Site & Scene: Dust to Glory
Posted Apr 8, 2005

The gap between the major Hollywood studios and small independent film producers has always been wide. Hollywood's big-time budgets and state-of-the-art equipment perpetuate the disparity. But advances in digital video technology, both on the production and post-production end--and particularly with the advent of HD technology--are leveling the playing field and bridging the gap. One forthcoming indie film that's giving big-budget Hollywood a run for its money in the hi-def domain is Dust to Glory, a new action-packed documentary from the makers of Step into Liquid.

Director Dana Brown's new film represents a triumph for racing enthusiasts, as it documents what's arguably the world's most grueling off-road race for the first time in any motion-picture medium. But it also represents a crowning achievement for small-market producers, as the film demonstrates how smaller outfits can now match the epic ambitions and polished production values of their multi-million dollar counterparts.

Off-Road Heroics
For years, the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, a 1,000-mile off-road race through Baja, Mexico, has been one of the most well-known motor sports races, but also one of the least witnessed. Due to the rugged terrain and duration of the event, no major media outlet has ever attempted to cover it. But the lack of precedent didn't deter Brown and fellow producers Scotty Waugh and Mike McCoy, who utilized multiple shooting formats and conventional, PC-based post-production software to bring the famed event to screen in all its fast-paced glory.

From the outset, the producers knew that the unforgiving working environment would present a host of production challenges. Perhaps one of the most arduous tasks involved the mass mobilization of three helicopters, 55 cameras, and a 90-person crew to the remote regions of Mexico.

But once the production team and equipment were settled, capturing off-road racing's ever-changing dynamics quickly became the most difficult obstacle. Harrowing lead changes and heart-wrenching wrecks can happen in an instant, and the different types of drama unfolding throughout the race (which runs day and night) required different techniques for high-, low-, and no-light shooting; different types of acrobatics from the shooters; and different types of equipment to capture the shots most effectively. Thus the producers recognized that a multitude of formats were necessary to monitor the race's many subtleties. The laundry list of Dust to Glory cameras includes 4:2:2 HD cameras (Sony HDCAM F900s), Panasonic DVX-100 MiniDV camcorders, Sony PD 150 DVCAM units, mini-infrared Lipstick and rugged Ice Cube cameras, 35mms, Super 16s, and Hi-8s.

Dust to Glory spokesperson and editor Jacob Rosenberg explains that the use of the various cameras allowed the crew to cover all aspects of the event and convey the best story. Crews were able to capture different points of the race simultaneously and shoot different angles of the same location. At times, crews would set the Super 16 cameras for audio with no slates and use 2 DVX cameras to incorporate angles the Super 16 didn't pick up. "Format followed function," Rosenberg says. "If we wanted to cover action inside the car, we couldn't use HD. So we used miniDV."

However, more often than not, HD proved to be the format of choice; 50% of the footage shot for Dust to Glory was HD. One of the helicopters providing air coverage of the race and another five ground units employed HD cameras. One HD camera went with the seven-time champion and supporting pit crew, and yet another followed producer/racer Mike McCoy. HD video allowed the crew to capture intense, extended shots, Rosenberg says, while eliminating the mountain of used film magazines. "At one instance of the race," he recalls, "there was a battle for first place between two motorcycles for nearly 200 miles. We could not have covered that with film."

Although the many camera formats, especially HD, helped to rein in the magnitude of the event, the rugged desert terrain demanded attention to other production aspects. Off-road racing introduces shock and vibration effects on a completely new scale. However, due to careful planning and thorough pretests, the losses and damages of the equipment were minimal. Even more notable, the crew used production techniques to circumvent vibration and stabilization issues, which helped minimize the need for that type of clean up in post.

In order to cope with these tremendous demands, helicopter units used gyroscope mounts for the HD and film cameras (the HD camera used the Hi-Def Gyron Stabilized Mount from Nettmann Enterprises), while the off-road chase car made use of a stabilizing suspension arm built by Mike Majesky of Shelly Ward Enterprises. "Through the unique use of coil over style shocks and springs, the five inch-long arm offered dampened movement in any direction, taking all the hits out of the terrain," explained Director of Photography Kevin Ward. Careful maintenance of these stabilizing methods ensured that no dedicated post-production stabilization software was required on the editing end.

Working the Post Pit
After covering a continuous, 1,000-mile race, a production crew will inevitably amass vast amounts of footage. And while the production crew boasted 90 members, the smaller post-production crew of six faced the challenge of condensing 250 hours of raw footage into a feature-length movie. Typically, most Hollywood HD post-production environments can accommodate this much uncompressed video; however, given the enormous file storage requirements of uncompressed SD and HD video--as much as 300GB per hour of footage (compare that to 12.9GB/hour of DV)--a small studio simply can't handle that type of volume.

Timeline and budget constraints dictated that the video had to be compressed prior to editing. The post team elected to use a lossless digital intermediate compression codec. In the past, many producers have frowned upon use of compressed HD video, as compression software typically degraded image quality far below industry (uncompressed HD or film) standards. But the Dust to Glory team maintains that recent advancements in digital intermediate codecs have made working with compressed HD less of a handicap to independents.

The team used Adobe Premiere Pro with the CineForm codec plug-in for HD capture and transcoding on BOXX HD-ProRT workstations to complete post-production. Essentially, the bulk of the Dust to Glory editing was completed on PCs available to professional videographers.

Brown and Waugh performed the original offline edits, which took over two months of 8-10 hour days to log the entire film. Next they imported the logged film into the digital workflow. The crew scanned the 16mm and 35mm coverage into 2K and 4K formats, respectively, using Spirit high-resolution film scanners. All of the SD format resolutions were upsampled to 1080i HD using Teranex Converter Boxes. Then all of the HD, DV, and film coverage was integrated and digitized into the CineForm codec at 1920x1080i resolution in 16:9 widescreen at 23.98fps (the standard for film). "I was amazed at the stability and quality of the codec," Rosenberg says of the CineForm technology. "The film and [upsampled SD resolution] did not degrade even though we were working with compressed HD."

The post-production team also used Adobe After Effects for time-remapping the film's speed ramps (or transitions from full-speed to slow-motion action), general shot-resizing, and generating animated titles. One might expect that integrating footage from so many different cameras and formats might present an array of color-correction challenges to the editors for seamless transitions between footage from different sources, but Rosenberg says it wasn't much of an issue. By design, the editors didn't even attempt color matching of shots, like in-car DV with overhead HD video, in order to preserve the film's documentary look. "A documentary's scenes can feel different," Rosenberg says. "We were working in different environments, with different stories."

But the crew did use color editing plug-ins including AJA and Color Finesse 1.5 for general corrections. However, Rosenberg commented that increased audio functionality, specifically Rich Music Format (RMF) support for improved MIDI sound integration, would have been a welcome addition to the editing workflow. Final audio mixing was performed using DigiDesign ProTools.

Delivering an Upset
After the film was edited, delivery provided the Dust to Glory crew with another chance to reduce costs. Typically HD video is printed directly to film, but this process is prohibitively expensive, on the order of $60-70,000. Dust to Glory will be exported to an HD tape or Windows Media file (depending on the delivery venue) and projected digitally in HD cinemas.

After the theatrical release, the crew has prepared for widespread DVD distribution. "Because the HD sequences were already at a DVD-supported progressive frame rate of 23.976," Rosenberg says, "we would simply export to DVD from our sequence. A 16:9 version of the sequence would then be authored onto a DVD as an autoplay movie." Premiere Pro preserved the 16:9 image by condensing the frame to a 4:3 image that "is tagged to unsquish and become letterboxed" during DVD playback, according to Rosenberg.

Dust to Glory has just begun its theatrical release at this writing, with IFC Films handling distribution. In some ways its debut opens a new door for independent filmmakers. HD-quality film production has historically been the province of big studios with big budgets, but Brown's project demonstrates how small, independent producers can make it work.

High-quality HD compression technology has allowed indies shooting and editing digital to match the high production values of major film studios. That said, Rosenberg stresses the importance of maintaining both film and HD formats in feature productions. "The digital intermediate is a strong format, but no one should say that you can't shoot with film, that film is dead. Acquisition should always be up to the creative director."

Whatever the delivery medium, independent producers now have an assortment of tools that equip them to contend with their larger competitors. In an off-road race that has long been one-sided, the continuing development of compressed digital workflows has blazed a smoother path for small independents with hi-def ambitions.