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“Act of Valor” Workflow and Post Production

My name is Mike McCarthy, and as the production engineer for Act of Valor, I worked with Shane and his team in developing solutions to the obstacles presented by early DSLR filmmaking, both on set and in post. Now that the movie has been released, I have been publishing many of the details of the process that went into making it on my site HD4PC.com. While my focus is primarily on post-production issues, Shane wanted to share some of that information with Hurlblog readers. Since most of you probably come from a production and shooting perspective, the following is a summary of that series of articles, with links to my site, depending on which individual topics you are interested in learning more about.

We considered many different camera options for the movie, and the Canon 5D hadn’t even been released when we started our search. It ended up being the right camera for the right job at the right time. If you roll back through Shane’s archives, you will find information on the Terminator prequel shoot, which was our first experience with DSLR filmmaking at a production level. There were still many obstacles in that process that needed to be worked out, both by Bandito Brothers and Shane’s Elite Team before we could shoot an entire movie that way. For a project that scale, we had to adapt our workflow to integrate Avid and come up with a solid naming convention. Improvements to the camera, in the way of firmware updates, also helped simplify the shooting process, but the 24p update wasn’t developed until we were basically finished. Here are more details on our approach to Preparing for Act of Valor.

The 5D camera package

The 5D camera package

I was the media manager for most of the larger shoot locations, which entailed using laptops to backup the few CF cards we had, so they could be cycled back to the camera crew. I would review and rename the media when time allowed, and my HP DreamColor review display eventually became one of Shane’s staple tools for DSLR production. Eventually we were able to have a full editing workstation in a trailer near set for reviewing shots and prepping them for our Avid edit. This allowed Scott Waugh to do the initial editing in between shoots. Here are more details about our experience Shooting Act of Valor.

Directors Mouse McCoy and Scott Waugh watching playing on an HP Dream Color

Directors Mouse McCoy and Scott Waugh watching playing on an HP Dream Color

Director Scott Waugh watching playback

Director Scott Waugh watching playback

Based on our shooting style and the options made available by using the 5D, we shot nearly 200 hours of footage. Since there was no way to automate the syncing process between the different cameras and separately recorded audio, that became a labor intensive process for our assistant editors in Avid. Instead of using a Unity, we just duplicated the source media across our editing systems. As sequences came together, would get source lists to start Twixtoring the Canon source files in AE and link them into Premiere sequences using EDLs. We added the 2K film scans and scaled the rest of the footage to 2K to match. Here are more details about Editing Act of Valor.

Act of Valor

Act of Valor

Act of Valor

While Bandito Brothers has always prided themselves in being authentic and real, we did end up with hundreds of visual effects shots in the movie. About half of them were in response to issues that resulted from shooting with the 5D, but we also needed to add blood hits and do fixes like painting out crew members. Additionally, we did a fair bit of motion graphics work. While the film based VFX shots were relatively straight forward, with 2K film scans at 24p, the Canon footage was much more challenging.

Twixtor is an amazing tool, but it is not perfect. Whenever there is too much motion in a scene for the software to accurately track what is going on, it gives some strange results. Since Act of Valor is a fairly dynamic movie, to put it lightly, we had our share of issues to fix manually. For complex visual effects shots, our artists had to do this cleanup process on nearly every 5D source layer before they could even start doing any regular VFX work. We also dealt with a number of different types of rolling shutter artifacts.

We also had over a hundred subtitles, due to the Spanish and Russian dialog of the bad guys. Our map graphics were rendered as overlay layers with alpha channels and composited over the backgrounds directly in Premiere Pro. Dust busting was done as a final step in Photoshop after our color correction and texture passes. Here are more details about the process of doing Visual Effects on Act of Valor.

The biggest challenge we faced in the finishing process was preparing for three different aspect ratios for our deliverable (2.39, 1.78 and 1.33) without sacrificing resolution. The traditional approach to this costs you resolution and detail, which we couldn’t afford to lose with DSLR source material. Doing the online edit in Premiere Pro CS5.5 gave us some interesting workflow options. By doing the work across a series of subsequences, we were able to synchronize changes across multiple cuts of the movie at different aspect ratios. We also did a full texture pass in Cinnafilm’s Dark Energy software to match the DSLR footage to our film footage. Our final delivery of DPXs was used to make film prints, DCPs, and SR tapes. I have many more details on my site about Finishing Act of Valor.

2.39 aspect ratio tape marks on the 5D

2.39 aspect ratio tape marks on the 5D

Anyhow, it was quite the process to get the final product on the big screen, but the results have been well received. The good news is that many of the limitations we faced, like 30p frame rates, have been solved, but the same principles can be applied to other obstacles that are sure to be faced when pushing the envelope of traditional filmmaking.

Author: Shane

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39 Comments

  1. How did you guys use Panavision glass? With an adapter or bodies from Panavision? Vingetting?

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  2. Wow, that was a really cool post. Great to get some insight.

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  3. Great post! How did you guys manage 2.39 aspect without sacrificing resolution and detail?

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    • You have to sacrifice some image info to make 2.39 unless you use anamorphic lenses. The trick was to not lose MORE detail when going back to 1.78 which we did be removing the letterboxing, instead of adding pillarboxing. You can only do this is you are super careful about processing the full scope of the original HD picture, even though you only “need” the center 2.39.

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    • Matheus. You are very welcome, thanks for the support.

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  4. Thanks for the post. I was wondering why so many different deliverable aspect ratios were required. Is the Blue Ray in 16×9 without the Scope aspect ratio? Do foreign markets require other than 2.35?

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    • I believe the BluRay will be 2.39, but other markets will use the other aspect ratios. They required a 1.33 version as well, but I doubt it will see much use.

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  5. Hi Mike and Shane, amazing work on all of this. I love how you guys break in all the revolutionary technology. I was wondering what the “binocular-esque” tool was on top of the 5D? It seems to be there in all the production photos.

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    • That is called a CineTape, and is a tool to assist the focus puller. It provides a digital distance readout. Shane can probably tell you more about it, since he uses them a lot.

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  6. Hi, loads to read and digest for Act of Valor, but could I ask Mike, when you went from CS5.5 to Dark Energy to use their h264 denoise tools, so was the export from CS5.5, h264? or a more ‘lossless’ codec? Thanks

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    • We exported DPX files to get the content from Premiere to Dark Energy, and back again. The H264 artifacts were from the compression in the camera on set. Never export an intermediate file into H264, that is not what it is designed for.

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      • Thanks for the reply Mike, out of interest was that 10bit DPX?

        btw, there are lossless 4:4:4 and 10bit 4:4:4 h264 profiles available via x264 so can stay YCbCr rather than RGB but depends on workflow and what Dark Energy can read I guess.

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        • At that point, 10bit DPX was the only reliable input/output format for Dark Energy. And everything was converted to RGB, since Twixtor for AE was one of the first steps for the 5D footage, and AE is inherently RGB.

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  7. Love the work you do Shane! We will be rebroadcasting the second interview with you tomorrow. We will also be plugging the release of Act Of Valor June 5 on BluRay DVD and download. The letter you read on the air was amazing. I will post it to you tube after we broadcast it again.

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    • Scott Sylvia thank you so much for all your support. Sounds great.

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  8. Thanks so much for sharing, this is really valuable! There is a question I have: “Dust busting was done as a final step in Photoshop after our color correction and texture passes.” Could you please give me a hint what the “texture” pass is? Kind regards, Andreas

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    • Andreas Urra, the texture pass is extracting all of the digital compression off of your 5D footage then adding grain texture to the film via the Dark Energy Film Plug In

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  9. This is great! Question. How do you guys go about measuring 2.35 on the canon screen?

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    • J.Molina. What we do is center the camera on a 2.35 reference image and then place two thin strips of tape on the LCD for guide lines. Or a quick easy way to do it is move the 5D’s focus box all of the way to the top of the LCD, the bottom of the box is the top of the 2.35 marking. Then move the focus box all of the way to the bottom of the LCD, the top of the box is the bottom of the 2.35 marking. Here is a picture of the reference lines on a 5D from “Act of Valor” http://www.flickr.com/photos/hurlbutvisuals/6847752915/. Thanks for the comment and support.

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  10. Hi Shane,

    Did u use the MagicLantern hack or did you shot just on the standard firmware?

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      • I reed lots of good about the hack. You adwise film makers to use evry tool possible to improw thair work but you did not use it. I find it interesting, wer you bound by contract to use the standard firmware by Canon if they donated the Cameras for the movie? Sorry for my direct questins. Im gratefull for you sharring your knowlage and the oportunity to comunikate with on of the best modern Cinematographers! THX Shane.

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        • Tomaz K., Thank you so much for your kind words and your support. Here are the direct answers. I was not bound by any contract, Canon did not donate cameras to Act of Valor. This movie starting shooting in the spring of 2009, the 5D MK II had just come out. All hacks were unstable and any time you take the battery out you need to re boot the hack. This doesn’t work well when you are shooting with 12 cameras and having live ammo shot at you. SO no to the hack, yes to inspiring filmmakers all over the world that it is possible to take a still camera without this hack and transport it to 5000 screens all over the world.

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          • Thank you for your answers. Now it makes sens. With the publicity you made for Canon and the 5dmk2, Canon could donate som 1dc’s for Act of Valor 2 ;).

          • Tomaz K., Ha ha ha, absolutely!!! Thanks for all of your support

  11. Hi Shane and all at Hurlbutvisuals, Nu Metro is showing Act of Valor this Friday 20th July 2012 in South Africa. So I am just proud to be associated with you guys.

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    • Molefi Clive Mohale, It is so great to hear from you. I cannot wait to hear your thoughts my friend. I hope this finds you well. Big hugs to you.

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  12. This was a very cool read!! Thank you so much for sharing. Act of Valor was a great movie by the way!

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    • Ubaid Seth. Thanks so much for the kind words and support.

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  13. Hi, im very curious about one thing and i have nobody to ask.
    Is there way to capture uncompressed output from cameras to laptop with hdmi? Is there some software for that?
    Thnaks!

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    • Miso, I think magic lantern has a hack that enables you to do this on the 60D, maybe others, check out their website.

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  14. Just watched Act of Valor at last and was stunned by quality. But I wonder why you let the explosions over expose? Didnt cameras match latitude?

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    • David, I tried my best with the limited latitude of the 5D. It is a trade off. I felt it was the right tool to tell the story.

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  15. Thank you for the ever coming love for creativity and unbelievable information. I learn so much. We have a short ten minutes film (shot on film) and wondering what would be the best output format for festivals. Do one need to print it back to film or do they in general accept digital copies and then in what format? We got the film now on a Cineon -(.cin) file.

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  16. Hey, thank you for this great post!

    Can you tell me how to get from the 16:9 to the 2.35 format in Adobe Premiere?

    Thank you for your help! I’m going to shoot my next shor movie this year and would like to get away frmo the 16:9 due to image composition!

    Tim

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  17. We just use a PSD matte as a top layer in Premiere. It is easy to create one in Photoshop. If you shoot 1.78, that allows you to reposition any given shot vertically within your target 2.35 frame.

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