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Technology: Porn Films’ Secret Formula

Technology: Porn Films’ Secret Formula

September 16, 2013
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" If we just keep making great movies, the fans will keep buying them. Every tech bandwagon we jump onto has to be motivated only by making the film better. -Axel Braun, Director  "

Like the old song says, “kicks just keep getting harder to find.” And no where is that more true than in creating porn productions that can satisfy a generation of Internet viewers who have been over-saturated with every type of adult content imaginable.

Producers and directors are well aware that there are just so many positions, scenes, combinations — and even extreme scenarios — that can be put on film and video.

So as always, the porn business has grasped what’s traditionally been its saving grace — adapting the latest technology way ahead of the curve.

Although embracing some tried-and-true developments like CGI special effects, high-definition using the latest cameras, and pumping up the use of 3D technology has helped, the advent of more mobile porn-on-the-go delivery methods is again forcing pornographers to find more exciting ways to create their productions for tech-savvy consumers who want more than just standard porn.

There’s hope that new devices like Google Glass and advanced haptic technology where the user/viewer becomes part of the action will boost the porn market, but most are still in their infancy (and porn-restricted in some cases), so it’s up to the creators to give the fans what they want — and that means different.

One of the most progressive and well-known adult directors, Axel Braun, who has created popular parodies involving legendary comic book heroes Superman, Iron Man, Batman and more, has used just about all of mainstream Hollywood’s state-of-the-art technology available. But although he embraces new tech, he says the important thing is the skill that’s used in implementing technology rather than the tech itself.

“Every new tool has its strengths, limitations and quirks,” Braun says. “It’s knowing how to play to those strengths and turn the limitations into advantages that differentiates the work we do.”

When the director does embrace the tech — old and new — he makes sure it really works. “In the past two years, we’ve made the move onto cameras with full-sized, super 35mm imaging sensors vs. the smaller chips we were limited to in the past. We’ve also committed to shooting with better glass, and short-flange camera bodies that allow the use of lens adapters to give us a wider selection of lenses for different looks, all while maintaining very shallow depth of field.

“The advances in CG software engines like Lightwave and 3DS Max have given us a whole new set of toys to play with in the postproduction side as well,” he says.

But adopting newer and more helpful technology’s not always easy. Braun says it has largely helped. But there’s always a slight learning curve, like the challenge of keeping up with delivery networks that aren’t matching increasingly large, movie file sizes. “We’re back to the point where my editors or my FX artists have to physically deliver drives because it simply isn’t feasible to transfer files any other way. And hardware is another issue. ‘Moore’s Law’ doesn’t seem to apply to render times. I nearly missed delivering ‘Man of Steel XXX’ on its due date because I was waiting for renders,” Braun explains.

Kink.com CEO Peter Acworth is also concerned about post-production and says his company is streamlining the editing process by moving to a new hardware-encoding platform. Kink is also moving its Content Delivery Network (CDN) and has been “doing clean-up work on its databases.”

Braun likes to follow mainstream’s lead when it comes to editing but says the technology has largely grown stagnant. There are new plug-ins that improve on the old plug-ins, but Braun maintains that there are no real groundbreaking technologies. He says they are simply all-incremental improvements. “The big move seems to be back to old ideas; since the death of Final Cut, Avid wants to get back into the proprietary tech game, which I feel is a losing business model. RED is pushing their RED Rocket cards, but at least those aren’t a requirement to edit their footage, just a recommendation. Everyone is scrambling to fill the void left by FCP [Final Cut Pro], and it still remains to be seen who the ‘industry standard’ is going to be,” he says.

Commenting on the buzz about the next generation of Apple editing software, Braun says that unless the news is about Final Cut X, he doesn’t believe anything exciting is on the horizon. “In the professional film industry, Final Cut X is nothing more than the punch line to an unfunny joke. Nothing they could do to tweak or fix it will save it. Apple could roll out the best NLE [non-linear editing] ever seen on Earth next month, but as long as it’s based on FCX, no one will ever take it seriously, or give them the benefit of the doubt again. In the meantime, everyone has moved on.

“A few people still limp along on FCP 7.3.2, but that becomes less feasible every day as newer codecs aren’t supported, new plug-ins don’t exist, and new delivery formats outstrip it. Where the post-production industry will go from here is a huge question mark… but I can tell you that wherever mainstream is going, we’ll go too. We’ll just have a little more fun getting there,” Braun says.

Adam & Eve Pictures’ General Manager Bob Christian is also in Braun’s camp when it comes to Apple’s approach to editing. He says the company just doesn’t seem to be supporting the “pros” much now, and the A&E team is sticking with Final Cut Pro 7. We’re not planning on moving into “X” but we are evaluating whether to switch to Adobe Premiere,” Christian says.

But Evil Angel director Kevin Moore’s no fan of Final Cut X, and like Christian may move to Premiere. He agrees with Christian about Apple doing a disservice to pros by trying to make something more accessible to the iMovie crowd and combining it with Final Cut Pro.

Moore says that he’s been using Final Cut Pro software for years but when Apple moved to “X” he had to consider new options.

“While I love the original Final Cut, the new one just isn’t robust enough for me,” Moore says. “This has led me to look at Adobe’s Premiere Pro. It still has qualities that remind me of Final Cut but also include major improvements in rendering times. Adobe has put serious resources into improving Premiere and allowing it to make use of the newer video cards that support CUDA drivers. CUDA is a programming model that enables increases in performance by utilizing the GPU (graphics processing unit) that comes with most systems. The original Final Cut has limitations, namely a 4GIG limit when it comes to using available RAM and makes no use of the extra horsepower more modern GPU’s have. With Premiere, you could see massive increases in render times because it will use all the available VRAM on a GPU.”

Lamenting some more over Apple’s lack of support, Moore says, “One thing that really bothered me was in the current version, Apple removed the simple ability of audio cross-fades, which just makes no sense to me. Having to do audio cross-fades by hand is highly tedious. I’m also not a big fan of the magnetic timeline. I feel Apple was trying to make editing easier for non-professionals, but in the process made it more difficult for professionals. This is why I started looking at Premiere.”

French studio Marc Dorcel’s CEO Gregory Dorcel isn’t as critical of Apple, or any of its potential improvements. Whatever the company may develop, his druthers would be to get on board especially if he has the ability to edit special effects in real time.

Although editing software and other post-production tech are essential to movie making, what excites filmmakers most is the sexier side of tech with buzzwords like 4K images, and 5D cameras.

Asked if the next step is 4K, Braun says it’s already here. “4K monitors are available now; there are 4K broadcast channels in Japan. 4K is exactly where HD was 10 years ago. It’s proven, it exists, and it’s just beginning to trickle down from the extreme upper reaches of content creation into standard professional use. You’ll see 4K Blu-ray upconverters at CES this coming January. In five years, cell phones will be shooting 4K, and cable broadcasters will be trying to figure out how to exploit the existing spectrum to serve 4K to home users,” Braun predicts.

Moore knows of some studios shooting with RED cameras, that he says uses the 4K format, and provides the advantage of shooting two angles at the same time while allowing very wide angles for large images, expanded detail in post production for close-up shots, or tighter framing. “This allows you to cut between two shots (wide and close-up) but only having to do it with one camera,” Moore says.

But the director feels there’s no current use for 4K currently beyond the editing ability, noting that most consumers still view content on DVD and wouldn’t be able to display a 4K image. He adds that most websites wouldn’t have the bandwidth for streaming or offering downloads in 4K.

Acworth’s Kink team feels 4K is “way off” from their perspective, and Christian says Adam & Eve’s not rushing to shoot in 4K, waiting instead to see if it takes off. “We were extremely early adopters of HD and were shooting in HD even before the wars settled on Blu-ray over HD-DVD as a DVD format. But we are not jumping into 4K,” Christian says.

But like Braun, Moore believes things will change in years to come as more and more computer monitors and TVs begin supporting 4K. “Cameras that produce 4K resolution will also start to get cheaper and cheaper. Right now, cameras like the RED or the Canon C300 or C500 are out of the range of most companies to use because of cost,” he notes.

Lucas Entertainment marketing and creative director, Marc MacNamara, and production manager Chris Crisco both say that right now, they don’t see a need to use 4K formats, noting that the technology doesn’t really improve the footage unless the viewer is only a couple inches away from their TV screens. Until 4K becomes more of the norm in filmmaking, Lucas is sticking to its 1080p way of shooting.

Dorcel notes that his studio was thinking of testing 4K this year so its teams are up on the latest tech, but the resolution of the format is so high that he feels it’s mainly designed for projections on screens. “We will maybe use it in the future if a project implies the distribution of adult movies in theaters. But as far as we are concerned, we work from a scenario, a story to tell. The choice of the video recording technique comes after.”

Of course any shooter’s lifeblood are cameras. And new camera technology continually seduces adult filmmakers despite their practical usefulness.

Dorcel says that in the last two years the studio’s productions have been entrusted to different directors that mainly work with 5D. He maintains that the format offers a much higher quality than many cameras, and allows a more cinema-like image that suits the storytelling of most of its productions. He admits however that he hasn’t given up on standard video cameras, as they are much less demanding technically and allow for more “realistic,” more dynamic and sometimes stronger images. “It is up to us to choose the best technology according to our needs and the different projects,” Dorcel says.

Moore reveals that he’s been closely following camera firmware upgrade Magic Lantern, a free “hack” that has been around for several years. He says it offers many solutions that Canon either didn’t think about or chose not to add to their camera. “A recent Alpha build of Magic Lantern now includes the ability to shoot RAW video. This is video taken directly from the DSLR’s sensor, which creates an image with even more detail and dynamic range. Currently the workflow to pull RAW video images from the DSLR is cumbersome, but over time that may improve. Since this build of Magic Lantern is an Alpha release, it isn’t designed for a professional environment, but the ability to shoot in RAW is very exciting. The RAW images the 5D Mark III produces is right up there with the BlackMagic camera or even the RED ONE,” Moore says.

So does all this hands-on tech lust actually pay off?

Braun, who’s put his stock into big-budget films that appeal to mainstream and porn fans alike, believes that even though fans may not be aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, they like the results. “If we just keep making great movies, the fans will keep buying them. Every tech bandwagon we jump onto has to be motivated only by making the film better,” he says.

And although Dorcel’s filmmakers moved to costly 5D cameras, he says most of his additional costs were more in post-production: a higher quality of image is heavier, therefore more complex to handle.

In a number of circumstances it’s not the tech itself but the actual steps required to make it useful that sucks up a budget.

Adam & Eve’s Christian reveals that the only big costs incurred were in the multi-scene-choice interactivity in the studio’s film “Killer Bodies,” since it required more scenes then usual and had additional programming costs for the DVD. But Christian notes it was quite a challenge and quite fun, and paid off in consumer attention, sales and award recognition.

As far as hardware goes, Acworth maintains that Kink’s encoders were expensive, and although not yet completely integrated, he feels the payoff will be when the company encodes its catalog in more modern codecs.

Like Braun, Moore believes fans see the difference in new tech investments. “Yes I believe the improvements do pay off. Consumers notice the improved quality. I get lots of feedback from fans on social networking sites and in email that they love the look of it, even if they don’t understand what that look entails. For me to add aftermarket products to make my DSLR into a something that was video friendly wasn’t very costly, when compared to what some video cameras cost these days,” he says.

The Lucas team admits an increased cost in editing and cameras but feels it has given the studio the ability to shoot things previously thought of as too risky for larger equipment. They said that in their movie, “Original Sinners,” the crew used smaller, more compact HD cameras to film aerial shots from the plane, zip-lining footage and underwater HD cams for the waterfalls. This allowed them the liberty to create scenes and stories that were previously restrictive.

Although on the surface technology might be a sexy hot button in the movie world, being progressive has allowed porn to keep fans happy. And all of the pros agree that’s what will continue to keep it in business for decades to come.


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