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Cinematographer Ben Allan ACS shows how a well-designed workflow and his own post-production skills took a feature film to completion with a minimal crew and budget.


DP Ben Allan has now made three, small budget feature films with director, writer and producer Gerald Lawson. The latest, ‘McLean’s Money’, was made over a three year period. Ben handled not only the photography but also the edit and the colour grade and produced the DCP. Here, he describes the production and talks about the skills he has gained during his years of experience, and the tools now available to digital filmmakers that have made this project possible.

Ben’s and Gerald’s relationship began when Gerald started contacting production companies in his local Newcastle area in preparation for his first project ‘Little Lies’ in 2003. His contact at one company advised that, due to his limited finances, Gerald would do best to work with a cinematographer who was also able to edit the film. A DP’s intimate knowledge of the footage and ability to control the shoot would be huge time-savers and an advantage generally across the production.

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Because this company had worked with Ben before, they recommended him to Gerald, and from that time their filmmaking relationship has continued and expanded. Since their first project was completed in 2004, Ben notes that the technological changes he and Gerald have witnessed together have been substantial.

Ready to Shoot
Production on ‘McLean’s Money’ commenced in 2009. A major influence on the film’s looks and their procedure on set was the availability of the Sony EX1. “The EX1 not only had a high quality lens and a full set of professional manual controls, but could also be used with the Steadicam Pilot camera stabilizing system,” Ben said. “The Pilot is designed for fairly small, handheld cameras as opposed to shoulder mounts, and is therefore very flexible, getting good results in most any situation this project was going to need. The camera’s specs and the flexibility of the rig together opened a lot of options for us.”

‘McLean’s Money’ is a contemporary Australian comedy about the members of two contrasting families. They are initially pulled together by tragedy but manage to maintain their sense of humour and learn from their mistakes. “Gerald’s filmmaking style is straightforward and suited this script. We went for an essentially naturalistic look but took advantage of the Steadicam to add some dynamic moves and draw viewers in. Several shots that would traditionally have needed a dolly and grip suddenly became possible for us. There was no local grip up around Newcastle where we were shooting, and organising a crew to travel from Sydney in a truck was well outside our budget,” said Ben.

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On every shoot they had the EX1 on the Steadicam ready to go, plus either a second EX1 or EX3 on a tripod. With this kit they could cover any scene the way Gerald wanted, instantly. It also meant they could make decisions quickly. On a production like this, in which locations were chosen and organized on the fly, this flexibility saved them time and money.

“For example, while shooting a fairly long sequence, we found ourselves working next to a building site that was causing a lot of problems with sound. When other problems emerged later, we opted to shift locations in the middle. This is one of the virtues of a small scale production with a small crew and light portable gear. You aren’t stuck in a compromised situation,” Ben explained.

Sony EX Workflow
“When we started production, outboard recorders were not nearly as prevalent as they are now. The AJA Ki Pro was available by then but we weren’t able to secure one. Once we got going, we decided to continue with the same onset workflow throughout and found the EX codec actually held up very well in post – 35mbps, 8-bit, 4:2:0 doesn’t sound impressive to photographers now, of course. Nevertheless, the images look good. They have been very malleable in the grade and hold up well on the big screen.”

Initially they recorded to SxS cards until, about a year into production, the higher capacity SDHC cards became available. “We continued using FCP6 for the edit all the way, instead of upgrading to version 7, but using these higher capacity cards with the MxM adaptor was too great an advantage to miss. We could get through a full day of shooting without any on set data wrangling. In this case it wasn’t a budgetary decision but a workflow choice. I could deal with all of the file management in a controlled environment at a comfortable, sane pace.”

Shooting on 'McLean's Money' began in April 2009 (left) and completed in February 2012.
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When Final Cut Pro 7 was released, they already had a large quantity of footage and several different versions underway. They decided to stay with FCP 6, as it could do everything they needed and was stable and solid. Ben upgraded his other machines to FCP7 but kept ‘McLean’s Money’ going on a dedicated Mac Pro running FCP6.

Sequence Evolution
The fact that the shoots for this film have been spread out over time, with a period of editing in between, has had certain advantages. “The project has had an interesting evolution. We began with two main shoots covering the key sequences with the main actors – one lasting three weeks and the other two weeks. The subsequent shoots were pickups and linking scenes, prompted by the edit,” Ben said.

“We might come to a stage where a couple of scenes were working well in the edit but the area in between remained undefined. We could take cues from the existing work to plan the next shoot. We also had time to think about how we could make those scenes work. Conversely, the outcomes of some of the scenes shot later have made earlier ones redundant.”

Taking advantage of his DP’s knowledge of the footage and close relationship with the director has continued beyond the edit and into post. Grading is one of Ben Allan’s specialties. He has developed and continues to improve and augment a suite of colour grading tools for Final Cut Pro calledThe Grading Sweet, a series of windows, filters and gradients to place into the timeline. Consequently, the grade was always on his mind when setting up each shoot.

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“Should I try to control the look now, or wait to manipulate it later? I was constantly evaluating the time we had available on set had the results I was likely to get in post. For example, while darkening down walls can be tricky on set, it can be done quite effectively in the grade. But getting the light to catch in someone’s eyes at a crucial moment can’t really be matched in post, so that’s where I’d invest my time,” he said.

Sound and Light
This aspect of working on Gerald’s films has been exciting for Ben and exposed him to the spectrum of filmmaking skills. “I wouldn’t say it’s the best method for every film of course, but basically, with the exception of the music, the entire post production was completed by one person on one Mac Pro – me. I find it amazing that this is possible. It gives you a lot of flexibility and control, and a chance to look into every detail and balance it all, dynamically.”

The sound was all recorded via the EX1’s internal recording and most of the track laying and dialogue editing was done in FCP. Then the 20-minute reels were taken into Sound Track Pro as .xml files for finishing of the sound design and mixing. Now that Sound Track is due to be discontinued Ben faces a decision, and will probably choose between Apple Logic Pro and Avid Pro Tools.

“We mainly stuck with the Sony onboard monitors on set,” Ben said. “This both kept the weight and set-up time down and added to our flexibility, suiting the way we moved from location to location. Only on a couple of scenes did I get caught out and find later that the focus was compromised. But on every other occasion the onboard monitors worked for us. Actually, I preferred to devote the time and money we might have spent on monitoring, to on-set lighting.”

In the three before-after pairs below, the larger image shows Ben's colour grading work using his FCP grading plug-ins from The Grading Sweet.
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The story called for shooting in places familiar to most audiences such as offices, interiors of family houses, hospital rooms, where viewers know instinctively how the lighting should look and feel. “Situations like these give a production nowhere to hide,” Ben remarked. “We had to make those scenes look attractive, interesting and realistic, all at once. Battle scenes and sunsets may win awards, but effectively lighting a small, ordinary room where two people simply sit and talk poses its own dramatic challenges.”

Embedded Grade
Because Ben’s Grading Sweet software resides as a plug-in in the timeline with the clips, he could start grading while he was still editing, and the grade would travel from there with the clips. “While there are advantages to waiting till you have locked the edit and are ready to move on, this way we could start grading progressively to prepare for early screenings and previews. Over time we could keep tweaking and improving the grade,” he said.

“I might add a gradient to a sky or add some more shadows to a shot or a whole scene. The grades would stay with those shots, though we would still have access to the source material. If the cut changed in any way later, as soon as it was re-cut, the images could be re-graded and re-rendered in the timeline.

“Because this project evolved so much from first assembly to the final version, it was very convenient to have the grade embedded in the edit. Gerald, the director, is a doctor normally and travels between several regional hospitals when he’s not working on his films. I would initially work through a cut and grade on my own, and convert the clips to small sized ordinary Windows Media files that any computer Gerald might have access to could handle. He carried the clips with him on his hospital rounds, checked out the edit and grade in his spare time. As he made suggestions for changes, he referred to clips and frames by number and timecode.”

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Editing the Future
Ben is now contemplating where to move on editorial software after FCP7. “In some ways, FCP X has moved in directions that don’t really serve my interests and, like some others we are wondering if we should shift back to Avid or Premiere Pro, and have investigated Editshare Lightworks also.”

However, as a colourist, Ben is quite interested in the workflow between FCP X and Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve. While he loses the ability to keep the grade in the timeline that he has with the Grading Sweet, having the all the tools in version 9 of Resolve is very compelling for him.

Ben also feels that Blackmagic Design have made some worthwhile decisions regarding their digital Cinema Camera. “Instead of aiming for the huge sensor and high resolution several other new cinema cameras offer, they have developed this very useful workflow centred on Resolve with a camera that can feed abundant colour depth into the software. In other words, having already worked out the recording system, workflow-to-edit and grading in their earlier products, all they needed was an image sensor to complete the scenario.”

The DP in Post
Overall, Ben believes the cinematographer can no longer rely solely on knowledge of image capture and cameras to effectively see him or her through a production. A DP needs a sound understanding of data management, workflows and grading. Ben feels fortunate that early in his career he got a job in television that required him to do both photography and editing. He loved taking projects from lighting and camera set ups on set to the finished product, and this ability has proven just as viable on long form projects. Faced with a larger scale production, he admits that it would be hard to have to delegate.

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“Some debate is going on currently regarding the role of cinematographers in post production,” Ben said. “Do they need to be there for the grade, should they be paid for their time? Given that the studio will be paying the colourist, director, post supervisor – all to guide and monitor the grade – why add someone else? Many cinematographers would counter that they are the creators of that image and are they only ones who know how to get the most from it and make it work with the rest of the production. Economics may be the deciding factor guiding the argument.

“On ‘McLean’s Money’ however, I had been the designated colourist from the start. My skills made that the best option. I had direct final control over the grade because on set, I could shoot with that knowledge. It makes the phrase, ‘I’ll fix it in post’ much more meaningful. For example, through my experience, I can estimate that something will take me 15 minutes to organise on set but three hours of trial and error in post.”

Next-Gen Cinematographers
He sees the next generation of cinematographers learning how to make these decisions as they come up through the ranks. The debate going on now will dissipate over time, although the way the industry works is pretty deeply entrenched. “I wouldn’t say that all DPs will end up grading their own work. But they will have the skills and knowledge to do it. The tools in grading systems available now – like Resolve – are so accessible that this is becoming more and more possible. It also means that you can communicate with the colourist in very precise, direct terms about what you want to see.”

Director Gerald Lawson and lead actor Henri Szeps discuss a sequence on set.
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The DCP output for ‘McLean’s Money’ represented a substantial change from Gerald’s and Ben’s previous project ‘Blue Lies’ in 2008, for which all of the distribution had been either from PAL DVD or from E-Cinema, essentially a 1.3K MPEG file, or 720p HD. Most cinemas in Australia were set up to play this format. Interestingly, at the first cast and crew screening in December 2011, they hadn’t been able to produce a DCP and simply played it from a MacBook Pro as a HD file, straight into a digital projector with surprisingly good results.

OpenDCP
Since then they have adopted the OpenDCP software, which has become easier to use. The user starts the process by creating an image file for each frame out of FCP using Compressor, resulting in their case in about 160,000 files. OpenDCP then converts these to JPEG 2000 and XYZ colourspace files. As a separate process, the files are wrapped in an MXF wrapper, and an MXF file of the sound is created before everything is packed together into the DCP file.

“Even setting aside the need to handle that many frames and perform the conversions, the process is not exactly simple and easy,” said Ben. “But it works well and the quality is excellent. On our 12-core Mac Pro the conversion process alone of the tif files to JPEG 2000 took about nine hours. So it isn’t quick but it compares favourably to 35mm film output, and it’s quite a bit cheaper.”

BenAllan ACS works from The Film Bakery production company in Sydney, handling projects from features and broadcast to marketing and online. www.thefilmbakery.com

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: Courtesy of Ben Allan ACS & Novofilms