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Robert Altman: Filmic HD

Digital Content Producer‘s and Millimeter‘s coverage of past and present award nominees/winners

Director Robert Altman shot most of A Prairie Home Companion on stage at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., where he rolled HD cameras during lengthy takes in order to maximize his ability to capture improvisation from his actors.

Director Robert Altman, now 81 and fresh off receiving an honorary Academy Award for years of filmmaking excellence, says his primary reason for suddenly embracing high-definition acquisition technology in recent years is the fact that its nature suits his preferred style of filmmaking. That style, of course, involves running cameras as long as humanly possible without stopping, while capturing long, sweeping takes and reams of improvisational material in ensemble situations.

“I don’t want the actors to always know when the camera is on them, and with high definition, I can just keep going, and I like that,” Altman says, explaining why he shot A Prairie Home Companion, and before that, The Company (2003), in HD.

But does Altman wish he could have produced his earlier works this way?

“Maybe I could have shot MASH this way, because of the nature of the material and the interior work, but Nashville had too many exteriors, so I don’t know if it would have worked as well for something like that,” he says. “But that was over 25 or 30 years ago, and who knows what problems would have been solved, or new ones created, by using HD? The point is, I’m interested in using HD now. A movie like Prairie doesn’t have many exteriors or big, sweeping vistas and all that. It’s an ensemble piece shot inside a theater with lots of cameras rolling all the time. We had one take, in fact, that was about 17 or 18 minutes long with three cameras, without stopping. Shooting anything of that nature with something other than HD, now that HD is available to us, would be silly, really.

“HD definitely makes improvisation easier, which is something that is important in my films. It hasn’t changed what I do or how I shoot in the sense that I always did a lot of that, even when I was using film, but it has made it easier to accomplish some of these things.”

Still, Altman hired a cinematographer — Ed Lachman, ASC — who most definitely insists he is not a fan of the digital medium. Nevertheless, Lachman headed up a team that used Sony HDW-F900 cameras, outfitted with Fujinon Super Cine Style E-Series HD lenses, and using Evertz fiber technology to record to Sony HDCAM-SR tape media with three SRW1 HD portable digital recorders.

Production Plan

The movie illustrates, in quasi-documentary style, behind-the-scenes interactions between a wide range of colorful characters during the final broadcast of a fictional iteration of Garrison Keillor’s real-life radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion. The entire piece, except for a couple of scenes, was shot onstage and backstage at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., from which the real radio show actually emanates. Lachman agrees that HD was a suitable choice for the project, and is Altman’s preferred way of making movies. But, Lachman emphasizes, the end goal all along was still to achieve a filmic, stylized look.

“This methodology allowed us to take advantage of the moving camera that Robert Altman loves so much, which enhances performances,” says Lachman. “I call that a way of creating a sense of discovery, because it creates an emotional quality in the performances with the cameras moving, and longer takes. I don’t think there is a single shot in the film that does not have some movement in it. That makes the performances more emotional, and it’s in keeping with the way Robert Altman likes to experiment. At one point, we shot a nine-page scene running 20 minutes straight without a break. HD was perfect for that method of filmmaking.

“But, at the same time, we wanted to make the movie filmic, and to hearken back to the 1940s feel of Garrison’s world on Prairie Home Companion. So, for most of the film, I wanted that kind of older filmic look, and then for the modern world, where the Tommy Lee Jones character threatens the show, I wanted it to look more personal, cold, and materialistic, so there was a big struggle between those two forces. Shooting HD, therefore, I worked hard with [digital imaging technician Ryan Sheridan] to create look-up tables in preproduction that would give me a good idea how this material would look in filmout. I was always shooting HD with a filmout in mind, and those [in-camera] LUTs as a template helped me figure out an exposure latitude digitally, the same way I would in film.”

Cinematographer Ed Lachman, ASC, says Altman”s technical method of shooting Prairie was perfect for HD, because the entire project was shot inside in a theatrical venue with moving cameras on cranes and dollies.

Before Lachman could design that look, however, filmmakers had to make a crucial decision about what HD format and workflow to adopt for the project. Altman’s son, Robert Reed Altman, a veteran camera operator who ran the “A” camera on the show, and Sheridan examined various cameras and recording methods. Based on their research, the pair recommended that filmmakers shoot with the HDW-F900, but dual-recording the imagery simultaneously onboard the camera and to the SRW1 VTRs at 10-bit, 4:2:2 color resolution. Consideration was given to shooting with Sony’s HDW-F950 system to HDCAM-SR tape at 4:4:4 resolution, but since that system doesn’t have an onboard recorder and tests convinced filmmakers that 4:2:2 resolution would be sufficient for this material, filmmakers decided to stick with the F900.

Sheridan explains this was a strategic decision that saved the production significant time and money by dodging the need to clone master tapes.

“We had to answer the question: Do we shoot with high compression on HDCAM, or low compression on HDCAM-SR? We were comfortable with the HDW-F900 cameras, because we had used them on The Company previously,” Sheridan explains. “Also, with the addition of a LUT we built in the Sony CVP gamma editor, we managed to extend the range of the F900, so we didn’t really miss the extra tonal range the F950 would have given us. But then we decided to record to HDCAM-SR in the 4:2:2, 10-bit format using the SRW1 VTR. What that did was permit us to roll in-camera as backup, but also roll directly onto the SR deck as a master for the 2.35 extraction from 16:9 for the filmout. In essence, that gave us immediate, pseudo-cloned masters of everything we shot. That cut out the need to conduct the cloning process in post, which would have been a very expensive thing.

“By shooting HDCAM in-camera on the HDW-F900, but recording offboard in the lower compression HDCAM-SR format, we gave ourselves an immediate backup master of sufficient quality in camera, and a master-master, and avoided that cloning stage and the resulting costs. It was kind of an experiment, because we would normally want to record 4:4:4 with a Thomson Viper [FilmStream] or [Sony HDCF950] to SR tape, but since this film has no compositing or hardcore image manipulation, there was no compelling need to do that. Although the HDCAM was not a true clone, the bottom line was [that] not having to clone HDCAM-SR tapes was a big thing for us from a financial point of view.”

Sheridan also worked with vendor Clairmont Camera to develop a mobile rack for monitoring and on-set color correction, connected to each camera by a single Evertz fiber connection, which Sheridan calls “a hybrid cable.” The efficient use of fiber, he says, was a major advantage.

“Soundtrack is very important to Mr. Altman, and we knew we would need four channels of sound on the HDCAM dailies,” Sheridan says. “We also knew we had to have timecode and genlock for our onboard HDCAM and the HDCAM-SR deck recordings to be identical, and we knew [Altman] would be running lots of cameras. All that could have led to as many as eight different cables from the monitoring station going out to cameras. We all felt that would be problematic, so Clairmont put together a fiber system to serve us. That fiber carried our power, camera control, genlock, data control, all audio — it all traveled on the same cable. That ended up being crucial for making this work the way Mr. Altman wanted things.”

The rolling video rack system designed by Clairmont also included 20in. eCinema display monitors, 24in. Sony HD monitors, and a Sony MSU750 camera networking unit for on-set color correction — “sort of TV style,” according to Sheridan. This approach gave Lachman artistic control over his cameras in realtime that led to a high-quality template for HD previews, and eventually, the final color-grade process that later followed digitally at Technicolor, New York, and then, during a final photochemical pass at Technicolor’s film lab in Los Angeles.

The other major tool that permitted Lachman to achieve the filmic sensibility he was seeking was the Fujinon HD lenses — specifically, three Fujinon HAe10×10 and two HAe5×6 zooms, supplied by both Clairmont and Fletcher, Chicago. Lachman and Robert Reed both call them crucial to the project, especially when combined with the use of the SRW1 VTR.

“Shooting for my dad, we need zooms all the time, because he likes to keep the camera moving,” says Robert Reed. “Our tests with the HDW-F900 and the 950 were very educational when we used the Fujinon lenses and recorded that information to the SRW1 deck. We found that the SRW1 generally captured more color information than did the onboard recorder, and when we did filmouts, we found images captured through the Fujinon lenses and recorded to that deck increased the film look that we were going for over images shot with other lenses. They gave us great information between skin tone colors that was very nice, and when we screened those tests at a theater in St. Paul for my dad and Ed Lachman, we all agreed that was the way to go.”

Robert Reed adds that, from his point of view, the workflow and results on Prairie were all superior to his experience working on The Company for his father in 2002 — a project shot with earlier generations of HDW-F900 cameras and supporting equipment. He points out that the two productions illustrate how far HD filmmaking technology has advanced in an extremely short period of time.

“The differences between the two experiences are huge,” Robert Reed says. “The camera body is the same, but almost everything else is different. We had a single optical fiber cable system here — one cable to each camera — and on Company, we had several cables running back and forth through each camera. And the Fujinon lenses are like film camera lenses. They do have a larger barrel, but since we didn’t do handheld or Steadicam, and we were on dollies or cranes the whole time, the size didn’t matter, and they operated like a film lens system. We also had color viewfinders this time, and that makes a world of difference.”

Post Approach

Altman (top right) and Lachman (top left) shot the film using Sony HDW-F900 cameras, simultaneously recording onboard the camera and with Sony SRW1 VTRs at 10-bit, 4:2:2 color resolution. This workflow allowed the crew to capture the actors” performances in long, fluid takes—up to 20 minutes without a break, at one point.

Editor Jacob Craycroft cut the film at Altman’s New York offices on an Avid Adrenaline (v. 2.1.3) system with Unity storage. According to Craycroft, onboard camera tapes were used to make DVD dailies in Minnesota, while tapes from the SRW1 deck were simultaneously down-converted to DVCAM at Technicolor, New York, and digitized for editorial needs.

Craycroft reports the editorial process wasn’t technically impacted by the project’s HD acquisition, but it was helped creatively in terms of achieving Altman’s stated goals.

“Bob always uses two cameras — sometimes three — no matter what format he’s shooting, which allows for plenty of options in the cutting room,” Craycroft says. “HD suits Bob’s style perfectly in that regard. On the first day of production, for instance, they shot a dialog scene in the dressing room with Lindsay Lohan, Meryl Streep, and Lily Tomlin that ran between 15 and 20 minutes, and shooting HD allowed for long, continuous takes to be captured without disrupting the flow of the scene. That enabled actors to find their natural place. There were no short takes, no singles — just 99 percent interactive drama. There is, of course, some finessing to translate it on the back end to the film world, but in this case, it was worth it to get Altman the kind of coverage he desired.”

In fact, importing Altman’s signature multi-track production sound into the evolving offline proved to be the thorniest technical part of the editorial process, according to Craycroft. His team received DVD-RAMs from the production sound mixer, who used an Aaton Cantar field recorder. Assistant editors used Aaton Majax software to then label, rotate, and re-order those tracks, and export them as .WAV files to be grouped and synched in the Avid. Depending on the scene, there were up to 14 tracks of audio being imported and synched up with the picture at any given time.

Craycroft’s assistant, Jane Rizzo, says the project hit a glitch during that process because the newer Adrenaline system they were working with did not initially correctly read the multi-track 29.97 timecode. The workaround for that, she says, was to revert to an older version of Adrenaline. Once that was accomplished, she adds, things got simpler for the sound post process because they were able to copy all sound media onto firewire drives, export OMFs, and deliver all production sound to sound editors to use for the final sound edit and mix.

“But as long as the mixer recorded the sound at a sample rate of 48kHz, we had no problem synching the sound and picture together,” Rizzo adds. “We cut at 23.98fps, and so we did a pulldown when we imported the down-converted HD material on DVCAM into our system. Then, we synched the audio by timecode to that version, and with a consistent sample rate, it was no problem.”

Once the movie moved onward to Technicolor for the DI and the team converted data from the SR master tapes from 10-bit linear to 10-bit log space for the final color grade, the process was similarly straightforward, filmmakers report. Christian Zak, executive producer of digital intermediates at Technicolor, New York, says Altman’s decision to build an HD preview version of the film and the final DI at the same facility was largely the reason the DI path was so smooth.

“Since we were going back to film, we had to pull everything through a proprietary LUT that translates everything from linear into log space, emulating film,” Zak says. “Once all data got to 10-bit log space, it went to our grading theater and our colorist [Tim Stipan] color-graded it using [Autodesk’s] Lustre software, viewing everything through an NEC IS8 DLP projector. His work was largely about fine-tuning things under Ed Lachman’s guidance. The way [Lachman] lit and exposed the images, we had plenty of information to work with, and we avoided some of the light control issues that you sometimes get when you deal with video or HD. At the end of the day, this left them with an HD master and a film master for future use, depending on what their needs are. Because they shot HD and we created the HD preview for them, the conform was very easy. On a show like this, there is no need to go back to original camera masters for the DI conform.”

From Altman’s way of analyzing things, the final result, viewed on a large cinema screen, is a film image anyway, because it comes from a film negative that his team created out of data captured on set.

“It does not make a difference whether you acquire a film negative on set or make one later after shooting HD in that sense,” he says. “Many people shoot on film, throw that original negative away, edit and process or do effects in digital space, and then go back and finish on film. That makes it a new piece of film. This is no different than that. We have a new negative, just like they do. People very rarely use the original negative for the final version of the film — they make a new one. So, I’m happy the technology lets me shoot the way I want to, but I don’t look at it like I’ve changed. I’m using the tools that work best for the material and the way I want to work.”

Therefore, Altman says, in the future he’ll investigate HD as a first option for achieving his desired aesthetic.

“If I can do it in HD, I will,” he says. “People talk all the time about film grain and things, but it all depends on what you are going for. As far back as MASH, or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, we used to do all sorts of things to destroy the clarity, or purity, of film. We’d use fog filters and all kinds of stuff to make it look like it was not very clear. Now, with HD, we are just moving to a medium where people can stretch things a bit, and kind of go in either direction, depending on various factors. For some things, like wide exteriors and so forth, film will still be better. For other things, HD will work great. But it’s not about getting rid of film. It’s about giving me more ways to do things.”