The Insider's Guide to Production: Post-Production - Making the grade

Changes to the workflow of a telecine session will allow for creativity to sit more comfortably alongside technical processes.

"Telecine starts at nine." A familiar phrase around Soho but one that often carries the unsaid clause, "and finishes God knows when". There is always a certain hesitation when asked to estimate the timing of a telecine booking. Where certain variables such as "number of shots" can be readily quantified, others, such as "amount of creativity", are slightly more nebulous.

There is always the desire to maintain creative options throughout the post-production process. Unfortunately, a telecine session can sometimes become a quagmire of film cans and edit lists; within which the creative purpose can flounder.

In the past, things were different. Unlike today, the telecine session came at the end of post-production, when a film edit was reproduced as a final graded film print and sent to a video post- house to be transferred to tape. With every shot in its proper place, it could be graded within the hour and, given that it was only as long as the commercial, transferred in a few minutes.

Nowadays, despite huge improvements in image quality and incredible advances in colour manipulation, we are totally disadvantaged by having the telecine session at the start of the post-production chain. We are always working from out-of-context source material and whole unedited takes. Colourists try to simulate the final conform by using still stores or disks to ensure continuity, and as an aid to visualise the creative impact of our work, but it is a compromise.

The reality is that a telecine session today typically combines two processes - one technical, the other creative - that would be better kept apart.

No creative team would wish to waste time watching an editor load rushes into an Avid and yet this is similar to what is asked of a client in telecine.

Sometimes more time is spent winding through reel after reel of film than is spent actually grading it.

It is not surprising then, that the finished graded selects can often be improved upon by regrading the final master conform. Time and budget permitting, this is accomplished by returning to the suite and, whilst accepting the limitations of a video source, there is a concentration of creativity to these sessions that can be missing from the film transfer that preceded it.

Despite this, because so much more can be achieved within the colour processing rooms of today, the telecine transfer has assumed a pre-eminent role in post-production. It could, however, be a much better experience and with this aim in mind, The Mill are keen to introduce a new data workflow solution.

We have installed a new Spirit telecine that is also a data scanner capable of exporting 2K data files in real time. This is not a complicated process and does not require creative input.

By producing data rather than video, we can capture the full dynamic range of the original film. Every benefit of film origination, from exposure latitude to repositioned ability and format adaptation, is maintained.

Nothing is compromised through the rest of the post- process. We are trying to make The Mill a "data centric" environment, which means evolving new data-grading rooms that allow the high quality of this new RGB Spirit to be available to more colour suites than the traditional use pattern allowed.

Believing that technical and creative don't fit comfortably in a single session, our producers will be encouraging clients to provide the film a day (or, at worst, a few hours) before the grade so it can be scanned in advance.

The colour grade will now happen as a second process. Clients will arrive and will be presented with a conformed version of the Avid EDL. The grade will offer total flexibility within a real-time environment that will allow for a more creative input.

Several approaches to a grade can be made and presented as final versions within the suite. Once finalised, the colour decisions are appended to the source shots and to whatever handles of these that have been scanned.

For those ads that make heavy use of visual effects it will be possible, in The Mill's new data-grading suites, to put a looser conform together, possibly even combining foreground and background elements for a more balanced look. Even the most complex of spots will distil down to a "grade conform" of perhaps a few minutes in length.

Though the introduction of these methods has only just begun, a new projection-based data grading room has already been opened to exploit some of this new technology. We are on the way to producing a more flexible - and more creative - environment.

The technical and creative advantages of having the original 2K scans, the graded elements and effect shots all available to the 2D and 3D workstations, regardless of the compositing resolution, will be readily exploited by all of our departments.

In the near future, there will be an unprecedented demand for content to be supplied across an increasingly diverse media structure. Sky is soon to start broadcasting major sporting events in high definition. Broadcasting on a global stage will push this HDTV experience to the fore. I predict that within a year, a finished TV ad will need to not only be of the same quality but will be adaptable for every other type of media, from digital cinema to mobile phones.

So, has the creative art of telecine gone full circle? In the long term, a data-centric workflow will allow for the demands of an even more quality- conscious and varied future.

- Seamus O'Kane is a senior telecine artist at The Mill.

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