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DNxHD Marvel

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Michael Goldman

Behind the DNxHD 36 workflow for Iron Man.

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Shooting Shell Head

<i> Photos: Zade Rosenthal. TM & © 2007 Marvel. © 2007 MVLFFLLC. All rights reserved.</i>

Photos: Zade Rosenthal. TM & © 2007 Marvel. © 2007 MVLFFLLC. All rights reserved.

Although Iron Man arrives to cinemas largely stereotyped as another big-budget popcorn movie, the character affectionately known as “Shell Head” to comic-book fans is bringing some important new technical developments with him to the big screen. In particular, those developments include an extraordinarily complicated visual-effects effort. Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) — along with a handful of other vendors including The Orphanage, Los Angeles; The Embassy Visual Effects, Vancouver; and CaféFX, Santa Maria, Calif. — built around 1,000 digital shots that advanced recent techniques used at ILM to make the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Transformers and improved on the art and science of digitally costuming live actors.

But potentially the most important development of the production was the decision to edit the picture in a tapeless workflow using Avid's new DNxHD 36 codec — making Iron Man the first large-budget studio picture to be cut in this fashion. This move impacted virtually the entire editorial process, much of the visual-effects process, and the method for viewing dailies during production.

HD edit

Editor Dan Lebental, A.C.E., says this decision was the inevitable outcome of the move by Marvel Entertainment to produce Iron Man, the upcoming The Incredible Hulk, and all future Marvel-related feature films itself. Marvel, therefore, built a temporary editing facility in Los Angeles and purchased several Avid Media Composer Adrenaline systems to cut its first two movies. (The company is in the process of building a permanent production facility, but that facility wasn't ready in time for Iron Man's and Hulk's production cycles.)

“The new generation [of DHxHD 36-powered Avid Media Composer Adrenalines] had just arrived,” Lebental says. “So, even though we knew there could be some bugs since it was so early, we urged them to go in this direction. I was excited about editing in HD. Since the advent of computer editing, we have never had particularly clear pictures to work with, and now that has changed. They were crystal-clear on this project — it was amazing.”

Lebental insists that cutting in HD “significantly changes things” for editors, and even though he freely admits to periodic technical hold-ups, for him, there is no going back.

“I was looking at an HD picture the whole time,” he says, adding that FotoKem sent the team data after an HD transfer from the original film negative, which they then loaded into the Avid Unity system. “There were some film dailies for the DP [Matthew Libatique — see sidebar] to check certain things, but by and large, for editorial purposes, we were projecting and viewing the same HD footage that was in the Avid — the same media we were cutting with. That is an important change. As the editor, it let me look at things like hair and makeup and give a more informed opinion right away, rather than having to go check it in film before giving my thoughts. As recently as four years ago, we still had a parallel film-cutting process, and now, that is all gone. It's a very different workflow.”

For Iron Man, Lebental's team relied on eight Media Composer Adrenalines (quad-core Apple Mac Pro workstations with 24in. Dell LCD monitors and one with a 30in. Sony LCD monitor) networked into 16TB of Unity storage. During production, dailies were usually played directly out of an Avid using a 2K projector projecting imagery onto a 10ft. screen in the dailies trailer. Director Jon Favreau viewed the action on a 50in. Panasonic plasma monitor in Lebental's edit bay, and the team also used this setup for small, informal screenings at the production editorial office, which was located near the main shooting stage at the old Hughes Aircraft facility in Playa Vista, Calif. (Cutting moved to the temporary Marvel facility in Santa Monica after shooting wrapped.)

Lebental says a lot of patience was needed given that the production was editing on infant technology. But even with “quite a few crashes,” it was worth it.

“It's a lot of data to be moving around — and this is brand-new technology, so, of course, there were some technical problems,” he says. “But the problems were minor compared to getting to cut in HD and view crystal-clear images on large monitors. It also greatly helped the preview process to screen dailies off the same media and not have to conform them in any way, or send them out to anyone. We literally finish here [in the editorial office], go output to a Sony HDCAM SR tape, and project it in a large theater, and it looks great.”

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