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Dispatches from PyeongChang: Editing the Olympics (Part 5)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Luckily I crossed paths with editor Mike Api who is currently in PyeongChang, South Korea, freelancing for NBC in his second Olympic Games. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and a few athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles).

Mike is sending me periodic dispatches from PyeongChang, where he's on day 15 in a row (or day 16, time zones are confusing) of editing the Olympics. This is the fifth installment -- check out part one to get started on his journey.



What role does music play in the editing you're doing? Are you selecting it, is it provided, are you assigned edits that use more prolific music or is it something that's used a lot? OR are you not using a lot of music at all for the stuff you're sending to affiliates?

The Olympics has a very distinct orchestral score that's instantly recognizable, but that's not really what we go for when we're cutting our pieces. There's definitely a time and place to use the huge epic tracks with the pounding drums and 60-piece orchestra, but if you use that all the time it starts to get boring. The big soaring John Williams stuff is mainly to set the atmosphere for the live broadcast and then maybe some end-of-Games recaps or epic montages, but for promos and features the score can be all over the map genre-wise. This time in particular, we're making a concerted effort to freshen it up and experiment with more upbeat modern stuff as opposed to the typical "Olympics" music and I think the results have been pretty cool. We have access to a ton of music libraries to pull from. We'll do a few pop songs each Games but it's mainly library stuff.

At this point you've been away from home for several weeks, and you're in double digit number of days working 12 hour shifts in a row. How do you maintain a level of creative inspiration to keep going? Do you ever hit a wall when working with this, or is that just not possible?

Sometimes it can be tough to stay fresh creatively but it helps that there are new sports each day, so you're usually looking at new angles of new people in new places, doing new (crazy) things. It can be a challenge for events like figure skating and skiing that happen every day, but you reference the previous day's work and try to do something a little different, or improve upon what you've been doing. It helps you stay sane instead of just plugging in the same formula day-in day-out.

Beyond that, I'm always inspired by the people I work with and am constantly absorbing new tricks and techniques. It's fun to watch each other's stuff and see how we're all turning the same footage into drastically different pieces. We often do the whole "where'd you get THAT shot!?" or "have you seen THIS one?" routine like the nerds we are.


You can get super close to the track.

I think you can easily hit a wall physically more so than creatively. Like any edit job, you're making hundreds if not thousands of decisions every day and there's always more to do. It can be really taxing mentally. Somewhere around Day 10 or 11 the schedule starts to catch up to you. By that point the Games are in full swing, you're cranking on pieces every day, maybe you've crashed a few last minute pieces or some you were really proud of were killed because the featured athlete got hurt. But everyone's in it together, supporting one another and keeping the energy flowing. Once you get past Day 10 it starts to move pretty quickly. I'm writing this on Day 15 and can't believe we're almost done. It feels like I've been here forever but at the same time the Games themselves flew by.

Are there any special pieces that are generally prepared for the end of the Olympics? Or does that change?

There are a number of annual ending pieces and they're the most anticipated cuts aside from the grand Olympic open (which is cut by longtime NBC veteran Phil Parrish). Everyone's got some kind of end-of-Games recap or lookback to do, plus there is the credit rollout to cut. We have so many credits that our rollout is about ten and a half minutes long. The big headlining end piece is called Remember The Titans and it airs right before the credit rollout plays. It's a piece we do every Olympics of the very best of the best, most epic shots and intimate moments, heartbreak, emotional victories, and the Olympic spirit. Everybody pulls selects throughout the whole month and it's really special when you finally see it all compiled together with the Titans score. We'll all gather together on Sunday to watch the finished cut. It's a great culmination of everyone's work (and some fantastic editing by the brilliant Josh Glaser).


OBS HD cameras along the track in the sliding center

Can you talk about going to see some of the events, like alpine skiing and skeleton? How was it different than what you saw in Rio?

I'm a little biased because I love the winter sports more than the summer sports, but the atmosphere at the events I saw was unbelievable. Alpine skiing is terrifying because of the sheer speed at which they hurl themselves down the mountain. It's completely insane. Skeleton was particularly cool because as fast as they look on television, you can't imagine how fast they whiz by you in person. I remember thinking to myself, "oh, these guys are out of their damn minds too." You can literally blink and miss them. That said, it does look like a lot of fun to careen down an ice flume like a superhero. We walked down the length of the track and stopped at the last big turn before the finish line to watch South Korea's Yun Sungbin (the guy with the Iron Man helmet) win gold amongst a sea of Koreans, which was incredible. Seeing the home team win gold and everybody going crazy is a really special experience.

You said you're coloring in the edit, out of curiosity are you doing any QC for picture and sound levels or is that a separate department that legalizes stuff?

We QC everything ourselves and take it really seriously. Everything that gets delivered first gets sent to our EVS supervisor, where he and usually the editor plus one or two other people will all watch the piece down before pushing it to the servers. Whoever receives the cut on the other side will also give it a QC pass before it's finally cleared for air. From the outset, we have really specific standards as far as audio levels, video levels, and the entire export process so it's pretty clear what we need to be delivering.


Logo wall inside the IBC

Have you personally developed any Olympic traditions aside from pin trading now that you've got the majority of two of them down?

(Does eating like an animal count as a tradition?) You can learn a lot about a culture by diving into their cuisine, which is why I like to house as much of it as I possibly can. I loved the food in Rio and lovvvvve the food here in Korea. You could put an old sneaker in front of me and I'd eat it if it had gochujang (Korean red chili paste) on it.

Aside from pins, a lot of people get a postcard stamped on the day of Opening Ceremony. It's a pretty unique little souvenir to have something with these specific Olympic postmarks on them. The last thing I need in my house is more stuff, but since they don't take up any space I might make this a new tradition of mine.


Opening ceremony post mark


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Feb 24, 2018 at 6:21:56 pm editing, olympics, mike api, avid

Dispatches from PyeongChang: The Edit Infrastructure of the Olympics (Part 4)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Luckily I crossed paths with editor Mike Api who is currently in PyeongChang, South Korea, freelancing for NBC in his second Olympic Games. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and a few athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles).

Mike is sending me periodic dispatches from PyeongChang, where he's nearly two weeks into editing the Olympics. Check out part one to get started on his journey.

What's the workflow like for cutting the stuff you cut and then making it to air? What’s the overall technical workflow for ingesting everything else?

The primary source for every network is OBS (Olympic Broadcasting Service), the official host broadcaster for every Olympics. They are a branch of the IOC and provide every media outlet [who has purchased the rights] with what we call the World Feed - literally every second of every event. Any game you see on TV was shot and recorded by OBS. The scope of their production is really impressive. They have cameras all over every venue, plus action cameras like the ones that race along the track/pool/ski slope/whatever, plus a bunch of high tech spidercams, drones, lipstick cams planted throughout the playing fields, on and on and on. Plus god only knows how many microphones dotted all over every playing venue. We get the World Feed plus textless "melts" - reels of the best moments from several different angles, usually in super high speed.

We also have our own production people filming and recording a whole separate slew of ENG material - true speed, super high speed, helicopter aerials, all sorts of fun stuff - on top of all the athlete profiles and cultural features we produce. Our stuff looks really filmic and helps add some color and texture to the broadcast. I have to shout out our ENG shooters for the unbelievable work they do - high-level professionals like Samson Chan, Aaron Mendez, and John Biggins provide us with some really astounding moments.

In addition to cutting sponsor enhancements, promos, and features, we're kind of the central distribution hub for all other departments as well as other broadcasters and venues. Our media managers ingest an ungodly amount of material every day, catalog it, and distribute it to my department. Loggers and PAs watch *everything* that comes in, subclip it, name it, and check it into Avid Interplay. Each editor has a producer in their edit bay, wading through the massive stockpile of material and digging out the gems depending on what our assignments are. PAs also do a lot of digging for shots and moments and even some editing. It's not uncommon for us to be in a pinch, with everyone crashing on their own pieces, and hand a project off to a PA to be cut. After all, they are the first eyes on the material and typically know the footage better than the rest of us. It's a great opportunity for these young bucks. Editors edit, producers edit, PAs edit, everybody's got their hands in the footage.

Editing wise, we're 100% Avid/PC based. Everyone's running on MC 8.9.2 with Symphony enabled, accelerated by these gorgeous whisper-quiet Avid Artist DNxIO boxes. We have a colorist making a color pass on select material upon ingest (usually scenics and specific major features), everything else gets colored in the edit. We work entirely in full resolution since it just wouldn't be practical (or necessary) to have proxies and then uprez later. We need to see everything in high res from the start and get it out as quickly as possible. After cutting, we'll color correct and either mix it ourselves or send it to our Pro Tools mixers in Stamford, CT if it's a bigger or more complex piece. Once we get the mix we export the uncompressed finished product to our EVS servers for playback. (Beyond just the regular HD broadcast, we also do a bunch of 4K HDR, VR, mobile, and even Snapchat stuff, all with their own unique delivery paths.)


Inside the IBC.

Can you give us an idea of how vast the infrastructure is?

It's mind-boggling. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the numbers because they are so comically high:

I think we have something like 2,500 crew members working here in PyeongChang, plus another 1,000 back home in Stamford, CT, some more at 30 Rock in Manhattan, some out at CNBC in New Jersey, plus more in Denver working on Olympic Channel stuff - where most of these sports than only get seen every few years have more regular coverage. This year we're doing about 2,400 hours of coverage (120 something hours a day), around 1,800 of which is live. We deploy 150 of our own cameras and 2 helicopters to accompany OBS's massive arsenal (they had 1,000 cameras in Rio). We have 15 or 16 edit rooms here in the IBC, plus another 15 spread out amongst the venues. I heard we take up around 72,000 sq ft of space within the IBC, which sounds about right. Everything is connected via fiber but I couldn't begin to guess how much cable was used to build the infrastructure. All I know is the 6000mi transfers from PyeongChang to Stamford, CT are lightning fast. The engineering team behind the build are mad scientists, man.

On the media side, it's equally as bonkers. Beyond ingesting the World Feed, our media managers also get about 3-5TB of new ENG material plus another few hundred GB of helicopter stuff every day. There's hundreds of GB of graphics, hundreds of TB of specialty promo footage, and as of today (Day 9) our projects drive is already about 600GB full. That's a lot of metadata! We also have a massive archive of all of our footage from past Olympic games. Storage-wise, we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.2PB (or 2,200TB). Like I said, mind-boggling.

When you are working on location, do you have much interaction with the locals? How do you try to experience life through their eyes?

Absolutely! Every Olympics has a local crew of staff and volunteers that work all the events, direct people where to go, assist with translations, man all the security stations, handle all the food, act as local concierges, everything. Getting to know the locals is one of my favorite parts of the job. I mean, why travel around the world if you're not going to meet new people and experience different cultures? My team and I do as much traveling in the country as we can, exploring nearby towns, eating where the locals eat, visiting cultural landmarks, just trying to immerse ourselves in the local life.


A day off in Seoul makes for good Instagrams.

Another great way to meet people is Olympic pin trading. Olympic pins date back to the very first Summer Games in 1896 and are a whole world unto themselves. Broadcasters all have their own unique sets of pins, as do equipment vendors, sponsors, specific venues, host cities, everybody. I've got some from NBC, BBC, Avid, Anton Bauer, CBC, and some classic ones from the 80s. All you have to do is ask for one (typically best to do in the very beginning, as supplies quickly evaporate once more broadcasters arrive at the Games). The local volunteers are here every day with us, so they're essentially our co-workers. Trading pins with them is a really easy way to forge a bond and make someone's day. I've had some really rough days turn around because a local kid was excited that I gave them a cool pin. For us, we go to Olympics every few years so we amass a pretty sweet collection of keepsakes, but for the locals working around us, this may be the only opportunity they have to get some.


Mike's pin collection so far.

[Below is an exchange from Rio that I'll never forget. My friend Karl (on the right) and I were coming into work one day at about 2am, about halfway through the Games. We were both exhausted and really struggling to maintain our energy. On our way in that day, this stoic security guard - who hadn't said two words to us the entire time - stopped us and gently pointed to the pins on Karl's lanyard, asking to trade. In a matter of seconds this guy went from stone-faced serious business to ear-to-ear smiles (as did Karl). He was proud of the Olympics being in his homeland and just wanted as many pins that said Rio on them as he could get. We made his day, he made ours, and believe it or not it gave us a little boost to get through the last week of the grind. All because of a little pin.]



Which past Olympics would you have liked to work?

I really wish I could have worked the Sydney, Barcelona, Torino, London, and Vancouver Games because they're all places I either love or have always wanted to visit. From a historical standpoint, of course I would have loved to have seen the Los Angeles '84 Games and the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid '80. Honestly, I'm still in disbelief that I get to work any of them.

NEXT: Read Part Five!


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Feb 22, 2018 at 5:43:33 am olympics, post production, editing, avid

Being an Assistant Editor on a Sundance Documentary: Julie Hwang on "The Game Changers"

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.


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Like many of the connections made at Sundance, I met Julie Hwang in a flash during an Avid mixer on Main Street, introduced by a mutual friend. Between the purple lights, free beanies, and blaring music, we could barely hear each other — but when I saw she had served as an assistant editor on her first Sundance documentary feature, I insisted we trade cards and follow up soon after the fest. (Then I ran off into the night to interview Barbie down the street.)

And I’m so glad I did because Julie is rad.

Julie Hwang came into editing in a roundabout way. Her background is technical: she went to MIT and was an electrical engineer at Texas Instruments in Texas where she designed HDMI switches for ten years! “If you ever switched inputs on your HDMI TV, there's a good chance one of the chips I worked on made that possible.”



Once she left engineering, Julie took a Final Cut Pro class and some other production-oriented classes around Dallas, worked on a low budget feature in various roles, and then found herself moving to Silicon Valley along with her partner when he was transferred. After a couple years of freebies and Indies, she decided to fully commit to post production.

“I finally got into post-production, oddly enough, via production. I was working as a PA and assistant travel coordinator on a pretty big travel-based reality competition show. I got to travel to a bunch of different cities, and it felt a little like running away with the circus. Ultimately, I wanted to find something more stable and in post-production back in the Bay Area. Luckily, one of the producers on the show recommended me to a post production supervisor she knew in the Bay Area, and that's how I finally got my first job working with Avid. I started out as a logger and I didn't really have any Avid experience at all. It was my first time working in a real TV post-production environment and I just loved it and knew that's where I wanted to be.”

Julie served as assistant editor on The Game Changers, a documentary that features athletes, soldiers, scientist and cultural icons working together to change the way we eat and live and shift toward a plant-based diet. The documentary was directed by Louie Psihoyos and executive produced by James Cameron, and debuted at Sundance to a sold out audience.


Outside The Ray Theater where The Game Changers premiered.

Creative COW: Why did you originally choose to go into engineering, and what made you shift into film? Was it a life-long passion you put aside to pursue engineering?

Julie Hwang: I've had a love of movies and a fascination with the film industry since a pretty young age, but I grew up as a first generation Asian American whose parents were both engineers. The film/TV industry was something that wasn't really known to my family and also seemed like a risky and impractical pursuit to them. It was something I could never give up completely though. Even at MIT, I took film and media classes, which I definitely enjoyed more than my engineering classes.

Back in Dallas, I became heavily involved in the film festival community there and even helped run the Asian Film Festival of Dallas for a few years. Those experiences brought me in contact with actual filmmakers and other people working in the industry, which made the idea of working in the industry much less abstract. I also want to mention Justin Lin's success at Sundance back in 2002 with Better Luck Tomorrow. Seeing someone with a similar background to my own break out in the movie industry like he did was huge.

Deciding to make the break still took a while, but my final turning point came when I realized I didn't want to retire from my working life at 55 or 65 as an engineer, and that's what was going to happen if I didn't leave.

Engineering and post production are two industries that are notoriously unwelcoming to women. There’s copious research that shows parallels between both industries’ lack of ability to retain, develop, and promote women properly. What has been your experience going from one to the other? Do the two technical roles share similarities, or are things quite different?

Both industries definitely require similar skill sets and I think my engineering background has served me quite well. It's all about trade-offs and working with the resources you have to get things done.

One thing I saw a lot in my engineering career was the drive to make processes more efficient and squeeze more performance out of existing systems and that's a mentality with which I approach the technical side of my work as an assistant editor. Especially in television, where schedules are so tight, it's important to do everything you can to get the editors working as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

I think I was pretty lucky in my engineering career to have worked at a large corporation that had a lot of programs and systems in place to help promote and develop women. Going from a company that had thousands of employees to companies that had less than 50, sometimes less than 5 employees was a big adjustment. Also, so much of our industry is word of mouth and you often find yourself on short assignments. There's a lot more hustle involved. I had to learn to really speak up more for myself and put myself out there in order to make an impression or find new opportunities.

In any field or occupation, I think it's important to stand up for yourself and let your ideas be heard. I still have trouble doing that sometimes, and I will admit, I've found myself more willing to speak up in situations where the crew has been predominantly women. Let me just say, I've been in a few situations where I've felt my ideas were dismissed, ignored, or just put down, and none of those situations involved a female producer, director, or editor.

I think one of the best ways to bring about positive change for women in any field is to seek out and work with people you respect and who value your contributions in return, male or female.


Bryant Jennings in The Game Changers.

Tell me about The Game Changers. How did you get involved on the film, and what was your role? How long did you work on the film?

The Game Changers is a feature length documentary that follows elite special forces trainer and former UFC fighter James Wilks as he discovers the performance, health, and environmental impacts of a plant-based diet. It was directed by Louis Psihoyos, who won an Oscar for The Cove, and executive produced by James Cameron and Suzy Amis Cameron.  One of the writers was Mark Monroe (Icarus) and the film was edited by Dan Swietlik, ACE (An Inconvenient Truth, Sicko, Fed Up) and Stephanie Mechura (The Price of Sex, Frontline). It was really a dream team of documentary film making and it was an amazing experience to be able to be in the edit rooms with Dan and Stephanie.

I was brought onto the project back in February of last year because they made a decision change NLE's from Premiere to Avid and needed Bay Area Avid assistants to help transfer the project. I ended up staying on through the rest of the post production process. I was able to do some string-outs and editing, but my primary duties were to manage our massive project and the media and assets.

I feel really lucky to have been brought onto the film, not only because of the caliber of the filmmakers involved, but it's probably the first project I've been involved with that I felt could have a positive impact on the world.


Outside Park City's Egyptian Theater

What was the most challenging aspect of The Game Changers for you as an assistant editor? How did you meet that challenge?

The amount of material we had was enormous. This is easily the largest project I've worked on, in terms of hours of footage and the number of subjects involved. Over 100 subjects were interviewed. In addition to that, we had hours of verite and also a huge amount of archival footage and graphics. From a creative standpoint, condensing and refining all that material into a coherent 90 minute film was a huge challenge by itself, but we also had a lot of logistical issues to deal with.

We had producers, writers, and graphics artists spread all over the world and our editor Stephanie was also working remotely for part of the time. It was vital to have the project well organized and with a good naming convention for each different type of media so we could find things quickly or new material could be found logically. We made heavy use of Google Drive both for sharing scripts, exports, and even Avid bins quickly.

As I mentioned earlier, I had been brought on to help move the project from Premiere to Avid. It was a decision that delayed the start of the edit by about 6 weeks, since we essentially had to rebuild and re-sync everything from scratch, but in the end it probably saved us months.

The ability for multiple members of the team to be working in the same project at the same time was absolutely essential and Scriptsync was just a brilliant way for us to quickly go through all the material we had and to assemble edits. I'm also not sure that we would have been able to keep everything in one project with Premiere. Avid handled our gargantuan project like a champ.

Is this your first trip to Sundance with a film? What has that experience been like?

Yes! This was my first trip with a film. I had come to Sundance before, just as a festival goer, but this was definitely a more exciting experience. At the premiere, I finally got to meet several of our documentary subjects in person which was kind of strange and also nerve wracking, since none of them had seen the film yet. It was a great relief that all the athletes and scientists were happy with the film and how they were portrayed.

Many of your credits are on reality and documentary projects. What are you working toward in the future?

I enjoy the challenge of reality and documentary work where you're essentially finding the story in the edit, but I do hope to be able to move more into narrative work. Part of my desire to shift is just because that's a whole area of post production that I'm unfamiliar with and I want to gain that knowledge. In narrative work you also have a larger number of disciplines coming together to create and drive the story, and it would be exciting to be a part of that.


The Game Changers.

What’s next on the horizon for you? Do you have another project lined up?

There's still a little more work to be done on The Game Changers post-Sundance. We finished the Sundance cut of the film only a few days before its festival premiere so it doesn't feel like that project has really wrapped yet. After that, I'm looking at some other TV documentary work, and I think it's time to start going down to LA more.

What advice do you have for people who might be considering shifting careers into post production?

Always be willing to work hard and learn as much as you can. Be patient but never complacent. If you're not sure about the switch, ask yourself where you want to be at the end of your career. If you can live with the track that you're on, that's great. If you can't, then you need to do what you can to switch.


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Feb 19, 2018 at 12:30:27 am Sundance, the game changers, assistant editor, editing, vegan

Dispatches from PyeongChang: Editing the Olympics (Part 3)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Luckily I crossed paths with editor Mike Api who is currently in PyeongChang, South Korea, freelancing for NBC in his second Olympic Games. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and a few athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles).

Mike is sending me periodic dispatches from PyeongChang, where the athletic highlights and stunning stories continue to pour out. Check out part one to get started on his journey.


Mike's Olympic 'stache next to the Olympic flame.

What's a typical day like for you now that the games are in full swing?

We work twelve hour shifts and I'm on a 2pm-2am workday this time around. My producer and I have to cut two new pieces every day for a primetime show on NBC affiliates - a show open and a highlight "lookback," which is like a highlight montage of the best moments or stories from that day. Beyond that we'll help out with other deliverables as needed, cutting promos, finishing pieces the day shift didn't have time for, and crashing* on new pieces that may pop up on the spur of the moment (which happened just this week after the men's skiathlon).

* - "Crashing" is an informal term for quickly cutting a new piece from scratch, usually because of some unexpected development or breaking news. In our case, we were asked to crash on a piece telling the story of Norwegian cross-country skiier Simen Hegstad Krueger's... in the men's skiathlon. (He crashed and broke a pole at the start of the 30km race, fell to dead last and made a miraculous comeback to win gold, passing all 63 skiiers in the process.) The whole thing was done with announcer calls from the race, so it was basically us digging through the hour-15 behemoth for little bits and pieces to tell the story coherently. There's more I would like to do with it, but I think it came out pretty cool nonetheless.

[Watch Mike's crash piece on Krueger's comeback on NBC's website -- it's really good.]

Do you get to actually watch anything, on TV or in person?

Yes on both accounts! We're surrounded by TVs with feeds from all the Comcast Olympic stations as well as direct feeds from the venues so we can see literally everything! I got to attend about ten or twelve events down in Rio but I was also on a 2am-2pm shift, so by the time my day was done there was a ton of things I could go see.

Here in PyeongChang it's a little different since I'm out at 2am and my window is a bit more limited. I'd like to see some luge, bobsled, snowboarding, ski jumping, and alpine downhill if I can swing it. Also, Japanese broadcaster NHK has a special Super High Vision* theater set up in the IBC, broadcasting events both taped and live in stunning 8K/22.2 surround sound. They're testing and preparing for Tokyo 2020 (and have been for years). I saw figure skating yesterday and it looked and sounded like I was sitting in the arena, it was incredible.

[Editor's note for the nerds: NHK's SHV is 7680x4320 10/12 bit 16:9 at frame rates of 59.94, 60, or 120. New to the Super High Vision for this Olympics is the addition of HDR for all events.]


Outside the Super High Vision Theater

Are there any special circumstances you have to watch out for in South Korea?

Nothing too crazy aside from the bitter cold and brutal wind. I've talked to a lot of Olympic long-timers who say this is by far the coldest Games they can remember, which is bonkers considering we're not that high up (around 2300ft) and we're about even with San Francisco latitudinally. I'm lucky enough to be in an edit bay all day. I can't imagine what the camera ops, mixers, photographers, and other production personnel are dealing with out their in the deep freeze.

What's been the best moment of the Olympics so far?

The best moment I've seen so far has been that crazy skiathlon comeback I mentioned earlier, but there are new amazing moments happening every hour. Take your pick: seventeen year old American Red Gerard winning Gold in slopestyle snowboarding (the USA's first medal); figure skater Mirai Nagasu's gravity-defying triple axel; Canada's Philippe Marquis qualifying eighth in moguls with a torn ACL, which is like the most insane thing I've ever heard. Literally every hour of every day some new record is set or a new compelling story develops. And it's still only Day 3!

What has been a personal highlight so far?

My personal highlight so far was getting the opportunity to cut a piece for the Opening Ceremony called Meet Team USA. It was a short stat-heavy feature that aired right before Team USA entered the stadium for the parade of nations. We worked on it in our down time for about 4 or 5 days and I'm really proud of the result. (I'm always my own worst critic and never feel like anything I work on is really ever 'done,' so this was a first for me.)


MEET TEAM USA from Mike Api on Vimeo.



Basically we started with a long script that was essentially a ton of numbers and names. We knew just yelling figures at people would get tired after a while, so we recorded a scratch VO, picked some music, and went to town pacing it out how we thought it should sound. From there we added some nat sound pops and announcer calls where we felt we needed a little break from the narration. (IMO, this is pretty standard documentary process - lay down your sound first and then elevate it with good visuals to tell the story.)

As my fantastic producer Scott and I mined for better and better shots, the Graphics department built us some cool full screens and animated titles, and hosts Katie Couric and Mike Tirico recorded the voiceover. As always, things kept popping up last minute (in this case athletes dropping out of the Games due to injuries), which meant new graphics as well as new voiceover - not the easiest thing to coordinate when you're hours away from the Opening Ceremony. Once we locked our cut we sent it off to [the NBC Sports home base in] Stamford, CT to be mixed, dropped in the final mix and exported to our playback server about 2 hours before the start of Opening Ceremony.


Mike's Media Composer timeline for Meet Team USA.

How does the constraint of time and deadline work for you in this environment?

In all of these cases, I find myself thriving off the high pressure and time constraints. It forces you to be more decisive and quickly recognize what you like or dislike. You do a lot of relying on your gut instincts since you just don't have the time to second guess yourself or flounder around in "well, I don't know" land.

You have to be creative off the top of your head, trust your teammates, brainstorm new ideas, collaborate, and try things out. Like I've mentioned in previous posts, SOMETHING has to air, so you need to get image and sound on a timeline one way or the other. Personally, I love working like that because at the end of a shift, it's on the air, out of my head, and I'm onto the next thing with a fresh mindset.


Navigation in the buildings.

NEXT: Read Part Four!


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Feb 17, 2018 at 6:07:11 pm olympics, post production, mike api, editing

Dispatches from PyeongChang: Preparing to Edit the Olympics (Part 2)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Luckily I crossed paths with editor Mike Api who is currently in PyeongChang, South Korea, freelancing for NBC in his second Olympic Games. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and a few athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles).

Mike is sending me periodic dispatches from balmy PyeongChang, where it is currently mid-afternoon on a Sunday and 20 degrees Fahrenheit, on track to be one of the coldest Games in recent memory. Check out part one to get started on his journey.


Mike with the Winter Olympics mascot Soohorang (수호랑) and Winter Paralympics mascot Bandabi (반다비).

When does the Olympics actually start? Why are you there so early?

The Opening Ceremony is Friday, February 9th, but technically the Winter Games start on the 7th. There are usually some events that take place before the OC because there's such a huge number to get through and scheduling & broadcasting them all means there has to be some crafty logistical maneuvering. There will never be any medals presented before the OC, but some early round robins/preliminary events get the early go. (In this case it's biathlon, luge, alpine skiing, and ski jumping.)

We get here almost two weeks before the opening because there's a lot of work to do! On the editing side, we have a ton of promos, sponsored content, and all sorts of different elements to create beforehand. There are also pieces that were cut in Stamford, CT that will need to be either finished, upgraded*, voiced, or totally recut depending on late-breaking developments (e.g. - if someone gets injured before the Games or if a shoe-in athlete we've been producing a feature on doesn't end up making the Olympics, which always happens). The studio and engineering crews have been here for much longer, building and testing all the studios and technical infrastructure. None of this was here a few months ago!


The International Broadcast Center being pieced together.

This year is especially complicated because it happens to be NBC's turn to broadcast the Super Bowl (in the same week no less!), so a good portion of the crew is still working on that.

Beyond that, we're still shooting new pieces that will need to be cut, colored, voiced, mixed, and ready to go later this week! (To be clear, this isn't due to a lack of planning - some things just aren't possible to do way ahead of time, especially any pieces that involve the athletes physically being in Korea. And again, things always come up.)

* - "upgraded" refers to upgrading the footage. The standards for visuals are very high, so we're always tweaking until we're happy with every shot in a piece. For instance, we may cut with "dirty" (texted) placeholder footage from an old race until we get our hands on better angles or better quality replacements. "Specialty" shoots are where we get the really pretty, really stylized b-roll and scenics that sports tv is known for.


Seoul, South Korea.

In the days leading up to the beginning of the games, what kinds of things are you doing or preparing, in general?

You name it. We're prepping a bunch of pieces we can't actually edit until we get competition footage, cutting a big preview show, cutting all those new late-breaking pieces I mentioned earlier, cutting dozens of sponsorship enhancements* (branded content that act as in-broadcast highlight reels while also serving as ad time), all sorts of jazz.

Right now I'm cutting a special Meet Team USA piece that's going to air directly before the USA walks into the Opening Ceremony! (No pressure at all, right?)

[*An example of sponsorship enhancements would be if Creative COW sponsors the Games and buys 12 sponsorship enhancements with a focus on "teamwork." So as the Games go on, we'll have to deliver 12 mini highlight reels with an emphasis on the best team moments - teammates picking each other up, passing the baton during a relay, celebrating together, etc. People often dog the Olympics for being too ad-heavy, but the fact is without sponsors like Coca-Cola (who is not paying me to say this), we wouldn't be able to broadcast the Games across the world. It's also how they manage to keep the courses, fields, and rinks clear of any advertising.]


Home for the month.

What have you learned is important to bring with you when you work on location in a foreign country?

Copies of your passport are crucial because it can take a really long time to replace a lost passport. Scan it, email it to yourself, and email it to someone else. Prepare a list of emergency contacts in your phone and also keep a physical copy on you. If you wear contacts - bring extras! It sounds obvious but I've gotten burned a few times when a lens popped out or ripped at the beginning of my trip and I had no backups.

It should go without saying but you also need to bring a respectful attitude and be mindful that you are, in fact, representing your entire country abroad. *This is especially important for younger people.* Sometimes you're excited to travel abroad and let loose, but you have to understand that the image you're putting out there is representative of (in our case) the United States and the NBC network. This isn't your home. It's someone else's. You can get plastered and be loud on the LIRR [Long Island Rail Road] and get a few stares but do that in another country while wearing your company logo and that's the image people will associate with the United States. It's not a very good look. 


Sight-seeing in Seoul.

How do you prepare emotionally for such a high intensity job that lasts for so long?

Finding a good rhythm and taking care of yourself is essential on these long hauls. The Olympics is definitely a grind; we're pulling 12-hr days 7 days a week for a month straight. If you're staying up late all the time or not eating properly and not getting enough rest it'll catch up to you, your body will shut down, and you won't be productive.

Psychologically, you really need to focus in on the task at hand, forget about social media or any other distractions. and operate on a Left-to-Right mentality. (That's a reference to putting things down on a timeline from left to right, getting ideas onto a sequence rather than wondering IF an idea is going to work.) Just try it and then adjust - after all, something is going to have to air. This is an approach I take to any project, no matter the pressure. Then go back and make it pretty when you have the time. This is not to say there isn't time to think and be creative, but you need to be efficient and focused.

What are you doing in your downtime?

(What is this "downtime" you speak of?!) I try to relax after work, get a good meal in and alternate between doing nothing and doing...something. And it almost always involves food (naturally). In Rio I did a lot of wandering around the Olympic Park checking out different events, and a bunch of days were spent exploring nearby towns. Here in PyeongChang, I happen to be at a hotel smack dab in the Mountain Cluster where nordic combined, ski jumping, and snowboarding is going down.



I have eaten my weight in Korean fried chicken, barbecue, kimchi, and all sorts of fun treats. We're also pretty close to the slide centre so I definitely want to catch some bobsled and luge. We're also pretty close to the high speed train that takes us to the Coastal Cluster where hockey, speed skating (!!), figure skating, and a host of other events are happening. We got an unexpected day off on Friday and took the train to Seoul, which was pretty amazing. Once we really get into the thick of it, I'm sure there will be days where I don't want to do anything but eat dinner and relax. It's a delicate balance of exploring while being mindful of how much rest you're getting.



[Editor's Note: Mike also got a scary warning text this weekend. It turned out to be warning of the impending cold wave. Which is also scary, but not in the way he was probably imagining.]



NEXT: Read Part Three!



Create Visual Art with Adobe, Be in a BØRNS Music Video

The name BØRNS may or may not be familiar to you at first glance — after all, you’re probably here for video stuff, generally speaking — but I can almost certainly guarantee you’ve heard his music — especially Electric Love, which hit over 20 million views on YouTube when it was released and subsequently certified platinum. BØRNS, now in Los Angeles, is from roughly the same area of Michigan as my extended family. Despite his humble midwestern roots, he’s nothing like (most) of my relatives: described as glam rock, indie pop, and everything from eccentric to exotic to enigmatic.

But underneath his falsetto synth pop, BØRNS is an artist filled with creativity, thriving in inspiring art in others. To follow that — and the release of his new album Blue Madonna which will take him on tour and to Coachella — BØRNS is partnering with Adobe to foster visual art inspired by his new song “We Don’t Care”. The end product will be edited by BØRNS (in Premiere Pro, of course) and the winner will be featured in a music video and get the chance to come to LA to meet him. (Hurry up and get going on the Creative Brief — the contest ends February 6th.) Music-inspired projects that interpret lyrics and emotions are a fascinating way to explore one’s technical and storytelling skills, and participants can view other entries in a gallery to be inspired by one another as well.



I had an opportunity to speak with BØRNS about his role in editing the final product for Adobe’s contest, as well as his thoughts on creativity and visual arts.

Creative COW: Why did you want to partner with Adobe for this challenge to your fans? Can you tell me more about how this will play out and what the end result will be?

BØRNS: So many fans tag me in the most creative and beautiful art work and collages based on my music that when the opportunity came up to partner with Adobe, I jumped on it. The whole concept is letting everyone go wild and create a stunning universe for me to perform in.

How does inspiring art and self-expression in those around you feed your own creative process?

Art is a constant collaboration whether you admit it or not. You’re collaborating with thousands of years of ideas every day. Anyway I can change my creative process and inspire others, I’m into.

As a native midwesterner like myself, how did you learn to tap into your creativity in a place not known on the surface for such a thing?

There are so many musicians are visual artists from the midwest. It must be in the water there. I was always just trying to create my show to take on the road.

You've spoken before about the early impact of different kinds of music, but can you recall any formative experiences in visual art?
Yes, I would frequent art studios where I grew up to see what local painters were working on. I used to do a lot of painting and drawing when I was young.

Music videos are one of the best places for experimentation in video, and they're one of the first opportunities visual storytellers begin to hone their craft. What do you enjoy about music videos today? What can emerging artists (or aspiring artists) get out of the process of putting visuals to sound?

There are a plethora of formats to work with. My favorites are Super8, VHS, old iPhones. I love seeing different eras of technology side by side. It creates an interesting nostalgia. And when you put movement so sound, you’ve created a universe: You put someone into the scope of your thoughts. That is extremely powerful.

Much of creation is about risk. Does vulnerability play a role in your life as a musician?

Being vulnerable to the muse and knowing when to use your power.

Where do you find new inspiration for each album? What can we expect from your next single, and how do you hope to carry that vision through to the music video?

Inspiration just falls into place. I’m open to the world through travels and relationships. “We Don’t Care” is a song about finding someone that takes you out of a superficial world and the ironic part is the video will be the most beautiful superficial world you’ve ever experienced.







Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 30, 2018 at 6:50:28 am adobe premiere pro, borns, music videos

Dispatches from PyeongChang: Editing the Olympics (Part 1)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Between pre-cut packages and live footage and montages put together with moments that had happened seconds ago, I couldn’t fathom what went into the teams who created this media.

Lucky for all of us, among the nerds I have been grateful to cross paths with is LA-based editor Mike Api. (That rhymes with “happy”.)

For the next few weeks, Mike is in PyeongChang, South Korea, where he’s working as a freelance editor on the Olympics for NBC. Having been through the Olympics editorial experience before — the Summer Games in Rio two years ago — he knows he has a lot of interesting stories to tell us while he’s working.

He also knows life gets crazy on location, so I’m helping him to tell his stories as best we can as they happen. I don’t know how often I’ll post a new dispatch, or how long it’ll be, or how illustrated we’ll make it. But I’m going to ask him a few questions every few days, and he’s going to tell me what he can, and we’ll all have a great time.

Ya’ll, I know the Winter Olympics has its high drama, it’s ups and downs and emotional beats on the skating rink or the ski slope. Wait ’til you hear about the twists and turns of the edit suite. (Think I’m being dramatic? Read below about playing live to the world via an Avid sequence and try not to scream.)


First day in Korea, decked out in swag.

Mike has worked in a bunch of different genres – reality, news, documentary, sports, narrative, music videos, sketch comedy, even a syndicated Good Housekeeping special (if you need advice on the best oven mitts out there, let him know). Most of his unit has been through at least five or six Olympic Games — with one friend, Paul, having been at it since Atlanta in 1996. There are lots of departments that work on all kinds of custom opens or late-breaking features. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles). (To add to the scope of the Olympics, his unit cuts a lot of features, but the large majority of them are done by another unit called Daily Stories. And the deep-dive cultural and investigative pieces are produced and edited over the course of several months, some over several years. They are constantly being rewritten and upgraded right up until the start of the Games.)

“There is a wealth of experience around me, for which I am eternally grateful. Not a day goes by where I'm not inspired by someone else's work or approach to it. I'm a naturally curious person, so these trips are like nerd-brain overdrive for me.”

Mike set off for PyeongChang yesterday and answered my first batch of questions from his Air Korea flight.

What is the process like for arranging travel and going to work in a foreign country — logistically and emotionally?

The NBC logistics people handle all of our travel arrangements and honestly have the most insane job of all. There are thousands of NBC staff and freelance employees from all over the world on-site at each Olympics. That's thousands of plane tickets, hotel rooms, airport transfers, and visas every two years. Not to mention all the cancellations and delays that go along with traveling around the world. It's really impressive.

To say this job is “exciting” would be a gross understatement. The fact that I get to play with this unbelievable material and contribute to such a massive production is something I really cherish. This time I'm doubly excited because I was obsessed with the Winter Olympics as a kid!

That said, my mind is so scattered from wrapping my last job, buying stuff and packing for Korea, and prepping my next project that the reality of what I'm about to do hasn't really sunk in yet.

(Hell, I left my passport at home this morning. HELLO? IS THIS THING ON? I LEFT MY PASSPORT AT HOME. I remembered my sack of Reese's Pieces but forgot the only acceptable form of identification I can use to travel.)

It'll probably hit me once I'm sitting at my Avid on day one, dipping into the footage (which, again, is the most unbelievable footage in the world. I could go on for hours about our cinematographers).


Mike's caption for this was "dope a** inspiring signage" which I think is sufficient.

Tell me about your experience the first time around in Rio. Surely you had a cool experience or two.

Getting the chance to see Olympic events in person is a dream come true. In Rio, I got to see some cycling, swimming, indoor volleyball, fencing (which looks like Tron meets Star Wars and is so damn intense), as well as the US women's gymnastics team gold, the US men's basketball gold, and the single greatest sporting event I've ever been to: the men's beach volleyball gold medal match between Italy and Brazil. It was at midnight on Copacabana Beach in the pouring rain, and by pure luck I snagged a seat in the first row right in front of the Brazilian team. It was insane, the stadium was literally shaking. I was about 20 feet away from the athletes (and completely surrounded by maniac Brazilian fans completely losing their sh-t.) I'm in the background of the medals ceremony awkwardly clapping and shivering.



Beyond that, it's an indescribable rush to edit something — sometimes in only a matter of minutes — and then immediately see your work on the air as a part of the biggest broadcast event on the planet. As a video nerd who lives for behind the scenes stuff, seeing how the sausage is made is my favorite part of the experience.

What’s the craziest thing that happened in Rio?

The craziest thing that happened in Rio came on my very first shift. In fact, it happened right at the start of my first shift.

We were about to open up the first day of the broadcast with a roll-in of the most grandiose Rio scenics we had, accompanied by the classic Olympics score. It's the FIRST thing anyone watching NBC sees of the Olympics — the biggest, swooping establishing shots that have to set the scene for the following three weeks, over which our hosts do their live introduction.  A few minutes before air (six, maybe ten minutes), the roll-in failed on the server and wouldn't play. (There are a lot of steps we have to go through as far as naming conventions, codecs, and exports to make sure it plays out and for whatever reason, it failed.) 

My supervising producer, showing incredible faith (or perhaps I was the only goon available) gave me the task of banging together a new open - which we did from a bin of scenic selects I happened to start the day before when we were setting up our machines. With no time to export a new cut, we played the open LIVE onto the air straight from my Avid. I've rolled out live-to-air a handful of times in my life but never anything remotely close to this type of pressure. We got the shots, got the music, timed it all out, gave it some pad, and carefully hit the spacebar. My edit bay, now filled with producers and curious PAs, went pin-drop silent and I don't think anybody exhaled until it was finished. That was my welcome to the Olympics.


The ski resort complex where Mike is staying.

What’s next once you land?

Once we land we'll do the accreditation of our media credentials, make the three hour bus ride to PyeongChang (this year's Games are the most remote in history) and get some shut eye. We have a day of acclimatization and hit the ground running on Tuesday, Jan 30th. First up is workflow training with our brilliant senior post supervisor, catching us up on this year's process and any new features we'll be incorporating. We usually have the latest build of Media Composer as well as our own dedicated team of techs from Avid to work out any kinks.

And that, my friend, is just the tip of the iceberg for seeing how the sausage is made. The Olympics is typically when networks push the envelope developing and test-driving new technologies, and sometimes we're the guinea pigs! Once we get a briefing on what new tech we're playing with, then the real fun begins...


-13C in PyeongChang -- off to a good start.

NEXT: Read Part Two!


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 29, 2018 at 5:51:43 am Winter Olympics, post production, editing, mike api

Being a Camera Operator on a Documentary at Sundance: DP Barbie Leung on 'Half the Picture'

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.

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New York based cinematographer Barbie Leung is highly relatable, especially among film nerds in Park City this week: she describes herself as "the high school kid that rented movies from the library when I was 16 when other people were outside." After her film theory education at University of Rochester, she spent time exploring where to go next. Her first gig in the industry was on a student thesis feature film (where she went in to be a PA and ended up script supervisor) and then hopped from indie to indie, learning all the roles, putting the pieces of how a film production works together, and gaining the confidence she needed to pursue her chosen path.

That path ended up being camera operator, where she worked as an assistant camera operator (AC) and enjoyed being "close to the action" before realizing she needed to make a choice about how to proceed. Frustrated by the slow upward movement in the traditional union path, she decided to forego that ladder and pursue being a cinematographer on the vast number of independent films in the city.


Barbie camera operating on feature documentary Half the Picture (photo credit: Tommy Ka)

"I couldn't really see [progressing from the bottom of the camera department traditionally] happening, especially for women, people of color, or a woman who is a person of color. I definitely didn't have the vocabulary we have now, and that I have from being older. At the time in my twenties, I was confused and I couldn't see the path forward. I couldn't see anybody that I felt was similar to my background that did that."

Finding the hunger to want to shoot, Barbie moved forward to market herself strictly as a cinematographer and camera operator, passing on jobs for roles she didn't want to pursue -- a choice that was admittedly difficult but ultimately worthwhile, if the long list of credits across narrative, commercial, new media, and branded content on her CV is any indication.

This week, she's at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the camera crew (specifically, camera operator) for Half the Picture, directed by Amy Adrion with Yamit Shimonovitz and Soraya Sélène as co-directors of photography. The documentary explores the lack of female directors working in Hollywood and the EEOC investigation into discriminatory hiring practices that have contributed to this issue. The film makes its world premiere at the festival this week.

I met up with Barbie at the packed (and warm) Atticus Tea House on Main Street this weekend to talk about her experiences as a camera operator and cinematographer. After our interview, she handed me her card. It's simple and no-nonsense: vital information on one side, and frames of her (beautiful) work on the other. She's fully done being reluctant about being a woman in a role where over 95% of workers are men. "This is me, this is what I do. Would you like this? Then call me."

Creative COW: How did you get involved on Half the Picture and what do you hope people take away from watching it?

Barbie Leung: Half the Picture is a feature documentary and it explores women directors in Hollywood. There have been a lot of studies and statistics crossing over into mainstream media, but there hasn't been a high profile documentary where you can really see women film directors with major studio pictures or successful indies speak about it. I was a camera operator on it because of all the experience I had with being in different indie film productions in New York. I had a really long time friend who joined the union and was off doing her union thing, and didn't have time to do this and passed it to me. She was in LA and gave the LA crew my name because they were shooting in NY and didn't have any connections.

The film is really unique in that you can see the directors speaking in their native environments, and that's a driving concept of Amy's film. We're filming angles where you see Catherine Hardwicke or Kimberly Peirce sitting under flags and boom poles and bounce boards while talking about this subject. It feels like she's in her element. We say it all the time in cinematography, and amongst women cinematographers: you have to see us to believe it, that a woman does this role. It makes it a given. It's a subtle but very powerful thing to have that image.

I haven't seen the whole film yet so I'm only privy to what people said on said during my segments as camera operator. But I hope people can just know there are this many women working. That they can be consciously aware of it. Like maybe somebody liked Boys Don't Cry, but did they remember Kimberly Pierce directed it? To be able to notice that, maybe people are just now realizing there are great women directors. I feel like the minutiae of what we're discussing, it's really good too. But the overarching element is that -- being aware of how many women directors there are.

You were a camera operator on this film, and you work as a both camera operator and cinematographer professionally. I think a lot of people aren't sure of the difference between those roles since sometimes the cinematographer operates a camera and sometimes they don't. But of course the cinematographer is in charge of everything in the frame, and the camera operator is in charge of operating the camera to accommodate the cinematographer's vision. How are these roles separate for you -- or not -- and how do you prefer to work?

A cinematographer definitely doesn't have to operate their camera. But a lot of cinematographers feel that it's really important to have that direct connection with the camera. It depends on the type of work they're doing, too. If they're doing indie work and there's a lot of handheld, you would want to feel the camera as an extension of your body. Or you're moving and connecting emotionally to what's happening, or kinetically to the action, you might want to be able to literally have a more direct connection between your brain and the craft of it.

A lot of it has to do with scope. I think most cinematographers have that preference, and when the scope is small enough, that's the best way to achieve the look you want. But sometimes when the scope of the film is too big, that's when it's helpful to have camera operators to help you execute different moves. As your productions are getting bigger, one person should be controlling each aspect of the task -- especially if it's smooth motion and you have a lot of gear. It's all about rehearsing it and getting into that grove.

It just depends on personal preference, the needs of the project, and how you like to work. I really do like operating as well when it's my project. I also like being a camera operator on other peoples' projects because you're communicating with another cinematographer and watching them work, and you can get into their head a little bit about how they like to frame things or how they want to feel out something. I think there's pros and cons and everyone will have a different process.


Still frame of Lena Dunham from one of Barbie's shots in Half the Picture. (Co-DPs Yamit Shimonovitz & Soraya Sélène)

What's your working relationship like with directors as a cinematographer?

I think especially where I am in my career, I work with a lot of first and second time directors who are still developing. They either don't yet know how to communicate with the cinematographer, or they're figuring it out because they've only worked with one other cinematographer and they don't really know these essentials. Mostly I approach it as: it's their vision and I'm here to help them. That means different things to different directors.

One way is actually have a drink or evening with a director. Go watch movies together, trade references that may or may not be related directly to the project that you're working, really trying to understand their sensibility and where they're coming from. Is it a writer/director -- especially in indie film that's often the case. Did they come from a theater background? Trying to figure out the most comfortable way to fit together, because ideally it's always a collaboration.

Those are really the kind of projects I seek out. Ones where I can be a collaborator. Some people might think 'oh it's a hired hand, you just show up and you shoot the thing I want'. But that 'want' is not just you telling me something, I need to understand where you're coming from before your words can make sense. You need that shorthand on set when you say something and we don't have time for those discussions. It's all about having those discussions. Understanding that person comes from, their background. Literally how did they grow up, what are their concerns and world view and how does that intersect with their art?

You also have to figure out how comfortable they are with the technology. Some people will need me to fill in the gap of how to achieve a camera movement. Does that camera movement fit into their budget? Is there a better way to do it? Easier ways to do it? All those things. And if the director is really comfortable with lens choices and they already know what they want, then we already know how to communicate. They can just tell me they want this on an 85mm. Whereas another director might say 'I imagine this to be wider or would have shallow depth of field,' some people communicate in those terms.

And it'll go all the way to an extreme where someone might just have a feeling, and I can really make my own decision and show it to them. They need to trust that I'm trying to fulfill their vision and not trying to add something that doesn't fit into it.

As a cinematographer, you're seen on set and behind the camera. But what other prep work and continued education is involved off the set?

Continued education is funny because it's always research. You're always having to keep up with what's happening with technology changing, tastes changing, and the interaction of that -- how technology will shape the tastes that we have. It's really important to have prep time for that. That can be in a narrative project or branded content. I just shot something for Redbull TV that was a much more experimental project. For things like that, it's really important to have prep time.

In the case of a film, after that mind-meld with your director and understanding their vision and that important preparation, we get into nuts and bolts. I should be on the tech scouts so I can tell someone if it's not ideal for the script they have. Breaking down the script, finding the elements, that's a really important thing. Words are free -- someone can write anything. But does it match their budget? Taking that, telling them the limitations of the location, making equipment lists, fitting it all into the budget, especially in indies. Budget is one of the most important things for them. I want them to get the most bang out of their buck for the producers.

Working with the assistant director (AD) to figure out how much time is necessary to shoot. A good AD will already have an estimate, but maybe there's some element to the shot that me and the director and gaffer and key grip have found a way to solve. It might need extra time, or it's a lot faster, so working with the AD to figure out a schedule and crewing up is important. I really like a good working crew, people who are good together and appropriate for the project. THere's a lot of work there too.

It's subtle and ongoing, every minute until you step on set. Once you get on set, it's just executing things. If you have good lighting diagrams, your key grip and gaffer can just look at it and have a shorthand. It's all quite nerdy, there's a lot of plotting and charts and Excel. And once you get on set, the part that looks cool is really just execution of weeks or months that you put into the prep. You want as much prep as you can, because once you get on set you're going to have problems. We all know this. Everything will go wrong. But if you have you plan, now you can be flexible because you know your ideal and you can react.


Behind the scenes working as director of photography on upcoming narrative feature Side Piece, directed by E.A. Moss (photo credit: David Bluvband)

What advice do you have for people who want to become a cinematographer, especially for those who are underrepresented on set?

If you're thinking of ultimately becoming a cinematographer, you need to figure out the way you want to get there. Think about if you want to come up in camera or grip and electric (G&E). To speak frankly, there are many more women in the camera department than G&E. It's something people are just more accepting of because of the perception that women are organized. And that's what being an assistant camera (AC) is, you're organizer and people like having you on set. Or do you want to go the G&E route, where there are fewer women? Many cinematographers historically have come up through G&E. That's a really big decision. It's very complex, and I'm always happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about that.

Once you decide which way you want to come up, you also have to decide if you want to go union. If you're going union, there are a lot of steps to that. You need to be realistic about how much time you're willing to wait before you can become a cinematographer because if you're working full time and in the union, you actually are left with very little energy to do projects of your own. I was talking to another cinematographer today at the ASC party andt hey've seen a lot of their friends go into the union [and take a long time to work their way up] because it pays well, you have health insurance, all those things. If you value those things [over timing], maybe that's the way you go -- it's a lifestyle choice. The earlier you decide on that, I think it's better.

The biggest thing after that is you have to shoot as early as you can. Don't think you need to stay in a certain position for a certain amount of time. It really depends on your comfort level of stepping outside your comfort zone. You have to scare yourself. I think Rachel Morrison said it recently and in better words that with each project you work on, it needs to be an incremental jump. You're never going to get anywhere if you're not challenging yourself and scaring yourself with each project. You have to be bold. That way you won't have regrets. At least, that's my approach: try to improve in a large leap with each project.

Some people say shoot anything. That could be one approach, but one thing I've learned is that it needs to be quality. It's not the amount you shoot, you have to shoot smartly. The people you collaborate with, try to collaborate with people who are better than you. In a game of pool or billiards, you want to play with players who are better than you. Don't just play with people you're comfortable with. Find people that scare you a little bit and work with them.


Barbie at Atticus Tea House in Park City, Utah



Sundance Impressions: Three Movies on Sunday

Yeah, it’s Tuesday. I lost a day to travel, as I returned to Los Angeles yesterday in a sold out flight filled with exhausted looking film fans and the occasional indie actor. Our scarves and new boots have seen winter, and we’re through with it.

On Sunday I took full advantage of the festival, attending three world premieres in three different places across Park City. Thankfully the relentless snow had stopped and the shuttle service was back on track, allowing me to actually make it to all these films.

I Think We’re Alone Now, directed by Reed Morano, was first up for me. The post-apocalyptic story was just the kind of movie I really enjoy — which can make it hard to review objectively. But I ain’t never said this blog was objective, so screw it: I was into this film. It tells the story of a man left behind after some kind of apocalyptic event has killed everyone where they sat, stood, or drove. And this man is perfectly okay with that because he wasn’t a people person anyway. The best and richest parts of the film are in his routines and the textures they carry on screen. He’s perfectly content with his solitary life in upstate New York. Then one day, a woman shows up — and she doesn’t want to leave.


The cast and crew of I Think We're Alone Now

The conflict of companionship and loneliness that follows this is a really interesting look at how we all cope with ourselves and our needs. And I really loved that the story doesn’t bother to explore why the apocalypse happened or how to rebuild society. This character doesn’t care about that. For him, life goes on. Until it doesn’t.

Seeing Reed Morano’s name in the credits as both director and director of photography is also pretty great. Pretty dang great, yep.

Next up was Search, whose editors I interviewed earlier this week. As I described previously, this is a screen movie that takes place on a computer. But not just one computer or screen — multiple screens. If you’ve seen screen movies before, you might have expectations. This isn’t like that. It’s got zooms, pans, edits, dissolves. It just happens that you’re looking at John Cho’s Mac’s desktop. Search is the story of the disappearance of a man’s daughter and his mission to get her back. While that’s anything but a new story, the way this film unfolds makes it feel new.


The cast and crew of Search

I think it was really smart of the filmmakers (director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian) to use a story that has some basic building blocks an audience will recognize as a jumping off point for exploring it in an entirely different direction. There are stretches of the film where we’re watching Cho break into his daughter’s Gmail or go through her Facebook friends, and it’s surprisingly riveting. The twists and turns feel earned and realistic. It’s a lot of fun, and it uses some of the modern conventions of internet usage in new and interesting ways. I’m curious how people who don’t use the internet all that much will react to it, and how some of the sight gags involved might play upon a second viewing. The performances in the film are especially good — particularly John Cho, who had to act at a GoPro alone for a majority of the film.

And last for the day was Rupert Everett’s directorial debut The Happy Prince which was — yeah I’m gonna say it — anything but happy. The film tells the story of the final years of Oscar Wilde’s life, picking up after he gets out of prison for homosexuality. Everett also wrote the film and stars as Wilde, and he really does disappear into the role (and into his fat suit) to explore a complicated and sad artist’s spiral into depression and many many bad choices. The other films I saw at Sundance felt like they were trying something new and using their indie status to be a little bit different. The Happy Prince felt more like A Regular Movie you’d see nominated for Oscars and stuff.

But that doesn’t take away from how good I think it actually was. The cinematography and direction was fantastic, and the editing choices were great. From start to finish, it felt like the logical progression of a man’s fall from grace and into exile in France. Realistically it probably won’t stick with me, but I enjoyed having seen it. To punctuate my Sundance experience with an exploration of how we destroy great artists in their time and only choose to celebrate them properly when it’s far too late was an interesting choice — Wilde was pardoned in 2017.


This wasn't pleasant.

Also, I had to stand in the ticket overflow line for like a half hour in 13 degree weather to see it, so I’m glad it wasn’t terrible.

That was the end of my on-the-ground Sundance experience, and by the end I was nearly crawling to my airport terminal. Had I spent the entire week at the festival I wouldn’t be nearly spent because I would have paced myself a little bit more. Packing the full experience into 4 days required a little more of me. But let’s be real: I am aging rapidly and walking 5 miles a day in the snow is not something I am capable of sustaining.



Although I have departed Park City, my Sundance coverage continues this week with a few more interviews from your favorite below the line crew. Going and experiencing the festival first-hand was a really special experience. Sharing that with some old friends and new acquaintances was even more special. It’s been a long time since I stayed up until 3AM with friends talking about life and movies. I don’t share a breakfast table with like-minded people arguing about Avid very often. I never see three movies in a single day unless I’m laying on a couch in my pajamas. I’m thankful for the experience of Sundance and the people I met while I was there.

(I’m also thankful it’s 65 degrees in Los Angeles. But I am also under blankets.)




Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 23, 2018 at 6:17:36 pm Sundance film festival, post production, film, television

Sundance Impressions: Snow and “The Sentence”

The threat (or promise, depending on your outlook) of snow delivered today in full force. So much so that I was taken off guard and missed an early screening due to basically being buried in a snow drift. I was born and raised in the midwest, and I started driving at age 16 with a very light front wheel drive vehicle in the dead of winter in a rural area. But it turns out once you live in LA for like, a minute, your natural instincts begin to disappear and you struggle to remain upright.

I was really proud of my snow boots though. Obviously I am not A Winter Sports Person (TM) so I didn’t own boots until last week. Breaking them in here was a risk and it seems to have paid off.


The Egyptian Theater

I read a few articles about preparing to come to Park City, but none of them really prepared me for the extent to which I would be both hot and cold simultaneously all the time. I am thankful I packed a lens cloth in my winter coat pocket to deal with the fogged lenses at every turn. But despite all my whining, it really is nice to play in some snow and be among the film people in such a nice city. (Everyone who lives here and volunteers at the festival is so.nice.)


Main Street

I made a detour off Main Street to spend some time having brunch with Endcrawl at midday. Their service basically makes making end credits easy. I’m a really big fan of the entire idea of Endcrawl, in part because I’ve made credits that suck, and in part because it’s so accessible that indie filmmakers can and do use it. A third of the features in Sundance this year used Endcrawl, which is bananas. I talked to John “Pliny” Eremic briefly over mimosas and scones and asked him: why are end credits so damn hard?

He told me this: "You’re juggling hundreds, sometimes thousands of names. There are a lot of politics involved. There are endless revisions. There’s behind the scenes wrangling with who’s in and who’s out and fixing all the typos and all that. The process for that used to be email chains and it was very 1997. You only want to scroll at certain speeds that don’t jitter, judder, stutter, shimmer, shake — whatever you want to call it. That makes the runtime difficult.”

Yeah, that was also my experience.


Cocktails with Endcrawl

Later on, after tea with a DP (sharing that conversation soon) and coffee with an editor (that one too), I was thinking about the thing I realized makes Sundance really special for me. It isn’t just going to see a lot of movies, or going to see new movies. It’s experiencing movies alongside the filmmakers that made them, and celebrating that along with them. If you’ve ever made a short or a feature or any other expression of creativity and debuted it to a crowd of strangers in a theater or room of any size, you know the nervous excitement just before your art is unveiled. At Sundance, that feeling is on steroids.


Atticus Tea House



Which leads me to The Sentence.

The film is drawn from hundreds of hours of footage shot by director Rudy Valdez, as he tells the story of the incarceration of his sister Cindy and the aftermath of her 15 year sentence for conspiracy charges related to drug crimes her boyfriend committed before he was murdered. Cindy wasn’t involved in drugs. She made some poor decisions with who she spent time with, and she didn’t disclose her boyfriend’s crimes to the police at any point. But it’s clear in the film she is nothing but a kind person who wants to take care of her family.

And originally, the state agreed and threw out the case. But six years later, just six months before the statute of limitations would run out, she was convicted of her boyfriend’s crimes and given the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years just months after giving birth to her third daughter. From that point, Rudy copes with his sister’s situation, and turns from bystander to director to activist behind the camera over the course of nine years of her story.

From the opening scene of the film, the stakes are made clear: Cindy is taken from her family and all the little moments a young mom gets with her babies — first days of school, funny little games, silly faces, fighting — is taken away from her. The through line of the film is in the heart of her daughters on screen, being interviewed by Rudy as they play in their rooms or sit on their beds. Children are honest, and their perspectives are gut-wrenching. Even more gut-wrenchingly, we’re placed in the shoes of Cindy as we watch the three girls grow up on camera. The oldest, Autumn, begins the film is an adorable 5 year old. By the end she’s a teenager, and the visual of her growing face and the subtle deepening of her voice is heartbreaking.

Rudy describes himself as feeling he’s taken the “coward’s way out”, which I think is a sentiment to which a lot of us who cope with difficulties by documenting our lives in full can relate. But Rudy is the driving force of trying to change his sister’s fate, staying the course as a family is ripped apart by unchanging mandatory minimums and “the girlfriend problem”. And we learn Cindy is far from alone in her struggles as a mom ripped away from a healthy, productive family.

The film is intimate, often filling the frame with the subjects’ faces. Personal moments play out but never exploit. Everyone is just so earnest, trying their best. And Cindy never stops trying to keep the family together, consoling her siblings and parents and children at times over the phone, reminding them that she’s okay, interrupted periodically by an automated voice interjecting that the call is coming from a federal prison.

It was challenging and well-edited, an important story that has real world implications not just for Cindy and her family, but for many thousands of other families. It was a personal film, and I was glad to share the experience of seeing it on the big screen with Rudy.

But then the film ended, and the entire family I had just lived 9 years with over 90 minutes emerged from the audience and stood in front of us.


The subjects and crew from The Sentence

Seeing a narrative feature followed by a Q&A with the cast and crew is a special experience. Experiencing such a vulnerable story with the subjects themselves is on another level.

And that’s really what solidified in my head what makes Sundance worth doing as a film lover.


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 21, 2018 at 5:08:26 am Sundance, post production

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