I AM WOMAN
For his most recent assignment, Dion Beebe, ACS, ASC returned to Australia to shoot I Am Woman, the story of Aussie native Helen Reddy and her 1972 hit song that became an anthem of female empowerment. Beebe’s wife, Unjoo Moon, directed Tilda Cobham-Hervey in the lead role. The budget was reportedly a relatively modest $7 million, and the schedule included about 30 shoot days in the Sydney area, which often doubled for Los Angeles or New York. Extensive rehearsals helped make the actual shoot go quickly and smoothly.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the relatively modest budget, the project ended up as one of the first to take full advantage of HDE – High Density Encoding, a completely lossless encoding technique that reduces ARRIRAW data files up to 45% from their original size, but delivers bit-for-bit lossless fidelity when the file is decoded. HDE results in tremendous savings in data management and storage, and in the case of I Am Woman, made it possible for Beebe to shoot with the large format ARRI ALEXA 65 with no significant adaptation of his on-set procedures.
The film covers a range of periods from the 1950s through the 1980s. “Those time periods can be tricky, because you see them parodied so often,” says Beebe. “We were trying to find a kind of realism that avoided that parody feeling. Also, we knew we couldn’t control every single environment because of budgetary limitations. So we thought that the large sensor would help us in terms of soft falloff in the backgrounds, which would also help to disguise some non-period elements.
“But the most exciting part of the ALEXA 65 is really the portraiture it allows you,” he says. “The larger format is great for any film that is primarily faces, because it creates a sort of contoured portrait. This story is essentially a character piece with a significant performance aspect, and the large sensor combined with fast ARRI DNA lenses allowed us to shoot pretty wide open and let the backgrounds be less specific. That took some of the load off of our art and visual effects departments, particularly on exterior shots.”
Early on, the shoot was planned for two ALEXA SXT cameras, but Beebe’s reasoning convinced the production to shift to the ALEXA 65. ARRI Rental in the UK felt it would be prudent to have a second ALEXA 65 in the region as a backup. Informed of this, the production decided to fulfill Beebe’s request and add a second ALEXA 65 and another operator, Velinda Wardell, ACS. But that move came with concerns about data management.
“There were many questions about how, on this size movie, we could handle not just the physicality of day-to-day shooting, but the management of the data in a time-effective and cost-effective way,” says Beebe. “In the end, we were able to meet my expectations as well as the production’s expectations in terms of how it was managed and how it costed out. We never had any problems turning dailies around to editorial through the course of shooting. It’s a system that is efficient and that works. And it was invisible to me, which is good considering everything else I had going on, including a number of very big performance numbers.”
IT'S A SYSTEM THAT IS EFFICIENT AND THAT WORKS
Digital Imaging Technician Michael Easter says that part of his job was to make sure that the data management happened smoothly in the background. Cutting Edge was providing dailies and other post services. Colorfront On-Set Dailies was used to generate the editorial offline and to create the streaming dailies for Moxion.
“When ARRI Rental sent us the Vault XL running Codex Production Suite with a pre-release beta version of HDE support, it was obviously a very new release, but Codex had already published the HDE SDK (software development kit), so there was already support down the chain from vendors such as Colorfront, Pomfort, Baselight, Scratch and so on, which was pretty amazing,” says Easter.
The Codex Capture Drives came off the camera with unprocessed image data and were loaded into the Codex Vault XL 65, which is the standard procedure with the ALEXA 65. The Vault then encoded the ARRIRAW ALEXA 65 files to HDE .ARX files and copied with an MD5 verification to domestic Samsung USB-C SSDs formatted as NTFS, allowing for rapid ingest into Colorfront On-Set Dailies. Then the CDL grade could be applied for the offline. Checksum verification and LTO backup followed.
“As with any workflow change, there’s some time spent at first getting your bearings,” says Easter. “But it soon became second nature. HDE did not add any administrative overhead. But it definitely saved operator time in terms of getting the data off to post and the colourist was then able to use the .ARX files in Baselight straightaway, treating it like RAW encoding and playback.
“In terms of my role, it meant less processing time,” he says. “But I’m sure it saved Cutting Edge a lot of money. They initially went from planning to work with 2.8K ARRIRAW files, which then became working with 6.5K ARRIRAW files – turning over the material that’s required for online and offline, as well as the spinning-disk backup and the LTO backup. By making that more manageable, HDE really turned this from a production that I don’t think could have gone ahead in its current form to something that was actually quite achievable. HDE happened to become available just as they needed it, and I think that was pretty impressive.”
HDE TURNED THIS PRODUCTION INTO SOMETHING THAT WAS ACTUALLY QUITE ACHIEVABLE
Easter says there was a single glitch, but it didn’t affect the production. At one point the Vault XL indicated a corrupt file. “I knew that was fine, because the ALEXA 65 itself writes the unprocessed data and does its own checksum from the sensor before the mag is offloaded,” Easter says. “The camera itself will warn if there is a fault with the SXR Capture Drive or a risk of bad images. I let the key AC and the line producer know that we had an unexpected error that could potentially slow down delivery of the footage to post. I called ARRI Rental UK and Codex, and connected my laptop to the internet using my cellphone. Despite the time difference, we set up a remote session with Codex support, and with their help, we determined that it was a cable. Once the cable was reseated, the data came through.
“What Codex supplied wasn’t just the hardware and the software that enables us to produce these amazing pictures,” Easter says. “They also provide the technical support to ensure the shoot goes forward without delay. I was a bit worried because in Australia, we are in a smaller market, and there is also the tyranny of distance. But Codex came through, and it wasn’t just a tech support line or an email address. It all happened very quietly and quickly, and most important, it didn’t hold up production.”
Easter says he’s looking forward to seeing HDE implementation in support of the ARRI LF and other ALEXA cameras. “Essentially, it will become just a click on the taskbar,” he says. “The integration will be seamless. HDE is not going to add complexity to the process. It will just be another option, and a fairly intuitive one.”
The DP, Dion Beebe says there’s a lot of confusion out there about data management and compression rates. “Everyone is talking about 8K this and that, and often I think the production is misinformed about what it means,” he says. “As a result, they resist large format and large files. They think they’ll need someone transferring data 24 hours a day, and that’s just not the case. I think we’ve proved that it’s totally manageable, even on a small, intimate character movie where we’re shooting a lot of data every day. We never had any problems turning dailies around to editorial or to us through the course of shooting. The system that’s in place with ARRI and the Codex Vault with HDE is very manageable and efficient. It just works. And I think that the more people get informed about how we can shoot and manage large format, the better.”
Camera Type: ARRI ALEXA 65
Camera Rentals by: ARRI Rental
Lenses: ARRI DNA
VFX Services by: The Cutting Edge
Codex related product and workflows
Images courtesy of their respective owners.