Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

How To Custom Score & Grade Your 48hr Film Fest: Or Why Preproduction Matters

I recently participated as the cinematographer for the team 'Bad A 5K' in the 2012 Portland 48hr Film Festival. Not only did we take 1st Place (Best Film) and Best Cinematography, in a competition against 55 other teams, but we did a full color grade, had our film scored, fully sound designed, and built a fully functioning custom prop / ray gun! On top of that, we managed to show up to early to turn our film in - we had to wait an HOUR until they would allow us to submit it. Here is the secret to our success ...

[ While I would love to be able to post our film for you to see, it has moved on to the next phase of competition and posting it online would disqualify our film. Instead I'm going to pepper this post with some screen grabs from the film to give you a flavor of what we accomplished. :) ]

One of the essential parts to making this happen was the all important (but often overlooked & discounted) step to the filmmaking process: Pre-Production. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that on lower budget projects people don't see the need for, or place little importance on, proper pre-production. Then when it comes the day of the shoot a lot of time is wasted, or money is thrown away on costs that don't benefit the final film. And the sad thing is that it could have been avoided if the production had taken a moment to properly consult with all of the department heads and figure out the best plan of attack prior to the commencement of production.
What this looked like for our film is that our director,  Shawn Nelson met with each of the department heads and figured out how much time they needed during the 48 hours, and then we came up with a schedule by working backwards from the deadline. The schedule that we worked out was as follows:

7:00 PM - KC Guyer (our other team lead) goes to the meeting point to get our assignment. Shawn, and Co-Writer AJ Brooks meet at our location and await a phone call form KC with the assignment. As soon as they get it, they start writing.
8:00 PM - The camera, grip, and electric crew arrive to begin setting up & lighting the locations. We didn't have any power at one location, so we had to run A LOT of extension cords (stingers).
10:00 PM - Actors call for makeup and wardrobe.
11:00 PM - Script read through with the actors; adjustments are made.

12:00 AM - First shot is up, production commences.
9:30 AM - Production wraps.
11:00 AM - Footage is handed off to our editor William Schultz. Post production begins.
12:00 AM - Locations are finally wrapped and cleaned up. Everyone heads home for some sleep.
3:00 PM - I wake up and create a one light grade of the footage and email the RMD files to our editor.
8:00 PM - Shawn & KC review the edit, and makes their notes.
11:00 PM - Picture locked. A low res version of the locked edit is sent to the composers (Nick Lambert & Jessy Ribordy), and to our sound designer, (Johnny 5).
11:00 PM - The DPX export of the locked edit starts it's render as it is prepped for final grade in DaVinci Resolve.

10:30 AM - Shawn & I meet at Will's place to do the final color grade in Resolve.
1:00 PM - Final Grade is done.
2:00 PM - Receive the score and sound design, notes given, and adjustments are made.
3:30 PM - Final Audio received, and the exports/deliverables are made.
4:30 PM - Off to turn in our finished film.
5:00 PM - Arrive and find out we can't turn it in early. Shawn & KC enjoy a beer for an hour.
6:00 PM - Turn in film.

The second part of the pre-production process was talking with our entire team and figuring out what resources we had available to us in terms of locations, wardrobe, and props. Once we had this sorted out, I went with Shawn & AJ to go scout our locations. During the scout we encountered two issues that we knew would be problematic for our shoot- the best looking location had no power, it was 3 stories up, and 2 blocks away from our home base. Neither of these were insurmountable issues, we just had to plan accordingly. :) Had we shown up without any planning, assuming it would work out it we would have been met with disastrous results ...
Another key reason that our preproduction work paid off is that our writers were able to write with the locations and props in mind. Writing for the 48hr fest can't start until you get your assignment, but if you have the rest of your pieces together everything else can fall into place. The final story ends up being stronger too as you are writing to your strengths as a production. It was also during this pre-production time that I had a number of conversations with Shawn about the look of the film, and about how we would best take advantage of what we had. It was from these conversations that I could develop a game plan, and lighting diagrams to pull off our visual style for our film.
One of the crucial conversations that I have during preproduction always surrounds the camera system. If the production is wise, they will consult with the cinematographer about which system will best suit the needs of the production. (Rather then dictating it.) Every camera has its trade offs, and it is the job of the cinematographer to know them all and take advantage of that knowledge to get the most out of whatever system is appropriate for that production. With the 48hr deadline from script to screen, it was my recommendation to work with the Alexa and to shoot in ProRes on SxS cards. This camera has great dynamic range, does great in low light, and the post workflow is easy and quick. (There is a reason it is the most popular camera for TV shows...).
Unfortunately, our resource for the Alexa was unavailable for this shoot, so we had to explore other options. My next choice was an obvious one- the Red Epic. As Shawn owned the camera, and I have worked with it a lot, this was a no brainer. My only concern with working with the camera was our tight turnaround time. I have shot with it in the past and had issues both on set, and in post production getting things delivered quickly and easily. But this is where it paid off to be working with my solid team of professionals. Shawn and I consulted with Will about our post workflow, and we were able to come up with a game plan to allow us breathing room in post.
Working with the RAW R3D files of the Epic can be a double edged sword- post production can mishandle the footage if they don't know what they are doing yielding poor results, or it can be a very flexible system yielding great results. Fortunately for us, it was the latter. Using Premiere CS6, and a tricked out Mac Pro (See This Post), Will was able to edit the native R3D's in real time. Meanwhile, back in my grading suite, I was able to use RedCine-X to do a one-light grade on the footage. RedCine-X then generated RMD text files that I emailed to Will to be applied to the locked edit. He then updated the R3D's in Premiere using the RMD's I supplied to him before exporting out a DPX sequence for the final grade in Resolve.
Now you may be asking yourself why we went to DPX, and didn't just keep it RAW/native R3D? It was done for speed and reliability. As of this writing, sometimes the process of going from Premiere to Resolve is not a 100% smooth transition. This is especially the case when there are speed ramps, and other manipulations done to the footage in the edit. As we were under a time crunch, we needed a workflow that was reliable - and this was the answer for our project. Had we not discussed the workflow during preproduction this could have turned into a big problem during the post process.

With the workflow figured out, and our schedule preset, we were able to hand off the project to the various post teams with enough time to deliver great results. I can't speak for the composers, or sound designer, but I know that from a grading standpoint, is was nice to be able to not be rushed by the short deadline. Our schedule allowed us to really spend some time in the grade, which was a freeing feeling, even knowing that we had less than 12 hours to turn in our film at that point in the contest.

Completing a film is no small undertaking in the best of circumstances, let alone in 48 hours. Developing a trusted, reliable team that you can count on is the most important part of the recipe for success. I have worked with many of the people on our team for years, on projects large and small. Most of these people are my first call when a project comes up. And it is because of this shared history that we are able to work together quickly & efficiently, under the stress of a tight schedule. With a 48 hour turnaround or not, working with quality people you know and trust, and who deliver quality work is half of the battle to accomplishing what we did.

With any project, there will be new people who you get the opportunity to work with. As you select these new people, it is important that they fit well with the rest of the team and that they understand the vision/direction of the project. Our team leads KC & Shawn did a fabulous job at filling out the ranks of our team.

As soon as the contest began it all boiled down to execution. During the production phase everyone gave it their all, and delivered great results. The writing team whipped out a solid script without blinking an eye. Our Prop, Wardrobe and Makeup departments knocked it out of the park as they had our talent dressed and made up on schedule. (As well as making a fully functional "time gun" to use in the film). Catering & craft services were top notch, and gave us the energy we needed for an all night shoot. The camera, grip, & electric crews pulled together to deliver some great results in some tough locations. Our editor pulled together a solid edit in no time flat. Our composers and sound designer were able to tie together the visuals, and add depth to the story that would not exist without their efforts. The talent was able to deliver compelling performances without much rehearsal time. And our director knew what he wanted, and stuck to his vision. This was truly a team effort that couldn't have been accomplished if any part of the puzzle had been missing.

I think a quote Sun Tzu sums it up best, "The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who looses makes but few calculations beforehand."

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer
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