Nursing touches people at every stage of their lives. Those who have faced a serious health-care challenge often say that the attention and compassionate care of a nurse made all the difference during a difficult time. This special in cinema spot for the Ontario Nurses Association ran in Cineplex cinemas throughout Ontario during the holiday season. Here we present the extended Director's cut.
Client: Ontario Nurses Association
Director: John Cook
Director of Photography: Gregory Bennett
Editor: Adam Schoales
Colourist: Scott McIntyre
Music: Adrian Gordon Cook
For our latest spot for the Ontario Nurses Association, Compass360 decided to produce an 60-second in cinema ad. This meant we had double the length of our average TV spot, but also meant a much bigger canvas to play on. As a result a decision was made to shoot at a much higher resolution that we have in the past (6K), on a different camera system than before (the RED Helium). On top of that, to take full advantage of the cinema screen we decided to shoot with anamorphic lenses (which we had previously experimented with on our last spots, Angel and Father). This meant we were taking full advantage of the Helium's sensor, as well as getting the beautiful widescreen image we were after. However, it also meant all as a result we had a whole new post workflow on our hands. I had previously worked with RED footage for the Spy Gear spots I cut a few years ago, but this spot was going to push our workflow (and my computer) to its very limits.
The initial stages of the workflow didn't really change that much from our previous projects. Firstly, I import all the R3D files into Final Cut Pro, as well as the audio files from the sound recordist. Thankfully Final Cut Pro automatically recognized the footage as being anamorphic and as a result it didn’t require any actual overrides on my part to get the footage to look correct. Once the footage was ingested I opted to create proxies using the built in tools in FCPX; the crew had simultaneously recorded proxy files on set but to avoid relinking issues down the line I wanted to make sure Final Cut Pro was always referencing the original footage and referencing proxies it had made itself. I've used the Final Cut Pro proxy workflow many times, and despite the fact that I still wish you could point to the location of proxies during the re-link process, I'm otherwise very pleased with how it works. I skipped the “generate optimized media” step in order to save space on my hard drive, but also hours and hours of transcoding (the source footage came in at just under a terabyte).
With the proxies rendered (after several hours) I then exported an XML of the library, which I then brought into Sync-N-Link X to sync the audio and videos files together.
Once SNLX had done it’s thing I brought the material back into FCPX. It was here that I encountered the first major hurdle: the resulting synced footage wasn’t anamorphic. Instead our anamorphic image was being placed into a 4:3 non-anamorphic container which resulted in some serious letterboxing.
However, no need to panic. I had actually experienced a similar issue on the last shoot with anamorphic footage. For those spots we had shot on the Alexa with anamorphic lenses, and when I tried to sync the audio to the picture automatically I ended up with an anamorphic image in a non-anamorphic container. I spent several hours troubleshooting before realizing that what I needed to do was figure out the de-squeezed dimensions of the clip and enter that as a custom frame size for the synchronized clip. Because we had shot on the Alexa and the files were ProRes this was relatively easy - I simply opened the file in Quicktime and looked at the “displayed dimensions” which are shown in brackets (for those interested, it was 5760 x 2160). Unfortunately for me however, on that shoot we didn’t jam timecode so I had to manually sync each video file to its corresponding audio file, and manually enter in the correct dimensions for each one.
Cut back to our winter spot: the good news was that because for this spot we had jammed timecode I was able to use SNLX, saving me the headache of manually syncing hundreds of clips. However, I still had the same issue with our anamorphic footage not coming in correctly. At this point I figured I might be able to save myself a little time by experimenting with manually editing the XML spit out by SNLX, since the sync itself was fine just not the frame size*. I opened it up, and sure enough, the dimensions for all the synced clips were listed as the original squeezed size (5760x4320). I assumed all I would need to do is replace the 5760 number with the correct de-squeezed number.
This was where we encountered the next wrinkle. How was I going to get the proper dimensions? Last time I was able to open the ProRes files from the Alexa in Quicktime, but this time I only had R3D files, and those wouldn’t open in Quicktime. Thankfully Final Cut Pro saved the day. Using the built in “generate optimized media” feature I was able to run a test on a short R3D clip and create a ProRes file that would open in Quicktime. This gave me the de-squeezed dimensions of 11520 x 4320 (big enough, do you think!?) and I could then return to the XML and replace all instances of 5760 with 11520. I saved the XML, hoped for the best, and imported it into Final Cut.
Low and behold it worked perfectly. All my synced clips were now the proper de-squeezed size and all my audio was perfectly synchronized.
Despite these initial setup headaches, from here the edit process remained fairly straight forward. Because of the huge frame size (over 10K) I did have to work entirely in proxy mode, which ultimately wasn't a big deal (but did make me covet one of those fancy new iMac Pro's, or at the very least a 5K iMac). Normally at this stage I would pull up my on-set notes and my trusty copy of Shot Notes X, however since I wasn’t on set to take detailed notes I skipped this step this time around. The directors had taken notes of their favourite takes, and thanks to the information contained in the audio files from the sound recordist, scene numbers and take numbers were transferred into the FCPX metadata when the audio and video was synced by SNLX. This made assembling my first cut much quicker.
With picture finally locked it was time to do the hand off to the colourist. I was a little worried about this stage, since the last time I cut a spot using R3D files the colourist had trouble opening my XML and relinking everything. However this was not the case for the folks over at Triangle Post. Matthew Bush and his team were brought into the conversation at an early enough point that we could get footage over to them for testing in their pipeline, as well as testing a working copy of my FCPXML prior to picture lock to ensure the translation wouldn't cause problems, so when it came time to prep for the colour session everything came smoothly into Resolve.
With the colour grade completed, and the coloured master delivered back to me, there was one final step. We wanted to add snow in the background of some of the shots to give the spot a nice wintery vibe. Scott Wise, one of our co-directors, took on the task of animating and then rotoscoping in virtual snow in After Effects (with a little help from an outstanding Premium Beat tutorial), which he then delivered to me as a separate alpha-channeled plate. All I had to do was to drop these VFX plates on top of the coloured master provided by Triangle, adjust the opacity slightly to make sure everything felt natural, drop in the few text elements, and add our sound mix, and we had a completed spot.
All in all, this was quite the learning experience for everyone involved, but we couldn't be more proud of the end result. Having the large canvas of the cinema screen, and the added runtime meant we wanted to create a spot that really stood out from the crowd, and it did just that. I must admit, getting to see the spot on a giant IMAX screen prior to a screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an experience I won't soon forget. My sincere thanks to the team at Compass 360 for continuing to bring me in to create these wonderful spots, as well as to Matthew, Scott, and the rest of the team at Triangle Post for their time spent troubleshooting and ensuring a smooth online, colour, and finishing process. And a huge thanks to the team over at Intelligent Assistance for helping troubleshoot the issues with anamorphic footage in Sync-N-Link X.
* FOOTNOTE: This turned out to be related to a bug in Final Cut Pro and Sync-N-Link. I reached out to the developers of SNLX that evening and explained my situation. The next day (a Sunday no less) they had got back to me with some suggested solutions, including a note that they’d be updating the app with a preference to deal with anamorphic footage. After a few email exchanges and some troubleshooting we determined the issue. By the end of the week they had submitted the updated app to Apple. As a result, hopefully by the time you're reading this you will not need to worry about this, but in case you do encounter issues the above article should help you troubleshoot and get you up and running.