By Daniel Restuccio
When the coronavirus forced just about everything to shut down back in mid-March, many broadcast television series had no choice but to make their last-shot episodes their season finales. Others got creative.
While NBC’s The Blacklist opted for a CG/live-action hybrid to end its season, CBS’ courtroom drama, All Rise, chose to address the shutdown head-on with a show that was shot remotely. When CBS/Warner Bros. shut down production on All Rise, EPs Michael M. Robin and Len Goldstein — along with EP/co-showrunners Greg Spottiswood and Dee Harris-Lawrence — began brainstorming the idea of creating an episode that reflected the current pandemic crisis applied to the justice system.
Co-producer Dantonio Alvarez was deep into remote post on the already-shot episodes 19 and 20 when Robin called him. He and consultant Gil Garcetti had looked into how the court system was handling the pandemic and decided to pitch an idea to Warner Bros.: a remote episode of All Rise done via a Zoom-like setup. Alvarez was relieved; it meant a lot of the crew — 50 from the usual 90-person team — could keep working.
In a week’s time, Spottiswood and co-executive producer Greg Nelson wrote the 64-page script that focused on the complications around a virtual bench trial and the virus-jammed court system.
Producer Ronnie Chong reached out to Jargon Entertainment’s Lucas Solomon to see how he could help. Jargon, which provides on-set playback and computer graphics, had been working with network solutions company Straight Up Technologies (SUT) on other projects. Solomon brought SUT into the mix. “We figured out a way to do everything online and to get it to a point where Mike Robin could be at home directing everybody,” he explains.
Straight Up Technologies offers a secure and proprietary broadband network with a broadcast-quality ISP backbone that can accommodate up to 200 simultaneous video feeds at 1920×1080 at 30fps and do 4K (3840×2160 or 4096×2160). For All Rise to record at 1920×1080, each actor needed a network upload speed of 5Mb/s for no lag or packet loss. If the producers had decided to go 4K, it would have needed to be triple that.
Prep started the week of April 10, with Solomon, Alvarez, DP David Harp, Robin and the SUT IT team doing Zoom or WebEx scouts of the actors’ homes for suitable locations. They also evaluated each home’s bandwidth, making a list of what computers and mobile devices everyone had.
“You’re only as good as the connection out of your house and the traffic around your house,” explains SUT’s John Grindley. They used what was in the actors’ houses and enhanced the connection to their network when necessary. This included upgrading the basic download/upload data plan, going from 4G to 5G, putting in signal boosters, adding hard lines to computers and installing “cradle points” — high-end Wi-Fi hotspots — if needed.
Cinematographer Harp set out to find what area of the casts’ houses helped tell the story. He asked things like, “What was the architecture? What kind of lights did they have in the room? Were they on dimmers? Where were the windows, and what are the window treatments like?” The answers to those questions determined Harp’s lighting package. He sent small battery-powered ring lights to the cast along with tripods for their iPhones, but mostly they worked with what they had. “We decided that we’re not going to get cameras out to anybody,” explains Alvarez. “We were going to use people’s phones and their home computers for capture.”
As a result, all 22 cast members became camera operators, grips and essentially one-person guerrilla film crews. Their gear was MacBook Pros, MacBook Airs, iPhones, and Cisco DX70s. Harp controlled exposure on the computers by moving lights around and positioning the actors.
Solomon set up his video assist system, QTake, at his shop in Valencia. It was equipped with a bandwidth of 400Mb/s download and 20Mb/s upload to record all the feeds. “We set up two other recording locations — one in Hollywood and one in Chatsworth — as redundancy.”
On Friday, April 17, day one of the six-day shoot, a five-person engineering crew at the COVID-safe SUT offices in San Francisco, Seattle and El Segundo fired up the network, checked the call sheet and connected to the crew.
Actors, Jessica Camacho (Emily Lopez) and Lindsay Mendez (Sara Castillo) logged into the join.sutvideo.com on their MacBook Pro laptop and iPhone, respectively. Their signal strength was good, so they shot their scene.
According to Straight Up Technologies CTO Reinier Nissen, the engineers set up virtual spaces, or “talent rooms,” for each actor and a “main stage” room where “talent rooms” were nested and scenes were played out. Every actor’s camera and mic feeds were married and recorded as individual signals. The “main stage” could be configured into a split-screen “Zoom-like” grid with inputs from any of the actors’ feeds. Some of the virtual spaces were control rooms, like a video village, where crew and IT could see all the actors, give technical and creative direction, monitor the signals, manage network traffic and control whose video and audio were on or muted.
The Cisco DX70s natively output 1920×1080 at 30fps. The MacBook Pro and Air 1280×720 camera feeds were upscaled in the sutvideo.com system to 1920×1080 30fps. The iPhones, 4K capable, were set to 1920×1080 30fps. Solomon recorded both the split-screen main stage and individual actor talent room streams to his QTake system in QuickTime ProRes 1920×1080, recalibrated the frame rate to 23.97 and added timecode.
Each take was slated just like a normal shoot. From his LA home, director Robin could see everyone in the scene on the main stage and decide how to arrange them in the grid, set their eyelines and even pop into the grid during rehearsal and between takes to give notes.
Staging the scene, you would think that the actor should look straight at the camera so you could see their eyes. However, they noticed that there was “less of a connection when looking at the lens,” says Harp. “When they’re looking around the screen, you can feel a connection because they’re looking at each other.”
In addition to the virtual first unit footage, Harp shot eight days of second unit footage of Los Angeles streets during COVID. With four suction cups, he attached his Sony A7 to the roof of his son’s car and drove around for four or five hours a day shooting essentially a stock library of Los Angeles during a pandemic.
Alvarez used the remote post infrastructure he set up for Episodes 19 and 20 for the new show. All of the editors, assistant editors, visual effects artists and audio team were working from home on their own systems or ones provided by Warner Bros. Since there was no Avid Unity shared storage, they did old-school shuttling of drives from location to location.
“We had three teams tackling this thing because our schedule was ridiculously short,” says Alvarez. “Every single day, feeding everybody material, we were able to get everyone cutting. We’d send live feeds or links to producers to get their eyes on editorial approvals on scenes in real time. We just moved.”
MTI Film EP Barbara Marshall reports that all the footage was ingested into the post house’s Signiant server system. From those masters, they made DNxHD 36 dailies using the MTI Cortex v5 software and sent them to the editors and assistant editors.
The edit team included Craig Bench, Leah Breuer and Chetin Chabuk, who worked with three assistants: Bradford Obie, Diana Santana and Douglas Staffield. They edited from home on six Avid Media Composers. They worked 13-hour days for 14 days in a row, says Bench.
Everyone on the editorial team got the same pool of dailies and started editing Saturday morning, April 18. Once they reviewed the footage, the team decided to rebuild the split-screen grids from scratch to get the pace of the show right. They wanted to retain, as much as possible, both the cadence of the dialog and the syncopated cutting style that Spottiswood and Bench had set in the pilot.
Rebuilding the grids, explains Bench, “gave us the freedom to treat everyone’s coverage separately. Even though the grid appears to be one take, it’s really not. We were creating our own world.” Rough cuts were sent every night to Robin.
During the first couple of production days, all three teams would jump on cutting the dailies as well as working through the previous day’s notes. As the show came together, Bench worked on the teaser and Act 1, Chabuk did Acts 2 and 3, and Breuer did Act 4 and the party scene at the end.
“There was a lot of experimenting,” explains Bench. “In the grid, should the actors be side by side or one on top of the other? There was also a lot of back and forth about grid background colors and textures.”
The assistants had their bins full setting up grid templates. This would allow them to drop an iso shot on a track so it would go to that spot on the grid and keep it consistent. They also built all the sound effects of the frames animating on and off.
Editorial gave MTI online editor Andrew Miller a “soft lock” of the episode early on April 30. Miller got the Avid project file that was “a big stack of split screens” and a reference video from Bench.
Miller worked over the weekend with post supervisor Cat Crimins putting the episode together remotely. They replaced all the proxies with the high-res masters in the timeline and made necessary last-minute adjustments.
MTI colorist Greg Strait got a baked, uncompressed 10-bit MXF mixdown of the Avid timeline from Miller. Strait, who graded virtually the entire season of All Rise in Digital Vision’s Nucoda, had a good idea where the look was going. “I tried to keep it as familiar as possible to the other 20 episodes,” he says. “Sharpening some things, adding contrast and putting a lot of power windows around things had the best result.”
After laying in the audio stems, post was wrapped Sunday night at 11pm. Alvarez did a quality-control review of the episode. On Monday, May 4, they output XDCAM as the network deliverable.
Despite the tight time crunch, things went pretty smoothly, which MTI Film’s Marshall attributes to the trust and longtime relationship MTI has with Robin and the show. “That’s the cool thing about Mike. He definitely likes to push the envelope,” she says.
All Rise has been renewed for Season 2, and the team promises the innovations will continue.