The Dark Side Guide to Digital Intermediate

Here is the last of the Dark Side Guides: The Dark Side Guide to Digital Intermediate. I really had to muddle my way through post-production on the pilot, wishing there was somewhere I could get all the information I needed, but there wasn’t – until now!

This step-by-step guide takes you through the complex post-production route known as DI, whereby footage shot on film is transferred to the digital domain for editing, FX and colour grading, before being recorded back to film for distribution and exhibition. Invaluable tips on everything from telecine of your rushes to Dolby authorisation for your soundtrack are complemented by a sample budget laying out all the costs.

As always, if you have any questions that the guide doesn’t answer, please feel free to ask me.

The Dark Side Guide to Digital Intermediate

The Dark Side of the Earth: October 14th, 2010

Set up the tables in the street, fly the bunting, book the band and fire off the twelve gun salute, because the pilot is finished. Hurrah! Only millions of pounds to secure and 85 minutes more to shoot and the film will be finished.
Yesterday Carl, Quay, Katie, Aidan, Aidan’s Random Friend and I went to view the 35mm combined print at Deluxe. Deluxe are out in Denham, on the western edge of London, and part of our route there along the A40 was the same as that travelled every day by Ian, Col and I for five weeks during the set building and shooting of the pilot. (A friend of mine once remarked that you know you’re getting old when you start talking about roads. How right he was.)
We were greeted at the lab by Paul Dray, who mentioned in passing that amongst their current clients is a certain S. Spielberg, presently shooting War Horse. Since Deluxe’s client screening room had “blown up” that very morning (hopefully not while Spielbeard was in it), Paul led us instead to the less glamorous Technical Screening Room. This entailed a journey through the heart of the building, past rooms piled high with film cans, fascinating glimpses of technicians doing techniciany things and an entire corridor cloaked in darkness like something out of Harry Potter’s Department of Mysteries.
The print looked and sounded as spectacular as ever. Once again, much praise was lavished on Ian Tomlinson’s artwork, which occupies the first two minutes of screen time during the “story so far” voiceover. I no longer saw the various elements that comprise the pilot, and which for so long I have scrutinised individually – the grade, the mix, the edit, the FX, and so on; instead I experienced one glorious whole. (As Lister said to Rimmer, “You ARE one glorious hole.”)
After that it was off to lunch and discussions of the latest script. In the end I reinstated the time travel, having got half way through a time-travel-less draft and decided my heart just wasn’t it. I was pleased to hear that the new draft was met with Carl and Quay’s approval, as I’ve lost all concept of whether it’s any good or not. Needless to say though, there are still changes to be made.
And finally, who’s presenting tonight’s season premiere (if you’ll excuse the Americanism) of Have I Got New For You? None other than Maximillian Clarke himself, Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch. I predict a “news detective” round, complete with cheesy magnifying glass graphics.

The Dark Side of the Earth: October 14th, 2010

The Dark Side of the Earth: October 5th, 2010

“Hey you, get your damn hands off of her!”
Yes, Back to the Future was re-released in cinemas last week to celebrate the 25th anniversary. For some reason Universal decided not to publicise it in any way, which was good, since it meant there were relatively few arseholes chatting and getting up to use the toilet. Unsurprisingly for a digital presentation, the picture was unnervingly sharp, which didn’t do the ageing make-up any favours. That minor niggle aside, the film was as wonderful as ever and a joy to behold on a big screen. As Col suggested, perhaps all filmmaking should cease now and cinemas should just screen great old films instead. Indeed, my local arts centre is following the eighties nostalgia trend by showing another cinematic masterpiece this Friday night: Ghostbusters.
It seems nostalgia is the theme of this post. On Sunday I went to Malvern to help my old schoolfriend Chris Jenkins move his stuff into storage at his mum’s house so that he could go off gallivanting around the globe for sixth months. This house, and more so its garden, was a key location for the original The Dark Side of the Earth, and seeing it again brought back many memories of that shoot – which was now almost fifteeen years ago – half my life ago. Christ, I’m old. There may be something very special coming to this website for the fifteenth anniversary, so look out for that.
After moving Chris’s stuff, he and I and the mono-monikered Jeff went for a curry, then on to The Prince of Wales. For those of you who haven’t been following by journals since 2001 (and who can blame you?), The Prince is a magical place where dreams are made, scripts about Star Trek happening inside a Cow are written and lots and lots of Trivial Pursuit is played. Well, all that stuff used to happen back in the day, anyway. None of us had been there for years, but I’m happy to report that, although it’s undergone some cosmetic surgery, somehow a pool table has been squeezed into the tiny lounge, and there’s a sign about free wi-fi over the bar, the vibe is very much the same. People with guitars and bongos were jamming randomly. I didn’t see anyone feeding beer to a dog, but then I guess the dog is probably dead by now. Best of all, when we asked the barman if they still had Trivial Pursuit, he disappeared round the back for a few minutes, then came back bearing the very same set we used to play with, complete with the newspaper cutting about the game’s inventors that Matt Hodges put in the box about ten years ago. All is right with the world.
So, to come finally to the subject this blog is meant to be about – The Dark Side of the Earth. It looks like time travel has got to be removed from the script. It’s really hard to see it go, but it just makes things too damn complicated. I’ve got until the end of the week to write the new draft, a deadline imposed by my wife Katie. You see, I act like a small child when I’m writing – sulking, throwing things around, whingeing “I don’t want to” every five minutes – and she just can’t take it any more. And frankly, neither can I.

The Dark Side of the Earth: October 5th, 2010

The Dark Side of the Earth: September 25th, 2010

“Pretty mediocre photographic fake. They cut off your brother’s head.”
The first draft of the screenplay for The Dark Side of the Earth contained eleven Back to the Future references. I’m not sure how many are still in there, maybe half a dozen, but the spirit of Marty McFly and friend are still guiding the development of the story.
A new draft has begun. Battling with the complexities of Dark Side’s plot is one of my least favourite pastimes, but this time I have the invaluable help of a script editor, Quay Chu. Last week we had a long conversation about what needs addressing in this draft and what some of the ways to achieve those things might be. Such as how to make the plot clearer by having a character draw a diagram of the timelines, like a certain Doctor Emmett L. Brown I could mention in Back to the Future Part II, or by using a handy prop like the fading family photo from Part I.
Yesterday Carl and I met Quay face to face, albeit briefly, and continued to wrangle with parallel universes. Earlier we had met with another writer about The Black Donald, my other feature project in the early stages of development. This story has less complexity, but could still be streamlined. Here we talked in terms of Ghostbusters rather than BTTF. “According to this morning’s PKE sample, the current level in the city would be a Twinkie 35 feet long weighing approximately six hundred pounds.”
After the writing meetings, we went on to Cinesite in Soho. Since the grade two weeks ago, the images had been dust-busted, delivered to Cinesite, recorded onto 35mm internegative stock (kindly suppled by Fuji) and then printed. Now it was time to view this print and make sure the grade looked the same as it had in Pepper’s DI suite. Carl had had a bad experience in the past with this process (not with the same companies) but it was all new to me.
We were greeted by Ben and Alex from Pepper, as well as Cinesite’s Mitch Mitchell, Head of Imaging. While we waited for the projectionist, the topic of 3D arose again and Mitch told us many horror stories about all the technical problems it causes, some avoidable, some not. This only served to cement the view I had developed in Cannes that 3D filmmaking is as different to 2D filmmaking as 2D filmmaking is to still photography. I think from now on I will have to boycott 3D films as a viewer, in the hope that the lack of my bum-on-seat might at least help to slow in some tiny measure the almost-inevitable domination of 3D.
Anyway, on to the actual screening. The print started rolling and there was a big scratch on the start of it. Some directors might have been annoyed at this. Not me. First off, the sole purpose of this print was to check the grade, so it didn’t matter if it got a bit damaged. More importantly – it was a SCRATCH. An actual physical mark on the filmstrip. Not a digital filter someone had put on the image to make it appear scratched. A real, genuine scratch. I love film.
The grade looked exactly like it had at Pepper – bang on. These guys certainly know what they’re doing. The whole thing looked amazing. Now all that’s left is to shoot the soundtrack onto film and put the two elements together.
Random link of the day.

The Dark Side of the Earth: September 25th, 2010

The Dark Side of the Earth: September 10th, 2010

Yesterday was grading day (take two) for the pilot. Although Pogo Films did a great job for us last year, grading it for the Sci-Fi London screening, yesterday’s experience at Pepper Post was on a whole new level.
The grade took place in a very swanky state-of-the-art DI (Digital Intermediate) suite, like a mini cinema with a screen about 25x10ft, several comfy armchairs and a big control desk with lots of monitors and impressive-looking twiddly bits. The only thing that was missing was a Thunderbird 5 style reel-to-reel tape recorder whirring away in the background. When Carl and I arrived, colourist Alex had already imported the project and applied the Look-Up Table (LUT). Since we were grading in the digital domain (not to be confused with Digital Domain, Cameron fans), the LUT is a filter which allows us to preview how the images will look when printed to film. The raw scanned film frames that we have been dealing with up to now are very low contrast, retaining all the detail from the negative. Applying the LUT immediately restored the contrast and colour saturation, making the footage look a million dollars before we’d even started grading.
I was delighted to finally see the full resolution material on a big screen for the first time. Full resolution is 2048×1556 pixels (a.k.a. 2K) which, although large, didn’t feel large enough when I looked at the images on my computer. More than once I thought, “Surely I’m going to see the invidual pixels when this is projected on a big screen.” But that wasn’t the case at all. I could walk right up to it there in Pepper’s suite and it still looked great – you could just see more film grain. Mmmmmm, film grain.
It was easy to see why Carl has always been so keen for potential financiers to see it on the big screen, and not on a DVD or a web page. It’s a completely different experience and one that I think will blow people away.
After the initial admiration of the large and lovely images, it was time to get down to work and make them even more lovely. The look I wanted to achieve was markedly different from the one I chose last year. That first grade was warmed up considerably, to bring out the wood and earth tones in the set and costumes, and overall it was quite bright. I was probably too close to the project, still in love with the fantastic production design (and still all too aware of how much it had cost to put on screen) and wanted to make sure that every last detail of it could be seen. But, as Carl wisely said to me, no matter how brilliant your design is, it will look even better if it’s dark and shadowy and your imagination has to fill in the gaps. Not to mention the fact that these scenes are set on the DARK side of the earth, not the bright, overlit, prime-time ITV1 side of the earth. (Catchy sequel title, methinks.)
And I do here wish to lament the effect that eleven years of freelancing on corporate videos has had on me. When I started my career, I lit and graded even the most mundane of corporates in a moody, cinematic style. But over the years, the many complaints from clients that it’s too dark have worn me down to the point that I’m now almost as afraid of shadows as they are. So yesterday it was a pleasure, a joy and thing of beauty to bring the shadows to the Dark Side of the Earth.
Once again, muchos complimentos must go to Oliver Downey, director of photography, whose great work we have finally done justice to. But the hero of the hour was undoubtedly Alex, who worked swiftly and skillfully to bring the best out of every shot. It’s very impressive to watch how quickly he can track and isolate an element – Benedict’s face within the porthole of his helmet, for example – and grade that separately to the rest of the image.
So big thanks to Helle, Ben, Alex and everyone at Pepper who was so generous with their time and treated us so well, including the runners who occasionally slipped in to supply teas and coffees, struggling not to stumble and fall in the near-pitch darkness of the grading suite. And Alex’s work is not done yet, as he still has to paint out all the scratches and address a couple of other issues before delivering the data to Cinesite, who will soon be shooting the material out onto film.
And finally, why did Screen West Midlands reject our latest application for development money? Because the script is too good. Yes, that’s right. The script is too good, apparently. It doesn’t need any signficant development. Last time I applied it was too bad, too bad even to merit money being spent on developing it to make it better. And now it is too good.
Well, Screen West Midlands may think that, but everyone else who’s read it still thinks there’s room for improvement. And since Quay, the script editor Carl introduced me to in Cannes, has agreed to help out, I’m starting a new draft next week.

The Dark Side of the Earth: September 10th, 2010

The Dark Side of the Earth: September 6th, 2010

Let me speak to you of Craven Arms. Despite sounding like a pub, Craven Arms is a village in Shropshire, a village I visited this weekend for the first time in twelve years. The reason for the recent visit matters not; rather it’s the visits of 1998 on which I wish to ramble. For back then, in the mists of time, I had my first contact with the professional film industry in the form of a course called Lonesome Takeaway.
Allow me to set the scene. It’s been about six months since I finished Sixth Form. I’ve spent most of the summer sleeping and wondering what to do with my life. Finally I get a job, inputting data for Worcester Heat Systems, but it’s so brain-numbing I quit after just two weeks. I will shortly begin another, only slightly less brain-numbing job at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but for now I have two weeks of practical film-making workshops and a four-day short film shoot to look forward to.
On the first day I missed my connection at Hereford and arrived in Craven Arms an hour late, but I was soon immersed in the course, eagerly drinking in the information that the experienced workshop leaders – all working freelancers – were generously supplying. Everything from three point lighting to keeping actors comfortable between takes was covered, and when it came to dishing out roles for the shoot, I jumped at the opportunity to be in the camera department. Along with Jessica Lamerton (who I still work with regularly on corporate training videos), I spent hours learning to load 16mm Arri magazines, in preparation for two days as clapper loader, before Jess and I swapped rolls and I took over as focus puller.
I look back on it as a turning point in my life. Often have I told the story of how the director of photography, Des Seal, advised me not to go to university, but to build up a CV by working unpaid on shoots – the best advice I’ve ever been given. Months later, catching a lift to the film’s premiere with its producer, Jane Jackson, I would elicit an invitation to send her my showreel (full of the amateur films I had made with schoolfriends on my Video-8 camera, such as the original Dark Side of the Earth) which would quickly lead to paying work, allowing me to part ways with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and become a freelance filmmaker, as I’d dreamed of being since I first held a camcorder.
So thank you to those people who ran Lonesome Takeaway, who probably made little or no money from it and certainly didn’t need another credit on their CV.
That’s all for now, but tune in again soon to hear the real – and unexpected – reason why Screen West Midlands rejected Dark Side for development funding.

The Dark Side of the Earth: September 6th, 2010

The Dark Side Guide to Miniature Effects

The DSG-ME, as all the cool kids are calling it, is a ten minute dash through the logistics and fiscalities (if such a word there be) of filming things wot are tiny. For any filmmaker contemplating a traditional models-based approach to special effects, this featurette provides a plethora of practical advice including how to choose a scale, what format to shoot on and how much it will cost. I share everything I learnt about working with miniatures while making the demo sequence for my fantasy-adventure feature The Dark Side of the Earth, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Kate Burdette (The Duchess) and Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing).

What there wasn’t room to include – and also I didn’t want to digress too much into Soul Searcher (a fear I don’t have in this blog, home to many a digression [in fact, case in point, just look at how much parenthetical digression there is in this one sentence]) – were pyrotechnical considerations, since model work and blowing things up go hand in hand. First off, you should always get a properly qualified and licensed pyrotechnician. They will come with their own insurance, and will know the proper procedures, like informing the police and so on. Even if they agree to work for free, you will have to cover the costs of the explosives themselves, and the specialised transport to deliver them.

You will definitely need to shoot on film, as now you’re not just trying to make the thing look full-size, you’re trying to make it look full-size and in slow motion – necessitating ultra-highspeed shooting. Make sure you protect the camera from flying debris; styrene sheeting from a DIY store will do the trick. Build your miniature extra large, since even with the styrene you won’t want to put the camera very close, and a long lens will make the model look smaller.

All in, unless you’re able to borrow the film equipment, expect it to cost about a grand for one or two shots.

The Dark Side Guide to Miniature Effects

The Dark Side of the Earth: August 26th, 2010

A little progress this week. The MOD (magneto-optical disc) containing the mixed audio has been produced, ready for shooting onto film as an optical soundtrack. And it looks like we might have our grade lined up.
But it’s two steps forwards and one step back, I’m afraid. For the third time, Dark Side has been turned down for development funding by Screen West Midlands – that’s five times if you count the UK Film Council applications too. Each application has been stronger than the one before it, but for reasons that remain obscure it’s still not good enough.

The Dark Side of the Earth: August 26th, 2010

The Dark Side of the Earth: August 20th, 2010

If you can believe it, we’re still trying to find somewhere to grade. Earlier this year it seemed like we had that all set up, but it didn’t quite come off. Part of the problem is that a particular company has very kindly offered us a free shoot-out back to 35mm, but in order to take them up on this we need to have graded at a place that is calibrated for this company’s recorders, which limits our options.
In other news, if you thought Dark Side is the only Henson-inspired fantasy film being developed independently in the UK, you’re wrong. Raven Waiting is in pre-production right now, and looks set to be pretty amazing if the concept art and the director’s dedication are anything to go by. Check it out.

The Dark Side of the Earth: August 20th, 2010

The Dark Side of the Earth: August 5th, 2010

I’ve been digging through the archives, the 20+ hours of behind-the-scenes material we accumulated while making the pilot, most of it shot by Mr. Gerard Giorgi-Coll. And I’ve put some more of it to good use, as you’ll see on the video page.
There’s a tour of the art department workshop, providing a snapshot of the set as it was just over two weeks into the build. It even includes a rare interview with the elusive production designer, Ian Tomlinson.
And “The Dark Side Guide to Building a Set” is a ten minute featurette covering the issues surrounding making and shooting a set. Building a set was new experience for me (with the exception of a few basic flats and dodgy consoles for Cow Trek way back in 2000) and since a lot of low budget filmmakers will have shot only on location, I thought a rundown of the considerations and costs of set construction would be useful to some of you out there. Or you might just want to hear my cheesy narrator voice; that’s also a valid reason for watching it.
The aim to is produce at least one more “Dark Side Guide”, maybe two, covering the issues around making the leap from video to film, both in production and post-production. And if you have any suggestions or requests for subjects, feel free to contact me.

The Dark Side of the Earth: August 5th, 2010