Archive for March, 2012

Digitally yours forever:
Where and how is preservation going? Part 2

March 24th, 2012

Digital Dilemma 2 Cover

This post completes my two-part series on “The Digital Dilemma 2,” AMPAS’s 135-page report on Indies (independent filmmakers) and the preservation of digital media.

What Indies Say

The report quotes them as stating:

We need archives that make it easy for independent image makers to donate their work. And those archives need to have the wherewithal – finances, storage space and staff – to preserve the work and store it for the very long term…I’m really terrified that once I die, all the work I’ve created will vanish with me.

The work we do becomes part of our collective history, even when it was not initially intended to be.

It’s essential for every filmmaker to pay attention to preserving their work for future generations, as well as for future revenue options.


The main hurdles indies face when seeking to preserve their work digitally cost, lack of standards (e.g. what file format should be used), and the absence of established preservation entities and repositories to perform and store the files.

Terms and Concepts

Archivists use the terms “digital preservation,” “digital archiving,” and “data curation” to describe their mandate to preserving digital media which includes workflows beginning with the shoot with perhaps a DIT (digital image technician) on hand and concludes with the storage of the digital data and a set of clear, documented guidelines for its continued preservation. In the report an archivist observed, “Previously, preservation meant that the physical object or item was preserved. With digital preservation, it is the content and not the carrier that must be preserved.”


The report concludes:

The digital dilemma is far from solved. Unless preservation becomes a requirement in planning, budgeting and marketing strategies, it will remain unsolved for independent filmmakers, documentarians and nonprofit audiovisual archives alike. These communities, and the nation’s artistic and cultural heritage, would greatly benefit from a comprehensive, coordinated digital preservation plan for the future.

History/research, Technical & process

Digitally yours forever:
Where and how is preservation going? Part 1

March 17th, 2012

Digital Dilemma 2 Cover
In 2007, AMPAS (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and bestower of the Academy awards), published “The Digital Dilemma” about the preservation of studio-made motion pictures. With “The Digital Dilemma 2” a three-year study released in 2011, AMPAS teamed with NDIIPP (the Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program) to probe the preservation situation for independent filmmakers (including documentarians) and non-profit audiovisual archives.

Fact: Indies account for 75% of exhibited features and include such recent Best Picture Oscar winners as Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, and The King’s Speech.

While this short blog cannot possible do justice to this 135-page report, I will try to hit the major points of interest.

The Dilemma

  • Most indie filmmakers are occupied with selling their films and moving on to the next project and pay scant attention to archiving.
  • If an indie film doesn’t secure major studio distribution, its preservation is uncertain and content loss is most likely.
  • Consensus among users is that recorded digital data will not last 30 years. No archivists surveyed by AMPAS trusted storing digital data tapes for that long because data storage hardware and software become obsolete in five to seven years.

Preservation of moving images and recorded audio takes place at the hundreds of archives, libraries, universities, studios, TV stations, and homes around the U.S.

How are these images and sounds being preserved?

  1. On film:
  2. The major studios are creating film separation masters which employ the OCN (original camera negative) to generate three B & W (black and white) copies, filtering each one for one of the RGB spectrums. After development, these copies are inert and deemed the most stable for long-term archival, preservation, and restoration purposes. They are vaulted in climate controlled rooms with passive deterioration detectors and straightforward inspection protocols. For indies, this route is financially prohibitive. Also, as digital cinema and cinematography increases, there will be more .DPX and .CIN files to contend with and less photochemical film.

  3. On analog tape:
  4. If stored properly in a cool room, this material is relatively simple to preserve and will last for decades, as long as the necessary recording and playback systems are retained.

  5. On digital tape:

    Similar method and longevity to analog material.

  6. As digital data on digital storage media
  7. As editors well know, much digital tape, film, and analog tape are being converted to digital data in the post process. So dealing with digital data presents a huge challenge. This is due to digital data’s many potential failure points (computer, disk or hard drive, network, software, the actual media itself, etc.) and its short cycle of technical obsolescence (file formats, drive, data readers, etc.).

Digital storage systems range from off shelf, portable hard drives overseen by the filmmaker to complex data centers maintained by archival institutions’ IT departments. Both systems are typically accessed by a desktop computer and necessitate records keeping and tracking via a database software which can be as basic as FileMakerPro or complex as a DAMS (digital asset management system).

Cold storage isn’t enough for digital data which includes files, hard disk drives, DVD, etc. Digital data demands active management on a continuing basis to ensure access to the data. Active data management includes backing up the data to several drives in several locations, routinely verifying (inspecting) the data to make sure it’s pristine, and transcoding it to new formats and drives as they appear to have some staying power.


The AMPAS report states:

There is no escaping the fact that digital technologies enable independent filmmakers to explore and extend the art form in ways that are simply not possible with motion picture film. The price to be paid for these new capabilities, however, is either the loss of content to digital decay, or accepting the responsibility of working with technology providers to articulate and satisfy industry requirements for the long-term preservation of digital data, achieve satisfactory backwards compatibility and implement standards.

The next post will look at what indie filmmakers say about preservation and give the report’s findings for the future.

History/research, Technical & process

What do VFX editors do? Really.
Pt. 3: VFX editors: Outsourcing VFX to post or VFX house

March 11th, 2012

Some shows exhibit effects so stunningly original that they ignite a creative revolution and make their designer the unsung auteur (author) of the film. Conversely, many effects go unheralded, such as wire removals (painting out wires used to make actors fly) and composites e.g. adding or subtracting buildings from landscapes but contribute mightily to the film just the same. Here’s how Mickey McGovern, VFX producer and editor on Forrest Gump, Star Wars episodes 5 and 6, Contact, Speed and many more shows describes her work:

“I receive the script, which I break down into VFX shots. I determine how the elements of each shot will be made…With the help of production coordinators I track each shot. I know how much each shot costs and the schedule for completing each shot.”

Editorial’s job

When an effect is outsourced, here are the basic steps that the picture editor or assistant takes to assist VFX editors:

  1. To start, they ask the VFX editor what their requirements are. For instance, they may specify a certain file format or VFX numbering scheme.
  2. Editorial should write a precise description of the effect — what it should look like, its frame rate, etc. It’s commonplace for editors to create the effect on their system and send a dub to the VFX editors for reference.
  3. Provide the VFX editors with all the data — time code, tape reel, etc. (tape shows) camera roll, keycode, etc. (film shows) — necessary to cre­ate the effect. The digital editing system’s tape EDL tool or film cutlist tool can help generate this data. Alternatively, editors use FileMaker Pro or another database program, or the post house or VFX house may provide them with their own data form.
  4. Editorial sends over the media (tape or film show) or file (tapeless show) to make the effect.

Here’s a photo of an effect in progress:

Video Effects Workstation

Creating VFX at post house.

Photo courtesy of Alpha Dogs

Editor’s role, Visual FX editing

What do VFX editors do? Really.
Pt. 2: Picture editors: Creating VFX on the digital editing system

March 5th, 2012

Visual effects are just another way of creating film for me to cut. We’re used to having the film shot on the set, processed and sent to the editing room and that’s it. In the visual effects world, that’s just the beginning of making the shot. Instead of the shot being made in one day, it might be made in anywhere from one month to one year. Visual effects are just a tool the same as making a decision to shoot with a Steadicam or on a dolly…One of the nice things is that it allows post to be involved in creating the shot.

Zach Staenberg, A.C.E. Gotti and The Matrix (all three films).

Real time and rendered effects

When you create an effect and the editing system can play it back instantly, it’s called a real time effect. When you create an effect and you can’t see it (play it back) instantly, you must command the system to render it i.e. create new media for after which it becomes a rendered effect and is indicated as such on your timeline. Rendering an effect can take seconds, minutes, or longer depend­ing on its complexity. Since rendering eats up time, many editors set their effects to render all at one time, then take a break, checking back periodically to make sure the system didn’t hang.

Real-time effects are preferable because you can immediately view them to accept or reject them or determine how to adjust them. System owners frequently add video capture cards such as AJA’s Kona or those offered by Matrox and Black Magic to boost process­ing time and allow for more real-time effects.

Making VFX

Since there are numerous classroom courses, books, and manuals, and online tutorials online — free and fee — that detail how to create all types of effects on the widely used editing systems, I’ll just list the four basic steps here.

  1. Park your playhead on or near the cut point of the edit where you want to make the effect.
  2. From a menu or tab, select the effect or drag it to the time line. You may need to add an extra track beforehand, depending on the type of effect.
  3. Render the effect if necessary.
  4. View the effect.


Video Effects Timeline

Video effects selected on timeline.

Photos courtesy of Les is More Productions

A few final words

Option: You can create your own VFX for reuse by labeling them and saving them as favorites. Many editors copy a bin of favorites to a disk or drive and take them from project to project.

To finish: You will have to get your VFX – along with the rest of your show – to your final formats. This may involve uprezzing, outputting to tape, and/or onlining to put the best images forward.

Coming up: The next post – the last in this series – will cover what happens when a visual effect is outsourced.