AC/DC, Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Robbie Williams, Metallica, David Gilmour, Duran Duran, Placebo, Dixie Chicks, Zipperface, Beyoncé, Björk… You name them, James Tonkin has worked with them. In this extensive interview, he talks about the gear he takes on the road to shoot and edit concerts of the world’s greatest bands, and about his new high-end post house in London. A good read for anyone who is interested in camera gear and post production technology.
But before we dive in, I invite you to watch a 4 minute video impression about James Tonkin and his work, produced by LumaForge and recorded at his studio in London by Bradley Olson and Patrick Southern. Use the highest playback settings to get the best visual impression:
So tell us a little more about yourself and how you got into this line of work.
Hangman was born out of the desire to create compelling high end music documentary and narrative work. We operate as both a production and post production company. My background is in music, so we have specialized in working with artists and bands since our first inception in 2001.
From 2012 we started to specialize more in tour filming, firstly working with Coldplay on a 2012 tour/live film directed by Paul Dugdale and then in 2013 touring with Robbie Williams and from 2014 onwards with The Rolling Stones and AC/DC in 2016.
On the road, Hangman is basically a two-man team with myself as a director/ DP/editor/colorist and my right-hand man Matt Cronin as second camera/editor/sound engineer. We have local help to mind static cameras in venues. But everything is usually shot, cut and finished between the two of us.
We constantly flip between shooting, directing/producing and post production. We've always enjoyed both sides of production and post because they compliment each other and it’s good to have skills in both areas.
There are two main aspects in our work:
- During the tours we shoot as much footage as possible and we deliver short concert and behind-the-scenes videos against crazy deadlines for social media and broadcast news, while the show is going on.
- At the studio we edit and finish feature-length concert documentaries and other high-end productions, for broadcast, online media and cinema.
For both types of work we need ultimate reliability in whatever tools we use. We want them to empower us to be creative, and to work flawlessly for 365 days a year. But we also want the technology to kinda go away. We achieve this by basically using the latest cutting-edge cameras that we can find. We pair that with cutting-edge production equipment and also, I believe, the most cutting-edge post-production software that is Final Cut Pro X.
Let’s start with the tours. How do you prepare for a concert tour and what gear do you take with you?
Our goal is to try and bring the highest production value and the most creative approaches to filmmaking when we work on the road. But we try to do this with the smallest footprint we can. The whole aim is to be small and light and efficient.
Here’s a quick kit list of gear we take on a tour:
- RED Weapon carbon 8K
- BlackMagic URSAmini Pro
- BlackMagic URSAmini 4.6K
- Sony A7R2
- Sony A7S2
- GoPro hero 4s
- DJI Phantom 3
- Letus Helix Standard stabilizing gear
- Letus Helix Junior
- Manfrotto tripods & heads
- Canon L series primes (24/50/85/100)
- Canon L series zooms (16-35, 24-70, 70-200)
- Carl Zeiss ZE lenses
- Sigma Art lenses
- SLRMagic Anamorphic primes (35/50/70)
- Aladdin Bi-Flex lights • PAG Link gold-mount batteries & travel chargers
- MacPro 6-core 2013 model
- Asus 15” Monitor
- Pegasus Promise RAIDS / G-Tech / LaCie drives... normally between 50-100TBs per tour
- MacBookPro laptops
Everything has to fit in a combination of Think Tank carry-on roller bags and backpacks and a single Pelican storm case. We never take more than we can manage between 2 people.
I only see ultra high definition cameras on your list, up to the Weapon 8K. No HD?
Two years ago I made a conscious decision to get rid of all of my HD cameras. We decided that everything from now on had to be 4K and up.
The decision to do that is because we are lucky to work with a lot of bands who, I think, are important to document as a legacy of the things that they are doing. So I think it's our responsibility to shoot in the highest resolution that we can afford to. When people go back and hopefully revisit some of this footage for bands like The Rolling Stones in 10 years' time, then they don't want to see it as being shot in a format which dated very quickly.
One thing that I get sick and tired of hearing is people saying, "Oh, you shouldn't be shooting in 4K. You shouldn't be shooting in 8K. The machine won't handle it. It's going to be loads more render time." I mean, that's my problem to deal with, basically. That's thankfully why I have powerful Macs and new MacBook Pros, because they can deal with all of these camera formats.
It looks like a lot of cameras for 2 people. Do you really use them all?
Being a two-man operation, you’ve always got be prepared. Like always having a GoPro on a DJI Phantom in your backpack. Because you never know when you might be just driving along, and then you might see a train. You might say, "Oh, I think we need to go and fly over that train and get a shot of that.” Or you arrive in your hotel or the venue and you see that you can shoot a stunning time-lapse with the Sony A7R II…. you need to be able to do that immediately.
It's all about using these cameras and using this production gear to give us a heightened sense of production value around what we're doing. We'll pick up something, and we'll use it.
As an example, this year we were asked to document Robbie William’s 2017 tour in its entirety. Not only did we need to produce regular 60-90 second social media edits during the shows, but I also had to consider the possibility that we might use some of this material in a long-form documentary piece. As such our choice of camera and sound recording became more important, taking into consideration longer form narrative sequences and shots.
Our primary camera choices are the RED Weapon, which is my hero camera, and the Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro and Ursa mini 4.6K. For some run and gun filmmakers this might not be the first choice of camera systems when it comes to filming documentaries. In comparison to others, they have drawbacks in changing light situations and handling. But from a quality standpoint the choice makes sense, if one can make them work documentary style. And we did.
To take advantage of the size and weight of the URSA Mini Pro, we designed a gimbal setup based upon the Letus Helix, as well as a remote focusing solution. Having both the internal NDs and external controls make the URSA Mini Pro perfectly suited to running on a gimbal.
However, getting the gimbal configuration right required a fair bit of trial and error as I was relying on a remote system to focus the 12mm Laowa lens manually. We also had to make sure that the gimbal was well balanced and software adjusted for smooth, noise-free operation so that we always had clean audio running from the camera’s top mic.
We spent a great deal of time refining the system before taking it out on the road, including packing it into a custom storm Pelicase as well as optimizing the setup and pack downtime of the rig. There’s no point in setting up something that works great in the studio, but then doesn’t travel well and takes too long to set up on location. After a bit of practice, I could get the rig set up in under ten minutes each day and packed away in less than five. There is very little time in a typical tour day, so every minute counts.
Shooting and editing while touring must be pretty intensive?
There’s something incredible about being at a show and getting the delivery out before the show is finished. There’s never really a dull moment because you’re always trying to find something to shoot: the preparation, arriving at venues, doing sound checks, the band backstage, signing autographs… all sorts of things that people want to see. But also on the other side you have the audience coming in, people running, the whole build-up from a fan’s perspective…
Our sort of normal pattern on the road is that we will have about 12 hours normally onsite in a venue. We'll go in at, say, 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning, and we'll leave 12 hours later after the show is finished. During that day, we'll often be expected to turn around X number of social pieces, be it Instagram cuts, things for Twitter, Facebook, whatever. But also live YouTube clips and behind-the-scenes videos for linear media.
And how do you handle post production?
Before we go out on tour, our post workflow is pinned down and planned right before we pack a camera bag, right before we do anything. When we go out on the road, they expect us to turn around things in incredibly fast timescales. So we need to be able to cater for any type of camera format that gets thrown at us.
As soon as the 2013 new Mac Pro came out, we bought one straightaway and we decided this was basically our touring standard. It has an ASUS 15” HD display, a keyboard, and a ton of storage attached to it. The Mac Pro, the keyboard and one of those Pegasus RAIDs, all of that fits in basically an overhead-size bin on a plane. It all goes in an F-Stop bag and it has traveled all around the world with us about three times.
The whole point of that setup is that we can take it out and we can edit anywhere. We've pretty much edited anywhere and everywhere: in planes, in trains… We literally have actually set it up on the back of a plane and plugged in the RAID in the galley. It's like a supercharged laptop for us, and it means that we can deal with everything.
Obviously, we pair our hardware and our camera formats with software which we think is perfectly suited for it, and Final Cut Pro X is our hub for that. We edit everything everywhere, and nothing slows up this machine with this software. That's the point. It's just like we throw everything at it.
Here you see my right-hand man Matt in the middle of an edit just somewhere backstage in Kansas City. Ed Sheeran was supporting. That day, for example, we had countless things thrown at us that we had to produce.
Sometimes, as the band are playing onstage, and we're filming the band, and we're filming the audience, during that show, we will have to take that footage in. Matt will run around. He'll tap me on the shoulder in the pit. He'll grab my card from my RED. He'll run back.
Before song eight, he'll have cut together the first 30 seconds or a minute of one of the songs up until that point. He'll have cut it all together with footage that we've shot, footage that's coming from the screen cameras that also shoot the show, bits of audience that he might have shot. Then, normally by song 14 or song 16, during that set, so we're talking about maybe 60, maybe 70 minutes later, he'll be approving it with management backstage.
By the end of the set, the complete movie will be approved and going out. It can hit media networks across America or wherever we're playing, and it can go and be posted live that night to Facebook, to YouTube, to all of the digital social media and news outlets.
The internet is like the new broadcaster, anybody who does not see the value in producing things quickly for online is really missing the trick. That’s where the new demographic is, that’s where people watch things today. So, when we are on tour, it's all about speed in our workflow and getting things out. And that is one of the reasons why we center everything around FCP X.
What are the most significant things about FCP X that make it your NLE of choice?
FCPX is like no other NLE. Its management of assets via keywords and favorites is incredibly powerful and it can handle our massive 50TB plus projects and hundreds of thousands of clips but still, if used right, allow us to locate any clips in seconds.
If you have shot for 14 tour dates on a row and you come back after 2 months, you will have forgotten 90% of what you did. Unless you stay on top of it and you really keyword your stuff as it comes in. That way all of the footage always stays fresh, it stays in your mind and it’s really easy to just delve in and find things really quickly.
So we are really meticulous about organizing our footage. First we put everything in by camera type and timestamp. Then we create keywords for locations, B-Roll, ISO shots from screen cameras, the individual artists, instruments, fans, special moments…. and we go through the clips assigning keywords to every shot.
In a further stage I also really like the process of using Favorites to create string outs. But sometimes I just cut clips to a timeline. Any good software allows for different ways of working that enable you to be creative in your approach without needing to jump through hoops. And that’s what I love about Final Cut Pro X.
Smart Collections, keywords, favorites… they all speed up the editing process. Not having to waste your time looking for clips keeps you steady in your creative flow, and that is a huge advantage.
But we also create these for our clients. Every time we finish a tour leg, we hand over our 50 or 60 terabytes’ worth of footage and say, "Here you go." Then at that point, to make sense for them, we also give them the FCP X Library with everything completely keyworded, which I think is without a doubt the easiest and the best thing to search in.
The other thing we do is we use Producer's Best Friend to give them an old-school, old-fashioned Excel spreadsheet as well. They can then open it up on any system, and they can find whatever it is they're looking for. The whole point is to be very, very concise in handing over this amount of footage.
What about audio and grading?
We are working on such fast turnaround we don't get time to go in and to send things into different programs. We basically rely on Final Cut for absolutely everything, also for audio and grading.
Although I love grading in DaVinci Resolve, I actually grade more stuff in Final Cut on the road simply because of time. One thing I've gotten into doing recently, which I really, really like, is I've started to save all of my custom looks and presets. This is actually a project we did in the desert with The Stones, so I've made a whole plug-in architecture, which goes through and gives it a sort of desert-y look.
I used different plug-ins here: Leveler, Overlay, Sundry, all of these things. I often build them offline, on existing footage I've got. When we suddenly have about five and a half minutes to grade something before it has to go on air, which actually is not an exaggeration, then I can very quickly set a look across things. I use adjustment layers an awful lot because I really like the fact that I can globally create a look with an adjustment layer over either the whole project or over different portions of my project.
Another thing I also use a lot is LUTs. I like to build my own LUTs. What we do before we go on tour is I take every camera that we're going to use as part of my before we go on tour ritual, and I line them all up in a room. I shoot a load of boring things, like test shots, color shots. Wherever possible, if I can borrow somebody, I stick a person in the frame as well.
I've got some color temperature looks for tungsten looks, and I've got some for daylight looks. The whole point is when I suddenly throw together all this myriad of different cameras, I can balance them very quickly with my LUTs.
When you are under pressure, the last thing you want to be doing is fiddling around and trying to make the RED match with the a7 or the Blackmagic cameras. I believe using LUTs in this way is a very, very, very useful way to getting you into the ballpark quickly with things, and then you can go on.
I also like the fact that I have full control over my Red Raw Settings in FCP X. This is why I use RED files all the time and I'm always, always trying to keep our whole workflow raw and native all the way through.
So you don’t create optimized or proxy media?
Our mentality with Final Cut is that we just throw stuff at it. That's why transcoding is something that we stopped doing, unless we choose to do it specifically for the purpose of taking, say, 200 GBs worth of footage, transcoding it down to a quick ProRes Proxy, and then actually sending it to each other via the Internet. We like to do that a lot as well.
I’m often shooting on location. I'll shoot three or four RED cards, so I might shoot actually hundreds of GBs worth of footage. I'll come back. I'll transcode it overnight, make a ProRes Proxy library basically out of the whole thing, so it crunches everything down under 100 GB or so. I'll just throw that up online on Dropbox. Matt will download that on his connection, and he'll edit it. Then, he will just email me back an XML basically of the finished edit. I'll reconnect that with my full footage, and there we go. Proxy workflows are amazing in Final Cut Pro X.
Any other things that you particularly like about the application?
- Roles have quickly become very useful, both for separating up different audio types for mixing and also for delivering multichannel features when we assign roles to the different audio channels; surround, stereo, ProLogic, M&E etc.
- We use multicam both on the road and in the studio. And FCP X has without any doubt one of the most powerful and flexible multicam solutions out there.
- On the audio side, mixing has much improved and it’s good to see all the Logic filters being available right inside FCP X. We use Logic Pro X at the studio. There's a myriad of different setups and presets we can make. A lot of the time, we'll crawl across compressor settings that we might've made in the past. We tend to find these days we use Final Cut really as an end to end for everything.
It’s timeline is also unique and has sped up our workflow for offline immensely. I do a lot of finishing, grading and final online within FCPX and rely heavily on the timeline index and the ability to effect multiple clips across a 2hr timeline with global corrections.
I think FCP X has given us a future-proof toolset with which we can be so much faster and much more efficient. Just being able to find your clips in a second, throw your edit together so quickly, and then perform a high-quality finishing grade on it without any hassle using a combination of pre-built LUTs and other stuff we have prepared beforehand, that’s simply amazing. Without it we would never have been able to make the deliveries that we make on the road.
Let’s talk about your new post production facility. You say it’s 8K ready?
Yes, our boutique post production services in London are newly designed and built for 8K workflows and high end finishing. Drawing upon 17 years of broadcast post experience we've designed a newer, more simplified and efficient workflow for the new age of broadcast, digital and cinema. We’re completely Mac based running a mix of older MacPro 12-cores (mid 2010) with the newer MacPro (2013) models. We have dedicated audio surround mixing and 4K grading suites, as well as light open planned editorial space for offline and production.
Grading is based around 4K HDR finishing with DaVinci Resolve, in a suite designed for experiencing every frame of a project to the highest visual fidelity for mastering to cinema DCP, broadcast and digital outlets.
We run BlackMagic SmartScope Duo 4K as our main hardware scopes via HD-SDI out from a BlackMagic UltraStudio 4K Extreme 3. We started using the Resolve Mini panels this year and love using them with Resolve. All the features we need but in a nice compact footprint.
We also do online and finishing within Final Cut Pro X in this suite. Our client monitor is an LG 77G6 OLED display. It was the best looking picture at the time and also the best option for calibrating to match our Sony OLED broadcast monitor. The monitor runs via 4K HDMI from the BlackMagic UltraStudio 4K Extreme 3.
For audio we use both Logic Pro X and Pro Tools, though increasingly we use Logic on more and more projects and are mixing in 7.1 with it now. We are a true audiovisual company and believe that it is the interaction between sound and vision which emotes and drives creative projects.
The company offers in-house sound design, music composition and surround sound mixing. Audio finishing is completed within a 7.1 sound proofed suite, equipped for VO and foley.
We are particularly proud of our new ultra-fast shared storage system from Lumaforge. It allows editorial, grading and audio finishing to work together on projects and send timelines seamlessly around the building.
Our shared storage system and our network can handle 40Gb Ethernet, which means we are ready for the future. I am truly looking forward to using these speeds with the coming iMac Pros and hopefully next year the new Mac Pros.
Only a few months ago we had the pleasure of editing, finishing and mixing the long-form concert documentary “Live At Pompeii” with David Gilmour. Tons of footage, more than a dozen cameras all minimum 4K, a 2.5 hour timeline, versions for cinema projection and for DVD/BluRay… our setup never failed us.
Our mix of production and post services means we can take a project completely from inception to execution allowing us to employ new creative approaches and techniques to create the best possible films. As a collective of directors, producers, DPs, editors and musicians we are drawn together by the love of filmmaking, storytelling and a commitment to produce the most cinematic visuals and audio to heighten the story and captivate the audience.
Finally, what are some projects you’ve created that have made you proud?
I'm mostly proud of our approach and attitude we bring to our work, rather than any specific project. To some degree we've always rebelled against the traditional way of doing things. I adopted FCP when we built our original post facilities back in 2001 when everyone only trusted AVID. We also championed DSLRs for filming when the 5Dmk2 first was released and we soon moved onto RED even when most of the industry was pushing towards ARRI.
I've always seen new technology as an opportunity to do things differently and better, saving costs for the clients and making the process more efficient. Our whole production and tour filming is built around the motto of never letting the gear get in the way and this is really intrinsic in our approach to post production as well.
To pick out one project I was proud of would be the first project we finished in 4K, shot for Zeiss to show off the quality of their compact zoom lenses. We conceived, produced and executed this project in-house and for me it's a good example of everything being done under one roof making a better film:
A huge thank you to James Tonkin for taking the time to answer all these questions in so much detail. We hope that you have enjoyed his story. Want to know more about Hangman? Follow the link to Hangman's website.
© 2017 Ronny Courtens/FCP.CO