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Assimilate Scratch - A Workhorse in television and feature Post

By Iyke Iheukwumere

Assimilate Scratch over the years has become a trusted tool, used for everything from on-set DIT to digital intermediate and finishing. One of the industries where scratch is being heavily used is VFX, and this is in part due to scratch's open support for xml scripting, which allows most VFX post houses to build their entire pipeline around scratch. One of such VFX houses is FuseFX, where I worked as a VFX editor for almost three years, working on various television shows such as The Blacklist, American Horror Story, Agents Of Shield, Luke Cage and feature films such as American Made, The Purge (Election Year) etc. 

Working in television means, very tight deadlines, and harnessing the power of scratch, and it's ability to not only read almost every camera format, but also achieve real-time debayer and playback without the need of an expensively configured PC or Mac machine. Of course, the better the system, the greater the performance, but in most cases, scratch does it's best to make the most of whatever configuration you're working with. Of one such example is my recent work as a DIT on the short film coincidently titled, "From Scratch", directed by Anthony Almonte, which tells the story of an incarcerated chef, who might just have a second chance to rewrite the wrongs of his past. 

 This was a pretty challenging project, which had a limited schedule (two days) and limited space on set, which meant I couldn't take my DIT cart, configured with a much more powerful HP workstation. However, my years of experience with scratch meant that I trusted the application well enough to squeeze every ounce of performance from my 2017 15in macbook pro, which turned out to be a pretty incredible duo. DP Eric Branco and his team will film different scenes in 2K Prores 444, with the Alexa Plus on SxS Pro+ cards. As one card fills up, I'll have to quickly retrieve the assets, copying the assets across various backup storage, while simultaneously ingesting, audio syncing, media managing, creating luts and generating Prores LT assets for editorial, all in scratch. On paper, it might sound as too much to throw at my poor macbook pro, but in hindsight, scratch was pretty much the 

MVP of this whole show, allowing me to work quickly and efficiently. 

Fig 1.1  Audio syncing assets  

Fig 1.2  Using the intelligent naming system in the scratch media browser to rename sources. 

Fig 1.3 Reformatting anamorphic source assets to the correct aspect. 

Fig 1.4 Grading shots for lut creation. 

Fig 1.5 ProRes LT output for editorial. 

Now, let's pause for a second, because this is where I know some of you might say, "well, those were just prores files, and also on a short film with not so much assets involved." But let's track back a little here. As earlier stated, the only reason I was even remotely confident in using scratch on this project was because of my experience working with it as a VFX editor, in a more advanced setting, dealing with television budgets and schedules. 

Over at FuseFX, a big chunk of our post pipeline was all built around scratch. The incredible pipeline guys found a way to write custom scripts for scratch, which allowed for seamless interoperability between departments. It's a very limited time, from when we receive turnovers to when shows air, so speed and accuracy is definitely of utmost importance. Some shows (just a handful) will usually get the finishing house to pull assets and render DPX plates for us to work with, which in most case saves us hours of work, but the majority of clients, will usually send us raw formats. Shows like The Blacklist, which quickly has become one of my favorite shows to work on till date, which is mostly filmed on the Sony F55, will send us Sony MXF assets. After copying and making backups of the assets, I'll proceed to ingest all assets into scratch. Data management is one of the key responsibilities in my role, and with scratch's robust management tools, I'm able to customize and organize asset in groups and constructs, indicating stages in the pipeline (input, conform, color etc.)  

Fig 2.1 Typical project structure. 

Having to debayer hours of 4K Raw MXF files, in a single project, whilst maintaining real-time playback, is a task which, honestly, not many industry tools can boast of, but one which assimilate scratch delivers. This allows myself as a VFX Editor to focus more on, the creative side of my work, such as conforming assets to match all offline QT's, grading the MXF assets, to match the corresponding scenes in the offline QT to generate LUTs and quickly processing DPX or EXR files for the VFX artists to commence work. 

Fig 2.2 The Blacklist - Sony MXF Debayer 

Once DPX or EXR files have been processed for a scene, I'll go ahead to export LUTs from my grades created for each scene. Mostly, this is a single click action, which is part of an in-house script built for our pipeline. The export LUT script will almost immediately save all color correction on each slot in our scratch construct (using the slot names as reference) as a LUT, saved to a predefined location written into the script, whilst simultaneously notifying all departments about an available lut ready to be used. Whenever a shot is ready for review, I'll run a sync script which copies the latest versions from the artist side, to the scratch side. Once the DPX sequences of the latest versions become available on the scratch side of things, another click of a button inside scratch using our custom built script, will ingest the latest versions, and place them in their corresponding slots in the construct (timeline). Also, it's very easy to distinguish versions, as all shots ingested into scratch using the script, have corresponding color tags or notes, which represents the status of the shot. ( ready for review, in progress, slated shot). All of this written into the xml script, making the process painless. 

Fig 2.3 Color tags shows status of each shot in the construct. Also, custom scripts can easily be used in scratch as custom commands. 

During review sessions, we're able to harness the many tools in scratch to compare different versions of shots, in either dual mode or split mode with real-time playback. Note, since scratch is layer based application, and allows the use of different blending modes, a handy tool when comparing versions of shots, or creating a specific stylized look. 

Once a shot(s) is slated, I'm able to prep and encode high res media, using any of the supported encoding formats supported in scratch (including encoding of ProRes on windows), QC and get them in front the client. Amongst every single tool scratch affords us in our process, perhaps, the most important of them all is the consolidate tool, which allows for a more intelligent way of archiving and backing up projects and assets, without cluttering our servers with unnecessary assets. 

Fig 2.4 Using tools in scratch to review and test an external matte from the roto department. 

Link to Assimilate scratch beginners training

Link to YouTube training channel

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Iyke Iheukwumere is an editor, with years of experience working television and film as a vfx editor. 

A graduate of cinema studies from NYU, philanthropist and freelance tutor, with numerous free online tutorials on various post production tips and tricks. 

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