Interview: Cliff Stephenson Talks Gamer on Blu-ray

Blu-ray special features producer Cliff Stephenson is back after granting DoBlu an interview last year about Crank 2. His latest project is Gamer, a fantastic Blu-ray across the board. We asked Cliff about the process of bringing the movie to Blu-ray, the special features, and the new Red One camera that was used to shoot the movie.

Still courtesy of Cinemasquid.com

For this who missed our first interview with you, tell everyone who you are and what you do.

Since my background hasn’t changed since the last disc I produced, I’ll just repeat what I said last year. (ed note: edited for length)

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.

I 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.

Skipping ahead, past several years of various entertainment and home video jobs, 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. In the years since, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to produce features for the latest Rambo, Crank 2: High Voltage and, most recently, Gamer.

Still courtesy of Cinemasquid.com

Gamer was shot in 4K using the Red One digital camera. What technical challenges does down conversion cause when bringing 4K movies to 1080p on Blu-ray?

Well the first thing you should know is that while Gamer was shot 4k using the Red One, it wasn’t completed at 4k, but rather 2k. At the time Gamer was in post-production, and even today to a certain extent, 4k pipelines were extremely difficult. They require a lot of storage and processing power. While there are certainly companies out there that specialize in 4k post-production (and that number is continuously growing), most stuff, even today, is being done at 2k.

I kind of chuckle a bit when I see people complaining or even simply questioning why all films don’t receive the same 4, 6, or 8k treatments as titles like Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz or Blade Runner. They simply don’t understand how expensive and complicated restorations on that scale really are. When you look at the films being given that kind of attention right now, it’s the Star Wars films or The Godfathers. Looking at the James Bond series, only a fraction of those films were restored at 4k, the rest are 2k.

Bringing that back to Gamer, it’s not so different than most films being released right now in that 2k is seen as the standard. The 2k resolution was also somewhat tied to the visual FX prenatalvitaminsnow.net work. At the budget they were working with, creating and completing VFX at the scale they were working with would have been a budget killer. Remember, something like Blade Runner, where the FX are photochemical, the VFX resolution more or less matches the camera negative resolution. With stuff like Gamer, where the FX are digital and they’re working in a digital post-production pipeline, they have to actually create and render that stuff in the resolution the movie will be finished at. They don’t want to create 2k VFX and insert them in a 4k master.

Once you bring that home, Blu-ray isn’t even quite 2k (2k is 2048×1080 vs Blu-ray at 1920×1080… close but a little short). 4k is 4 times that resolution (4096×2160), so a lot of post is done at 2k for two reasons… a) most digital cinema projectors in use today are 2k and b) the ultimate home presentation is going to be just under that resolution as well. It might be a little short sighted in terms of what will be possible or commonplace in the future, but I’ll be honest… I just watched a high def presentation of a classic 70s film on a 2k projector hitting a screen that was probably 50 feet wide and it looked pretty phenomenal!

Did the Red One itself pose any specific challenge to Blu-ray as opposed to other digital cameras?

The Red One camera honestly posed more challenges during production. When Gamer was shot, there were no real protocols about shooting or archiving and the camera was actually being continually developed while they were in production. The camera they shot the final shot with was a much different camera than the one they shot the very first shot with, even though it was the same physical camera.

We mention it during the Blu-ray feature, but when they started the camera wouldn’t do slow motion. But by the end of production, it did. Overall the Red One isn’t drastically different than any other camera when it comes to Blu-ray. Most of the heavy lifting is done to get the film ready for theatrical exhibition. The one benefit I can say it does have is delivering exceptional, pristine image quality that Blu-ray really shows off.

Still courtesy of Cinemasquid.com

Irony possibility: Was the featurette detailing the Red One actually shot using a Red One?

No and we joked about that at the time. Ted Schilowitz from Red said he had a couple just sitting in his trunk that we could use, but we declined. All of the interviews were shot with Sony HD cameras.

How exactly does the I-con mode work? It is just seamless branching?

You got it. It’s all just well planned out seamless branching. I-con mode could be made to work with standard DVD; it’s just editing magic and a lot of numbers. It’s funny, but almost every Gamer review I’ve read (ed note: including DoBlu’s, oops) have commented that the I-con mode is reminiscent to what they did with the Maximum Movie Mode on Watchmen.

The truth is, the only thing the Watchman feature did that was new was the weatherman aspect of having the director on-screen. The weatherman part is just the latest gimmick, but the concept of that kind of commentary is actually fairly old. When I did Waiting… back in 2005, we did a commentary where the director and producer were able to pause or rewind or slo-mo the movie becomecna.net while drawing on it with a telestrator. This was something we were able to do with plain old DVD technology.

As far as I know, that was the first time anyone had done a commentary that broke out of the real-time aspect of the movie. Similarly, when we did Rambo, I created a commentary where it would seamlessly move from audio-only into a full-screen featurette that would really dissect the subject Stallone had started discussing. Now to be totally honest, this was a bit of an idea that I had kind of lifted from the phenomenal producer Charles de Lauzirika (Blade Runner, Alien Quadrilogy). He had done a DVD years ago called A Good Year where the commentary would sort of pause and go into a scene-relevant featurette. It was a great idea that Charlie had and I just took it a step further to integrate it into the actual commentary.

So that’s another example of how these expanded commentaries have been around for a while (certainly pre-Blu-ray), but nobody really noticed. I just simultaneously giggle and cringe when I see I-con compared to a special feature that is essentially a mash-up of two special features I had done years ago. That’s how these features are usually created… it’s just one step further than what the last guy created. Sadly, Universal released Fast and Furious with an almost identical ‘weatherman’ style commentary a week after Watchmen, but nobody seemed to notice.

Beyond that though (and I said the same thing about Crank 2), the authoring genius over Radius 60 did it again for me. If I have a great idea for a disc, it’s only going to be half a great idea until somebody authors it to work. When I come up with an idea for a disc, I can pitch it to the studio and everyone can get really excited over it, but unless the authoring guys can make it work, it’s just a useless idea. I know I stress out Alex Webster and Keith Prokop over at Radius 60 the second they hear I’m working on a title they’re doing because I’m gonna come up with some insane idea that we have to figure out the logistics of. But we always seem to figure it out and they somehow even find a way to make it better than I had planned.

Still courtesy of Cinemasquid.com

Why AVC/MPGEG-4 instead of VC-1 for a video codec, and why DTS-HD as opposed to TrueHD or PCM for audio?

Those aren’t really decisions that I get involved with and quite simply (and as boring as it may sound) it really mostly just boils down to which company authors the disc and which encoders they feel give them the best results.

Why are 7.1 audio tracks uncommon?

Again, another boring answer, but I think most studios just don’t think it’s that big of a selling point or they would all do it. I know with Lionsgate, they do it almost as a matter of policy except in very rare exceptions, usually when they don’t have the elements to do it correctly. New Line was the same way until they were folded into Warner. But it’s straight up economics. If a studio can sell 10 copies of a disc with a remixed 7.1 track and they’ll sell the same 10 copies with the original 5.1 track, why spend the extra cash to remix if it doesn’t increase sales? Where stouffercoupons.net this doesn’t apply (like Nightmare Before Christmas, the original Star Trek films, or Hellboy 2) is when 7.1 is requested (either by the filmmaker or someone else with some pull, possibly even at the studio).

Does Gamer have any specific needs for playback as with Crank 2, which required a SD card in some players?

No. One thing the studios do (in spite of what some people think) is listen to consumers. Some people were (understandably) upset about the Crank 2 issues and Gamer wasn’t authored similarly. But believe it or not, Gamer is actually a simpler disc in terms of what it does technically.

Still courtesy of Cinemasquid.com

I was actually hoping to find some significant video flaws with the Gamer transfer to pose some questions about, but in that regard, it let me down. I guess that is a good thing. Still, there is some noise (or maybe artifacting?) when Gerard Butler finally meets underground with the hackers. It’s light, but noticeable. Explain how/why that happens, and if anything can be done to clean it up.

That’s just plain old low light noise. It’s the digital equivalent of the grain you would see with 35mm film. You could do noise reduction to smooth that out, but it’s actually part of what they shot and the directors could have eliminated it if they chose to. Unlike a traditional 35mm shoot, when they were shooting Gamer they had 40-50” HD monitors on set to view the raw Red footage on, so they knew exactly what the footage they were shooting looked like while they were there. If they had an issue with the noise visible doing those shots, they could have corrected for that on the day.

Free parking. Anything else you need or want to say, put it here.

As a special features producer, I’ve noticed Blu-ray has birthed an interesting creature… people who love movies but dislike special features. As someone who was enthralled with those old Laserdisc special editions I mentioned earlier, the idea of someone professing to love movies while simultaneously holding the opinion that hearing people talk about movies is a waste of time and disc space is difficult for me to comprehend.

I have to think that some of that has to do with people thinking that special features are taking away from valuable video and audio space on the disc. For those people I would just like to point out that Gamer contains almost six hours of bonus content (all of it in full 1920×1080 High Def) and by all accounts has received almost unanimous praise for its audio and video quality.

I agree that there are a lot of poor special features out there and it makes it kind of hard to get excited about the concept sometimes, but when people see special features they like, say so. Special features are supposed to be interesting and informative. I would hope that a lot of the lack of enthusiasm towards supplements is shaped by special features that are just created to be special feature bulletpoints rather than supplements designed to serve the film and entertain the viewer. So I would encourage people to complain about the bad ones and praise the good ones and maybe you’ll start to see more and more good ones in the future. That might just be the self-preservationist in me speaking though…

Thanks again Cliff, and hope to hear from you after your next project.