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Quick Chat: FilmLight co-founder Wolfgang Lempp

In what has become a semi-regular column here at postPerspective, we have taken to doing short Q&As with the people behind the products you use. The questions, submitted by pros, are meant to illicit responses that allow users to understand how a company goes about creating, updating and servicing gear for our industry.

This time we spoke to Wolfgang Lempp, who co-founded UK-based FilmLight with Peter Stothart and Steve Chapman in 2002. He and the other co-founders oversee the management of the company, including business and product development, product management and strategic development.

Lempp’s tech credentials are pretty impressive. He has a degree in theoretical physics from Munich University and has been working in the motion picture industry since 1983. Before co-founding FilmLight he was director of technology development at Framestore CFC. Prior to that he was the systems architect for the FX Centre Babelsberg in Germany and director of technology at the Computer Film Company where he led the development of pioneering digital film and image processing technology.

What are FilmLight’s R&D priorities?
It is tempting to think that we are in the business of helping people make beautiful pictures, but actually we are here to help people make money through beautiful pictures. So a lot of our focus at the moment is in how we can improve productivity in the post-production process.

It may seem strange to talk about creativity and the bottom line in the same breath, but they are inextricably linked. A budget is a budget — if you get the workflow right then you can make the most of that budget and get a better, more satisfying result in less time.

At one time the post-production process was characterized by inefficiency. Low levels of integration and automation left room for misunderstandings, duplicated effort and large amounts of time spent on repetitive tasks. “We are creative so we are different,” was the justification. But we are not different and post is having to shed its cottage industry practices and become a productivity driven business like making cars or building tower blocks. Share information accurately and efficiently, do each task once within a smooth, logical process and the result will be predictable and desirable.

So to get back to your question, one of the areas we continue to target in R&D is what we call “Creative Efficiency.” We make products with amazing creative capabilities but know we have to give our customers the economic edge to deliver a better job faster than they can with a competitive product.

We take a lot of time to engineer highly efficient processes into our products, which help to minimize the impact of mundane and often time-consuming tasks like data management, file conversions and anything else that gets in the way of creativity. We then take our products and make them work seamlessly with other applications in the post pipeline, such as editorial and visual effects. Unlike the obvious creative features that stand out, these benefits are under the hood and only really become evident when you’re pushing work through day in and day out. Slick and dependable workflows delivering your creatives’ work add straight to the bottom line.

DI toolsets are generally broadening, incorporating editorial, restoration, titles, VFX and stereoscopy into their software. Where does FilmLight stand on that?
There is certainly a trend towards one person doing it all, but I think that comes from the home computer and free software paradigm. Theoretically anyone can do any task in post, and sometimes they actually set out to do it all.

FilmLight is not in that business. We concentrate on the professional market where we still see a high level of specialization. There is a requirement for specialist tools for specialist creative artists, allowing them to concentrate on the tasks they are good at while also letting them cooperate seamlessly with other specialists up and down the pipeline.

So we don’t subscribe to the idea that doing everything in one box is an efficient way of working. A top colorist is not a specialist compositor or a primetime editor, or indeed a sound engineer. Our philosophy is to choose the best specialist for the task, give them the best tools to work with, and ensure that all the applications play well together.

Putting it another way, if you try to build a system that is all things to all people, the best you can hope for is that it will be adequate for each task. That is not what FilmLight is about. We are here to provide the best tools to the best people. Our approach is to partner with other specialist manufacturers to produce a collaborative environment where everyone can work at their most creative and most efficient.

Here in the UK we have a hugely popular daily drama called Coronation Street. It’s been on network primetime TV for well over 50 years and has recently moved to a completely new location. The move provided an opportunity to implement a new workflow where the colorist can perform a master grade without having to render a single frame.

The workflow is alarmingly simple thanks to our philosophy of making our toolset available and identical in a partner application. Two or three cameras are used on each shoot, recording to an Avid ISIS shared storage system. The FilmLight Baselight grading suite also sits on the ISIS network so it can see all the footage.

All the grading information from the Baselight grading system is passed to the edit suites as metadata in the AAF files. Baselight Editions (Baselight AVX plug-ins) in the Avids show the graded footage to the editor and if the grade is updated the editor sees it immediately. If the editor wants to tweak a shot the same Baselight grading toolset is available to him in his Avid. Or the shot can be referred back to the colorist. Either way, not a second is lost in moving big files or handing projects to and fro. This is a renderless workflow — a direct result of the “Creative Efficiency” ethos I was referring to earlier.

For a daily drama this is an incredibly efficient workflow, and it means the production gets a really distinctive, creative look without adding to the timescales. Once you see it in action, it is obvious that this is the way to work — editors on Avid and colorists on Baselight.

Baselight for Nuke

Baselight for Nuke

Baselight Editions is not available for Final Cut Pro X. Is that a creative decision?
Baselight Editions is our plug-in for other creative tools, and so far we have versions for Avid, Final Cut Pro 7, Nuke and others. Final Cut Pro X is certainly on our roadmap, but we only have a small team of developers. Baselight Editions is a key part of our workflow focus. Watch for more developments in future.

The color grading market has changed dramatically over recent years. What is going to happen in the future?
Of course we have seen huge changes, but I really do not think it is as simple as some people make out — which is that the bottom has fallen out of the market because of the availability of free, or next to free tools.

Our customers are serious professionals, charged with finishing the best in television and movies. They are under pressure from new entrants to the market who think that because the tools are cheap they can offer the same services for less money.

In truth, the cost of the product itself is a very small part of what is required to provide a high-quality service. If you want to recruit the most creative staff you have to pay them. If you want to attract top end work, then you need to make your facilities convenient for your client base and provide the space and comfort for long concentrated hours of work. The underlying infrastructure also has to be completely secure and totally reliable: your reputation goes if you cannot guarantee to preserve and keep safe every single pixel.

This is also the part of the market that sees the complex problems first. We have seen the pace of change accelerate since we started FilmLight; HD, 3D stereoscopic, 2K, 4K, tape and film to a cornucopia of digital camera formats, high frame rates, 8K Super High Def, to name a few of the more obvious developments — and we don’t expect it to slow down. The problems get harder and more complex and our customers look to us to solve them efficiently and elegantly.

The people in the post industry around the world who we talk to tell us that there is still room in the market for the top-end facility, provided it can be fitted out in ways which make the workflow state of the art, fast, logical and secure. That is our business.

What is FilmLight’s integrated workflow? Where does it start and where does it end?
One of the best ways to improve post workflows, particularly in this era of high-contrast digital cameras, is by starting with a good look, capturing it on set and refining it all the way to the final grade. We all talk about LUTs, but we can do more on set than simply apply a blanket look.

If the director and DP get a good idea of what the scene is going to look like as they are shooting it, then it makes sense to take that color grading information and use it as the basis of all the future work. So tools like the FilmLight Flip start the integrated workflow at the moment of capture where the creative intent is quickly and easily visualized and stored as metadata. It is then inexpensively transported and non-destructively applied instantly to media in dailies, editorial, VFX and of course the grading suite as it is further refined all along the pipeline. Everyone is working quickly and efficiently off the same page at every stage of the process.

In practice, you have lots of ways of compressing timescales by sharing color information. I quoted the example of ITV’s Coronation Street earlier, and the way in which editing and grading happen truly in parallel. Don’t forget that is a daily drama, so they are making the equivalent of a full-length feature every single week. There is a lot that moviemakers can learn from that sort of workflow!

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