Made in Frame: Moving a Mountain at The Sundance Film Festival
The Sundance Film Festival is the most prestigious independent film festival in the world, where tens of thousands of people including celebrities, new and established filmmakers, and distributors looking for the next big hit converge in Park City, Utah. In the deepest part of winter. On a mountain.
But Sundance is more than just a festival. It’s an experience. And with events, press lines, screenings, and panels taking place at venues throughout the town from morning till night, it’s impossible to take it all in. Which is why the Sundance Institute, who stages the festival, does their best to capture all the happenings and bring them, in various forms and formats, to those who might be at another event—or who might not be on the mountain at all.
Creating video content in order to connect people to this experience is the mission of the Sundance Institute video team, and in this installment of Made in Frame we sat down with three of the key players who are (figuratively) moving a mountain by reaching for the cloud.
Return to Park City
The last time the Sundance Film Festival took place live in Park City was in January 2020—just before the pandemic. So returning to Sundance for the first in-person Festival since then represents a kind of homecoming.
During that three-year gap, Frame.io was acquired by Adobe, who is a Presenting Sponsor of the Festival and whose Creative Cloud sits at the center of the video team’s post-production pipeline. As the Festival emerged from the past two years of being virtual only, they looked to Adobe and Frame.io to help them document this year’s Festival, which would be a hybrid of in-person and virtual. That meant the Sundance video team needed to create content that would be quickly consumable for the attendees, but would also help those who were watching from other locations feel as though they were there.
The most challenging piece they create is what they call The Daily Recap—which is exactly what it sounds like. Except that it needs to be shot, edited, captioned, and turned into a DCP (digital cinema package) in a single day so that it can be screened the very next day in front of each movie.
The Daily Recap was created to bring the in-person Festival experience and magic to those who can’t be onsite in Utah. They’re about making everyone feel as though they’re part of the independent film community, whether by participating online or encouraging them to make plans to attend, in person, in the future. Additionally, they provide the opportunity for Festival attendees to experience more of the action. With hundreds of premieres, screenings, and events spread across Park City and Salt Lake City, it’s impossible for anyone to be everywhere. So, prior to every film, audience members can see what other movies and events they might want to catch and get glimpses of the kind of unique moments that can only happen on the mountain—all while reinforcing their love for independent cinema and its community.
The Daily Recap is also posted to YouTube the next morning at 7am Mountain time. And then there are all the various social media deliverables going to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok.
Producing content that’s captured and distributed with less than a 24-hour turnaround is always tricky. Doing it during a live event ratchets up the level of difficulty significantly. And let’s not forget that there are 111 feature length films screened during the festival—which means there’s lots of action at lots of different venues.
Facing big-time challenges
The Sundance video team, led by content producer Michael Bodie, is composed of approximately 50 people. “We have five teams of producers and cinematographers who go out into the field. We have a multi-camera producer [to record things like panel discussions] who’s got a crew of between three and five camera operators.”
“We have five or six editors and assistants who support them. We have a DIT and a production coordination team who are key to getting everyone where they need to go. And then we have our creative director, head of marketing, and a couple of full-time producers who oversee the content as it’s coming in,” he says.
Beyond that, there’s a dedicated social media team, some of whom are mobile journalists capturing on phones through FiLMiC Pro—which also has Camera to Cloud functionality with Frame.io.
The part about getting where they need to go is especially challenging. The Festival takes place in a town that wasn’t designed to accommodate the onslaught of visitors. There’s the problem of traffic when traveling between multiple venues, further complicated by the weather conditions. Parking is difficult. There are crowds.
In the past, the video teams needed to shoot the event and then get the physical media back to the editors, which meant further delays—and some of the events take place at night but still need to make it into The Daily Recap.
Lead editor R.J. Glass explains. “Everybody is working in real time. Spur of the moment, we’re responding to what’s happening out in the field, what’s being shot. We’re working with the creative director. We’re calling audibles. We’re changing the creative as we go.”
All of those factors taken together make a great use case for Camera to Cloud. Except that Park City is a mountain town with spotty connectivity—especially when inundated with people vying for cell reception. And the Sundance team isn’t just shooting in a studio where they can use an ethernet connection.
“We’re not just shooting one or two or three cameras,” Glass says. “We’re shooting a dozen cameras. It’s run and gun. They’re out in the field in this tiny little mountain town that normally has a very small residential population year round. We were warned in advance of the Festival by everybody who’s been through this before that the mobile network, the cell towers around Park City, beginning on opening night can just die.”
“The cell towers around Park City, beginning on opening night, can just die.”
The right tools for the job
Fortunately, the Innovation team at Frame.io is always ready to explore new ways to use Camera to Cloud. Frame.io manager of innovation technology Rob Loughlin and senior production support specialist John Blackwood partnered with Atomos senior sales engineer John Restivo to assess their workflow requirements.
The Sundance team uses Canon C200 cinema cameras, so Restivo recommended the Atomos Ninja V with Atomos Connect modules. To ensure connectivity, Sclera Digital provided five Peplink bonded dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi systems with two embedded LTE modems.
The units are equipped with Gold mounts, so all producers needed to do was to pop a battery on them and stash them in a backpack for reliable, mobile internet wherever they went. Sclera also helped by remotely monitoring the modems to make sure they were optimized for the various locations and environments.
Loughlin, Blackwood, and Restivo traveled to Park City to conduct a short one-day training session for the videographers, some of whom were new to Sundance and all of whom were new to Camera to Cloud. They outfitted each team with the required gear and then stayed on to be on-call for any issues—which turned out to be rare.
Beating the clock
The way C2C works is that as soon as the camera operator hits record, the Atomos starts recording a ProRes OCF (original camera file) and a proxy at the same time. When they cut, the proxy automatically uploads to a predetermined project inside of Frame.io, where anyone authorized in the project can immediately access the clip to view—or to start editing.
The good news is that the Sundance teams found the workflow easy to implement, which led to some truly remarkable results. First, gaining the ability to have video clips streaming into Frame.io and Premiere Pro in real time for each take was a game changer. “Saving time may seem sort of obvious, but in this context, it’s everything, right? The fact that we don’t have to wait for cards to come back. We don’t have to wait for mags to come back. We don’t have to wait until the shooters are done at the end of the day and they wrap out and then our day begins,” Glass says.
“Saving time may seem sort of obvious, but in this context, it’s everything.”
He explains how the editorial team’s day now unfolds with Camera to Cloud in the workflow. “They’re shooting in the morning and we already have footage, and it keeps coming in throughout the day. We’d have a string out by lunch—and the shooters are still out there for hours afterwards shooting. Within the next two hours we’d have a rough cut. Within about 2 hours after that, we’d have our first kind of fine cut and we’re reviewing that with the creative director and the head of marketing. And then something that I think only Frame.io could enable is that by the time it was 6pm or 8pm, we’d have a pretty good fine cut.”
By that time, most of the footage has reached the editors—or at least enough for them to know what’s yet to arrive from the night shoots and what gaps they need to fill. But what Frame.io also enabled was the ability for the video team to get the cuts to the key approvers, like the creative director and the CEO of Sundance Institute, no matter where they were at the Festival.
In the past, approvers had to trek across Park City at various points throughout the day to look at cuts and talk to editors. Or, for example, if they were in a screening at night, the editors would have to wait for it to be over, and then for them to drive back across Park City.
The difference with Frame.io? Even if they’re in a screening or at an event, Glass says, “They’re able to review and approve right then and there in real time, on their phone, on a laptop, wherever they are. Because Frame.io is built directly into Premiere Pro, we could upload cuts and share Review links directly inside our NLE. We were able to get approval from the highest echelons of Sundance every day, which was critical with almost near-instant turnaround.”
Timing was extra critical for The Daily Recap because once the cut was locked the DCPs had to be made, which meant that the team responsible for doing that had to have the final cut, with captions, by no later than midnight—the very end of their long days. “It’s pretty intensive, and the schedule is really key to its success,” Bodie adds.
The creative edge
There’s more to what this workflow provides than just speed. What Glass, Bodie, and creative director Jason Nichols greatly appreciate is the way it enables a better, more collaborative, and more creative approach. And that shows in the final product.
“Once we saw it working, our approach to the way we started building stories changed.”
“We weren’t sure how Camera to Cloud would work at first,” Nichols says. “But once we saw it working, our approach to the way we started building stories changed. Suddenly we were getting footage in and we could respond to it immediately and communicate with our teams on the ground. We came to Park City with themes in place, but now we could have a beautiful dialogue back and forth with our field producers about things we hoped they could capture for the cut. We were able to have a fluid discussion and solve problems.”
What it also crucially did for Nichols was to untether him. “My duties aren’t just associated with video. I have to manage all of the social media team and all of their content that is being created, designers in various places and all of the environmental graphics,” he says. “The idea that I can add notes to the timeline is absolutely incredible. I might be in Salt Lake City while the rest of the team is in Park City. I’m bouncing around different places and I can’t always pull out a laptop. But I can watch a cut on my phone and start absorbing it and share notes or comments about what I might want the editors to try.”
“If we need to have a huddle we can do a call together, but I don’t have to be in an edit suite. I’m now actually able to do my full job as a creative director without having to be completely indisposed. I’m now available in all the ways I need to be, and can be faster with processing the challenges we’re facing and providing solutions in a way I couldn’t be before.” Nichols describes the fifth day of the Festival and the challenge of creating that day’s recap. “For each of the five days we had a very specific theme. Day five was unique in that we had to figure out a way to bridge the notion of the in-person Festival and the beginning of the online Festival that was kicking off the next day.”
“The question was, how do we capture the excitement on the mountain from people who have been watching movies up to this point and have them share the idea of ‘Now you can watch them online?’ How do we use the voices of talent and people on the mountain to talk about the films they’ve seen and recommend them to people?” he recounts.
“We noticed that we didn’t quite have enough of that kind of footage. I saw one artist and a press line but you can’t make a whole film out of just two people. So we took a moment to regroup and thought about doing it with people who were walking to various events. We dispatched one of our field producers and one of our cinematographers to do man-on-the-street interviews. We gave them a short list of questions things like ‘Do you have suggestions for films people need to check out online? What are your favorites?’”
The idea clicked. People who attend Sundance are there because they love independent films. So naturally they love talking about which films they particularly loved.
“We immediately started getting back clips from people on the street who just couldn’t tell you enough about all of the films they saw. We saw it happening almost in real time. And what was beautiful about it was the energy that we were getting. But we were also racing the sun at that time, running out of daylight.”
“And so what it allowed us to do was get this footage back and pick some immediate selects that we thought were the blueprint for the kind of content we wanted to put into this piece. The editors were already looking at footage as they were shooting and were able to inform them what else they needed. They were building the edit in nearly real time,” Nichols says.
But more than the creative gratification the team felt by being able to work together so fluidly, Festival attendees noticed the quality of The Daily Recaps. “You’re heads down the whole Festival, always running. But when I was able to get my head up—and even after the Festival, you know, running into people—when they found out my involvement in The Daily Recaps, they were like, ‘I’ve been coming here for years now. And these were legitimately the best recaps that I’ve seen.’ After all of those days of constant working around the clock, even one of those messages would have been nice, but the quantity of them has really mattered,” Nichols adds.
Accessibility and inclusivity
What also really matters to the Sundance Institute are accessibility and inclusivity. From the tools and technology they choose to making the Festival experience accessible to attendees and viewers, it’s a top priority that plays a huge role in why they chose Adobe Creative Cloud to sit at the center of their workflow.
As possibly the biggest supporters of independent film on the planet, the Sundance Institute is deeply committed to giving voice to storytellers of all backgrounds, cultures, and abilities. Choosing a creative platform that’s both easy to learn and affordable aligns with that mission.
In a tangible and practical sense, they found that the Premiere Pro Speech to Text function was a vital timesaver. Glass explains, “It was important that every film be accessible, every film have captions available—open captions, closed captions, audio descriptions. And we were doing this on an extremely tight turnaround. We were captioning these videos in the middle of the night as fast as we could. And we could not have done it without that tool.”
The Sundance Institute also embraces new technologies and encourages filmmakers—new and experienced alike—to stay current with the latest tools.
Nichols says, “Sundance always likes to be on the vanguard of technology. As does Adobe. And these technologies are accessible and affordable. Taking on technology, taking on new tools, introduces new opportunities for problems.”
“And so being very smart about the tools you do introduce, knowing the problems that may be inherent in them—or knowing that they don’t have any problems at all—you have to be thoughtful about that. Making the right choices ahead of time helps lift the burden of the process.”
Preserving the present for the future
Everything the Sundance Institute does is closely aligned with their stated vision: “We believe that a story driven by an individual, authentic voice can awaken new ideas that have the power to delight and entertain, push creative boundaries, spark new levels of empathy and understanding, and even lead to social change. We support independent storytellers and advance the impact of their work in the world.”
Bodie, who’s been involved with the Institute and the Festival for 23 years, expresses the importance of their goal for the Festivals and beyond. “Sundance has always been looking for ways to break down the boundaries or the barriers to access for the film festival and for all of their programs,” he says.
“They’re also concerned for, and aware of, archiving these experiences for the future. Festivals are ephemeral. They happen in a moment, they happen in a place in time, and then they’re gone. And really special moments happen there. Sundance is a place over the years, as any filmmaker knows, where careers suddenly are made. It’s something that doesn’t happen that often, where you can really track to this moment where this film premiered, and someone’s walked out on stage to receive the love from the audience.”
“We’re there to try and capture it so that we do remember that, so that we can revisit that. And it’s so beautiful and really exciting to see. And then for us to be able to share this with an audience that isn’t in the room, who doesn’t have the ability to necessarily travel to Utah to sit in a seat and watch this thing occur in real time, then we’re able to take these videos and put them out into the world. And so folks sitting at their homes on their couch are still getting a taste of these moments.”
“Sometimes they’re irreverent. Sometimes they’re very serious or emotional, or they’re just quotidian, and they’re just the moment that happens when you’re at a film festival and able to participate, even when they’re far away. And I think that’s really key.”
Capturing moments and sharing them in the present and the future. Removing the obstacles of time and distance. Allowing creators to be more creative.
In all those ways, we fully align with the mission of the Sundance Institute and are honored and thrilled to play a part in it.