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The Next Generation of HD Digital Dailies

By Steven B. Cohen

Dec 30, 2002, 13:44 PST

Dailies have long been a vital part of feature-film production. They provide the creative production crew and the studio with a review system to confirm that what they intended to capture was indeed captured on film or tape. Today, however, digital technologies are raising the value and efficiency of dailies to a whole new level. Viewed in HD on a large screen, digital dailies open up the benefits of the electronic laboratory concept to feature filmmakers. Directors and DPs no longer have to print 35mm work picture; improvements in display technology now give them confidence in what they see digitally. Filmmakers can now use real-time color correction, compositing, and nonlinear editing -- all at HD resolution.

Industry Comments
"Digital dailies are simply more efficient and less wasteful," states Peter Mavromates, Post Supervisor on such films as Panic Room, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Kill Bill. "If you have two hours' worth of dailies and only a one-hour lunch break, the filmmaker can choose -- on the spot -- which takes to view and how often to view them."

"The digital dailies and preview process for feature films is increasingly becoming an option for filmmakers," explains Laser Pacific Executive VP Leon Silverman. "One of the most important components of the process is how filmmakers view their dailies. At Laser Pacific, we have built an infrastructure that allows filmmakers to see their best work in better ways. HD digital dailies have begun to make a dramatic impact in what we have been referring to as the process of crafting the 'modern motion picture.'"

Laser Pacific pioneered low-cost HD videotape dailies. Several MGM films, including Legally Blonde, the Lakeshore Entertainment film Mothman Prophecies, and the Columbia Pictures film Panic Room, have used the company's system, which incorporates Panasonic DVHS VCRs and a 19.6 Mbps (megabits per second) ATSC encoder.

"The goal of HD dailies and preview is to save the studio money while providing a better preview quality to the audience and not compromising the dailies process," adds Bruce Markoe, VP of Post Production at MGM Studios. "The first two points are assured, while the last is the one up for debate by many DPs."

"At Technique, we are finding an ever-increasing interest on the part of filmmakers in the benefits that digital dailies provide," comments Peter Sternlicht, Executive VP of Technicolor Creative Services and its digital intermediate facility, Technique. "From the ease of remote-site or editorial-room viewing to the flexibility and quality of digital preview screenings, this is a sign of things to come."

Technique is currently supporting digital dailies on several films using the Panasonic DVCPRO-HD format. These include the Miramax film Kill Bill and the Warner Brothers film Looney Tunes: Back In Action.

"We chose a system that emulates the process of film dailies," explains Chris Defaria, Producer of Looney Tunes: Back in Action. "These are people used to film, with high-speed access with visible picture. We shot lots of second unit for all the animation. We had a busy schedule and needed to get through dailies quickly. Using HD dailies was a seamless transition for the crew."

Both of the digital dailies screening rooms used on the film employed JVC D-ILA-based G-150CL projectors.

A New System
This past summer, my company, Cohen Communications, and HEURIS Logic (developer of the most widely used professional software MPEG encoder, MPEG Power Professional) introduced what we call the RUSHPLAY HD Dailies system. We feel it provides a cost-effective, high-resolution picture and sound alternative to 35mm work picture and mag track (location 35mm projection systems), or clones of original HD camera masters. The RUSHPLAY software offers increased functionality over tape-based playback systems and an HD DVD-RAM disk-based system we previously offered.

If you're shooting on film, the RUSHPLAY HD Dailies system process begins with a telecine transfer, in which the film negative is synchronized with the production sound master to create a negative telecine master. If you're shooting on HD tape, the process can be streamlined through Mindstar's Cinergy Script Supervisors' software. The Cinergy software captures time code from the HD camera and links it to the script supervisors'/camera department's notes. It can create an ALE file on location that can be used at a post facility to pull "circle takes" from the HD camera masters with a MediaSonic ASI capture station and create an HD MPEG dailies file. The composite HD digital master feeds a Tandberg E5821 HD encoder in real-time to create an ATSC broadcast data stream.

"The advantage of the E5821 for a dailies application is its flexibility to encode material in either a 480i, 480p/60, 720p, 1080 24psf, or 1080i, format depending on the format chosen by the production," reveals Lisa Hobbs, Director of Marketing for Tandberg Television. This data is written in real-time to a USB or FireWire drive through a MediaSonic ASI capture station. If a second set of dailies is required, a Windows or DOS file copy is made. An hour of dailies can be copied in 12 minutes -- a major advantage over tape-based systems that copy in real-time. These external hard drives are shipped to the location and to executives for review. And if there's a fat broadband connection to the production or the studio, these files can be copied to an HD player at the other end.

The RUSHPLAY software facilitates the unique features of this system by its ability to "virtually sub clip" the MPEG2 data stream. RUSHPLAY captures the telecine "Flex File" metadata: clip duration, scene name, take name, camera roll, sound roll, and additional data. The software can sort dailies sequentially by scene and take. It can create playlists across multiple days (files) or across several drives. It can remove or add scenes/takes on a playlist in seconds. You can "play next take" or "play previous take." While you are in a playlist you can highlight any takes and "play current selections." And additional functions and features are being developed based on user feedback.

"The continued development of the RUSHPLAY software is integral in the future of HEURIS Logic," remarks Brian Quandt, CEO of the company. "We believe that HD MPEG2 has many uses in the filmmaking process. We have also developed a VBR software encoder for digital cinema applications."

The RUSHPLAY HD Dailies system (a MediaSonic player running RUSHPLAY software) is a fraction of the cost of an HD VTR. It can output either RGB-HV or Y, Pb, Pr analog HD at 24 or 30 fps with stereo audio or 5.1 AC-3 data stream to an external decoder. The MediaSonic 9100D includes four USB ports that can accommodate playback of up to 40 days of dailies. Additional drives can be added with four-port USB 2.0 active hubs (840 GB with 120 GB USB 2.0 drives).

The PC is paired with either a Panasonic TH-50PH5UY HD plasma screen or JVC D-ILA 150CL video projector. A complete location screening room with front projection screens up to 12 feet wide and interfaces to Avid editorial systems can also be included.

User Comments
The DreamWorks film Biker Boyz, directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood, and the Lakeshore Entertainment film Underworld, directed by Len Wiesman, are currently using the RUSHPLAY HD Dailies system. We worked with engineers from Laser Pacific to integrate their HD dailies system into the HD telecine and transfer workflow for Biker Boyz. ARRIFilm Munich, meanwhile, worked with us to support the requirements of Underworld.

"As a person with a long film background, I was amazed at the quality of the image, considering the amount of compression involved and the minimal amount of artifacts using a single setting on the Tandberg MPEG2 encoder," comments ARRIFilm's Tom Henderson. "The components are very portable and have the ability to show a full dailies-size picture, with the added functionality of instantly assembling scenes and camera rolls in any order. This makes it a viable option for production-rush screenings."

Biker Boyz chose an HD dailies format because of a tight production schedule. Due to the extensive number of locations the director couldn't get back to the studio each day to see dailies. Biker Boyz was also challenged with a 14-week post production schedule. A Panasonic TH-50PH5UY 50-in. HD plasma screen and a RUSHPLAY HD Playback PC (consisting of the MediaSonic 9100D HD player with Cohen Communications/HEURIS RUSHPLAY software) were installed at director Bythewood's home.

"We had a very grueling shooting schedule," Bythewood recalls. "Therefore, we printed dailies on film for the first week. After that I viewed dailies on a plasma screen in the HD format. It was very helpful. I was able to get a good sense of what we shot looked like and it made life easier."

Executives at DreamWorks and editors Terry Shropshire and Caroline Ross viewed dailies in the Amblin' screening room on a 20-ft. screen with an NEC DLP projector and a RUSHPLAY HD Playback PC.

"I did not know initially how I would feel about relinquishing my viewing of dailies on film to the HD format," Bythewood adds. "After screening examples of dailies and preview material on HD prior to the start of principal photography of Biker Boyz, I felt quite comfortable that it would not interfere with or limit the ability to effectively evaluate our material on both a creative and technical level. The RUSHPLAY HD dailies system helped bring us closer to an even playing field with the demands of an accelerated post without sacrificing too much of the film aesthetic."

Laser Pacific encoded the HD telecine masters to a USB 2.0 external drive and cloned an additional drive to be sent to the editors and DreamWorks executives. Recruited screening will make use of HD onlines from Laser Pacific.

Underworld, meanwhile, chose an HD dailies format primarily because it allowed the filmmakers to shoot three-perf Super-35mm, thus saving the production 25 percent of their stock and processing costs while still ensuring that these dailies could be projected at a quality comparable to a traditional work print.

"If it looks as good as this in the cinema, I will be well-pleased," states cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts (Oscar-nominated for his work on Howard's End and Room With a View) after viewing 70-plus days of dailies in a location HD screening room set-up by engineers from ARRIFilm and Cohen Communications/HEURIS. The room used a JVC D-ILA G-150CL projector and a RUSHPLAY HD playback PC. The PC is configured with enough storage so the production will be able to have random access to all the transferred footage. ARRIFilm Munich encodes the HD dailies to 60 GB USB 2.0 drives, which were shipped to Budapest each afternoon and then transferred onto the location storage system (a "tower" of 120 GB USB 2.0 drives). A, B, C, and D camera-negative rolls are telecined to one-hour HDCAM masters. Sometimes the camera rolls are not transferred in sequential order. The RUSHPLAY software can auto-sort with metadata captured from the telecine FLEXFILE. The production is able to screen dailies in sequential scene & take order across separate MPEG 2 files and USB drives.

"I have used DVHS, D-5, and the first-generation iDVR [DVD-RAM] as sources for dailies projection on past pictures and -- without question -- the random-access capabilities of the RUSHPLAY HD playback PC are nothing short of revolutionary," states Lakeshore's James McQuaide. "We would skip from take-to-take, camera-to-camera, sometimes day-to-day, selecting the pieces necessary to rough-out a scene, turning the dailies screening into something more akin to an Avid session. Without question, I look forward to the day when these choices can just as easily be entered into the Playback PC, the scene assembled on-the-fly, and played back instantly at HD resolution."

Steven B. Cohen is CEO of Cohen Communications, a Hollywood-based technology consulting and equipment-rental company serving the needs of the entertainment industry. You can reach him at [email protected].

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