titler Pro, which has been part of more recent versions of Media Composer. I spent a few days learning how to use that tool.

MS: The process began by translating the cut from the Apple Final Cut Pro 7 project into Media Composer. This was a little scary, because we had a mix of source material in both 4K and HD—Neil shot in Red 5K [5120 x 2700] and with the Canon EOS-1D C, which is true 4K [4096 x 2160], but a few sequences were acquired with GoPro and the Canon 5D. We actually used the tried-and-true Automatic Duck plug-in [Pro Export FCP] to do that, and the migration into Media Composer was a lot less painful than we expected. Going in, I had a rather grim expectation of how well that would translate because the offline was done on software that hadn't changed since 2011, and Automatic Duck became an end-of-life product a few years ago. And we're bringing that into a brand spanking new, not-quite-out-of-the-oven Media Composer with all this potential but a few painful bugs and stability issues. The whole process exceeded our expectations, but we had an extraordinary amount of support from Avid and also from FilmLight. Between us as a facility, our client, Avid and FilmLight, the entire village was really needed to pull something like this off. Both Avid and FilmLight were really instrumental in keeping us on track to meet our deadlines. As these workflows continue to get more challenging, we'll all need to come together to figure it out.

Do you expect to see more FCP 7 offlines in the near future?

MS: Oh, absolutely. I don't think FCP 7 is going away for quite some time. For some documentary filmmakers, it's all they use. It's installed on the Mac laptop of virtually anyone who works in this industry. If you're a science and nature filmmaker and you're in the field, there's a really good chance you have Final Cut. It's probably what you grew up on. So it is very reassuring to us that we can so easily translate those offlines into Media Composer, especially for 4K finishes.

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What were some of the more complicated effects from the offline that you had to make sure came through to 4K?

MN: Nothing too complicated, although there were a lot of time-lapses, picture-in-picture and time-warps, and it was really nice to see all of those come off perfectly. It was one of the things I was afraid of, only because of the size of the 4K files. I didn't know what to expect when throwing a 2,000fps time-warp onto it, rendering it and sometimes using fluid motion. I wasn't sure the Avid could handle it, but it handled it really well once we'd transcoded everything over to the new DNxHR format. If I had to rebuild those effects from scratch, it would have been really hard to do. You basically would be eye matching it through at that point. That's the first thing I looked at when we translated it with Automatic Duck—virtually every single sunset time-lapse or water time-warp came over perfectly.

MS: It also did a swift, clean job upresing the non-4K footage during the transcode from the GoPro and Canon. If you're finishing in UHD and you have HD sources, you've got to upres. The resulting picture quality was actually pretty good, and I guess that surprised us. But it also means that Media Composer can once again be a finishing system, and not just an offline system. It's a theme we're also trying to send home to our clients. If you need to finish in rasters larger than HD, you previously had to go to another platform beside Avid, which inevitably meant additional time and additional expense. But now it is safe to go back in the water. You can offline on Avid or Final Cut Pro or whatever you like, upres HD sources to UHD with a good deal of quality, and finish in Avid. And, beyond our clients, I really want to reinforce [the concept] with Avid themselves, so they continue to think of Media Composer as a finishing system, not just an offline editorial system.

MN: It's just nice to be able to give clients that option. And if they offline in Avid, now we know that we just have to open the bin and every effect is right there. That's huge. Even in larger projects, like a feature film that finishes in Autodesk, there's a certain amount of rebuilding that regularly happens. We're now finishing some of our episodic shows in Avid because they are offlined in Avid. Why not? It's all on the same timeline.

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How easy was it to move over to the grade in Baselight with this workflow?

MN: It was a simple, quick and really flawless process using very small files. It basically opens up the ability to have the Avid as the online platform and work in larger than HD and then seamlessly go into the Baselight for the color options and back into the Avid. That was pretty awesome.

What was the reaction from your Nat Geo clients when they saw the end result?

MN: We were actually able to show them the final grade and final titles on a new 4K monitor that we were trying out, and we were all blown away. The images were gorgeous.

Will you be investing in more 4K monitors in the near term?

MS: We're going to have to if we continue to do this kind of work, and it's not so much a question of will we but when. 4K monitoring is extremely expensive, but we also are looking at it carefully because we want to be ahead of the curve. We currently have three displays at our disposal, one of which is a top-of-the-line prosumer Sony X950B as a non-color-critical reference monitor. The X950B is an expensive UHD display, so it's not an expression of our color science here. But we think it's important to have a display like that in terms of representing what the viewer might see. It's important to us and to our clients to have the ability to see a show pixel-for-pixel in UlHD, even though it won't be gorgeously calibrated like a color-critical display. It's a real-world view. We also use the traditional Panasonic HD pro plasma display, because that does represent our color science and calibration process. Because our UHD grading environment is also done in Rec. 709, we can use an HD display in these circumstances. It keeps things economical and also authentic in terms of color. But by a happy coincidence, the Sony display team was here showing off the brand new Sony BVM-X300 30-inch OLED 4K reference monitor, and we were able to show our Nat Geo clients what their material looks like on a color-critical display. It was great for us, great for Sony and also great for the client.

What's next for this new workflow?

MS: When you reach any tipping point, the floodgates do open. Word is getting out. We are just about to start our first scripted 10-episode television Media Composer 4K finish, and Mike will also be grading and finishing that project.