‘EXIT’ is the first feature film by director Marek Polgar. The film has been shot over three years on the RED ONE camera. Cail Young at Inspiration Studios, who carried out post production, talks about his workflow and taking advantage of RED’s colour science.

Throughout the project Cail Young at Inspiration Studios in Melbourne provided cameras and digital workflow support. As well as the complete RED ONE package with lenses and support, Inspiration provided the clapper/loader with data management kit for varying environments including guerrilla city shooting, rushes and offline file generation - from very early RED footage in 2008 through subsequent versions. They also prepared the media for VFX, and the online and pre-grade conversion of the entire film to DPX.

Camera and Kit
“The goal for us at first was to help out an independent film that looked promising,” said Cail. “But over the three years it's become an example of how future proof the RED camera was back then - all the imagery from those days is benefiting from RED’s newer colour science tools. It's been a good case study for us in terms of providing low-cost online workflows.

“The camera was an original RED ONE, at first with Super Speeds for lenses, and later changing to RED Pro Primes and a wide Zeiss Ultra Prime. To create the look the director and DP were after, optical diffusion and graduated NDs were used throughout. The data kit was basically a MacBook Pro and a couple of hard drives, but for the more mobile days we would shoot to the RED drives and backup after wrap on a Mac Pro at our office. As the shoot wore on, we evolved our data kit to include eSATA hard drive bays and portable power systems as well as pocket-size CF card backup devices for the days we spent on foot in the city.”
Behind the Camera

The locations varied from city rooftops to house interiors to high rise office blocks. A small amount of handheld and Steadicam footage is included in the film but they mostly captured tripod and dolly shots. This was DP Sasha Whitehouse’s first experience shooting with the RED ONE. Prior to this he’d been shooting with the Panasonic HVX with a 35mm lens adapter, which he hadn’t found was an ideal set-up, and he got to like the RED’s shooting features from the beginning. The RED footage was supplemented later with additional material shot in public places around Melbourne, using a Canon 7D for better access.

Almost all scenes were shot in daylight, with a single camera and a lighting kit to give enough control for the look the director wanted. Fluorescent lights were mainly used, Kino and HMI 2.5s. At first, the RED image quality under tungsten lights was hard to control but this improved with later firmware updates. Accurate on-set monitoring of the actual looks of the image, for which they used broadcast monitors, took getting used to. The ‘false colour’ monitoring mode, which uses colour-coding to represent exposure levels across the image, has been useful to Sasha.

Constant Beta
Early on, performance in low light conditions was a problem, although the camera maintained image quality well under very bright lights, adding further detail as light increased. Low light image quality improved with later updates but could still be an issue until the new MX chip was released, although the MX was not available before EXIT finished shooting. The fact that the camera is in a constant ‘beta phase’ has been another challenge. For example, after Sasha had gotten used to the false colour mode, it failed to work in a later firmware update. When it was restored later on, the colours used to represent exposure had changed.

The Inspiration team started out using Redrushes for rushes, as there was no alternative at that stage. Cail said, “While we did use Clipfinder for shot review, we weren't using it for offline files. Eventually we invested in a Red Rocket accelerator card and used RocketCINE for rushes.” Marek and Sasha hadn’t tried to comprehensively assess and compare the footage from start to end of production until they were ready for the final assembly and edit, but the changes that RED image quality had undergone were very evident. Initially, for example, RED had not addressed skin tones specifically but these also improved with firmware updates and, since the shoot, particularly with the new chip.

For the VFX selects, Cail needed to gather together all of the VFX plates and run them through the same gamma curve. The effects team at Chroma Media had asked for all the shots in one QuickTime file at 2K and 10 bit. Scott Zero at Chroma said that the type of effects required were mainly to clean up and improve the looks of the footage, such as removing stray people or objects from the set, reflections and colour aberrations, and replacing skies. On one shoot in particular, the RED camera overheated and generated a vertical line through the footage, which Scott removed.

Cail said, “I tried all my usual tools for this and none of them could handle the combination of three year old media, the need to apply the gamma curve and reliable export of such a large QuickTime file.” Later, he tried using STORM from The Foundry. STORM enabled Cail to import the media, select the VFX shots and put them onto a timeline. He then built a look with RedColor2 and RedGamma2 set in the RED effect, leaving the colour temperature and exposure alone. He could select all the shots on the timeline and apply the look, then export the timeline as a single QuickTime file as required, to deliver to the VFX team.

RED Effect
“The ‘RED effect’, one of the effects STORM can apply to clips, allows adjustment of the RAW decoding. We were delivering the VFX footage to Chroma using the most recent RED colour science and needed to be able to apply the same look to all delivered footage regardless of its age,” Cail explained. “Some of the improvements in colour science - redcolor2 and redgamma2 - are reduced noise in the blue channel under low light conditions and better colour accuracy overall. In particular, images show less noise in low light, and better skin tones”.

Also, because it interprets the RAW footage recorded by the camera, the new technique can be applied to any footage shot on RED, old or new. “The main advantage was that we were able to deliver footage to the grade that already had great skin tones and excellent retention of the RED's wide dynamic range, without forcing the colourist to 'fix' skin tones across the board as would have been the case even just a couple of months before the shoot ended. The project wrapped before the MX sensor was delivered to us, but it does make a huge difference to shadow noise.”

Offline Edit
The offline for this film was done continuously over the three year period after each shooting block. Then editor Patrick McCabe sat down and put the whole film together late last year. Cail explained that without quite a powerful computer, which may not even have existed in 2008, RED footage can’t be edited directly, which is why they needed to convert and generate offline files. Hardware developments have made this easier to deal with in the last three years, but it's still necessary for anything larger than a music video.

Patrick McCabe had entered the project in 2010 and worked at various times during last 12 months of production. About 90 per cent of the footage he worked with was from the RED, which he intercut with the footage from around the city and some time lapse shots that had been recorded on the 7D, plus some stills by an outside photographer shot on a different camera. The time lapse footage was assembled in After Effects. Patrick separated these different media types, and the VFX shots, to different layers on the FCP time line, which helped the team at Inspiration conform the media correctly.

“Patrick sent a folder of bins, which STORM accepted straight away, and within ten seconds it was exporting the sequence that we had been struggling with,” Cail said. “We also put the whole film through STORM to prepare the pre-grade master. It was really useful to work on a stable product with a timeline that let me scrub around the whole film.”

Through the Filmmaker’s Eye
For Director Marek Polgar of Surface Tension Films, making ‘EXIT’ has meant learning new ways to control the looks and deliver the message of a film. “In moving from 16mm and lower end digital shoots to the RED, the biggest advantage for me was the large flat screen broadcast monitors. Being able to see the frame and performance accurately was a major shift directorially. As the RED shoots raw and displays a representation of the image through the monitor, it ‘s not an ideal indicator of the final image but this wasn’t such a concern for me. I was trusting Sasha’s ability to compose the light in the image and we also planned to give it a fairly abstract, final colour grade – pallid skin tones, washed out greys and blues, tobacco yellows - quite a surreal world that wouldn’t feel like the city we shot in.”

“The main challenge of the 7D footage, as opposed to the RED, was the lack of information in the image. You can’t grade or manipulate 7D footage to anywhere near the extent you can RED, but what it lacked in visual capacity, it made up for in mobility, allowing us to shoot in several places we couldn’t reach with a full film crew. Furthermore, we used it specifically to evoke the city as a separate character in the film, not within scenes. In this way, the low-fi feel of the footage, including artefacts, worked for the narrative.”

“The creative grade, done on LUSTRE, had four predominant looks that we wanted to develop, but we were concerned about holding the looks together as one piece. The city that the main character moves through is a maze, and we wanted to visually give a sense of her moving through different worlds, although we shot in the one city. Our colourist very successfully unified the disparate looks we wanted to achieve. There was abundant information in the frame, which allowed us to push the grade in the direction we wanted to go.”

While it may have been easier to have stuck with their original RED software to maintain a more consistent quality throughout production, Marek pointed out the value of having competent, flexible editorial and post production support like Patrick and Inspiration Studios. “We came to RED after a number of digital projects where we had no one handling the backend. Managing the production and post workflow had been much harder, and coordinating the varying skills and knowledge among the crew when you’re not an expert is something I wouldn’t do again. We ultimately achieved our creative goals because Inspiration could handle the technical components to get us through.”
www.exit-movie.com www.inspirationstudios.com.au

Words: Adriene Hurst Images: Courtesy of Surface Tension Films and Inspiration Studios