The Hollywood Tech Tricks Getting Film Crews Back On Set

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It’s not surprising that Hollywood has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. After all, movie sets typically require hundreds of people coming together from all around the world to work in close proximity to one another. Early in the spring of 2020, production effectively shut down until further notice. But slowly, quietly, new movies—movies that were filmed during the pandemic—have begun surfacing. How? Filmmakers found ways to adapt, and now they’re getting even more tools to help them film safely.

Not every movie needs high-tech solutions, of course. Smaller films, like Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie or the recent Sundance flick How It Ends, are able to get by with smaller, quarantined crews. But for bigger, more complicated projects—the kind that need visual effects and lots of extras—tech is filling in the gaps on socially distant shoots. Here’s how.

Cloud Busting

One of the most innovative adaptations to date comes from Frame.io. The company is best known for providing web-based tools for teams to go over dailies and pass notes back and forth during the editing process. Today, though, Frame.io unveiled a new service: Camera to Cloud, which allows multiple people to start working on a shot the second the director films it, greatly reducing the number of people on set and increasing the number who can contribute from a safe, socially (very) distant place.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you’ve got an 8K RED camera on set. Using the Camera to Cloud system, that rig would be connected to a transcoding box, such as a Teradek Cube 655, which takes that 8K video and makes it into a smaller, easier-to-view/share 1080p file. That box is also connected to the internet, as is a Sound Devices deck, which is collecting audio from all the microphones on set. As soon as someone yells “Cut!” the files are being uploaded to the cloud, where anyone who has been granted access can review them.

From there, people like executive producers and VFX supervisors can weigh in with notes in near real time. Even better, the system allows the movie’s editor to work on the film in tandem, even if they’re on the other side of the planet. As soon as the take is done, the video files (with separate but synced audio files) will automatically appear in DaVinci Resolve, Final Cut, Adobe Premiere, or whatever editing software they’re using. As soon as it’s there, they can drop the last take into the timeline, apply effects and filters (such as keying out a green screen), and quickly export it back to Frame.io for everyone to check out and approve. Back on set, the director can review the new cut and leave notes that will show up directly on the editor’s timeline with single-frame accuracy.

The files that are uploaded from the camera can be anywhere from 0.5 Mbps (think Zoom quality) to 15 Mbps (Netflix-ish), your choice. The higher end of the scale is generally more than enough for something like network news and could go to broadcast immediately. For films with a tight turnaround, the proxy files that are uploaded are edit-quality (and the audio, which is much smaller, are the originals) and can be cut together immediately. When the hard drive with all the full-resolution files lands in the editing bay, they can be swapped into the edit with the click of a button.

Camera to Cloud has been used on one Hollywood production: Songbird. Last summer, the disaster flick, which landed on video on demand in December, became the first full production to beta test the service. In fact, Songbird was the first film to start production after the most stringent Covid-19 restrictions in California were lifted, so it had to do everything possible to minimize the crew, including shooting with RED’s smallest camera (the 8K Komodo) so the director of photography could also function as a camera operator. Meanwhile, six or more executives watched remotely as the shoot unfolded.

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