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Zodiac’s Tapeless HD Workflow

Apr 11, 2006 11:41 AM, Michael Goldman

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The recent spate of high-profile feature films shot with HD cameras has led to a wide range of workflow approaches for industry-watchers to study. At least four of those films—A Prairie Home Companion, Superman Returns, Miami Vice, and Zodiac—will be profiled in upcoming issues of Millimeter and Digital Content Producer, as well as here in HD Focus and at

Of this growing group of HD-acquired features, the first one to adopt an entirely tapeless workflow from camera capture through the final digital intermediate was David Fincher’s Zodiac. The movie is slated to debut later this year, and is about the notorious serial killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. Upcoming issues of Millimeter and Digital Content Producer will cover different aspects of Zodiac’s workflow, built around Viper FilmStream cameras recording to specially configured hard drives called D.MAG Digital Film Magazines from S.two of Reno, Nev. The “digital negative” emerging out of those hard drives was backed up each day to LTO data tape during production, and imagery eventually will be reloaded from those data tapes for making the final digital intermediate master at the very end of the movie-making process.

Fincher and his team worked out many of the project’s workflow issues during production on five commercial projects created in the last couple of years. But Peter Mavromates, postproduction supervisor on Zodiac, says that among the project’s many challenges was the fact that Fincher asked S.two engineers to build new capabilities into the digital recording system that were not originally incorporated into the technology.

“One example is that David wanted the ability to delete takes on set,” says Mavromates. “They originally designed the system so that you could never delete anything on set, as a safety precaution. But David wanted to delete takes that weren’t working, so they went back and added that capability for him.

“Another example: David asked for the ability to automatically slate footage. We did not have a clapper on the set. So what they added was a capability for the data-capture person who throws the hard drives into record mode to enter basic information for a scene and whatever is recorded. The first frame is a framing chart and next five frames are a slate, automatically inserted, and then it goes to what he filmed. And the feature also means the data-capture person does not have to do anything from the second take onward. The last frame of the take provides a window to record other information, like lens height, lens length, aperture, and other conditions—those get burned into the very last frame of the take. That’s important for tracking purposes in editorial, and it functions the same way a traditional clapper would. It’s just that our slate is digital, not physical.

“They added several things like that to make the process more seamless. But there are other things David is asking for, and we hope to have them in place for future projects. For instance, David is pushing for more metadata to travel through the system. But we’ve already shown that we can do this without tape, and it will only get better from here.”

See the June issue of Millimeter for a look at Zodiac’s editorial remote collaboration pipeline, and an upcoming issue of Digital Content Producer for an in-depth examination of the movie’s tapeless workflow.

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