Amazon Spec: Debrief – August 3rd, 2009

So while I wait for August 24th to roll around (that’s when Amazon announces the 5 finalist for the audience award and the jury prize winner), here is my promised debrief. Warning, it is very tech heavy.

First, my 30-second spec combined live action and stop-motion animation. I’ve done one other film like this (check out CONVERSING). For that short, I shot both the live action and stop-motion animation with a Panasonic DVX100; I used iStopMotion to record the stop-motion animation to my laptop. The digital video was shot 30p and the animation 15 fps. I used a Sennheiser ME66 and ProTools 6.4 to record the voice talent. I edited the film with Final Cut Pro and mixed in ProTools. I was going to use the same setup for this project but I really wanted a higher resolution final so I thought I’d put the final cut through Instant HD and viola, I’m done.

Just one problem: the test I put through Instant HD didn’t look as good as I hoped. I don’t blame the plugin, I just didn’t know how to punch up the optimum settings for export. Plus I was haunted by this post.

I also had access to both a Sony A1U HDV camcorder and a Nikon D100 plus I was looking for a good excuse to learn After Effects so why not take the plunge with this project? Who doesn’t love a challenge, right?

So, first I recorded my four actors (big thanks to Curtiss, Dan, Karina & Michael for lending their talent) using the above mentioned setup. I quickly cut and mixed the dialog so I could sync it up to my “proof of concept” cut. I then shot the live action (an extra thanks to Dan) as 59.94 HDV with the Sony “fake” Cineframe 30 mode turned on. After shooting I immediatly transcoded all the footage to ProRes for the rest of post. All of that went according to plan. The animation, not so much.

I thought about shooting RAW files with the D100 but I’d heard from my photographer friends that it’s a whole other beast so I chose large RGB TIFF files (3000 x 2000) instead. Unfortunately, the camera came with one 512MB CompactFlash (CF) card. That card coulldn’t hold more than 17 shots so if I had any animation longer than 1s4f (1 second, 4 frames), I’d have to download the card, wipe it clean and pray I hadn’t bumped the camera in the process. Um, no thanks. I looked in the manual and it said the camera could handle the “promised” 1GB card but nothing bigger. Guess what? Today it’s hard to find a CF card smaller than 4GB. Thank the lord the 4GB card worked. Unfortuantely, that was just the start of my troubles.

After shooting my first stop-motion shot I immediately ran head first into another problem. Although I put the camera in full manual, including the iris, the camera still adjusted the f-stop by 1/3 to 1/2 a stop according to the built in spot meter. That meant that the brightness of some frames in a single shot would be different than the others. I’d have to correct brightness frame by frame. Tedious? Yes. Doable? Yes. But that wasn’t the biggest pain in my neck.

No, it was the camera and the CF card that almost killed me. The camera could shoot 6 shots before it needed time to write the images from the internal memory buffer to the CF card. It could take 2-5 minutes to write one image to the CF. But the bigger problem was downloading from the camera into iPhoto. This took around 20 minutes per download and once took almost an hour. This forced my one-day shoot to take twice as long. Ugh.

Once in iPhoto, I renamed and exported the TIFF files to an external drive. It was then time for some After Effects magic. I was glad AFX allowed me to import a folder of still images as a contiguous video clip. Once in a timeline, I corrected the gamma to fix for the iris adjustment. Damn, that took a long time and boy did I grind my teeth. After that I created JPEG proxy files for the TIFF clips (a very good idea that saved me a ton of time). I then created another AFX project where I would lay in the animated clips end to end to get a sense of editing and pace. And, as I had 3000×2000 images but knew my final output would be a 1920×1080 HD Quicktime, I decided to create camera moves in post. Oh boy, the results looked so good I couldn’t have been happier.

Also, at this point, I could fix any image problems while still in the highest possible resolution; the Clone tool became one of my most trusted tools and Keylight is awesome for green-screen work. Once that was done, I took each shot and output it as a 1920×1080 ProRes Quciktime so that I could combine my live action and stop motion in a single AFX comp where I could color correct with Colorista which is a GPU based plugin; As you’d know from a previous post, the TIFF files were too big for this.

Once I laid out all the clips, it was time to apply Colorista. I took the Stu Maschwitz method and used Adjustment Layers instead of loading effects onto the master clip. This came in handy when I wanted to swap out clips (which happened more than a few times). Each clip had one color correction layer and all the live action clips had a secondary correction layer so I could bring my actor’s eyes up out of the darkness. Lastly, I applied a final “looks” layer over the whole project.

On the sound side, I tried Soundtrack Pro but grew frustrated so quickly I fell back to ProTools for the sound edit, design and mix. I did have to add a bit of music and I used GarageBand to create the cues and then exported them to ProTools.

Lastly, FYI, it took 14 minutes to render out a 30-second clip in After Effects but I’m incredibly happy with the results.

Here’s hoping you get to see the fruit of my labors as a finalist.

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