Last year I worked on a National Geographic special called JFK: THE LOST TAPES. This show (currently up for an Emmy for editing….congrats to the producer/editor Ron Frank) followed the events surrounding the assassination of JFK, but told entirely with TV and Radio news reports. No interviews, no narration…only audio that existed at the time of JFK’s visit to Fort Worth and Dallas. It was a really neat and unique way to approach the subject…and the technical side of things was pretty unique too. Especially since this show needed to be in HD, and every single bit of footage was SD.

That’s where I came in. I not only onlined the show, but worked with the post supervisor to figure out the best workflow.

All the footage that was supplied to us was stored on DVDs and audio CDs. The CDs contained the radio news audio, and the DVDs were all viewable DVDs of all the footage the John F. Kennedy Library in Dallas had on the news reports from the time. All of them had window burn timecode (well, not the audio CDs). There were 35 audio CDs and 78 DVDs, each one between an hour and two hours long.

The audio CDs were easy…converted all of the audio from the 44.1Khz CD files to 48Khz, 16bit stereo files using Compressor. When it came to the DVDs, that took a little more effort.

First off, we ripped all the DVDs using MPEG STREAMCLIP, free software that needs to be in every editors APPLICATIONS folder. We ripped everything to DV/NTSC. But of course this footage wouldn’t be the final footage. We’d need to go back and capture the master tapes when it came time to online…so in order for that to go smoothly, we needed the timecode of all the footage to match the window burn. It took a few days to rip the footage, and then time came to adjust the timecode. This was relatively easy, but very time consuming as there was a LOT of files.

To do this all you need to do is load a clip into the Viewer, then park the playhead on a frame. Note the timecode. Go to the MODIFY menu and choose TIMECODE.

You then are presented with this simple interface. You can add an AUX TC if you want, but for this one I want to modify the MAIN timecode, so that when I go to recapture, I will be able to do so frame accurately. This also helps in accurate EDLs for ordering footage too.

Now, this wasn’t without a few roadbumps. A handful of clips had timecode skips in them. The video skipped and left out a few numbers, meaning that after a certain point timecode was off, or the DVD contained two tapes tied together. In this case, we used Quicktime Pro to break the clips up into two or three separate QT files, so that when we modified the timecode, it was all accurate. (By we I mean the post supervisor and assistant editor.)

Then editing proceeded. While it was happening we were discussing the logistics of delivering an HD show consisting entirely of SD material. Initially the network wanted us to blow things up full frame…fill the screen. This would mean losing the top and bottom of the image. But the JFK Library came back saying that they would really prefer that no part of the image be cropped off. So we came to an agreement to pillarbox the entire show. That means capture 4:3 into a 16:9 frame…having black bars on the left and right side of the screen. We did toy with ways to fill in that area, like layering the footage and stretching the image to fill the side, and reduce the opacity and blur it…but found that it was too distracting. So a straight pillarbox was the better idea.

Now, the online of the show was going to be tricky.  The issue we had is that the museum wasn’t about to ship us the masters, and we couldn’t afford to get dubs of the full tapes, and we just needed bits and pieces from each tape. So just dubbing those bits and pieces would be a logistic nightmare. So we decided that it would make the most sense for me to go to Dallas and do the capture on site. We opted to save money on a bay (and if I recall, the company did FCP systems, but not with cards capable of a hardware upconvert) by sending me down with a mobile bay.

I flew to Dallas…I went to the JFK museum…I walked around Dealey Square and looked at the spot where JFK was shot. I stood on the grassy knoll. Things are a LOT closer than I expected them to be. It was amazing to be standing in such a historical location. Words cannot describe it.

So I won’t try…back to the workflow.

I set up shop in the machine room of a post company that the JFK museum. See?

For the next two days I sat with Gary Mack, from the JFK Museum. I’d say a tape number, he’d grab it and load it, we’d shuttle to the shots we needed, and we’d set the exposure (and at times the color) of a shot using the controls on the Digibeta deck. Adjust things BEFORE we captured. This meant darn little time coloring afterwards. We spent two days doing this. And it was a good thing I went. Because often we’d find a shot that was on one tape, and Gary knew that there was another tape that had a better film transfer of that shot. So we’d find the shot, capture that one, and I’d cut it into the sequence.

Oh…that reminds me…I didn’t mention how I prepped the sequence for online. I media managed the locked cut to CREATE OFFLINE and DELETE UNUSED, with handles…meaning that it would make a new sequence, with the capture settings of my choosing (in this case, ProRes 422), and make clips that only referenced media used in the cut…with two second handles, so that I could slip shots one way or the other, to make sure things matched up. Because when you online, some slippage of a frame or even a half second, often occurs. Yes, even on an Avid. On top of the online sequence…on the top-most layer, I cut in the QT movie that I exported of the locked offline cut. And then I dropped the opacity down to 50% so that I could see if shots lined up.

So after the first day of capturing, I went to my hotel, ordered pizza, and set up my laptop and drive to go over all the footage we captured into the cut, and made sure that things lined up.

It took a while. And I found that some clips were actually off by more than the allotted 2 seconds. So I marked those for manual capture the next day. It was odd, the TC on the DVDs was off from the master in a couple cases. I know because the QT of the offline had burned in timecode. Having that reference Quicktime file is pretty important.

The next day I finished capturing the remaining clips, then captured the ones I had issues with. I went through the cut to make sure things all lined up. And when they did…high fives and hand shakes were exchanged, and I headed home.

Now, one thing that I didn’t mention earlier is that I didn’t have one version to online, I had four. And this created a logistical…speed bump. I needed to online the main two-hour cut-to-clock, meaning the cut with the commercial breaks, the two hour seamless international…with extra footage so that it made up for the lack of commercials on the international markets. But then there was also a one hour version…cut to clock and international seamless. Making sure that I didn’t capture the same clip four times took some planning.  The solution to that was relatively simple:  Put ALL the sequences into one sequence (Copy/Paste) and then use the Media Manager.  This way I got one bin with all the clips that are referenced by all the sequences.  I then copied the smaller sequences out of the the media managed sequence   And that first night at the hotel was a late night, as I had to check FOUR versions to make sure they all lined up.

Phew…that was quite a long article. I best stop now. If you read it in one shot…I salute you! I think this would take me two or three nights to get through. Unless I made it fun enough to have in one go.