Progress. It is inevitable.

Arri AlexaI was reading an article recently on the progress being made in the manipulation of electronic data on film sets ( I know, right...). In particular the article was talking about how the current methods of dealing with digital film are something that vary between films, film-makers and equipment. In effect many high-profile film-makers are creating brand new workflows for each of their films depending in who they are working with and what equipment they are using.

The new breed of digital cinema cameras (Alexa, Red, Sony, Black Magic) are all slightly different in the way they deal with the pixels. As a consequence they all need to be dealt with in a slightly different manner once the scene has been shot. There is a world of work that might need to be done to take the electronic data stored in a (sometimes proprietary) storage device and turn that into something that can be accessed by an editor on an NLE (non-linear editor), such as Final Cut or Premier Pro. On top of this the storage and processing needs are becoming increasingly large. Consider the recent film The Hobbit which shot 3D scenes at 4k resolution at 48 frames per second, and compare that with, say Skyfall that shot on the Arri Alexa on 2D at 24 frames per second with a frame size of a little over 1080p. To put it another way each second of The Hobbit needed almost 16 times as much storage as Skyfall. That's a huge amount of data to be manipulated.

Added to this is the fact that "The Hobbit" shot on Red Epic cameras which use a different proprietary format to the Arri Alexa used on Skyfall, and you have a completely different workflow needed to deliver the bond film than the Middle-Earth tale.

Is this a good thing, though?

Let's go back and look at things as they were before digital cameras arrived. Someone would buy some celluloid film, rent a camera (several types were available but they all did exactly the same thing), expose the film on set, send it to someone like Technicolor to be developed, and edit using the footage sent back from there. It took a day or so for the footage to be developed, but everyone went through the same process. Sure, there were permutations you could follow (Janusz Kaminski famously 'flashed' the film stock on Saving Private Ryan prior to shooting to help create the Beach- bypass look which gave it it's distinct appearance. It also locked the film-makers into a specific look throughout the movie), but the process was, essentially, identical the world over.

Then we got to the stage where digital effects need to be inserted into these movies. It involved an extra couple of steps to make this happen. The exposed celluloid was scanned into a computer whereby the scenes needing digital effects (i.e. a dinosaur inserting into the scene) could be manipulated on a computer. Thereafter the finished scene would be printed back on to celluloid and edited into the film with all the other scenes.

This worked for a few years until the technology caught up again. During the making of the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas specifically shot certain scenes on digital cameras to see if anyone would notice which were which. Apparently very few people did. This allowed him to take the step of shooting the final prequel completely digitally.

That was when the rush started towards digital. Some of you may know that I also spend a lot of time on film and television sets, and have done so for about six years now. Over the last two years I cannot remember a production I have been involved in that has shot anything on film. Everything is now digital. The Arri Alexa is the camera of choice and each one has a small team of operators who are responsible for taking the data on the storage media and processing it so that it is suitable for the editor to review.

In terms of personnel, the camera team isn't much bigger than it used to be. The person responsible for lugging the huge film magazines around has been replaced by someone who is responsible for the digital data cards or drives. But, whereas the film used to get sent to a processing lab, the digital storage is now given to a DIT or similar. This is a group of people who have responsibility for taking the raw camera footage and backing it up before erasing the storage media so it can be used again later in the shoot. They also take the backed-up data and synchronise the sound (recorded separately) as well as logging the contents of the footage to enable the editor to work efficiently and find what needs to be found. So, overall, the number of people needed on the crew has increased. If you are a low budget production this means that you need to either get someone else in to provide the service detailed above, or you need to be multi-skilled and have the basic knowledge and equipment to do this as part of your workload.

I shot a corporate video recently where I was both the director and the DIT specialist. I purchased a separate backup device and made sure that at the end of the day all of the footage was offloaded to this device and a separate hard drive (dual redundancy), as well as logging the shots so that editing knew what was where. It certainly made for long, busy days on the film set!

So what has this got to do with process? Well, the sharper minds amongst you will have noticed that there are two facets that should be looked at here. The first one is the fact that different cameras and different people have different post-processing workflows. In an ideal process world there would be a common workflow amongst all cameras. Additional to this we have the issue of different players needing to be involved to enable the process to work ( or at the by least having performers with multiple skillets to enable the work to be done). Neither of these is ideal from a process point of view.

But we must ask ourselves whether this is something that needs to be the case. As technology has evolved, are we in the situation where the cameras themselves can make the workload easier? In a recent blog post an owner of a DIT company has said that he expects technology to move on at such a rate that his company will not be needed in three or four years. he expects the camera to have a large amount of the functionality built in to it.

Does this mean that the current processes set up to deal with things like this are wrong? I think it means they are immature. Of course the process professionals amongst would like more standardised handling of digital data - and no doubt the film crews and production companies would also like to be able to handle things the way they did in the old paradigm of celluloid. but until the types of data, the amount of data and the storage media are standardised, there are always going to be some sort of workarounds and camera specific actions that need to be performed. Does this make the process wrong? No, But it makes it less efficient.

Things will mature and standardise. They always do.

Reminder: 'The Perfect Process Project Second Edition' is now available. Don't miss the chance to get this valuable insight into how to make business processes work for you. Click this link and follow the instructions to get this book.

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