EC3 and Light Iron perform on-set digital workflow for the 21st century

Written By: Neil Matsamuro, HD Video Pro Magazine

For motion-picture production, film has been the dominant format for the past 100 years. Although technology has modified the film workflow—especially with the emergence of faster computers, cheaper storage, film scanning, the digital intermediate, etc.—the workflow has generally remained the same. On-set digital workflow has been around for a number of years, but with the explosion of file-based digital cameras and, more importantly, the demise of film, it has grown exponentially with a number of large postproduction companies reinventing their businesses while moving their services directly to the set. The line between production and post has become even more transparent, and like the production industry, the post industry has been turned upside down. In a near David vs. Goliath competition, two companies that are leading the charge for on-set digital workflow are Deluxe and Light Iron.

Founded in 1919 by William Fox, who also launched the Fox Film Corp., Deluxe is one of the powerhouses of the post industry. No longer just a film lab, over the years Deluxe has transitioned itself into a digital entertainment company by acquiring digital postproduction companies such as EFILM, Company 3, Encore and others. One company that has been garnering a lot of attention underneath the Deluxe banner is EC3, which provides on-set location services to EFILM and Company 3 clients by creating custom-configured hardware and software, in addition to sending out its own field technicians to help meet the needs of a production. Some recent shows EC3 has worked on include This Is 40The Five-Year EngagementThe Lone RangerPain & Gain and many more. 

“The idea is, what used to take a million dollars and a facility to do is now smaller, lighter and more portable now that we don’t need to go to a film lab and use telecine machines,” explains Company 3’s Director of Non-Linear Workflow Dylan Carter. “We’re able to build up a cart, or multiple carts, and go on set with trained people who are able to help out the production, making sure that their data is not only safe, but what they captured they meant to capture and that it all looks good.”

With new digital cameras and formats being implemented and productions shooting in multiple locations per day, today’s modern workflow has become very complicated. One of EC3’s strongest suits is the ability to adapt to any situation. According to Carter, there’s almost nothing that can’t be mobile these days. Depending on location and environment, EC3 custom-tailors the workflow for each job, with content security and overall efficiency being the key factors to consider. On most jobs, that means Raided disks on set and a copy of the content going back to one of EFILM’s or Company 3’s brick-and-mortar buildings for safekeeping and LTO creation.

Instead of transporting drives from the set to a Deluxe post facility, EC3 will often have its colorists travel to the location and set them up in a custom-configured temporary color-grading environment. For example, on The Avengers, EFILM and EC3 were able to set up a color facility in empty office spaces on the same lot as they were filming, in New Mexico.

“Right now, we’re out in New Mexico for a movie called Lone Survivor, where we built a big, 40-foot-long trailer with Star Wagons,” reveals Carter. “It has a seven-foot screen, a digital cinema projector, a colorist, as well as a bunch of gear that enables us to take the digital files right off the camera and process them into color dailies right on set, a foot away from where they’re shooting.”

With the ability to move most of your traditional brick-and-mortar services on set, EC3 has new technology that helps filmmakers better visualize their final products. The EFILM team has created ColorStream, their own CDL/LUT box that can be the first step in any production. 

The production crew, explains Carter “[will] go out and shoot some test footage and then bring it into our facility. We’ll look at that test footage with one of our top-level colorists, and with the DP and director, set some looks for the show—an interior/exterior, day/night, blown-out, green, etc.—and then put those back into ColorStream. When they’re back on set, they can just push a button and see what the scene is going to look like with that color applied, and then later cook that color in.”

These predetermined looks then can travel as metadata and be applied to the dailies or act as a guide for a colorist.

Because of its long history as a film lab, perhaps the biggest advantage Deluxe has in the space is its ability to work on hybrid productions. Company 3 recently worked on The Lone Ranger, in which the producers decided that while they liked the look of digital, the cameras didn’t give them the look they wanted for everything. They ended up shooting film for day exteriors and the ARRI ALEXA for night and interior work. Michael Bay’s new film Pain & Gain used every file format imaginable, using RED, film, Canon EOS 5D Mark IIs and 7Ds, and even some GoPro footage was thrown into the mix.

Since post has been moving to the set, one discussion frequently brought up regarding on-set workflow management is who’s actually in charge of the cart. Is it a member of the camera crew or a specialist?

“On set, we would put an EC3 data operator running one of our carts,” says Carter. “If a production wanted to put their own person on it, we would rent them our gear and train their person, but so far they have been happy to have one of our loyal and trusted people take care of the data side of things.” 

Light Iron has been generating a lot of buzz in the industry lately with recent work on HitchcockFlightTotal RecallResident Evil and The Amazing Spider-Man. The Hollywood-based company specializes in on-site dailies, digital intermediates, archival and data services for file-based productions, and its three on-set solutions—OUTPOST, LILY PAD Cart and LILY PAD Case—frequent the sets of studio features, television series and independent films. Previous digital on-set workflow systems were large, expensive and just not financially viable for most productions.

“Just because something is mobile,” says Light Iron CEO Michael Cioni, “doesn’t mean it’s necessarily convenient. You saw not too long ago they had the Space Shuttle driving through town. Yeah, it was mobile, but it wasn’t convenient for anybody. So it doesn’t mean if we can put a space shuttle on wheels, we should put a film lab on wheels.”

Light Iron has helped change that. For DPs who want hands-on color and the ability to review their footage on set using a high-quality monitor, the LILY PAD Cart is a solid choice. For productions that need to be extremely mobile, especially in areas that won’t host a large cart, the LILY PAD Case is ideal because it’s in the form factor of a piece of carry-on luggage. For bigger productions, Light Iron’s flagship mobile post lab OUTPOST is a mobile processing laboratory that lets you control color, sync and data management. In addition, it serves as a verified data backup in triplicate, does 3D convergence, transcodes files, and creates deliverables and dailies. The system contains two 12-core MacPro systems, a UPS battery and 90 TB of storage.

“OUTPOST is the physical manifestation of a laboratory, providing all of the same services that labs did with film (and more), only now it can be consolidated, in many cases, to just a few computers,” says Cioni. “Because some of the digital iteration of laboratory requirements can be provided on a laptop, there became little benefit to anchoring these services in a brick-and-mortar facility.”

According to Cioni, OUTPOST is also format-agnostic. As long as the production is working with a file-based camera (F65, ALEXA, EPIC, C500, Phantom, BlackMagic, F55, F5, 5D, GoPro, etc.), OUTPOST can be tailored to work with any professional, prosumer or even consumer camera system—even an iPhone. 

“Because even the largest films will often use prosumer or consumer tools for specific shots (such as crash cameras, car mounts, security cameras or even cameras that actors wear), OUTPOST is designed not to play favorites and let the creatives choose the format that best suits them, and process them just like they would Kodak or Fuji film,” says Cioni. “Today, there are more than a dozen acquisition tools, and OUTPOST is designed from the ground up to service every single one of them so that creatives are no longer limited to ‘professional’ systems only.”

Since its release, Apple’s iPad has become a key production tool, especially for dailies, and Cioni feels watching dailies on an iPad can be as professional as viewing HDCAM tape. Light Iron’s iPad app, Todailies, gives your production same-day dailies to specific members of the crew while on set.

“With iPad Todailies, we enable our customers to take advantage of proximal memories of shooting by reviewing their work hours and, in many cases, minutes after it was shot,” explains Cioni. “Gavin Hood, director of the upcoming film Ender’s Game, said, ‘The best part of the Light Iron system is that I watched dailies all day long—never having to stop and wait for anything, which keeps the pace and feedback going.’ That’s what we call ‘creative freedom’—not letting technology get in the way of the creative process, rather utilizing available tools like iPads (among others) to leverage benefits that serve the creatives.”

There are many advantages of working with an on-set digital workflow, but let’s face it, it’s probably going to cost a pretty penny, right? Although there are many factors, Cioni believes that time—which is also money—can be greatly saved using a Light Iron workflow.

“On a small production, OUTPOST servicing is a reduction of about 20% as compared to traditional post services. But when you factor OUTPOST into a larger project, the savings increases linearly. For example, if you shoot a commercial for one day, the savings of an OUTPOST system over a traditional lab is minimal because you don’t have enough time to shoot much footage. But as you increase the footage count, the savings rises. For large features, such as 3D features that shoot over multiple months, this linear savings can be as high as 50%. In a few of our projects, the savings from an OUTPOST system directly compared to traditional laboratory support can be measured in millions of dollars.”

In terms of working on a production, Light Iron doesn’t send any of its employees to work on its carts, and Cioni believes that on-set systems should be operated by union members.

“We didn’t make these rules,” he says, “but these are the rules that were put into place long before I came here, and I have no reason to argue with them. It’s a system that works. If you have a set with everybody working as a union member, and all of a sudden you have one person who does all these things and is paid by a post house, we’ve seen that disrupt the flow and nature of the crew.”

Needless to say, both Deluxe and Light Iron are helping shape the way all movies will be produced.