Interview: Producer Cliff Stephenson on the Crank 2 Blu-ray

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The release of Crank 2 on Blu-ray brought about some unique situations in its move to home video. DoBlu.com e-mailed the disc’s producer, Cliff Stephenson, about the movie’s transfer to Blu-ray. His detailed responses offer insight into the conversion process, some of the disc’s loading issues, and how the extra features were brought to life.

1. Can you give readers some basic background info on who you are and what you do?

I actually started just like any of your readers. I was a reader of DVDFile back when they first began (late 1998) and eventually found myself as one of their main DVD reviewers. As someone who devoured the early laserdisc special editions start to finish, including old school titles like Terminator 2, Jaws, and most of the stuff that came out of Criterion, I was always really interested in the stories behind the making of these great films.

My shift to reviewing DVDs happened at the same time that DVD exploded and things like commentaries and behind-the-scenes became very commonplace. So I really spent a few years going through almost every bonus feature produced. I noticed that there was a real split between the kinds of features being produced.

On one side, you had features that were still being produced in the tradition of the best laserdiscs. Discs like the original Alien box set, Superman, Fight Club, Heavy Metal, and Tron were produced with that same love for filmmaking that had made the special edition laserdiscs produced a decade earlier so compelling to true lovers of movies.

On the other side, because DVD was now suddenly a very lucrative business, you saw a flood of companies producing lame promotional fluff that was populating most releases. I got to a point where I felt like it was time to put up or shut up. I sort of found myself thinking, “How can I say that this is bad until I’ve tried to do better?” So I pack my stuff and made the move from Littleton, Colorado to Los Angeles.

Skipping ahead, past several years of various entertainment and home video jobs (including QC and a few seasons as the associate producer of The Simpsons on DVD), I found myself facing the same dilemma I encountered before my move… namely that the company I was working for was more interested in the low cost/high fluff supplements that I came to LA to do better than.

So, in 2006, I left the company I was with and started my own production company, Off the Cliff Productions, in an effort to maintain more quality and budgetary control over the features I was producing. My first project as an independent producer was the Ellen Page/Patrick Wilson thriller Hard Candy and the Blu-ray favorite Crank immediately followed that. In the years since, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to produce features for the latest Rambo and, most recently, Crank 2: High Voltage.

Still courtesy of www.CinemaSquid.com

Still courtesy of www.CinemaSquid.com

2. Crank 2 was shot on consumer grade digital cameras. What additional challenges does this present when bringing the movie home on Blu-ray? Have you worked on a film of this nature before?

To answer your last question first, no one’s ever worked on a movie of this nature before because there’s never been a movie created this way before now. To have a $20 million feature shot with $3000 cameras is insane; it just doesn’t happen. But that was what was the most compelling aspect about the making of this movie.

Crank 2 was shot was shot in 32 days all over LA. Just for perspective, 17 Again, the Zac Efron movie that came out the same day as Crank 2 and also cost $20 million, took almost twice that amount of time to shoot. The only way this movie got made for this amount of money and that amount of time is because of the cameras they shot with. On a normal movie, you maybe shoot 1/4 of a scene a day. They were shooting 4 scenes a day.

When it came time to bring the movie home to Blu-ray, there really aren’t any challenges over a traditionally shot movie. All of the hard work, meaning clean up or color correction, is done for the theatrical exhibition. What you see on Blu-ray is exactly what they showed theatrically if you saw the film digitally projected. Both presentations begin with the same master.

3. Was the film shot in 1080p, or a lower resolution? I picked up some stair-stepping/aliasing as I watched the Blu-ray which I assumed were problems associated with the source resolution.

The majority of the movie (I have a hard time calling it a ‘film’ because there was never a frame of film exposed to make Crank 2) was shot using the HDV format. The native resolution of HDV is actually 1440×1080. The difference is that traditional 1920×1080 utilizes square pixels to make up that resolution while HDV’s 1440×1080 has rectangular pixels to fill the width. So, yes, it’s a slightly lower resolution than traditional 1920×1080 would be and, yes, any visual anomalies are representative of what was originally shot.

It’s actually a testament to the camera technology and to the greatness of the Blu-ray’s encoding that it’s so transparent to the originally photography and so similar to the quality of the first film, which was shot using cameras that cost $250,000.

Still courtesy of www.CinemaSquid.com

Still courtesy of www.CinemaSquid.com

4. We had some reports of problems playing the disc in stand alone Blu-ray players. From what I understand, a SD card is required for storage on Profile 2.0 players. Is this the case?

What’s going on is that, because the disc is so advanced in some of the things it does, the authoring house made a decision to optimize the disc for speed. If you notice, on some of the newer Blu-rays being released, there’s this constant need to load, Load, LOAD! You go to this feature and you get the loading animation. When you return to the menus, you get the loading animation. When you move from menus to BD-Live features, you get the loading animation.

It’s actually kind of maddening that you can sometimes spend more time loading features than enjoying them. So what the authoring guys did for this disc was to distribute some of that loading work back onto the player to speed up the process and eliminate some of the loading lag.

The problem is that for this to work, the disc needs memory in the player to share the workload. This sort of authoring is completely within the Blu-ray spec and what Crank 2 really did was highlight the main shortcoming of Blu-ray, which is the lack of consistent specs. When every player out there is only required to go ‘this far,’ it means that you can either, a) author discs only ‘this far,’ or b) author discs to the format’s potential and try and bring the players and users up to THAT level. The reality is that if your player needs memory, your player should have memory in order to ensure you’re getting the most out of Blu-ray. This was a bit of a wake up to some people that their players were not the best they could or should be.

5. The original Ghostbusters DVD has a picture-in-picture commentary in which the speakers were silhouetted against the screen (one of many examples). Crank 2 also has a PiP commentary, although in a far more advanced manner. How different is is it to program a feature like that for Blu-ray compared to DVD?

Well, this sort of PIP is a rather recent thing. I was toying around with this sort of multi-layered feature back when I was doing Waiting… (the Ryan Reynolds/Anna Faris comedy) for standard DVD, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around how to make the video work. What we did there instead was to give the director and producer complete control over the flow of the film, letting them pause, slo-mo, and rewind the film while also being able to draw over the film. It was something that had never been done before and a feature I’ve never felt got enough credit for what it did and all the different ways its been ripped off.

Then when it came time to create the features for the first Crank, this new sort of PIP (with a small window displaying interviews and b-roll) had become all the rage with HD-DVD, but we had a problem… Blu-ray players couldn’t do it. So we made a decision to create it as a separate video stream with the PIP window burned into the feature.

In a lot of ways, this made producing it easier because we could do more advanced animations and transitions because we were doing things editorially rather than with player Java or HDi programming. But make no mistake, it was the hardest thing I’d ever created. It’s incredibly difficult to tell a story that has to fit within the timing of the scene you see in the background and have that match all the way through. Then when it came time to do Rambo, I wanted to be able to create a seamless experience where you could go from the more traditional picture-in-picture commentary to fully realized, full screen featurettes about the scenes as they happened without being constrained by the real time aspect of the movie.

So as Stallone is talking about casting the missionaries in PIP commentary form, the feature suddenly becomes a featurette that includes interviews with the other cast members and allows for a much more full and rounded breakdown of these elements. So when you look at something like the Watchmen Maximum Movie Mode, if you really look at it, it’s just what we did with Waiting… crossed with what we did with Rambo, only this time the director’s in front of a green screen. Those things are always just created editorially.

Other than the true picture-in-picture elements, there’s nothing being done with these features that couldn’t be done with standard DVD, it’s just a little easier sometimes with Blu-ray. But when it came time to do the PIP for Crank 2, we knew we wanted to keep very close to what we had done for the first film, but I’ve had a problem with that kind of PIP. For me, I’d rather see the interviews and behind the scenes footage full screen and have the movie in a small window for reference. So that was the little change we made to make it unique to everything that had come before.

And in a twist that I’m particularly proud of, we designed the disc so that users could toggle back and forth between the newer design and the more traditional mode. The authoring geniuses at Radius 60 did an amazing job of taking my idea and really making it work much more seamlessly and intuitively than I could have ever imagined. Every time I do a project with them, I also throw out a bunch of, “can we do this,” and they always find a way to say, “sure.”

Still courtesy of www.CinemaSquid.com

Still courtesy of www.CinemaSquid.com

6. Any general thoughts on the transfer process? Specific items you want to mention, or a particularly difficult area you want to address? Did Crank 2 make things easier in some way?

Crank 2, as I said earlier, was a pretty bit of business when it came to the transfer because all of the hard work and clean up was done prior to theatrical, so when it came time for the Blu-ray, everyone knew exactly what we were getting. But I will say, when we sat down with the directors to do the PIP commentary for the film, they were watching the HD version of the film and even they were amazed by how great it looked.

7. The documentary on the disc has a ton of on the set footage. Was this shot using the same cameras used for the actual movie?

No, the movie was shot using the Canon A1. All the behind the scenes, and I was there every day shooting, was shot using a Sony Z1U, which is also an HDV camera, but not a 24p one.

I actually made the decision early on to shoot the behind the scenes with a much more video-looking 60i frame rate to better match, at least thematically, the camcorder style of the actual production. What I realized much later (about a year) was that that was a bad creative choice when it came time to do things for the disc. Because we were creating a PIP track to mirror the movie, the entire PIP track (interviews and behind the scenes) had to be converted from 60i to 24p to also match without there being jumping and odd jittering.

Once I had converted this footage to 24p, I realized I just liked the look of the 24p stuff much more and it also matched the look of the film more. If I had it to do over again, I would have shot everything at 1080p24 and it’s what I’ll shoot almost everything else at now.

Still courtesy of www.CinemaSquid.com

Still courtesy of www.CinemaSquid.com

8. What type of post-processing was applied to the movie in terms of the color saturation, digital sharpening, etc?

The main thing that was done that was different than other films was that there was a bit more work to upconvert the footage to true 1920×1080 from the original 1440×1080. You also have to understand that HDV has an MPEG-2 bitrate of about 25Mb. That’s less than most Blu-rays get using AVC or VC-1. So some work was also done to help clean up some of the bitrate artifacting from the original photography. But in general, there wasn’t much more than the standard post processes done to finish Crank 2. That’s how well shot the movie was and how genius Neveldine/Taylor (the co-directors) are at getting these cameras to do amazing things.

9. Free parking. Anything you want to say about the Crank 2 Blu-ray after that question bombardment, let it out.

Crank 2 is an interesting movie. Certainly it was not a hit theatrically and I think everyone involved was disappointed with that. But at the same time, I think it’s amazing that Lionsgate Home Entertainment, despite the lack of box office success, really backed this film and let us go balls out with the DVD and especially the Blu-ray.

The movie ended up grossing around $13 million domestically, yet we were able to create more exclusive supplemental content than they did on The Dark Knight. We weren’t done creating everything by the time the film opened and closed and almost any other studio would have folded it in and cut all of the extra content we were creating to save some money.

But Lionsgate knew Crank 2 had an audience and they were insistent that the Blu-ray be created to serve the audience that was about to find it, rather than assume it would never have one. I think in a few years time, people will remember Crank 2 as a much more successful movie than it originally was. Hopefully, the Blu-ray release is a big reason for that.

DoBlu would like to thank Cliff for his time. His next project is Gamer, currently set for a January release.Reblog this post [with Zemanta]