Increasingly cinematography in digital cinema and television is shifting toward a “tapeless” world, whereby file-based and data-centric acquisitions are the medium of choice. Founded in 2009, Light Iron designs and implements innovative post-production solutions that enhance the creative process. Many of these solutions include removing the traditional “brick and mortar” post-production facility from the process entirely and replacing it with mobile alternatives. In its short residence on the scene, Light Iron has designed, supervised, and successfully executed numerous file-based projects for theatrical release, television, and the Web including the award-winning film, The Social Network, The Muppets Movie, Underworld 4, and The Amazing Spider-Man.

CEO and founder Michael Cioni has over a decade of progressive post-production filmmaking experience. During his career he has advised hundreds of independent and studio-level clients as they adopt file-centric workflows for their projects. Michael is a well-respected educator and speaker, teaching students and faculty at USC, UCLA, and LMU, and presenting for RED Digital Cinema, The Producer’s Guild, Cinema Audio Society, and Createasphere. He sits on the Boards of both the Hollywood Post Alliance and the Filmmakers’ Alliance.

Prior to founding Light Iron, Michael co-founded PlasterCITY Digital Post in 2003. Michael is a graduate of Southern Illinois University, and during his time there, he became the youngest recipient of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences “Best Informational Program” award when his syndicated program “ 26:46” won a combined four Regional Emmys in 2001 and 2002.

Blue Sky caught up with Cioni at his new Hollywood digs back in March 2011.

Tell me a little bit about your studio and your primary focus/clientele.

Light Iron is a next generation group of post-production specialists whose forte is in the realm of file-based image capture, storage, archiving, processing, coloring, and mastering. We match the traditional needs of the industry with progressive sequences to ensure artists no longer need conform to tools; rather, tools conform to artists. The people that we have here are specialists and technologists who did not grow up using film and tape. We’re a young group of people, and we’ve made our mark by reequipping the industry, which is in need of serious modifications and progressions.

Some of our biggest clients are Sony, Disney, Lionsgate, and Lakeshore Entertainment. These are all companies that have hired us to provide data-centric services on feature and independent films as well as TV shows. The data-centric movement started with independent film, which is where we got our start. And as the data-centric workflows grew and became more stable, the studios started looking at them as viable options; of course we’ve been there to answer the questions and perform the tasks.

The world as we know it is currently cemented into film and tape. The funny thing is, the visual effects industry has been data-centric for 15 years, as has the post-production audio industry. While data centricity is still very new to the motion picture capture and finishing sectors, we’ve come a long way in the last 5-6 years. More and more major motion films, even $300,000,000 films, are being shot using progressive tools. It’s really very exciting.


Why do you think this industry has been slow to embrace the new technology?

It’s a comfortability factor. When you say you’re going to shoot, store and manage a movie completely on a hard drive people got concerned. They’re worried about control, fidelity, and archiving.

What was the impetus to start your own company?

Many members of my team worked together at PlasterCITY Digital Post for about 6 years, and with the changes in the atmosphere–both from an economic and technological perspective–we felt it was the perfect time for us to go into business for ourselves. With Light Iron, we’re able to move at the speed which we felt the industry would need to move; owning the company was pretty much the only way to ensure we were empowered to make decisions super fast. With the speed at which things are changing right now, one of our biggest weapons in satisfying customer requests is having the ability to move quickly. All of my principals are partners, and that provides a strong ‘checks and balances’ system. We’re a great group of friends who have been together for many years. Our clients feel like they’re being taken care of by a family, not a corporation.

You’ve recently completed work on your new facility in Hollywood, which boasts numerous Blue Sky 5.1 systems. For a post house that specializes in imagery rather than audio, why so much attention to the sound?

Our new facility has 3 cinema-level color correction theatres, each of which has a Blue Sky 5.1 system consisting of SAT 12’s, SUB 212’s, and I/ON speakers. In our former facility, there were a lot of systems throughout. JBL was very popular and we had experience with them. But in the new facility, we wanted to purchase a system that was more intuitive, easier to tune and not overkill. The fact of the matter is that we are not a sound-mixing house. But I’d say in terms of digital media, we have some of the best sounding rooms for color correction.

Typically, most sound mixing facilities don’t invest in the highest quality projector because they’re mixing. And color corrections rooms typically don’t invest much in sound systems because they’re looking at picture. But we wanted to make sure that when we offer color-correction services we screen it at the highest quality possible, which is why we invested in one of the best color-correction systems called Pablo. This system is able to output the Blue Sky surround mix at the same time we’re color correcting, so our clients can view a sequence while simultaneously experiencing it from a 5.1 perspective. This is a value-added tool because it offers clients the ability to take in the whole movie as a finished piece before it gets turned in.

The Blue Sky system gave us the opportunity to incorporate high-fidelity sound in a color correction theatre without having to invest in a mixing stage-level sound system. That’s really important to us. Our theatres range from 600 to 1200 square feet, and the Blue Sky system is easily configurable for any of our spaces. Having variations of the same system in each room, our operators can go between each space and have consistency.

What are some of your favorite features of the Blue Sky systems?

I’m really impressed with the I/ON speakers, too. In the past, with the JBL system, my surrounds had been a pretty substantial speaker in terms of size, weight and visibility. Some people like having speakers penetrate the room walls. I don’t. I like things clean; I like things modern. I like walls to be straight and flat and I love cleanliness in a room. Because of that, we’ve decided to go with the I/ONs that basically sink into the walls and are very unobtrusive. But although they’re small and recessed, they still pack a big punch and a have a good dynamic range. Using I/ONs are encouraging from both an aesthetic as well as a technical point of view.

What other gear does the Blue Sky systems interface with in each of the theatres?

Being data-centric, most of our playback is done through computers and digital disks and is all file-based. We have a Blackmagic Design HDLink Pro de-embedder that takes any signal that we want to put in any theatre and sends it through one single SDI cable. That single cable is carrying 12 channels of audio and a 2K signal! So it’s full-fidelity, digital cinema quality in one cable. That cable can be patched from any computer to any theatre and once that cable is patched to a theatre, we automatically de-embed the audio from the picture using the Blackmagic de-embedder and send the picture to a Christie CP2000 projector and then it goes into the Blue Sky’s. What’s great for our engineers, our colorists and our editors is they can basically just patch one cable into wherever they are and the entire system is on-line and running. There’s no adjustment, no repatching, no separate sync delaying…

A lot of facilities that have invested in audio/video patching de-embed audio in the machine room and then feed it separately from the picture. The problem with that is that you can have delays depending on the cable lengths, and then you have to resync everything in the theatre. And depending on what machine you’re going from, it may induce a delay. People have gone to great lengths to build these nice little delayed presets, and that makes sense, but that all takes equipment, time, and technology. Computers crash, you may make a mistake and the movie is out of sync, and someone’s going to freak out. By having a single tie-line going into each theatre and de-embedding at the projection instead of at the source, we cut out all those potential points of failure and we have a big control volume knob. In fact, the other night I had a screening after we finished coloring a movie and the director stood up and said, ‘I’d like to hear it a little louder.’ He just went up to the volume knob and turned it up himself! He didn’t know how to work the system, but it didn’t matter. It’s pretty self-explanatory. I’ve had systems in the past where you’d need a computer, touch screen, lot of buttons and passwords, and a client could never feel comfortable or in control.

What are you currently working on?

Most of my stories cater toward the picture-side of things. The latest and greatest is the RED Epic and the AARI Alexa digital cinema cameras. These are two newcomers to the data-centric table and they are really changing everything: people are getting more acclimated to using file-based systems from start-to-finish, instead of using them for just post sound and visual effects. The projects we’re currently working on are all going file-based, including The Amazing Spider-Man film for Sony, Underworld 4: New Dawn and Gone for Lakeshore Entertainment, The Muppet Movie for Disney, Haywire and Contagion for Lionsgate, and a few we can’t mention yet.

It’s a really exciting time for us. This new file-based system is really efficient and is paving the way for so many filmmakers. You’re not just changing the camera or simply moving from film to files; you’re changing an entire system and I love introducing people to new systems. And for a lot of people, the Blue Sky’s are a new system. What’s interesting about Blue Sky—and I’ve had lots of conversations with clients about this—is that this is a system that people can invest in for both their home theatre and for post production use. It’s not easy to have a crossover system that works well for both the high-end consumer market and the professional market. Blue Sky does offer a bridge for that and it’s encouraging for a lot of filmmakers who need to check their work at home and who may want to invest in a better home theatre system instead of purchasing something from Best Buy.