AMIRA look management

The eight-part AMC miniseries THE AMERICAN WEST recounts how, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the United States conquered and settled the American frontier, transforming the vast western lands into "the land of opportunity." The show focuses on little-known personal stories of such legendary figures as Jesse James, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.

This series marks my fifth directorial collaboration with executive producer Stephen David on a "hybrid" documentary -- a form David pioneered that fuses the power of nonfiction with the immersive appeal of scripted entertainment. David's earlier hybrid-documentary series include THE MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA, THE WORLD WARS and THE MAKING OF THE MOB: NEW YORK.

Unlike other documentaries, these shows are much more than just recreations. We're doing a full historical narrative that needs to connect seamlessly with traditional documentary elements such as talking-head interviews and archival materials. With THE AMERICAN WEST, we were also basically making an action movie, complete with gunfights, cavalry battles and train robberies -- and we were doing it all on a 25-day shooting schedule.

To meet the challenge, I turned to a longtime collaborator, cinematographer Kevin M. Graves. "Working with John can be described in one word: intense," Graves acknowledges. "He often wants to move at a startling pace, but he never loses sight of the look we've created. So, going into this, I knew it was going to be a fun but challenging shoot, and that my background in documentary would be a huge help."

These shows have one foot in the documentary world and one foot in the scripted space. The AMIRA seemed to balance those needs perfectly.

For this project, Graves chose ARRI's AMIRA camera. "These shows have one foot in the documentary world and one foot in the scripted space," he explains. "The AMIRA seemed to balance those needs perfectly." The camera's light weight, small form factor, built-in NDs, and ability to shoot at a maximum frame rate of 200 fps were all important features.


For Graves, an even more important consideration was the AMIRA's workflow for creating and maintaining looks. "In preproduction," he says, "I spent many hours working in the AMIRA Color Tool [since renamed the ARRI Color Tool]. The power and simplicity of the application made it possible to test dozens of looks on a laptop before presenting them to John for discussion. After we found what fit the feel of our show, an .aml file was created for the A and B cameras, and a copy was also given to Johnny Saint Ours, our second-unit director-cinematographer."

Digital-imaging technician Bradley Crane created H.264 dailies using the LUT Graves had made, adjusting it as necessary so the compressed footage would more closely match the on-set viewing LUT. "On set, the look would be applied to the viewing monitors, and it would be attached to the ProRes 4444 camera files as non-destructive metadata while the cameras were actually recording in Log C gamma," Graves explains. "No additional hardware or LUT boxes were required on set. The editors could then access this look info with ease for the offline edit."

Offline editing was done on Avid Media Composer using the DNxHD 36 codec, under the supervision of co-executive producer Tim Kelly. Tim's oversight was critical to the finished show; he worked tirelessly with Final Frame Post colorists Charlie Rokosny and Sandy Patch to ensure continuity with the looks Kevin and I established in the field.

Having this ability to track looks throughout 30 years of story time -- from Civil War-era Missouri to Tombstone, Arizona -- and have those looks follow all the way through postproduction was critical, especially given how fast we had to move on set. To further facilitate post and finishing, we used the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, capturing 1920x1080 resolution files. Final masters were delivered to AMC as 1920x1080 ProRes 422 QuickTime files.

Excerpted from a July 2016 article written by John Ealer for American Cinematographer magazine and reprinted here with permission.