Editor Elliot Graham keeps up with his director on the go without sacrificing quality by cutting on his laptop in HD.
Portable HD Editing Goes the Distance on Milk.
Politician Harvey Milk was an iconic figure in the national gay movement of the 1970s. Nicknamed the Mayor of Castro Street for his social activism and leadership in San Francisco, Milk was considered a groundbreaking and promising presence on the political scene as the first prominent American politician who was openly gay.
That all changed abruptly in 1978 when, shortly after Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he was gunned down by a former member of the board, Dan White. Milk, a biopic directed by Gus Van Sant (To Die For, Good Will Hunting), follows the politician’s rise to power, tracing his move to San Francisco, his ascendance to elected office, and the factors that led to his assassination.
Avid systems are really affordable now for all kinds of films, and they are just as portable as Final Cut Pro.
Combining Old and New
Editor Elliot Graham (21, Superman Returns) used a combination of Avid desktop and laptop editing solutions to handle the project in HD - whether on set during production in San Francisco, near the director’s home in Portland, Ore., or for finishing work in Los Angeles.
Creatively, Graham enjoyed working with the different visual styles that Van Sant captured. He explains, The dailies from one scene could be very different from the dailies for the next one. For example, some scenes had lots of coverage; some had minimal coverage. Gus likes to try all kinds of things and that lends itself to a really creative working environment.
In addition to the production footage, Van Sant used a lot of stock footage, news footage, and archives from the 1970s to give the film a strong sense of the era. This material highlights local San Francisco voters, politicians, and news anchors as well as more national broadcast figures such as Walter Cronkite. We tried to make the people and places [from the original footage and the archives] flow in and out of the 35mm footage that we shot. The stock footage helped us establish the place and mood.
While Graham poured through hours of production and stock footage - from television channels, home libraries, museums, and documentaries - assistant editor Eric Hill kept the significant amount of material organized. Masters [from stock footage] came in any variety of formats. Most were in DigiBeta, some were in Beta SP, says Hill. The original film material was on 16mm or Super 8 and transferred to HDCAM SR 4:4:4, which became the master.
The film was edited in HD using the Avid DNxHD 36 codec, which Graham had previously used on 21. He knew the storage-efficient HD format could provide the image clarity he wanted with the compact media requirements needed to edit the majority of the film on his Macintosh laptop.
He used the portable Media Composer software with HD editing for virtually every creative task on the film from reviewing dailies, to assembling a cut, to screening scenes with the director. I ended up cutting half or more of the movie on a laptop, says Graham. I could just dump media onto the laptop and work at an apartment in San Francisco, at a hotel in Portland, or at home in Los Angeles - or anywhere Gus and I wanted to get together to look at cuts. It was fantastic.
Hill, who has used a variety of different editing systems, was particularly struck with the Media Composer system's ability to efficiently handle rich HD files throughout post. Elliot used a 1.5 terabyte external drive with his laptop. We were able to fit all the production footage in Avid DNxHD, a fair amount of the archival footage [in 14:1 SD], the production audio, and music on that drive. I never imagined being able to fit all of the HD media on one drive.
Hill believes that Avid editing solutions offer notable advantages for managing media in HD. The reliability with which everything re-links to master clips in an Avid [system] is outstanding, says Hill. But the most impressive part of working on the Avid [system] on this film was [the Avid] DNxHD 36 [codec]. It is extremely efficient and looks great. Apple has Apple ProRes, but they don’t offer a low bit-rate version like [Avid DNxHD] 36. It was one of the main reasons we used an Avid [system] on this film.
And the image quality was impressive. In the cutting room on a 40-inch HD monitor, [Avid] DNxHD 36 held up great. We also output it to HDCAM for [theater] screenings at both 36 and 115, says Hill. In addition to producing top-quality screenings, the film, which had a modest budget of approximately $20 million, also realized cost savings by creating preview masters directly from the Media Composer systems without spending extra time and dollars on an online process.
I was absolutely spoiled by working with footage of Sean Penn. His performance was just fantastic every single day.
Reaching for Greatness
The Media Composer software also enabled a streamlined collaborative workflow with the sound team, particularly with the music editor who created the temp score on a Pro Tools|HD system. Hill explains, The music editor did all of his work in L.A. and would just send us an AAF file for each reel via FTP or DigiDelivery. We would import each file into the Avid [system] and it would appear in discrete regions right in our Avid sequence. We were able to combine different elements on top of each other [using different audio tracks] and manipulate the sound without any of the decisions being committed to a mix. These back-and-forth exchanges allowed for much more collaboration between Elliot and Gus and the music editor. This integrated audio and picture editing workflow could also be easily handled on a laptop.
For Graham, the project was a memorable one. Gus is an extraordinary director who has done such interesting films. The cast was amazing. This was also a really important story that I knew would be interesting, he says. I was so glad to be a part of it.
CREDITS: © 2008 Focus Features. All rights reserved.
Create a portable editing workflow capable of efficiently handling HD material, on the road or in editing suites, for the utmost visual clarity.
Use an Avid editing solution that utilizes storage-efficient Avid DNxHD media with full-featured Media Composer software on a Macintosh laptop.
Camera: 16mm and 35mm
Telecine: HDCAM to Avid DNxHD 36
Offline: Avid DNxHD 36
Screening: Avid DNxHD 36 and 115
Mastering: DI to 35mm