Sailing with Vikings and Take 5
We jump in to a boat with Take 5 Productions, production company established in Toronto and responsible of huge successes like Vikings, Vikings: Valhalla and The Handmaid’s Tale. We had the opportunity to discuss with Nick Iannelli, EVP Post Production, the challenges of such big shows, working with big studios and platforms, and the current situation of the industry.
Where did the path of Take 5 began? What is the focus activity of the company?
I’ve only been here for two years but Take 5 has been around for 13 years. We’ve always been part of the production community in Toronto. Over that time they’ve had extensive relationships with studios like CBS Studios, Showtime, and MGM. Through that, Take 5 has been able to build up a reputation, internationally and therefore we are able to attract these types of high profile projects that come to us.
Take 5 usually works on co-productions, as it has done on Vikings, why is that?
Vikings was a special case in which the structure of the show was best served by setting it up as an Irish/Canadian Co-Production. This allowed the show to take advantage of incentives from both Canada and Ireland, but it also allowed us to showcase our talented producers, editors, sound teams and VFX artists that work in Canada.
Take 5 is a production service company primarily servicing projects that shoot in Toronto. Over the years, we’ve been able to convince our production partners, mainly some of the Hollywood studios that leaving post in Toronto was a viable option. Typically, the studios would shoot in Toronto and take their post back to LA. We’ve been able to demonstrate that we have the level of talent that they are used to in Toronto. Over the past decade the Toronto post community has really matured to the point in which we are competing for the same awards that our Hollywood counterparts are. We helped nurture and support these post creatives, so now we’ve created a bit of a speciality in which we will produce just the post and VFX for projects that shoot elsewhere, that’s what happened with Vikings and now the spin off series Vikings: Valhalla.
What are the main challenges in a technical way that you face on working with other companies?
A lot of the challenges come when we go into a new country/city and we don’t have relationships with some of the post facilities in those cities. If a show is in Toronto, we know suppliers and what those facilities offer. But when we go into a new territory in some cases there isn’t the post-production facility that can service shows of our size. Then we need to establish a relationship and work out a workflow that is common to our way of working. Or in some cases we work with one of our existing partners to find a solution. This mainly pertains to dailies, securing the camera data, applying colour, creating Avid media, syncing sound etc. With Vikings, we’ve been fortunate to work with a local vendor In Ireland; Screen Scene. They are a post-production company based in Dublin and we’ve used them for quite a few shows and most recently we’re working with them on Vikings: Valhalla. We have some interesting shows coming up in which they’re shooting one project in Calgary, Alberta and another in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in both cities there isn’t a large post infrastructure, so we’re having to put something together that’s going to service these shows.
There’s always a large amount of data that’s captured and getting that pushed across to our post teams in Toronto on a daily basis would ordinarily be a challenged. But nowadays with the robustness of the internet and the cost data transfers coming down, it’s fairly easy to manage and to get data pushed on a timely basis.
The workflow on a show like Vikings: Valhalla, is such that at the conclusion of each days shoot, dailies are processed overnight, and then the Avid Media gets pushed to us into a secure catch folder that we receive on our side. This allows for our editors and assistants to start right away in the morning. This is a case in which the time difference helps us. Ultimately the full camera data will be sent over, using the LTO camera masters.
Talking about you, which is your role in the post-production workflow?
From a post-production standpoint we have from five to seven shows that we’re actively post-producing in one form or another. Whether we’re handling all post-production which also encompasses visual effects. I oversee all the post and visual effects for those series from a Take 5 perspective. That includes everything from putting the team together, hiring the team, working with the various cinematographers, helping to establish dailies workflows based on camera formats. Making sure we stay on schedule and on budget. Most importantly I’m here to support out teams, making sure they have what they need to get the job done and make sure our studio partners are happy.
This is my first time working on the studio side, as my background was actually on the post facility side. I ran Deluxe Toronto for many years, which is now Company 3’s post-production operation in Toronto. It’s one of their larger operations as it encompasses dailies services as well as full picture and sound finishing. It also services both feature films and television series. I was there for about 16 years and then decided to leave and make a jump, and try something a little differently in my career.
Do you have your own equipment or do you rent it?
We have a certain amount of infrastructure, but if we have a new show where it goes beyond our means we will rent what we need. In addition, we also have a small visual effects team that services and works on all of our shows. The entire render farm, storage and workstations are in-house.
How long is the life cycle of your equipment?
Sometimes it’s not so much about the life cycle but more about adding infrastructure because of growth. As you know, years ago you had a 50MB hard drive and that was a lot of storage. Now you’ve got 500 GB or 1 TB. Similarly, on our side. When we had a 100 terabyte, it was a lot of storage, but right now, we’re looking to bring in a petabyte of storage to support our visual effects and post operation. Granted, that’s probably not even a lot much data compared to some of the bigger facilities that exist.
What do you think about the constant updates of formats and technology and how do you adapt to it?
Years ago, everything was hardware-specific. If you wanted to do something, there was a specific piece of hardware that did that. Thankfully, over the last 10-15 years, we’ve gone away from that. Now, there is a workstation and software to do what you need to do. That allows us to take that same workstation, which might not be fast enough for visual effects or editing, but it might work as a file server of some kind that we’ll use for our corporate office. Typically, as you upgrade, you look to find a reuse for some of the older infrastructure.
We want to talk about Vikings and Vikings: Valhalla, the two big shows of the house. What camera equipment do you use on set?
For the original Vikings series the cinematographer used Alexa cameras shooting UHD resolution for all seasons. On the new series, Vikings: Valhalla, that’s currently in production, our cinematographer Peter Robertson is using the Sony VENICE at 6K. We are just starting to colour correct the episodes in Dolbyvision and the footage looks absolutely gorgeous.
They are series with a lot of visual effects, how do you work on that?
With Vikings and the spin off series Vikings: Valhalla the VFX vendor we use is Mr. X Toronto. They’ve been our partners for many years and handle all of the heavy lifting for the series. We also use our in-house team which consists of 6-8 artists that are dedicated to the series. The majority of the work on our in-house team does, is clean ups, environment extensions, mainly 2D work.
Some of the software MR. X uses is Maya, Houdini and Nuke. I’m also sure they’re using a lot of their own proprietary code and scripts. Our in-house team primarily works with Nuke, a little Houdini and Photoshop for matte paintings.
There are a lot of water scenes, which are always complicated, which was the main challenge of this?
Mr. X uses water simulations in which they’ve perfected, it’s looking amazing. We’re always striving to get to a photorealistic look and right now their water simulations are one of their specialties. It’s not just about creating the water sims, but integrating the different layers of water, foam, waves into the plates that add to the realistic look. They will take a plate which consists of a boat with our actors and just make it come to life. The action may not be perfect, but they always find a way to enhance it and make it look better.
It has a lot of postproduction work, which was the main challenge you face off during this production?
The time. It’s just getting it all done within the schedule that you have. Everybody wants to create great-looking visual effects. Sometimes just getting it to that perfect state of photorealism, it takes a little more time. Sometimes we’re lucky we have the time so we can do that, sometimes we’re under some tight schedules and it’s a little bit more challenging.
Ultimately, I think overall it’s always about getting the shots looking as photorealistic as possible. You really don’t want to take anybody out of the scene to say, “Oh, that looks like a visual effect.” It should always feel very natural and like it was captured that way. I think that’s always the biggest challenge.
You have another big international success like Vikings, which is the Handmaid’s Tale; it’s a completely different production. What are the differences between them?
With Vikings, you know that visual effects play a big role with large battle scenes, or a big storm sequence. The audience is aware that when we take someone’s head off, VFX helped make it happen. With a show like The Handmaid’s Tale it’s more about the hidden. The viewer never feels that VFX is involved in creating a scene or a location. In season 3 of Handmaid’s, there was a big scene that took place at the Lincoln Memorial / Washington monument. Shooting on location in Washington was a big challenge because we couldn’t close that area off to the crowds walking around. We tried to have as much crowd control as we could, but without closing the area off entirely, we knew we’d need VFX to make the scene work as the producers wanted it to look. This required a lot of work form Mavericks our VFX vendor, which included rotoscoping, painting out unwanted people, 3D extensions, cleaning up the environment and adding and duplicating the handmaids. As an audience member it looks like we went to Washington shot out scene and captured everything in camera.
Similarly, in season 2, we had a scene in which takes place entirely at Fenway Park in Boston. For a variety of reasons we couldn’t go to shoot in Boston, so our VFX Supervisor Brendan Taylor and VFX Producer Stephen Lebed went to Boston and took photographs and scans of Fenway Park. We then shot all the foreground action at a ball park in Toronto and the Mavericks team put it all together, making it feel that the entire scene was shot on location at Fenway Park.
We understand asset and content management is critical for you, how do you manage that? Do you use some cloud service for that?
We use a variety of software/services. From a visual effects standpoint, we’re running everything through Shotgun. It manages all of our elements, assets and shot production with our in-house team as well as it helps us manage our vendor shots. On the post side, I’d love to tell you that we have a great asset tool that tracks it all, but most of it, is just spread sheets, Excel, shared docs, Avid tools and things like that where we track everything.
And for your media management?
We use stuff like Media Shuttle, Aspera and PIX. Right now we’re using a variety of things. As an example, we use PIX to distribute cuts to executive producers and to the network. If we’re moving small data between visual effects vendors and ourselves, we use Media Shuttle, which is a secure tool to do that. Now, with COVID where we’re not doing sound reviews and we all can’t go into a mix theatre anymore, we’re using Frame.io to send files to producers and creative execs to listen to.
With Colour Correction the biggest challenge is getting a proper calibrated image to our cinematographers and show runners. So, in most cases we will link them up with a remote streaming solution that supports high bandwidth, high bit depth streaming. Tools like Streambox Chroma and a OLED display. Particularly, if it’s a Dolby Vision master we’re creating, there’s an added challenge in making sure we can initiate the Dolby Vision function on the display. We also don’t want to always stream the colour but provide a file that the DP can review and make notes on. In this case we’ve been looking at Moxion for that. It has full Dolby Vision integration built into their service. Overall, we’re continuously looking for very specific tools and services that do exactly what we need in helping provide a solution.
With the entire COVID situation, remote workflows began important. Are you working on it or do you have any plans to advance on it?
Currently our visual effects team continues to work remotely. They’re all at home. Our editing teams are somewhat of a hybrid as some editors and assistants are working from home and some are in the office. The film and television business in Ontario has been deemed an essential business and therefore we’re allowed to operate with all of the lockdowns we’ve had. The industry has proven to the government that we can maintain a safe way of working because of the various protocols in place which includes wearing multiple layers of PPE and the biggest factor is our testing protocols. COVID is not being spread set. Likewise in post-production, we’re allowed to operate. We’ve set up everybody to work remotely or come into the office, they have the option. At times we’ve wanted to do our part to curb the spread and keep our staff safe and have implemented full work from home direction. The amazing thing is that most staff wants to come to the office.
We’ve created a very safe office environment because everyone has their own edit suite. We don’t have a lot of open environments; we’ve put up plexi-glass shields in open areas. Everyone wears PPE and most importantly we have a lab come in on a weekly basis and test our entire staff. We know that we’re all safe and we’ve been working like this since August and thankfully, we haven’t had a single positive test. Everyone feels safe about coming in. I think from a mental health standpoint everyone enjoys getting out of the house as well as it helps with breaking up the monotony of being inside for months on end, plus the efficiencies of working together is much easier. The communication is obviously a lot better when you can actually interact with people.
Companies like Netflix or HBO have replaced TVs as series producers, what is the difference you find working for a TV project or, for example, with Netflix?
From our standpoint not a whole lot has changed. The streamers, like Netflix, Amazon, Paramount+ have specific technical requirements that include delivering the projects in HDR (Dolby Vision) or in Dolby Atmos for sound. They typically want 4k/UHD resolution and therefore the native camera sensor needs to be 4k or larger. From our perspective these minor challenges, add to the overall quality of the show which makes for a much better viewing experience for the audience.
We like the delivery to some of the streamers like Netflix as all we need to deliver is a single IMF file. We don’t have to worry about sending a version to Spain, Italy, Germany, and South America. It’s one file that goes to Netflix, and that’s it.
What are the challenges for the future of Take 5?
There is still the pandemic, so we are dealing with COVID and working through that. Making sure we continue to provide a safe environment for everyone. Providing solutions that allow us to pivot in the event there is another outbreak. The other challenges we’re dealing with now is having to relocate our office. We’re looking for new space which we’ll need to build out to our specifics over the next few months. The upside to the move is that it’s a good opportunity to revaluate how we’re set up and how we do things. The new spaces will us to create an environment that works for all of our post and VFX teams.