Events

Filmtools Event Recap: Workflow for Original Streaming Content

An evening with Phil Holland

Thursday October 3rd, Filmtools

Filmtools in Burbank hosted noted filmmaker Phil Holland for an afternoon of education. Billed as a “Workflow for Original Streaming Content Workshop” but covering much more, the attendees spent the time learning best practices at the highest-ends of the filmmaking spectrum, what to expect in the future in regards to the technology involved, and hearing first-hand accounts of what clients expect and what pitfalls to avoid.

Phil Holland is a Director and Cinematographer based out of Los Angeles, California. With a passion for high quality compelling motion picture content and a keen interest in state of the technology Phil has shot exclusively in the 4K and 4K+ arena for several years. In 2016 he went “all 8K” and has been a pioneer on that new visual frontier. He primarily works in the world of Feature Films, Commercials, UHD Broadcast, and VFX heavy productions and recently has been shooting the highest quality aerial cinematography around the globe for several clients. Prior to becoming a full time Cinematographer Phil worked at Rhythm and Hues Studios from 1999-2010 as their Digital Imaging Specialist; a job he created that focused on Photography, Cinematography, Digital Color, Film Scanning, Laser Recording, and other more creative aspects of production for various films and studios.

Phil also contributes to the Motion Picture Industry in furthering the advancement of technology and contributing to the education of aspiring industry professionals. He served as an instructor at The Gnomon School of Visual Effects for 5 years in between production work. He also occasionally instructs at REDucation and slightly more intermediate RED Camera Workshops. In 2015 Phil wrote and released the RED DSMC Field Operations Guide, a practical guide to working with RED cameras. Over the years Phil has instructed Quick Sketching and Character Design at various Gnomon, ConceptArt.Org, and Massive Black workshops as well.

The video of the event is available from Filmtools, but as I was taking notes I’ll give you a brief rundown of the day with my color commentary included:

PRE-PRODUCTION

Planning

Pre-Production is where you get to set up and consider all the variables of your shoot. While in PrePro, you still have control over everything so it’s best to plan as much as possible. Now, no one is going to ever have a 100% plan, but if you get 80% of the shoot covered (expecting that 20% of the shoot is going to be taken up by the unexpected) you should be just fine. Plan for your shoot days, plan for hangups, plan for actors to be weird, plan whatever you gotta plan, because you only get to do it once but (hopefully) you’ve got plenty of time to do it.

In regards to data management, this is where you’ll want to figure out how much data you’ll be generating and how many hard drives (and what kind) you’ll need. Phil has a handy tool that allows you to pre-plan and see how much space you’ll need based on your capture medium of choice. It’s all RED based right now, but it’ll very soon include 3 other common cameras (I’m guessing Arri, Sony, Canon). Don’t cut it too close, if you think you’ll be generating 10TB of data, get 12+ to be safe. And don’t forget about backup drives (more on that later)!!

Shooting Ratio

Not to be confused with aspect ratio, the shooting ratio refers to how many takes-per-shot you’re likely going to have. Clint Eastwood is notorious for only doing 2 or 3 takes of a shot before moving on. His shooting ratio is 2 or 3:1. Fincher, on the other hand, is legendary for how many takes he lets the actors swing at. He’s more in the 30 or 60:1 ratio category.

The way you figure out your own shooting ratio is to go through each setup and assess how many bites at the apple you want to have. A CU of your star, an excellent actor, giving a simple line? You can likely plan for an Eastwood-number of takes. Super emotional lines being delivered? Maybe tack on a few more to be sure you get the good tears. Big complicated chase sequence on a Russian Arm? Yeah, you’ll probably want a few extra attempts planned for that since it’s going to be complicated. Obviously, your experience will inform how many takes you think you’ll need for any given setup.

What you don’t want to do is go “well on average Project XYZ was 5:1, so I’ll plan for that” as each shot is different. Take the time to do it right!

Deliverable Decisions

More than ever, there’s a lot of different places people are watching your content. Back in the day it was all mostly DCP-or-Bust, but technology has advanced at such a pace that there’s tons of different encoding options and requirements for various outlets. While ProRes is largely used as a mezzanine codec, these days it’s often used as a delivery codec as well, with ProRes4444 being perfectly acceptable even for higher-end houses like Netflix. That being said, IMF is a common format to see way up there, and Resolve (plus a few others) have a built-in profile to encode to.

Another thing you’ll be considering is how many formats you’ll be kicking out to. Is there a 1:1 cut, a 9:16 cut, an HDR and an SDR version? Do you need an IMF and a ProRes export? What about Instagram vs YouTube vs Vimeo? Think about where your stuff is going to be seen and plan accordingly. The industry would love to standardize, but chances are it won’t happen so it’s important to get all your ducks in a row when it comes to deliverables. It’s what the client is paying for after all.

Schedule/Budget Padding

Things will go wrong, people will screw up, be late, or maybe disappear entirely. Reels/Cards can go missing, hard drives can crash, locations can change last second, there’s a lot that can go wrong on any given shooting day. It’s important to anticipate these challenges as best as possible and try to create contingency plans for them. Again, you won’t be able to catch everything, but with experience and a little foresight, you’ll be able to assume when something can go south. Outdoor shoots, for instance: what if it rains? That kind of thing. Drives, grip equipment, band-aids, it’s all worth making sure you’ve got extras.

On top of that, mistakes on set can snow-ball: if the person in charge of dumping the cards gets a late start, for instance, that puts everyone on hold until they get back. Little things like that can hold everyone up and it’s a good idea to pad out the schedule so there are no stressful surprises. Just annoying ones, I suppose.

Data Footprint

The biggest thing to plan for: how much data are we creating here? Using Phil’s tool mentioned above will help figure out how much media you’ll need, but from there you’ll need to anticipate Hard Drive needs. What does your workflow look like? Are you going straight from your camera to your home computer, or do you have to ship a drive to the client across the globe? Do you intend on getting that drive back (answer: probably not)? Two or Three backups?

Testing

It’s rare to see people spend a lot of time on tests these days. When film was the standard, you might see a month of tests being done: shooting makeup tests, wardrobe tests, screen tests, lighting, color, sound… there’s a lot to check on before you commit it to celluloid! You don’t want to learn the star’s jacket goes full screen-door on you on the day of the shoot.

Today you’ll be lucky to get a week. This is where you’ll want to suss out any workflow issues with the camera, find what look you want to go for, see how the lights play with your subjects and sensor, whatever you can get away with. Camera tests are a luxury and shouldn’t be wasted!

PRODUCTION

On Set Workflow: Color & Data

Streaming 4K and HDR is happening now, and the client is going to want to see that. While on-set monitoring is a necessity even on small commercial productions, on the higher end you’re going to need to find a good HDR 4K monitor to plop the client behind to keep them happy. The various crew members who need one can stick with regular old 1080 screens, but if there’s one thing I know is “it’s not cool until it’s cool”. The client doesn’t want to pay for something and not be able to see it immediately. Everyone wants things NOW. Phil shared a story -a great idea actually- about how he once live-streamed the shoot to the client with some cameras set up around the set, receiving notes from clients in NY as they shot in LA. Great way to let them keep an eye on things and make comments without having physical bodies on set and saving everyone a few bucks on flights and hotels.

In regards to the speed of things, on-set grading is increasingly becoming a thing. If you’ve had some time for camera tests (and you really should go to bat for that if possible), you may be able to develop a working LUT to load into your camera to send the client’s way. Otherwise, you may have a very busy DIT coloring as you go.

Format of Project: RAW/Log/Resolution/Format/Etc

Another thing to consider is the format of your project. Your workflow and needs are going to be wildly different between 1080p Log footage coming from an SD card and 8K Redcode in those $2000 REDMAGs. In regards to the Streaming Services, they’re essentially all at 4K/HDR now so it’s likely that’s what you’ll be shooting and mastering for, which will affect what kinds of camera systems and workflows you can or want to use. All the services are looking for quality above all. Standard HD might be fine for most people, but 4K isn’t the future anymore it’s the baseline. We’ve arrived!

Scheduling vs Workflow: Film/Digital/ENG/etc

Some ENG setups are literally just iPads with broadcast hardware, a lav mic and a little light. The anchor or whoever can just go to where they need to be, plop down the tripod, and they’re going. If you’re shooting on film you’ll need much more preparation, with digital cinema shoots a few steps behind. It seems like an obvious point to make, but it’s important to consider all the factors while you have control over them before heading out and getting stuck for some reason.

The Holy Mag: Safest Place for your Footage

The camera only has two real jobs: make the footage, write the footage. As such, the memory card is the safest place for your footage. There’s very very little chance that the footage will get corrupted between the camera and the card. The card is your film negative. Once you start copying and backing-up, it’s up to chance.

As such, there were two main takeaways from the talk in this realm: buy enough media for the whole day’s shoot and use backup software (Shotput Pro, Silverstack, etc). Software like Silverstack is ubiquitous on film sets and allows you to verifiably copy and back up your footage with checksums, usually MD5. What a checksum does, essentially, is allow you to quickly verify whether or not a set of files has been altered via a small (lets say) text file. If your MD5 file doesn’t match the original one, your footage has changed somehow. It’s a bit-for-bit comparison. Phil noted that you’ll want to also kick out a log file to make sure you know where everything went if there were errors, etc.

Phils reason for suggesting buying enough cards to cover the day (and then some) stems from the fact that a) it’s the safest place for the footage to be and b) you don’t have to worry about how long offloading takes. He mentioned a time he was asked to give the DIT cards at about 20% or 30% full so the dumps would be quicker. This can introduce multiple points of failure in a workflow. What happens if the DIT or whomever gets mixed up and hands you back the un-transferred card to format (and by the way, only do your card formats in-camera. Not on your computer.)

With some cameras, like my C100mkII, I already have a days worth of media and it’s not expensive. Each 128GB SD card I have holds 11hrs of footage. Safe to say I’ve never filled one up. Now, there’s something to be said for not wanting one card holding all of your day’s footage, and I’ve often heard people say they like using multiple smaller cards just in case something happens to one of them, which is valid. Chances are if the card is never leaving the camera you’ll be fine, but dual-slot recording is there for your safety of mind in any case. Such a feature also helps you when it comes to…

Redundancy

If there’s one thing Phil hammered on, it was redundancy. It’s likely a bigger issue for smaller productions or independent creators, but backups are a necessity. You’ll want two, or better yet three, copies of your footage made and you’re going to want to keep them in different physical places; if the house burns down you don’t want all of your backups to go down with it do you? As the phrase goes, “two is one, one is none.” Best case, you’ve got a copy on your card(s), a copy on a transport drive, and a copy on two or three backup drives, plus the copy on your working drive. More about your drive setup while editing can be found in my Puget Systems article.

Eventually, when all is said and done, the footage will end up in an archival storage solution. For larger studios, that’s likely LTO-8 tape, but for the rest of us, a good RAID system (you guessed it, two of them) is just fine. Phil also noted that upgrading his storage every few years also created even more redundancies, as storage space tends to grow every year as it lowers in price, so putting your old 8TB drives on to new 16TB drives means not only do you have all of your footage in the new place, but the old drives can go in “cold storage” as an additional backup. You’ll want to spin them up once a year or so though, just so they don’t degrade.

ON-SET DATA

Organization of Assets

First off, don’t just dump your card into a folder on your desktop and call it good. Not only is that not faster in the long run, but it’ll also become unmanageable very quickly.

There’s no real “right” way to organize your stuff, as long as someone can decipher what you’re doing without your input, but Phil says he keeps things to a standard Year/Month/Day structure. Within those folders, you can do whatever you’d like. Post Haste is a popular choice when it comes to generating folder structures, or if you’ve got a more specific/less demanding needs, you can simply make your own template folder to copy each time you start a new project. Noam Kroll has a good place to start:

Delivery – For all of your deliverables at the end of your project.
Graphics – Any graphic assets from Photoshop, 3d applications, or other sources.
Location Audio/ADR – All dialogue/on set audio as well as any Additional Dialogue Recording.
Music – Original compositions or stock music.
Project Files – For any of your applications (FCP, Avid, Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop, etc.)
Raw Footage – Just as it says, the untouched raw footage, straight from the camera.
Reference – Any documents that you need as a reference (creative outlines, scripts, etc.)
Renders – A folder to throw all of your renders into, keeping them in one place.
Stills – Stock or original photos needed for your project.
Transcoded Footage – Any material that you have conformed to a different format (ProRes, DNxHD, etc.)
Workflow – All workflow related files such as XMLs, EDLs, and so on.

Another thing I’ll do is use a batch renaming program (Advanced Renamer is good) to quickly name all of my footage ie CLIENT_PROJ_CAM_###. Or if necessary you can get super granular. It’s also best practice to not use any characters besides Letters, Numbers, Underscores, and Hyphens (Aa-Zz, 00-99, _ and -). This just avoids random computer gremlin issues. Once you’re in Premiere, quickly sync your folders while keeping the structure with Watchtower! Love that little app.

Unique Protocols/Portals

In the Netflix/Amazon/Apple/Disney realm, they’ve got their own portals (think FTPs) which they want you to upload your deliverables too. Netflix’s requirements are pretty easy to find but everyone is slightly different. In some cases, you might have to provide that service, like with Google Drive or something similar (if the client’s project isn’t sensitive enough to warrant their own portal or even physical delivery on a drive) which brings us to…

Encryption/Cloud/Physical Media

Regardless of who your client is, they’re going to want to see the footage. Whether that be the raw footage, the dailies, or even just the deliverables, there’s got to be a known and tested way of doing it. For some people you can just dump the footage off to the producer’s laptop and go home, for others you can use regular Cloud options like GDrive, Dropbox, or WeTransfer. At the higher end, though, the client may very well expect to have every frame kept under wraps. In those cases, you may even need encrypted drives (like the upcoming Lacie Rugged SSD Pro) that are sent in the mail or hand-delivered. Sometimes you can never be too careful.

Also, as an aside, format all your Hard Drives to exFAT instead of HFS+ (Mac) or Fat32 (PC). exFAT allows your drive to be read on either. It’s the future.

DIT & Data Management Trust

If your cards and drives are the equivalent of your negative, you need to find someone who you know you can trust to handle all that data expediently and safely.

Phil mentioned a time where he had a new DIT whose entire cart was rented. Not to say renting is bad, but the person didn’t have experience with the kit and ended up being let go that day for a number of reasons. The DIT/Wrangler needs to be on their game so the DP/Director/Producer can focus on the creative stuff and not have to worry about the technical.

POST PRODUCTION

Assets and Deliverables

As mentioned, what is going to be required of you? Are you just kicking out one video to YouTube or does the client want all the raw footage, dalies, versions, etc? This might also tie into your storage considerations.

Archiving

LTO-8 is once again the standard for big studios, but get yourself a nice set of RAIDs (perhaps the 84TB Lacie 6Big) and you should be good. Phil mentioned that he has everything he’s ever shot since High School backed up, which I do as well, and you’d be surprised how often something comes up where someone asks for a really old clip or asset. In his case, he apparently had the only scans of Riddick and the studio needed them for a remaster. You worked hard on your project, why would you just delete it?

Delivery Codecs: IMF, Intermediate, Streaming, etc

The presentation wasn’t as linear as I’m making it seem here so we’re kind of treading into waters we’ve already covered, but everyone has their own standards and demands and it’ll be your job to know how to deliver them. While standardization isn’t likely on the horizon, as mentioned, ProRes4444 does seem like a decent middle ground and even surpasses DCP in terms of quality and usability. DNxHR is also a great option, and while it’s less ubiquitous than ProRes, it’s more “cross-platform” in terms of being able to export to it.

Color: HDR & SDR

This was a brief segment, but basically HDR (as with 4K) is sort of the standard now when it comes to the higher end and will likely trickle down to independent creators. Right now it’s looking like HDR10 (and HDR10+, basically 10bit vs 12bit) is the frontrunner but Dolby Vision (12bit) is right behind it. HybridLog is also a thing. It’s difficult to peg a brightness standard down with so many variables with displays and such, but Phil said 1000nits is a safe bet. As an aside.

WRAP UP

So that’s the gist of what I gathered from the talk. As I said, there’ll be a video (or series of them) available from Filmtools that you can watch to get every last tidbit and sidebar, but I’d say that about covers it. It was great to see what the future holds, what I’m on the right track for, what I should prepare for, and just how complicated (or not!) the industry can be. I feel almost relieved that I understood the majority of what Phil was throwing at us, but I’m also a hyper nerd. As the audience was largely comprised of people with Feature Film experience, and hearing the questions they were asking, I feel like nothing went over their heads either.

Filmtools hopes to do more events like this, and since they’re free (including the beer and tacos after!) I’d highly recommend coming by and checking out the next one!


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Kenny McMillan is the founder and director of OWL BOT Digital Cinema located in West LA. His work spans the Internet from Vimeo to YouTube netting dozens of views. He previously worked as an events…

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