12:00 AM - May 23, 2012 by Chris Angelini
A couple of months back, I had the opportunity to chat with Jacob Rosenberg, CTO of Bandito Brothers. As you may know, Bandito Brothers is the studio responsible for Act of Valor, the action film released earlier this year featuring active-duty Navy SEALs. In the making of Act of Valor, a lot of familiar technology was used: graphics cards from Nvidia, software from Adobe, workstations from HP, and cameras from Canon. So, I wanted to talk to Jacob about some of what it took to create such a popular film using some of the same products we discuss on Tom's Hardware.
At the same time, we explored how the two worlds of technology and film come together, how the former will benefit the latter moving forward, specifics on how Bandito Brothers approached Act of Valor, and what the studio has planned for the future.
Naturally, things got really busy around the lab right around that same time, and I wasn't able to get our chat transcribed prior to SXSW. However, Jacob's insights are still valuable today.
Chris Angelini: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Jacob.
Jacob Rosenberg: No problem, we’ve definitely done a lot of stuff recently that we’re happy to talk about, so
Angelini: So, can you describe your role as the CTO of Bandito Brothers? What does a typical day entail for you?
Rosenberg: When Scott (Waugh) and Mouse (Mike McCoy) started the company and asked me to be a part of it, what they really wanted was to fill in the blanks with the technical side of the company and running post-production. They had a pretty aggressive outlook on how they wanted to handle production, and based on the work we had done together on "Dust to Glory" and subsequent projects, they wanted to have an equally aggressive strategy for post, and I was the candidate and someone they had worked with and trusted to fulfill that role.
So, when we started Bandito Brothers, it just made logical sense that I would take the title of CTO and I would be responsible for running post production. In the early days of the company, I was hands-on with every project, every workflow, every piece of data. And as we’ve grown as a company, I still oversee and make sure that all of our workflows are made bulletproof, but I also spend a significant amount of time mentoring some of the younger people that we’ve hired to be a part of the company and start doing some of that post work. But a typical day for me can range from budgeting, talking about strategies for shooting something, working with our post-producer to talk about what projects are going on, and then the other hat that I wear is one of the director, and I have my own project that I’ve been working on at the same time.
We really see ourselves as a collective. So, while I do have the title, I do end up spending a lot of time dipping into other parts of the company. But traditionally, I’ll be in my office and walk over and see what’s going on with projects, go down to the edit bay and see what’s going on there, be on the phone with people like Shane Hurlbut, with Scotty, our sound guy, composer, that sort of thing, making sure everything is continuing to move forward. And I do spend a significant portion of my day dealing with our technology partners and evaluating new technology and processes we’re considering employing.
Angelini: It’s interesting to me that you mention the new people, the young talent. When you talk about that from a technical perspective, are those people that got their start on the technical side because they’re editing and doing school projects, or are these more film-oriented guys?
Rosenberg: No, it’s actually really interesting. Dan Restuccio, a great technology journalist from Post Magazine, runs the video and computer program up at Cal Lutheran, south of Santa Barbara. And my first intern was from Cal Lutheran. He was this really technically-adept guy named Mike McCarthy, and he became my director of technology for the company. He helps us out with new tools and he’s the ear-to-the-ground guy who understands the inner workings of technical things. Most of the people who work for me came from the Cal Lutheran pipeline. Most of these kids started off as interns and we just really expose them to a ton of stuff. And then when their internship is up, if they’ve done a good job, they get an opportunity to come on in a more full-time capacity.
I just find that culturally, you get these really motivated kids who have a decent education, who have a comfortable affinity to technology because they’ve grown up with it their entire life. And then you’re trying to impose the ways we think about post-production based on our roots in analog. So I find that there’s this wonderful mish-mash of these new, young kids who see things in the digital way, but you’re constantly keeping them on their toes by applying knowledge from the analog days, which is always incredibly relevant to problem solving almost anything, no matter how new the technology is.
Tying PC Hardware And Movie-Making Together
Angelini: The first thing that really caught my eye when I saw Mark’s email (from Nvidia) about what you’re doing was, uh, some of the hardware you use during filming is really familiar to the Tom’s Hardware audience. Our guys know graphics and hardware. But a lot of it also comes from an entirely different world, where we don’t mess with cameras and a lot of the post-production tools. Can you describe how those two segments come together? Are companies coming to you with, “Check this card out, it’ll speed up decompression of high-def footage?” Or are you looking for capabilities that aren’t available and asking for them to be enabled?
Rosenberg: It’s a little bit of a healthy mix of both. I would say most of the needs that we have on a regular basis get fulfilled within some window of time, and that could probably fall into Moore’s law. So, usually things that we’re anticipating eventually come onto our plate.
I mean, the Canon 5D Mark II—we were having conversations in 2008 about DSLR cameras that had the ability to shoot 24 frames per second at 1080p. And Nikon came out with their camera in 2009, but it only shot 720. And then Canon came out with the 5D Mark II in November of 2009 and that shot 1080. Most of the stuff we’ve wanted we’ve found this really cosmic alignment with the projects we were doing, and that worked out.
In terms of hardware specifically, there are two big shining lights that we felt really good about. One of them is Nvidia’s CUDA technology and GPU acceleration hooked into Adobe’s software platform. I have always been a very loyal Adobe user, and that just comes from the fact that my mentor’s brother worked at Adobe, I got a job as a consultant for Adobe fresh out of college, and I subsidized my film-making passion by being a senior consultant for Adobe’s video department. So I was always motivated personally to try to use Adobe as much as possible on workflows. And around the time that CS 4 came out, which was when we were starting Act of Valor, you had a lot of this CUDA GPU acceleration, and then that really came to fruition with CS 5 and CS 5.5 with the Mercury Playback Engine. At that point, it wasn’t a matter of asking Nvidia, because Nvidia’s job was to make its cards faster. So we were really at this unique moment where myself being so inundated with technology for so long in my career—starting working at Adobe in 1995 and building relationships—Nvidia was already a company where we had plenty of their cards. But it wasn’t until we saw the full potential of what they were doing that I thought to myself “We need to be partners with these guys in a way that we’re giving them feedback and we want to be a lighthouse account for them and help them with stuff because we’ve made a big investment in their cards, and then there are needs that we have that we can give information back to them. So, with Nvidia specifically, it was really the alignment with using Adobe and Nvidia’s hooks into Adobe.
And then the other contingent to that was Hewlett Packard. We found ourselves again using these 8400 and 8600 systems running our Avid and Premiere systems. And right in the middle of our production they came out with the Z800. The other thing they came out with was the DreamColor monitor, which was a result of their collaboration with DreamWorks. So, these were two companies that were giving solutions within the budgets we were comfortable working in. We’re not a big studio. We don’t see ourselves as a big studio. We see ourselves as an independent studio, so we’re trying to get things done on limited budgets, putting as much money onto screen as possible. And so our back-end technical processes all hinge on getting economical solutions. That was one of the things our technology director Mike McCarthy was so good at was trolling the Web to find these new technology breakthroughs and find these products and get the stuff in-house to work well.
Angelini: That leads to a multi-part question that I have. I know you have a long history with Adobe. I know Nvidia put a lot of engineering time into Mercury Playback. So where specifically does GPU-based acceleration play a role in your workflow and then how was life different before you had a graphics card to do that? We used to associate this stuff with gaming.
Rosenberg: For a video editor, real-time interaction with the material is essential. Traditionally, real-time performance and playback was always linked to a video capture card. So, Matrox, for example, had their real-time engine that was accelerating playback and effects and all of that. And around the time that CS 4 came out, just the dynamics of video capture hardware on the PC were changing in that real-time support, in terms of wanting to not have to build a $10000 workstation that just plays stuff back in real-time.
And so, everyone needs a graphics card in their computer. That’s just a basic fact of assembling a PC or Mac. The moment that the graphics card can serve your display needs, and then accelerate the playback needs, it starts to become even more integral for the video editor. For us, for example, we would have a dual-output Nvidia graphics card that had the DreamColor display on one connector, which is calibrated and color-correct, and then our standard monitor as our primary display. And then we’re using the GPUacceleration that’s on the card to play back multiple digital camera formats in real-time. That, for us, was the watershed moment where it was like, the faster these cards, the better that performance is going to be. And then when you have digital acquisition companies investing in 2K, 4K, 5K video formats, you need more processing to play those back in real-time, and that’s where the GPU makes a really big difference.
Now, the paradigm has shifted in that the GPU is an absolute essential component of building any of those systems because it serves that dual purpose. But the secondary purpose of the accelerated editing and decompressing is almost becoming the primary need for that graphics card because of the strength of the card.
Identifying Technology Bottlenecks In Film Production
Angelini: In light of what you can do with graphics, I’m sure different pain points emerge. Now you can do the real-time stuff, so you’re waiting on something else now. Is there any other application you see for upcoming PC hardware technologies to alleviate some of what you’re waiting on now?
Rosenberg: To me, the biggest bottlenecks right now are file formats and the size of files and pushing that data back and forth. With the Maximus program, with some of the Tesla technology we’ve seen from Nvidia, we are in a whole different moment right now in terms of processing data from some of our really sophisticated and complicated CPU processing applications.
So, I see the biggest issue around networking and sharing large files without having to have a really crazy fibre SAN to tie everyone together. You know, fast Ethernet, and faster communication and sharing of those files is probably going to be the likely next technology step. The new developments around CPUs and workstations is going to be centered around faster access to RAM and other things that are critical to accelerating all of these processes.
The truth is that it’s frustrating because you don’t want to say something close-minded like “I hope they stop at 4K,” but at a certain point we need to kind of agree that, you know, eh, a 4K workflow is pretty good. 8K projectors? Maybe that makes sense, but I don’t really get that. But hopefully you reach a standard. 4K projected on a great projector looks amazing, and 2K projected on a great projector looks amazing. At that point, once you level off in terms of those file formats, then to me it’s about pushing that data faster, sharing the data better, and processing the data faster.
Angelini: Is there anything you’re doing behind the scenes to alleviate that in your own operation?
Rosenberg: I’ve spent the majority of my post-production career on the floor of the server room bleeding trying to fix problems and solve issues. I never withhold information about things and processes we do. We may have a secret sauce for creating a certain type of effect or look. But in terms of technology stuff from the back-end, we’re doing some grassroots stuff too.
We have fast storage drives that we plug stuff into and share data off of drives. We have two fiber arrays that we connect to. One is near for certain projects and one is shared. And that’s pretty much how we’re sharing data. The other part of that is I’m not ready to make that investment in the next step of datastorage because I think that’s an ongoing discussion and right now it works for us.
But, you know, what we envision is building literally a 100 TB closet that has an incredible amount of RAIDredundancy that is constantly an accessible storage unit for all of your files. That’s the biggest issue that I foresee in the future. Everyone’s data is going to slowly exist on drives. Solid-state is great. If everything can get to solid-state that’s great. But that’s going to be a while. But it is concerning to consider that all of these formats are going to exist digitally.
Angelini: This is separate, but it’s going to interest a lot of the hardware guys because movies are fascinating to us. I’m a layperson, and I see raw footage of an actor in what will eventually become an intense action sequence on-screen. And you’re missing a ton of realism because you’re trying to keep these guys safe and get the shot. So, as an editor in post-production, what do you do to make that shot believable? What kind of hardware is involved, what kind of software is involved, and how much of that is just the editor’s talent?
Rosenberg: I would say that I can only speak specifically to our work. And I would say that the intensity, the immersion of the experience is a direct result of the strategy that Mouse and Scott employed when shooting the movie or shooting the content that you’re watching. So there’s a very aggressive, hands-on strategy that they follow on-set that is somewhat a result of the camera formats that we’re using, the limited resources that we’re shooting with that create a more intense schedule that create a little more intense feeling on-set.
Specifically with Act of Valor, all we needed for editorial was systems that worked reliably. And what we did for finishing was make sure that we did a de-noise pass and then a re-grain pass of the movie so that the 5D material didn’t feel digital. And that was something where we relied on Nvidia cards using Cinnafilm’s Dark Energy tool and we went through and actually de-noised all of the Canon 5D Mark II material and then did a scene-by-scene re-grain of all that material to make it blend.
So it’s kind of like, what you’re asking is how do you keep that footage feeling like it’s part of the same moment and there are two answers. One is we use some specific technology to help enhance the image. But none of that matters if the content itself isn’t compelling. So there’s no secret sauce in editorial other than the talented editing that goes into creating pace and creating tension from incredible material. In that instance we have Z800 and we have 8600 HP workstations that were the primary editorial systems on Act of Valor. And then we went onto a Z800 with our Nvidia graphics cards and did post-processing for color correction and for the texturing of the film, as we call. So there was no “this shot is so much better because of this.” It’s really a result of how we approach making movies and the passion that we put into it. If the shots aren’t compelling, then Scott and Mouse haven’t done their job. They set a mandate that every frame has to be beautiful. And we had 15 cameras on some shots. When you’re shooting fast-roping onto the back of a yacht in the open ocean, that’s pretty bitchin’.
Filming With Canon 5D Mark IIIs
Angelini: And you guys had to use some innovation there. It wasn’t just standard stuff. High-end technology is not always suited for life in the field, especially in a movie like Act of Valor. What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome to be able to use that hardware and make it durable and last to get that action close to the actor.
Rosenberg: We didn’t. The cameras we had were $2500 cameras. If you’re on a typical movie set, the camera’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We had a $2500 camera that if it broke we could go to Best Buy and buy a new one. So that empowered us to be way more aggressive. “Oh, so there’s salt water that gets on the camera.” So what. “Oh, there’s mud that’s on the camera.” So what. “Oh, we crashed into the camera and broke it.” So what. Just pull out the CF card and make sure we got the shot.
I think that Act of Valor is such a unique project because so much was borne from the reliance on technology as a friend and as a means of making the film more engaging. And that Canon 5D Mark II enabled us to get closer to the actors with a camera that could put up an image on a big screen that people would not have a problem with. And in post, our job is, if there are problems like rolling shutters and stuff like that, we’re obligated to fix that stuff to make sure there are no technical issues that the audience experiences.
Angelini: How many 5Ds did you go through?
Rosenberg: I think we only lost five. At most we used 15 on certain sequences. But I think five got totally hosed.
Angelini: When you’re doing those shots and all of the action is happening in a self-contained helmet cam with the camera on one side and storage on the other, how do you know when you got the shot you want?
Rosenberg: That was using a remote RCA connection that was screening the material to the directors and the DP Shane Hurlbut. The SEALs would wear the helmet cam, they would go through their sequences, then they would watch it and plug the camera into a DreamColor monitor and review the shot.
Angelini: Do you do any gaming yourself?
Rosenberg: I grew up playing video games. One of my first jobs ever was a game counselor for Sega of America back in the day. This is old-school when something like Spider-Man would come out and people were trying to beat Sandman and they’d call up on the phone and ask how to get past the level and I’d tell them how. But I’ve always had an affinity for games, and I’ve always enjoyed video games for sure. Tony Hawk Pro Skater, the original, that’s one of the greatest games ever. And Sega Hockey 1990 and 1991, those are some of the best video games ever.
Angelini: I think a lot of the Tom’s guys are going to watch Act of Valor and see a lot of parallels between some of their favorite video games like Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty. Do you think about that relationship while you’re working on this stuff?
Rosenberg: I don’t think we thought consciously about the relationship while we were working on the project, but Scott and Mouse specifically wanted to make sure that the first-person shooter was the most accurate that’s ever been seen outside of a video game.
Act Of Valor, And Bandito's Next Projects
Angelini: Related to that, I was reading Adobe’s profile on Bandito Brothers, and they said you guys focus on fearless athletes and exceptional human stories. To that end, do you ever see a company like Bandito Brothers leveraging its experience in digital technology to get involved in the gaming scene?
Rosenberg: We have a really wonderful relationship with Electronic Arts. We did a project with them for Battlefield 3 last summer that Scotty and I co-directed. And then we’ve done some stuff with the Medal of Honor team as well. So, we’re big fans of Electronic Arts. We’re big fans of the gaming platforms and the potential of gaming—specifically with an opportunity for story-telling and telling stories that you probably couldn’t tell in film. I think that there’s just a ton of IP that’s out there that’s great, that has huge built-in fan bases. And I think there are interesting projects to pursue and we see the gaming community as an exciting frontier, particularly with the right partner or right property.
Angelini: Can you tease anything about what you’re excited about working on after Act of Valor or what you’re doing at SXSW?
Rosenberg: As one of the partners of the company, I’m also a director of the company and I grew up skateboarding in the ‘90s, and being a skate filmer and making skateboard videos. So, I’ve finally, through the support of my partners, have been able to make a documentary about a skateboarder named Danny Way. We’ll have the film premiered at SXSW. That’s called Waiting for Lightning, and that’s sort of been a life passion project for me that will finally come to fruition.
So, that will come out shortly, and then we have like three other projects that we’re slated to do starting with Black Sands with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then onto a project called God’s Gulch and another called High Speed. It’s a good moment for us, and I think, at the end of the day, we call ourselves Bandito Brothers. We’re a group of guys who respect each other and try to fill in the blanks for each other, and we see Act of Valor as our initial statement as to who we are.
Angelini: I was actually going to ask you how that feels—I know it sounds corny, but that’s a really big deal.
Rosenberg: Yeah, you know Mouse and Scott always said that one of their goals was that they wanted to make an incredible action movie that put you in the boots of the SEALs and really talked about the sacrifice that those guys have made. They always wanted to feel like they could have a beer with the SEALs afterwards because it is a really sacred community that we have a tremendous amount of respect for and we don’t know a lot of the things that they do.
The film has been so well-received by that community and audiences across America that we just feel like the people have spoken and we couldn’t be happier with their enthusiasm for Act of Valor. We were the number one movie in America without any stars, just heroes. It was like, that’s crazy for a bunch of cowboys out in Culver City.
Angelini: Definitely validating. Thanks again Jacob, we wish you guys success in the future.
Rosenberg: If you happen to be in Culver City, stop by and I’ll show you the shop.
Angelini: Our U.S. headquarters is in Culver as well, so I’d be happy to.Original Story