With a production crew of 400 people, a cast of 200 actors and over 2000 extras, hundreds of hours of raw footage shot by several crews on 130 locations, 9 months of editing and 10 months of VFX work, Alberto Rodríguez’ and Rafael Cobos' 12.3 million dollar television series “La Peste” (The Plague) is the flagship original drama production of Movistar+, the largest VoD provider in Spain and part of media giant Téléfonica.

In this case-study, we will discuss the many challenges that were faced in the making of this ambitious production, which is one of the most expensive and most anticipated Spanish language television series ever. And, of course, you will get a detailed report on how the editorial team worked with Final Cut Pro X to cut the first season.

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The Story

In the second half of the 16th century, Seville was the metropolis of the western world. A formidable city where wealth flourished thanks to its unique position as the golden gate to the Spanish overseas colonies. But it was also a city of shadows because of inequality, religious fanaticism, floods and epidemics.

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Mateo, a former soldier, had to flee Seville because the Inquisition had condemned him to death for printing prohibited books. During a break-out of the black plague, he returns to the city to find the son of a deceased friend. But he is arrested by the deputies of the Inquisitor, who promises to spare his life in exchange for solving a series of diabolical crimes that are taking place in the town.

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In six episodes of 50 minutes that are actually constructed as one long captivating feature film, we follow Mateo in his life-or-death investigation of a serial killer in an environment of public repression and private hedonism, of mysticism and chaos, of betrayals and loyalties.

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This is much more than a typical crime series where entertaining characters solve puzzles. With "La Peste", award-winning directors Alberto Rodríguez and Paco R. Baños have created a master thriller that challenges the minds of the viewers as they follow the case investigated by Mateo. Throughout the episodes, different new plots emerge and you can clearly see each and everyone of the characters develop.

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You get connected with the human beings on the screen and empathize with their situation. And you get immersed in the hidden functioning and the morals and thoughts of one of the most important cities in the world in the sixteenth century. A city where the deepest poverty stood in stark contrast with the luxury of the new rich. A city where corrupted rulers desperately tried to maintain the established order by military repression and religious persecution.

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Watching the story develop, we realize that "La Peste" is actually more related to our modern world that we would think. What was once called 'The Sevillian Dream' is very similar to what we now know as the 'American Dream'. And, according to Rafael Cobos - the screenwriter and co-creator for the series -  "The Plague" is also a metaphor for the moral, social and economic crises that we face today. 

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The Challenges

Movistar's parent company, European telecom giant Téléfonica has decided to invest 70 million Euro each year in original content for Spain. "La Peste" is the flagship production for this new venture, and the corporation is working on an agreement with Netflix that could turn the Spanish content market upside down. So the stakes for making "La Peste" were very high.

They wanted a prime television series with the quality and the look and feel of a feature film. They wanted the characters to be authentic, and the setting to be as realistic as possible. As if the audience would travel back in time to feel and even smell the decadence of 16th-century metropolis Seville with its vibrant mix of merchants and fortune seekers, its luxurious palaces and its stinking slums.

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But not much is left from the city as it was at that time. As a result, most of the scenery had to be completely recreated on-set or in post-production and filming had to be spread over no less than 130 different locations. An impressive challenge, even for the highly experienced director and co-writer of the series Alberto Rodríguez, who has worked on many award-winning feature films and who actually lives in Seville.

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Alberto Rodríguez: "This has been, without a doubt, the most complicated filming I have ever tackled. It was a complex series because it required us to organize ourselves well to shoot in a multitude of sets. It has also been the longest shoot that we have ever tackled in terms of work days, it felt like an authentic marathon.

On top of the normal difficulty of a complex shooting like this, we needed to recreate the city exactly as it was in the 16th century. This has required an amazing effort of all departments involved."

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It would be impossible to do a complete write-up of everything that was involved in the making of "La Peste". Fortunately, some of the key production and post-production people were at the FCP X Tour in Madrid to talk about their work on the series. And we have recorded their presentation.

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In a 20' panel talk that startled the 250 media professionals in the audience, they discussed pre-production, filming, editing, grading and VFX workflows for the show. The panel was hosted by Jesús Pérez-Miranda. The video includes a lot of BTS footage and some great VFX breakdowns. Enjoy!

Let's look at the workflows in more detail. As was mentioned in the presentation, all photography was done with Arri Alexa cameras. They used 2 (and sometimes 3) Alexa XT's on each set. All footage was shot in ProRes 4444, except for the VFX shots and some special scenes that were captured in ArriRaw. A few days of the shoot were specifically dedicated to VFX shots, with a separate camera unit that shot in ArriRaw with an Arri Alexa Mini. 

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Shooting ProRes 4444 or ProRes 4444 XQ instead of raw is not uncommon in high-end movie and television productions. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was shot entirely in ProRes 4444 XQ, also for the VFX shots.

The advantages of recording in ProRes vs raw is that file sizes are smaller, transfer times are shorter and the media pipeline from ingest over editing to delivery is much more efficient, while you still preserve the superior tonal range of Log C for deep color correction. We will get back to this when we talk about about the grading.

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Before principal photography, colorist and VFX supervisor Juan Ventura and his team did extensive tests in order to establish the general look of the series, based on the specifications of the Director of Photography. Once the shooting started, the DIT added some adjustments to correct or refine a particular look.

These looks were converted into LUTs using DaVinci Resolve so that the editorial team could apply them to the original log footage and preview it with the right look. Every day, the DIT sent the ProRes 4444 and audio dailies to editorial, together with ProRes 4444 versions of any ArriRaw footage that had been shot.

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The editorial team consisted of 1 assistant editor, 3 sequence editors and the supervising editor. They worked on fully specced iMacs and MacPros running Sierra and Final Cut Pro 10.3 in a collaborative environment. All workstations were connected over 10G Ethernet to a JellyFish Tower from LumaForge. 

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Carlos Rodríguez (Assistant Editor): "Editing started one day after principal photography begun. Every day, we received a drive with the ProRes 4444 footage and the original audio. I would copy these media onto the JellyFish, into the folder for that particular day.

On the server, we had created one folder for each episode. Inside that folder, we had an Ingest folder that contained every piece of media that we received, a Libraries folder for the FCP X Libraries, and an Export folder for everything we delivered to other departments. Each of these folders contained various subfolders for deeper organization.

Once the footage was copied onto the JellyFish, I would open the FCP X Library for the episode and import all the video clips into an FCP X event using ‘Leave Files In Place’. Then, I exported an fcpxml from that event and opened it in Shot Notes X to generate a Shot Log file from the fcpxml.

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Every day, I also received a Numbers document from the Script Supervisor with the scene and take information for the shots and the notes from the director. It was easy for me to merge this document with my Shot Log file in Numbers, save the result as a new CSV file for Shot Notes X, and generate a new fcpxml.

After importing that fcpxml into FCP X, all my clips would show up with the correct names, scene/take metadata, plus all the script supervisor notes, etc.

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Then I exported an fcpxml for Sync-N-Link X to create synchronized clips from the video files and their external audio files. In most cases, the timecode synchronization was perfect. Some days, it could be off by a few frames. But thanks to the handy offset feature in Sync-N-Link X, I could fix that in seconds.

Using Shot Notes X and Sync-N-Link X, I was able to create perfectly synched clips, including all metadata and script notes, in no time. Managing all media from the JellyFish Tower, combined with the unparalleled organizing and search functionality of FCP X, we were able to set up a very transparent collaboration workflow that would greatly facilitate the creative editing process."

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Manuel Terceño (Editor): "We started editing the first sequences as soon as the footage was ready. This allowed us to identify any problem or need while the shoot was still going on, and to give feedback to the directors when necessary.

These first edits were just rough assemblies of isolated sequences from different episodes. Because the series wasn’t shot episode per episode. It was more like a feature film, shot per location. So, in the first weeks we would edit sequence 31 from episode 3, sequence 22 from episode 1, sequence 2 from episode 4, etc. And as the weeks went by, all the different episodes would start to shape up.

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This was challenging because at first we did not always see the relation between different sequences. But we had constant feedback from the directors. Every day we had them on the phone telling us how the day went and how they approached all the sequences shot that day.

Our supervising editor was also the post production director for the series. So he visited the set frequently and exchanged views with the directors about the edited sequences he had seen.

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A second challenge was that this show had a great deal of VFX shots, and many of them were really complex. So, very early in the editing process, we had to make final decisions on what take we would choose for a shot, always under the supervision of the post production director.

Then we would send that take to Twin Pines, the VFX house, with the amount of handles that was agreed by both parties. This way, we still had a bit of margin when using the composited shot later in the edit. Project exchange with VFX was done via classic XML, which we created with XtoCC."

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How did you deal with audio during the initial stages of editorial?

Manuel: "As the episodes evolved, we did a basic audio mix in FCP X so that we had some decent audio when watching an episode in the edit room. We were very fortunate to be able to work with temp tracks of the score that the composer Julio de la Rosa sent us just after a few weeks of editing. That really helped us to feel the overall tone of the series and it was a great asset during the creative editing process. Later down the line, we replaced those temp tracks with the final music. 

Of course we assigned Roles and Sub Roles to all our audio clips so we could Our Role assignment was pretty straightforward:

- Dialogue
We would normally edit only with the stereo mix of all the tracks, but when we needed a particular mic, it was amazing to have it show up as a Subrole in the timeline with the click of a button.

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 - Wild Sound
We assigned this particular role to all the wild tracks recorded on set, including room tones. 
 - Effects
We used this role for every sound fx from various collections that we used in the edit, to keep them separate from the wild tracks.
- ADR
As we were finessing the edit, we added some ADR either to fix technical problems or because they were necessary for the story.
- Music
All the tracks that we received from the series composer."

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As the dailies kept coming in, sequences were added to the edits and the episodes started to take shape. When all scenes of an episode were completed, the supervising editor took over the episode from the sequence editor and continued to work on it for another few weeks with the director in the room, making final adjustments to the structure and timing. 

Carlos: "When an episode was ready to be sent to audio mixing, we used X2Pro to export an AAF for ProTools. The organization based on Roles offered a clean path to all the discrete audio components for the ProTools engineer.

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For export to grading and finishing, we didn’t use XMLs or EDLs. Instead, I exported a clean Quicktime ProRes 4444 master file of the timeline without any LUTs, effects or transformations and in the original 4:3 aspect ratio. And I added a QT reference movie from the actual edit.

By doing this, every 1-hour episode fit in a single file that was less than 200 GB in size. This saved us from dealing with a time consuming conform process, collecting hundreds of used clips that would take up as much as 2 TB of space per episode to send to grading."

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Grading and mastering of the series were executed on a high-end SGO Mistika system by Juan Ventura, who has worked as a colorist and VFX supervisor on more than 40 feature films and television series. Juan was also the VFX supervisor for "La Peste". 

Juanve: "Mistika played a very relevant role in this series, not only in the color correction and mastering stages, but also with regards to the VFX pipeline. One of the main advantages of a turnkey system like Mistika is that it is always capable of playing everything in realtime, whatever the resolution and the complexity of the project.

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Combine this with the power of a unified workspace in which you can work on multiple color corrections with multiple mattes, masks etc. all at once in realtime, not hindered by the classic concept of audio and video layers, and you have an extremely fast and powerful grading and finishing workflow. 

This was fundamental for us because by previewing certain VFX shots with the right grade applied, we could give more precise feedback to the VFX house and prevent them from doing unnecessary work. There were also some VFX shots that we were able to adjust right in Mistika, without even needing to send it back to the VFX house. All this accelerated the finishing process tremendously.

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You worked with ProRes 4444 footage. What do you think of this codec for grading?

Juanve: "ProRes 4444 is a high-quality codec with very low compression, and sufficient depth to obtain great results during the grading process. There are some challenging situations, like complex VFX shots or very dark scenes, where you can definitely see the benefits of ProRes 4444 XQ or raw. But ProRes 4444 is a great middle ground that allows you to achieve a great cinematic look with little effort."

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"Since most of the series was shot with natural light, preserving all the details in the shadows in dark environments was a big challenge while grading "La Peste". Because they used real candles, oil lamps, incense... We wanted to give the viewer the feeling of how people lived in that century, we wanted to preserve that darkness, that dirty atmosphere that envelops the series. And I think we have succeeded."

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Final Thoughts

Spanish Academy Award-winning editor José M. G. Moyano was one of the key people in the postproduction process for "La Peste". He combined the function of supervising editor with the function of postproduction manager for the series. He was involved in the complete production process, from preproduction until the final delivery to Movistar+, and he directed the VFX unit during the shoot.

So, obviously, we wanted to know if he thinks that being involved in the shoot has had an influence on his creative decisions as the lead editor for the show.

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José M. G. Moyano: "On one hand, being on set with the directors is good because you can see their reactions immediately after every take. So you go back to the cutting room knowing where the problems might be. 

On the other hand, you feel more attached to the footage, especially if you know how hard it was to shoot a particular scene or shot, and you are less objective when making the hard choices… But if you manage to deal with that and you are willing to ‘kill your darlings’, I think being on set as an editor is a very positive experience that can benefit the creative process."

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You have used FCP X to edit the award-winning feature film "El Hombre de las Mil Caras" (Smoke and Mirrors), and now again on "La Peste". What is it about FCP X that makes it your favorite NLE?

José M. G. Moyano: "No NLE is perfect. They all have things you wish you could change or improve. But Final Cut Pro X is the one that gives me the less desire to change anything. It’s definitely the editing software I’m feeling most comfortable with.

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I think the overall editing experience is what makes FCP X really stand out. Its organic feel and its intuitive interface make it ideal for creative and narrative editing. But these are three features that I particularly like:

The organizational tools.
Keywords, ratings, smart collections, roles... all these tools make a huge difference when managing complex projects. Skimming and tagging clips in FCP X is a unique experience. You can even tag portions of clips and have every significant moment perfectly organized. Being able to instantly find the shot or portion that you need is something that I have never experienced in other NLEs before.

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Auditions. 
I like Auditions a lot because they allow me to have all the good takes of a particular character grouped together in the timeline. And when you select a different take, the timeline automatically adapts to your choice. This is so much better than piling up takes on top of each other and having to manually re-arrange the timeline every time you want to try a different option. 

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The Magnetic Timeline.
This is one of my favorite features because it allows you to edit very precisely and really fast. I love how you can use clip connections to establish meaningful relationships between picture and audio, and how you can easily preserve these relationships no matter how much you rearrange your sequences or shots. Once you are used to working like this, you never want to go back to anything else. 

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Of course, there are also things that I don’t like. Particularly, the fact that you have to rely on third-party plugins to integrate FCP X with the classic external audio and VFX workflows. These solutions do work in the end, but they can be cumbersome to set up. I hope this will change in the future, as more high-end audio, grading and compositing applications are now starting to adopt fcpxml as a project exchange standard."

Final question: has anyone ever questioned your choice of working with Final Cut Pro X?

José M. G. Moyano: "Luckily for me, during my career as a film editor, no director or producer has ever had any influence on the software that I use. My choice of NLE has always been my personal decision, in agreement with my assistant editors.

My experience with Final Cut Pro X is really positive, and right now it’s the only option that I consider for all my next projects."

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A huge thank you to the whole team of "La Peste" for making all this information available to us and for answering all our questions. 

According to Movistar+, "La Peste" has drawn 40% more viewers than the premiere of Game of Thrones’ seventh season, which held the record on their channel so far. The show has also highlighted a shift in viewing behavior, as 90% of the viewers consumed the series on-demand and over 20% watched the entire season within the first four days. 

Following the rapid success of "La Peste", Movistar has announced that the budget for a second season has been secured for 2019.

 

© 2018 Ronny Courtens/FCP.CO