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How Unit delivered the vfx for Sky Atlantic's Britannia

UNIT and its TV & Film Division, UNIT Studios worked on Sky Atlantic’s Britannia, the 9-part drama set in Britain in 43AD as the Romans invade.

The show was a co pro between Sky and Amazon Studios and Vertigo Films in association with Neal Street Productions.



Unit’s team explain how the post work was completed.

UNIT Studios Executive Producer was Nicola Kingham: “We’re a relatively new TV & Film division of UNIT and were approached back in February 2017 to work on a handful of VFX shots, but Simon Frame (the Series VFX Producing Supervisor), was so impressed with our collaborative and creative contribution that the shot count soon grew to over 300 shots.  Notably, the Underworld, a high concept mythical location where the Druids go to see the future and to communicate with their dead, Handfasting and a Druid Initiation Ceremony”. 
 
UNIT’s VFX Supervisor, Nuno Pereira, oversaw the production over four months and managed a pipeline with workflows for a 3.2K ACES delivery.

In light of the logistics, it was decided that the teams would be split and run in parallel. Pereira oversaw the whole of production comprising 23 artists. Creative Director Alon Ziv led a splinter team of two concept artists and one of UNIT’s in-house editors, Scott Ryan, devoted to creating the Underworld scenes.

 “In the beginning, no one really knew what the Underworld was or what it was supposed to look like. It was an inherited sequence of loosely scripted dramatic performances by the actors, which had been shot against blue screen several months earlier catering for a simple line in the script which had read (we paraphrase here) 'Divis goes into the Underworld'.  So, from a storytelling and editorial point of view there was a lot to be done,” says Pereira.



In creating the Underworld environment Ziv says, “The first challenge was to come up with a look and feel which clearly defined it.  It somehow needed to be a mix between a drug-induced hallucination and a believable location.   It was important to keep the reality of the Underworld vague because for the characters it’s a real place that changed and evolved every time the characters visited it, and what happens there has consequences in the real world.

From a practical point of view, another challenge was to keep the actors eye lines and spatial placement believable in these new environments especially because they were shot before any of the environments where designed.”
 


Pereira adds: “Once concepts were approved, these shots were taken into production. Due to its nature, it ended up being a full VFX build with every shot, except for the actors, being fully computer generated.  Our creative team worked on creature animation and simulations for the snake, with atmospherics and textures added in the smoke simulations and finally compositing. The team worked tirelessly to bring the concept art to life. The Underworld albeit real, is heavily stylized so it was quite challenging to make it grounded and believable and not just an imaginary sequence parallel to the story.”

Scott Simmonds, one of UNIT’s Lead Nuke Compositors says, ‘The biggest and most exciting challenge for me was bringing the 2D matte paintings to life, adding lighting, atmospherics, camera moves and parallax. The next challenge was then embedding our blue screen actors into the shot especially when the lighting was completely different. We had to really go in and mask off different body parts to either lighten or darken them in order to make the actors feel like they were shot in situ”.

On grading the Underworld sequence, UNIT’s Colour Team enhanced the otherworldly graphic feel with strongly saturated and desaturated tones.




In the end, UNIT created four sequences for the Underworld with around 100 shots in total. UNIT led and carried out all post-production:  from concept art, to direction and editorial, FX, creature work, compositing and final grade.
 
Back in the ‘real world’ of Britannia, and the drama of 43AD, the second VFX team was working on two other sequences.  The first, a Druid Initiation Ceremony, where they were tasked with creating an optical Lensbaby effect.  Parts of this sequence had been shot in camera but the remainder needed to emulate the shallow depth of field, stronger centres of focus and the distorted outer edges of the effect across some 80 shots. 

The other sequence was the Handfasting scene. Nuno comments, “This was a VFX heavy scene which incorporated a lot of invisible VFX over five minutes. This ritual marriage ceremony quickly turns sour and a battle ensues. Since this sequence was actually shot at different times, on different days, with different lighting conditions, it needed extensive work to create one seamless sequence.
 


We were tasked with matching all the skies and the environments, then added smoke to the atmosphere (foreground, mid ground and background) balancing this with the existing smoke shots which had been shot on location.  The battle sequence itself, required clean up and removal, as well as the addition of blood, wounds and blood splatter”.
 
On grading the Handfasting scene, one of UNIT’s Senior Colourists Simon Astbury adds, “The biggest challenge was to match together an action heavy scene shot on three different days with four different cameras. To ensure a smooth flow of images in an action scene is difficult enough, but if you add varying weather and camera formats into the mix it becomes very challenging”.


UNIT Britannia Credits

Nuno Pereira:            VFX Supervisor

Production
Nicola Kingham:        Executive Producer
Emma Watterson:        Executive Producer
Patrizia Mulè:            VFX Producer

Editorial
Scott Ryan:            VFX Editor

Artists
Alon Ziv:            Creative Director, Underworld
Scott Simmonds:        Compositor, Sequence Lead
John Kennedy:        Matte Painter
Stephanie Joy:        Compositor, Sequence Lead
Ashwini Prabhu:        Compositor
Paul Sullivan:            Compositor
Bence Varga:            Compositor, Shoot Supervisor
Sandra Roach:        Compositor
Enrico Lambiase:        Compositor
Valentina Bartiromo:        Compositor
Sam Meisels:            Compositor, Sequence Lead
Pavel Vicik:            Compositor
Jaime Fernandez:        Creature Animator
Richard Nelson:        3D Animator
Craig Healy:            3D Animator
Will Davies:            3D Animator
David Knight:            Houdini Artist
Tom Clapp:            Compositor
Klaudija Cermak:        Compositor, Sequence Lead
Vincent Goodsell:        Compositor
Zissis Papatzikis:        Compositor
Jorge Mazariegos:        Compositor
Vincent Trollard:        Compositor
U-Sun Hu:            Compositor
Elizabeth Schuch:        Concept Artist
Kirk Hendry:            Concept Artist

 
Production Credits

Co-produced by 
Sky and Amazon

Production companies 
Vertigo Films, Neal Street

Created by 
Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson

Executive producers 
James Richardson, Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Nicolas Brown, Jez Butterworth and Anne Thomopoulos

Producer
 Rick McCallum

Writers
 Jez and Tom Butterworth, Richard McBrien
Series VFX Supervisor Simon Frame


Posted 23 January 2018 by Jon Creamer

How to grade in HDR

Many high-end dramas are now getting an HDR grade, but post producing in HDR takes  another level of technical and creative know-how,
finds Jon Creamer


The Farm
Riviera




The Farm worked on both SDR and HDR versions of the Sky Atlantic drama. Aidan Farrell graded the series

What was the desired ‘look’ for the show? Rather than manipulating the colours to create a ‘stylised’ look, Aidan wanted the grade to reflect a very natural and ‘European Cinematic’ feel. The end result is a very natural grade, both in the SDR and HDR versions. The locations really came to life in HDR, and coupled with the great cinematography, there are several exterior shots that really do stand out in HDR.

How was the workflow different to a single SDR delivery? The difference in workflows between traditional HD/rec. 709 pipelines comes mainly down to two points - data and colour management. Designing efficient workflows to encompass both storage considerations and deliveries in multiple colourspaces is a relatively new occurrence in the broadcast domain, and requires a similar approach to feature film DI workflows - there is much more of an overlap between the two worlds (broadcast and cinema) with UHD and HDR.

What do you need to think about when delivering in HDR? HDR delivery alongside SDR takes a little more planning, with the main question regarding which version of the grade is more important, as this has implications for colour management throughout the post production process. This is the main delta between traditional broadcast colour pipelines (where a single rec. 709 delivery was the only requirement), and is more in line with those relating to feature and cinematic delivery where you may see final masters in three or more different colour spaces.

What was the creative upside of working in HDR? The key creative upside of HDR is one of storytelling, as the technology enables more immersive and engaging visuals. Not only is the potential there for ‘bigger and brighter’, but the wide colour gamut also gives a great deal more creative expression throughout the picture, allowing more nuance and detail to be explored.

What are the top tips for delivering in HDR? It’s important to engage with all suppliers (both creative and technical) as early on as possible to discuss HDR, it has effects throughout the production pipeline. A key decision with Riviera was that the HDR grade be designed from the outset to be an enhancement and complement to the SDR - the aim being a more immersive experience for the audience, without the technology becoming a distraction from the story.




Molinare
Oasis



Colourist Asa Shoul on the HDR grade Amazon’s drama pilot Oasis

What did you have to think about when delivering in HDR? Apart from the technical requirements we had to consider creative intent and where extra highlight detail was wanted or might become distracting.
 
What was your workflow for this?
That’s a secret. But Filmlight have put workflow tools into Baselight that make HDR grading as easy as possible.
 
What were the difficulties you encountered? We composited skies in Baselight and had to finesse these in HDR as its unforgiving with edges of keys. We also saw lamps, lights offset and through windows that were not visible in SDR.
 
What was the creative upside of HDR? It is more immersive and almost gives a three dimensional feel to the project.
 
Are there any particular scenes that really lent themselves to HDR? The sunrise and sunset scenes in Oasis are absolutely stunning in the HDR version.
 
What advice would you give other people that are working in HDR today? Don’t go crazy! There’s a fine line between a bright skin tone looking pleasing or “electronic”. Also there is a need to watch out for reflected light starting to look emitted. You can’t simply accept that a window or light next to your actor now has lots more detail and brightness, as it may now distract from their performance.  Also don’t assume an HDR pass won’t require windowing and additional time as we have to correct these issues.




Encore
Marvel’s The Defenders





Encore’s Tony D’Amore balanced distinct looks in HDR and SDR for Marvel’s The Defenders

The various Marvel series were some of the first shows Netflix posted in HDR, with colour grading by Encore senior colourist Tony D’Amore. He was brought in again to grade Marvel’s The Defenders and worked alongside series DP Matthew J. Lloyd. D’Amore delivered a grade for The Defenders that informed both Dolby Vision and SDR outputs. Unlike HDR 10, which requires separate HDR and SDR passes, the Dolby Vision master can stream data for SDR and transmit content in the appropriate brightness for a viewer’s display. The drawback is that one pass must stand up to both HDR and SDR displays. Since dailies were conducted in SDR, much of the look was set in the colour suite, where D’Amore worked in the P3 colour space using DaVinci Resolve. D’Amore would execute an initial pass using a colour script provided by production that outlined preset character tones: red for Daredevil, cyan for Iron Fist, yellow for Luke Cage and blue for Jessica Jones. He also made sure the colour palettes were appropriately married into the scene. “Managing each character’s look separately was easy,” says D’Amore. “But the shots where they share the screen proved challenging, particularly fight sequences, which required an insane amount of tracking and shapes to ensure that each character’s colour story integrated well within the scene. And we had to make sure the grade worked in both HDR and SDR. Sometimes the colours would really pop in HDR, cyan in particular looks great, but when you switch back to SDR, it’s very muted in comparison, so we’d often turn off the HDR display and evaluate with fresh eyes. Dolby Vision has a wide colour gamut and highlight latitude, so we used it to bring out high resolution detail, and avoid blasting viewers with brightness. The format shines in the darker scenes; it’s shocking what you’re able to see.” 



Goldcrest
Bounty Hunters




Goldcrest provided post including the SDR and HDR grades for Sky One’s Bounty Hunters
  
What did you have to think about when delivering in HDR? Delivering in HDR 10 ‘limits’ you to 1000 nits so the challenge is to find the right balance between using the additional headroom and not deviating too far from the SDR ‘hero’ grade.
 
What was different about working in HDR compared to SDR? HDR affords you a much broader dynamic range. The trick is to exploit this whilst remaining true to the intention of the original SDR grade.
 
What was your workflow for this? We used the same workflow as we would for any HDR feature we have done previously. We always grade from the source data. We never do the HDR grade from the SDR rendered master. This gives us the maximum latitude to adjust the grade for each type of delivery. For the HDR, we use the live SDR project and replace our display LUT to a Rec2020/PQ bespoke version. The live SDR grade, including secondary online effects etc. is used as the starting point and the colourist builds the HDR pass on the top of it. Because everything remains live, the colourist can unpick anything he would have done on the SDR grade to get the most out of the HDR grade.
 
What was the creative upside of HDR? The extra dynamic range afforded by HDR allows for a particularly strong image; far more vivid than SDR. HDR is particularly impressive when grading landscapes. The ability to significantly increase brightness in the sky whilst retaining detail gives the image extra dimensionality and a feeling closer to reality.
 
Are there any particular scenes in the project that really lent themselves to HDR?
Bounty Hunters has three different locations, each with its own grade theme to separate them: New York - green, UK - neutral , Mexico - extra contrast with a yellow bias. HDR was particularly effective in all the Mexico scenes as I could push the contrast further without losing detail in the highlights. The result had the desired sweaty, scorched feel.
 
What advice would you give others? Care should be taken when choosing how much of the 1000 nits range is too be used. Pushing the highlights too far can result in an image so bright so as to be painful to watch, particularly when cut next to a dark scene.




Technicolor
The Trip to Spain




Technicolor delivered SDR and HDR versions of the series for Sky Atlantic along with an SDR feature length theatrical version for the US

When did you know you had to deliver an HDR version? We discussed delivery of an HDR version before production began so we had time to prepare a workflow. Dan Coles did the SDR grade first, and we spent time discussing the Baselight setup so we could best translate his grade in to an HDR world. Alex Gascoigne did the HDR version.

What was your workflow for this? With any show with an HDR deliverable, there is always discussion as to which version to do first. As there was a feature-length SDR theatrical delivery for the US as well as the series for the UK, it made sense to do the SDR pass first. The drama was captured primarily on ALEXA Mini, with a DJI drone camera system used for aerial shots. Grading in Baselight on a Sony BVM-X300 display, we used an ACES workflow which allowed us to seamlessly switch between the SDR 100-nit and HDR 1000-nit grades.

What was different about working in HDR compared to SDR? Working in HDR gives access to a greater range of contrast and colour. Highlights can be significantly brighter, allowing more contrast in cloudy skies, for example. This opens up many creative possibilities but care has to be taken to avoid pushing the images too far from the original intent. Decisions have to be made as to how far to push the HDR grade relative to the SDR version. The Trip series is shot in a naturalistic style so pushing the look too far could detract from the performances. Having very bright highlights behind an actor’s head, for example, can direct the audience’s attention away from the subject.

What were the difficulties you encountered?
Increases in contrast and saturation have a tendency to highlight elements unnoticed in the SDR grade. For example, in one of the interior restaurant locations, green spill from the trees outside was reflected by the large white shutters either side of the windows. In SDR this was quite a subtle effect, but in the HDR version we had to suppress the green significantly to avoid it being distracting.

What was the creative upside of HDR? The production made great use of drones to capture gorgeous sweeping Spanish vistas and we took the opportunity to really celebrate the range of warm earthy tones and blue skies. 

Posted 12 January 2018 by Jon Creamer

Andrew Ruhemann on 30 years of Passion Pictures

Passion Pictures celebrates its 30th birthday this year. Founder Andrew Ruhemann looks back at three decades in the production business

When I think back to the start of Passion, back to 1987, the Production Industry felt very different. People refer to it now as “the golden age” and since we were specifically focused on animation, we had our own niche part of that.

I got started with a lucky break from animation legend Richard Williams. I was working with him whilst animation was going through a sort of renaissance. The only place animating on a really big scale was Disney so working for Richard meant working for the best in town. We were mainly working on commercials until Steven Spielberg himself walked into our offices with Roger Rabbit and I was lucky enough to be there when it happened. The company expanded from there and after the production finished, there were a lot of really great animators looking for work and Passion grew naturally from that.

I was 23 with no real intentions of setting up a company but I was living at home with no overheads. I could afford to take risks and I did. I can still remember the thrill of booking our first commercial, for Count Chocula, there were just three of us in a room and we had to start ringing directors. We didn’t know if it was going to fly but Richard had set a really high benchmark for quality of work and calibre of directors. It was a baptism of fire but thanks to Richard I had lots of confidence that I knew my stuff.

At the same time, the public perception of animation was changing. Aardman, The Simpsons, South Park and Spielberg with Roger Rabbit, all were succeeding in opening people’s eyes to animation. On a different side of things, Passion has been a part of that too. There have been some real markers along the way that felt like tidal shifts; the move from optical to digital, the advent of CGI animation.

For us you can track that journey with the development of the Gorillaz. That’s a project we’ve been involved with since the start and from the first videos where we were animating in a very traditional way, through the digital revolution and now into the Virtual Reality world. Jamie, Damon and Pete Candeland devised a very iconic technique that showed a whole new perspective on animation that has stayed relevant for 2o years and we’ve grown and changed alongside it.

Nowadays, the industry is a very different place and the advertising landscape has changed. Back then, agencies did what agencies did. They were the bridge between clients and productions companies. That’s not the case anymore - we can’t function within those constraints because the market’s changed and the lines are blurring. I sleep easy at night because I can come back to our core and look at what we do as a company: we’re really good storytellers. That’s what we specialise in. If you always come back to that, those blurred boundaries aren’t so scary. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing because there’s always a real demand for great stories and characters within them, whether that be a 30 second commercial or a 90-minute feature. In many ways we no longer think in those terms, it’s all about the story and finding the right way to tell it.

We’ve been an independent company for 30 years and we’re well prepared for the next 30. The team we have built are all part of the Passion way of seeing things. What excites me about the future is nurturing new talent. I feel a real responsibility to do that so I take it very seriously. From our position, you can sometimes see people taking the wrong road, creatively, so I watch that very closely. So far that’s the thing I’m most proud of, the bringing up of young talent. I can attribute that all the way back to Richard Williams and the start he gave me. It gives me confidence that we have a great future ahead of us.

Posted 12 December 2017 by Jon Creamer

The Art of the Edit: Pitch Perfect 3

Editors Craig Alpert and Colin Patton explain how they cut the third instalment of accapella comedy, Pitch Perfect, directed by Trish Sie and starring Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson.

How did the director, Trish Sie, brief you?
CA:  We were cutting in Los Angeles and shooting in Atlanta, so all our communication was remote at the beginning. Trish would send lots of emails: general stylistic thoughts, references for particular transitions, reactions to a given day’s footage. She has a background in dance and choreography, and she wanted the movie to feel as kinetic as possible, so a lot of it was about achieving a particular energy. I remember Edgar Wright being a major point of reference.




Were you working on assemblies while the film was shooting?
CP:  Yes, absolutely. We would receive dailies via Aspera every morning, and our fantastic assistants, Jim Carretta and Charlie Spaht, would load and organize them so I could begin cutting. We had a full assembly of the film within a week or so after production wrapped.

Did you show assemblies to Trish Sie as you go along or wait until you’ve put together the whole film?
CP:  Yes, we sent cuts to Trish on PIX usually once a week. Sometimes if she had concerns about coverage on a particular scene, we’d send something over the next day. In the beginning it helped us get on the same page creatively, and it was a way for me to see what she responded to in terms of pace and cutting style. All the particulars of alternate line readings, joke alts, music choice and so forth were left until later. 

What kit do you use and why?
CA:  We used Avid Media Composer v8.5.3: four systems plus a render station, with Avid shared storage. It’s always been solid, and this time was no exception. One difference on this one was that we set up our rooms to monitor 5.1 sound. Avid’s 5.1 audio setting was great for being able to pan tracks between LCR speakers, but neither of us had cut with surrounds or subwoofers before. Beyond being just a fun thing for us to play with, it allowed everyone to experience the movie more fully during friends and family screenings (prior to our first temp dub). We could sweeten and pan sound effects, use 5.1 bounces from our music editors, and, even though our mix was rudimentary, more or less approximate the feeling of watching a real movie much sooner than we would have otherwise.

What are the particular skills of comedy editing?
CP:  Comedy editing is, at its heart, the same as any kind of editing: it’s all about timing, rhythm, and sensitivity to performance. If the material is funny and the performance is good, a good editor should be able to translate that into a funny sequence, and occasionally elevate it. It’s not always about a joke and a punchline; you need to be alert to everything the actors and camera are doing, and have the intuition to construct something comedic that might not have been apparent on the page. Of course comedy is very easy to mess up in the edit, so you have to be able to recognize when you’re doing more harm than good.

The nice thing about comedy is that it’s easy to get feedback. Laughter (or lack thereof) is easy to measure, and you usually don’t have to overanalyze it; you can try stuff out and see what works. We were constantly showing cuts to one another in the editing room, which was incredibly valuable because inevitably one of us would find something funny that the rest of us had overlooked.

What are the particular challenges of cutting a musical?
CA:  In terms of cutting the musical numbers themselves, it was always about telling the story in the best way possible. We had plenty of footage available to cut exciting versions of each song, but the main task was to make sure the song served its narrative purpose, relative to what the Bellas or the other bands were experiencing at that moment. That might mean cutting away from a particularly good vocal performance or piece of choreography in order to show something else more important. The challenge is not getting too attached to certain edits just because they play well in an isolated sequence. The songs aren’t music videos; they have to exist in context.  We also had an excellent team of music editors – Dan DiPrima, Oliver Hug, and Chris Newlin – who helped adjust sync and keep track of all the a cappella parts during Post.




What are the essential skills that make a good editor?
CP:  Good question – I’m still working on figuring that out! There’s probably a very long list of skills, having to do with just about every aspect of filmmaking. The two qualities that come to mind immediately are patience and perspective. You have to be patient because the process is a long one and generally there aren’t too many shortcuts. You have to be willing to work on the material over and over again, and have faith that you’ll eventually get there. And you have to be patient in dealing with all the various creative voices that are part of the conversation during post-production.

At the same time, you have to maintain your perspective as much as possible. It’s difficult to be objective when you’ve seen something a hundred times, but it’s essential to the job. You have to continually develop techniques and strategies to regain perspective on the material, and find ways to access the creative intuition you’d have if you were seeing it for the first time.


What are the key trends you are seeing in editing at the moment?
CP:  That’s a tricky one. It’s cliché to say at this point, but quick cutting is definitely getting more prevalent across all formats. Whether it’s due to smaller screens or shorter attention spans, edits are often paced too quickly and distractingly, especially in comedy. While it sometimes helps to take the air out of a scene and make the dialogue snappy, it’s not worth it if you’re bouncing between camera angles nonstop.

A completely unrelated (but good) trend: adjustable standing desks! I’ve been using one for the past several shows, and I’ve noticed many others doing the same. They’re great: you can keep it low for meetings and screenings, and then raise it up and stretch your legs when you’re on your own.

Pitch Perfect 3 is in UK cinemas from December 20

Posted 12 December 2017 by Jon Creamer

UK animation: bigger, brighter, bolder

The UK animation sector has gone from strength to strength in recent years. But with Brexit on the horizon, the industry is working hard to keep the momentum up. Jon Creamer reports 

Rewind to five years ago, and the UK animation sector was looking almost dead on its feet.

 

But then in 2012, a well-fought campaign by industry body Animation UK persuaded government to extend the kind of tax breaks to the industry already on offer to a host of competitor territories around the world. 
 

With a more level playing field created, a cowed industry burst back into life with a host of projects going into production.
 

Oli Hyatt at Blue Zoo says the change from five years ago is “unfathomable. People around the world literally didn’t think we had an industry. That was partly our fault for not selling ourselves well and partly because that was becoming the reality.”


 

Cut to the present, and just in recent months, a variety of UK studios have been expanding including Jellyfish and Axis. Blue Zoo just signed up for a multi-million pound Chinese JV. Now there’s more than just the ever mighty stalwart Aardman as a UK animation business with heft. 
 

Recent changes in kids TV, a big customer for animation (see page ?) are also making things look more positive too. “You wait ages for a bus and nothing happens,” says Animation UK’s exec chair, Kate O’Connor. “Then you’ve got the BBC announcement about new spend, the contestable fund and new Ofcom guidelines for PSBs all happening at once. That’s on top of the boost to the industry with the tax breaks.”
 

There are more outlets now for animation too. SVODs like Netflix and Amazon have become big customers and toy makers like Mattel and Hasbro have become more involved in producing shows based on their own properties. “That makes a big difference,” says Lupus Films’ Ruth Fielding. “It’s another place to go to get a show made and more potential buyers. The golden ticket is the BBC but it’s only got limited slots. Everyone’s still pitching to the same broadcasters, there’s just a slightly wider range now.”
 

 

“There’s probably never been so many opportunities to do something with animation,” says Blue Zoo’s Hyatt. “I’m not saying it’s any easier to get a commission from the BBC or to sell in to Nick, it’s not, it’s harder.” But those new outlets have big budgets, “which holds the other channels to account. If the UK broadcasters don’t keep up then kids aren’t going to watch their channels.”
 

But for the SVODs, it goes beyond kids’ TV. “They’re talking about art house animation, they’ve got ambitions to win Oscars. That could open up a whole new market for everyone,” says Hyatt.
 

Ambitions are sky high in the UK. And that includes movies. “Now it’s easier to reach global markets. The cost of producing movies has come down,” says Axis Studios’ exec producer, Andrew Pearce. “You can produce a blockbuster but not necessarily at blockbuster costs. Illuminations’ films cost around $50m, half the price of Hollywood but not half as good. DreamWorks’ Captain Underpants was produced for $38m in Canada but both those weren’t skimping on creative ambition.” And the UK is in a good place to compete on that stage, he says. “We’re a European studio with lots of European talent and historically a lot of European clients but we’re also very American. That’s true of Britain as a whole. We share American sensibilities and European sensibilities. So we can make stuff that can appeal to a huge market. We could comfortably produce a really high quality movie for $20-30m. I don’t have any worries about that at all.”
 

 

But, of course, not everything is rosy. “The big elephant in the room is Brexit,” says Jellyfish’s ceo, Phil Dobree. And any limits on the free movement of labour will have a big impact on the animation sector that, like vfx, traditionally sources its talent globally as well as locally.  “We’re a talent business. It’s like the Premier League suddenly being told they can’t have foreign players coming in. It would make the Premier League far less globally competitive. It’s fantasy to think that talent can be reproduced and replaced by UK talent in the next two or three years or even ever. If you’re going to be the best in the world, you’ve got to employ the best in the world.”
 

 

The mix is the key, says Hyatt. “The reason we are the best in the world is we’re a melting pot of ideas and cultures rubbing up against each other. Take that away and you’re stuck with a bunch of people with similar ideas and similar upbringings and you don’t get the best creativity.”
 

Brexit could also mean “you may well lose some of the other advantages of being in the EU,” says Lupus’ Camilla Deakin. Access to the Creative Europe Fund for one. “Also if you have to apply for visas, you have to pay for visas. There’s paperwork to be done and if you haven’t got a big company with an HR department...” Animation tax breaks don’t kick in right now if your crew isn’t substantially UK and EU based. Once out of the EU, will European workers on a UK production disqualify it from UK tax breaks? 
 

Even before anything regarding Brexit has become concrete, the effects are being felt. Many studios are already seeing a drift of European workers to friendlier climes. And the perception of a country shutting its doors doesn’t help a globally focused industry.
 

 

With Brexit looming, the need to be globally competitive comes into sharp relief. The tax breaks that came into play in 2013 did give the UK animation sector a tremendous shot in the arm, but those global competitors haven’t been standing still. And tax breaks around the globe are now outstripping the UK’s offer. “The tax breaks have definitely helped,” says Axis’ Pearce. “But actually we still lose a lot of pitches and don’t even enter into a lot against Canada and China and India. Ireland now has a fantastic tax deal so though ours are good and it helps us compete a little bit it’s not good enough to be a serious player.” However good you are “if you have a tax break which is half the size of somebody else’s you’re just going to lose unless you’re the only option left on the table.”
 

The UK has to keep pace, especially if Brexit hobbles the industry in other ways. As a result, Animation UK is lobbying hard to make its voice heard in government. A big part of that is showing government what an important industry animation is to the UK. That’s something that’s been stymied in the past by BFI figures about the screen industries lumping bits of animation in with film or TV or gaming. Other parts of animation are reported as part of the advertising sector. European Sector Industry Codes, where companies report what kind of business they are, does not have an animation option. The vfx industry has the same problem.
 

But this year, consultants Olsberg SPI will report the animation sector separately. “Now there’s a live survey with animation studios to get information about their size, value, downstream revenue and also their skills issue, how many people they employ and where they are from,” says Animation UK director, Helen Brunsdon. “We’ll have the first cut in September.” And that will be significant as previously animation was seen by government as a £50m sector “we’re putting estimates on closer to a billion. We need to get that data so we can start talking to government.”
 

And when you’re a billion-pound industry, government tends to listen.

Posted 03 August 2017 by Jon Creamer

Slave to the rhythm: How Baby Driver was edited

For Edgar Wright's heist movie Baby Driver, the action – from car crashes to fingers drumming on a table top – had to cut exactly to the film’s score. Editor Paul Machliss explains how it was done.



What was the starting point for you?
We were talking about the film back in 2011. Edgar had already chosen the tracks. Then we arranged them so they could segue and we could put sound effects in between each as place holders to give Edgar the inkling of where he would ultimately take it. In 2012 we did a big table read of the script in LA. He sent that audio to me and we effectively put together a 100-minute radio play of the entire film. It had all the dialogue, music and sound effects, which could be given to producers to say ‘This is the film and we’ve just got to put the pictures on top of it.’

How different was the editing process?
It’s never really been tried to this level. Every scene in the film has an associated piece of music that’s not just background, but each track is pertinent to the scene. Also, each track works within the scene whether its diegetic or the action synchs with the track, or not even action, just regular things like answering phones or opening curtains. The way Edgar’s gone about it is unique.

The shoot must have involved meticulous planning?
In 2015, Edgar worked with [editor] Evan Schiff in LA. They put together animatics for a lot of the sequences. I came on board in January last year and completed any outstanding animatics. We then had another step on from that radio play, we had the animatics too. Because you can’t just turn up on set and hope something like this is going to work.




How did you work on set?
That was the most interesting part of this film for me. During the reshoots of Scott Pilgrim and on World’s End, I’d bring the Avid to the set, take a feed off the video assist and make sure that it was all going to work. This time Edgar said that ‘considering 90% of this film has got to be bang on the music I think I’d like you down on set almost all of the time.’ I became part of the crew. I had my little Avid Media Composer kit on a trolley and I was connected to video assist. It was seat of your pants stuff. Edgar would yell ‘cut’ and turn to me and say ‘how is it?’ We had to do that because you can’t be in the cutting room six months later and realise we missed something.

Did plans meet reality once you got on set?
One motto we had for the film was we were going to use as little green screen as possible. All the stunts, all the driving, all the action actually happened on the roads of Atlanta. So you want to make sure when you’re shooting it you get it right. You knew by a certain beat in the track or by a chord change or fill the car had to be at a certain point. If the shot was a second longer than it should be you couldn’t change the music later, we had to make it fit. That is the whole purpose of the film. The music is driving everything – a drum or guitar line or vocal squeal will tie to something Edgar has pre planned. Hence the animatics, hence the idea of working out every shot. The real challenge was to make all that work out in real life. We got away with it just about.



Was there any way you could tweak things in post production?
You may have to be a little bit judicious with the track and find a point to loop a bar a couple of times. But it has to be a part of the track that can do that and doesn’t feel like you’re looping it. You have to stay true to the song, you’re not doing bad edits. The whole film has an amazing flow to it. You can watch this film as a good old rollicking action film and enjoy it just as it is. But you can also go back and watch it another time and see how meticulous it is on every level.

How long were you editing for after the shoot?
We did go into a full seven months post production schedule. We were joined by friend and fellow editor Jonathan Amos. Jon was able to take the action scenes and kick them up several notches while Edgar and I went through the whole arc of the film and made sure everything else was working. That meant that come the start of august when we had to show the film to the studio for the first time it was in a very good state. I learned from Edgar early on to get it to a really good state before showing it to producers. Let’s make it sound like we want it to sound even though it’s in the offline on the Avid. That helps immeasurably. You’re hearing backing tracks, Atmos, spot effects and if the dialogue’s got to be tweaked we’ll do that too so we’ll present the studio with as well rounded film as we possibly can.


Posted 07 July 2017 by Jon Creamer

The art of the edit

In advance of EditFest London 2017, three top film editors 
tell Jon Creamer what it takes to create the perfect cut


Pietro Scalia
The Martian, Gladiator, Alien: Covenant,  Good Will Hunting, Black Hawk Down, The Amazing Spiderman, Stealing Beauty, Kick Ass, Memoirs of a Geisha

The director editor relationship is a very close one. The early meetings are about what appeals to you about the story and character. You share ideas and themes and you see if you’re talking in the same way. You establish a rapport by how you respond to the material. With directors you’ve had a relationship with like myself with Ridley [Scott], a lot of the time we would talk about ideas or colours or paintings that would come to mind. You share with all the creative people and you have a meeting of minds.

When they start filming and you start getting material now it’s real. You see the colour, the light the director has provided. You see what the actors give you. You react to the material. That first impression of the material when it comes into the cutting room is a very important critical stage. Now it’s not abstract. Before we screen dailies with the director and cinematographer I have my own reactions as a viewer and I make mental notes that I will use later when building the scene. Those initial reactions are very important.



After that stage you start building with all these thoughts in your head. You know what the dramatic beats are of a scene and you build towards that. You could take the analogy of the way painters use a canvas. You don’t start building by minute details, you work the canvas with large brush strokes. You try to feel the shape and movement so you don’t get bogged down and hung up on the details. Yes, you will fine tune but you need to feel the flow. The reworking and re-editing and fine tuning carries all the way through the process of building the film. Every decision is based on how efficiently and succinctly you can focus the story and the character to get the most emotional impact from an audience.

We are very good manipulators in terms of making things work on an emotional level but at the same time you don’t want to manipulate to the point where it doesn’t feel real. That’s the worst kind of manipulation where it relies on all the worn out clichés. It’s about finding what’s truthful. Part of the editing process is to make that which is artificial feel real. Yes of course everything is fake but you always have to be truthful to the material and the emotions.

After the shoot has finished you screen the editor’s cut to the director. At this stage it’s pretty much everything that was shot and is in the script. Seeing the film for the first time is another big milestone because at that stage you don’t know what the film is. The accumulation of scenes or the script is not the film. The first stage is the shooting and the assembly of the first editor’s cut. The second phase is the director’s cut phase and that’s the most creative part for an editor. That’s where you find the film. You reach the length of the picture, you move entire scenes, sometimes you can drop an entire character but you basically build the film. At the end of that time you need to show the best possible film that you have right now to the studio. That’s where the third and final stage begins. You start screening it to the producers, the studio and maybe family and friends and get some feedback. This is the stage where the marketing parts come in. You get into a whole stage of previews and feedback and at the same time you now work towards completing the film. You do temporary mixes to preview the film, you get temp cues from the composer, vfx are delivered and the movie is taking shape. It’s a trying time as all the pieces need to come together. However, when you are in the final mixing stages the one thing to remember is, is that what I wanted in the script? Because now there are so many voices and it’s very hard to hear your initial voice.


Sylvie Landra
The Fifth Element, Leon, Catwoman, Cezanne et Moi, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, 
Un Petit Boulot

Generally I’ll talk with the director before the shoot about the overall shape of the film, its rhythm, its meaning, the message it has to deliver. That makes it possible to get to where they want the film to land and to look like.

I generally start to cut at the beginning of principal photography. It is useful to collaborate with the director throughout the shoot, both for me in the editing room and for him on the shoot to implement the shot list of specific scenes. The great thing with editing is that there are as many ways of approaching it as there are films and directors. Some directors need to have a daily discussion about the film, most of them are so immersed in the shoot they have barely any time left for anything else in their life.

The crucial starting point is to intensely watch the dailies. That is the only moment I have to digest every single frame, the intentions and subtleties of the actor’s performance and every incident that can be used somewhere in the film. The goal is the get the best out of the dailies.



I work as closely as possible with the director. This is the interesting part of the editing process – sharing ideas, finding tricks, reinventing the dailies, shaping the film and tirelessly challenging the cut. You must reconsider what has been done to be sure that it was the right thing to do for the film. Editing can also be seen as a continuity of the writing process. That is the best part of the process I think. I look at editing as like a painter who puts colours together to make a painting. The editing is visible because otherwise you won’t have a painting but invisible in that you can’t see the way it has been done.

How long you get to edit a feature is something that depends on the film and the budget. Let’s say that 14 weeks is standard but it can go from 12 weeks to a year. An ideal time would be twice the shooting duration plus one month. The time you get for editing is changing. It tends to get shorter, sometimes a bit too short for some films, which would benefit from a bit more thinking to reach their right shape. Timing is the main change to editing. Every film is different and needs a different amount of time to build it. Also the number of people you have to deal with has changed. Sometimes the editing room gets filled up with people you’ve never met before in the process.

I would say that there shouldn’t be any difference between editing movies and multi-part series because what matters is the story. And yet there is a big difference, working with a group of editors all going in the same direction, sharing ideas. Dealing with a TV channel and their objectives is another element to have in mind.

A good edit is one that gives birth to the characters and touches the audience. To be a good editor you must challenge yourself tirelessly; challenge your work all the time, get the best of the actors’ performances and shape the film with the best of it.



Jake Roberts 
Brooklyn (pictured),  Starred Up, The Riot Club, Pressure, Trespass Against Us, Hell or High Water,  The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Skins, Misfits

Usually you get involved a few months before filming starts.
I’ll be sent a script. If I’ve not worked with the director before then you meet up, they describe their vision and you give them your thoughts, what struck you about the script, the things you really liked, themes that resonated etc. If you know they’re still working on the script you might offer a few thoughts about areas that you think need work. If it’s a shooting script and they’re heavily into prep then it’s probably best to keep quiet and try to fix them in the edit.

Before I see the rushes I have no preconceptions of how a scene will be cut, whether it’ll be slow or fast, jagged or smooth, nothing. As I watch the material a rhythm and a structure will start to form in my head. This may change several times over the course of viewing as each new angle usually sheds fresh light so you discover the material as it unfolds in front of you. By the end of viewing I tend to have a fairly firm idea of how I think it will fit together only to find, once I start the assembly, that things I thought would work don’t. So you’re constantly revising the plan but certainly by then I have a clear feel for the pace of the scene and that rarely alters dramatically right through to the finished film.



During the shoot the direction comes through the rushes. It should be fairly obvious how the director sees a scene by the way they shoot it. If you get given three angles chances are they don’t want it very cutty, twenty seven you’re probably expected to use most of them, though by no means all. Occasionally when they see your assembly they might say that they had a completely different intention but usually you aren’t far off. Sometimes they had a completely different intention but prefer yours. Sometimes you can see the way they want it go but you have a radical idea in which case I’ll do two assemblies.

Once the shoot is over you tend to work very closely with the director. You work together to constantly refine and reduce the cut until you distill the narrative, emotions and themes into the tightest, most powerful film you can. This is a collaboration rather than a dictatorship. As an editor you’re constantly employing your own taste yet you also adapt your style to a particular director. Some hate to be very cutty, others insist on it. Some hate it when you chase dialogue sync (always seeing the actor who’s speaking lips move), others struggle with any line that isn’t delivered to camera. Some don’t like performances that are too emotional… You get the idea. The point is that the film that results from the collaboration between the director and any given editor will be entirely unique to that pairing.


All the editors featured in this article will be speaking at ACE’s EditFest London on June 24th, sponsored by Televisual. For more information please go to: www.americancinemaeditors.org


Posted 20 June 2017 by Jon Creamer

How to shoot anamorphic on a factual budget

When BBC Studios producer/director Stephen Cooter won a Horizon commission for a new factual film about the search for extra-terrestrials, he wanted to match the style of dramas like The Crown, Doctor Foster and the most recent series of Broadchurch that shoot in true anamorphic widescreen.


The trouble was the factual budget. But together with DoP Paul O’Callaghan, the pair found an innovative way of using regular stills primes and specially-sourced adapters to create a true anamorphic image without using expensive and bulky anamorphic lenses. 


He explains how they gave the film a distinctive cinematic feel.

 

Shooting Anamorphic for BBC Horizon – by Stephen Cooter

 

In early 2016 I pitched an idea about the scientific search for extra-terrestrial intelligence to the long running BBC 2 science documentary strand Horizon.  As this was to be a film about searching for aliens, I was keen for it to feel like a science fiction movie.  My references at the start were Steven Spielberg’s 80s classic “ET”, Spielberg and JJ Abrams’ “Super 8”, Abrams’ Star Trek re-boot and the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things”.  BBC Studios and Horizon have a long track record of technical innovation and this seemed like a good opportunity to try something new.  

 

 

I discussed the project with DoP Paul O’Callaghan who I’d worked with on previous documentary series including Brian Cox’s Human Universe and Forces of Nature.  Paul has shot numerous advertising projects using anamorphic glass – lenses that create the widescreen aspect ratio most commonly seen in feature films - and we talked about the idea of using something similar to give the film a truly cinematic look.  

 

Anamorphic shooting has already begun to creep into terrestrial drama productions, including the BBC’s award-winning “Doctor Foster” and the latest series of ITV’s “Broadchurch”.  For a BBC2 factual commission, the challenge was to find a cost-effective way of shooting anamorphic given that anamorphic lenses can cost up to £500 a day to hire.  

 

Paul and I had used an anamorphic adapter combined with regular prime lenses to film the title sequence of Human Universe and Paul had subsequently shot a couple of features and adverts using lenses he had adapted himself.  We decided this was the best approach as it produced a true anamorphic image, but was a fraction of the size/weight and cost of dedicated anamorphic lenses.   

 

For Horizon we used an uncoated “Iscorama adaptor” - a vintage anamorphic adapter from the late 1960s/70s.  Paul made a custom mount and had the lens adapted, improving the close focus performance and adding a focus gear ring.  We combined this with Zeiss stills primes and an Arri Alexa Mini shooting in 16:9 mode, which when de-squeezed created a 2.39:1 image.  On the road we used DaVinci Resolve to pre-grade and de-squeeze rushes ready for the edit.  

 

 

There were some technical challenges shooting with the setup, particularly because although the close focus of the lens had been improved (from 7 to 5ft) it was still quite poor in practice and close diopter filters needed to be used a lot of the time. The adaptor set-up limited us to just 3 focal lengths - 35mm, 50mm and 85m.  We initially thought this might be a hindrance, but in practice, it gives the photography a consistent and considered feel.  Aside from the cinematic aspect radio, the uncoated glass gives the images a softer more organic look, the image is lower contrast and the lens flares more easily. The vintage glass had good resolution but avoided the clinical, over-sharpened look modern lenses can produce on hi-res digital cameras.  

 

Overall we are both extremely proud of the look we achieved.  While the set-up used is in many ways unique, it demonstrates that this style of shooting is possible on a documentary budget.  And as such, could represent another major crossover from the big screen to factual television.  

 

Stephen Cooter is a Producer Director at BBC Studios Science Unit.  Paul O’Callaghan is a freelance Director of Photography.  

 

Horizon: Strange Signals from Outer Space! will be broadcast on BBC 2 at 9pm on 16th May 2017 in 16:9.  In what is a first for a Horizon in its 54 year history, the film will be repeated on BBC2 at 11.15pm on 18th May in its original 2.39:1 anamorphic aspect ratio as well and being exclusively available in widescreen on the BBC iPlayer from 9pm on the 16th May here: 

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p052kf3f

Posted 15 May 2017 by Jon Creamer
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