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The Path‘s post path to UHD

By Randi Altman

On a recent visit to the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of meeting the post team behind Hulu’s The Path, which stars Aaron Paul and Hugh Dancy. The show is about a cult — or as their members refer to it, a movement — that on the outside looks like do-gooders preaching peace and love, but on the inside there are some freaky goings-on.

The first time I watched The Path, I was taken with how gorgeous the picture looked, and when I heard the show was posted and delivered in UHD, I understood why.

“At the time we began to prep season one — including the pilot — Hulu had decided they would like all of their original content shows to deliver in UHD,” explains The Path producer Devin Rich. “They were in the process of upgrading their streaming service to that format so the viewers at home, who had the capability, could view this show in its highest possible quality.”

For Rich (Parenthood, American Odyssey, Deception, Ironside), the difference that UHD made to the picture was significant. “There is a noticeable difference,” he says. “For lack of better words, the look is more crisp and the colors pop. There, of course, is a larger amount of information in a UHD file, which gives us a wider range to make it look how we want it to, or at least closer to how we want it to look.”

L-R: Tauzhan Kaiser, Craig Burdick (both standing), Jacqueline LeFranc and Joe Ralston.

While he acknowledges that as a storyteller UHD “doesn’t make much of a difference” because scripts won’t change, his personal opinion is that “most viewers like to feel as if they are living within the scene rather than being a third-party to the scene.” UHD helps get them there, as does the team at NBCUniversal StudioPost, which consists of editor Jacqueline LeFranc, who focuses on the finishing, adding titles, dropping in the visual effects and making the final file; colorist Craig Budrick; lead digital technical operations specialist Joe Ralston, who focuses on workflow; and post production manager Tauzhan Kaiser.

They were all kind enough to talk to us about The Path’s path to UHD.

Have you done an UHD workflow on any other shows?
Ralston: We have a lot of shows that shoot UHD or high resolution, but The Path was our first television show that finished UHD all the way through.

What is it shot on?
Ralston: They shoot Red 3840×2160, and they also shoot 4800×2700, so almost 5K. UHD is technically twice the height and twice the width of HD, so while it’s still 16×9, resolution-wise it’s double.

From an infrastructure perspective, were you guys prepared to deal with all that data?
Ralston: Yes. At the facility here at NBCUniversal StudioPost, not only do we do TV work, but there’s remastering work — all the centennial titles, for example.

Kaiser: We we’ve done Spartacus. All Quiet on the Western Front, The Birds, Buck Privates, Dracula (1931), Frankenstein, Out of Africa, Pillow Talk, The Sting, To Kill a Mockingbird, Touch of Evil, Double Indemnity, Holiday Inn and King of Jazz.

Ralston: The infrastructure as far as storage and monitoring were already in place here. We knew that this was coming. So slowly the facility has been preparing and gearing up for it. We had been ready, but this was really the first that requested end-to-end UHD. Usually, we do a show that maybe it’s shot UHD or 5K, but they finish in HD, so when we leave the editorial room, we’re then in an HD world. In this case, we were not.

LeFranc: Joe’s group, which is digital tech ops, doesn’t really exist in other places that I know of. They develop, train and work with everybody else in the facility to develop these kind of workflows in order to get ahead of it. So we are prepared, adequately trained and aware of all the pitfalls and any other concerns there might be. That’s a great thing for us, because it’s knowledge.

Other shows have gone UHD, but some in season two, and they were playing catch up in terms of workflow.
Ralston: We’d been thinking about it for a long time. Like I said, the difference with this show, versus some of the other ones who do it is that everyone else, when it got to color, went to HD. This one, when we got to color, we stayed UHD all the way through from there on out.

So, that was really the big difference for a show like this. The big challenges for this one were — and Jacqueline can go into it a little bit more — when you get into things like titling or creating electronic titles, there’s not a lot of gear out there that does that.

Jacqueline, can you elaborate on that?
LeFranc: There were obstacles that I encountered when trying to establish the initial workflow. So, for example, the character generator that is used to create the titles has an option for outputting 4K, but after testing it I realized it wasn’t 4K. It looked like it was just up-rezed.

So I came up with a workflow where, in the character generator, we would make the title larger than we needed it to be and then size it down in Flame. Then we needed a new UHD monitor, the Sony BVMX300. The broadcast monitor didn’t work anymore, because if you want to see UHD in RGB, it has to have a quad-link output.

Craig, did your color process change at all?
Budrick: No, there wasn’t really any change for me in color. The creative process is still the creative process. The color corrector supports a higher resolution file, so it wasn’t an issue of needing new equipment or anything like that.

What systems do you use?
Budrick: We are primarily an Autodesk facility, so we use Flame, Flame Premium and Lustre for color. We also have Avids.

Can you walk us through the workflow?
Ralston: We don’t do the dailies on this project here. It’s all done in New York at Bling. We receive all the camera master files. While they do use drones and a couple of other cameras, a large percent of the show is shot on Epic Red Dragon at 3840×2160.

We get all those camera master files and load them onto our server. Then we receive an Avid bin or sequence from the client and bring that into our Avid in here and we link to those camera master files on the SAN. Once they’re linked, we then have a high-res timeline we can play through. We take the low-res offline version that they gave us and we split it — our editor goes through it and makes sure that everything’s there and matched.

Once that part is complete, we transcode that out to the Avid codec DNX-HR444, which is basically 440Mb and a UHD file that the Avid is outputting. Once we get that UHD file out of the Avid, we flip that UHD DNX-MXF file into a DPX sequence that is a UHD 3840×2160 DPX sequence. That’s where Craig would pick up on color. He would take that DPX sequence and color from there.

Craig, in terms of the look of the show, what direction were you given?
Budrick: They shoot in New York, so the DP Yaron Orbach is in New York. Because of that distance, I had a phone conversation with them to start the look of the show. Then I do a first-day pass, and then he receives the file. Then, he just gives me notes via email on each scene. Then he gets the second file, and hopefully I’m there.

Can you give me an example of a note that he has given?
Budrick: It just might be, you know, let’s add some saturation, or let’s bring this scene down. Maybe make it more moody. Bring down the walls.

Overall, as the show has gone along and the stories have developed it’s gotten a little darker and more twisted, it’s leaned more toward a moody look and not a whole lot of happy.

Ralston: Because of the distance between us and the DP, we shipped a color-calibrated Sony HD monitor to New York. We wanted to make sure that what he was looking at was an exact representation of what Craig was doing.

Jacqueline, any challenges from your perspective other than the titles and stuff?
LeFranc: Just the differences that I noticed — the render time takes a little longer, obviously, because the files are a little bigger. We have to use certain SAN volumes, because some have larger bandwidths.

Ralston: We have 13 production volumes here, and for this particular show — like the feature mastering that we do — the volume is 156TB Quantum that is tuned for 4K. So, in other words, it performs better with these larger files on it.

Did you experiment at all at the beginning?
Ralston: For the first three episodes we had a parallel workflow. Everything we did in UHD, we did in HD as well — we didn’t want the producer showing up to a screening and running into a bandwidth issue. In doing this, we realized we weren’t experiencing bandwidth issues. We kind of underestimated what our SAN could do. So, we abandoned the HD.

Do you think finishing in UHD will be the norm soon?
Ralston: We were unofficially told that this time next year we should plan on doing network shows this way.

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