Last year I took part in 48 Hour Film Project for the first time, and loved every second. I wrote extensively about it. This year I was also eager to participate. To my surprise, it turned out that I was supposed to not only head the post-production team, but to be its only member, with perhaps the exception of a music composer. That meant ingest, audio sync, editing, grading, sound mixing, maybe sound design all rested on my shoulders. In the end, it also meant doing one VFX shot. I had hoped that this state would have changed before we started, and to have at least one other person with me, but it was not meant to be.
This year I wanted to share with you two experiences. One is more technical, about the preparation for this type of events, and another, more creative, about the process itself. This article is about being prepared for whatever comes your way. Here is how I went about it.
Before I started packing, I made a list of all duties that could come up during the project, and the means necessary towards fulfilling them. It turned out that I could be called to perform the following:
- ingest and backup
- syncing audio
- sound design
- sound mixing
- various vfx work
- credits and motion graphics
- output and compression
As for the means, they can be divided into tools (hardware and software) and skills.
Then came the time to consider the workflow and tools that would be optimal for this project. 48 HFP is an extremely demanding, quick turnaround, dynamic job, that requires a lot of thinking on your feet, and adjusting to sometimes unforeseen problems on the fly. Therefore it pays to have a plan A, but also plan B and sometimes plan Z, and make sure that every available resource is in good condition in case it needs to be used. The memory of missing a decent 3D tracker software last year was etched very deeply in my mind.
This year I knew I would be alone. I did hesitate for a moment between choosing a workflow based around Adobe Premiere — which ecosystem I know fairly well — and DaVinci Resolve. The choice was not easy. On the one hand, Premiere is feature-rich editor, has great audio capabilities that I am familiar with, which are still missing from Resolve, but in some areas is clunky, and sometimes a pain to work with. The biggest downside was for me that at times renders are not stable enough and can take long time, especially if plugins are involved. Resolve, on the other hand, seemed to be doing fairly well with editing, and with newly added Fairlight room I believed I could tackle most of the challenges that would be facing me. If all else failed — I thought — I could export the project to Audition and work in there. And on top of everything, I like Resolve interface as well as the fluidity that version 14 brought with it.
After making some tests (of which below) I decided to do what we failed to do last year — have the project start, edit and finish in Resolve.
Perhaps the most obvious thing was to have a machine to work on. However, it was just the beginning of the long list of things that I had to have or that were convenient to have in case they were needed.
The obvious stuff
From the start I knew I wanted to bring my workstation — I missed not having it last year both for its computing power, as well as the 3D tracker that I only had installed there. It’s not a state-of-the-art box — Dell Inspiron T7500, an equivalent of a beefed-up Mac Pro 5.1. It’s heavy (over 20 kg), sporting dual X5680, 48 GB of RAM, Quadro K5200 and BlackMagic Decklink Mini Monitor, USB 3.0 card and other small upgrades. Not the newest or fastest kid on the block, but a tried workhorse that can perform most tasks in a reasonable time. Of course, these days you can build a more powerful and much lighter kit, but I have not gotten around to doing it yet.
As a backup, and in case I needed to render ProRes files, I also packed my late 2014 Retina MacBook Pro (i7, 16 GB RAM, nVidia GeForce 750M).
As far as storage goes, I only had internal 2x2TB drives in my Dell, and for the occasion I bought an external 512 GB Samsung SSD T3 USB drive. This one was to serve as a fast backup drive to make sure that we’re not losing important data and work if an accident occurs. I wish I had an external RAID, but so far I haven’t had an actual need that would justify the expense.
Display — I’ve got Asus MX25A 2560×1440 monitor, dirt cheap, has a very decent IPS matrix, DisplayPort and 3 HDMI inputs, internal speakers that do not sound atrocious, and a headphones output. It is also extremely light, and the only thing missing is an ability to control its height, and perhaps an active USB hub.
Granted, I expected a second monitor to be available on site, and that was an old 1920×1080 Dell that we used to drive output from Decklink. But I figured I would have managed with my Asus regardless.
Some of you remember my praises for Microsoft Natural Keyboard, which I had used to great success and enjoyed tremendously. However, it had one considerable flaw: holding ctrl key and click-dragging with a mouse resulted in a random letting go of the click. This meant that I had to work around it, which was annoying. Plus I really wanted a backlit keyboard as well, and a new mouse with a decent middle button. I decided then to do some last minute shopping. I settled on Roccat Isku FX keyboard: quiet, soft enough to comfortably write on, without that hard click characteristic of most gaming accessories. The backlight is fully customizable and does not warm keys at all, which is really great. Of course, it comes with other perks: an additional row of macro keys, switchable profiles (up to five of them), an ability to assign macros or alternates to the keys on the left side — neat tricks all of them. I have not yet grown used to it and not configured all the profiles, but if I were working daily as an editor, I would definitely take advantage of it.
I wanted to pair the keyboard with Roccat Tyon mouse, but the place only had a white version left, which was already dirty. I ended up with Logitech G502 with very similar functionality. I might be switching it to Tyon or Leadr at some point anyway, but for now I am quite happy. Logitech has multiple configurable buttons, several programs as well, and feels pretty good in my hand. You can even change its weight by adding or removing small weights that come with it.
All this meant that I moved from a wireless solution to wired. During all those years of using wireless keyboard and mouse I have never encountered a situation where I actually benefited from the lack of cables. The desk was maybe a bit tidier, but overall I found no real advantage.
Sound was a tricky bit. Proper monitoring in random places is tough, you never know what to expect. I do own a pair of decent low-end active speakers (nEar 05s), which I took with me. I also have Yeti microphone that I use as an external sound card. It’s not an ideal solution, but it did the trick. Pair it with AKG K240 Studio headphones and there is a chance that the mix will not suck. However, this was by far the weakest part of the whole setup. Since then I moved to Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 interface, and I am seriously considering headphones with better isolation (AKG K271 Mark II for example).
The important “other things”
All this basic gear is important, but there is a number of other things that I always pack with me to make sure that I am absolutely independent. Again, I divide items into three categories: those that I absolutely must have with me, those that I want to have, and those that can be useful when everything goes awry. The last category is what I usually don’t bring, unless I have a strong feeling they are going to be needed. The items from the second allow me to also be a helpful team member when somebody else has forgotten something and to make things easier for everyone. The first category is something that are essential to any job outside my place.
- Power Strip — to connect everything that you have to a single socket and preferably have one or two spare sockets as well
- AC Socket divider — some items do not need to be grounded, and it always helps to have more sockets anyway
- USB universal card reader — a must-have, sometimes have 2 in case one breaks down, the faster, the better
- Spare USB stick — it always saves your ass
- Software dongles — these days it’s a rarity, but no work will be done without them
- A mouse pad — don’t ever expect one waiting for you
- Wacom Tablet — for roto, quick photo retouch or other similar things that require more painterly approach
- Tangent Ripple — indispensable if I need to grade more than 2 shots in a row
- Active USB 3.0 Hub — useful for attaching stuff on the desk instead of under it
- USB charger with several outputs — there’s always somebody who pops up and asks if they can charge their phone
- A wireless/1000 Gig router — sometimes it’s necessary to setup a local network or extend/divide a signal
- Spare cables: HDMI, DVI or Display Port, power, ethernet (several), mini USB, micro USB (several), USB 3.0 for external hard drive
- A power bar or two — catering is usually great, but they might not be able to give you food at 4 am
When you’re paranoid and want to be super-safe:
- Cellular modem or router — if you’re stuck in the wild without WiFi or Internet whatsoever
- More spare cables
- UPS Appliance — to protect against power shortages
The good part is that all the “must haves” and “should haves” fit nicely into a single small backpack or Pelican case. The only requirement here is that the whole front flap opens, exposing the inside, and access to all this stuff is easy. If I was travelling more, I would have consider something that had separate compartments. Otherwise, when I know that all this stuff is going to be unpacked anyway, there is little need for it.
Finally, I always label power supplies so that I know which appliance they fit. With so many items it’s easy to make a mistake, and at times it may be a costly one.
Software is important as well. Without it, hardly anything can be done. The choice of tools of course highly depends on your own skills and preferences. However, regardless of the job description, I always try to bring with me everything that I have. You never know when a given tool might come in handy. Here’s my list:
- Adobe Creative Cloud — a swiss-army knife for all occasions: Premiere, Audition, After Effects and others
- DaVinci Resolve Studio — recently my preferred all-around solution for post
- Fusion Studio — an alternative to Nuke, node-based compositor
- Mocha Pro — a great planar tracker
- SynthEyes — a powerful, inexpensive 3D tracker
- iZotope RX — a great audio repair tool
- ScopeBox — external scopes for Resolve, Premiere Pro, Mac only
- A bunch of plugins from Red Giant, Neat Video and Film Impact transitions
- A bunch of scripts for After Effects
- A library of stock and vfx footage and audio effects gathered throughout the years
Interestingly I never got that much into FCP X, perhaps because most of the time I use cross-platform workflow. I appreciate the new FCP for what it is, including its unrivalled media management and organization, I just never found a good use case myself.
Finally, about that stock and vfx footage libraries — 48 HFP rules forbid you to use anything not made that day with the exception of fire, explosions and muzzle flashes. Well, they did become pretty useful. Can’t say anything more at this point, but you will see in my next post, when the movie comes out.
I did make sure that all my software was up to date and running correctly. I did not, however, consider purchasing any audio plugins for Resolve. Goes to show, that I am not an audio engineer.
It’s funny, how the realization, that everything rests on my shoulders, threw me into a loop of anxiety and uncertainty — can I really pull it off? Especially after over a year of not working in post? I knew I could editing-wise, and everything that revolved around that (ingest, export). I hoped I could do a decent grade, but wasn’t too sure about that. I certainly worried about the sound. I supplemented my grading arsenal with last-minute purchase of a bunch of Resolve looks (not LUTs, but real grades) from motion VFX, and finally checked that in case everything fails I can still use in Resolve Red Giant Bullet Looks with its great presets. That did put me a bit at ease.
Audio, however, was a different beast. I had never mixed cinematic audio before — I only did it for TV, where the range is limited, and the tools of choice are compressor, equalizer, noise reduction and various repair plug-ins. I did feel a bit at a loss, seeing how Resolve comes without any audio plugins at all except Dynamics and pretty basic EQ, and it won’t accept the ones from Adobe. I did have iZotope RX, but did not expect to be doing any repairing at all (which turned out to be right). In the event of crisis I hoped to be able to jump to Audition, that I was familiar with. Unfortunately, this hope proved to be a mistake. I should have taken time and effort to get more familiar with Fairlight tab to find its weaknesses and pain points, as well as capabilities. And to learn it, because learning on a go does not happen that much during 48 Hours Film Projects. There just isn’t time for it, especially at the very end, when audio is usually being done.
As you can see, there was quite a lot of anxiety on my part. Interestingly, I did make several mistakes that from todays perspective seem rather silly. I think the most important lesson for me here is to always identify the weakest point and focus my preparations on it. Do not hope for it to go away, do not leave it for later. The chances of it magically disappearing are not that high, and being unprepared will often bite you in the rear end.
Making sure that the gear and software is up to date and works properly is paramount. Nothing worse than showing up and finding out that something is broken or that you have to download several gigabytes of updates. Thankfully, post-production team usually has some time before all hell breaks loose, but still, why wouldn’t I prepare and check everything beforehand?
But I could — and did — do more. I tested the workflow I chose, to make sure that Resolve 14 can really handle editing in real-time (12.5 had issues), that I know how to turn on and off features which can speed up or slow down the process (proxy files, optimized media, cache). That my configurations are set properly, that my keyboard shortcuts are assigned correctly, and that my mouse and keyboard profiles are in tune with what I would be doing. Small things like that, which save precious time and decision power under pressure.
I was as ready, as I thought I could be.
The Final Words
As you can see, when it comes to fast-paced projects, preparations can take quite a lot of time. But it’s always better to check twice, than to be sorry later. Having confidence in properly working tools and in one’s own skills is a must. Having backups and certainty that I will be able to fix any problem that arises on the way bolsters that confidence, as does having a rough idea on what to do when x or y happens. There is enough stress with a short deadline already, one must manage it by not adding one’s own doubts or anxiousness to the pile. Of course, it’s impossible to plan for everything, and the improvisation is the name of the game during 48 HFP. But the confidence gives me flexibility, and ability required to work when the time is rapidly running out.
I made it. We submitted the movie on time and we are happy about how it turned out. Unfortunately I can’t share it with you until the results of competition are known. I know I failed to make the film sound great, but this is something I will write about next time. Despite that, it’s been an amazing ride, and the feeling of accomplishment is hard to beat. Being prepared was a crucial part of the process.