With two episodes and pickups for a third being shot on two different stages and three episodes being edited simultaneously for Fox's hit drama 24, production of the show is proceeding at an unusually frenetic pace — even by 24 standards — at the show's production headquarters in Chatsworth, Calif. But one morning in early January, the mood is confident and relaxed. So much so, that while DP Rodney Charters, ASC, scurries off to set up a scene, his colleagues are eager to good-naturedly tease the crew's designated technophile behind his back. The topic of conversation: Apple's announcement of its much-ballyhooed iPhone.
Co-producer and director Jon Cassar and his team debate the merits of the gizmo while Charters fiddles around the set. Cassar's conclusion: “Rodney's job is to buy all this technology first, and then if it doesn't work, we can all learn from his mistake.”
The ribbing is good-natured, but also ironic — Charters is a technology freak, and professionally, he has investigated just about every kind of high-definition and video acquisition technology known to man. And yet, he steadfastly insists that 24's image acquisition belongs in the traditional 35mm film universe for specific creative reasons, even as the realtime-formatted spy thriller has transitioned into the realm of HD mastering and delivery over its six years, with more sophisticated visual effects and a finely honed pipeline that is among the most complex in the world of television.
“HD was talked about right from the very beginning, but [pilot and first-season director] Stephen Hopkins was dead set against it, and I was not unhappy to go along with him,” Charters told millimeter during a lull in shooting of episode 14, officially dubbed “7 p.m. to 8 p.m.” in the current season's race by Kiefer Sutherland's character Jack Bauer to avert global disaster.
Standing in the middle of a military communications room set, where Charters promises that bad things are going to happen this season, the DP goes on to explain that HD technology has evolved greatly since 2001, when the show debuted, but not enough to justify a switch from what he says is working perfectly well right now.
“Film handles extremes, which we run into quite frequently,” Charters says. “The color palette involves often using existing light and embracing it in all its industrial honesty. What film gives us is extraordinary latitude and that full-size gate, and the ability to define a much more refined zone of focus — from eyes to ears, for instance, or from ears to tip of the nose, with everything else out of focus. We like that because it helps the audience know immediately where their attention should go. Or we can push them to look at a certain part of the frame just by racking with an extremely long lens.
“On 35mm film, the depth of field is tiny that way. The problem with digital cameras is that their depth of field is infinite. They have an extremely difficult time defining a very narrow zone of focus for a close-up, for instance. And that material in the background distracts you.
“That's OK for something like Star Wars, where the producers spend millions of dollars to create a 3D world outside a window, and they want that to be sharp. They like that infinite-focus quality, which digital gives you so easily. But our show, on the other hand, lives by the fact that we don't show you all the frame — large areas are obscuring and out of focus. We want the viewer's eye drawn immediately to the zone of focus, and we'll define that for you. That's commonly how we tell our stories — by whipping a camera back and forth from object to actor to object and back again. [‘A’ camera operator] Guy Skinner especially is very self-contained and physically fast, and that kind of work is only possible with a compact body, a 35mm frame, and full-size gate.”
Indeed, the nature of 24's realtime format has led to a conundrum whereby certain restrictions have been imposed on a production that is, by its nature, supposed to break new creative and visual ground each season. This has resulted in a host of challenges for the technical team.
Charters estimates his camera crew shoots about 4 million ft. of film each season. “[It's] all in a documentary style, seat-of-our-pants production, where we are always making changes and juggling needs as we go along,” he says.
Cassar, who won an Emmy for his directing work last season (the show won five Emmys all told last season) and is part of a growing cadre of episodic television producer-directors, says honing the show's technical approach and the people behind that approach are critical to 24's success.
“As good as our actors and our stories are, a big part of that energy, that realism, that edge-of-your-seat thing would not be possible without the technical side of this show,” Cassar says. “Without those people, we wouldn't be here right now. If we ever tried to do this show as standard television — a master shot, a medium, a closeup just where and when you are expected to do it — I don't think this show would have survived. We've been pushing the limits of television production for some time now, after all. We now have acceptance of those [edited boxes that show multiple characters and plot developments simultaneously], but when we tried to do boxes on La Femme Nikita when I worked on that show, we were told, ‘You can't touch that screen. It's got to be corner to corner.’ But all that has changed since we started this show. There is no way we could have done this show even 10 years ago — it would have been too expensive to shoot or cut it the way we do.”
Much of the show is shot handheld on the ‘A’ camera, and the rest on the ‘B’ camera on the extreme end of a long zoom (“Whipping, darting, and rotating around actors” is how the DP describes the style perfected by his operators.), using two or more Panavision XL cameras. Charters says Skinner runs the ‘A’ camera handheld 99 percent of the time, equipped with short 27mm to 68mm Panavision zoom lenses, often moving about on a small dolly seat, dubbed “The Creeper,” which Skinner and Carlos Boiles, his dolly grip, developed. The ‘B’ camera, operated by Jay Herron, is normally outfitted with either an 11:1 or a 3:1 Primo Zoom lens.
Because the show is shot handheld and in low-light situations so frequently, the team shoots onto Kodak Expression Vision 2 5229 stock to reserve the ability to completely control the color correction process during online Da Vinci Systems sessions at Level 3 Post in Burbank, Calif. (The final sound mix is done at Wilshire Editorial). Thus, he trades flat dailies for increased post flexibility, fully using extra power windows on the Da Vinci 2K Plus system to help deal with what Charters calls “the uncontrollable nature of shooting on industrial locations throughout the city.”
“5229 is an extremely low-contrast stock, and it looks flat in dailies,” Charters says. “It absolutely needs to have its gamma boosted in the final online color session. It's a film perfectly made for digital post, either for 4:4:4 or 4:2:2 to tape or 2K for digital intermediates. Because of 5229 and its extreme latitude, your control of the imagery is much better and more enhanced in post. You can find detail in the blacks, or you can crush them and do away with the subtle details, expand the highlights, or burn them out all under layer controls. It's the equivalent of shooting raw with a digital still camera, and posting in [Adobe] Photoshop.”
Despite the show's brutal shooting schedule, Charters somehow finds the time to show up at Level 3 and give considerable input into both dailies and the final look of the imagery, working closely with colorist Larry Field.
“I often go in [to Level 3] at dawn, prior to being called [to the set], and I sit with Larry for an hour or so, and he'll at least get me through the new upcoming scenes,” Charters says. “Especially if there is a location that he has not seen before. Larry obviously knows our regular sets, like [the headquarters for the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU)] — he knows that is cool and blue. But anything new or different, we find time to get together.”
Darrell Anderson, managing director at Level 3, points out that because 24 often shoots at night due to the fact that each season takes place in a single 24-hour period, dailies are often percolating at Level 3 around the clock — and not just during the graveyard shift. (Dailies are transferred at Level 3 on the Spirit Telecine, given a color pass on the Da Vinci 2K Plus system, encoded using an Evertz 9025 film encoder and 9155 Afterburner for key code windows and downconverting. Dailies are then transferred to D5 and DVCAM simultaneously.)
Larry Field; Shawn Peterson, the dailies colorist; Heydar Adel, the conform editor who onlines the episodes in Level 3's Avid DS Nitris system; and the entire Level 3 team are kept far busier than on typical TV shows.
“The show's post schedule is very well organized, so it's not particularly troublesome to get it all done, but it is a large amount of work,” Anderson says. “It's definitely the toughest show we've ever worked on for a lot of reasons — the volume of material, the multiple images seen on the screen with those boxes, all those things make this far from an ordinary show.”
The biggest creative issue to push the technical limits is what's called the “time-of-day issue” — the fact that imagery shot over the course of months must appear consistent to believably look like it was all shot on the same day. This is a big reason why Charters opted for flat dailies and extensive color correction work on each episode. It's also the reason why the production team routinely innovates with design, lighting, editing, and effects techniques during the course of a season.
Today, for instance, Charters will be employing a projection technique to create day-exterior background imagery outside the windows of an apartment building.
“We're using an HDV plate that we shot with a JVC [GY-HD110 camcorder] that we carry and use for all television background playback and news footage, which was purposely shot for all of the [nuclear] bomb aftermath material playing in CTU [this season], and even occasional shots in the D5 master itself,” Charters explains. “We'll play the plates back in HDV off a Macintosh laptop to an [Eiki LC-XT4U LCD] projector with 12,000 lumens. That will be what you see outside the window — a moving plate. That will give us convincing realism outside a small apartment building. We shot exteriors with the JVC camera at the actual location when we were there, and today, we'll be playing them back and shooting them on film [through the window]. That sort of thing is quite common. In fact, all of our driving shots in all types of vehicles, day and night, are done this way on the stage.”
Joseph Hodges, production designer, is frequently involved in such illusions. Far from a typical production designer, Hodges chuckles over his on-again, off-again battles with Charters over lighting and coloring his sets. He also directs some second unit work each season; creates simple visual effects and props himself using Adobe Photoshop CS and other software tools; and commands a design and construction crew that builds functional workspaces for major sets — particularly the impressive CTU set built at a Chatsworth industrial park. He does it all from a spacious office next door that is filled with color prints and schematics of his designs tacked to every available wall.
Hodges likes to wax philosophical about how the rise of Photoshop helped launch his career “at the dawn of the digital era,” and he often personally puts together photos, maps, screenshots, paintings, and digital backdrops seen on the show. At the start of season 5, for instance, when a newspaper photo shows President Logan (Gregory Itzin) giving a speech, Hodges simply made the page himself, replacing President Bush with Itzin's picture in Photoshop.
This season, the show briefly revisited Logan's retreat location, which was seen often last year. The set had been struck long ago, so the production rebuilt just a portion of one room, and Hodges added a spatial effect to make the visual imply viewers were seeing the same large set that was used a year ago.
“I had a photograph of the outside, where the retreat had a water area,” Hodges explains. “Last year, we saw Logan in his library, but we didn't see a window. This time, in that room, I added the window and blew up that photograph so you could see the water and a bit of the exterior. That gave it the feel of last year's set, even though it was real tiny compared to what we built the season before.”
Hodges routinely builds digital models of all his sets in 3D, but uses a prehistoric version of Autodesk Maya, called Alias Sketch.
“That's because Maya is a very complicated program. You can make a whole movie in it with beautiful scene lighting and textures, but I don't need that for what I'm doing,” Hodges explains. “I use it like illustrators use color pencils, so Sketch has just been my main illustration tool for a long time.
“That means I'll always have to use a computer that runs [Mac] OS 9,” he says with a chuckle, “but I fly with it. As you can see from the sketches [on his office walls], I run them through a filter and in the end, the whole thing looks hand-drawn. I intentionally did not want the sketches to be too photorealistic. I found out over the years that when you show producers photorealistic sets, they spend hours discussing the color of the actual wood floor. With a pencil sketch, they just comment, ‘That's a wood floor,’ and you move on. I didn't want to debate all the details because [producers] have given me lots of autonomy on such things.”
Even with all this production innovation, much of the time-of-day challenge is, of course, handled during editing and online color correction sessions. Co-producer Paul Gadd, who supervises the show's postproduction plan, points out that because the entire season runs over the course of a single day, each season must have a sunrise and sunset.
“That's why we wanted our dailies so flat,” Gadd says. “Sunrise and sunset can be warmed up to establish that magic-hour kind of feeling, and at other times, we are typically trying to cool things down. Larry Field has become quite adept at this sort of a thing with the Da Vinci [2K Plus system with Defocus].”
Field says that's what separates this show from other shows he's worked on. “They might start shooting at 7 a.m. and finish at almost dark, but what comes out of that has to be portrayed on air as a single hour — or less than an hour — of a single day,” Field says. “If it's a day exterior, we will transfer it warm generally, where it will eventually go. Our dailies colorist [Shawn Peterson] has a tough job to make sure he transfers all that information onto tape so we can use it later, and not overplay his hand with too much grading [on dailies]. His job is to just get into the general zone of where [Charters] wants to go with the whole thing. Then, we always need significant color correction, by design, on the final images. It's not about changing drastically what Rodney shot — it's about enhancing it to his specifications to meet particular challenges of this show.”
Level 3 also frequently handles routine composites and simple visual effects in the Da Vinci system, Avid DS Nitris online, or Autodesk Inferno, while major effects plates are farmed out to a variety of facilities around Hollywood. This season, for instance, Zoic Studios in Los Angeles built the shot of the nuclear mushroom cloud that lingers ominously over Los Angeles in almost all of this year's episodes.
“Usually, I get those [effects background] plates ahead of [the effects facility], and pre-color correct them, so they can do their work and match it up pretty well,” Field says. “That's how we handled the mushroom cloud and a lot of the work we've done with Air Force One and Air Force Two over the seasons — we do lots of 3D modeling with airplanes, actually. Eventually, it comes back to me composited, and I can then integrate it into the rest of the show.”
None of this, of course, would work as efficiently as it does on 24 without a strategic and disciplined editorial infrastructure at the production offices adjacent to the stages in Chatsworth. Working with three Avid Adrenaline editing bays, Dave Latham and Scott Powell, who have both been with the show since the pilot, and Leon Ortiz-Gill, who joined midway through last season, assemble the show in leapfrog fashion, with each man taking on eight episodes and then chipping in to help each other catch up during lulls.
Assistant editors Larry Davenport, Anne Parish, and Elisa Cohen are charged with the massive task of organizing material flowing into the editorial offices following seemingly unending Grass Valley Spirit DataCine telecine sessions at Level 3. Level 3 officials point out that with production proceeding apace on multiple episodes and with the entire season occurring over a single day, it is quite common for film to flow in for multiple episodes from the same location.
“One big reason they shoot multiple episodes simultaneously is because scenes from the same location can go into a couple different episodes, so they try to get as much as they can when they are at a particular location,” Field says. “We get all this negative flowing in, and we basically transfer it based on location, not necessarily by episode. The [assistant] editors then organize it off the DVCAM tapes when they get over to them.”
In any case, once material gets to the edit phase, the editing team is given the same kind of wide latitude Charters, Hodges, and other departments receive. The editors are expected, according to Ortiz-Gill, to come up with cuts that are “very close to ready-to-air.”
“That's why it was so intimidating joining the show [last season],” Ortiz-Gill says. “It was like I was thrown into a swimming pool without being able to swim. I was asked to edit an episode and not given much help. They wanted to see what I could do — either sink or swim. I've been doing this a long time, and I've never been on a show quite this intimidating. They shoot a lot of film, and sometimes, I've sat through five hours to go through a single day's dailies. And no two takes are the same. The cameras are moving all the time, so it's not like you can pick one angle and just stay with it. You have to look at everything, and that's just old-fashioned hard work.”
And many standard editing tricks simply don't apply, thanks to the realtime format.
“No dissolves, no time lapses, no slo-mos,” explains Latham, who won an Emmy last season for his work on the show. “Realistic motion at all times. That's the number one difference between how you edit this show and how you edit other shows. If we had to go to Hawaii, normally you would have the character saying, ‘I have to go to Hawaii,’ cut to an airplane landing, and then show him knocking on a hotel door in Hawaii. Whereas, in our show, if Kiefer's character were to go to Hawaii, you wouldn't see him for five episodes, or you would just show him sitting on an airplane reading a magazine. So all of that is a big challenge.”
With almost all the action on the show taking place in Los Angeles, Latham says, “Things have gotten a lot closer in L.A. [In the real world], it takes quiet some time to [drive] from one place to another. Now, we rarely have something more than 15 minutes away, so you can at least pick them up in the next act. Actually, that's why we have Jack getting helicopter rides so often.”
Latham adds that the shows intentional sharp-cutting style is designed largely to address such problems, along with the frequent use of the famous 24 boxes before, during, and at the end of episodes. For example, the nature of the show requires frequent telephone calls between characters, and the boxes are meant to increase drama during the calls by showing both sides of the call simultaneously.
“The boxes are daunting because editing is already about choices, with thousands of places to make choices, and the boxes suddenly triple an already infinite amount of choices,” Latham says.
That said, Powell adds, those boxes are a key storytelling device on 24.
“Phone calls are the obvious place to do them,” Powell says. “In fact, when they film phone calls, they usually ask an actor playing the other side of the phone call to come in, even if they aren't supposed to be in that day. If Kiefer is talking to someone at CTU, even though his character is out in his car somewhere, we have Kiefer come in and play out the call. That gets the pacing right since we may not be shooting Kiefer's side of the call for weeks.
“Other things we have to always incorporate include what I call that big ‘oh shit’ moment in act five, when some disaster takes place, and then we will usually slide into multiple boxes. After that, we'll go to our pop-out scene when a new threat is introduced.”
According to the editors, the show's editing style must strive — at least to some degree — to keep viewers off balance.
“It's not so unique anymore, but when we started, it was — things like cutting across the line, which can disorient an audience,” Powell says. “That might not be a good thing on another show, but on this one, we sometimes strive to disorient the audience a little bit — to throw them into a chaotic situation, where we have visual images and sounds flying at them from different directions. The audience will sometimes have to work a little bit to get oriented, but that's good — it keeps the viewer engaged.”
Gadd reports that 24 will remain an Avid-based show and points out that the availability of first Symphony and now DS Nitris essentially made it possible for Fox to transition the show from standard-def mastering to HD mastering, without having to hand-crop the boxes for a 16×9 version of each episode in an online bay, at Level 3 during season four. Now, 24 is simply onlined to D5 in an anamorphic 1080/24p format as the universal master, and then it is automatically crossconverted to 720p for final delivery of the domestic air version to Fox.
“Now, we have scan converters here, so our editors can view material in both 4×3 and 16×9 formats to make sure things are working both ways,” Gadd says. “That way, we only have to make the single master and we only title it once also. It's simpler than how things used to be done, and makes a lot of sense.”