Arraiy 4.11.19

Category Archives: Emmy Awards

The Kominsky Method‘s post brain trust: Ross Cavanaugh and Ethan Henderson

By Iain Blair

As Bette Davis famously said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies!” But Netflix’s The Kominsky Method proves that in the hands of veteran sitcom creator Chuck Lorre — The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and many others — there’s plenty of laughs to be mined from old age… and disease, loneliness and incontinence.

The show stars Michael Douglas as divorced, has-been actor and respected acting coach Sandy Kominsky and Alan Arkin as his longtime agent Norman Newlander. The story follows these bickering best friends as they tackle life’s inevitable curveballs while navigating their later years in Los Angeles, a city that values youth and beauty above all. Both comedic and emotional, The Kominsky Method won Douglas a Golden Globe.

Ethan Henderson and Ross Cavanaugh

The single-camera show is written by Al Higgins, David Javerbaum and Lorre, who also directed the first episode. Lorre, Higgins and Douglas executive produce the series, which is produced by Chuck Lorre Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television.

I recently spoke with associate producer Ross Cavanaugh and post coordinator Ethan Henderson about posting the show.

You are currently working on Season 2?
Ross Cavanaugh: Yes, and we’re moving along quite quickly. We’re already about three-quarters of the way through the season shooting-wise, out of the eight-show arc.

Where do you shoot, and what’s the schedule like?
Cavanaugh: We shoot mainly on the lot at Warner Bros. and then at various locations around LA. We start prepping each show one week before we start shooting, and then we get dailies the day after the first shooting day.

Our dailies lab is Picture Shop, which is right up the street in Burbank and very convenient for us. So getting footage from the set to them is quick, and they’re very fast at turning the dailies around. We usually get them by midnight the same day we drop them off,  then our editors start cutting fairly quickly after that.

Where do you do all the post?
Cavanaugh: Mainly at Picture Shop, who are very experienced in TV post work. They do all the post finishing and some of the VFX stuff — usually the smaller things, like beauty fixes and cleanup. They also do all the final color correction since DP Anette Haellmigk really wanted to work with colorist George Manno. They’ve been really great.

Ethan Henderson: We’re back and forth from the lot to Picture Shop, and once we get more heavily involved in all the post, I spend a lot of time there while we are onlining the show, coloring and doing the VFX drop-ins, and when we start the final deliverables process, since everything for Netflix comes out of there.

What are the big challenges of post production on this show, and how closely do you work with Chuck Lorre?
Cavanaugh: As with any TV show, you’re always on a very tight deadline, and there are a lot of moving parts to deal with very quickly. While our prolific showrunner Chuck Lorre is busy with all the projects he has going — especially with all the writing — he always makes time for us. He’s very passionate about the cut and is extremely on top of things.

I’d say the challenges on this show are actually fairly minimal. Basically, we ran a pretty tight ship on the first season, and now I’d say it’s a well-oiled machine. We haven’t had any big problems or surprises in post, which can happen.

Let’s talk about editing. You had two editors for Season 1 in Matthew Barbato and Gina Sansom. I assume that’s because of the time factor. How does that work?
Cavanaugh: Each editor has their own assistant editor — that was true in Season One (Matthew with Jack Cunningham and Gina with Barb Steele) and in Season two (Steven Lang with Romeo Rubio and Gina with Rahul Das). They cut separately and work on an odds-and-evens schedule, each doing every other episode. We all get together to watch screenings of the Director’s Cut, usually in the editorial bay.

What are the big editing challenges?
Cavanaugh: We have a pretty big cast, and there’s a ton of jokes and stuff going on all the time. In addition to Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, the actors are so experienced. They give such great performances — there’s a lot of material for the editors to cut from. To be honest, the scripts are all so tight that I think one of the challenges is knowing when to cut out a joke, to serve the pacing of an episode.

This isn’t a VFX-driven show, but there are some visual effects shots. Can you explain?
Cavanaugh: We do a lot of driving scenes and use 24frame.com, who have this really good wraparound HD projection technology, so we pretty much shoot all our car scenes on the stage.

Henderson: Once in a while, we’ll pick up some exterior or establishing shots on a freeway using doubles in the cars. All the plates are picked ahead of time. Occasionally, for the sake of continuity, we’ll have to replace a plate in the background and put a different section of the plate in because too many cars ran by, and it didn’t match up in the edit.

That’s one of the things that comes up every so often. The other big thing is that both of the leads wear glasses, so reflections of crew and equipment can become an issue; we have to deal with all that and clean it up.

Cavanaugh: We don’t use many big VFX shots, and we can’t reveal much about what happens in the new season, but sometimes there’s stuff like the scene in season one where one of the characters threw some firecrackers at Michael Douglas’ feet. We obviously weren’t going to throw real ones at Michael Douglas, although I think he’d have sucked it up if we’d done it that way! We were shooting in a residential neighborhood at night and we couldn’t set off real ones because they are very loud, so we ended up doing it all with VFX. FuseFx handled the workload for the heavier VFX work.

Henderson: There was a big shot in the pilot where we did a lot of shot extensions in a restaurant where Sandy Kominsky (Douglas) and Nancy Travis’ character are having coffee. It was this big sweeping pan down over the city.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
Cavanaugh: They both play a key role, and we have a great team that includes music editor Joe Deveau, supervising sound editor Lou Thomas, and sound mixers Yuri Reese and Bill Smith. The sound recording quality we get on set is always great, so that means we only need very minimal ADR. The whole sound mix is done here on the lot at Warners.

Our composer, Jeff Cardoni, worked with Chuck on Young Sheldon, and he’s really on top of getting all the new cues for the show. We basically have two versions of our main title sequence music cues — one is very bombastic and in-your-face, and the other is a bit more subtle — and it’s funny how it broke down in the first season. The guy who cut the pilot and the odd episodes went with the more bombastic version, while the second editor on the even episodes preferred the softer cues, so I’ll be curious to see how all that breaks down in the new season.

How important is all the coloring on this?
Cavanaugh: Very important. After we do all the online, we ship it over to George at Picture Shop and spend about a day and a half on it. The DP either comes in or gets a file, and she gives her notes. Then we’ll play it for Chuck. We’re in the HDR world with Dolby Vision, and it makes it look so beautiful — but then we have to do the standard pass on it as well.

I know you can’t reveal too much about the new season, but what can fans expect?
Henderson: They’re getting a continuation of these two characters’ journey together — growing old and everything that comes with that. I think it feels like a very natural extension of the first season.

Cavanaugh: In terms of the post process, I feel like we’re a Swiss watch now. We’re ticking along very smoothly. Sometimes post can be a nightmare and full of problems, so it’s great to have it all under control.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

DP Tom Curran on Netflix’s Tidying Up With Marie Kondo

By Iain Blair

Forget all the trendy shows about updating your home décor or renovating your house. What you really need to do is declutter. And the guru of decluttering is Marie Kondo, the Japanese star of the hot Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.

The organizational expert became a global star when her first book, 2014’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” was translated into English, becoming a New York Times bestseller. Her follow-up was 2016’s “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.”

Tom Curran

Clearly, people everywhere need to declutter, and Kondo’s KonMari Method is the answer for those who have too much stuff. As she herself puts it, “My mission is to organize the world and spark joy in people’s lives. Through this partnership with Netflix, I am excited to spread the KonMari Method to as many people as possible.”

I recently spoke with Tom Curran, the cinematographer of the Kondo show. His extensive credits include Ugly Delicious for Netflix, Fish My City for National Geographic and 9 Months for Facebook, which is hosted by Courteney Cox. Curran has an Emmy on his mantle for ABC Sports’ Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Let’s start with the really important stuff. Do you have too much clutter? Has Marie’s philosophy helped you?
(Laughs). It has! I think we all have too much stuff. To be honest, I was a little skeptical at first about all this. But as I spent time with her and educated myself, I began to realize just how much there is to it. I think that it particularly applies to the US, where we all have so much and move so quickly.

In her world, you come to a pause and evaluate all of that, and it’s really quite powerful. And if you follow all of her steps, you can’t do it quickly. It forces you to slow down and take stock. My wife is an editor, and we’re both always so busy, but now we take little pockets of time to attack different parts of the house and the clutter we have. It’s been really powerful and helpful to us.

Why do you think her method and this show have resonated so much with people everywhere?
Americans tend to get so busy and locked into routines, and Japan’s culture is very different. I’ve worked there quite a bit, and she brings this whole other quality to the show. She’s very thoughtful and kind. I think the show does a good job of showing that, and you really feel it. An awful lot of current TV can be a little sharp and mean, and there’s something old-fashioned about this, and audiences really respond. She doesn’t pass judgment on people’s messy houses — she just wants to help.

You’re well-known for shooting in extreme conditions and locations all over the world. How did this compare?
It was radically different in some ways. Instead of vast and bleak landscapes, like Antarctica, you’re shooting the interiors of people’s homes in LA. Working with EP Hend Baghdady and showrunner Bianca Barnes-Williams, we set out to redefine how to showcase these homes. We used some of the same principles, like how to incorporate these characters into their environment and weave the house into the storyline. That was our main goal.

What were the challenges of shooting this show?
A big one was keeping ourselves out of the shot, which isn’t so easy in a small space. Also, keeping Marie central to all the storytelling. I’ve done several series before, shooting in people’s homes, like Little People, Big World, where we stayed in one family’s home for many years. With this show the crew was walking into their homes for a far shorter time, and none of them were actors. The were baring their souls.

Cleaning up all their clutter before we arrived was contrary to what the show’s all about, so you’re seeing all the ugly. My background’s in cinéma vérité, and a lot of this was stripping back the way these types of unscripted shows are usually done — with multiple cameras. We did use multiple cameras, but often it was just one, as you’re in a tiny room, where there’s no space for another, and we’re shooting wide since the main character in most stories was the home.

As well as being a DP you’re also the owner of Curran Camera, Inc. Did you supply all the camera gear for this through your company?
Sometimes I supply equipment for a series, sometimes not. It all depends on what the project needs. On this, when Hend, Bianca and I began discussing different camera options, I felt it wasn’t a series we could shoot on prime lenses, but we wanted the look that primes would bring. We ended up working with Fujinon Cabrio Cine Zooms and Canon cameras, which gave us a really filmic look, and we got most of our gear from T-stop Camera Rentals in LA. In fact, the Fujinon Cabrio 14-35mm became the centerpiece of the storytelling in the homes because of its wide lens capture — which was crucial for scenes with closets and small rooms and so on.

I assume all the lighting was a big challenge?
You’re right. It was a massive undertaking because we wanted to follow all the progress in each home. And we didn’t want it to be a dingy, rough-looking show, especially since Marie represented this bright light that’d come into people’s homes and then it would get brighter and brighter. We ended up bringing in all the lighting from the east coast, which was the only place I could source what I needed.

For Marie’s Zen house we had a different lighting package with dozens of small fresnels because it was so calm and stood still. For the homes and all the movement, we used about 80 Flex lights — paper-thin LED lights that are easily dimmable and quick to install and take down. Even though we had a pretty small crew, we were able to achieve a pretty consistent look.

How did the workflow operate? How did you deal with dailies?
Our post supervisor Joe Eckardt was pretty terrific, and I’d spend a lot of time going through all the dailies and then give a big download to the crew once a week. We had six to eight camera operators and three crews with two cameras and additional people some days. We had so much footage, and what ended up on screen is just a fraction of what we shot. We had a lot of cards at the end of every day, and they’d be loaded into the post system, and then a team of 16 editors would start going through it all.  Since this was the first season, we were kind of doing it on the fly and trying different techniques to see what worked best.

Color correction and the mix was handled by Margarita Mix. How involved were you in post and the look of the show?
I was very involved, especially early on. Even in the first month or so we started to work on the grade a bit to get some patterns in place; that helped carry us through. We set out to capture a really naturalistic look, and a lot of the homes were very cramped, so we had to keep the wrong lighting look looking wrong, so to speak. I’m pretty happy with what we were able to do. (Margarita Mix’s Troy Smith was the colorist.)

How important is post to you as a DP?
It’s hard to overstate. I’d say it’s not just a big piece of the process, it is the process. When we’re shooting, I only really think about three things; One, what is the story we’re trying to tell? Two, how can we best capture that, particularly with non-actors. How do you create an environment of complete trust where they basically just forget about you? How do we capture Marie doing her thing and not break the flow, since she’s this standup performer? Three, how do we give post what they need? If we’re not giving editorial the right coverage, we’re not doing our job. That last one is the most important to me — since I’m married to an editor, I’m always so aware of post.

The first eight shows aired in January. When is the next season?
We’ve had some light talks about it, and I assume since it’s so popular we’ll do more, but nothing’s finalized yet. I hope we do more.  I love this show.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Arraiy 4.11.19

The Emmy-nominated sound editing team’s process on HBO’s Vice Principals

By Jennifer Walden

HBO’s comedy series Vice Principals — starring Danny McBride and Walton Goggins as two rival vice principals of North Jackson High School — really went wild for the Season 2 finale. Since the school’s mascot is a tiger, they hired an actual tiger for graduation day, which wreaked havoc inside the school. (The tiger was part real and part VFX, but you’d never know thanks to the convincing visuals and sound.)

The tiger wasn’t the only source of mayhem. There was gunfire and hostages, a car crash and someone locked in a cage — all in the name of comedy.

George Haddad

Through all the bedlam, it was vital to have clean and clear dialogue. The show’s comedy comes from the jokes that are often ad-libbed and subtle.

Here, Warner Bros. Sound supervising sound editor George Haddad, MPSE, and dialogue/ADR editor Karyn Foster talk about what went into the Emmy-nominated sound editing on the Vice Principals Season 2 finale, “The Union Of The Wizard & The Warrior.”

Of all the episodes in Season 2, why did you choose “The Union of the Wizard & The Warrior” for award consideration?
George Haddad: Personally, this was the funniest episode — whether that’s good for sound or not. They just let loose on this one. For a comedy, it had so many great opportunities for sound effects, walla, loop group, etc. It was the perfect match for award consideration. Even the picture editor said beforehand that this could be the one. Of course, we don’t pay too much attention to its award-potential; we focus on the sound first. But, sure enough, as we went through it, we all agreed that this could be it.

Karyn Foster: This episode was pretty dang large, with the tiger and the chaos that the tiger causes.

In terms of sound, what was your favorite moment in this episode? Why?
Haddad: It was during the middle of the show when the tiger got loose from the cage and created havoc. It’s always great for sound when an animal gets loose. And it was particularly fun because of the great actors involved. This had comedy written all over it. You know no one is going to die, just because the nature of the show. (Actually, the tiger did eat the animal handler, but he kind of deserved it.)

Karyn Foster

I had a lot of fun with the tiger and we definitely cheated reality there. That was a good sound design sequence. We added a lot of kids screaming and adults screaming. The reaction of the teachers was even more scared than the students, so it was funny. It was a perfect storm for sound effects and dialogue.

Foster: My favorite scene was when Lee [Goggins] is on the ground after the tiger mauls his hand and he’s trying to get Neal [McBride] to say, “I love you.” That scene was hysterical.

What was your approach to the tiger sounds?
Haddad: We didn’t have production sound for the tiger, as the handler on-set kept a close watch on the real animal. Then in the VFX, we have the tiger jumping, scratching with its paws, roaring…

I looked into realistic tiger sounds, and they’re not the type of animal you’d think would roar or snarl — sounds we are used to having for a lion. We took some creative license and blended sounds together to make the tiger a little more ferocious, but not too scary. Because, again, it’s a comedy so we needed to find the right balance.

What was the most challenging scene for sound?
Haddad: The entire cast was in this episode, during the graduation ceremony. So you had 500 students and a dozen of the lead cast members. That was pretty full, in terms of sound. We had to make it feel like everyone is panicking at the same time while focusing on the tiger. We had to keep the tension going, but it couldn’t be scary. We had to keep the tone of the comedy going. That’s where the balance was tricky and the mixers did a great job with all the material we gave them. I think they found the right tone for the episode.

Foster: For dialogue, the most challenging scene was when they are in the cafeteria with the tiger. That was a little tough because there are a lot of people talking and there were overlapping lines. Also, it was shot in a practical location, so there was room reflection on the production dialogue.

A comedy series is all about getting a laugh. How do you use sound to enhance the comedy in this series?
Haddad: We take the lead off of Danny McBride. Whatever his character is doing, we’re not going to try to go over the top just because he and his co-stars are brilliant at it. But, we want to add to the comedy. We don’t go cartoonish. We try to keep the sounds in reality but add a little bit of a twist on top of what the characters are already doing so brilliantly on the screen.

Quite frankly, they do most of the work for us and we just sweeten what is going on in the scene. We stay away from any of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon sound effects. It’s not that kind of comedy, but at the same time we will throw a little bit of slapstick in there — whether it’s a character falling or slipping or it’s a gun going off. For the gunshots, I’ll have the bullet ricochet and hit a tree just to add to the comedy that’s already there.

A comedy series is all about the dialogue and the jokes. What are some things you do to help the dialogue come through?
Haddad: The production dialogue was clean overall, and the producers don’t want to change any of the performances, even if a line is a bit noisy. The mixers did a great job in making sure that clarity was king for dialogue. Every single word and every single joke was heard perfectly. Comedy is all about timing.

We were fortunate because we get clean dialogue and we found the right balance of all the students screaming and the sounds of panicking when the tiger created havoc. We wanted to make sure that Danny and his co-stars were heard loud and clear because the comedy starts with them. Vice Principals is a great and natural sounding show for dialogue.

Foster: Vice Principals was a pleasure to work on because the dialogue was in good shape. The editing on this episode wasn’t difficult. The lines went together pretty evenly.

We basically work with what we’ve been given. It’s all been chosen for us and our job is to make it sound smooth. There’s very minimal ADR on the show.

In terms of clarification, we make sure that any lines that really need to be heard are completely separate, so when it gets to the mix stage the mixer can push that line through without having to push everything else.

As far as timing, we don’t make any changes. That’s a big fat no-no for us. The picture editor and showrunners have already decided what they want and where, and we don’t mess with that.

There were a large number of actors present for the graduation ceremony. Was the production sound mixer able to record those people in that environment? Or, was that sound covered in loop?
Haddad: There are so many people in the scene. and that can be challenging to do solely in loop group. We did multiple passes with the actors we had in loop. We also had the excellent sound library here at Warner Bros. Sound. I also captured recordings at my kids’ high school. So we had a lot of resource material to pull from and we were able to build out that scene nicely. What we see on-camera, with the number of students and adults, we were able to represent that through sound.

As for recording at my kids’ high school, I got permission from the principal but, of course, my kids were embarrassed to have their dad at school with his sound equipment. So I tried to stay covert. The microphones were placed up high, in inconspicuous places. I didn’t ask any students to do anything. We were like chameleons — we came and set up our equipment and hit record. I had Røde microphones because they were easy to mount on the wall and easy to hide. One was a Røde VideoMic and the other was their NTG1 microphone. I used a Roland R-26 recorder because it’s portable and I love the quality. It’s great for exterior sounds too because you don’t get a lot of hiss.

We spent a couple hours recording and we were lucky enough to get material to use in the show. I just wanted to catch the natural sound of the school. There are 2,700 students, so it’s an unusually high student population and we were able to capture that. We got lucky when kids walked by laughing or screaming or running to the next class. That was really useful material.

Foster: There was production crowd recorded. For most of the episodes when they had pep rallies and events, there was production crowd recorded. They took the time to record some specific takes. When you’re shooting group on the stage, you’re limited to the number of people you have. You have to do multiple takes to try and mimic that many people.

Can you talk about the tools you couldn’t have done without?
Haddad: This show has a natural sound, so we didn’t use pitch shifting or reverb or other processing like we’d use on a show like Gotham, where we do character vocal treatments.

Foster: I would have to say iZotope RX 6. That tool for a dialogue editor is one that you can’t live without. There were some challenging scenes on Vice Principals, and the production sound mixer Christof Gebert did a really good job of getting the mics in there. The iso-mics were really clean, and that’s unusual these days. The dialogue on the show was pleasant to work on because of that.

What makes this show challenging in terms of dialogue is that it’s a comedy, so there’s a lot of ad-libbing. With ad-libbing, there’s no other takes to choose from. So if there’s a big clunk on a line, you have to make that work. With RX 6, you can minimize the clunk on a line or get rid of it. If those lines are ad-libs, they don’t want to have to loop those. The ad-libbing makes the show great but it also makes the dialogue editing a bit more complicated.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share on Vice Principals?
Haddad: We had a big crew because the show was so busy. I was lucky to get some of the best here at Warner Bros. Sound. They helped to make the show sound great, and we’re all very proud of it. We appreciate our peers selecting Vice Principals for Emmy nomination. That to us was a great feeling, to have all of our hard work pay off with an Emmy nomination.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.com.


Crafting sound for Emmy-winning Atlanta

By Jennifer Walden

FX Network’s dramedy series Atlanta, which recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing For A Comedy or Drama Series (Half-Hour)tells the story of three friends from, well, Atlanta — a local rapper named Paper Boi whose star is on the rise (although the universe seems to be holding him down), his cousin/manager Earn and their head-in-the-clouds friend Darius.

Trevor Gates

Told through vignettes, each episode shows their lives from different perspectives instead of through a running narrative. This provides endless possibilities for creativity. One episode flows through different rooms at a swanky New Year’s party at Drake’s house; another ventures deep into the creepy woods where real animals (not party animals) make things tense.

It’s a playground for sound each week, and MPSE-award-winning supervising sound editor Trevor Gates of Formosa Group and his sound editorial team on Season 2 (aka, Robbin’ Season) got their 2018 Emmy based on the work they did on Episode 6 “Teddy Perkins,” in which Darius goes to pick up a piano from the home of an eccentric recluse but finds there’s more to the transaction than he bargained for.

Here, Gates discusses the episode’s precise use of sound and how the quiet environment was meticulously crafted to reinforce the tension in the story and to add to the awkwardness of the interactions between Darius and Teddy.

There’s very little music in “Teddy Perkins.” The soundtrack is mainly different ambiences and practical effects and Foley. Since the backgrounds play such an important role, can you tell me about the creation of these different ambiences?
Overall, Atlanta doesn’t really have a score. Music is pretty minimal and the only music that you hear is mainly source music — music coming from radios, cell phones or laptops. I think it’s an interesting creative choice by producers Hiro Murai and Donald Glover. In cases like the “Teddy Perkins” episode, we have to be careful with the sounds we choose because we don’t have a big score to hide behind. We have to be articulate with those ambient sounds and with the production dialogue.

Going into “Teddy Perkins,” Hiro (who directed the episode) and I talked about his goals for the sound. We wanted a quiet soundscape and for the house to feel cold and open. So, when we were crafting the sounds that most audience members will perceive as silence or quietness, we had very specific choices to make. We had to craft this moody air inside the house. We had to craft a few sounds for the outside world too because the house is located in a rural area.

There are a few birds but nothing overt, so that it’s not intrusive to the relationship between Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Teddy (Donald Glover). We had to be very careful in articulating our sound choices, to hold that quietness that was void of any music while also supporting the creepy, weird, tense dialogue between the two.

Inside the Perkins residence, the first ambience felt cold and almost oppressive. How did you create that tone?
That rumbly, oppressive air was the cold tone we were going for. It wasn’t a layer of tones; it was actually just one sound that I manipulated to be the exact frequency that I wanted for that space. There was a vastness and a claustrophobia to that space, although that sounds contradictory. That cold tone was kind of the hero sound of this episode. It was just one sound, articulately crafted, and supported by sounds from the environment.

There’s a tonal shift from the entryway into the parlor, where Darius and Teddy sit down to discuss the piano (and Teddy is eating that huge, weird egg). In there we have the sound of a clock ticking. I really enjoy using clocks. I like the meter that clocks add to a room.

In Ouija: Origin of Evil, we used the sound of a clock to hold the pace of some scenes. I slowed the clock down to just a tad over a second, and it really makes you lean in to the scene and hold what you perceive as silence. I took a page from that book for Atlanta. As you leave the cold air of the entryway, you enter into this room with a clock ticking and Teddy and Darius are sitting there looking at each other awkwardly over this weird/gross ostrich egg. The sound isn’t distracting or obtrusive; it just makes you lean into the awkwardness.

It was important for us to get the mix for the episode right, to get the right level for the ambiences and tones, so that they are present but not distracting. It had to feel natural. It’s our responsibility to craft things that show the audience what we want them to see, and at the same time we have to suspend their disbelief. That’s what we do as filmmakers; we present the sonic spaces and visual images that traverse that fine line between creativity and realism.

That cold tone plays a more prominent role near the end of the episode, during the murder-suicide scene. It builds the tension until right before Benny pulls the trigger. But there’s another element too there, a musical stinger. Why did you choose to use music at that moment?
What’s important about this season of Atlanta is that Hiro and Donald have a real talent for surrounding themselves with exceptional people — from the picture department to the sound department to the music department and everyone on-set. Through the season it was apparent that this team of exceptional people functioned with extreme togetherness. We had a homogeny about us. It was a bunch of really creative and smart people getting together in a room, creating something amazing.

We had a music department and although there isn’t much music and score, every once in a while we would break a rule that we set for ourselves on Season 2. The picture editor will be in the room with the music department and Hiro, and we’ll all make decisions together. That musical stinger wasn’t my idea exactly; it was a collective decision to use a stinger to drive the moment, to have it build and release at a specific time. I can’t attribute that sound to me only, but to this exceptional team on the show. We would bounce creative ideas off of each other and make decisions as a collective.

The effects in the murder-suicide scene do a great job of tension building. For example, when Teddy leans in on Darius, there’s that great, long floor creak.
Yeah, that was a good creak. It was important for us, throughout this episode, to make specific sound choices in many different areas. There are other episodes in the season that have a lot more sound than this episode, like “Woods,” where Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) is getting chased through the woods after he was robbed. Or “Alligator Man,” with the shootout in the cold open. But that wasn’t the case with “Teddy Perkins.”

On this one, we had to make specific choices, like when Teddy leans over and there’s that long, slow creak. We tried to encompass the pace of the scene in one very specific sound, like the sound of the shackles being tightened onto Darius or the movement of the shotgun.

There’s another scene when Darius goes down into the basement, and he’s traveling through this area that he hasn’t been in before. We decided to create a world where he would hear sounds traveling through the space. He walks past a fan and then a water heater kicks on and there is some water gurgling through pipes and the clinking sound of the water heater cooling down. Then we hear Benny’s wheelchair squeak. For me, it’s about finding that one perfect sound that makes that moment. That’s hard to do because it’s not a composition of many sounds. You have one choice to make, and that’s what is going to make that moment special. It’s exciting to find that one sound. Sometimes you go through many choices until you find the right one.

There were great diegetic effects, like Darius spinning the globe, and the sound of the piano going onto the elevator, and the floor needle and the buttons and dings. Did those come from Foley? Custom recordings? Library sounds?
I had a great Foley team on this entire season, led by Foley supervisor Geordy Sincavage. The sounds like the globe spinning came from the Foley team, so that was all custom recorded. The elevator needle moving down was a custom recording from Foley. All of the shackles and handcuffs and gun movements were from Foley.

The piano moving onto the elevator was something that we created from a combination of library effects and Foley sounds. I had sound effects editor David Barbee helping me out on this episode. He gave me some library sounds for the piano and I went in and gave it a little extra love. I accentuated the movement of the piano strings. It was like piano string vocalizations as Darius is moving the piano into the elevator and it goes over the little bumps. I wanted to play up the movements that would add some realism to that moment.

Creating a precise soundtrack is harder than creating a big action soundtrack. Well, there are different sets of challenges for both, but it’s all about being able to tell a story by subtraction. When there’s too much going on, people can feel the details if you start taking things away. “Teddy Perkins” is the case of having an extremely precise soundtrack, and that was successful thanks to the work of the Foley team, my effects editor, and the dialogue editor.

The dialogue editor Jason Dotts is the unsung hero in this because we had to be so careful with the production dialogue track. When you have a big set — this old, creaky house and lots of equipment and crew noise — you have to remove all the extraneous noise that can take you out of the tension between Darius and Teddy. Jason had to go in with a fine-tooth comb and do surgery on the production dialogue just to remove every single small sound in order to get the track super quiet. That production track had to be razor-sharp and presented with extreme care. Then, with extreme care, we had to build the ambiences around it and add great Foley sounds for all the little nuances. Then we had to bake the cake together and have a great mix, a very articulate balance of sounds.

When we were all done, I remember Hiro saying to us that we realized his dream 100%. He alluded to the fact that this was an important episode going into it. I feel like I am a man of my craft and my fingerprint is very important to me, so I am always mindful of how I show my craft to the world. I will always take extreme care and go the extra mile no matter what, but it felt good to have something that was important to Hiro have such a great outcome for our team. The world responded. There were lots of Emmy nominations this year for Atlanta and that was an incredible thing.

Did you have a favorite scene for sound? Why?
It was cool to have something that we needed to craft and present in its entirety. We had to build a motif and there had to be consistency within that motif. It was awesome to build the episode as a whole. Some scenes were a bit different, like down in the basement. That had a different vibe. Then there were fun scenes like moving the piano onto the elevator. Some scenes had production challenges, like the scene with the film projector. Hiro had to shoot that scene with the projector running and that created a lot of extra noise on the production dialogue. So that was challenging from a dialogue editing standpoint and a mix standpoint.

Another challenging scene was when Darius and Teddy are in the “Father Room” of the museum. That was shot early on in the process and Donald wasn’t quite happy with his voice performance in that scene. Overall, Atlanta uses very minimal ADR because we feel that re-recorded performances can really take the magic out of a scene, but Donald wanted to redo that whole scene, and it came out great. It felt natural and I don’t think people realize that Donald’s voice was re-recorded in its entirety for that scene. That was a fun ADR session.

Donald came into the studio and once he got into the recording booth and got into the Teddy Perkins voice he didn’t get out of it until we were completely finished. So as Hiro and Donald are interacting about ideas on the performance, Donald stayed in the Teddy voice completely. He didn’t get out of it for three hours. That was an interesting experience to see Donald’s face as himself and hear Teddy’s voice.

Where there any audio tools that you couldn’t have lived without on this episode?
Not necessarily. This was an organic build and the tools that we used in this were really basic. We used some library sounds and recorded some custom sounds. We just wanted to make sure that we could make this as real and organic as possible. Our tool was to pick the best organic sounds that we could, whether we used source recordings or new recordings.

Of all the episodes in Season 2 of Atlanta, why did you choose “Teddy Perkins” for Emmy consideration?
Each episode had its different challenges. There were lots of different ways to tell the stories since each episode is different. I think that is something that is magical about Atlanta. Some of the episodes that stood out from a sound standpoint were Episode 1 “Alligator Man” with the shootout, and Episode 8 “Woods.” I had considered submitting “Woods” because it’s so surreal once Paper Boi gets into the woods. We created this submergence of sound, like the woods were alive. We took it to another level with the wildlife and used specific wildlife sounds to draw some feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia.

Even an episode like “Champagne Papi,” which seems like one of the most basic from a sound editorial perspective, was actually quite varied. They’re going between different rooms at a party and we had to build spaces of people that felt different but the same in each room. It had to feel like a real space with lots of people, and the different spaces had to feel like it belonged at the same party.

But when it came down to it, I feel like “Teddy Perkins” was special because there wasn’t music to hide behind. We had to do specific and articulate work, and make sharp choices. So it’s not the episode with the most sound but it’s the episode that has the most articulate sound. And we are very proud of how it turned out.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.com.


Digging into the dailies workflow for HBO’s Sharp Objects

By Randi Altman

If you have been watching HBO’s new series Sharp Objects, you might have some theories about who is murdering teenage girls in a small Missouri town, but at this point they are only theories.

Sharp Objects revolves around Amy Adams’ character, Camille, a journalist living in St. Louis, who returns to her dysfunctional hometown armed with a deadline from her editor, a drinking problem and some really horrific childhood memories.

Drew Dale

The show is shot in Atlanta and Los Angeles, with dailies out of Santa Monica’s Local Hero and post out of its sister company, Montreal’s Real by Fake. Real by Fake did all the post on the HBO series Big Little Lies.

Local Hero’s VP of workflows, Drew Dale, managed the dailies workflow on Sharp Objects, coming up against the challenges of building a duplicate dailies set up in Atlanta as well as dealing with HBO’s strict delivery requirements — not just for transcoding, but for labeling files and more. Local Hero co-owner Steve Bannerman calls it “the most detailed and specific dailies workflow we’ve ever designed.”

To help cope with such a high level of complexity, Dale turned to Assimilate’s Scratch as the technical heart of his workflow. Since Scratch is a very open system, it was able to integrate seamlessly with all the software and hardware tools that were needed to meet the requirements.

Local Hero’s DI workflow is something that Dale and the studio have been developing for about five or six years and adjusting for each show or film they work on. We recently reached out to Dale to talk about that workflow and their process on Sharp Objects, which was created by Marti Noxon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.

Can you describe your workflow with the footage?
Basically, the DIT hands a shuttle RAID (we use either OWC or Areca RAIDs) to a PA, and they’ll take it to our operator. Our operators tend to start as soon as wrap hits, or as soon as lunch breaks, depending on whether or not you’re doing one or two breaks a day.

We’ll ingest into Scratch and apply the show LUT. The LUT is typically designed by our lead colorist and is based on a node stack in Blackmagic Resolve that we can use on the back end as the first pass of the DI process. Once the LUT is loaded, we’ll do our grades using the CDL protocol, though we didn’t do the grade on Sharp Objects. Then we’ll go through, sync all the audio, QC the footage and make our LTO back-ups.

What are you looking for in the QC?
Things like crew in the shot, hot pixels, corrupt footage, lens flares, just weird stuff that’s going to cost money on the backend. Since we’re working in conjunction with production a lot of the time, we can catch those things reasonably early; a lot earlier than if you were waiting until editorial. We flag those and say, “This scene that you shot yesterday is out of focus. You should probably re-shoot.” This allows them adjust more quickly to that sort of thing.

After the QC we do a metadata pass, where we take the embedded information from the WAV files provided by the sound mixer, as well as custom metadata entered by our operator and apply that throughout the footage. Then we’ll render out editorial media — typically Avid but sometimes Premiere or Final Cut — which will then get transferred to the editors either via online connection or shipped shuttle drives. Or, if we’re right next to them, we’ll just push it to their system from our computer using a fiber or Ethernet intranet.

We’ll also create web dailies. Web dailies are typically H.264s, and those will either get loaded onto an iPad for the director, uploaded to pix or Frame.io for web review, or both.

You didn’t grade the dailies on Sharp Objects?
No, they wanted a specific LUT applied; one that was used on the first season of Big Little Lies, and is being used on the second season as well. So they have a more generic look applied, but they do have very specific needs for metadata, which is really important. For example, a lot of the things they require are the input of shoot date and shoot day information, so you can track things.

We also ingest track information from WAV files, so when the editor is cutting the footage you can see the individual audio channel names in the edit, which makes cutting audio a lot easier. It also helps sync things up on the backend with the audio mix. As per HBO’s requests, a lot of extra information in the footage goes to the editor.

The show started in LA and then moved to Atlanta, so you had to build your workflow for a second time? Can you talk about that?
The tricky part of working on location is making sure the Internet is set up properly and getting a mobile version of our rig to wherever it needs to go. Then it’s dealing with the hassle of being on location. I came up in the production world in the camera department, so it reminds me of being back on set and being in the middle of nowhere with a lot less infrastructure than you’re used to when sitting at a post house in Los Angeles. Most of the challenge of being on location is finding creative ways to implement the same workflow in the face of these hurdles.

Let’s get back to working with HBO’s specific specs. Can you talk about different tools you had to call on to make sure it was all labeled and structured correctly?
A typical scene identifier for us is something like “35B-01” 35 signifies the scene, “B” signifies the shot and “01” signifies the take.

The way that HBO structured things on Sharp Objects was more by setup, so it was a much more fluid way of shooting. It would be like “Episode 1, setup 32, take one, two, three, four, five.” But each of those takes individually was more like a setup and less like a take itself. A lot of the takes were 20 minutes long, 15 minutes long, where they would come in, reset the actors, reset the shot, that kind of thing.

In addition to that, there was a specific naming convention and a lot of specific metadata requirements required by the editors. For example, the aforementioned WAV track names. There are a lot of ways to process dailies, but most software doesn’t provide the same kind of flexibility with metadata as Scratch.

For this show it was these sorts of things, as well as very specific LTO naming conventions and structure, which took a lot of effort on our part to get used to. Typically, with a smaller production or smaller movie, the LTO backups they require are basically just to make sure that the footage is placed somewhere other than our hard drives, so we can store it for a long period of time. But with HBO, very specific manifests are required with naming conventions on each tape as well as episode numbers, scene and take info, which is designed to make it easier for un-archiving footage later for restoration, or for use in later seasons of a show. Without that metadata, it becomes a much more labor-intensive job to track down specific shots and scenes.

HBO also requires us to use multiple LTO brands in case one brand suddenly ceases to support the medium, or if a company goes under, they can un-archive the footage 30 years from now. I think a lot of the companies are starting to move toward future-proofing their footage in case you need to go back and remaster it.

Does that make your job harder? Easier?
It makes it harder in some ways, and easier in others. Harder because there is a lot of material being generated. I think the total count for the show was something like 120TB of footage, which is not an excessive amount for a show this big, but it’s definitely a lot of data to manage over the course of a show.

Could name some of the tools that you used?
As I mentioned, the heartbeat of all our dailies workflows is Scratch. I really love Scratch for three reasons. First, I can use it to do fully color graded, fully animated dailies with power windows, ramping curves — everything. Second, it handles metadata very well. This was crucial for Sharp Objects. And finally, it’s pretty affordable.

Beyond Scratch, the software that we tend to use most for copying footage is Silverstack. We use that for transferring files to and from the RAID to make sure everything’s verified. We use Scratch for processing the footage; that’s sort of the big nexus of everything. We use YoYottaID for LTO creations; that’s what HBO suggests we use to handle their specific LTO requirements. One of the things I love is the ability to export ALEs directly out of Scratch and into YoYattID. This saves us time and errors. We use Aspera for transferring files back and forth between HBO and ourselves. We use Pix for web daily distributions. Pix access was specifically provided to us by HBO.

Hardware wise, we’re mostly working on either Mac Pros or Silverdraft Demon PCs for dailies. We used to use mostly Mac Pros, but we find that they aren’t quite robust enough for larger projects, though they can be useful for mid-range or smaller jobs.

We typically use Flanders monitors for our on-set grading, but we’ve also used Sony’s and JVC’s, depending on the budget level and what’s available on hand. We tend to use the G-Speed Shuttle XLs for the main on-set RAIDs, and we like to use OWC Thunderbays or Areca thunderbolt RAIDS for our transfer drives.

What haven’t I asked that is important?
For me it’s important to have tools, operators and infrastructure that are reliable so we can generate trust with our clients. Trust is the biggest thing for me, and the reason we vetted all the software… we know what works. We know it does what we need it to do to be flexible for everybody’s needs. It’s really about just showing the clients that we’ve got their back.


Breathing life into The Walking Dead with VFX

By Karen Moltenbrey

Zombies used to have a short life span, awakening sometime during October, just in time for Halloween, before once again stumbling back into obscurity for another year. But thanks to the hit series The Walking Dead and its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, the popularity of these monsters is infectious, turning them — and the shows — into cult phenomenon.

The Walking Dead’s rise in popularity started almost immediately with the series’ US debut, on October 31, 2010, on AMC. The storyline began when Rick Grimes, a sheriff deputy, awakens from a coma to find the world overrun by zombies. He and other survivors in the Atlanta area then band together to fight off these so-called “walkers,” as well as other tribes of survivors intent on ensuring their own survival in this post-apocalyptic world, no matter the cost.

In mid-2015, the show gave rise to the companion series Fear the Walking Dead. Fear, a prequel to The Walking Dead, takes place at the start of the zombie apocalypse and follows a different set of characters as they struggle to survive on the West Coast.

And the series’ visual effects are, well, to die for. Literally.

Burbank’s Picture Shop began creating the effects for Walk starting last season and is now in the midst of Season 9 (The studio splits the lion’s share of the work on the show with Goodbye Kansas Studios). Picture Shop provides visual effects for Fear, as well (Season 4, Episodes 1 through 8).

According to Christian Cardona, senior visual effects supervisor at Picture Shop, the crux of the work for both series includes character “kill” effects and environment augmentations. “We do a lot of what we call ‘walker kills.’ What that usually requires is weapon extensions, whereby the weapon gets inserted into the walkers, and then the ensuing wounds. We have to track the wounds onto the practical walkers and then also do blood sims during those kills,” he explains. “That accounts for probably 50 to 60 percent of the work.”

The only way to kill a walker is to damage its brain or destroy its body. Therefore, each episode contains its fair share of bodily damage to the zombies (and, sometimes, to the humans trying to keep them and the adversarial tribes at bay).

Cardona notes that it took the group a few episodes to nail down the blood aesthetic the producers were looking for — the look of the blood as well as how it should flow from a walker’s mouth. “Throughout the season, we’ve definitely zeroed in on that and have really gotten a good system down, where now it takes us just a fraction of the time,” he says.

Nevertheless, the work has to be exact. “The client wants everything to be photoreal; they don’t want it to look like anything was added. With that said, they scrutinize every shot, frame by frame and pixel by pixel, so we definitely have to do our due diligence and make sure our work adheres to their standard,” Cardona says. “And they will art direct every drop of blood. They know what they want, and we make sure we deliver that.”

The Walking Dead

There is indeed consistency in the overall look of the blood and wounds, as well as the walkers themselves in each of the shows, although there was one scene in Walk whereby the walkers were stuck in a toxic sludge. As a result, their skin was more pale and saggy. “It was a unique scenario where we could change their appearance and the look of the blood for that episode to illustrate that these walkers were different,” recalls Cardona.

The Walking Dead
In Walk, the majority of the hero walkers — either individuals or those in small groups – are actors with prosthetic makeup, or in some cases, practical models. But when there are more than two dozen or so walkers in a shot, they are CG creations.

Whether a practical or digital walker is used for the show often depends on the action in the scene. Walker kills are prevalent throughout the series, as it is in Fear, and often this involves a decapitation or a scalping, “because in order to kill the walkers, they have to be either shot in the head or stabbed,” Cardona points out. “Oftentimes when that happens, we have to cut from the person with the makeup and prosthetics and replace the entire head digitally before chopping it off for the scene.”

Season 8 Episode 14 featured a practical walker with a broken body strapped to a dolly cart, its head locked in position on the cart. As a form of torture, the cart was wheeled close enough for the walker to bite a victim. Initially, the walker was practical, but Picture Shop artists ended up replacing it with a CG model.

“The client wasn’t really happy with the practical version on set. It looked rubbery, like an animatronic walker, which it was. It needed to be fleshier, a little more real,” says Cardona. “The blood and wounds felt too dry, and the muscles had to contract.”

Fear the Walking Dead

In fact, Cardona describes that sequence as one of the more challenging from Season 8. “It was close to the camera and had to be photoreal. It wasn’t just one shot, either; there were over a dozen shots in the scene, with multiple angles and long takes.”

The team used the practical cart walker’s head in the shots but replaced the body and arms, which also had been locked to the cart, requiring intricate match-moving. “We had to be spot on and tight, so there was a lot of soft tracking as well, since the camera was moving everywhere,” recalls Cardona. “And then we had to get that walker to look photoreal.”

Compounding this scene even more was the fact that the main character shoots the cart walker, requiring the addition of bullet hits and resulting wounds.

Zombie Nation
For the upcoming Season 9 (premiering October 7), Picture Shop began using a new system for generating large crowds of walkers. According to Cardona, the animators introduced Golaem’s population tool into the pipeline to help with the mass crowd simulations for the walker herds that will appear during the season. Previously, the artists used the particle system in Autodesk’s Maya for this task, “but we needed something that was more robust, something created specifically to do this kind of effect, especially on a TV schedule and with a TV pipeline and workflow,” he adds.

During this past off-season, the artists began establishing a system that would source the walker assets the group had created for Season 8 and in the off-season to prepare for Season 9. “We were modeling walkers and using some of the walkers from Season 8, and standardizing them all with the same T-pose so we could easily swap out rigs and customize and create a lot of variations with textures, changing their clothes, skin color and hair,” explains Cardona. “So when we have to create walker herds, we can easily get five or six variations from a single walker. We end up with a lot of variations in our herd sims without having to create a brand-new walker every time.”

And make no mistake, there will be more herds of walkers in Season 9 than viewers have seen in previous seasons.

The Walking Dead

Other VFX
On average, Picture Shop created 40 to 50 VFX shots per episode during Season 8 of The Walking Dead, with a typical turnaround time of two to three weeks. In addition to the kills and their associated effects, the group also built set extensions. For instance, most of Season 8 (and 7) revolved around what is called “the Sanctuary,” an old factory that is now home to The Saviors, with whom Grimes and his group must interact. The first two floors were practically built, and then Picture Shop extended the structure digitally by another 12 stories. At one point, a gun fight ensues, which called for the CG artists to break out all the windows — another visual effect.

“The group didn’t move far from their location in Season 8, so the need for additional set extensions wasn’t as high as it had been in earlier seasons,” adds Cardona.

Episode 8 of Walk — which has the tribes fighting each other more so than the walkers — did start off with a bang, however. In the first episode of the season, Daryl, Grimes’ trusted lieutenant, shoots a box of explosives, ripping a CG walker in half — work that Cardona describes as “challenging.” In another shot, an RPG blows up another tribe member; in it, the actor had to be swapped out for a digital double that had been projection modeled.

Cardona has seen an evolution in the effects Picture Shop is providing for Walk in particular. Some of the more interesting effects will be coming in Season 9, he teases. “We’ve been working on some of the stuff over the summer and have spent time in R&D on one effect in particular — something new that the audience hasn’t seen before,” he says.

In the upcoming season, nature is taking over, and there will be overgrown vegetation on all the buildings and structures. “With that said, we are doing an effect whereby we take a murder of crows and have them swarm similar to the murmuration of starlings, which wheel and dart through the sky in tight, fluid formations,” says Cardona. “This is something you will see through the course of the season.”

 

The Walking Dead

For this work, the artists built and rigged a crow in Maya and generated various animation cycles, which were cached out and used as a particle simulation within Side Effects’ Houdini.

While creating this effect was not nearly as time-consuming as setting up the crowd simulation in Golaem, “it was something unique, and we had to figure out an approach that gave us the flexibility to art direct and change [the results] quickly,” Cardona notes. “And, it’s an effect that has nothing to do with walkers, but it tells a big part of the story of what is happening to the world around them.”

In terms of the other overall effects in Walk and Fear, the Picture Shop artists use primarily Autodesk’s 3ds Max, although Maya is also used, albeit mainly for the Golaem crowd work. Yet once the sim is complete, the artists cache the results and bake out all the animation within Maya, then export it into Max. Rendering is done in Chaos’ V-Ray for 3ds Max.

In addition, the artists use Pixologic’s ZBrush for a lot of the organic modeling, mostly for the walkers. For effects, the crew usually turns to Houdini.

The effects that Picture Shop delivers for The Walking Dead are unique — in terms of the blood and gore — from other shows the studio works on, such as Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver, which call for more traditional VFX, like muzzle flashes and explosions, as well as set extensions. “It’s more hard-surface modeling stuff, whereas Walk, for the most part, is a lot more organic,” Cardona adds. “And the tone is completely different, obviously.”

Monster Mash
Picture Shop performs the same type of work for Fear as it does for Walk — mostly weapon extensions and walker kills. Cardona notes there is a cohesiveness in the effects between the two shows, especially now that the timeline of both stories is nearly the same. Fear started at the beginning of the apocalypse, when the walkers were “fresher, and the blood kills were a little bigger, because the thinking was that there would be more blood present in the walkers at that point,” he explains.

Insofar as the general walker kills are concerned, the actors never really make a physical impact with their stabbing motions, so oftentimes their hands are not in the right positions or the reaction time of the walker is off. In these instances, it is up to the VFX artists to digitally rectify the action and reaction — for instance, separating and repositioning the actor’s arm, stabilizing it, then tracking on the weapon that is placed in their hand, as well as stabilizing the walker, adding the wound, and then adding the weapon extension. This holds true for both series.

“Sometimes this can be challenging because the camera is also moving, so it requires significant roto work, and we have to deconstruct the shot and reconstruct it back again,” says Cardona. “There are plenty of these types of shots we have to do for both Walk and Fear.”

For the tracking on this and other work, the studio uses Andersson Technologies’ SynthEyes; for the planar tracking, Boris FX’s Mocha, formerly from Imagineer Systems.

According to Cardona, the overall look of the walkers has changed throughout the course of the Fear seasons. In Walk, they are more decayed, whereas in Fear, they still look like humans for the most part, not as skeletal. But, that has now changed, and with a more cohesive look between the walkers is a more cohesive look with some of the VFX, particularly the blood effects going forward.

However, there is one big difference between the two shows. Walk is still shot on film, 16mm, while Fear is shot digitally, so the graininess is quite heavy with Walk. “It affects our tracking because there is so much noise. Often we would de-grain [the footage] to do the tracking, and then add the grain back in. Also, any time we have a bluescreen shot where we have to pull keys, it’s a problem,” says Cardona.

Indeed, honing the effects on The Walking Dead gives the artists a leg up when it comes to Fear. Another advantage: Picture Shop performs the color and finishing for both shows, as well, which can result in some emergency VFX work for the crew, especially during a time crunch. In fact, the colorists at the facility created the custom 16mm grain pattern that the artists use now during the tracking process. It was generated by the colorists when the client was considering migrating Walk to digital format but then decided to retain the current structure.

Another plus: The Walking Dead executives are also located in the same building as Picture Shop, several floors up. “They just moved here, and it’s convenient for everyone. We can do spot sessions with VFX producer Jason Sax or showrunner Angela Kang (who recently took over that role from Scott Gimple).”

At Comic-Con San Diego a few weeks ago, the series was a fan favorite, and online there is talk about plans for upcoming seasons. So, it appears these walkers still have a lot of life left in them, if fans — and the digital artists — have their way.


Karen Moltenbrey is a longtime writer and editor in the CG and post industries.


Emmy Season: Audio post for Netflix docu-series Wild Wild Country

By Jennifer Walden

A community based on peace and love, acceptance and non-judgment, where everyone has a job and a purpose. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that, right? Or, is there a part of you that thinks this all sounds a bit utopian and is dubious?

Wild Wild Country, the six-part docu-series created by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way — its executive producers include two more sets of brothers: Mark and Jay Duplass and Josh and Dan Braun — tells the true story of what happened to a small town in Oregon after a religious cult set up their “utopian” city on a nearby ranch. This seven-hour documentary premiered in its entirety at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is currently available to stream on Netflix. It was also nominated for five Emmy Awards, winning in the category of Outstanding Documentary or Non-Fiction Series.

The Unbridled sound team at Sundance.

Wild Wild Country is a mix of archival news footage from the ‘80s — when the Rajneesh cult’s influence was on the rise in Oregon — and footage shot by the Rajneeshees, particularly in their own camp. It also draws from other documentaries and news specials on the Rajneesh movement that was created over the years. The Way brothers conduct extensive interviews with former Rajneeshees — including Ma Anand Sheela, who was personal secretary to cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. They also interview a list of other interesting characters, from FBI agents who helped to bring down the cult to Oregonians (including the former mayor of Antelope) who lived near the cult’s camp.

The result is a story that’s almost too twisted to be true. “This could’ve been a narrative feature that someone scripted and produced… a film that’s well thought out and well played instead of a story that was stumbled upon,” says Emmy award-winning supervising sound editor Brent Kiser of LA’s Unbridled Sound. He and his sound editing team are recipients of one of the show’s five Emmy noms for their work on Wild Wild Country.

“Creatively, we didn’t see Wild Wild Country as a documentary per se,” explains Kiser. “We wanted it to be cinematic so that, in a way, you couldn’t believe this was real life because it was too crazy. The sound needed to reflect that.”

The Dialog
One way they achieved a feature film feel was by processing the interview dialog so that it didn’t sound like a stereotypical talking-head documentary. “We didn’t want the dialog to have that very dry, close sound you get with lavalier microphones,” says Kiser.

Years ago, while working on a documentary called Tiny: A Story About Living Small (2013), dialog editor Elliot Thompson discovered that stripping all the noise from the production dialog also stripped out all the character and nuances of a location. It made the dialog feel impersonal, as though it was talking at the audience instead of to them.

“That worked well on Tiny because you’re in small, close spaces, but on Wild Wild Country we wanted to do the opposite,” says Kiser. “We wanted to give the interview dialog a little bit of life, so we added in reverb using Audio Ease’s Altiverb. This gave the dialog a smoother, softer feel that helps the audience to feel the room to feel the environment and to feel like they’re there. Subsequently, this polish gave the dialog a cinematic feel. It felt more like a story being told and less like news.”

For the news footage from the ‘80s, which includes segments by former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, Kiser went for an unpolished approach. “The material hadn’t been maintained, and there were these weird VHS bleeds; the audio had a huge hum. Initially, we tried to clean it up a bit, but in the end we decided to just let it roll because that’s how it is,” he says.

Replacing Some Sound
The sound of the news footage set the tone for the rest of the archival material. Kiser and his team replaced all the sound for the B-roll shots that didn’t have someone talking on-camera. They did the same for footage from the Rajneeshees, who shot tons of footage for their promotional videos. “Every footstep, every gunshot, we covered all that. We basically replaced it all.”

For example, there’s footage of the Rajneeshees all dressed in red, walking through the town of Antelope, Oregon. Kiser and his team replaced all the sound there, adding in wind, footsteps and other elements you’d expect to hear. “We wanted to keep those moments feeling very real and very voyeuristic,” says Kiser. “By ‘real,’ I mean our idea of what archival material should sound like.”

In order for the sound to feel “real” it had to sound dirty, just like the archival news footage. Sound effects editors Jacob Flack and Danielle Price mined the libraries at Unbridled Sound in search of effects that were old, noisy and poorly recorded — effects that wouldn’t normally be useful today. Kiser says, “The old Hollywood Edge and BBC libraries were perfect! The wind sounds that are rumbly and distorted — those were just perfect.”

They also recorded new sounds when needed, but those fresh, clean recordings had to match the gritty archival material. Kiser tried adding futz processing via Audio Ease’s Speakerphone, but ultimately it wasn’t giving him the desired result. “So we tried cranking the Pro Tools SansAmp PSA-1 plug-in on it, and we also used the Waves Cobalt Saphira harmonic shaper plug-in. This helped the new recordings to feel warm and analog in the right way. We would bus all the ‘archival’ sound through an AUX channel with those two plug-ins for overall processing.

Some sounds couldn’t be replaced, specifically the Rajneeshee chants and singing. Those were pulled from already-published sources, like other documentaries, due to rights issues. Kiser explains, “That was important because the Rajneeshees, a.k.a. sannyasins, are still around. You can still go to India and find them. And Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) is the yoga guy. If you dive into any hardcore yoga philosophy or theology, he’s written all about it and he’s quoted all the time.”

Knowing Wild Wild Country was going to play theatrically at Sundance, Kiser and his team were able to work with the 5.1 surround field — a rare opportunity in the documentary world. They chose to keep the sound on the front wall to maintain that archival feel, but when they wanted to kick up the excitement — for example, during the helicopter flyovers of Rajneeshpuram — they pulled the sound into the surrounds. “We used whooshes and sound design elements to make that feel bigger, more cinematic than the other archival material.”

The Music
Another prominent feature in the soundtrack was the music, composed by musician Brocker Way (brother to the filmmakers). “It’s basically wall-to-wall, and it’s amazing. You can watch all seven hours and not be annoyed by the music,” says Kiser. Interestingly, the music wasn’t composed to picture. Brocker Way wrote four- to five-minute cues that were later edited to picture. “We’d get the edited music tracks and make some adjustments, too. The result was a soundtrack that was perfect for this project.”

The biggest thing Kiser was worried about (knowing the film festival audience was going to watch a seven-hour documentary in its entirety) was boredom. That turned out to be a non-issue. The story itself is exciting. “And as far as the sound goes, the dialog feels warm and accessible through the whole film, so it feels like a story. A lot of times you’ll hear the sound design and music ramping up towards the end of each part, so that it would tease and build into the next one. It worked. At Sundance, they kept the theater at 40 to 50 people for all seven hours,” reports Kiser.

What’s most amazing about the post sound process on Wild Wild Country is that Unbridled Sound had just three weeks to get it all done, from edit to final mix. “We’re only a five-person crew here,” says Kiser. “Not only were we working on Wild Wild Country, but we had another Sundance film too, called An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. And we were working on a series for Adult Swim called Dream Corp, LLC. So, it was intense.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.


Kari Skogland — Emmy-nominated director of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale

By Iain Blair

From day one, the stark images of pure white bonnets and blood-red cloaks in The Handmaid’s Tale have come to symbolize one thing — the oppression of women. The Hulu hit series has also come to symbolize that rare moment in pop culture where difficult subject matter and massive artistic ambition cross over into impressive ratings.

In fact, the show — based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian and prescient 1985 novel of the same name — just received 20 Emmy nominations, including eight acting noms and a second nod for best drama series. It reportedly doubled its audience for the Season 2 premiere (as compared to the first season), after becoming the first show from a streaming service to win best drama at the 2017 Emmys.

Many of the most searing episodes, including “Night,” the finale to Season 1, and “Other Women” in Season 2, were directed by the award-winning Kari Skogland. As CEO of Mad Rabbit, which launched in 2016, Skogland produces one-hour dramas for the international market while she continues her work as a director on The Handmaid’s Tale and the upcoming pilot for Starz’s The Rook. Skogland was included in the 2018 Emmy nominations with recognition of her directing work on the Season 2 episode “After.”

A prolific female director of TV and film, Skogland’s television credits include episodes for the premiere season of Condor (Audience), and such shows as The Borgias and Penny Dreadful (Showtime), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), The Killing, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead (AMC), Under the Dome (CBS), Vikings (History Channel), Power-Starring 50 Cent (Starz), The Americans (FX) and House of Cards and The Punisher (Netflix). Skogland also directed Sons of Liberty (History), a six-part event miniseries for which she won the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC) award for Best Director of a Television Miniseries.

As a feature film writer, director and producer, Skogland’s film Fifty Dead Men Walking, starring Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated for another six awards, including Best Film.  Additionally, Skogland was recognized by the DGC as Best Director. Her previous film as director, writer and producer was The Stone Angel, starring Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Page. It was nominated for Best Director and Best Writer by WGC as well as Best Screenplay and Best Actress. It also won a Best Film award from the DGC.

I recently spoke with Skogland — the only female nominated in the best directing drama category at this year’s Emmys — about the show, her workflow and mentoring other women.

Why do you think the show’s caught the public’s imagination so much?
I think it’s rooted in many things, one of them being a cautionary tale. Another would be these compelling performances that engage you in the story in an emotional context and a narrative that has the possibility of actually coming true, especially given what we’re seeing on the news all the time now. It’s a weird perfect storm where today’s political climate and this show sort of merge.

I recently read something where Margaret Atwood, who wrote it over 30 years ago, says that everything has happened. It was fiction, but it has happened somewhere in the world since she wrote it, and it’s happening today. So I think the authenticity of the characters and the performances, even more than the events, is what really drives it even further into being so incredibly watchable.

Every character is so complex.
Exactly. You love to hate Serena Joy, but then there are moments where you really feel for her in ways you can’t predict. So your emotional barometer is going up and down.

Fair to say that Atwood’s book and its themes seem more timely than ever?
Definitely. Not only is it very timely now, but it was probably very timely when it first came out too, which makes it even more interesting when you think about progress. Are we really on a treadmill? Have we really moved the political needle at all? It doesn’t seem that different from when she wrote it, when Reagan and the rise of conservatism in America were making headlines.

Have you started Season 3?
Not yet. It’ll probably start filming in September. They’ve asked me to come back, but they don’t have a schedule yet.

Kari Skogland on set

What are the big challenges of directing this show?
First of all, you have to be very aware of all of it. When I did the Season 1 finale, I had to watch everything very carefully up until that point so I could continue the emotional story. It was the same thing for Season 2. They’re very challenging performance pieces for everyone, and you have to maintain that sense of continuity and trust. You have to really plan for the season’s arc for each character, and someone like Lizzie [Moss] is so collaborative. But it’s also this path of discovery, where you want to capture the inspiration of the moment.

Where do you post?
We shoot in Toronto and do all the post at Take 5 Productions there. I’ve known and worked with them for years — they’ve won so many awards for their great work. They do all the editing and finishing.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, and with a show like this it’s where you can combine the plan you went into post with, along with those happy accidents and inspired moments, and see the scene or episode come alive in ways you didn’t expect. I always think of it as a way to re-direct the episode. Post is always full of surprises.

Talk about editing. Didn’t you start off as an editor?
Yes, and I am really involved in the edit. I always want to have two options in post. I don’t want to be handcuffed by any decisions made on the set. I need to be able to re-sculpt the footage and rediscover stuff as we go.

You have a big cast, and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
One of the things I really like to avoid is what I call “ping-pong” editing, and doing lazy coverage of a scene where it’s so predictable — there’s the closeup, there’s the wide shot, there’s another closeup!  I always want coverage that actually eliminates edits. The goal is to not interrupt the flow by jumping all over the place. With that in mind, I try and shoot with the idea of “the elegant accident,” and that means you sometimes shoot a lot of extra footage so you can find the gold and the gems as you re-sculpt in post. It’s like documentary filmmaking in that sense, and those gems happen in the oddest of moments.

This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music.
The show’s creator, Bruce Miller, is very really instrumental in all that, but we’re all involved too. For episode eight, Joe Fiennes came up with the idea of a record player, and then we built this whole storyline around the record player. The wonderful thing about Bruce’s writing and his aesthetic is that it’s so spare, so it leaves such great opportunities for performance. The actors can convey a lot without any words.

How important are the Emmys to you and a show like this?
It’s incredibly important! When your peers nominate you it’s a real nod from industry professionals, and it indicates tremendous appreciation.

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
I’ve been advocating for women for years, and the truth is, nothing’s really changed that much. There’s been so much talk recently, and it was the same thing 20 years ago. One female director had a big hit with Wonder Woman, but real change will only come when half the superhero movies are directed by women.

What advice would you give young women who would like to direct and run shows like this?
Not only can you do it — just do it! Obviously, it’s hard and there are many sacrifices you have to make, but don’t take “no” for an answer.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


DP Patrick Stewart’s path and workflow on Netflix’s Arrested Development

With its handheld doc-style camerawork, voiceover narration and quirky humor, Arrested Development helped revolutionize the look of TV sitcoms. Created by Mitchell Hurwitz, with Ron Howard serving as one of its executive producers, the half-hour comedy series follows the once-rich Bluth family, that continues to live beyond their means in Southern California. At the center of the family is the mostly sane Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), who does his best to keep his dysfunctional family intact.

Patrick Stewart

The series first aired for three seasons on the Fox TV network (2003-2006) but was canceled due to low ratings. Because the series was so beloved, in 2013, Netflix brought it back to life with its original cast in place. In May 2018, the fifth season began streaming, shot by cinematographer Patrick Stewart (Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League, Flight of the Conchords). He called on VariCam LT cinema cameras.

Stewart’s path to becoming a cinematographer wasn’t traditional. Growing up in Los Angeles and graduating with a degree in finance from the University of Santa Clara, he got his start in the industry when a friend called him up and asked if he’d work on a commercial as a dolly grip. “I did it well enough where they called me for more and more jobs,” explains Stewart. “I started as a dolly grip but then I did sound, worked as a tape op and then started in the camera department. I also worked with the best gaffers in San Francisco, who showed me how to look at the light, understand it and either augment it or recreate it. It was the best practical film school I could have ever attended.”

Not wanting to stay “in a small pond with big fish” Stewart decided to move back to LA and started working for MTV, which brought him into the low-budget handheld world. It also introduced him to “interview lighting” where he lit celebrities like Barbara Streisand, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. “At that point I got to light every single amazing musician, actor, famous person you could imagine,” he says. “This practice afforded me the opportunity to understand how to light people who were getting older, and how to make them look their best on camera.”

In 1999, Stewart received an offer to shoot Mike Figgis’ film Time Code (2000), which was one of the landmark films of the DV/film revolution. “It was groundbreaking not only in the digital realm but the fact that Time Code was shot with four cameras from beginning to end, 93 minutes, without stopping, shown in a quad split with no edits — all handheld,” explains Stewart. “It was an amazingly difficult project, because having no edits meant you couldn’t make mistakes. I was very fortunate to work with a brilliant renegade director like Mike Figgis.”

Triple Coverage
When hired for Arrested Development, the first request Stewart approached Hurwitz with was to add a third camera. Shooting with three cameras with multiple characters can be a logistical challenge, but Stewart felt he could get through scenes more quickly and effectively, in order to get the actors out on time. “I call the C camera the center camera and the A and the B are screen left and screen right,” Stewart explains. “C covers the center POV, while A and B cover the scene from their left and right side POV, which usually starts with overs. As we continue to shoot the scene, each camera will get tighter and tighter. If there are three or more actors in the scene, C will get tighter on whoever is in the center. After that, C camera might cover the scene following the dialogue with ‘swinging’ singles. If no swinging singles are appropriate, then the center camera can move over and help out coverage on the right or left side.

“I’m on a walkie — either adjusting the shots during a scene for either of their framing or exposure, or I’m planning ahead,” he continues. “You give me three cameras and I’ll shoot a show really well for you and get it done efficiently, and with cinematic style.”

Because it is primarily a handheld show, Stewart needed lenses that would not weigh down his operators during long takes. He employed Fujinon Cabrio zooms (15-35mm, 19-90mm, and 85-300mm), which are all f/2.8 lenses.

For camera settings, Stewart captures 10-bit 422 UHD (3840×2160) AVC Intra files at 23.98-fps. He also captures in V-Log but uses the V-709 LUT. “To me, you can create all the LUTs you want,” he says, “but more than likely you get to color correction and end up changing things. I think the basic 709 LUT is really nice and gentle on all the colors.”

Light from Above
Much of Arrested Development is shot on a stage, so lighting can get complicated, especially when there are multiple characters in a scene. To makes things less complicated, Stewart provided a gentle soft light from softboxes covering the top of each stage set, using 4-by-8 wooden frames with Tungsten-balanced Quasar tubes dimmed down to 50%. His motivated lighting explanation is that the unseen source could basically be a skylight. If characters are close to windows, he uses HMIs creating “natural sunlight” punching through to light the scene. “The nice thing about the VariCam is that you don’t need as many photons, and I did pretty extensive tests during pre-production on how to do it.”

On stage, Stewart sets his ISO to 5000 base and dials down to 2500 and generally shoots at an f/2.8 and ½. He even uses one level of ND on top of that. “You can imagine 27-foot candles at one level of ND at a 2.8 and 1/2 — that’s a pretty sensitive camera, and I noticed very little noise. My biggest concern was mid-tones, so I did a lot of testing — shooting at 5000, shooting at 2500, 800, 800 pushed up to 1600 and 2500.

“Sometimes with certain cameras, you can develop this mid-tone noise that you don’t really notice until you’re in post. I felt like shooting at 5000 knocked down to 2500 was giving me the benefit of lighting the stage at these beautifully low-lit levels where we would never be hot. I could also easily put 5Ks outside the windows to have enough sunlight to make it look like it’s overexposed a bit. I felt that the 5000 base knocked down to 2500, the noise level was negligible. At native 5000 ISO, there was a little bit more mid-tone noise, even though it was still acceptable. For daytime exteriors, we usually shot at ISO 800, dialing down to 500 or below.”

Stewart and Arrested Development director Troy Miller have known each other for many years since working together on the HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. “There was a shorthand between director and DP that really came in handy,” says Stewart. “Troy knows that I know what I’m doing, and I know on his end that he’s trying to figure out this really complicated script and have us shoot it. Hand in hand, we were really able to support Mitch.”

Netflix’s Lost in Space: mastering for Dolby Vision HDR, Rec.709

There is a world of difference between Netflix’s ambitious science-fiction series Lost in Space (recently renewed for another 10 episodes) and the beloved but rather low-tech, tongue-in-cheek 1960s show most fondly remembered for the repartee between persnickety Dr. Smith and the rather tinny-looking Robot. This series, starring Molly Parker, Toby Stevens and Parker Posey (in a very different take on Dr. Smith), is a very modern, VFX-intensive adventure show with more deeply wrought characters and elaborate action sequences.

Siggy Ferstl

Colorist Siggy Ferstl of Company 3 devoted a significant amount of his time and creative energy to the 10-episode release over the five-and-a-half-month period the group of 10 episodes was in the facility. While Netflix’s approach to dropping all 10 episodes at once, rather than the traditional series schedule of an episode a week, fuels excitement and binge-watching among viewers, it also requires a different kind of workflow, with cross-boarded shoots across multiple episodes and different parts of episodes coming out of editorial for color grading throughout the story arc. “We started on episode one,” Ferstl explains, “but then we’d get three and portions of six and back to four, and so on.”

Additionally, the series was mastered both for Dolby Vision HDR and Rec.709, which added additional facets to the grading process over shows delivered exclusively for Rec.709.

Ferstl’s grading theater also served as a hub where the filmmakers, including co-producer Scott Schofield, executive producer Zack Estrin and VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani could see iterations of the many effects sequences as they came in from vendors (Cinesite, Important Looking Pirates and Image Engine, among others).

Ferstl himself made use of some new tools within Resolve to create a number of effects that might once have been sent out of house or completed during the online conform. “The process was layered and very collaborative,” says Ferstl. “That is always a positive thing when it happens but it was particularly important because of this series’ complexity.”

The Look
Shot by Sam McCurdy, the show’s aesthetic was designed, “to have a richness and realness to the look,” Ferstl explains. “It’s a family show but it doesn’t have that vibrant and saturated style you might associate with that. It has a more sophisticated kind of look.”

One significant alteration to the look involves changes to the environment of the planet onto which the characters crash land. The filmmakers wanted the exteriors to look less Earthlike with foliage a bit reddish, less verdant than the actual locations. The visual effects companies handled some of the more pronounced changes, especially as the look becomes more extreme in later episodes, but for a significant amount of this work, Ferstl was able to affect the look in his grading sessions — something that until recently would likely not have been achievable.

Ferstl, who has always sought out and embraced new technology to help him do his job, made use of some features that were then brand new to Resolve 14. In the case of the planet’s foliage, he made use of the Color Compressor tool within the OpenFX tab on the color corrector. “This allowed me take a range of colors and collapse that into a single vector of color,” he explains. “This lets you take your selected range of colors, say yellows and greens in this case, and compress them in terms of hue, saturation and luminance.” Sometimes touted as a tool to give colorists more ability to even out flesh tones, Ferstl applied the tool to the foliage and compressed the many shades of green into a narrower range prior to shifting the resulting colors to the more orange look.

“With foliage you have light greens and darker greens and many different ranges within the color green,” Ferstl explains. “If we’d just isolated those ranges and turned them orange individually, it wouldn’t give us the same feel. But by limiting the range and latitude of those greens in the Color Compressor and then changing the hue we were able to get much more desirable results.” Of course, Ferstl also used multiple keys and windows to isolate the foliage that needed to change from the elements of the scenes that didn’t.

He also made use of the Camera Shake function, which was particularly useful in a scene in the second episode in which an extremely heavy storm of sharp hail-like objects hits the planet, endangering many characters. The storm itself was created at the VFX houses, but the additional effect of camera shake on top of that was introduced and fine-tuned in the grade. “I suggested that we could add the vibration, and it worked very well,” he recalls. By doing the work during color grading sessions, Ferstl and the filmmakers in the session could see that effect as it was being created, in context and on the big screen, and could fine-tune the “camera movement” right then and there.

Fortunately, the colorist notes, the production afforded the time to go back and revise color decisions as more episodes came into Company 3. “The environment of the planet changes throughout. But we weren’t coloring episodes one after the other. It was really like working on a 10-hour feature.

“If we start at episode one and jump to episode six,” Ferstl notes, “exactly how much should the environment have changed in-between? So it was a process of estimating where the look should land but knowing we could go back and refine those decisions if it proved necessary once we had the surrounding episodes for context.”

Dolby Vision Workflow
As most people reading this know, mastering in high dynamic range (Dolby Vision in this case) opens up the possibility of working within a significantly expanded contrast range and wider color gamut over Rec.709 standard for traditional HD. Lost in Space was mastered concurrently for both, which required Ferstl to use Dolby’s workflow. And this involves making all corrections for the HDR version and then allowing the Dolby hardware/software to analyze the images to bring them into the Rec.709 space for the colorist to do a standard-def pass.

Ferstl, who worked with two Sony X-300 monitors, one calibrated for Rec.709 and the other for HDR, explains, “Everyone is used to looking at Rec. 709. Most viewers today will see the show in Rec.709 and that’s really what the clients are most concerned with. At some point, if HDR becomes the dominant way people watch television, then that will probably change. But we had to make corrections in HDR and then wait for the analysis to show us what the revised image looked like for standard dynamic range.”

He elaborates that while the Dolby Vision spec allows the brightest whites to read at 4000 nits, he and the filmmakers preferred to limit that to 1000 nits. “If you let highlights go much further than we did,” he says, “some things can become hard to watch. They become so bright that visual fatigue sets in after too long. So we’d sometimes take the brightest portions of the frame and slightly clamp them,” he says of the technique of holding the brightest areas of the frame to levels below the maximum the spec allows.

“Sometimes HDR can be challenging to work with and sometimes it can be amazing,” he allows. Take the vast vistas and snowcapped mountains we first see when the family starts exploring the planet. “You have so much more detail in the snow and an amazing range in the highlights than you could ever display in Rec.709,” he says.

“In HDR, the show conveys the power and majesty of these vast spaces beyond what viewers are used to seeing. There are quite a few sections that lend themselves to HDR,” he continues. But as with all such tools, it’s not always appropriate to the story to use the extremes of that dynamic range. Some highlights in HDR can pull the viewer’s attention to a portion of the frame in a way that simply can’t be replicated in Rec. 709 and, likewise, a bright highlight from a practical or a reflection in HDR can completely overpower an image that tells the story perfectly in standard dynamic range. “The tools can re-map an image mathematically,” Ferstl notes, “but it still requires artists to interpret an image’s meaning and feel from one space to the other.”

That brings up another question: How close do you want the HDR and the Rec.709 to look to each other when they can look very different? Overall, the conclusion of all involved on the series was to constrain the levels in the HDR pass a bit in order to keep the two versions in the same ballpark aesthetically. “The more you let the highlights go in HDR,” he explains, “the harder it is to compress all that information for the 100-nit version. If you look at scenes with the characters in space suits, for example, they have these small lights that are part of their helmets and if you just let those go in HDR, those lights become so distracting that it becomes hard to look at the people’s faces.”

Such decisions were made in the grading theater on a case by case basis. “It’s not like we looked at a waveform monitor and just said, ‘let’s clamp everything above this level,’” he explains, “it was ultimately about the feeling we’d get from each shot.”