My name is Mike McCarthy, and as the production engineer for Act of Valor, I worked with Shane and his team in developing solutions to the obstacles presented by early DSLR filmmaking, both on set and in post. Now that the movie has been released, I have been publishing many of the details of the process that went into making it on my site HD4PC.com. While my focus is primarily on post-production issues, Shane wanted to share some of that information with Hurlblog readers. Since most of you probably come from a production and shooting perspective, the following is a summary of that series of articles, with links to my site, depending on which individual topics you are interested in learning more about.
We considered many different camera options for the movie, and the Canon 5D hadn’t even been released when we started our search. It ended up being the right camera for the right job at the right time. If you roll back through Shane’s archives, you will find information on the Terminator prequel shoot, which was our first experience with DSLR filmmaking at a production level. There were still many obstacles in that process that needed to be worked out, both by Bandito Brothers and Shane’s Elite Team before we could shoot an entire movie that way. For a project that scale, we had to adapt our workflow to integrate Avid and come up with a solid naming convention. Improvements to the camera, in the way of firmware updates, also helped simplify the shooting process, but the 24p update wasn’t developed until we were basically finished. Here are more details on our approach to Preparing for Act of Valor.
I was the media manager for most of the larger shoot locations, which entailed using laptops to backup the few CF cards we had, so they could be cycled back to the camera crew. I would review and rename the media when time allowed, and my HP DreamColor review display eventually became one of Shane’s staple tools for DSLR production. Eventually we were able to have a full editing workstation in a trailer near set for reviewing shots and prepping them for our Avid edit. This allowed Scott Waugh to do the initial editing in between shoots. Here are more details about our experience Shooting Act of Valor.
Based on our shooting style and the options made available by using the 5D, we shot nearly 200 hours of footage. Since there was no way to automate the syncing process between the different cameras and separately recorded audio, that became a labor intensive process for our assistant editors in Avid. Instead of using a Unity, we just duplicated the source media across our editing systems. As sequences came together, would get source lists to start Twixtoring the Canon source files in AE and link them into Premiere sequences using EDLs. We added the 2K film scans and scaled the rest of the footage to 2K to match. Here are more details about Editing Act of Valor.
While Bandito Brothers has always prided themselves in being authentic and real, we did end up with hundreds of visual effects shots in the movie. About half of them were in response to issues that resulted from shooting with the 5D, but we also needed to add blood hits and do fixes like painting out crew members. Additionally, we did a fair bit of motion graphics work. While the film based VFX shots were relatively straight forward, with 2K film scans at 24p, the Canon footage was much more challenging.
Twixtor is an amazing tool, but it is not perfect. Whenever there is too much motion in a scene for the software to accurately track what is going on, it gives some strange results. Since Act of Valor is a fairly dynamic movie, to put it lightly, we had our share of issues to fix manually. For complex visual effects shots, our artists had to do this cleanup process on nearly every 5D source layer before they could even start doing any regular VFX work. We also dealt with a number of different types of rolling shutter artifacts.
We also had over a hundred subtitles, due to the Spanish and Russian dialog of the bad guys. Our map graphics were rendered as overlay layers with alpha channels and composited over the backgrounds directly in Premiere Pro. Dust busting was done as a final step in Photoshop after our color correction and texture passes. Here are more details about the process of doing Visual Effects on Act of Valor.
The biggest challenge we faced in the finishing process was preparing for three different aspect ratios for our deliverable (2.39, 1.78 and 1.33) without sacrificing resolution. The traditional approach to this costs you resolution and detail, which we couldn’t afford to lose with DSLR source material. Doing the online edit in Premiere Pro CS5.5 gave us some interesting workflow options. By doing the work across a series of subsequences, we were able to synchronize changes across multiple cuts of the movie at different aspect ratios. We also did a full texture pass in Cinnafilm’s Dark Energy software to match the DSLR footage to our film footage. Our final delivery of DPXs was used to make film prints, DCPs, and SR tapes. I have many more details on my site about Finishing Act of Valor.
Anyhow, it was quite the process to get the final product on the big screen, but the results have been well received. The good news is that many of the limitations we faced, like 30p frame rates, have been solved, but the same principles can be applied to other obstacles that are sure to be faced when pushing the envelope of traditional filmmaking.