Episodic Television with DigitalFilm Tree

From Creative COW Magazine 

As Digital FilmTree has evolved, we have focused on building exceptionally stable workflows. This includes including “Cold Mountain,” where we built the first major film infrastructure to be based around Final Cut Pro. We have also built systems for global-scale, effects intensive features including “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “The Forgotten Kingdom,” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” among others. We not only designed the first Final Cut Pro-based workflow for prime time television on “Scrubs,” but we created internal workflows that enabled us to simultaneously post three different TV series on three different networks.

We have come away from this with two major lessons. First, we have learned that, in comparison to weekly TV, features are a Hawaiian vacation. The velocity of weekly episodic TV has forced us to be far more creative. Second, in all of our attention to speed, we cannot afford to compromise stability. So why on earth would we blow up a proven workflow in the middle of the season while working on two prime-time series? This would appear to threaten both speed AND stability. But with the reward potentially so high, we were willing to take the risk.


This year, we are handling both “Cougar Town” and “NCIS: LA,” which is the one I’ll focus on this time. It came to us through Erik Whitmyre, whom we worked with on “Everybody Hates Chris.” He approached us to discuss the possibility of working on a new hour long TV show. Even before knowing the show name, we started mapping out possible workflows. We were pleased to discover that we landed the job, and that it was a spin-off of one of TV’s most popular dramas.

Principle photography for “NCIS: LA” (or NLA) is with two ARRI Alexa cameras, recorded to Sony SR tapes, at 10-bit uncompressed in Log C. When they shoot untethered, they record directly to SxS cards at ProRes HQ in Log C. LUTs are created by the DP Victor Hammer and DIT on set, using the Truelight LUT box.

In addition to the ARRI Alexa, NLA shoots on a stunning variety of cameras and formats on any given episode. These include Canon 5D, 1D Mark IV, 7D, 60D, Rebel T2i, JVCGYHM100, Nikon 7000, GoPro, Sony F900 and DVCAM.

Every night, DFT receives 5-10 SR masters, and a drive containing master files from all the file-based cameras. We process it all to ProRes LT, while baking in the SR-recorded LUT using a Blackmagic HDLink box. All file-based codecs are converted to ProRes LT as well. For both SR footage and file based footage, we sync DEVA sound to video.

All dailies are delivered to NLA Editorial at 6:30 AM. Each episode is assigned to one of NLA’s three editors and three assistant editors. When an episode is locked, an FCP project file is emailed to us, at which time we begin to online digitize at 10bit uncompressed from master tapes. All file-based codecs are converted to 10bit uncompressed as part of the online as well. Once online assembly is completed, our online editor, Jacob Tillman, begins conforming the project, exporting VFX, prepping for color grading and performing quality control.

Dylan Chudzynski, Senior VFX Artist, creates all VFX elements for each episode, which contains between 100- 300 VFX elements. This is where DFT’s Senior Colorist Patrick Woodward comes into the picture, and where the twist in this story begins.

Winning With DaVinci

I came into the industry 12 years ago as a DaVinci colorist, but we found alternatives that we wanted to share. One of Digital FilmTree’s first steps as a company was to self-publish Color Correction for Final Cut Pro Users. Shortly after, we produced the Color Correction for Final Cut Pro DVD, and another book, Advanced Color Correction and Effects in Final Cut Pro 5.

Blackmagic Design purchasing DaVinci in 2009 piqued our curiosity. Henry Santos had been my assistant telecine operator before joining me at DFT, and when DaVinci Resolve software for Mac was released, we bought several copies and a couple of consoles, and he and DFT’s Senior Colorist Patrick Woodard started testing it. “I’d already played with the Linux version of Resolve and really fell in love with it,” Patrick confessed. “Once I got to work with the Mac version, I found myself working so much more quickly that I started campaigning to shift over to Resolve right away.”

Right away, as in mid-season! This was crazy! We had a perfectly good workflow, which, besides color, included hundreds of VFX shots, titling, online conform and reconforms. But according to Patrick, it wasn’t as big an adjustment as we thought it was going to be. It took a couple of weeks to work out the kinks, but after everyone settled into the new workflow with Resolve, we were able to turn around NLA episodes even faster.

Patrick and Henry let us know about several specific features that have become extremely helpful. One is that everything is in real time. This allows us to color time material without having to leave the application in order to preview. We can complete a first pass grade, making changes with the client as we go. In past preview sessions with clients, the notes could not be addressed until later. Another round of approvals would have to take place, which took extra time.

He and Henry can also preview color correction previews with audio. The Node Based Image Processing function provides unlimited options of stacking grades allowing for more precision. The Secondary Key has the HSL and Matte Keyers which allow for further precision when isolating areas of a shot, and 3D Tracking adds literally another dimension to our control.

“Sometimes we’re not getting elements right until the end, but I feel like I’m spending less time handling the logistics of a shot, and more time coloring,” Patrick told me. “So in that sense, it’s not time SAVINGS as much as it is time SHIFTING. I’m now able to spend more time working on the shot.”

Especially because we are performing similar tasks for “Cougar Town” at the same time, we are reminded every day that the velocity of weekly episodic TV is far beyond any feature film. Our ability to actually pick up speed, without compromising stability even while completely changing over midseason, has made Resolve the clear winner for us.