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New Discoveries on “Eureka”: The Sci Fi Channel’s HD Experiment

The town of Eureka required some getting used to for Sheriff Jack Carter. After chance circumstances land him in the small town, Carter tries to make sense of and keep order in a town of futuristic geniuses assembled by the government to conduct top-secret research.

In much the same way, Wendy Wallace, as co-producer in charge of postproduction for Sci Fi Channel’s Eureka, maintains a seamless workflow in an environment in which new technologies are also constantly being introduced. Technologies and workflows introduced this year, the second season of Eureka, included the Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital camera and Apple’s Final Cut Pro editing system.

Eureka was the highest-rated original series of 2006 for the network. Now in its second season, the show’s crew took in stride methods adopted to improve the workflow processes of the first season. “You always look to the second season to improve and see where and how we can do things more efficiently,” says Wallace.

As a cable show with tight deadlines and a tremendous number of visual effects each week, the production and post teams are called on to be creative in getting the scope and the look of a big-budget show on a cable project. “It’s about using technology to achieve the creative vision,” she explains. “The technology is the tool to tell the story. The question is, How can we use these tools to tell the best story?”

New for season two was the use of the Thomson Grass Valley Viper camera shooting in high-definition 24p. This gave the show a bit of a different look, according to Wallace. “The Viper processes greenscreen differently than the Sony [HDW-F900/3] camera we used last year. We had to adjust for that.”

Because of the show’s workflow and broadcast format, Director of Photography Rick Maguire and DIT Chris Oben opted to operate the HD digital camera in its 4:2:2 HDStream mode for general shooting, though they took advantage of the camera’s 4:4:4 capabilities when shooting visual effects scenes. “In order to get the greenscreens to work the best, we would shoot it in 4:4:4 native, whereas the rest of it was 4:2:2,” explains Wallace. With more color information captured shooting 4:4:4 data, the team was able to pull a more accurate key.

It’s not as though there was a problem with the previous way of handling greenscreens, however. “It’s the little things that change down the postproduction line when a piece of technology changes,” says Wallace. “It’s incumbent on people in my position and our visual effects team to really look at how things are being shot, what’s being used and how we can maximize the use of the new technology.”

The show’s editorial is based at Universal, where the team offlines and onlines in Final Cut Pro. “We cut both seasons on Final Cut Pro, which has worked out pretty well for us,” notes Wallace. Since they are offlining and onlining in Final Cut Pro, they are able to skip the step of printing out traditional EDLs and doing a linear online. “We can just hand our sequences over to our online guy because he’s working in the same program,” she says.

As an effects-heavy science-fiction show, there is plenty of work for Visual Effects Producer Matt Gore at Zoic Studios, though Wallace’s team is able to accommodate much of the basic visual effects work in-house on Final Cut Pro. For example, Wallace’s team handles much of the screen replacement work. “Because this is Eureka, a technically advanced town, there are a lot of conversations over video phone,” notes Wallace. “We can do the burn-in through our online process with Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects. We can do those more in-house, as opposed to sending it all to the visual effects house.” The visual effects house can then concentrate on creating the bigger shots, like CG robots.

A benefit of working in Final Cut Pro is its QuickTime aspect. “We’ll pull QuickTimes of the show for our composer, and that’s what he’ll reference,” says Wallace. “We send QuickTimes back and forth for visual effects review and to our sound house so they can build the sound. It means a lot less outputting of tape. It’s not a completely tapeless process, but we’re getting close.”

Eureka is the first show that Wallace has cut exclusively in Final Cut Pro. Last season, the editorial and visual effects teams worked through the Final Cut Pro learning curve, as they were transitioning from an Avid-based post workflow. “It’s not that the old way was bad. It’s just that [Final Cut] is something new to us and we want to maximize its potential.”

The show is produced by NBC Universal. Having done a lot of work for the conglomerate’s Sci Fi Channel, Wallace has been on the show since the pilot and has been very involved in hiring the editors and assistant editors, as well as getting post facilities on board.

There are three editors on Wallace’s team: Stephen Lovejoy, ACE, George Pilkinton and Harry Jierjian. Wallace credits the three assistant editors—Doug Slocum, Tony Nigro and Robert Dias—with keeping the team afloat. “It’s up to them to be flexible and learn on the fly about what works best for these systems and what works best for the show,” notes Wallace. In some ways, the methods for Final Cut Pro are similar to Avid; in others, there are different processes to achieve the same goal, such as backing up data, maintaining machines and outputting footage.

For Eureka, the video house is FotoKem and the sound house is AnEFX. The show is mixed at Universal. Pete Fausone is the online editor as well as the Final Cut Pro technical consultant. “He’s been instrumental in getting us up and running, and working with us to get that seamless online process. He’s been a tremendous asset,” says Wallace.

“There are not a lot of people well-versed in Final Cut Pro in the environment we use it in. Often it’s used at home or in a single-system environment. We have six systems networked together. More and more shows are using that. It’s still relatively new. There’s still a lot of learning going on to adapt the technology for our workflow.”

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