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Performing An ‘Act of Valor’: Managing DSLR Media with Military Precision

The feature film Act of Valor follows an elite Navy SEAL team through a series of dangerous recovery missions. Like the SEALs—the United States Navy’s principal special operations force—the production company behind the film takes pride in accomplishing the seemingly impossible…at least in terms of production and post.

Culver City-based Bandito Brothers, which calls itself a “full-service media company and filmmaking collective,” evolved during the productions of the documentaries Dust to Glory, about off-road racing, and Step into Liquid, about surfing. For both films, directors Scott Waugh and Mike “Mouse” McCoy made use of camera gear and postproduction tools in ways that many thought was impossible.

A Navy SEAL is engaged in a personnel recovery mission.
Photos credit: IATM LLC

They have repeated that feat on Act of Valor, their first narrative feature. Again, the team—along with Bandito Brothers chief technology officer Jacob Rosenberg—took developing technologies (particularly Canon EOS 1D and 5D cameras) in innovative directions to achieve their goals.

Getting Started
Bandito Brothers’ Culver City operation had grown since those first, pioneering documentaries to include editorial and postproduction services, including in-house color grading via Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve for Mac, and visual effects capabilities with tools including Adobe After Effects and Autodesk Combustion.

Through Bandito Brothers, Waugh and McCoy were directing commercials for cars, soft drinks and various other products, often making use of the then-brand-new HD video capabilities found in the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 1DS Mark III. They took advantage of the cameras’ attractive combination of low price point and filmic image quality when using the cameras as “crash cams” on motorcycles and surf boards, and in covering action from far more angles than would be possible with more expensive camera equipment.

They were also doing work for several branches of the U.S. armed forces, which led to a request for proposal to make the film that would become Act of Valor—a proof of concept for Bandito Brothers beyond anything the founders could have hoped for. A feature film with access to an actual team of Navy SEALS and an arsenal of other military resources, it would re-create some real-life military scenarios, adding narrative elements to create a story. The film would have to be a high-power, entertaining action feature that would deliver a positive message about the SEALs. It would also have to come in at a relatively conservative price.

Lt. Rorke leaves for deployment.

“When we started our company,” Rosenberg recalls, “we had ambitions about doing something really big and making a statement with our work, and we were very fortunate to have this opportunity to push ourselves to be better in every aspect of what we do as a company.”

Around the time of the proposal, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, ASC (@hurlbutvisuals), met with Bandito Brothers about his assignment to shoot and direct some webisodes based around the movie Terminator Salvation. The cinematographer had worked primarily in celluloid and found the digital capture options of 2009 wanting, but he’d seen some of Bandito Brothers’ work with the Canon cameras and decided to test them himself. He loved the big image sensor and the resulting depth of field. Despite the technical limitations of the 8-bit H.264 codec and some of the visual artifacting, such as the “rolling shutter effect” inherent in the CMOS sensor, Hurlbut reports being very excited about the cameras’ positive attributes.

When Waugh and McCoy met with Hurlbut about him shooting Act of Valor, and doing a great deal of the work with Canon DSLRs, he was almost immediately sold. As he told Digital Video in an interview last year, “When the guys from Bandito Brothers came to me with the idea of shooting an action picture with a $2,500 camera, I was like, ‘That’s new. That’s different. That’s crazy. I’m in.’ It’s got to be in-your-face, immersive action like you’ve never seen before. The HDSLR cameras enabled us to do that.” The goal was to put the audience “inside the eyes and mind of a Navy SEAL.”

In the Field

Approximately a quarter of the material in Act of Valor was shot on 35mm film using ARRI 235 and 435 cameras, and less than that with Sony HDC-F950 CineAlta cameras. The majority of the film, and virtually all of the super-fast, on-the-ground action scenes, was shot with multiple 5D and 1D cameras.

Though the filmmakers had tested the cameras for their image quality and durability, some issues still cropped up when they actually started shooting a feature of this scope with them.

Of course, in the three years since they first took the cameras out into the field to begin shooting Act of Valor, much has changed: the camera’s firmware has gone through numerous iterations, postproduction tools have addressed many issues related to the highly compressed video recording codec, and many independent filmmakers have worked out their own approaches to shooting with these popular cameras. But as early adopters, Bandito Brothers had a number of challenges to overcome.

First, the filmmakers tried to shoot with Canon lenses designed for still photographers, making use of the auto focus capability. The extremely short throw—relative to a cine-style lens—is famously frustrating to focus pullers who want a big throw and precise distance markings.

Panavision provided an adapter that allowed the team to mount Primo glass onto the cameras. “That was great,” Rosenberg recalls. “The lenses were amazing. Unfortunately, Panavision doesn’t make that adapter available anymore, but they were nice enough to allow us to use the adapters throughout production of Act of Valor.”

Rosenberg also remembers that when they started shooting, the firmware didn’t even exist to allow them to shoot at 24p. “We had frame rate issues like crazy!” he says. “A lot of the film was actually shot at 30 fps. We had to convert many scenes to 24p, although we left some of them at 30 deliberately to let them play a little bit in slow motion.”

Prepping for Post

    Simple issues like file naming presented the filmmakers with a few challenges. “We shot to the CF cards,” the CTO says. “We had a media manager on set who would collect the cameras and upload the files. But we’d have shooting days where different cameras would have the same file names and we couldn’t do anything about it. It was a big awakening for us. You find a format that everyone falls in love with, but you see how disastrous it can be if you don’t handle it correctly.

“We were shooting so much and covering everything with so many cameras that it would have been impossible to ever keep track of it all if we hadn’t dealt with the naming issue immediately. Moving forward, when we would download data to our drives, we would go through an extensive renaming process—we developed a spreadsheet that would give us the name of the shot, day, camera, scene and take. We made sure the names were all eight characters so they would be EDL-compliant.”

Rosenberg also developed a workflow for the files, making use of the Avid Media Composer 4 that the editors wanted to use for the creative editing and Adobe Premiere Pro (CS4 and later CS5) to manage the media files in their native format. Both systems were running off HP xw8600 workstations. (Bandito Brothers is an HP shop for most of its hardware.)

As the Avid EDL developed, Rosenberg explains, the Premiere timeline would update. Meanwhile, as the cut evolved at Bandito Brothers, After Effects artists could pull scenes off the company’s SAN, work on them and post the updated files; Premiere would then update the sequence.

Rosenberg, who has a longstanding relationship with Adobe, found this setup efficient and productive. The editors could work the way they were most comfortable, while Premiere’s advanced capabilities to handle native H.264 material and its interoperability with other programs such as After Effects made it a great tool for what might traditionally have been called “online” duties.

The CTO explains how the post setup helped get the most out of the cameras. “The 5D shoots full Rec. 709 color space, as opposed to the ‘legal 709’ that some other digital cameras use. Those only write colors 16-235,” he says. “The 5D was unique at the time in that it could shoot full-range 0-255. What Adobe was doing with Production Premium was opening up that full range of colors. At that time, if you opened a 5D file in Final Cut Pro, it would look really contrasty. To some people that looks pleasing to the eye, but it means you’re losing information. With Production Premium, we could keep the full range.”

He adds that the HP DreamColor 30-bit LCD displays they used in the field and at Bandito Brothers enabled the team to really see that additional color information—in a way that other monitor technologies couldn’t deliver.

As the film came together, the company used Cinnafilm Dark Energy Texture Manager to help clean up the digital noise and print back some “grain” to give everything a more filmic quality. The also used RE:Vision Effects’ Twixtor software to convert frame rates—primarily all the 30 to 24.

Virtually all of the work on Act of Valor, from planning to delivery (except sound mix and color grade), was completed in-house at Bandito Brothers. Concludes Rosenberg, “That’s something we’re incredibly proud of.” Mission accomplished.