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.
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.