Why We Created “The Cycle”

When we wrote the script in early 2014, we had no idea the events that would take place.

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We wrote the original script with the intention of telling a story about acceptance. The acceptance of death as a part of life. When one is faced with the most difficult of situations, one should accept their own mortality and make the most positive choices with the moments they have alive. To not make important choices out of fear.

We completed original production on August 8th, 2014 and the next day Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri.

You cannot anticipate, nor ignore events like this. The coincidences were abundant, the original story of the film was way too close to the current affairs, and yet it didn’t really add to the healing process.

The mission for my work is to inspire and empower people through thought-provoking and emotionally powerful filmmaking.

I saw an opportunity, along with my writing partner, to create a film that would both reference the current affairs and at the same time paint a new perspective.

We cut one scene in the middle, wrote two new scenes to take it’s place and wrote a new opening voice over.

We created a new film. A much more powerful film. One to augment the perspective of the viewer. A film to break the traditional media narrative that has been painted around this issue.

So now, with knowing all of this, why did I create this film this final form?

To ask many questions.
To empower the viewer.
To inspire important conversations.

– Michael Marantz

See the trailer here.

Reigning-in Raw: The Magic Lantern Guide

By Drew English

Working with RAW Video can be a challenge at times.  But it’s also super cool and rewarding when you see your end result.  Our weapon of choice is the Canon 5D Mark III hacked with Magic Lantern’s RAW Module.  It gives us cinema camera-esque picture quality and latitude in a very compact package.  The trade-off, however, is a more complicated and specific workflow.  There aren’t a ton of resources available out there on the internet yet.

So we thought we would pull from some of the great links and sites we have found as well as some personal tips for you all. As the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  This is just our way of doing things.  First, let’s look at a sample of a finished product.

Buying & Setting Up Your Cards First off, you’re going to need to set up Magic Lantern firmware on your 5DmkIII (and yes, that’s the only camera we’ve used it on).  Head over to their site here.  Not only can you download what you need, but they have a ton of information to get you started and a great community forum to help you out. Access the full Magic Lantern Install Guide here. The blanket disclaimer for using Magic Lantern is definitely “proceed at your own risk”.  With that in mind, here are a few tips for you to bear in mind as you navigate these new waters:

  •  Magic Lantern is firmware that you install on CF Cards that operates alongside the factory Canon Software.
  •  Use fast cards.  64GB, 1000x cards to be exact.  Accept no substitutes.  These cards can vary in price depending on the  manufacturer.  If you are looking for a good, affordable place to start, we recommend using Komputerbay cards.  We  have also had good luck with Lexar cards of the same spec.
  •  Make sure your record resolution can handle “continuous” recording.  We often shoot in Cinemascope resolution to  allow for faster write speeds to the cards.
  •  Record resolution is set in Magic Lantern PER CARD.  So, if you’ve brought along three cards, make sure they are all  set to the same resolution.  You’re going to be pissed if half your footage is 1929×818 and the other half is 1280×720.    Trust me.
  •  Do not, under any circumstances, remove the card from the camera while the power is still switched on.  It can brick  your camera and be a very costly repair.  Trust me.
  •  When dumping cards to hard drives, drag and drop the files and then manually delete them from the card.  Do  not format the card in camera.  It will erase Magic Lantern from the card.
  •  You cannot easily review your shots in-camera so take some extra time to set and light the frame the way you want it.

If you have any questions along the way, the Magic Lantern FAQ is a great place to start.  You can access it here.

The other point to bring up is the fact that this workflow requires very specific organization.    I’m going to assume you know how to do this.  Suffice it to say, have a system.  Have a folder structure.  Don’t deviate.  Have your act together.

Production Organization

This workflow can be daunting at the outset.  It takes up A TON more storage space than a conventional DSLR workflow.  There are not only RAW assets to deal with but, as you will see, DNG Sequences and Proxy files.  As such you should be prepared with plenty of storage.  We “roll deep” with pairs of two terabyte drives on shoots for various assets types.

DNG Conversions

The first step in the post process is to convert your RAW files into DNG sequences.  These are just a series of still images that will eventually become your footage. To do the conversion we use a program called “RAW Magic” which, for you Mac folk, is available for FREE in the Apple App Store.  It’s a very straight-forward, drag and drop type program.  Just drag your RAWs into the main window, designate your camera type and export location and RAW Magic will do the rest.  You can download it here.AA_RAW_Workflow_02_WEB Another popular choice is RAWanizer, which is a good option for Windows users.  You can find it here.

Creating Proxies With Resolve

We use an Offline/Online workflow where we generate smaller proxy files to work with in the cutting room and then take our edits “online” to color correct and finish against the RAW files, where we get all the detail and latitude from the footage. To do this, we are going to take your newly converted DNG sequences and move to Black Magic’s Davinci Resolve.  Resolve is an extremely powerful program, not only for color correction, but for media managing projects.  We use the “Lite” free version currently and it’s plenty powerful.

  • Within Resolve, import your DNG sequences to the “Media Pool”.  You will be able to playback and review shots here.
  • While here, click on the gear icon in the lower left corner and set your project frame rate.
  • The next step is extremely important: In that same menu, check the box that says, “Assist using reel names from the: Source Clip File Pathname”.  This step will allow you to online your edit when you come back to resolve for color correction.  DON’T MISS THIS STEP!
  • Next, move to the “Conform” tab and adjust your camera raw settings.  Make sure you’re decoding the footage by “clip” and your color space is set to “BMD Film”.
  • You can apply a Look Up Table (LUT) here if you want.  LUTs are, in their simplest form, a preset grade to get you “in the ballpark” with your images.  We use Hunter Hampton’s LUTThere are a ton more out there to experiment with so if you have some free time, start scouring those interwebs.  Here is a great tutorial on incorporating Hunter’s LUT into your workflow.
  • Finally, select all of your clips and click the Checkmark box for “Apply Settings to All Selected Clips”.  This will make everything uniform.

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In the last part of this section, we are going to generate Proxy files to edit with.  Proxy files are like placeholders that let you construct your edit without making your computer want to smack you in the face for trying to edit huge RAW files that it can’t read anyway.  Rendering these proxies is pretty simple with only a few steps to follow:

  • In the “Deliver” tab set render to “Quicktime” and codec to “Quicktime Apple ProRes 422 (Proxy)”.  Set your project frame rate and resolution, and set Render Timeline as “Individual Source Clips”.
  • In the Filename section check “Use Source Filename” and in the Output section check “Force Debayer Res to Highest Quality”.
  • Finally select your destination, click “Add Job” and start that render!  When all is said and done you will have a batch of proxies that you can work with just like you would in a normal DSLR workflow.

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Editing Your Offline in Premiere / Exporting Your FInished XML We use Adobe Premiere to edit so I’m not 100% sure how this will pertain to other NLE’s.  When you get your proxies imported into Premiere take note that the “Tape Name” column in your bins should be populated with a number.  This is the “Reel Name” that Resolve created.  YOU HAVE TO HAVE THIS NUMBER in order to get the footage back online in Resolve.

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Go ahead and construct your edit as you normally would.  When you are done with your edit and are ready to take it online in Resolve, simply make sure the correct sequence is selected and export a Final Cut Pro XML file. Online and Color Correct in Resolve Back in Resolve, open up the project associated with your edit.

  •  Head over the “Conform” tab and import your XML.  
  •  In the dialog box that appears, rename the sequence to keep things organized.
  •  UNCHECK “Automatically import source clips into media pool”.  By unchecking that box you are forcing Resolve to  search for the cDNG files, which share a “Reel/Tape Name” with the proxies in your edit.  Therefore, Resolve will  build a timeline based off the XML, using the cDNG raw images at full resolution and color depth.  Time to color  grade!!

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Once you are done with your grading in Resolve:

  •  Head over to the “Deliver” tab and make sure your render cue is empty.  
  •  Use the “Final Cut Pro XML Round Trip” easy set up.
  •  Select your codec (maybe ProRes 444???)
  •  Uncheck “render each clip with unique filename” to ensure Reel/Tape name retention.
  •  Then just add the job and render.  You will have an XML that will import the final, graded, high res files into you NLE  for final output.

Final Export / Import into Premier We are almost done, I promise!  Just a few more steps:

  •  Import the new XML for the color corrected sequence into your Premiere project
  •  Make any final audio or graphics adjustments.  If you have done a separate audio mix, now is the time to bring that in  as well
  •  Watch down your edit to make sure everything looks and sounds correct
  •  Export your final deliverables.

Take a deep breath.  You made it!

I will admit that this process was a lot of trial by fire for us.  We learned the hard way by having to re-render every single one of our proxies for a client gig because we didn’t create Tape Names for our proxies.

The excellent film blog, NoFilmSchool, posted this video outlining this workflow in detail.  Give it a watch.

I won’t lie.  This workflow takes a bit of getting used to and it feels like you’re working up a sweat at times.  But that’s OK.  If you stay super organized and double check yourself you will get this down in no time and your end product is going to be all the better for it.  I’ll leave you with a few more examples of just how good these results can look.  Not too shabby for all being shot on a DSLR! Here are a few more of our films that used Magic Lantern RAW exclusively. Enjoy!

 

Making Magic Abroad

By Drew English

We were commissioned to make a short film about people and the power of connection. Sounds simple enough. But what goes into making something like this happen? This production was to take place in Brazil across two separate cities on a very condensed timeframe…and we are a very small crew from New York City. I can tell you this; we made it happen and hope to show through this post, that you don’t need a 30- person crew and limitless resources to deliver a visually powerful and touching story. First, the film:

Keep It Simple Stupid 

One thing we have learned over time is the more stripped down and streamlined the production, the simpler the execution. I’m not breaking any new ground by saying, as productions build in complexity, the number of moving pieces increases and they become harder to reign in. This is something we have worked very hard to embrace and as a result, our core team out of New York was only four people; a Producer, a Director, a Cinematographer and a Location Audio/DIT Tech. That’s it. Being such a small unit kept us nimble, streamlined and under the radar. Even with local production help, our total on-location size was never more than eight people. This was key. We could roll around in one van (equipment included).

140124_BRAZIL-238_WEB“Island” Location

One of our most important locations for this shoot was the middle of a traffic island, so we could set up a full production without having to obstruct traffic and other normal day-to-day operations of the city. In case you were wondering, yes, we were fully permitted for all of our locations. But the fact that we never once had to be hassled by local law enforcement just sweetened the deal.

Plan Plan Plan 

If there is one thing to be impressed in this post, it is the importance of planning. Planning until you are blue in the face. Planning until you realize that the smell you are smelling is you, because you haven’t showered today due to your voracious cycle of emailing.

A great producer is key and our producer, Jason, is basically “the man”. He basically stopped taking lunch or breaks of any kind during the entire pre-production phase. Not only was he coordinating all of the travel logistics like flights and hotels, but he also hired and worked with a local production company to coordinate our in-country needs, planned our shoot schedule and set up our customs agent ahead of time. Not only that but he managed to talk the Brazilian Consular to the United States himself into putting a rush on our work visas. I only wish I was there to see that. When we were actually in Brazil, Jason went out of his way to ensure that we were staying hydrated, healthy and focused.

As mentioned before, Jason is “the man”.  Make sure you have a good Producer.

Have Octocopter, Will Travel 

Our DP, Tim, is amazingly talented and a veritable Swiss Army Knife when it comes to capturing amazing imagery in camera. I will sum up Tim in the words of Captain Steve Zissou, “Cool. Collected. German.” That is exactly Tim. He knows what he wants and if he doesn’t, you’d never be the wiser. He is always precise and on point.  He is also German.

That being said, Tim has added two key pieces of kit from Freefly Cinema to his arsenal as of late, that let us execute extremely high production value shots with minimal impact and cost; the MoVI Stabilization unit and Cinestar Octocopter. These make all the difference in the world. Now, there is a lot of copter/drone footage out there on the interwebs, but most examples suffer from the same issue; they look like helicopter shots. The really key thing to point out here is that Tim and our Director, Michael, utilize this setup to create dolly shots, crane shots, cable-cam shots, and sometimes, hybrid shots that would not be achievable by traditional means.

140124_BRAZIL-191_WEB Tim & Michael Flying

In the opening shot of “The Conditioned”, we went to a Favela just outside of Sao Paulo (similar to a slum but slightly more developed). I can definitely think of safer places to be with tons of gear, so we wanted to keep a low profile. Our copter setup was great for this. We were able to get in and setup within twenty minutes and before you knew it, Tim and Michael were flying out over the expanse of the favela without hassle.

Tim as pilot and Michael as Camera Op have developed this synchronicity and cinematic sensibility that lends itself to powerful story telling. The opening shot, by traditional means, would have been hugely challenging if not impossible to achieve. This rig has really been a game changer for production value vs. crew size and cost…and all you have to do is make sure the batteries don’t catch on fire or that you don’t crash into anything…AMAZING!

When you’re done working, work some more…and multitask…and be organized 

I cover all the location and interview audio tasks on production in addition to acting as the crew’s DIT and Editor. What this meant was consistently little down time during the week, but it paid off in droves when it came time for post.

My advice for anyone in a similar position; take the time to be ultra organized and prepped ahead of time.  The best thing I did for myself was to construct a log sheet where I could catalog video and audio assets on a per-card basis. It took 5 minutes to format but has saved hours in hunting and editing. Plus it gave me time to focus on not blowing up copter batteries while charging them, putting myself into oncoming traffic and all the other really fun stuff.

On location, I would essentially have one of our two Retina Macbook Pro’s running constantly, whether in the van, under our easy-up or in the hotel. What this meant was that, by the time we got on the plane back to New York, I already had a full set of assets prepped to start the edit process. By the end of our 10 hour flight back to the States, I had all our interview material synced, chopped up and ready to go. This was key to the success of the project.

A word to the wise: it’s funny but computers don’t like to be hot. It makes them angry.

Roll with the punches, but hold out for the story 

We had two pretty sizable hiccups in this production. The first was when we took the copter and MoVI setup to the roof of our hotel.  Radio controlled gear does not like interference and there was an endless field of towers up that high. The copter wouldn’t even think about lifting off and every time the MoVI switched on, instead of nice smooth motion, it decided to whip and gyrate and cause havoc in general.

Thankfully, we could lean on shots we had gotten previously in the week. The take away is don’t let your production ride on just one or two shots. Give yourself some options. This let us roll with the punches and ultimately, all was OK.

140124_BRAZIL-254_WEBHotel Roof – Sao Paulo, Brazil

The second, bigger challenge, was regarding one of our interviewees. Francisco, the brother of the film’s main subject, was adamantly against being interviewed for the piece and really didn’t want us around in the first place. None of that was communicated to us until we were already on location. So what do you do? The story hinged on this interview but simultaneously, you have to respect other people’s wishes. This was an emotional roller coaster for the entire crew, but specifically for Michael, who had spent days and days crafting this story and pulling all the creative pieces together.

It quite literally, came down to the wire, but Michael prevailed and we were able to get our interview.  You can read more about it here.  We left with hugs and smiles all around and an open invitation to return any time. We held out for the story and got so much more in return. It was well worth it.

#setpets 

In conclusion, the most important thing I can offer is this; find enjoyment in what you are doing. Yes, this was a lot of work. Yes, it was long hours. Yes, there were challenges and frustrations. But we were also able to find joy in the little things.

140124_BRAZIL-342_WEBMichael and #setpets

Our Goiania location was riddled with puppies. Adorable, amazingly cute puppies! Animals always bring a smile to the faces of weary crew members. So much so that Jason coined the hashtag #setpets so that in our future endeavors we can catalog the cuteness encountered on location through Twitter, Instagram or some other social network of choice.

It’s being able to ground yourself in the joys of real life that tie everything together and make all the hours and hours of hard work worth it.

Photography by Drew English

Start With the Music

I think one of the most important things you can do when in development of a new film idea is to have as clear a vision of what you want, before you start production.

For me, selecting the music before I shoot is the most important.

Take Bonanroo for example. I decided to make a timeless piece that could live on beyond and one years genera of music. I decided I would compose a track from scratch.

Feel free to take a listen to the track while you read.

I composed it about a month before we went down to shoot the festival. It was one of the best decisions I could have made.

At the time of production the track was far from fully complete. It evolved once we got back from shooting, but I will tell you that having that track before the shoot and on the shoot was invaluable for the entire team and myself.

It kept us focused on the vision when we were straying from our original plan. We would listen to it every morning before shooting to get us in the emotional mindset of the piece. I even carried it with me on my phone to listen throughout the day.

As a director on a crazy shoot at a festival with constant distractions, it kept me focused.

The final product I think turned out wonderful and so in step with the original vision.