Every Friday from Mar 27 through May 15, 2020, at 04:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada) This series is now concluded. I’m considering continuing this at a later date, so stay tuned.
Join me for “Happy Hour, with Alexis Van Hurkman,” a free 8-week webinar series where I answer questions about Color Grading, Editing, Finishing, and DaVinci Resolve. Hosted via Zoom, registration is required to attend (you only need to register once). If you’re Zoom cautious (understandably) you can attend via browser without installing the application. And please attend! If you submit a question and attend the webinar, we can have a chat about it, which is always much more fun than sitting and listening to some trainer drone on and on.
If you miss it, each webinar is recorded and made available to the public on the Bog Simple Productions YouTube channel, in a special playlist. They’ve been going really well, and are a fun mix of interviews, recommendations, and tutorials. Come, join me on this adventure!
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Big thanks to Blackmagic Design for sponsoring this webinar; all opinions and statements are my own.
The intermingled beauty and horror of social media is the empowerment of anyone, in human or bot form, to freely express (in countries without filtering) any opinion, on any topic, to any number of people. In this time of pandemic, well-meaning people the world over have sought to reinforce and lift up information considered vital and correct, to the best of one’s current knowledge, and in an ever-changing situation. In the initial weeks, strident messaging around this slow-growing crisis has variously included:
“panic is the enemy, this is no worse than the flu”
“if you’re healthy go to and support your local businesses in this time of crisis”
“masks don’t do any good, they’re too hard to learn how to wear properly”
“how dare all those insecure people go overboard buying too much food”
Each of these statements, not so long ago, seemed a correct and constructive idea to promote. Each mirrored a praiseworthy sentiment. And in my view, each is out of date.
As this crisis worsens, with more people filling increasingly overwhelmed hospitals, there’s going to be a very strong temptation to assign blame. Why didn’t more people wash their hands?! Why didn’t those people at whatever event keep their distance?! Why does that person down the street have a mask when my aunt who’s a nurse doesn’t have one?! These sentiments aren’t necessarily wrong, but it’s easy to blame the person rather than the situation. Blame gives way to anger, anger gives way to rage, and to emotional or physical expression. This could be arguing on the internet, this could be casual racism, this could be crimes of domestic or public violence. We know this, because this cycle has emerged in other places that have been hit harder and faster than us in the USA. And we’re starting to see it here as well.
It’s a wonderful thing to spread the word of best practices for isolation, sanitation, and preparedness among your network of friends and colleagues. Peer pressure is a reasonable strategy for promoting social distancing and hygiene, two things that are indisputably necessary to pause the spread of COVID-19.
On the other hand, it’s awfully tempting to frame this information in an inflammatory way. “How dare…” “Stay the hell away…” “What were they thinking…” “I can’t believe…” “Look at those people…” “Why did they…” are all preambles to a moralizing online discourse that, lacking specificity and context, can lead to an eventual atmosphere of blame and accusation among readers who lack nuance.
Look, I’m no different. I’ve allowed myself to yell online about issues I’m passionate about, and while it felt good and earned me some likes among my particular circle of peers, it also likely diffused my message among the people that I’d really intended to reach. I try not to do it often, but when I submit to the temptation, these exchanges nearly always remind me that this way of communicating doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t give me the results I want, it just creates a swirl of accusation and anger. If not now, later. And I don’t think this sort of exchange is going to be helpful as this particular event, with its accompanying cocktail of fear and despair, progresses.
With the exception of the survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Boston Marathon Bombings, New York during 9/11, the AIDS epidemic, and select other horrific events and eras, the vast majority of Americans who haven’t served in the armed forces have not known the kind of death and despair that has rained down on other parts of the world. We’re not used to it, and when bad things happen it’s natural and easy to look for individuals to which to attach blame.
I’m not talking about people with actual administrative power, or governments or administrations writ large, whose actual job it is to deal with these things in a constructive way, and who should be correctly held to account for their actions, bad and good, by informed investigative journalism. I’m specifically talking about individuals, people we see and people we know, people with whom we interact or observe or describe as we live our lives in uncertainty and message one another online.
What I don’t want to read is, “why didn’t so and so just wash their hands before spreading the virus to those people” when regularly maintaining a medical level of sanitation is in fact not an easy task. I don’t want to read “why didn’t those people in that situation wear masks!” when for weeks people have reinforced the “masks don’t help” message which has covered for a dire shortage of masks which must correctly be prioritized for medical centers, while every country with a tradition and history of mask usage is encouraging masks in public as part of their containment strategy, and medical personnel are being instructed to use bandannas as a last resort. I scroll right past people tut-tutting about whomever is stocking up on food; screenwriter Javier Grillo-Marxuach tweeted it best:
i’ve read a lot of contemptuous twaddle about how people are “panicking” in the current crisis. i counter that stocking up is a rational response from anyone who has been alive to witness the federal government’s ability to provide disaster relief over the last twenty years.
— javier grillo-marxuach (@OKBJGM) March 18, 2020
(And no, I’m not suggesting that hoarding a storage-locker full of sanitizer or baked beans to sell on the black market is morally praiseworthy, but I’m not about to throw stones at a family of four that feels it necessary to buy four weeks worth of food because they can’t afford delivery and they’re not sure how self isolation or unemployment will work in this unprecedented situation.)
Our best information is changing on a daily basis. What’s obvious today may be obviously wrong tomorrow. People are trying to promote the right thing, but information is coming from a cacophony of sources, and unfortunately factual information isn’t always the winner in the marketplace of ideas. People will get things wrong, they’ll do the wrong thing or believe the wrong information, and the virus will spread, and people will be affected. These instances will be tragic, and should provide us with an object lesson, but the temptation will be strong to pillory others in online discourse.
What I’m truly afraid of is that, once people we know start dying, chiding turns into blaming, and blame stokes the fires of anger to increase ugly exchanges. I fully realize that you know what you mean when you make your impassioned case for what someone did wrong. Give a thought to what someone else, someone with preconceived ideas not aligned with your own, might think when you say that thing.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out when bad things happen. I’m observing that the way we phrase our observations matters. I don’t believe I’m abridging anyone’s right to free speech by suggesting, in this time of fear and crisis, that we all consider the wording of the messages we put into the world as carefully as screenwriters evaluate each line of dialog in a script. For nearly any message worth expressing, the miracle of language provides a wide variety of emotional contexts we can use. How we employ that is the art of communication. I’ll try harder. I invite you to join me.
It’s not self-censorship. It’s editing.
The (currently closed) movie theater marquis at the top of this post is up the street from me, and I love their parting message. Be kind. Stay safe. In the end, if you need to assign blame, blame the virus.
Current events being what they are, there are lots of people at home, some employed and some not, who are using their time to learn new skills. In particular, I’ve read plenty of posts on social media from folks who haven’t had the time to give DaVinci Resolve a try, who think that now may be the time.
To pitch in, I want to do a weekly Q&A webinar series, one hour (plus), to answer your various questions about DaVinci Resolve for grading and editing. Think of it as a coffee break chat with me to ask something you’ve been wondering about.
I want to keep it free so there’s no barrier to entry, and it will focus on my primary specialties as a colorist using the Color page, as an editor using the Edit page, and on real-world workflows I’ve experienced working on small and mid-budgeted projects (not giant Hollywood productions). This is not about tech support, this is about learning to use DaVinci Resolve to do creative things.
What I need to know is, how many of you out there would be interested, where you are, and what information do you want? The answers I get will dictate how I go about setting this up, when I schedule it, etcetera, so don’t be shy. If you’re interested, please answer the questionnaire below. I’m not putting together a mailing list, I don’t even want your email. I just want information to help guide me as I put this together.
If I can get just a few people to respond, then I’ll get things arranged, so keep your eye on whatever social media you follow me on for more information!
Given the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic that’s sweeping the globe, I thought I’d share some tips, from long experience, about working at home. I’ve seen many similar posts about this subject, and all are valid, but I have a few additional thoughts you may find valuable.
I fully realize that not every job is capable of being remotely done. However, for the sake of those very people who must risk being in public on a daily basis, we who can work at home have an obligation to do what we can to self isolate to avoid illness in order to limit our exposure, and avoid overflowing soon-to-be-taxed medical systems in order to accommodate the rest of us who can’t work at home.
This article is directed at those who can work at home but have not, and for those who are doing things that actually could be done at home, but who are dealing with clients or managers who are not yet convinced to let this happen.
First, a little personal history to show that working at home in post-production (or writing) isn’t some incredible new thing that’s only possible using the latest technology, and to illustrate what I think has made each of my experiences successful. Then, the tips.
Work-At-Home Editing and Grading, As An Artist
Back in 1995-2000, when my primary gig was editing documentaries, corporate communication videos, and video art pieces in the San Francisco Bay Area, I primarily worked at home. At that time, my biggest client would have a courier deliver me a duplicated stack of raided bare hard drives that I would slide into a raid enclosure that matched his, and that’s how we’d project share. I’d FTP him an edited project file (back then it was Premiere 3 point whatever) and since he had the same media he could reconnect it and then give me notes over the phone or via email. By sheer coincidence I lived in an old-school shared live/work space (it was actually a converted warehouse, complete with palette racks and crane in our “living room”) with two SUN microsystems developers that had a T1 line I helped pay for (it was totally cyberpunk) so I had better internet than most back then. This worked great, and I made a living editing at home back when big expensive post houses with dedicated edit suites were still the thing.
Fast forward to 2020, my biggest color grading client is in New York, and I’m in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and I’ve graded several series for him in pretty much the same way. He’s running Resolve, and while he’s editing in Premiere Pro because of client requirements, I’ve taught him how to export his timelines from Premiere Pro to Resolve on his end to do his own conforms, and he simply uploads each episode’s .DRP project to me, while shipping me a drive with the media for all episodes. I do the grading, send him back project files, he does the render/review on his end (he also has a calibrated display), and gives me notes. I do revisions and send him new project files, and that’s that. He renders his own masters. Easy.
Granted, this client is a producer/editor type with technical savvy, but if he wasn’t then I would simply render and upload review videos via Frame.io (can’t recommend it highly enough, and no they’re not paying me to say this), get his comments, and then upload a finished render via one of numerous file sharing services I have set up to accommodate different client preferences.
In fact, this is exactly what I do with the few standalone documentary and narrative movie clients I take on these days. They send me a hard drive, and we handle all feedback and revisions via online mechanisms (for color work I prefer to have clients review videos on an iOS device so I can somewhat predict their viewing experience), with me delivering the final product in digital form online most of the time.
My point is that, if you’re suitably equipped at home (and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper now than it was back then), then clients have no credible excuse to not let you work at home unless they have really high security needs, but those are high-end clients. The rest of us working on smaller projects ought to have more flexibility, so in my view there’s really no excuse. Hell, you’re saving them gas and time spent in traffic.
Work-At-Home Editing, As A Client
I also speak from experience as a client. My current movie on the festival circuit, “Carry My Heart to the Yellow River,” was edited by Chia Chi Hsu in New Zealand, while I alternated between the USA and China. I sent her media and a prepped project file, she cut in DaVinci Resolve, and uploaded either project files or movie files to review (again, in Frame.io). I reviewed and gave notes using Frame.io’s online mechanisms, we exchanged example edits via .DRP files, and we’d have chats via Skype, and the whole process was perfectly seamless. Even better, because she could cut while I was sleeping, and I’d review while she was sleeping, we managed a round-the-clock workflow by simply being in different time zones.
When she was done, since the project was already in Resolve, I immediately jumped into cooperative polish edit/finishing edit mode, and graded from there, also in my home grading/finishing suite. The edit, finish, and grade of the entire 21-minute movie (with 8K R3D source, dual source audio, and 8K Nuke VFX from Minneapolis Splice) was accomplished in home suites, with the surround audio mix being accomplished in New Zealand at Department of Post.
Work-At-Home Broadcast Design and VFX, As An Artist
From 1998 to 2003 I did quite a bit of broadcast design and simple VFX work, also entirely from home. I tended to subcontract through different post houses in town (San Francisco at the time), so I’d show up to take a meeting with the client, go home, do all the After Effects work I needed to do, go back into the office to show the results and take notes, rinse, wash, and repeat. At that time, the companies I worked through were happy to not have to give me a suite or buy me a computer, and the important thing was that I hit my deadlines, ALWAYS, and did good work, so I got rehired.
Nobody ever cared that I was working at home, because nobody wants to sit there watching someone animating flow charts or little talking paper bag characters for the Apricot/Plum association.
Work-At-Home Technical Writing
The beginning of my technical writing career was actually well before my first big book, as I developed numerous teaching materials for an educational institution I used to freelance for (the Bay Area Video Coalition), as well as for various silicon valley consulting clients I had in the ’90’s (including SGI and Alias Wavefront). However, the book that put me on the map was the Final Cut Pro 2 User Manual, written during my time on staff at Apple Computer in 2000. I bring up that ancient bit of history because, while Apple didn’t have an official work-at-home policy at the time, I told my management that if I was to make the deadline they gave me and do what was necessary, I wouldn’t have time to commute from/to San Francisco (this was years before anyone ran company shuttles), so they allowed me to basically spend the next four months solid working from home to get the manual done.
The whole time I was in constant contact with the principles of the team, with the main product designer at the time visiting me at home to drop off previously reviewed notes and pick up new chapters for review (he lived in SF too). Between email and phone, I was able to get all the information I needed to finish the 1200 page tome that project was to become.
The point I’m trying to make is, we didn’t have Slack, Skype, Zoom, or any of that, and I still wrote one of the biggest books of my career. I’m not saying those things wouldn’t have been helpful (I use the hell out of them now), I’m saying you don’t need to worry about technology being a gating factor, and you don’t need to subscribe to a bunch a services to create a useful work-at-home situation for yourself. My ability to foster good communication remotely and to manage my schedule allowed me to succeed.
From that point forward, I’ve done all of my writing work from home, from freelance work for Apple once I quit my staff position, to authoring my own books and articles for various publishers, to my current gig freelancing on the side for the DaVinci Resolve team in Singapore. Nobody has ever complained, and in fact everyone’s probably glad I’m not around to hector the team for continual feature requests.
None of this is new, and working at home has simply been the easiest thing for everyone concerned. I’ve proven my ability to foster ongoing communication with all relevant team members, and to manage and hit deadlines as they come without creating any drama for the teams I support.
By now, you’re probably starting to see some themes at work here…
Four Tips For Working At Home
First, foster good communication. Be proactive. Don’t wait for people to contact you to find out what’s happening, develop an informal schedule with which to reach out to the people you work with, that you know won’t bug them. I ping the two people I communicate with at DaVinci the most once a week, whether there’s something pressing or not. There’s always something that comes up, and the call usually jogs the memory. That, and a bit of chit chat keeps everyone friendly and lets them know they don’t have to worry about me disappearing. Don’t ever underestimate the value of real-time human contact, in any form. You’ll need it spending stretches of time at home. To make this easier, learn how different people want to be contacted. I like talking on the phone, others like Slack, others insist on texts, and some prefer Skype, or WhatsApp, or FaceTime, or a particular social media platform. I have accounts on them all, so I can accommodate whomever, however, because I want to make communication easy, and not something to be dreaded.
Second, have a place where you work. Not everyone is able to have a separate home office with a door (although it’s fantastic if you can arrange it), but even if you just have a desk against the wall in the living room or dining room, it really helps to have a consistent place where (a) nobody touches your stuff, (b) you have other places where you live where you don’t feel like you’re at work (this is vital), and (b) if you’re sitting in your work place, everyone knows you’re trying to be productive. When Kaylynn and I lived in a small one-bedroom New York apartment, I had a small desk next to the TV in the living room where I worked, and she had a similar desk literally around the corner where she worked, next to the kitchen. It was really just all one room, but in our minds we had clear partitions, and it kept us sane. Funnily enough, if I was sitting on the couch, which was only four feet away from my desk, I managed to not feel like I was at work, which was a feat of mental gymnastics, but you do what you must. Which brings me to…
Third, arrange a specific cue with people you live with for when you’re working. When you’re home all the time and your significant other, kids, or flat-mates aren’t used to it, it’s natural for people to just come up to you and start talking, because you’re there so why not? And you are going to LOSE YOUR MIND as your train of thought is constantly derailed by people who don’t realize you’re trying to focus on something. Let people know what their cue should be for not approaching you. Sitting at your desk? An hourglass placed on a shelf? Your home office door or curtain is closed? Your headphones are on? You’re wearing your sacred purple robes? Whatever it is, make sure those around you know what your deal is. It’ll save you a lot of heartache, I guarantee it.
Fourth, work on weekdays, and take the weekends off. This one’s more flexible, I really mean take two days consistently off. Early in my career I decided that if I didn’t take the weekdays seriously, like everyone else, then I’d become unemployed, go broke, and end up homeless. So I fostered that habit. And as part of that habit, I decided that I would treat Saturdays and Sundays as consistent days off (when not in crunch mode), so as to keep the habit consistent out of the fear of financial doom. Yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to rotate your two days off to the week and work over the weekend if you like, but for me, the habit has taken so well, that it keeps me on task even when I’m working on something I hate. Oh, and TAKE TWO FUCKING DAYS OFF. Don’t waffle on this, because you’ll just make yourself sad, and there’s no reason to be sad when you’re able to work at home. Yes, crunch times will happen and I work weekends when I have to, but I counterbalance that by not killing myself when it’s not crunch time. And this goes back to my first tip, because I have good communication with the people I work with, so they know when I’m temporarily killing myself, and when I’m giving myself a bit of space because nothing is happening, and they also know that I consistently deliver the goods, so I have flexibility.
If you’re a manager reading this, keep all these things in mind. There should be no need to micromanage your people if they’ve proven themselves able to maintain schedules and deliver on time, and the insidious truth about working at home is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of always being at work, and you shouldn’t let the people you work with do this.
- Don’t ask people to check in and check out like they’re punching a clock.
- Don’t waste people’s time on status reports unless there’s a specific reason certain info is necessary.
- Don’t expect anyone to respond to your message or mail after hours.
- Don’t micromanage your employees day.
If you have the right people and you’re managing the project correctly, ongoing communication on a mutually agreed upon basis should eliminate the need for all of this, and if people are hitting their deadlines and doing quality work, that’s what’s important. Depending on the person, writing and fussing over a status report will waste time that could otherwise have been spent doing the thing they’re supposed to be doing. If you really want to know what’s happening, reach out, via text or chat. In 15 minutes you’ll know more than you want to know.
I’ve worked at home over my entire career, but I’ve also worked for stints in cubes, in offices with windows, without windows, had my own office, worked in suites, and worked on the road. Ultimately, it’s all the same to me in terms of wherever I am, I’m completing a particular project on a particular schedule using whatever resources I have available to me. In that sense, I’ve structured my entire life to be one ongoing work-at-wherever-I-am situation capable of accommodating the numerous facets of my bizarre career.
However, because of this, Kaylynn and I see each other way more than most couples who are as busy as we are, and that’s been an incredibly wonderful thing (happily we enjoy one another’s company). Even when I’m in a round-the-clock marathon of getting a movie done, or hitting a deadline on a writing project, we always have lunch, and we always have dinner, and I can always check in with her when I’m taking a break (and you should take breaks). It’s pretty amazing, and even our pets are happy to have us around (Kaylynn works from home much of the time, too).
Be responsible, communicate, deliver, and prove that you don’t have to be micromanaged, and working at home can be incredibly effective.
I’m extremely proud that “Carry My Heart to the Yellow River,” the short I directed and co-wrote in China in the summer of 2018, has found such a global audience on the 2019-2020 film festival circuit. So far, this uplifting story of a high school graduate’s epic journey on behalf of her sick friend has been accepted to 45 Film Festivals among ten countries and territories, including the USA, Guam, Italy, England, India, Ireland, Bhutan, Germany, Australia, and Canada, and we’ve been semi-finalists in an additional six festivals in three more countries.
On top of all this, we’ve won an astounding ten awards, including three best short awards, two audience choice awards, and specific awards for best drama, best director short film, and best cinematography.
In the United States, we’ve had screenings from coast to coast, including but not limited to New York (Syracuse and Williamsburg), Florida (Orlando and Fort Lauderdale), California (Los Angeles, Newport, Ojai, Santa Cruz), Hawaii, Washington, and many states in-between (Mississippi, South Dakota, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin).
Most importantly to me, audience response has been terrific, and I’ve heard from more than one viewer who’s been deeply affected by our story. After all the hard work, it’s enormously gratifying to see the emotional payoff in the faces of viewers.
Film Festivals to which we’ve been accepted:
- 39th Breckinridge Film Festival
- Great Lakes International Film Festival
- Charlotte Film Festival
- South Dakota Film Festival (Winner – Best Family Friendly Short)
- Fayetteville Film Film Festival
- Sioux City International Film Festival
- Santa Cruz Film Festival
- Syracuse International Film Festival (Winner – Short Film Fiction)
- Orlando Film Festival
- Guam International Film Festival
- 70th Montecatini International Short Film Festival
- Liverpool Film Festival
- 20th Ojai Film Festival
- East Lansing Film Festival
- Alexandria Film Festival
- 34th Fort Lauderdale Film Festival
- 39th Hawaii International Film Festival
- Goa Short Film Festival
- Williamsburg Film Festival
- Waterford Film Festival
- Druk International Film Festival (Winner – Short Film: Outstanding Achievement)
- IS Short Film Festival Pune India
- 42nd Big Muddy Film Festival
- Snowdance Independent Film Festival
- 14th Beaufort International Film Festival
- Green Bay Film Festival (Winner – Titletown Award for Best Short, Audience Choice Best Short)
- Children’s Film Festival Seattle (Winner – Best Live Action Short)
- 20th FirstGlance Los Angeles (Winner – Best Drama, Audience Choice Short Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography)
- 14th Taos Shortz (Postponed)
- Beeston Film Festival in Nottingham, UK (limited online exhibition)
- Cleveland International Film Festival (in the Filmslam program) (limited online exhibition)
- Australian Inspirational Film Festival (Postponed)
- 17th Tupelo Film Festival (Postponed)
- Tallahassee Film Festival (Cancelled)
- Tiburon International Film Festival (Postponed)
- 39th Minneapolis Saint Paul International Film Festival (limited online exhibition)
- Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (limited online exhibition)
- Newport Beach Film Festival (Postponed)
- XXI Festival Internazionale Corti da Sogni Antonio Ricci (Postponed)
- 15th European Independent Film Festival (ECU) (limited online exhibition)
- Riverside International Film Festival (limited online exhibition)
- 39th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (limited online exhibition)
- Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (limited online exhibition)
- 62nd Rochester International Film Festival (limited online exhibition)
- 16th ReelHeart Film Festival (Toronto, Canada) (limited online exhibition)
Film festivals at which we’ve been shortlisted, but not accepted:
- Sapporo International Short Film Festival & Market (Programmer’s Delight Shortlist)
- Thessaloniki (Semi-finalist)
- Short to the Point Awards (Semi-finalist)
- Dublin International Film Festival (Shortlist)
- Asia South East (Highest Commendation)
- Dances With Films (Second Round Selection)
Additional Note – At this point, given the worldwide pandemic with which we’re faced, film festivals are either postponing screenings, or moving to one of several online exhibition models for limited time screenings. We fully support both decisions, and I’ll post updates for whenever online screenings are scheduled. It’s been a fantastic run so far, and we’ll see it through to the very end. I’m hoping we can find a willing streaming distributor who can provide this project with a more permanent home!
Of all of the various and sundry side gigs that constitute my weird career, writing in various forms has always figured prominently. What with my technical writing, screenwriting, and the miscellaneous writing I do for proposals, planning, and of course this blog, it is known that I do a lot of writing. And as anyone who’s familiar with my output will attest, I’m unafraid of writing long things.
And so, folks who think they ought to do more writing frequently ask me for tips on how to be more productive. In particular, I’m often asked whether I use mind mapping software to help organize my thoughts.
I know myself, and I realize that if I allow myself access to a GUI for organizing the minutiae of organization itself, I will perish in an endlessly recursive loop of organizing the organization of my structure. I’ve done it before, every time I over-engineer a database or spreadsheet or scripting tool, and the result is usually that the thing I was building the tool to help make never gets finished.
So now I embrace simplicity by using Notes, on macOS, for pretty much all of my writing development (note-taking and outlining). Humble little Notes does absolutely everything I need. I used to use TextEdit, similarly for its utter simplicity and lack of features that might tempt me into wasting time on shit like style sheets and other nonsense. However, managing a folder full of individual document files, and putting time into different strategies for syncing them around my various devices, led me to try out creating the same kind of stuff in Notes, so that it would automatically be synced to all my devices without any farting around. And I liked it! Once Notes added folder organization, it reached a state of perfection for my workflow, as I could organize multiple notes into folders, one for each project. Bliss.
At this point I should probably explain myself. When I develop ideas for a writing project, I do two things.
First, I create vomitous piles of paragraphs elucidating every random idea I have for a project, in no particular order, sometimes separated by a bold-face title, usually not.
Second, when a certain critical mass is achieved, I find that I organically begin to crave some sort of order, and that’s when I begin development of an outline.
For both of these tasks, I require absolute simplicity and speed from my text editing environment. With the first task I’m primarily recording ideas I have in various states of being (taking a walk, in the shower, staring out the window, reading something, chatting), and then adding a bit of commentary or additional thought in the heat of the moment. With the second task, I’m looking to organize this information chronologically, to discover how all the bits and pieces I’ve cobbled together might fit into the context of a story that I can tell, or an explanation that makes sense, or a presentation of a topic, all of which require a beginning, a middle, and an end, preferably in a proportion that won’t bore an audience. In both instances, I simply require the ability to write and rearrange blocks of text in a vertical stack. Cut and paste, drag and drop, paragraphs with spaces in between, occasionally a bullet list. That’s it.
For every type of writing I do, I live and die by the outline. Now, I’m not saying that this is the only way. Some people like note cards, some people like mind maps, there are all kinds of ways of organizing the information you’re turning into a project. Me, I like outlines. I’ve tried these other methods, and they require too much preparation (writing notes on all those cards), or too much screwing around. When I’m in a position to write, I want to write. Simple text outlines with little to no formatting let me do that.
Both stages of my process are essentially the same task. I’m either wool-gathering concepts for my outline, organizing these concepts into an outline, or rearranging the outline. And I want to make it clear what the purpose of an outline is to me, because I’ve spoken with too many people who are afraid of outlining. And I believe they’re afraid of outlining because they’re looking at this task the wrong way.
I’ve been told “I don’t like outlining because I don’t have every step of the outline defined already, and I’m not ready to decide those things.” I certainly understand this hesitance, but here’s the thing:
Outlines are as much for identifying what you don’t know, as for organizing what you do know.
Every time I start putting together an outline, there’s all kinds of things I don’t know. The most pernicious are the things I don’t realize I don’t know. Once I start putting together an outline, usually with some sense of the general shape I want the project to take, I quickly discover “blank lines” in the outline structure where I know something should probably go, but I haven’t come up with anything yet. This is gold. Those blanks give me an opportunity to think about the project in a new way, to focus my time on considering the weaknesses and deficiencies of what I have so far conceived. In short, I welcome gaps in my outline, because they tell me what I should probably be researching or thinking about next.
The other thing I’m told, particularly by those writing fiction, is “I like the process of discovery, and if I outline the whole story then the process of writing it will bore me to tears.” I can understand this. At the end of the day, being a successful writer involves finding whatever combination of eldritch tricks and mind games will keep you writing. For some people, exploring the unknown is what keeps them typing in their chair. For others, attempting to write when everything’s unknown is a strong incentive to run away screaming.
I have no interest in making you do things the way I do them, because everyone’s different. However, if you’re outline-curious, here’s my perspective on outlines vs. the process of discovery:
Outlines are like planning a vacation; even though you’re choosing places to go, you still have to show up to see what’s there.
My outlines are usually a map of where the topic/story twists and turns. Ultimately, it isn’t until I get to each section or scene and start writing the actual text that I really start exploring that particular mental locale, and the result of that exploration may very well cause me to alter the structure of the overall outline in response.
And that’s why I like outlines. They’re easy to change, and I change them a lot. When it comes to filmmaking, I’d much rather delete a scene when it’s a couple of sentences in my outline, than take the trouble to write it out and get attached to it, to the point where I waste time and money shooting it, only to have the editor cut it out because they correctly identify it as extraneous (which I should have done in the first place).
So that’s pretty much my process. I take a shitload of notes. I cobble them into an outline. I use the outline to guide my ongoing research. And once the outline is complete enough for me to see where I’m going, I start writing. It’s a workflow that’s served me well, but of course your results will vary.
36 years ago, while still in grade school, I finally convinced my folks to buy a personal computer. This was when the value of actually owning a computer was still debatable. “It’ll be good to know computers for my future,” I argued, knowing full well that really I just wanted to play games and maybe do some programming to try and make a game myself.
At the time I was asking for an Apple II, figuring that would be an affordable ask. Also, that’s where all the games I wanted to play were, and it was a relatively open platform for screwing around with the hardware. (A few years later, I’d figured out how to use the Apple II game port to control a set of relays with which to control a Radio Shack robot arm using a friend’s computer, so I thought this kind of screwing around would be fun…)
However, the first computer store we walked into had just switched over to selling the original 128K Macintosh, announced not too long before. As soon as I found that out, I was going to shepherd my folks out the door figuring there’s no way I was going to get one of those, but they suggested I try it out.
I did the obligatory putzing around with MacPaint and MacWrite, and was assuaged by the availability of Microsoft Basic to compensate for its lack of software (ah, youth). It must’ve been a good sales pitch because my folks asked “would this do what you need?” In a state of disbelief, I blurted out, “well, yeah!” and that was that.
I ended up with the 128K Mac, external floppy drive, and the original Imagewriter dot matrix printer. And a perpetual longing for upgrades that were always just a little too long in coming (I did get the 512K upgrade and an external 800K floppy drive, but I had to wait until college to get my next upgrade, the Mac SE30).
Little did I realize that transparent con job of mine would end up actually starting a career working on these damn machines, along with a stint selling them right after college, freelance postproduction work made possible by these very machines, and even a period working for Apple itself.
It’s been a love/hate relationship as Apple’s fortunes have waned and waxed, and their priorities have shifted first one way and then the other, but through it all, and despite having Windows and Linux machines on the side during various stretches when Mac hardware wasn’t up to the tasks I needed to perform, or compatible with the software I needed to use, the machines I use most often for my personal and professional work continue to be Macs.
I’m not a fanboy, I’ve honestly just been too lazy to want to pick up the entirely new set of troubleshooting skills that switching platforms would require when I’ve been able to keep my Macs going based on 36 years of screwing around with them. And yet, I find my inadvertent loyalty to a corporate brand for this much of my life somehow hilarious.
Having labored in various corners of the moving images industry for most of my adult life, I continue to be surprised at the number of people I meet who are under the impression that yelling at people who aren’t doing what you want is somehow productive. Anger is a powerful tool and an all too common stress reaction, but it’s also the least effective means of motivating people to be creative that I can think of. That said, long hours, frayed tempers, and willful lack of compliance with critical tasks can bring out the worst in all of us, and I’m no exception. But that doesn’t change the fact that anger is seldom a productive strategy, particularly in one-on-one interactions.
In my own experience as a director, the very worst thing you can do when working with an actor who isn’t giving you the performance you want is to yell. Giving in to anger and saying anything along the lines of “that was terrible,” “you’ve got it all wrong,” “what were you thinking,” “that’s not what I wanted,” etcetera, is invariably a mistake. While I’m sure there are thick-skinned actors out there who may have no problem with this kind of spirited feedback, I strongly suspect they’re in the minority, because most will take this with as much of a poker-face as they can muster, and then quietly shut down, fighting feelings of shame, insecurity, and anger of their own. Consequently, you’ve just eliminated any chance you had of getting a nuanced performance or having an open and honest conversation about the performance that you do want.
One would think this would be obvious, but apparently it’s not.
Impatience, anger, and shame are counterproductive when the objective is to communicate creative ideas, and to influence the behavior of others to make positive contributions to the needs of a project. You may think you’re delivering “tough love,” but in reality you’re filling the mind of the other person with a multitude of unhelpful feelings, defensiveness chief among them, that will crowd out actual creativity or the ability to suss out how to achieve the actual goals you have for the scene.
In short, creative projects work best when you’ve got people trying to figure out how to help you, rather then trying to figure out what they’ve done wrong. The two are not the same.
This is just as true when working with the rest of your crew on set, or with your collaborators in post production.
DPs, Production Designers, Editors, VFX artists, Motion Graphics Designers, and Colorists are all artists who, if you’ve hired well, are in the game to give you their best work. They’re also people who will get just as defensive, insecure, angry, and ashamed as any actor if you allow yourself the luxury of belting out negative, brusque, or abusive feedback in moments of frustration, particularly as your first means of communication.
I’ve said for years that there’s no better way to learn how to work with people then to make a movie with volunteers who have no reason to show up other then to help you out, because the minute you become angry or tyrannical, they’re gone. When working with people who are doing you a favor, no matter how impatient or irritable you feel, you need to take a deep breath and learn to initiate a dialog based on more positive ways of communicating, or you’ll be working alone.
This all assumes, of course, that you’re working with someone who’s as genuinely interested in a positive outcome as you are, which is a minimum requirement for creative collaboration. If this is true, I’ve always felt it’s important to extend the benefit of the doubt to the other person’s motives. They did what they did because they were trying to help, but it just didn’t happen to be what I had in mind. No harm, no foul, it’s time to go back and try to communicate better. The flip side of this is that the person you’re communicating with needs to make the effort to listen, to not be defensive, and to make an effort to take the note, correct the situation, or communicate whatever problem is impeding progress.
Assuming I have motivated collaborators, I’ve almost always found that cheerful communication has gotten me better and more immediate results, and it’s a lot more satisfying to work with a collection of happy people who feel safe in the creative environment you carve out for your team. When making my way though any disagreement in which I’ve a vested interest in a positive outcome, I really try to keep the following in mind—is my goal to make the other person feel bad, or is it to give them a reason to change what they’re doing? These are very different objectives, and require different strategies of communication.
Of course, there are always going to be situations where this kind of management fails to provide the outcome you need. In these situations, I find it’s usually because either (a) there wasn’t enough planning to enable the thing you now want to happen, or (b) the person who was hired for a particular position wasn’t the right fit in terms of experience or temperament.
Alternately, if you’re finding that nobody ever does anything right and you’re constantly at odds with everyone you’re working with, it’s entirely possible that the problem is you. To be blunt, a lack of preparation, undeveloped communication skills, or being so stressed that every reaction you have is fight or flight are all factors that contribute to anger management issues on projects. The solution in all of these cases is to step back and take the time to figure out what you need to do to chill out, because none of this is actually your crew’s problem.
Take five minutes. Drink some water. Eat a healthy snack (especially eat a snack, low blood sugar is the enemy of chill). Take a few deep breaths, and focus on clarifying what the real problem is – the thing that’s causing your frustrations – in your own mind. Only then are you in a position to address the issue and communicate the beginnings of a solution.
Again, I understand. Deeply. Filmmaking is an inherently stressful occupation. Deadlines, weather, unexpected costs, equipment problems, software issues, location troubles, and myriad other factors conspire to make problem-solving an ongoing part of each person’s job. These frustrations pile up, and if you’re not careful you can end up being a powder-keg of agitation without even realizing it. So part of your job, if you exercise any creative leadership in any part of the filmmaking process, is to be aware of what your mood is, and to control yourself. The more you can address issues in a calm and methodical manner, the better your communication will be, and the better your collaborators will be able to help resolve problems in the spirit of genuine teamwork.
Keep in mind that most projects are marathons, not sprints. Anger is the enemy of long-term productivity.
My uncle Bill recently moved from California to Minnesota, near where my mom recently moved (also from California to Minnesota) which is two hours south of where I live. He’s a microbiologist who worked for the USDA prior to retirement, in which capacity he was once a leading researcher into wheat genetics. However, he’s also always been a huge audiophile, with progressively evolving stereo listening setups, the current iteration of which dwarfs any other suite, amateur or professional, I’ve ever been in.
Everybody needs a hobby.
Consequently, when he told me at Thanksgiving that he wanted to set up a home theater, I immediately blurted out two things; “You want a 77 inch LG C9,” and “you need Dolby Atmos.” He knows I’m serious about movie viewing, so he just agreed despite knowing nothing about HDR or Atmos.
The truth was, while I’ve had the privilege of supervising the mix of one of my movies in an Atmos theater last year, am reasonably well informed about how Dolby Atmos works for theatrical distribution, and had the opportunity to learn more about setting up Dolby Atmos in broad strokes having written updates to the Fairlight section of the DaVinci Resolve manual recently, I actually didn’t know much about how one went about setting up Atmos for the home. After all, Atmos for the theater famously accommodates up to 64 speakers, including overhead (height) speakers that allow a more specific spatial positioning of sound to enhance the aural experience of a movie. Here’s Dolby’s pitch for theatrical Atmos. But how on earth do you create that kind of experience in the confines of a typical basement room?
I know that manufacturers have created numerous solutions to deliver Atmos to the home, and I’ve seen it done for ambitious home theater thanks to my friend, actor, writer, and editor Jeffy Branion, who’s got one of the most well appointed home theaters I’ve had the pleasure of checking out, and who recently updated the entire thing to include state of the art HDR home theater projection and a really nice Atmos speaker setup. However, my own home theater is small, in a small room, in which there’s only room for the 5.1 setup I’ve got. I’ve had no reason to look into how to actually set up home theater Atmos, so I’d put off reading up on the specifics.
However, I’m a filmmaker, and being such I love spending other people’s money, so my uncle’s situation gave me all the excuse I needed to dive in. I knew already that Dolby Atmos is an object based mixing standard for which compatible amplification setups are capable of dynamically interpreting a mix to accommodate a variety of different speaker setups with differing numbers of speakers. What I didn’t know is what each specific combination looked like, and where the speakers needed to be placed.
A Google search answered all questions. Dolby has a nice page that outlines Atmos for the home here, and you can get to the actual layouts themselves here. An even more comprehensive and important white paper to read is available as PDF, Dolby Atmos Home Theater Installation Guidelines.
There are a staggering number of options, but having the requisite number of speakers is only half of it. You need to have an amplifier capable of driving all those speakers, and the prices of those actually helped determine what we decided was affordable. There are numerous options for individual speakers to use with Atmos, with some hybrid speakers doing double duty by serving as both a surround and a height (ceiling) speaker by bouncing sound off the ceiling via another set of drivers. However, knowing my uncle’s love of sound, I wanted to set him up with a discrete speaker setup for the most clear experience. Driving separate speakers, amps capable of 7.1.4 output seemed like the best bang for the buck, so we decided on a setup with seven L-C-R-Surround speakers, one subwoofer, and four height (ceiling) speakers.
The other thing that drove this decision was the fact that my uncle is also a speaker building enthusiast; he just happened to have three pairs of more-or-less balanced bookshelf speakers that he’s made sitting in a closet, along with a well-matched center speaker from a previous 5.1 surround setup. Since that covered LCR, the surrounds, and the back surrounds, that seemed like a decent place to start, and all we needed to do was to add the four height (ceiling) speakers and a new subwoofer to take us all the way to 7.1.4. We figured we’d use the speakers he had, and if the result was unsatisfactory, then he could upgrade whatever needed upgrading. However, he did need to buy new subwoofers and speakers for the height part of Atmos.
Being the audio junkie that he is, my uncle opted for two subwoofers instead of one (getting the really wonderful sounding SVS SB-3000’s, which have a freaking iPhone app for setup via blu-tooth) so it’s really a 7.2.4 setup.
For the heights, he got a set of four Definitive ProMonitor 800 speakers that were suggested for their reasonable sound, small size, and ease of installation. They sound fine, and the quality of the listening experience using them for home Atmos seems to prove that you don’t need giant speakers for height. Consequently, he’s debating about just going with in-wall height speakers as an upgrade, for their wider dispersion and flatter footprint.
Researching amplifiers more thoroughly, my uncle found the Denon AVR-X6500H, which has great reviews across the board, and checked all my boxes (4K 8 HDMI 2.2 inputs, Dolby Vision, AirPlay 2, Atmos, TrueHD, DTS, Audyssey room calibration, blah, blah). After having set it up, configured it, done a room analysis with it, and watched a few different movies with Atmos through it, I can say it’s a really great amp. Connection was easy, setup was easy, the analysis was clearly explained and easy to execute via pages of well illustrated onscreen instructions via the connected television, and the resulting sound, balancing together each pair of slightly different speakers within our unorthodox room layout, was really great. Nothing in the audio presentation was distractingly off during playback. I don’t doubt that pairing this amp with a more intentionally balanced set of speakers would probably sound better, but there’s nothing in what my uncle’s got now that isn’t thoroughly enjoyable.
So, based on these decisions, my uncle ordered all the gear and wiring, and we discussed how to go about getting this set up. He has a dedicated room for all this, but it’s just a bit small, and the shape is a little unorthodox. Knowing that even small speaker position changes can make a difference, I suggested that we mount everything, including the height speakers, on temporary stands and scaffolding, so we can move things around at will without drilling twelve holes in every wall surface. He loved the idea, and being a wood-worker with a whole shop in the garage (he takes every hobby very seriously) banged together a bunch of stands out of 2×4 lumber. Once everything arrived, he had this scaffolding ready, and I went down to help with the install.
Following the instructions for placement as well as the space would allow relative the central “ideal” seating position, we ended up doing pretty well. We ended up setting up, calibrating, and adjusting the speaker position twice to get to what we agreed was as good as things were going to get. His home-built Left and Right speakers were great, and the center is a decent match (though probably the first speaker he’ll upgrade). After the calibration, the two SVS SB-3000’s were turned down fairly low, but the resulting even and blended bass sounded fantastic, especially during Bladerunner 2049, the opening scene of which really exercises bass and LFE in a big way. We were both really impressed, and I had to admit that while I tried (mildly) to talk him out of getting two subwoofers, I couldn’t argue with the result.
Please bear in mind in these photos that this is a temporary setup. The lighting is wrong and will be changed out once the TV is mounted to the wall (I just grabbed a couple of fixtures and put 20 watt bulbs in to have some dim ambient light for the OLED HDR TV for the moment). Wall treatments to cut down on audio reflection are planned, the green color is going away, and the scaffolding will be gone in favor of wall mounts. We simply wanted to get everything set up to see how the existing collection of hardware would sound before committing to the space and arrangement, and to final mounting solutions and hardware. I’m glad we did.
My uncle is already mulling over swapping out some of the speakers with those from an audiophile kit company he knows. The biggest problem with the room is not so much the weird shape, but the fact that the left surround can’t really get far enough away from the seating position while having all the speakers be balanced. However, we struck the best balance we could, and all in all it actually sounds really freaking great, even to my uncle’s discerning ears. Watching a variety of movies and scenes in the setup seen above, the Atmos mixes all sounded riveting in different ways. I’m really impressed at Audyssey processing’s ability to balance the speakers and the room through whatever insane math cocktail it uses during its acoustic analysis.
I also want to say that the 77″ LG C9 looks fantastic. I have a 55″ LG TV myself, and while my uncle was (justifiably) on the fence between saving money with the 65″ and splurging on the 77″, the extra screen size really did make a difference, and he had to agree with me that sitting a bit closer to the TV at that size wasn’t a bad decision; you really get a big screen experience with that combo that makes me not miss projection at even bigger screen sizes. Until projectors capable of more robust HDR experiences are affordable, I think, for today, HDR on OLED displays is where it’s at.
One last detail. For UltraHD playback we opted for the Sony X800M2, which has been performing nicely. Furthermore, the HDMI-CED Simplink control via the eARC HDMI 2 output of the LG TV nicely controls both the Denon amp and Sony UltraHD player (which is plugged directly into the Denon amp), so that the LG remote actually controlled everything appropriately pretty much out of the box. I was shocked, since my experience with previous generations of ARC has been spotty at best. However, turning on the TV automatically turns on everything else, and choosing relevant inputs automatically enables and controls whatever options make sense for that input. My uncle may not even bother buying a universal remote, because his setup is so simple (apps on the LG and the UltraHD player are pretty much all he cares about).
So, having gotten this far, my work is done. I’ve given him a laundry list of other things that need to be done, and my uncle gets the fun of overseeing the finishing touches. Now, it’s all I can do to not rip my own home theater apart in an effort to try and squeeze the same thing in down there.
I originally stumbled upon this thanks to i09 back in 2012, and just had to share it. In the process of updating my web site, I checked up on the project again and saw that I need to make several updates, because of anything the information has become even more relevant. The Humanae Project, originally on Tumblr but now moved to a new home at angelicadass.com, is Brazilian artist Angelica Dass’ ongoing effort to sample the skin tone of as wide a variety of people as possible, matching an average sampled value from each to a corresponding Pantone swatch. It’s deceptively simple, brilliant work.
Angelica’s work takes on a poignant urgency in today’s strained political climate, that sees baldfaced racists with public platforms across the world continue to attempt to justify absurd discriminatory attitudes and practices based, in the end, on skin hue and lightness. She presents her project beautifully in a 2016 TED talk, which I encourage you to watch.
From my perspective as a colorist, her work also represents an ambitious effort to chart the range of possibilities of that most memorable of memory colors, the hue and tone of human skin. This is an effort I tackled in a small way (with the help of photographer Sasha Nialla) in my Color Correction Handbook. My original collated samples were meant merely to illustrate that the hue of the skin tones of all people on earth actually fall within a very specific cloud on the vectorscope’s color wheel; not a line representing a single hue, but a cloud of related hues, at different levels of saturation. Learning to perceive and retain these fine variations between the hues of different complexions, even while making image adjustments to correct for lighting and other issues, is a critical skill of the colorist. My goal was to encourage colorists to avoid grading all skin tones to be the same, which is a very real danger posed by inexperience.
The photographic samples I offered in the Handbook had a very small sample size; the much larger sample size of this project makes the survey incredibly compelling. In a Google translation from the original Spanish, the About page of the original post shared the following:
The development of the project is conducting a series of portraits whose background is dyed the exact shade extracted from a sample of 11×11 pixels the very face of the people portrayed. The ultimate aim is to record and catalog, through a scientific measurement, all possible human skin tones.
In the TED talk of 2016, Angelica mentions that the color sample is chosen from the nose, which is an interesting choice given the variation in hue and lightness most people have in different areas owing to different amounts of sun received, but it’s a good way of eliminating the problem of highlights and shadows in ambient lighting (this is something that came up in my simple illustrations in the book). Because of this variation, a single Pantone representation doesn’t strike me as all that useful to the colorist in terms of representing any one person’s skin tone with any fidelity. However, the aggregate of all of these sampled patches is incredibly interesting when seen as data points on a scatter graph that could illustrate a cloud of possibility, where human skin hue and lightness are concerned.
This is a fantastic project, and I look forward to seeing the sample size continue to grow and expand to illustrate more and more of the subtle hues that can be found in humanity. Bravo.
For more information, see humane.org, the web site of the Humanae Institute.
By now, I imagine most people who know me via social media are abundantly aware that I directed a movie in China, Carry My Heart to the Yellow River, in the summer of 2018 that was finished in March of 2019. It has since played its way through (to date) 24 film festivals in seven countries around the world, winning two awards in the process. Audiences have responded enthusiastically, shedding not a few tears over this heartfelt drama of a high school graduate undertaking an arduous bike trip on behalf of her cancer-embattled friend.
I wanted to share a bit of how this movie was made, because it’s been the closest I’ve come to doing a bit of big feature filmmaking, even within the confines of a 21-minute short. We shot amazing locations in large-format 8K with a great camera and state-of-the-art cinema lenses, the editor and I had months to refine the edit properly, and I got the chance to do postproduction right, grading and mastering carefully considered SDR and HDR versions of the movie, with a wonderful original orchestral score, and a surround mix accomplished in a Dolby Atmos theater.
How Did This Happen?
But before all that, the first question I invariably get at every screening is, how on earth did I, an American living in Saint Paul, Minnesota, get the opportunity to make a sprawling epic short movie in China without speaking Chinese?
The answer is producer Zunzheng Wang, principal at Gaiamount in Shenzhen China, who’s the owner of Zuzheng Digital Video Co, which is the research and manufacturing partner to Flanders Scientific, a company I’m intimately familiar with since (a) I’m friends with American CEO Bram Desmet, (b) I use their displays as a colorist, and (c) they sponsored a previous project I directed. Zunzheng Wang is a formidable hardware and software engineer, an entrepreneur in video technology education, and now head of an emerging media production company, and I’m honored that he approached me to direct his first produced movie.
Since 2013, I’ve been doing presentations on color grading, directing, and screenwriting for Zunzheng at BIRTV in Beijing (China’s version of NAB), even having a screening of my previous short film “The Place Where You Live” as a prelude to a lecture series on directing there. Early in 2018 he approached me about directing a project to be set in Gānnán, in China’s Gansu Province. His interest was in pairing American and Chinese film workers together to learn from one another, while creating an ambitious project with which to introduce his companies’ capabilities. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I immediately got Director of Photography Bo Hakala on board, with whom I’ve collaborated on two prior projects (the science-fiction short The Place Where You Live and the as yet unproduced scripted series Hidden Among Us), which began a two month whirlwind of development and preproduction.
Writing the Script
Zunzheng introduced me to Kenjing Xiong, who had written an absolutely charming one-page story summary (loosely based on his own experiences). I had already been wanting to do a more emotional drama as my next project, so I was immediately intrigued by this story of two friends, one undertaking an epic journey filled with difficulties in order to send photos to the other, isolated in the hospital fighting an insidious illness. With our combined efforts, him writing three drafts and me doing another two, a shooting script was arrived at with which to begin preproduction.
Kenjing wrote his drafts in Chinese, and these were then translated into English by translator Phillip Yan for my review. I gave notes, which Kenjing implemented in his version, which were then re-translated for me back into English. Once I entered the writing process, I worked from an updated English translation to make my revisions, passing drafts to my inner circle of trusted script readers for feedback as I usually do. Once that was complete, Phillip translated my final draft back into Chinese so it could be used for preproduction in China.
Once I had a chance to do my preparations and make my notes for directing the actors, I sat down again with Phillip and went through the dialog of the script line by line, discussing the intention of each piece of dialog as I would later with the actors. Based on this in-depth discussion, Phillip carefully revised the spoken lines yet again to more accurately reflect the beats of each scene, and the colloquialisms that would be most natural. This was a fantastic process, because it meant that Phillip, who was also my translator throughout the shoot, knew exactly what I wanted in every scene as I gave direction, and I had him on headphones during every take to listen for language details that I wouldn’t be able to discern.
Producer Zunzheng is a practicing Buddhist who’s been to the region many times and has personal ties there, and he made it clear in discussion that it was vital for us to both show the culture, and portray it accurately. He wanted to make sure we gave the audience many opportunities to discover this region right alongside the main character, a goal I absolutely shared.
I’d spent the immediately previous three years visiting different cities in China while developing a scripted urban fantasy television series with the intention that it be shot in China, so between my expanding Kindle library on Chinese history and culture, and my growing network of friends and acquaintances in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shenzhen, I’d already been cramming both ancient and recent Chinese history and culture, folklore, Taoism, and Buddhism, in preparation for being able to create the Chinese characters of my project. This gave me an adequate foundation to be able to learn more as I worked through what this new project would demand of me.
One of the attractions of this bicycling story is the lead character’s insistence on doing this trip despite her inexperience and the trip’s daunting scale (it’s an overwhelming ride for someone who’s not a committed bicyclist), simply because of her dedication to doing this for her friend. It struck me as a sentiment rooted in the quintessentially Confucian definition of righteousness, “doing for nothing,” or doing something simply because you know it to be right, particularly when you know you may not succeed. Coupled with the Confucian concept of “knowing Ming” (translatable to accepting fate, destiny, or simply the way things are going), this story struck me as a great way to explore a character trying her best knowing full well she might fail to reach the destination in time, as her friend’s condition is completely out of her control. Nor is this simply some narrative conceit; “I’ll try my best” is a phrase and attitude I hear in China a lot, in movies and from friends and colleagues. And so, these concepts drove my evolution of the story in the final draft, and were very much ideas I tried to incorporate into Box’s portrayal of the character.
Narratively, it was the lead character’s status as a tourist herself that gave me the means with which to engage with the culture of Gānnán, despite having been given only two months to give myself a crash course on all things Gānnán-esque. The actress I cast in the lead, Box He, was an 18-year-old native of Shenzhen, which is one of China’s largest and newest cities, and at the time she was between high school and college, just like the character in the story. The Gānnán region was as remote to both the character and the actress as it was to me, so we were both able to share the newness and wonder the character felt traveling through the region, and incorporate it into the project. In a way, it was almost like shooting a documentary, albeit with an emotional narrative driving the journey.
The Crew and the Gear
I have to give Line Producer Jianlan Li massive credit for pulling together a crew in record time for the two separate regions we’d be shooting. We had four shooting days on stage and on location in Shenzhen with a larger crew to cover actress Linaixuan Wang’s hospital scenes the backstory of the relationship between the two girls. Then we’d have one travel day to fly up and drive over to Gānnán, with an additional twelve days on location in Gansu and Szechuan provinces with a smaller crew to shoot the bicycle trip itself. This may seem like a princely amount of time for a short subject, but as you’ll soon see there were a lot of company moves; we were covering many different geographical locations over a wide area, in extremely remote locales. Time went fast.
Producer Zunzheng wanted to have this project shot in 8K, and chose the RED Monstro camera system for us by virtue of buying a pair for his company. DP Bo Hakala, who’s had a lot of experience shooting RED, was more than fine with this camera system’s vista vision-esque sensor size, resolution (8192×4320), and improved low-light performance. After some discussion, I was persuaded by Bo’s suggestion we shoot full sensor and crop towards the top of the frame for the 2.39 aspect ratio I wanted to use, rather then shooting anamorphic. We were going to be shooting in a variety of conditions, and this approach was deemed both more flexible, and more conducive to being able to shoot handheld given the size of the lenses under consideration, not to mention being a better match for the drone footage we knew we were going to be shooting. I ended up being very happy with this decision later in post.
When it comes to lenses, my philosophy as a Director is to let the DP choose once I’ve communicated the vibe I want from the image. At Bo’s recommendation, we used a set of Cooke S7 primes, both for the “Cooke look” and for their full sensor coverage. The resulting combination was absolutely magic, allowing Bo to create some truly stunning photography on this project. I believe we also had one exceptionally wide Sigma lens, which we used for certain interiors where we really wanted to give a sense of the space.
I love working with Bo, he’s a creative DP and impeccable photographer who’s also a wonderfully accommodating collaborator. He’s always able to bring the coverage I request to its best visual potential, and he’s always quick to suggest a better angle or approach when he sees it (usually he’s right), but he’s also able to let go when I need something different. And he’s been able to deal with the fact that I’m a colorist in addition to director, with opinions that occasionally infringe on his world (he did say once that it was bizarre working for a colorist/director). In particular, this project was always intended to be mastered in HDR, so we had a lot of discussion as the shoot went on about what that would mean, which definitely affected the coverage I went for in many situations since we were shooting available light for most of the on-location exteriors. However, it was in these situations where Bo’s photographic ability shined, as he always had a great sense of how to use the best light in every situation. In the end, all of these combined efforts made this project a pleasure to grade, and the fact that he and I had discussed the intention for the images in such detail made it easy for me to put all that thought into the final finish at the end.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention First AC Eoin McGuigan‘s masterful camera builds and focus pulling. For various reasons we only ended up having one camera body available to us for the shoot, and since we were constantly bouncing among standard configuration, hand-held, Easy-rig, and a stripped down Ronin configuration used both for hand-held and a variety of vehicle mounts, Eoin had his hands full building and re-building the camera multiple times over the course of each packed day of shooting. We tried to be strategic about covering each scene to avoid unnecessary torture for him, but it was still an enormous amount of work.
While on location in Gānnán, Bo had a veritable one-man lighting and grip crew in Beijing film industry veteran Li Xin. Whether it was setting up lighting on an adjacent rooftop, building a variety of automotive rigs, or attaching lighting or camera to god-knows-what, Li Xin figured it out and executed everything swiftly and safely.
The other image maker was Yiyuan (Evan) Feng, the drone pilot who flew the DJI Inspire 2 with Zenmuse X5S camera we used for the shoot. Shooting raw CinemaDNG with a 5K sensor and interchangeable Micro 4/3 sensor and lenses, the resulting footage intercut and graded to match the Monstro footage amazingly well. Evan was a terrific pilot with great instincts, and when he wasn’t working solo shooting B-roll or using the drone to get us ahead with our scouting, he worked well flying the drone in tandem with Bo operating the camera to get us some really great aerial photography.
My Production Designer for this project was Kaylynn Raschke, with whom I’ve worked on every narrative movie I’ve made in the last twenty years. I never tire of saying that her work is one of the primary reasons my films look so good. Kaylynn was, as always, in charge of all wardrobe, makeup, set design, and set dressing decisions, working with Bo and I to harmonize what needs to go in front of the camera. Working with her team, she then put together looks for every scene with a flawless sense of style, coupled with a keen sense of narrative. A talented writer and photographer in her own right, Kaylynn carefully selects each garment and object on screen, to help tell the story in ways both subtle and clear.
An example she likes to use to illustrate this point is the paint-covered blue shirt worn by the character of Yu Xuan (the sick friend) in the art room scene. It’s actually a duplicate of the shirt worn by the mother later in the hospital, a fact nobody will consciously notice, but that builds a subliminal association between the two characters (one might assume the daughter is using one of the mother’s old shirts as a painting smock).
The movie is filled with examples of this kind of thinking, each decision carefully made to reinforce who the characters are, what’s happening in the story, or giving us clues about what’s important in the frame. Since Kaylynn and I are married, we always have ample time to discuss the project at hand, both in advance and during the shoot, so communication is never a problem. And on set, she’s a tireless organizer who’s not afraid to get hands-on with any issue that comes up. I’m lucky to have her.
On this movie, Kaylynn’s department included Bozhao Dou as Set Dresser and Lillian Fu as Makeup Artist and Costume Supervisor. They all had their hands full coordinating props and wardrobe to match the relentless continuity shifts from one set of shots to the next. There are many time shifts from scene to scene, and a lot of montages, so making sure the character was wearing the correct clothes for the right moment of the film was a challenge, especially with the locations changing as much as they did.
Shooting in Shenzhen
Since Gaiamount is located in Shenzhen, we did that part of the shoot first, with Linaixuan Wang playing Yu Xuan (the sick friend), and Box He playing Jing Yi (the bicyclist). All hospital scenes were shot over two days on a standing set two hours outside of Shenzhen, which Production Designer Kaylynn Raschke dressed to be a modern Chinese hospital. An unexpected power outage in the suburb we were shooting the afternoon of the first day led to delays, but we were able to get back on track that afternoon, and make up for lost time on the second day.
The third day we were able to shoot classroom scenes on location at a Shenzhen college, with a class of film students on hand to be extras. The location was fantastic, and the hallway and classroom scenes went smoothly. As an aside, I learned that all students in Shenzhen city schools wear the same unisex school uniform that consists of mix and match track suits, shorts, and polo shirts, so that made wardrobe easy…
Production Designer Kaylynn Raschke had a bit of excitement when it came to the art room scene, however. Kaylynn and Bo had scouted that location without me (I was hung up in Singapore on business when that particular scout happened, so I approved it based on photos), and the art room they found was perfect as it was with layers and layers of art, models, sculptures, and stuff, so that Kaylynn simply requested the room be left alone. Unbeknownst to anyone on the crew, however, a broken water pipe days earlier flooded the room and it had to be completely emptied out, to the bare walls.
Kaylynn only found this out a half-hour before we starting moving out of the classroom, but she’s a pro and in a whirlwind of activity she and her crew dressed that location back into an even greater multi-layered glory, which with Bo’s finishing suggestions and lighting ended up being one of the most beautiful interiors in the movie. This scene is also one of my favorites in the HDR-graded version, given the rich colors and interesting range of tonality at play. I wanted the scene to be a still life of a still life, and it was perfect.
This location also ended up providing one of the biggest cultural lessons I received during the shoot. I tried really hard to avoid directing the characters to behave with “Americanisms,” and I felt fairly confident that my experience in China thus far, coupled with the fact that I cast actors who were exactly the right age and experience for their characters and whom I could rely on to “be themselves,” would help me avoid any obvious issues. Furthermore, I relied greatly on my growing rapport with Box to communicate with me whenever she felt what I wanted was at odds with the naturalism of the situation. I primarily saw my job as protecting the actors enough from the external stresses of the shoot to feel emotionally comfortable working through each scene without artifice, and as time went on I ended up putting more and more of what I saw in Box into the character she portrayed.
However, during the rehearsal for the art room scene, a woman on set who’s my age came to me and quietly suggested that perhaps the girls were being a bit too emotional, suggesting that Chinese women were typically more reserved than I was portraying. It’s my policy to always make myself open to suggestions from any crew member, so I thanked her for her input, and gave it a moment’s thought. I was basing my direction on people I knew and current events literature I’d been reading, could I have gotten the characters so wrong? We still had a few of the film student extras available for background, so I walked over to one of the young women who was watching the proceedings and casually asked what she thought of how the scene was playing, whether she could relate to how the characters were behaving. She replied, “she’s fine, she seems like any of my friends at school.”
It occurred to me at that moment that, given the explosive changes in China that have been happening in the last 20 years, the generation gap between the life experiences of people in their twenties and those in their forties is unimaginably huge. People in their forties remembered the very the tail end of the cultural revolution, and grew up in a more isolated China evolving from the economic policies of decades prior. Meanwhile, urban people in their twenties have grown up knowing nothing but a strong, more western-facing China, with endlessly growing cities and nonstop economic growth. Of course there would be a difference of opinion on character attitudes, but I knew I was on the right track following my actors instincts, reflective of a younger generation’s more casual openness. This could be seen in abundance once the camera stopped and the young people on the crew went back to being themselves in-between setups, so I breathed a sigh of relief and carried on.
The fourth day we shot in a rented bedroom, for the after-school scenes between the two friends. We rented an Airbnb room for the day to do the shoot, which I hesitantly agreed to. We got the perfect location, but I was constantly worried that we would be shut down, either by neighbors or the building owner whom it was impossible to contact in advance. Happily, my concerns were unfounded as we were able to keep enough out of the way for nobody to care, and we ended up simply being another curiosity over the course of the other residents day.
Shooting in Gānnán
When it came to shooting in Gansu and Szechuan provinces, our schedule was bound by a logistical window within which we could shoot in the second half of July. There was no way to schedule Bo and I doing a preliminary scout, so a scouting team went up to Gansu first, searching for the locations we needed and taking photos and VR videos as they went (the VR was legitimately helpful). Based on this information, a route was planned, but this was only a basic framework for what scenes would be shot where.
The reality was that each area was so rich in location possibilities, in many instances it wasn’t until I could see each place for myself that I was able to make sensible scene assignments. Coupled with being at the whims of weather, trying to find places that weren’t only appropriate for the story but safe for the talent to bicycle on, and having a lot of territory to travel which impacted the number of shooting hours we had in any single day, I ended up doing a lot of schedule rearrangements as we went.
Furthermore, we had local representatives from various tourism boards with us as advisors showing us additional locations that were nearly always extraordinary, giving me an overabundance of choice. All of this reinforced the pseudo-documentary approach I took to this project, with nightly script polishes and rewrites to account for all the new geographical and cultural information I was receiving. Funnily enough, the process wasn’t that different to how I approached my feature “Four Weeks, Four Hours” fourteen years earlier, which also had frequent location changes that influenced that script’s evolution as we shot.
Flying into Lanzhou, which was the nearest major airport, we drove across Gansu Province to the city of Hezuo, the capital of the Gānnán Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, which is an ethnically Tibetan region of Gansu province. It’s an area that’s remote even for most Chinese, and while not in Tibet itself, the gradients of overlapping populations in that area of the world mean that Tibetan culture is everywhere you look, from the language, to the attire of people in the street, to the monasteries, to the Yak herders throughout the grasslands and mountains, through whose herds our production vehicles had to thread as we made our way from location to location.
To American eyes, there’s a distinctly cowboy vibe to the region, with horse and cattle culture everywhere you look. Cowboy hats and bluejeans are mixed with Tibetan long-sleeved garments, local dresses with aprons, and other traditional styles; leather boots and sneakers could be seen in equal measure. You can see people herding cattle from horseback all over the region, although there are also many who use motorcycles (often with a riding blanket over the seat). Yak herds are seen grazing everywhere, while the mountains also have terraced farming communities.
Yak milk, meat, and jerky are ubiquitous to the visitor, and coffee in hotels is virtually non-existent in favor of “Yak butter tea” which I learned online is black tea made with a large amount of Yak butter, toasted barley powder, and milk curds. It’s good and I availed myself of it, but if you’re a coffee-in-the-morning person like me, it’s not nearly enough caffeine. I was extremely grateful for Kaylynn’s decision to bring a big bag of instant coffee packets (Starbucks) to keep me on the level every morning.
Yurts can be seen outside of town, often in use as weekend cabin getaways. Prayer flags stream here and there across the countryside, and buddhist monasteries large and small are evenly distributed from community to community. In town, red-clad monks are ubiquitous. Wherever you go, there’s no mistaking that you’re not in the eastern part of China any more, even linguistically. There were several small communities we shot in where some residents only spoke Tibetan, and our local drivers needed to interpret for our Shenzhen-based translation team. In town, signs were mostly bi-lingual, with both Chinese and Tibetan characters.
China’s a big, ethnically diverse place, and while I had grown reasonably familiar with the culture in eastern China’s larger cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, Gānnán was an entirely different setting. I have to give enormous thanks to our advisors on the project, notably Xaobing (Shirley) Han (who also plays the woman at the Monestary), a practicing Buddhist who answered each of my thousand and one questions about the regional practices and locations, to make sure we were using each place appropriately and that we were behaving appropriately in more sensitive locations. She was an infinite wellspring of knowledge about the culture and customs we were putting before the lens as we shot locations that had never appeared in a narrative movie before. She was only supposed to be with use for a few days, but she generously extended her time to include nearly the entire shoot, and her help was invaluable.
One of my many goals for the story was to show the everyday modern life of the region and people as honestly as possible. Happily, the vast majority of local residents we engaged with, many of whom we ended up using as actors or extras, were interested in the project and couldn’t have been more helpful, which was great as we ended up shooting in some extremely remote communities. Most places, there was time to have a chat with local folks, which I always treasured. And there were constant requests for photos. Production Designer Kaylynn Raschke ended up being an ambassador for we four Americans on the crew much of the time, since once she was done coordinating wardrobe, props, and whatever location-dressing was necessary, she had time to meet bystanders while Bo, Eoin, and I were immersed in getting each scene in the can.
In fact, we often ended up being a tourist attraction for the locals. Apparently we were the most Hollywood thing to ever appear in those parts. We were given great welcomes from most of the cities and towns we visited, which was wonderful if a bit confusing to an indie crew like us, but the real fun was when we shot in really small villages and towns.
In Ga’ermacun, a tiny, nondescript town in Szechuan province, my translator took me aside to communicate something an old woman was telling her friend amongst a group of locals who had assembled to watch us shoot some b-roll, which I’ll paraphrase as “are those people ever silly, shooting a movie someplace like this…” We also met lots of folks with recommendations of additional places we could shoot, which was always useful, sometimes heartbreaking as our schedule didn’t allow for too many detours to investigate new opportunities.
Given this was a drama with not a lot of dialog, it was fairly easy to rearrange scenes as necessary to take the best advantage of the locations we were getting into. A typical day would have us getting to the next location, and Bo, Kaylynn, and I would immediately scout around as I figured out what I wanted to do with it. Bo would then make his suggestions for lighting and coverage, we’d go back and forth discussing a bit, then I’d do a quick walkthrough with the actors, and based on all that, a plan would be set. As equipment was shifted, Box would run her lines with AD Huan Yang, whose background as an actor and stuntman (and director in his own right) were invaluable in working with Box, who had stage experience as a dancer and performer, but for whom this was her first film. Huan went beyond typical AD tasks, reading off camera lines for actors to play off of, and helping Box learn how to fall correctly during our one stunt scene, in addition to organizing our background talent and assisting in shepherding the crew as usual.
And what locations we had. I can say without hyperbole that we were privileged to shoot some of the most beautiful places on earth. Our project had the support of local tourism boards, which gave us access to so many extraordinary areas. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were shooting a short, not a feature, and I didn’t need that much coverage of every single place we were, tempting as it was. A result of all this, however, was that this short movie has more locations than any sane filmmaker would ordinarily try to shoot (we travelled something like 804 kilometers/500 miles of locations in 12 days), which adds immeasurably to the epic sweep of the protagonist’s journey.
So Many Locations
We began our shoot in the capitol city of Hezuo, having obtained permission to shoot at both the main city bus station and a bicycle shop. In both places we were able to get actual people to play their onscreen counterparts. At the bus station, we had a ticket-agent play herself. At the bicycle shop, we asked a local businessman we met if he’d be interested in playing the bike shop owner. English speakers won’t be able to hear, but the result was local characters speaking with local accents. Fortunately, I’ve a long history of working with non-actors on my own low-budget projects, so I was prepared for working this way (it requires lots of patience and a slow evolution of each performance). While there was much discussion about casting in advance, and we tried finding local professional actors, there’s really no film industry in that region. The only way we were going to have authentically local detail in the performances was to find and work with local people. It was a bit harrowing at times, not being sure we’d find the right characters in time for each place, but in the end I’m very happy with the results.
We were fortunate in getting permission to shoot at Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, considered one of the most important monasteries in Gānnán, and a place where to my knowledge no one had yet shot a narrative movie. It was a stunning location, and we worked hard to follow the rules and not ruffle feathers. By and large, we succeeded, but it was a challenging place in which to maneuver, and one of our trickiest days of shooting. The next morning we were allowed to fly our drones around the monastery in the morning light, and those shots make for one of my favorite musical montages during the film.
After that, we found one of the best roads for shooting bicycle footage near Amuquhuzhen. A newer, wider road with wide shoulders and little traffic. Even better, it was right next to an incredibly picturesque flower park, with a monument to the horse-riding peoples who inhabit this land. The whole area is astonishingly beautiful.
One of my favorite locations was the town of Langmusizhen, where we shot the hostel scene. This town has a real backpacker vibe, and is one of the last stops before going to the truly remote areas in the mountains we were to shoot next. Mountain streams were channeled along streets with local hotels, gear and art shops, restaurants, and cafes, and the entire town was ringed with the mountains we’d eventually be traveling through. There was also a notable monastery with surrounding landscapes that had been flagged by scouting, but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to include that region in the shoot.
Upon arriving the night previously, the red-lit signage was so striking we just had to shoot the “late-night arrival” scene there, and the hostel where we shot the next morning was the very image of what you’d expect from a place catering to adventure travelers. A bit of early morning lighting and one of the smoke cookies Bo brought to add atmosphere created another beautiful scene.
Funnily enough, we ended up having some bonus time when a rain storm up in the mountains washed away the road we needed to use to travel to the next location, and we needed the wait out that afternoon for the road to be temporarily rebuilt so we could get through. That leg of the trip was pretty exciting as we went off-road in our coach bus, but that’s life shooting on location. You never know what’s going to happen.
From there we made our way to the newly built town of Tewo, where we spent the night drinking beer and eating hot pot to celebrate traversing the valley. While there, we spent the next two days shooting the bicycle accident, driving scene, and the call to home scene at the nearby mountain village of Luohong. The mountains all around us couldn’t have been more gorgeous, and the residents were incredibly helpful and accommodating.
I’ll always remember beginning to shoot a dialog scene on a narrow mountain road when the sound of Tibetan-language techno music started wafting through the trees; the villagers had an outdoor pavilion where they would eat lunch, and they were playing music on a loudspeaker while cooking. I honestly hated to ask them to turn it down. It’s a memory I referenced for the music that plays in the movie’s restaurant scene.
From there we had an epic drive to Ga’ermacun. In theory we were only there to stay the night on the way to the Yellow River, but that town was such a great example of the kinds of communities you’d see cycling around that region, and it ALSO had some of the best Yak jerky I’d yet had (in an effort to catch up on my sleep, I had more than one late breakfast after the crew finished eating consisting of spicy yak jerky, mango juice, and instant coffee gulped down en route to the next location). I liked the jerky so much I got permission from the woman running the shop to shoot there.
While leaving town, I spotted a bridge that was perfect for a cycling shot and stopped the crew to shoot it. Because there aren’t actually that many roads in the region where we felt comfortable putting the actress alongside traffic, I was starting to worry that we weren’t shooting enough bicycle footage for a movie that’s about bicycling, so I started pulling us over wherever I saw an interesting shot worth taking. While we were setting up, a group of teenage monks came up to us, and happily agreed when we asked if they’d like to be in the movie (you can never have enough background).
Afterwards, we made our way to the ninth bend of the Yellow River, which was perhaps the peak location of the entire shoot. We had one day scheduled there, and I knew the weather would decide whether that would be the epic finale to the movie, or an overcast disappointment. Happily, the weather cooperated. The original story that was pitched to me wasn’t specific about the ultimate destination of the main character, just that it was a place that was important to her sick friend. When I posed the question to Producer Zunzheng about what locale would have that kind of significance within the region we’d be shooting, his response was the Yellow River. Further research confirmed that to me as the obvious choice, given it’s widely considered to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization, and is in fact one of China’s premiere tourist destinations (not to mention one of China’s greatest photo ops).
Getting this shot was no easy matter, as the best overlook that Bo and I could find required an hour-long portage of the gear up the same wooden stairs you can see in the movie. Racing the sun, we managed to get everything carried up and situated in time to get every bit of coverage I needed to carefully control the edited drama at the end of the movie, including some spectacular drone footage.
As we’d been shooting for over a week already, the crew had really come together, and being able to make such a challenging day such a great success was a peak moment. There’s nothing like nailing the hero sunset shot after beating the clock to pump a crew up.
The following day we had the pleasure of being able to shoot monastery interiors at Yijilongwa. At most monasteries, we were prohibited from shooting interiors (we could shoot anything outside the walls, but nothing inside). However, here we were given access to every room, which was astonishing. Funnily enough, another crew had lighting gear positioned for shooting they would be doing after us, so we had to avoid getting their instruments in the background. This was probably the most “doc-style” scene we shot, using the extra wide Sigma lens we had and shooting a handheld walkthrough of the actress through the space, and it made for a real moment of wonder in the movie.
Another truly affecting location we were given permission to shoot was the prayer-flag filled monument at Waqie’ercun. Towering structures hold numerous cylindrical pagodas, each of which contains the remains of a local monk (believed to protect the area with their presence). These were surrounded by grounds with streams and streams of prayer flags hanging from posts, making pavilions.
The logic behind the prayer flag is that each flag contains a page of scripture. Since reading scripture is a way to gain merit in one’s life, the non-literate may gain access to this merit-building by hanging these flags so that each time the wind blows a flag, merit is earned. This is also the rationale behind the prayer wheels that are also seen in the movie. Each cylinder of the wheel contains a page of scripture, so that turning the wheel earns the same merit as reading that scripture. The context of the scene we were shooting, between the character and her mortally sick friend’s mother, made perfect sense in this location that, to area residents, connotes both mindfulness and hope.
At this point in production, all I really had to fret about was the beginning, which required a picturesque mountain road on which the character’s bus would be seen entering the region. We ended up staying in the town of Aba (where we shot the restaurant scene), and outside of town was a road to a mountain park, which served up multiple types of gorgeous scenery, from the rolling green foothills that we used for the show open, to the streams and rivers seen outside the bus window.
A few more kilometers down the way, the landscape morphed into the craggy mountains seen later in the movie as we follow the lead’s struggle to reach the Yellow River in time. My only real regret from the shoot is that we didn’t have any more time to spend hiking these incredible locations, as we were too busy filmmaking.
There were many more locations, too many to mention in the limited space of this article, but suffice it to say that Gānnán encompasses some of the most beautiful scenery to be found anywhere. This last video shows a broad cross-section of locations that really communicates how much work this project was, and how much fun we had.
With the conclusion of the shoot, it was time for post-production to commence. Immediately upon returning to Shenzhen I worked with Kenjing Xiong, this time as an editor, to cut a teaser for the movie. He did the first cut using Final Cut Pro X on an iMac using a set of best-of dailies I’d handed off, but when I took on the next edit to add my changes, I decided for expediency to reconform back to the camera original R3D media in DaVinci Resolve. I was using an HP workstation with an Nvidia RTX6000 card, so I could edit at quarter resolution in real time, and once done I could immediately commence the grade. I started with an HDR grade, as I knew that Producer Zunzheng wanted to show this at BIRTV, and I did a manual SDR downconversion from that for web playback. This workflow went so smoothly that I replicated it later during the final finish.
With the teaser, Zunzheng could immediately see what we had. The footage was beautiful, the narrative was working, and it was clear that we had the raw material to create an affecting short movie. With that in mind, it was easy to push forward. I took it upon myself to be the post supervisor since Davinci Resolve would continue to be the center of my preferred workflow, and worked up a postproduction budget to proceed in the most efficient way I could, planning for a healthy editing schedule, original music composition with orchestral performance, and a surround sound mix. I’d be doing the grading, partially to save money, and partially because there’s no way I was going to let another colorist have all the fun doing an HDR grade of this material!
At the recommendation of colleague Katie Hinsen, I hired New Zealand editor Chia Chi Hsu to edit the program. Her day job is as an assistant editor, but she’d done enough editing that I felt comfortable working with her, and I liked the delicate sense of editing I saw in her reel. Logistically, she also met this project’s needs in terms of being bilingual, being willing to edit in Davinci Resolve (version 15 at the time), and being fine working with me as a collaborating editor, should I feel I wanted to step in. I understand editors who aren’t interested in this, but I’ve been a hands-on editor my entire career, and while I very much enjoy someone else taking the reins, there are times when it’s just easier for me to make some trims right in the timeline as a pass, as opposed to writing up a page full of notes. Chia was great to work with, and we had a productive collaboration on this project. I wish I had a picture of her to share, but at the time we never met, only speaking over WhatsApp and exchanging project files online.
I used DaVinci Resolve to sync the audio (the dual source audio had timecode sync) and create a set of ProRes Proxy dailies from the 8K R3D source that Chia could edit on her laptop. All dailies were output as 2K clips that matched the source media’s aspect ratio, so that any stabilization or reframing during the edit would scale correctly to the source media’s native resolution. I also output log-encoded dailies with RED’s WideGamutRGB and Log3G10 color science as the output settings of Resolve Color Management (RCM). This ensured that any color adjustments made to the dailies by the editor would also be correctly applied to my preferred color settings for the raw source media during finishing. Granted, the low bit-rate, 8-bit, 4:2:0 media wouldn’t hold up for extreme adjustments, but enabling the Rec 709 settings in RCM instantly produced nice-looking SDR dailies, which could be pushed and pulled just enough to even out small exposure shifts that could distract from the editing. I dislike having editors cutting log footage, as I strongly believe that seeing even an approximation of the intended color will affect shot choices. All of this ended up being a great way to work towards the final finish, even while in offline.
All of these settings also went into the project I created for Chia to use as a starting point, which included having RCM set up correctly, along with having an output sizing preset applied to automatically provide the correct framing that was protected for during the shoot; cropping the full sensor to 2.39 vertically off-center towards the top. This was at Bo’s suggestion, so in the event we ever needed to produce full-frame 1.85 or 1.78 aspect image deliverables, the composition headroom would still be reasonable, with the additional pixels coming from the bottom. For good measure, I inserted the source file name and source timecode as window burns along the very bottom of the frame, to aid troubleshooting reconforms later on, while remaining largely out of frame.
I organized the project and media I was giving Chia to facilitate easy relinking and reconform between the source media and the dailies. I also input metadata, finessing the Scene and Take metadata, and adding character, framing, and location metadata (in the form of keywords), as well as customizing the clip names with metadata-driven variable-based clip names, to make the clips more immediately useful. I then shipped a hard drive with the dailies and project file off to NZ, and kept a clone of that drive and its data for myself, for troubleshooting. This was Chia’s first project using DaVinci Resolve for craft editing, but she was a quick study, and I was on hand to answer any questions and deal with any issues since I know Resolve pretty well.
After an initial conversation about the project, Chia did an unsupervised cut remotely. I’m very happy to let an editor have their time with the material without me pestering them. At this point I don’t honestly remember how long she took for her first cut, but she hit the deadline we agreed on. Once I had a chance to see it, we had another conversation about what I liked and what I didn’t, and she went back and did the next cut. The main thing I failed to communicate earlier was my intention to use jump cuts and rapid-fire editing; the source footage was so languid, beautiful, and deliberate one would be forgiven for thinking that was the intended aesthetic for the movie, but the result was not what I’d planned. I did a quick re-edit of the open to provide a more concrete example, and that put us both on the same wavelength better than any amount of notes I could have given. With a clearer view of my plans, Chia’s second cut was right where I’d hoped it would be, and she did another couple of passes before it was time for her to leave the project for a previously scheduled commitment.
At my insistence, the initial edit was done without music. For a narrative project like this, I’ve come to believe over the years that if a scene doesn’t work without music, then it doesn’t work. Music should make an already strong scene stronger, not be a crutch for adding emotion that a scene doesn’t already elicit. As a writer/director, I feel that if a scene needs a musical cue to work, then I’ve not done my job well. Furthermore, I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of “temp love” in past projects, so I didn’t want to get attached to anything but the story. In retrospect, I feel this approach worked really well for this project.
At that point, taking on the continued evolution of the edit was a luxury. All the hard work was done, and my main task was primarily incremental, to take the 26 minute cut she gave me, compress it down, and add a bit more density to some of the montages. This project was always destined for the film festival circuit, and I wanted to see how short I could get the runtime to improve our chances of acceptance. The low water mark I’d whittled the movie down to was 19 minutes (including credits), and my reviewers and I agreed that at that point the story lost much of its charm, and started becoming a mechanical exercise in storytelling. So, I added breathing room back and the final result came to be 21 minutes. I knew going to the festival circuit with a cut this long was going to make my life tougher (spoiler–it probably did), but this was the cut that told the story I wanted to tell in the way I wanted to tell it, and it worked well with my test viewers, so I decided to take a chance and go with it.
Once Chia came back from her vacation, I sent her my edit to review to get her opinion, along with any specific notes that she had. She gave me some great feedback, and with a couple more passes back and forth to address additional improvements, it was complete. Overall, the one scene I found myself re-cutting the most at this point was the ending. Overall, it was good, but it took watching a few variations with different test viewers to really lock down the version that was most effective. I feel fortunate to have the circle of friends that I have, as this feedback was invaluable.
Music and Audio Post
The score was by Michigan composer John Rake (soundcloud here), with the exception of the cue that plays while the main character is being driven up the mountain that plays in the pickup truck, “Up the Hill,” which was by written and performed by Lillian Ying. John and I have worked together on four projects, now, and his focus on orchestral work has dovetailed nicely with my goals for a sweeping musical experience on this piece. I wanted to bring him to Gānnán to experience the region and meet some of the musicians I’d met while there for inspiration, but unfortunately the winter was too severe for this to be logistically feasible, so I gave John some topics and musical genres to research in order to get ready.
After seeing a music-free rough cut and discussing the project, he suggested a chamber orchestra for an intimate, yet emotional sound. It didn’t hurt that the budget for a Chamber Orchestra was favorable, so once the edit was far enough along for me to have a sense of how I wanted the music to function, he began writing musical sketches and outputting electronic versions that I could review to give initial impressions. He did his music notation using Steinberg Dorico, and for my review he output MP3 files using the Native Instruments Symphony Series libraries for the Kontakt player. Once I was happy with the approach for any given cue, he would flesh it out and send me updated versions with timing to drop into my edit.
In this way, it was easy for me lay his music into the edit, iterate through editorial and music changes, give notes, and get updated cues to continue the cycle. The last of this was done while I was traveling through Southeast Asia, editing and reviewing from my laptop in hotels in Bangkok and Singapore, as the final recording was to be late-January, to deliver music in time for the audio post sessions which were booked for February. John accommodated countless tweaks and timing changes as the edit slowly assumed its locked state, and the resulting cues fit the movie like a glove.
The final music was performed by the Detroit Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Jherrard Hardeman. They did a beautiful job, and the resulting recordings were edited by John and delivered to Department of Post with plenty of time to spare. After listening to electronic approximations for the last two months, hearing the results of actual musicians performing the work was a revelation; night-and-day better than the previews. I had a tear in my eye when I heard the mixed version in the theater for the first time.
After exporting the project via ProTools AAF from Resolve to ProTools (and a bit of troubleshooting owing to issues in Resolve 15 that have since been fixed), sound design and mixing was done by the folks at Department of Post, in New Zealand. Because of my scheduled travels, I was able to attend in person to participate in spotting and mixing sessions, which was a treat in their brand new surround sound mixing theaters. Re-recording mixer Alex Chalcoff, sound effects editor Luana Barnes, and the entire team at Department of Post, including workflow supervisor Katie Hinsen who suggested I give them a try in the first place, did a fantastic job. And it was delightful having an excuse to spend time in New Zealand.
Returning to the United States, it was time for the home stretch of the final finish. This included finalizing the movie’s VFX, subtitles, end credits, and grade.
Owing to the nature of the project, there wasn’t a lot of VFX. What there fit into two categories, phone screen replacements, and split-screen effects to accommodate a bicycle crash scene, and occasionally to combine two takes into one when the situation merited it. I went ahead and did the relatively simple split-screen effects myself, using the Fusion page of DaVinci Resolve. I was only planning on doing mockups of the necessary shots in Resolve for someone else to finalize later, but the result was so good that I ended up just finessing the Fusion effects and using them in the final.
The phone screen replacements were more complex, however, and I wanted them to be totally seamless. The hectic schedule of the shoot made doing practical phone screens not feasible, so I used an in-house team of artists at Gaiamount in Shenzhen to design the Chinese-language phone app graphics for the texts that the girls would be sending to one another. These multi-layered graphics files were sent to Splice, a Minneapolis-based post house that has done VFX work for many CW, AMC, Netflix, and Hulu shows you probably know (Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Walking Dead, Daredevil, and Runaways, to name a few). I used to do a bit of freelance grading there years ago, and I knew their work was great as they’ve done VFX for some of my other projects. And of course they’re local to me, although ironically I never ended up going into their office, as everything ended up being exchanged online.
At my request, all effects were done at 8K resolution to match the source, preserving my freedom to either push into shots or master at 8K (which at one point was discussed, but so far hasn’t been done). By and large most of the VFX weren’t complicated (though there were a couple of shots that were pretty involved), and there were a few shots that needed to be redone to accommodate a last-minute editorial change for clarity. I hate breaking edit lock, as it’s something I try to take seriously to save money (and sanity), but I got some important last-minute feedback from a filmmaker I know in Beijing, which dovetailed with a couple nagging doubts I had. It ended up being a good decision.
I actually did the HDR grade of the movie in late December of 2018. This was before editing was locked, but I had a window of time during which I could borrow an XM310K from Flanders Scientific over the holidays. Now, the whole reason I wanted to edit in Davinci Resolve was so that last-minute editing changes would easily be accommodated by color grading without the need to re-conform, so I was comfortable grading the project earlier. Hooking up the display in my home grading suite, I created a 4K HDR master and a quickie SDR downconversion that was fine for post (knowing I’d revisit it later). My window of time was limited as I had travel planned for January-March of 2019, but over four careful passes I got the HDR grade of the 21 minute program master done. The XM310K is an absolutely gorgeous 4K display, and grading HDR on it is a pleasure. At 31 inches, it’s also a perfect match for my smaller home color suite.
Dolby was generous enough to loan me a Dolby Vision license to enable the software CMU built-into DaVinci Resolve, so I was able to set up my Linux-based SuperMicro system to output to SDR and HDR displays simultaneously in order to follow the Dolby Vision analysis and trimming workflow. It was great getting my hands on the technology for a narrative program like this while having the right displays for the job, and I did another three passes with this workflow to see what I could do with it. Months later, after returning home from New Zealand, I did a manually trimmed SDR grade using my own methods, for comparison. I find it funny that my SDR downconversion grade is considerably more complicated than my initial HDR grade.
The end credits were another task that I was able to begin early, actually starting the process while I was traveling, using Endcrawl. I have to give Endcrawl huge props for making my least favorite thing to do in all of post, credits, actually enjoyable. Starting with a spreadsheet given me by Line Producer Jianlan Li, I was able to share the resulting Endcrawl-linked Google Sheet with my colleagues in Shenzhen, working with them on the translation (I wanted to do bilingual credits), verifying each name and spelling on the list, and tracking down the last few names we needed. Keeping this document dynamic made it easy to regularly update the credits layout at a moment’s notice, no excuses.
The web-based interface made styling the credits a pleasure, and they were very accommodating of making sure that I had a Chinese-compatible font and that I was able to get end-of-credit logos they didn’t have in their database uploaded for my use. Finally, the online rendering system made kicking out new versions with different timings a snap, and paying for 4K rendering made it easy for me to render out separate, properly scaled and timed versions of the credits for each HD, 2K, and 4K deliverable I created. I also appreciate the ability to output the credit scroll at a variety of prescribed speeds; while the recommended speed look gorgeous, I knew this movie would be playing within blocks of other shorts, and I didn’t want to be the jerk with glacially slow credits holding up the next movie. When I master the final release version (for wherever the final release ends up being) I can switch back to the recommended speed, and I had the credits music cue timed appropriately for the added duration.
Overall, it’s a great system that I can’t recommend highly enough, with nice typography and a lot of industry-specific thought put into the details of the layout options. And in the year I’ve been using Endcrawl, they’ve been adding improvements in a steady stream.
In the end, I created a family of deliverables with which to take on the festival circuit, with SDR and HDR versions, at UHD letterboxed, 4K DCI scope, 2K DCI scope, and 1080p letterboxed resolutions, mixed and matched with 5.1 surround and stereo audio mixes. So far, festivals have played only the SDR 2K scope and SDR HD letterboxed versions, in both surround and stereo sound. I have, in my collection, an HDR 4K Scope version that nobody outside of Shenzhen has seen, that I desperately hope can someday find its way to audiences. It’s drop-dead gorgeous. However, that will have to wait until our festival year is concluded and I see if I can interest an HDR-delivering streaming distributor in our character’s epic journey.
When I started writing this article, I had no idea it would break ten thousand words (I guess there’s a reason I’ve put off writing this for six months), but it’s been a huge project with a lot of moving parts for a short movie. It’s been massively rewarding, though, and I’ve enjoyed every part of the process. I couldn’t be more proud of the final result, and of the huge amount of effort that everyone involved has put into it. A director is nothing without collaborators, and I’ve had some great ones. And I have to give one last thank you to Zunzheng Wang at Gaiamount, for having the vision to put this project into motion, and for pulling together the resources to carry it through.
I’ve since directed another project in Shenzhen, giving me the opportunity to learn more about one of China’s most dynamic cities, but that’s a topic for another time. I hope someday to be able to return to Gānnán, simply to travel and take things in outside of the bustle of a shooting day. There’s so much more to experience, we only scratched the surface.
I hope you someday get to see the full movie; I’ll certainly be announcing it here once it’s move widely available.
It’s the holiday season here in the frozen north of Minnesota, and whatever basket of holidays you choose to celebrate (or not), I wish you well. We all find ourselves in the midst of those interesting times I keep hearing warnings about, but my fervent hope is we can survive them, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s famous quote.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been adding to this blog, off and on, for ten years now. As is the way with these things, the busier I get in my life and career, the less I tend to post, and the last two years have been so eventful it’s been easy to not post anything. This is particularly true because the things I like to post tend to be long.
Nobody has ever accused me of brevity.
However, I find that even after all this time, I still have things I want to share, and I’m finding it more vital to engage with the creative community out there in the world than ever. The work I do as a director, a writer, and still as a colorist and software consultant continually requires me to learn new strategies and technologies, and there’s no better way to cement one’s knowledge than to try and explain it to other people.
However, after all this time, this old site’s gotten a bit crufty, a little out of date, and so I’ve spent part of December 2019 troubleshooting the issues and cleaning things up. All this has culminated in the installation of a brand new template, in an effort to get modern and make things a little more readable and organized on different devices. In particular, now that I’ve got such a pile of content, I wanted to find ways of making some of the older articles that are still relevant a bit easier to find. What you see today is the first part of a longer evolution, so don’t be surprised if new features start appearing here and there as I evolve the experience into something more akin to a reference library of my various screeds.
So, stick around. I’ve got a huge article about one of the movies I directed in China that I just posted, and some other interesting bits in draft form that will soon follow. I’ve got a lot on my mind, and my use of this site will likely evolve a bit as well as my focus continues to swing towards narrative storytelling for visual mediums, and directing. However, I promise to keep it interesting.
If you’ve been a long time reader, I appreciate your traffic, and I always look forward to comments and correspondence, even if it takes me a year or two to reply. I hope this note finds you well, and offer my best wishes for the coming roller coaster of a year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about HDR in the last three years, not only as a colorist who’s also taken it upon myself to try and explain why this new development is so exciting to a wider audience, but as a director who’s done three projects intended for HDR mastering who’s keen to make sure that what’s done on set gives the most efficient starting point for the eventual HDR grade. As I’ve spoken to folks about HDR, I’ve always tried to make clear that one of the things I like about how this new display technology is rolling out is that there are no rules for how it’s used.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to grading HDR, and there are no hard and fast rules for how to map different highlights to different levels, just like there are no rules for choosing specifically what values different shadow levels are supposed to appear at. Grading HDR is a matter of creative decision-making, which is incredibly exciting for everyone who exercises control over narrative imagery.
That’s not to say there aren’t technological limitations that are important to keep in mind in terms of what percentage of the image can be graded up to HDR highlight levels and accurately reproduced on consumer displays. Display capabilities are a moving target as new TVs with new capabilities come out every year. Prudent coloristists make themselves aware of what consumer televisions are capable of, and how the HDR mastering standard they’re adhering to (such as Dolby Vision, HDR10, or the HDR10+ family of standards) deals with out-of-bounds levels, because this partially informs how one chooses to distribute one’s pixels of brightness.
For many display technologies, having too many HDR-bright pixels at too high a level triggers Automatic Brightness Limiting (ABL) to limit power consumption and protect the panel. This means you end up having an HDR highlights pixel budget of what percentage of the image you can distribute among low, medium, and high levels of HDR highlights. At least, that’s how I choose to look at it in the work I’ve done, and it’s served me well.
In my experience, this isn’t the worst thing, because these limitations reinforce the very purpose of HDR; HDR grading is about using the additional headroom to make highlights more energetic, more varied, more detailed, and more saturated, instead of having to compress, clip, or desaturate them as we must to fit all highlights into the limited range of SDR. HDR is not about making the overall picture brighter, just making the brightest parts of the image brighter, as desired.
This focus on HDR being about better highlights also means that the shadows and midtones, which are nearly always the majority of a dramatically-exposed image, remain down in the good old SDR range of values that cinematographers and colorists are so used to. Let me say that again, it’s typical for the shadows and midtones of SDR and HDR images to be similar.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been an evolution of thinking as everyone gets more experience grading HDR images. For example, there’s been a wide consensus among professionals I’ve spoken with that images with HDR highlights benefit from somewhat brighter “diffuse white” levels. Diffuse white, or “reference white,” defines the level of light reflecting off a sheet of flat matte white substance (with no specular highlights) that reflects evenly at all wavelengths. Think a white sheet of paper, a white t-shirt, or a matte white wall. Slightly elevating reference white guarantees that, to the viewer, ordinary matte whites still appear as white relative to the even “whiter” hard white highlights that HDR can add to an image. You don’t want a flat white t-shirt looking gray.
This thinking is reflected in BT.2390, which is a recommendation to use a linear scale operation to increase the level of Standard Dynamic Range material so reference white levels hit 200 nits when mixing SDR and HDR media together, as when you mix archival SDR footage with new HDR material in a documentary. This way, the SDR material doesn’t look so dingy when compared to the popping highlights of HDR. This thinking is also reflected in BT.2408, which is a recommendation for a 203 nit Reference White target in one’s HDR grading. Yes, this means that higher shadows and high midtones may get a little bit brighter (depending on how you grade), but this is in the interest of having the rest of your image not seem dingy compared to the HDR highlights being sprinkled around your image. Absolute black stays down at 0 percent, and the darker shadows more or less stay where they are (depending on how you like to grade). In my experience, this is a good general guideline, although your implementation will vary depending on your creative decision-making and the scene at hand.
So, there are increasingly recommendations about how to redistribute the SDR-ish values (shadows, midtones) within an HDR grade in which the increased dynamic range is being used to create a significant differentiation between different kinds of highlights, but they’re just that, recommendations. Many programs are choosing to master to a maximum level of 1000 nits for HDR highlights, since that’s a reasonable average of what consumer televisions can do at the moment (whether or not this is the right thing to do is an entirely different article). With 800 additional nits of highlight range to choose from, you can now have dim highlights, medium highlights, and bright highlights that are 200 nits apart from one another, as opposed to having similar levels of image highlights being only up to 10 nits different if you’re using 90 to 100 percent of an SDR image for the same range of diffuse whites to sun glints. But how you use this range is entirely image and content dependent.
Getting back to the Mandalorian, when I read the Ars Technica post about the HDR grading in The Mandalorian being “fake HDR,” I chuckled. I get what I believe the author is trying to say, which is that the way HDR is used in the show is not spectacular enough to make owning an HDR television feel worthwhile to audiences who want to turn the video up to 11. If all the author said was they didn’t like the grade and wished the highlights were brighter, that’s an opinion reflective of the author’s tastes, and I’d have no reason to argue. Taste is taste. Whatever.
However, citing television display capabilities and a “test” that to quote the author, “heat-mapped the image for the YouTube video to make it clear how bright each part of the image is…” to observe that “…at no point did any part of the image in The Mandalorian—even highlights like blaster fire, a forge of molten metal, or the Sun—appear at more than 200 cd/m².” and thus accuse the program of being “faux HDR” is misguided. The author goes on to write “the image looks awfully dim and isn’t living up to expectations.” Having lived through the “Battle of Winterfell” debate, I can safely say that if every episode of The Mandalorian is too dark, they should check that their TV is working properly, it looks nicely exposed to my eye.
HDR display specifications are only for governing the required capabilities of one’s display to be able to reproduce HDR images properly. These specifications say nothing about how you should grade any given program, beyond a general description of the purpose of HDR, with an implied warning not to overdo things if you want what is promoted as the HDR effect of perceptually spectacular highlights in direct comparison to lower level shadows and midtones (in other words, don’t just scale the brightness of the entire image up).
Even if you’re grading a program with scenes that are using HDR’s full highlight-popping capabilities, creatively speaking you’re not going to do so in every shot of every scene. A typically graded program will and should have wide variation in how one chooses to use HDR, depending on the content of a given scene and the look and mood the director, cinematographer, and colorist are going for.
In fact, there’s no requirement that you use maximum HDR strength highlights at all, much less forcing you to use some arbitrarily high level just to use the available range. How you use these levels is entirely up to your creative team.
One of the things I’ve learned grading my own directorial efforts is that the extreme dynamic range afforded by HDR makes it tempting to boost perceived contrast so far beyond what cinema viewers are used to that the image begins to look like live television. To make one’s dramatic images play into audience expectations of what a capital M movie is supposed to look like actually requires a lot of restraint, and I find that when grading HDR I pay an enormous amount of attention to grading my shadows to strike just the right balance between darkness and black, and to counterbalance the distribution of the highlights I’m choosing to map. Just because you can do certain things doesn’t mean you should. But again, these are purely aesthetic choices and opinions. There’s no rule about any of this, nor should there be. And I’m sure that as time goes on, our collective opinions about what “looks cinematic” will evolve as well. New fashions in image-making and grading will emerge, and the wheel of punditry will turn.
I’ve watched every episode of The Mandalorian that’s been released so far, and it’s clear to me that its use of HDR is deliberate and intentional. In my opinion, the grade is a nice nod to the look and feel of the original movies by being classically restrained in the distribution of shadows, midtones, and saturation, while sprinkling moderate HDR highlights into the image that are compatible with the overall vibe they’re selling. No part of the grade has distracted me from simply watching the series, and yet overall it looks great on my OLED LG TV. I want to congratulate cinematographers Barry Baz Idoine and Greig Fraser, colorist Steve Scott and his collaborators Charles Bunnag and Adam Nazarenko at Company 3 (apologies for getting these names wrong earlier), and all the people who were collectively responsible for all aspects of the image during the shoot and in post on their clever blend of old and new.
So, is the lighting and grading good? That depends on each viewer’s opinion and I’m not going to argue that point (I think it is). Does this restraint make it objectively bad HDR? No. That presupposes there’s a “good” amount of HDR to use, which is like complaining they didn’t use as much saturation as they could have, or that every scene didn’t maximize the dynamic range of the audio mix.
I have spoken.
12/8/19 – Edit: I corrected the names of colorists Steve Scott, Charles Bunnag, and Adam Nazarenko at Company 3. I also added links to the recommendation papers I cited (thanks to Marc Wielage for tracking these down!)
12/9/19 – Edit: Edited the fifth paragraph for a typo and for clarity.
12/20/19 – Edit: Edited the sixth paragraph to fix a typo.
A LUT is like a music loop or sample within a song, it can contribute to a grade, but it shouldn’t BE the grade. Automatic correction is like autotune, it can solve problems, but it shouldn’t be the main flavor of your grade. Plugins are like audio effects, a bit can give music texture, but too much makes it look like you’re concealing problems.
If you want to practice grading as an art, and I do mean practice, you have to really put your mind and your heart into each scene, making creative decisions that blend myriad techniques together in the service of a creative goal. You need to learn to see the image without artifice, you need to learn to imagine what it could be, and you need to learn to bridge the two with practiced technique and a steady knowledge of your tools.