Bling Digital, which is part of the SIM Group, was called on to help establish the workflow on Legendary/Universal’s The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon as European mercenary imprisoned within the wall. While being held he sees exactly why the Chinese built this massive barrier in the first place — and it’s otherworldly. This VFX-heavy mystery/fantasy was directed by Yimou Zhang.
We reached out to Bling’s director of workflow services, Jessie Korosi, to talk us through the their process on the film, including working with data from the Arri 65, which at that point hadn’t yet been used on a full-length feature film.
When did you first get involved on The Great Wall and in what capacity?
Bling received our first call from the unit production manager Kwame Parker about providing on-set data management, dailies, VFX and stereo pulls, Avid rentals and a customized process for the digital workflow for The Great Wall in December of 2014.
At this time the information was pretty vague, but outlined some of the bigger challenges, like the film being shot in multiple locations within China, and that the Arri 65 camera may be used, which had not yet been used on a full-length feature. From this point on I worked with our internal team to figure out exactly how we would tackle such a challenge. This also required a lot of communication with the software developers to ensure that they would be ready to provide updated builds that could support this new camera.
After talks with the DP Stuart Dryburgh, the studio and a few other members of production, a big part of my job and anyone on my workflow team is to get involved as early as possible, therefore our role doesn’t necessarily start on day one of principal photography. We want to get in and start testing and communicating with the rest of the crew well ahead of time so that by the first day, the process runs like a well-oiled machine and the client never has to be concerned with “week-one kinks.”
Why did they opt for Arri 65 camera and what were some of the challenges you encountered?
Many people who we work with love Arri. The cameras are known for recording beautiful images. For anyone who may not be a huge Arri fan, they might dislike the lower resolution in some of the cameras, but it is very uncommon that someone doesn’t like the final look of the recorded files. Enter the Arri 65, a new camera that can record 6.5K files (6560×3100) and every hour recorded is a whopping 2.8TB per hour!
When dealing with this kind of data consumption you really need to re-evaluate your pipeline. The cards are not able to be downloaded by traditional card readers — you need to use vaults. Let’s say someone records three hours of footage in a day that equals 8.7TB of data. If you’re sending that info to another facility even using say a 500Mb/s Internet line, that would take 38 hours to send! LTO-ing this kind of media is also dreadfully slow. For The Great Wall we ended up setting up a dedicated LTO area that had eight decks running at any given time.
Aside from data consumption, we faced the challenge of having no dailies software that could even read the files. We worked with Colorfront to get a new build-out that could work, and luckily, after having been through this same ordeal recording Arri Open Gate on Warcraft, we knew how to make this happen and set the client at ease.
Were you on set? Near set? Remote?
Our lab was located in the production office, which also housed editorial. Considering all of the traveling this job entailed, from Beijing and Qingdao to Gansu, we were mostly working remotely. We wanted to be as close to production as possible, but still within a controlled environment.
The dailies set-up was right beside editor Craig Wood’s suite, making for a close-knit workflow with editorial, which was great. Craig would often pull our dailies team into his suite to view how the edit was coming along, which really helped when assessing how the dailies color was working and referencing scenes in the cut when timing pickup shots.
How did you work with the director and DP?
At the start of the show we established some looks with the DP Stuart Dryburgh, ASC. The idea was that we would handle all of the dailies color in the lab. The DIT/DMT would note as much valuable information on set about the conditions that day and we would use our best judgment to fulfill the intended look. During pre-production we used a theatre at the China Film Group studio to screen and review all the test materials and dial in this look.
With our team involved from the very beginning of these color talks, we were able to ensure that decisions made on color and data flow were going to track through each department, all the way to the end of the job. It’s very common for decisions to be made color wise at the start of a job that get lost in the shuffle once production has wrapped. Plus, sometimes there isn’t anyone available who recognizes why certain decisions were made up front when you‘re in the post stage.
Can you talk us through the workflow?
In terms of workflow, the Arri 65 was recording media onto Codex cards, which were backed up onset with a VaultS. After this media was backed up, the Codex card would be forwarded onto the lab. Within the lab we had a VaultXL that would then be used to back this card up to the internal drive. Unfortunately, you can’t go directly from the card to your working drive, you need to do two separate passes on the card, a “Process” and a “Transfer.”
The Transfer will move the media off of the card and on to an internal drive on the Vault. The Process will then convert all of the native camera files into .ARI files. Once this media is processed and on the internal drive, we were able to move it onto our SAN. From there we were able to run this footage through OSD and make LTO backups. We also made additional back-ups to G-Tech GSpeed Studio drives that would be sent back to LA. However, for security purposes as well as efficiency, we encrypted and shipped the bare drives, rather then the entire chassis. This meant that when the drives were received in LA, we were able to mount them into our dock and work directly off of them, i.e no need to wait on any copies.
Another thing that required a lot of back and forth with the DI facility was ensuring that our color pipeline was following the same path they would take once they hit final color. We ended up having input LUTs for any camera that recorded a non-LogC color space. In regards to my involvement, during production in China I had a few members of my team on the ground and I was overseeing things remotely. Once things came back to LA and we were working out of Legendary, I became much more hands-on.
What kind of challenges did providing offline editorial services in China bring, and how did that transition back to LA?
We sent a tech to China to handle the set-up of the offline editorial suites and also had local contacts to assist during the run of the project. Our dailies technicians also helped with certain questions or concerns that came up.
Shipping gear for the Avids is one thing, however shipping consoles (desks) for the editors would have been far too heavy. Therefore this was probably one of the bigger challenges, ensuring the editors were working with the same caliber of workspace they were used to in Los Angeles.
The transition of editorial from China to LA required Dave French, director of post engineering, and his team to mirror the China set-up in LA and have both up and running at the same time to streamline the process. Essentially, the editors needed to stop cutting in China and have the ability to jump on a plane then resume cutting in LA immediately.
Once back in LA, you continued to support VFX, stereo and editorial, correct?
Within the Legendary office we played a major role in building out the technology and workflow behind what was referred to as the Post Hub. This Post Hub was made up of a few different systems all KVM’d into one desk that acted as the control center for VFX and stereo reviews, VFX and stereo pulls and final stereo tweaks. All of this work was controlled by Rachel McIntire, our dailies, VFX and stereo management tech. She was a jack-of-all-trades who played a huge role in making the post workflow so successful.
For the VFX reviews, Rachel and I worked closely with ILM to develop a workflow to ensure that all of the original on set/dailies color metadata would carry into the offline edit from the VFX vendors. It was imperative that during this editing session we could add or remove the color, make adjustments and match exactly what they saw on set, in dailies and in the offline edit. Automating this process through values from the VFX Editors EDL was key.
Looking back on the work provided, what would you have done differently knowing what you know now?
I think the area I would focus on next time around would be upgrading the jobs database. With any job we manage at Bling, we always ensure we keep a log of every file recorded and any metadata that we track. At the time, this was a little weak. Since then, I have been working on overhauling this database and allowing creative to access all camera metadata, script metadata, location data, lens data, etc. in one centralized location. We have just used this on our first job in a client facing capacity and I think it would have done wonders for our VFX and stereo crews on The Great Wall. It is all too often that people are digging around for information already captured by someone else. I want to make sure there is a central repository for that data.