Canon 5D workflows that actually work (and flow)

I’m a geek – I freely admit it – but I didn’t develop a custom workflow for the Canon 5D just for the hell of it, I did it because all the off-the-shelf solutions out there just didn’t cut the mustard.

There are, of course, loads of ways of getting 5D (or any other DSLR) footage into the edit suite – Canon’s own Final Cut plug-in certainly does the job (slowly), but it’s a total pain if you are shooting an entire 5D feature film in four weeks, as the director of Dimensions (www.dimensionsthemovie.com) intended to do. It’s a lot of footage, arriving very fast, on a lot of CF cards, and you can’t afford to lose a shot. Sure, any decent Data Wrangler would be up to the task, but if you are shooting on a 5D you probably have a low budget, so would prefer not to have a dedicated DIT – right?

The custom software we wrote for this feature allows anyone (usually a camera or production assistant) to perform all of the actions that the Data Wrangler would do simply by dragging the icon for a mounted CF card onto the icon for our code. The top-level of the application is an AppleScript (for maximum flexibility – changes are super fast to implement). The first thing this script does is copy the entire contents of the CF card to hard discs – in our case, a pair of RAID 1 G-Tech G-Safes, so that we already have a multiple disc drive redundancy – basically, three of the four discs that make up these two drives could fail without losing any data.

With a couple of 5Ds shooting, it’s quite possible that they generate identical file names at some point. Each CF card copy, therefore, is placed in separate folder – the software created a new folder each day, and a sub-folder named from the time that the copy began.

Once the data is copied and verified, the poor, terrified camera assistant is told that it’s safe to re-use the CF card. If anything goes wrong with the copy operation, klaxons go off, machine-gun turrets drop from the ceiling, and the unfortunate soul is dragged off to room 101 for a debriefing he’ll never forget. Well, something like that – a dialog box appears informing the user of the error and suggesting strongly that they retry the operation (there wasn’t any budget for machine-gun turrets).

Here’s where the fun starts. The AppleScript hands over to some custom Mac software which timecodes one of the copies of the ‘raw’ H.264 QuickTime files from the camera, as well as giving it a reel name based on the date and time (so you can always tell which directory the file came from, and EDLs work properly). The timecode is extracted from the creation time of the camera file, so it’s worth getting the camera dept. to set the camera’s clock to something sensible (as with all ‘time-of-day’ timecode, beware of night shoots). This timecode stamping is important, and a step missed by the other workflows. When you edit and finish the movie, you’ll probably be using some other file format (e.g. ProRes) transcoded from the H.264 out of the camera. That’s fine, but if you ever need to go back to the camera files, they need to have the same timecode as the files you’re editing with, or you’ll have to completely re-build your edit. Producer’s tend to frown on such things. Belt and braces this may be, but experience has taught me well. You can download the Mac application from the Editing Tools page.

Now, the software takes the timecoded files and transcodes them to your edit CODEC of choice. It uses Apple’s Compressor, so if you have a Qmaster cluster set up this process really flies. Compressor automatically copies the timecode and reel name information over to the new files. We use a G-Tech G-Speed eS as storage for the edit files, and a small fleet of G-Tech mobile USB drives to ferry these files to an identical eS in the edit suite (along with another copy of the raw files, just to have one off-site in case of fire/theft etc.). No, I don’t have shares in G-Tech, but their drives have never let me down (yet) – it’s a shame that G-Tech’s parent company has just been bought by Western Digital, who’s discs have never done anything except let me down.

At the end of principle photography, the Producer gets to keep one of the G-Safes with all the rushes on it. The other one goes to the editor (me!), in case I need to rebuild a transcoded file, or relink my edit to the original camera files.

You really don’t need to do anything this complex for a short 5D shoot, but the thought of someone on-set, manually copying camera files on such a hectic shoot gave me the collywobbles (and it had an effect on the movie’s Producer that required bicycle clips to contain). A few days writing custom code meant we didn’t need a data wrangler, we never lost a shot, and the Producer’s trousers remained unsoiled. Who could ask for more?

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