9 minute read
Mission: Impossible – Fallout isn’t “just” an international blockbuster—it’s also one of the more complex post-production workflows we’ve seen. Shooting on film and digital, and editing in 4K with IMAX and stereo deliveries, it doesn’t get much more intense than that.
It’s no surprise, then, that the large editorial crew relied upon a supremely organized and highly technical workflow to get them through such an ambitious project. But even if you’re not shooting a multi-million dollar movie, there are takeaways contained herein that can inspire your approach to any project.
Editor Eddie Hamilton A.C.E. and his core editorial crew of two first assistants, two VFX editors, two second assistants, a stereo editor, and a trainee (plus another twenty-plus post-production crew members) brought Mission: Impossible – Fallout to the big screen despite having to shut down production for two months after Tom Cruise’s stunt accident—and not getting an extension on delivery. Add to that an action sequence that required taking 70 hours of footage down to 7.5 minutes, locations from New Zealand to Paris to Abu Dhabi, and a test screening scheduled for four days after shooting wrapped, the post-production process itself was its own sort of impossible mission.
Director Chris McQuarrie and DP Rob Hardy elected to shoot mostly on film, using Arriflex 235 and Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 cameras. The format was 35mm anamorphic, at true 24fps (not 23.976). Additionally, for the helicopter sequence (the aforementioned 70 hours culled to 7.5 minutes) they used the Panavision DXL 8K digital camera because they could run for 40 minutes without reloading—important when you’ve got multiple helicopters in the air. And for the HALO skydive sequence they used a Red Weapon 6K camera (strapped to the camera operator’s head!).
While many large-scale features are still edited at 1080p, the Mission crew worked at 4K throughout. The rationale was that 4K DNxHR LB files, at 144Mbps, were only 25 percent larger in file size than the DNxHD 115 1080p codec they had used previously, but with four times the resolution. With a visual effects load of some 1600 shots, the additional resolution made that part of the workflow easier, as well.
Film was processed at Cinelab (London) and scanned at Pinewood Post on a Scanity at 4K for an eventual 4K delivery.
While it’s common for the data to be held at the DI (digital intermediate) facility (in this case Molinare in London) the volume of material for Mission was so large— and Molinare had other large-scale projects working concurrently—that another storage solution became necessary. Fluent Image (also in London), therefore, was responsible for holding all data and distributing it to Molinare and to Double Negative, the main visual effects vendor.
If you ask any of the crew what the most important part of the workflow was, they’ll tell you that testing was the essential first step. Because the work was divided among numerous vendors, everything had to be tested thoroughly to ensure that everyone was exchanging files in the correct formats and color space—and that the technical and communication channels were working without any hitches.
Eddie had two different primary computing setups: a dual-screen desktop that he used in the main edit suite and a laptop for when he was on location or traveling. There was also a third setup installed at Chris McQuarrie’s house so that he had full access to the work-in-progress when not on the set or in the cutting room.
The stationary edit suite was equipped with a 2160p 65” Panasonic OLED TV connected by HDMI to an Avid DNxIO box attached to a 2013, 6,1 Mac Pro. They had a 48 TB Avid ISIS for storage and Eddie used a Razer Naga gaming mouse, which he customizes frequently according to the tasks he’s handling. For audio, he de-embedded the HD-SDI audio and fed it to a digital 5.1 speaker system using Dynaudio Air 12s.
The mobile suite ran Avid on a 15” MacBook Pro with the Duet App active so that an iPad could be used as a second screen, and the Razer mouse, iLoud Micro Monitors, a 32 TB G-speed Q Raid and two 4 TB LaCie Rugged Raids were hooked up to a USB 3.0 hub. Eddie also used his laptop with an encrypted SANDISK Extreme Pro 512 GB SD card to watch dailies and make selects while he was traveling, whether by air or by car, to utilize every waking hour—both because the workload was so immense and because he likes to watch absolutely every frame of footage in his search for hidden nuggets.
Film was developed each night at Cinelab and delivered to Pinewood Post early the following morning. Pinewood commenced scanning immediately, with the scanned DPX files given a basic color correction and then transcoded to 1080p DNxHD36 MXF files, so they were small in size and could be quickly uploaded to the cutting room for an initial review.
Some of the metadata came straight from the lab, but early each morning the trainee manually inputted additional information including focal length, selects, and a description of the action. The first assistant distributed sub-clips to the second assistants on either a camera roll or scene-by-scene basis (depending on the order of the clips coming from Pinewood), and they created the Avid scene bins. Meanwhile, the first assistant generated a single sequence of all the dailies for Eddie so that when he got in he could immediately see what had been shot the previous day in case he needed to address any questions from the set.
While the early morning crew was handling that initial upload, Pinewood’s dailies colorist would do a full color pass and new DNxHR LB 2160p (4K) MXF files were shuttled to the cutting room on a drive. In the background, one of the assistants would copy over the DNxHR files onto the ISIS and then, at a convenient moment for Eddie, all scene bins would be shut, the DNxHD36 files archived, and the master clips would be relinked to the new 2160p media and the relevant sequences refreshed. When Eddie reopened the bins he’d been working in, he’d have the fully graded UHD dailes.
The assistants were responsible for tracking, logging, and exporting the clips and metadata to the codebook (a Filemaker database created by the VFX team that all post-production team members could access to track any element or process throughout the production), and for the studio and production dailies.
Pinewood also supplied the CDL (color decision list) metadata for each clip, which was also visible in the Avid bins and the code book.
The workflow varied when Eddie was on location. For example, in New Zealand (where they shot the helicopter sequence), one of his assistants traveled with him, and Pinewood put a mobile setup next door to where Eddie was working. While there, he initially worked with the footage that came off the video tap of the film camera (while the film was flown to and processed in London), while Pinewood transcoded the digital IMAX files on site. Once his assistant received the 4K files from London, he would have to eye-match to replace the video tap files with the proper 4K media.
Eddie is a firm believer in being able to try alternate versions rapidly, so naming conventions and timeline organization are deeply detailed.
They used a rather straightforward numerical folder structure for the various tasks (cutting copy, scene bins, VFX, music, sound effects, etc.), and in the scene bins folder were subfolders for the scenes from 1-20, 21-40, and so on. The slate letters from the take were added to the scene numbers in the bin name, along with a brief description of the scene.
The assistants broke down all the dialogue scenes in a very detailed way, into massive line strings where all the line readings for each line in the script are broken down by wides and mediums and overs and tights. That way, when the director asks Eddie to see the options for the lines, he can skim through, show him the shot sizes, and audition the various readings quickly, which equals fast progress. This was especially handy when working on the set, as the director could spend an hour here or there during lighting setups or meal breaks to work with Eddie.
In terms of the audio workflow, for each take there were multiple BWAV tracks with a channel 1 mix track. Eddie works with all the tracks in the timeline, and the assistants solo channel 1 so when he presses play he’s only listening to the mix track, but all the other tracks are there in the subclip. When he assembles the scene he lays down all the production audio tracks and then later on auditions the isos separately to pick the best ones in order to build the best-sounding scene. On Mission, his Avid timeline had six mono tracks for dialogue, four monos and six stereos for effects, and three stereos for music.
The team worked closely with the sound supervisor, sending him sequences so that he could send back stems of sound effects that Eddie’s assistants would lay back into his Avid timeline. That way, the director could get used to hearing the sequences with effects, enabling him to give notes on sound design. It also meant that the screenings had better sound mixes.
Several members of Eddie’s team have worked with him over many films, and they’ve established an organizational methodology that enables him to work quickly—and for any of the team to understand exactly what the others have done. It’s one of the unconventional aspects of working with such an experienced and finely-tuned team—the hierarchy they have is less defined and more horizontal than in many cutting rooms, and Eddie feels comfortable making requests to anyone on the team and knowing that it will be handled appropriately.
Communication, therefore, is one of the keys to their success. The codebook acts as the ultimate repository of all workflow information, a centralized database for all post departments. They also used the codebook to track any requests Eddie might have had for insert shots for a particular scene. The assistants would review Eddie’s Avid timeline, where he’d insert small captions requesting, for example, a close-up on a gadget from production. They could add that to the codebook with a thumbnail of the shot so that it could, in turn, be distributed to the set and tracked when it was received back to the cutting room. The team also used shared Google docs, iMessage groups, and Apple shared reminders (in the VFX group) to tick off tasks and initial their work.
Nothing, however, could replace actual face-to-face communication. The two first assistants shared a room so they could easily talk to one another (and the post supervisor) to ensure that nothing slipped through the cracks. That way, if they needed to pivot or punt, they were able to coordinate their efforts in the most sensible and efficient way possible.
Because Mission had such a heavy VFX load, the post-shoot workflow commenced earlier than on most movies, with shots going to Double Negative (as 4K EXR files) beginning only a few weeks into the shoot. Later on, the other post-production components such as sound, music, the stereo conversion, and DI kicked in, along with trailers, screenings, and marketing requests.
Later on, a flurry of turnovers ensued as VFX shots were returned to the cutting room to be dropped in, music and sound effects were composed and completed, the “reasonably locked” sequences were sent to Prime Focus so they could begin the laborious process of stereo conversion and QC, and Molinare color graded the DI. Fluent Image was responsible for distributing the 4K files and communicating with the cutting room to ensure proper tracking.
Meanwhile, test screenings were conducted roughly every two weeks, and audience feedback had to be tracked and the cut updated accordingly.
As ingenious as their long-distance workflow was, when the final stages of post were in progress, it was extremely helpful that the main cutting room was located in Soho, walking distance from Double Negative, Molinare, and De Lane Lea, where they did the sound post. That made it easier for Chris McQuarrie, Eddie, and any of the other post crew to be in the various rooms to speak with the rest of artists involved.
The final deliverables were 4K DIs in 1.90:1 IMAX and 2.39:1 anamorphic, along with a 3-D (stereo) version. DCPs (digital cinema packages) are the common delivery medium.
Tom Cruise went to extreme extremes to deliver a film that raised the bar on the action genre. The production and post-production crew likewise raised their games, creating and executing the ultimate cutting-edge workflow. And that workflow was built upon extreme preparation, organization, and communication.
But here’s the bottom line: telling the best story is always the goal. If it isn’t, it doesn’t matter how expensive the gear is or how complex the workflow. Because the workflow should always be designed to help you tell your story the best way possible.
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