Indie Film Live

Monday, October 31, 2005

Atomic - vfx finds it's way to cineform

Sharlto Copley and I started a film project called “SPOON” a year ago. Once the screenplay was complete the film funding process went surprisingly smoothly and 1 year later we are in pre production on “SPOON”.

Sharlto and I have always tried to do innovative things and to make our work look better than the budget would conventionally allow. The idea of making a commercial style popular film on an indie budget is the holy grail of every endeavour we have embarked on in the past 12 years hence the name of our production company “inspired minority”. We have never been more excited than we are right now as we believe the media industry is finally at that turning point so many have been waiting for. The barrier to entry to big screen content has shrunk enough for those with talent and good ideas to blossom. It is our belief that an entire new strain of content is about to emerge that will blur the lines between commercial and indie films – were calling it “commercial independent”. In that spirit we just couldn’t resist the temptation to use low end prosumer gear to produce a truly high end product. So much so that we took a document we found on the web detailing the aspects of a film to avoid when trying to make a low budget indie film (I say “low budget” indie film because Star Wars was essentially funded by one man.) and commitied to include almost every one. Many of these obstacles can be solved with CGI and we have strategically been preparing ourselves for that eventuality for the past 7 years through our company Atomic Visual Effects.

Things like rain, which should be avoided, can be generated in part and pull in Post. Production design, and environment manipulation also. The list is long but the truth is without proper high resolution, high detail, deep pictures visual effects become tricky. We are still not certain how far we will be able to push the effects on our process but we will let you know as we progress what we have achieved. This is where cineform come in.

We needed 10bit High detail pictures which we could grade, key and composite with, but we refused to use film or established high end HD cameras because we wanted the money we had for the film on other aspects of the production. After much research and a long wait the new generation of cameras sporting HDV rolled out. There is always a sense of insecurity about these sorts of decisions. You never know what is around the corner or what unforeseen pitfalls there are but on spec the JVC GYHD100 seemed to fit the bill. The reasons, included the true 24p record, removable lenses, and most of all the uncompressed component output. Not only was it an HD image it was uncompressed and up to 60 frames a second thereby including another film makers power tool – SLO-MO!

The idea was to capture these uncompressed pictures to disk and Cineform threw a huge twist in the tail which made it all viable. They could compress the images to a fraction of their size, retain 10bit image depth and allow for post grading and effects. They’ve shown this with “dust to glory” but where we wanted to go was another ballgame. We wanted to do hectic VFX on the footage and this would certainly put the codec to the test. In the beginning we planned to shoot uncompressed for all the effects but as we got more involved it gradually became clear that Cineform was in another league from any codec we had seen. We could do things to the footage we never thought possible and right now we are tesing the Keying using cineform instead of uncompressed. So far we are very impressed. Now I know most VFX experts will be shaking their head like I was but what I have seen has been enough for me to give it a solid look and we will let you know as things evolve.

So then we got going with a cineform Prospect HD solution on an AMD dual core dual opteron 252 proc pc, an HD100e camcorder (the first in the country) and an AJA HD10A converter. Within minutes we were up and running with Data, 60p, being recorded directly to disk with cineform. Real slo-mo and at 1280x720. The data rate around 15-17 MB/s (60 frames). Of course David Newman had already forgotten what we still had to learn. Thankfully he, David Taylor and Jeff got right behind the project from the word go and they have been indispensable assets to the process. Not only did they invent the product that make our process possible, they have been re-inventing it to make it do even more. And that’s about where this blog comes up. We are at the stage now where we are testing everything and preparing frantically for our Feb Shoot.

Aside from the implementation of the codec in our workflow, the ingest suite had to be ruggedized for a film set. UPS, cabling, cooling, mobility and operation are all major issues. We thought we were in that one on our own but then Jeff and Cineform announced their intention to release their version of an ingest solution for on set possibly in time for the shoot. So we immediately found a synergy in that development similar to the one we already had with the codec development. Cineform would develop all this cool stuff that would be their contribution - and we would get to use it to make our dream film – that was our part. What a great deal! Oh but there was a catch – we had to tell them what we wanted first. Since we started this project the any bad luck we have had has landed us in an even better position. “Leap and the net will appear” is written on our production board. I think it’s working!

So at this stage we are very, very excited about what has been happening and we are very honored to be working with such intelligent and dedicated people. We hope to demonstrate our appreciation for all these efforts in the quality of film we can make as a result of all these initiatives and to share our experience with those who wish to do similar things.

Simon Hansen
Atomic Visual Effects

Thursday, October 27, 2005

What been happening up to now.

So much has already happened on this project so I expect this initial post to be edited hugely.

We just got off our 3rd or 4th monthly Skype conference call with the Atomic-VFX guys, where it was decided we should be documenting all our developments and discoveries as they happen. Resulting in this blog starting half-an-hour later. The goal is to help others considering similar Indie projects. Before I cover some of the points of this recent call, here is a quick overview of the project so far:

Spoon is an indie feature in development in South Africa. The team behind this feature contacted CineForm regarding using Prospect HD to complete the post work on this feature. The intention is to replicate some of the successes of Dust to Glory - an earlier feature onlined using Prospect. It turns out the Atomic-VFX guys are an adventurous bunch and planned to do much more with PHD by integrating into the product work-flow as a capture solution -- thereby bypassing camera compression for a much higher quality image suitable for effects-heavy work. Multiple camera are to be shot this way simultaneously. This is to be an indie project that does not shy away from the tricky stuff -- my understanding is that there are to be many effects shots, greenscreening, nights and rain shoots, all on a truly independent budget. To bring the costs down dramatically this feature will be shot with multiple JVC HD100/101 cameras at 1280x720 at 24p or 25p for the dramatic elements, overcracked to 50/60p for effects and slow-motion shots. They also intend to shoot through a mini-35 style lens adaptor to gain much better control of the depth of field. OK that is a tiny run-down of the project to date.

In more recent times the Atomic-VFX team has been testing a Prospect HD system (based on a dual AMD Opteron 275s) at live capture of 1280x720p60. As the current AJA Xena card only has HD-SDI inputs, the analog feed from the camera is sampled using an AJA HD10A unit to convert the 720p60 to HD-SDI. This was the first time a raw 720p60 feed was ever captured by PHD system -- so an issue did come up. Previously all 720p60 tests at CineForm came from Varicam DVCPRO-HD sources, which are somewhat heavily compressed and filtered (to 100Mb/s at 960x720 by the DVCPRO HD codec) which typical CCD sensor noise can't survive. So this raw signal from the JVC produced a bit-rate that exceeded our bit-rate cap, causing the noise characteristic to change (i.e. as expected there is more information in the raw JVC feed than a compressed DVCPRO-HD source.) Using CineForm compression this is supposed to be visually lossless so we needed to address this. Bit-rate tests indicated the image data demanded around 180-200Mb/s (a lot of data from our 3D wavelet tranform) and the signal was being clamped to rates around 150-160Mb/s. The simple solution is to lift the data-rate cap, which was previously put in place to allow slower workstations to capture without dropping frames -- this will be one of our next steps. Secondly, even with the current PHD release (1.1.0.32?) this issue will not occur for lower frames p50, p30, p25, or p24. 150Mb/s is plenty of data as the frame rate is reduced, as the cap is the same for all frame rates.

Capturing all the lower frame rates would be cool, but....it turns out the AJA HD10A sampler will only operate at 60p (or 59.94p), so 50p is out. Other supported frame rates over HD-SDI are 30p, 25p and 24p are pull-down versions of 50 or 60p, so 25p is out. Currently 24p and 30p works yet the data is captured as 60p, and the pulldown is not removed (so we get duplicate frames encoded.) Clearly the removal of the pull-down is now the highest priority as much of the production will be captured using the 24p mode on the JVC camera.

Other capture related issues revolve around the new Wafian ingest device. Atomic-VFX hopes to use these devices on this project so Wafian is working hard to meet that goal. Jeff, I hope you can expand on this here.

That's it for my first post.

David Newman
CTO, CineForm

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Prologue - Atomic-VFX and CineForm collaboration

When Atomic VFX approached CineForm about participating in their film project called "Spoon", it became apparent to all of us that the workflow decisions to be made mirror the decisions other Independent filmmakers will struggle with. Simon Hansen and the rest of the crew at Atomic-VFX aren't afraid to experiment with new technology, but they are methodical in evaluating and analyzing the technology to verify in advance that it matches their needs. For our part, we at CineForm believe there's nothing that helps our technology mature more than getting our hands dirty, so we were excited to work with the Atomic-VFX guys. We decided together that other filmmakers may benefit from following the requirement --> analysis --> decision process as it applies to Spoon. Other posts in this blog will add lots of detail to the analysis and decision process we are all actively going through.

Part of our enthusiasm for this project is that Atomic-VFX wanted to push the envelope in a number of areas. The project is to be shot with the JVC HD100U, and from its component output will be recorded direct-to-disk using CineForm Intermediate. This decision allows lots of creative freedom including capturing at 48p and 60p for various slow motion effects. The project will be edited online using Prospect HD with Adobe Premiere Pro plus After Effects for compositing and effects work. There are many, many decisions still to be made, but we'll save those for later....

By the way, we've never once met one another face-to-face. Atomic-VFX is in South Africa, and CineForm is in Carlsbad, CA. But Skype, email, and ftp sites are great things!

David Taylor
CineForm