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June 2013

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tV on the Web Playing their Cards right S A52 provides color and VFX for Netflix's House of Cards. Lustre was used to give the show its moody feel. ANTA MONICA — Earlier this year, when Netflix made its bid to upend the current TV content model with its successful, David Fincher-created, a la carte series House of Cards, it was joined by the director's long-time collaborators, VFX studio A52. Known for creating high-end photoreal visual effects, A52 began as an extension of editorial company Rock Paper Scissors in 1997. However, the full-service Santa Monica studio, led by Patrick Murphy and Andy Hall, has established a singular pedigree, leading to work with top directors like Fincher, whose House of Cards follows US representative Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as he plots his revenge against the canvas of Washington politics. Led by colorist/lead Smoke artist Paul Yacono, the A52 team delivered color and finishing services for the series' first season. Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) also contributed with two-time Oscar-winning editor Kirk Baxter cutting the series' first two episodes and fellow Oscar-winner and RPS co-founder Angus Wall editing the series' title sequence. The two earned their Oscars working with Fincher on The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, so their collaborations have a history of success. The final result comprises 13 one-hour episodes. A52 was no stranger to the show's brooding tone and intense pacing, having worked with Fincher on pervious occasions. "From working with David on The Social Network, I already had an understanding of his attention to detail in his imagery, with a focus on contrast, color and composition," explains Yacono. "He's an idiosyncratic director with an incredible eye and he knows the look he likes and doesn't like. Rarely is there an in-between. Yet at the same time he would be completely nonrestrictive, allowing us to explore within the world that he and DP Eigil Bryld provided." Following Fincher's initial direction, Yacono and A52 second colorist Tommy Hooper completed the remaining 12 episodes over a five-month period. During this time, the rest of A52's House of Cards team, including lead online editor Matt Sousa, set about conforming each episode and adding touches of subtle visual effects. ALL-AT-ONCE DELIVERABLES Of course, the non-traditional format of House of Cards proved to be its own post challenge. "Unlike traditional networks, Netf- 12 Post • June 2013 lix releases an entire season in one go," explains chief engineer Kevin Bass. "As the show took shape, the editorial department needed the flexibility to change episodes at will without slowing down the finishing for the rest of the series." Instrumental in tackling these demands was a specialized pipeline; developed by A52 producers, engineers and artists to serve both the reasons," explains Hooper. "We created an automated solution that streamlined the process and saved us countless hours. The real challenge was finding an encoding solution or a group of encoding solutions that could handle the diversity of specifications, yet were still automatable. In addition, we were able to use our existing infrastructure for rendering, so no additional hardware was required." House of Cards was A52's first foray into longform television series work. technical challenges and creative aspirations of the series. Led by Bass, the team created a flexible yet structured workflow that allowed for rolling editorial changes on all episodes. "Our flexibility stemmed from the seamless interoperability between Autodesk products, allowing us to move between Smoke to Lustre, pickup VFX shots in Flame, and render everything back to our dedicated SAN that would immediately populate back into a built, and possibly rolling, conform. Because our Autodesk systems are completely interconnected on the same SAN, we were able to move fluidly throughout the facility to address client needs. The combination of the pipeline and the large amount of storage that was networked to that pipeline allowed us to change directions at a moment's notice." Another unconventional aspect of working with Netflix took the form of the online content provider's all-digital delivery system. Though modern-day spot work and production practices had prepared A52 for digital deliveries, the magnitude of the House of Cards project still required several innovative engineering solutions. "Every graded version of an episode we would create needed to be framed, resized and encoded into a number of different formats for both internal and external Hooper was invaluable during this process, trading in his role as colorist to help develop the differing compressions and framing charts needed for the numerous deliveries, including PIX H.264, ProRes and MPEG-2 QuickTime masters. In particular, use of the PIX system proved integral to the process. "We wanted David to be able to keep track of the work and make comments on critical imaging from anywhere — whether he was looking at a 26-inch 1080p Boland LCD monitor or an iPad," notes Hooper. "With PIX, we were instantly notified of David's comments, allowing us to quickly make adjustments and resubmit for approvals." In completing House of Cards, A52 believes that they have helped to blaze a new trail for Netflix and for themselves. This was their first foray into TV — both for Paul Yacono and A52. "A52 has always been known as a boutique VFX company," notes the studio's executive producer, Megan Meloth. "This starts a new chapter in our history. Paul Yacono is an incredibly-talented colorist and having completed this series with A52's engineering department behind him, we're ready to take on our next challenge. We're excited to do more DI, whether it be for commercials or longform. "

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