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An Overview of Desktop Moviemaking

An Overview of Desktop Moviemaking

Articles - Directing

A version of an edited scene.
Notice the number of audio tracks that can be assembled and

Watching computers and digital processes change
the way films are made has been a fascinating journey. Today,
thanks to budget concerns, the growing demand for the special
effects, and shorter times to market, the fundamental way a film
is made-from beginning to end-has been radically altered.

Editing on digital nonlinear editing (DNLE) systems
did not take off in Hollywood until the summer of 1992 when Avid
delivered the first true 24-frame capture, editing, and playback
system-the Avid Film Composer. This marked a milestone in the history
of feature film post-production, which has continued to mature
and evolve over the last five years. Film editing remained relatively
unchanged for 95 years, but during the last five, the growth that
DNLE systems have experienced has meant that now 80 percent of
the films coming out of Hollywood are edited digitally.

One of the biggest advantages of DNLE systems is
that many versions of a scene can be made available at any time.
These versions can be of a scene, several scenes, the entire reel
or movie. The filmmaker can derive the very best edit from the
material at hand, when all the angles and versions can be explored. "Digital
cuts" or output to tape can be done at any time so the director
can take the film home or outside the editing environment. With
an integrated process available on systems such as the ones Avid
offers, changes are not as difficult and can be made quickly.

Also significant is the availability of these
systems at lower prices both for rental and purchase. Lower equipment
costs have allowed filmmakers working with modest budgets to enjoy
the benefits of digital editing. This year’s IFFM in New York showed
that 54 percent of all films screened at the market were edited on
an Avid. Forty percent of those films were edited on film and six
percent used other forms of digital editing equipment. In total,
60 percent were done through digital means. Compared to the top 150
studio-released films of last year, approximately 80 percent were
done on DNLE systems, with the remainder done on film.

At the high end, the Film Composer continues to expand
to meet the needs of the editor, with additions to bring about
a collaborative workspace and process. Usually, the functions that
are required in a digital film post environment are appropriate
to the scale of the film. For a big budget feature, there may be
hundreds of people working together to accomplish a unified and
focused vision. Independent films have much smaller crews and it
is not uncommon to find that the film is being produced, directed,
and edited by the same person.

Typical process of a film
during post production. Each of the main areas of post branch
out into smaller ones. Using digital processes the arrows
can be in the next room or next door or halfway around the

So where does it go from here? If we look at developments
over the last year or so, the greatest areas of efficiency and
cost savings have occurred in the area of sound for both high and
low-budget films.

Avid’s integrated process spearheaded the notion
of using final sound directly from the DNLE system on a 1994 35mm
feature we co-edited called Patriots. This was the first film edited
digitally at 24 fps which moved original production audio through
a digital post-production flow. As soon as the original DAT’s were
available from the set, they were digitized directly via AES/EBU
digital input directly into the Film Composer. Avid had created
a post-production audio flow on paper that theoretically worked
but had never been successfully accomplished. Since the Film Composer
plays at a true 24 fps and is not referenced to video (which turns
film into 23.976 fps), production audio could be digitized directly
into the system and synched internally. As a result, we digitized
original audio, synched it to picture within the Film Composer,
and the audio remained in digital form throughout the final mix.
Each day, the film dailies were transferred without sound (MOS)
which allowed for a much faster and cheaper transfer.

Once picture was locked, the film was broken down
into 1,000-foot individual reels and prepared for import into Avid’s
AudioVision. Since AudioVision uses the same file format for audio,
it was just a matter of handing over the hard drives with the already-digitized
audio. This meant that there was no need to re-digitize audio and
conform to an Edit Decision List (EDL). The sound editors had all
the trims and alternate takes available at any time. Through the
use of OMF (Open Media Framework) the edited tracks were exported
and imported into AudioVision. Literally, within 15 minutes, the
sound editors were editing dialogue.

While viewing the answer print, every reel was in
perfect sync and the workflow process had been proven. When we
began to spread the word about this method, it didn’t take long
for people working on high-budget features to realize that the
savings are potentially enormous. Films such as Nixon, The Fifth
Element, and the in-progress Star Wars prequel have adopted this

Telecine transfer file as
generated by an Aaton Keylinker. This file contains all the
Keycode and timecode information needed for list generation
and conforming.

The system was also used for Alaska but the concept
was taken even further by providing digital audio synchronization
for dailies and screenings of edited reels. This was accomplished
by using the file compatibility between the Film Composer and DigiDesign
Pro Tools. By locking the ProTools station to the bi-phase signal
from the film projector, digital audio from the hard drives was in
sync with the print at any time. Editor Rob Kobrin claimed a savings
of at least $30,000 in mag stock alone, not to mention the savings
in time and money not having to digitize audio multiple times throughout

Another interesting aspect is the creation of very
complex "temp" mixes, where dialogue, stereo music, and
effects are mixed on the Film ComposerR and then played directly
from disk. On the new James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, very
full temp mixes are done, resulting in a greater experience for
the creative staff. When it comes time for preview screenings,
the mixes are played directly from hard disk or a mag is created,
resulting in greater savings for the production.

The process of synching audio dailies is still undergoing
change. Aaton’s "Keylinker" and the "InDaw" system
allow synching during transfer on-the-fly with less than a one-eighth
of a frame lock-up time. This is achieved by transferring all the
audio dailies into the InDaw (a digital audio workstation) for
clap and sync verification. These files, once in a digital file
format (wav) are stored on an Iomega Jaz drive and delivered to
telecine. Since the files are now playing from a hard disk, extremely
fast lock-up times can be achieved. Normally, using a DAT to chase
timecode takes about two seconds of lock-up time. Another problem
eliminated is the amount of pre-roll the on-set sound recorder
must create, thus saving time.

The audio files that now exist on the Jaz disc are
in digital format and contain all the timecode data from the set.
This is the beginning of the digital audio process discussed earlier.
These Jaz discs can now be delivered to the edit room and using
an Avid utility. "Wav-to-OMF," the digital audio files
are converted as OMF files as they are copied to the editing system.
The resulting OMF files can then be imported automatically, bringing
timecode and shoot date data and automatically synched with the
picture dailies.

Many people ask: "Does this technology save
money?" Yes, depending upon how the technology is applied,
as in the case of audio post, the filmmaker can save time and money.
In all cases, "going digital" has the ability to remove
the redundancy of the process among different work flows, allowing
greater quality and less time to achieve the finished result. Sometimes
the savings are marginal but the editor achieves much more freedom
and creativity.

Another interesting development is the need for a
collaborative multi-system, networked solution. Larger budget films
today carry forward both traditional workprint as well as the digital
process, more editors and assistants are added to the crew to meet
the demands of this dual-process. This is especially true on high-budget
films where multiple editors may be working to get the film finished
in order to meet the release date. As budgets get lower, there
is less need for the multi-system networked solution than for a
single multi-function integrated workstation. Today, with high
budget films, it is common to see multiple Film Composers and Digital
Audio Workstations (DAWs) linked together for simultaneous work.

The common ingredient to all processes at any budget
level is a need for a common file format that can be used within
this process. We should examine more closely the post production
process of a high-budget film and then compare that to one of a
lower budget.

Large productions often tend to be in many places
and move from location to location. The delivery of dailies needs
to be tracked on a daily basis and reports are constantly being
logged, photocopied, and passed on. These are all done by hand
and the paperwork forms large binders that hang on the editorial
wall. Assistants are synching workprint with mag and sending the
reels out to telecine for transfer. The videotapes are logged and
digitized into the DNLE system. The source data increases as each
part of the process is completed.

As is evident, the amount of data for any given shot
starts to increase rather quickly as the picture and sound move
through each of the different processes. For example, any single
picture frame can be identified three ways: film timecode, keykode,
or acmade code. Although they all reference the same frame, they
may point to a different source reel.

This is where electronic and digital media eliminates
the time it takes to get from point to point in the post production
process. What is really required is something that provides moviemakers
with the ability to have an integrated database of all elements
that are accessible to all who need to know the status of the film.
Databases are very good at keeping versions, and have check-in/check-out
functions that only allow the latest version to be manipulated
by one person at a time.

The collaborative work environment of a large-budget
feature is the most demanding. It has the highest requirements
for common formats and interchange. A number of the larger action
films now have two or more picture editors working simultaneously
from shared storage. In this way, the director can access the entire
film from any of the editing stations. The media that exists on
the large pool of drives can then be networked to the audio editors
doing dialogue and sound effects editing. The composer can start
writing immediately after being sent a version of a scene. It could
very well be that the special effects artist is working in another
state and digital "comps" are sent via modem so that
the asset management program contains the latest version.

For example, the director may want to see all of
the elements for scene 31. If the criteria for the search was just "31" in
the scene field, then everything associated with that scene would
be available for viewing. There may be some new background elements
created in a paint package that could include some temp sound effects
to drop into the track, musical score, all the script pages that
cover scene 31, camera reports, sound reports, and so forth.

As post-production schedules get shorter, it is imperative
that these tools exist to allow an answer to be given before costly
re-dos become necessary.

As the media is exchanged from system to system,
the need for a common file format and description of the file becomes
important. OMF was developed by Avid and other manufacturers to
create a common interchange file format. Not only can the file
go from platform to platform, but it also contains data on all
the sources that made up that file. To keep it simple, it is the
equivalent of the recipe and the ingredients. The recipe will tell
the user how he can align and prepare the ingredients to recreate
the final product. If the recipe also contains these ingredients,
the user can simply use the file in whatever application and platform
they are working with.

This is the frame view of the
data. Editors can choose how they would like to interact with
the source footage.

This type of digital filmmaking has been used
to great success on films such as Men in Black and The Fifth Element.
On The Fifth Element Avid was able to set up a digital post process
that allowed all the sound elements to be converted once to a digital
file format and then used throughout post to final mix. During the
input of dailies, the assistant digitized directly from the location
field DATs via AES/EBU. All timecode information was captured and
stored as data. After each day’s dailies, the digitized audio from
the hard drives was backed up to DLT (Digital Linear Tape), an archiving
system. Each backup tape holds 31 hours of stereo 48 kHz audio. These
tapes were then sent to the sound editors so they could have access
to all the audio. During the editing process, OMF files were generated
to describe the latest version of a reel. The files directly link
to the audio media on the sound editor’s station. There was never
a need to go back to the original DATs.

The process described was done amongst many people
in many different places. Having the audio media backed up via
an archiving solution allowed for a quick and easy way to get material
from one editing room to another. If a network has already been
established between the locations, the files could have easily
been sent in real time or less, depending on the speed of the network.

If we look at a lower budget film, the need for distance
connectivity is no longer a need. A unique combination of products
can be purchased that allow a complete motion picture to be edited
(picture and sound) and mixed to a final master on a single Macintosh
platform, by using the same technology that is available in a collaborative
workspace. The package includes three main editing pieces: MCXpress,
AudioVision, and ProTools. All boards and software can be installed
on a single Mac 9600. Although the process flow is the same, all
files remain on the system.

Picture and sound are digitized and stored on the
drives. With the offline resolution available, the moviemaker would
have about 45 minutes of picture and stereo sound for every one
gigabyte (GB) of hard drive space. Nine GB drives are very common;
on some independent projects, we have been able to edit several
low budget features on a total of three 9 GB drives. Since lower
budget films tend to have a smaller shooting ratio, the amount
of storage needed is usually not a concern.

Once the final cut has been reached, the same OMF
file is exported, then imported into AudioVision. The picture editing
portion of the process is over, and the sound editing process can
begin. It’s important to note that each of the software packages
addresses the needs for each of the creative processes. Picture
editors can edit many versions, pre-visualize any effects that
may be required, design a title sequence, and see all these effects
in real time.

This also true for the sound editors. Once the OMF
file is opened in AudioVision, they can pick up the editing process
exactly where the picture editor left off. This only takes minutes
for an entire film; in the past this process alone would have taken
a week.

Continuing in a totally digital audio environment,
AudioVision is a dedicated audio workstation with an integrated
digital picture, on which dialogue editing and track lay-up can
be completed. It also includes an ADR (automated dialog replacement)
tool to fix troublesome dialogue spots or to enhance the story
through new dialogue. All music editing and mixing are then completed
using ProTools and the final mix is now available as a stereo master.
This master mix is saved as an OMF file and the entire mix is brought
back into MCXpress.

Since MCXpress is both an offline and an online tool,
the sequence of the locked picture can now be redigitized at a
much higher resolution. This saves the filmmaker the cost of going
to a traditional online room to conform a viewing copy for film
festivals or distributors. All the effects and titles are completed
with Betacam quality picture. The mix master track is added and
a final output to tape is created. A negative cutlist is generated
from the Film Matchback tool that creates film negative cutlists
so that the original film elements can be conformed. The mix master
is sent via DAT to the optical house and an answer print is struck.

All of these capabilities on a single system meet
the needs of the professional moviemaker working on either a film
or video project. As technology continues to advance and become
more cost effective, independent filmmakers will have even more
tools available for storytelling. MM

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