Production Essays: Talk before you shoot

The digital era presents choices and issues like never before, so communication is imperative.

Once upon a time, it was all so simple. You hired your camera and shot on film. The neg was sent to the lab for overnight processing, and you'd get a one-light of your rushes back the next morning. The editor would get the rushes and produce an offline edit for approval. From there, it would be into telecine to grade and transfer the selected takes, then to online to conform the edit, composite any visual effects, mix and layback the sound, and then play out the result.

All pretty straightforward stuff but, more importantly perhaps, all of it accepted, standard practice. When film was the only medium, what people now call the "workflow" between production and post had been laid down, tested and refined for the best part of 100 years - and everyone knew where they stood. The past 15 years or so have seen digital entering into the mix, especially at the post-production end, where the advent of the computer, non-linear editing and the ability to manipulate pixels all led to a massive explosion in what was possible. Even so, everyone still knew the process.

Change ... it's a constant

However, the times are a-changing, particularly at the capture end of the business, and change can be unsettling. Digital camera manufacturers are creating new equipment that is making digital cinematography cheaper, faster and better looking than ever before. But most are not especially concerned about what physically happens to your pictures after you leave the set, and there are new ramifications down the line as you move into post-production.

On the upside, the advance of digital at the camera end of the production business is undoubtedly exciting, and brings many benefits. You can manoeuvre digital cameras into more unusual and creative positions than a film camera. You can see what's been shot immediately, without relying on low-quality video taps on set, or waiting until the next day for the one-lights. You can start editing and get a good grade done earlier. You can also check more quickly, and with more accuracy than ever, that VFX shots are going to work as soon as you have shot them by compositing on-set.

However, we hear increasingly from producers and directors that the sheer choice of digital cameras, formats, and backend workflows is confusing. They also encounter unforeseen technological issues that can complicate a project from the set and into post.

The workflows that are emerging between the set and post are embryonic and are constantly being tried, tested and refined. More so than ever these days what you want to shoot, and the way you record the footage, will determine the subsequent post- production process.

It pays to talk

Our advice is to call your post company before a frame of footage is shot. We will talk to the director, director of photography and editor, and work out the most effective and pragmatic way to shoot and finish your project.

We worked on an ad recently, which required both straight live-action photography and high-speed photography. We looked at the options and a discussion was had as to whether digital might be the best way to shoot everything. After consultation, the project was shot on 35mm film because shooting digitally would have meant hiring two digital cameras - one for the straight live action and Phantom HD for high speed. One concern, apart from budget, was that they would have produced different looks, which would have jarred against each other in the edit. In this case, we were able to time warp the particular 35mm shot that needed to be slow-mo'd. This achieved the desired effect without needing digital high-speed cinematography.

Whatever the shooting speed, there's a trade-off between the costs of data-wrangling versus the purchase, processing and telecine of filmstock. Also, high-speed digital footage can sometimes need a lot of post-processing to make the results look good.

Choices and decisions

There are digital cameras that will force your post-production down different editing routes. At the moment, if you shoot with the RED camera, you are likely to end up editing on Apple Final Cut Pro although Avid is working on a more efficient workflow to smooth the way. Other cameras, such as the ARRI D21, Sony F23, Panavision Genesis and Thomson Viper, will take you down the Avid route. We can handle whatever comes our way, but the offline editor may only be set up for one way or the other.

Another project we completed recently was neither moving film nor video, but agreeing the workflow in advance was vital. It was a commercial for Nokia entitled "dance" which used more than 30,000 still images (using digital SLRs) of people enacting a dance routine. The final commercial has a stop-frame look to it, rather like a flick book. Shooting digitally meant we could see if it was going to work immediately. Although we had a large number of stills, we collaborated closely with the editor to ensure the post-production process between offline, conform and VFX ran as smoothly as any normal 35mm shoot.

To add to the state of flux, there's an ever-expanding range of digital cameras. It's great to have the choice, but therein lies the rub. They all have different image sensors and record different versions of HD. Some cameras can use film lenses and will deliver images of outstanding quality and beauty. Some cameras are fine for live action, but just not good enough for shooting blue/green screen material.

There are many new ways of working, but they are still evolving and no-one knows exactly how things will shake down. Sometimes the tried-and-tested ways are best, sometimes they are not. We expect new technology to develop to the point where today's issues cease to be issues. For the time being, whatever and however you want to shoot, we'll help iron out the wrinkles and work out the best workflow for you. It's still good to talk.

- Penny Verbe is the chief executive of Smoke & Mirrors.