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April 2014
Issue: March 1, 2013

Digital Intermediates

By: Christine Bunish
With film no longer the acquisition format of choice for many spots, feature films and television programs, and film no longer appearing on most lists of deliverables, the term DI seems to becoming obsolete. But even if you simply call the process color correction or color grading, colorists still demonstrate their creative and technical prowess as they take charge of a key step in the finishing process.

FILMWORKERS CLUB DALLAS

Although Dallas is known as a strong advertising market, Matt McClain, lead colorist at Filmworkers Club, Dallas (www.filmworkers.com) has been doing a lot of features lately. His tool of choice is Filmlight’s Baselight 8 system, which he says is “among the fastest color correctors out there. It can grade two streams of 5K in realtime for 3D imaging. The processing power of the Baselight allows me to give the client multiple color options in realtime. That power also means extremely fast render times. I can add as many layers as I need, and do things colorists didn’t dream about in the past.”

McClain recently did the color for the indie horror film, Jug Face, which was accepted by Slamdance. Shot during a Tennessee summer on Arri Alexa, the filmmakers were concerned that they had captured too much of an upbeat look for the feature. 

“The trick was to let the greens of summer feel green without being happy,” he says. “We had a lot of scenes of the forest with sunlight coming through the trees. Alexa has such great latitude and forgiveness when it’s exposed for shadows. So I grabbed a lot of highlights and kept them really exposed while maintaining all the detail in the imagery. I was able to grade and desaturate and make a dark, rich forest with all the picture information there, very much like film. Everyone was really excited by it.”


Sanitarium

The horror anthology, Sanitarium, shot on Red and starring Malcolm MacDowell, Robert Englund, John Glover and Lou Diamond Phillips, called for more manipulation of color. “In one part, the face of a character wearing a hoodie had to be completely dark,” McClain recalls. “I did a lot of tracking and darkening down faces. It was more intricate with hand-drawn mattes.” 

Another sequence featured papier mache puppets that came to life. McClain did a lot of work with those elements to make them appear mysterious and ominous yet visible to viewers. “They were overlit, so I had to make everything around them dark, but you had to be able to see the puppets,” he says.

On a different note, quite literally, McClain just finished Filmage, a documentary on the iconic California punk rock band Descendents. “I grew up listening to their music so this was the soundtrack of my youth,” he laughs. “They shot the interviews with a Canon 5D and the rest was archival footage. I spent a lot of time cleaning up the archival material and making it as viewable as possible; some footage was downloaded from the Internet — I didn’t want to do too much to it, but I had to cut out all that noise.”


Sanitarium

Baselight’s noise reduction feature did “a great job,” he reports. “I could smooth out the noise and remove the grain then use the Add Grain feature to certain areas for a seamless feel.” McClain took the color out of certain shots; sometimes he added color back on top for a stylized music video look. He turned some recent clips of the band into black-and-white footage reminiscent of archival material. “They cut between the old black-and-white footage and the new clips, and they matched so well that the only difference you see is the age of the band members,” he says. “That shows how timeless the band really is.”

RINGSIDE CREATIVE

One of the biggest changes in the color world that RingSide Creative colorist (www.ringsidecreative.com) Rick Unger has seen in the last few years is how DI platforms have shrunk in size while gaining capabilities and capacity. “We used to do color on big-dollar,  hardware-based color correctors using film chains,” he recalls. “Now, PC-based software platforms with custom panels offer much lower price tags and perform very well. Another major difference is that we receive our media mainly as digital files on hard drives.”

Detroit-based RingSide is a beta site for Quantel’s Pablo Rio, which runs Quantel software on a generic PC and uses Quantel Neo panel systems for color.

“The Rio software, while using one GPU, gives us realtime playback without rendering,” Unger explains. File-based work has created a revolution in image capture: everything from HD to 4K files. He even received a thumb drive containing five :30 Chrysler spots as 1080p Pro-Res 4:4:4:4 for color grading.
Another important change in the color world that Unger has seen in the last few years is the vast improvement in home display systems, which makes his work look better than ever. “In every big-box store, pub and home, there are consumer monitors with factory presets that look great. At RingSide we have a high-end 55-inch consumer flat-screen monitor sitting alongside our professional reference monitor, which we use for grading. It would have been taboo to have a monitor like that 10 years ago in the grading room. But our clients appreciate the ability to compare how their projects will look at home [with] what they’re seeing on our reference monitors. It’s amazing how closely they track colors. Plus, everyone loves a big display.”

Unger and fellow RingSide colorist Eric Maurer have a number of tools at their disposal. “We have three Quantel Rios, a 2K Pablo iQ, DaVinci 2K, Nucoda FilmMaster, plus seven Autodesk Flame/Smoke premium suites and a set of Lustre panels,” he reports. “Color is an essential part of every project and at RingSide we have that covered in every creative application we use in post.”


Ford's Rant

Unger recently colored two noteworthy spots on Quantel Rio. Ford Motor Company’s Rant from Team Detroit, featuring Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is a dynamic Ford F-150 commercial shot on Arri Alexa. Unger was charged with integrating various passes of Rodgers in workout mode and the rugged vehicle with bold, graphic backgrounds crafted with duotone palettes. Adobe After Effects stitched all the environments together into one seamless scene where the quarterback and the truck both come out Number One.

Unger says he couldn’t have done the job on an “old-school” color correction system. And, he couldn’t have done it with conventional colorist skills. “The spot demonstrated the evolution of the equipment and the evolution of me. I had to marry a lot of passes, and my color grade had to make it look like everything belonged in one shot. In the past, color grading layers was done on multiple passes. With today’s timelines it’s simple to use mattes to create layers of color correction isolated to specific parts of the image. The colorist is now a link in the chain of how everything comes together. I’m thinking quicker and deeper about all the layers and actions that get you to the final product.”


Ford's Rant

The other recent spot was part of McCann-Erickson’s Pure Michigan campaign. The beautiful :30 commercial, True North, demonstrated how Rio can seamlessly mix source material. “The Travel Michigan spot materials typically arrive in various forms, including film, Arri Alexa, and Red Epic files,” Unger explains. “We conform and grade all the sources so they blend together into one cohesive piece. Thanks to plug-ins which run on Rio, such as Sapphire and Neat, I can create handles for the different grain layers and match elements to make the spot look like it all originated from one source.” 

BENT IMAGE LAB

Lead colorist/lead compositor at Portland, OR’s Bent Image Lab (www.bentimagelab.com), Jalal Jemison says he doesn’t use the term DI for most of his broadcast work, although source footage from Red and Arri Alexa cameras “emulates the latitude and workflow of traditional 35mm.” Today, Jemison works with “full-resolution online files” for television shows and commercials. He helped set up the workflow for the NBC series Grimm last year and served as its primary compositor; now he mostly works on the color for season two. He also does color for a number of animated projects, both CG and stop motion, created in-house.


Jingle and Bell’s Christmas Star

“We use final renders for the look and movement of the CG characters but do enhancements and color in a DI pipeline,” he explains. “Animation always poses different challenges from live action.” Color grading CG spots can involve “subtle enhancements” of elements, which “have already been art directed and are ready for the screen.” Or they can entail color treatments that make the spots more remarkable than you could ever imagine.”

The potential need to touch many individual animated elements means that DI for CG requires the ability to “isolate and make mattes for all the elements in a scene. You want ultimate and complete control of everything.”

Last year Bent Image Lab and Hallmark Channel reteamed on Jingle and Bell’s Christmas Star, a 24-minute sequel to Jingle All the Way, which they created in 2011. Bent Image Lab’s Chel White directed the special based on three Hallmark storybooks. The approximately foot-tall characters were placed in landscapes — both snowy and tropical — and inside warm and welcoming homes and schools.

“Stop motion is shot on multiple stages at once, so even if you have the same characters and presumably the same lighting, things will look different,” says Jemison. “So there’s a lot of color matching to do.”


Jingle and Bell’s Christmas Star

Bent Image Lab shot Jingle and Bell’s Christmas Star on Canon 60D DSLRs with Dragon software to control the frame count. The characters and sets were all fabricated by the company, and the content was animated on twos. Jemison found that some shots of the miniature snowy landscapes made of sugar “went really orange” in the cameras. So he used Resolve to cool them down for a more icy blue look.

Color grading stop-motion animation featuring humanoid characters was “a lot like live action, but with smaller actors,” he says. “It’s not like having a red or purple monster that’s over the top. These characters have subtle skin tones, bodies and faces. Also, no mattes are generated as part of the animation process, so you have to figure out ways to pull keys while you’re doing the color correction. Resolve’s keying capabilities really helped me.”

Jemison was tasked with some post effects, too: enhancing shadows, adding glow to windows and enhancing the day-for-night look in this newest Christmas broadcast tradition.

NEW HAT

Feature colorist Doug Delaney of New Hat, Santa Monica (www.newhat.tv) is “source agnostic” and sees filmmakers come in with “everything from S16mm to all the current digital formats.”

He drives a Filmlight Baselight color correction system, which he calls “a very powerful grading platform. I’ve used it for years. It’s very fast — I’m able to work quickly and intuitively on it, which translates into a more creative session for the client.”


Doug Delaney

The Call, a thriller directed by Brad Anderson and starring Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin as a 911 operator and kidnap victim, respectively, was shot with Arri Alexa and SI 2K cameras. “The 2Ks were used, in part, to allow the camera to get very close to the actors as well as convey a sense of claustrophobia when Abigail is locked in the trunk of a car,” says Delaney. “DP Tom Yatsko could move around the confined space and get some very intimate and kinetic shots. Brad and Tom did camera tests with the Alexa and SI 2K in pre-production, and we then took a look at the footage projected back at New Hat to make sure the feeling was right, the footage would intercut well and we could push the limits of darkness to where they wanted it to go — letting the illumination of a cell phone play as a key.”

Delaney felt “the grade was really supporting Tom’s great photography. This film wasn’t about creating a hyper-stylized look but rather developing a feel for each of the locations and helping the time of day transition from day to night during the pursuit of the kidnapper.”

A recent S16mm project at New Hat was the indie feature Best Friends Forever, which premiered at Slamdance. Director Brea Grant describes the film as combining “two girls, a ’76 AMC Pacer, the open road and an impending nuclear apocalypse.”

Delaney used color correction as a “deliberate narrative device” to create “unreal nuclear skies to convey this post-apocalyptic atmosphere” during the friends’ drive from LA to Austin, Texas. “Much of the film takes place on the road with beautiful exterior photography by DP Michelle Lawler,” he says. “The goal of the look of the film was to take these never-ending west Texas skies and turn them into menacing nuclear ones that transform the world around Harriet (Brea Grant) and Reba (Vera Miao). They are traveling in a blue Pacer, which represents their bubble — clean and primary — while the burst reveals itself around them as dirty and twisted in terms of color.

“Executing a visually ambitious grade on a lower-budget feature can be challenging, but we were able to bring it all together: 3D keying, roto and area tracking of skies and other elements within the frame quickly and cleanly were absolutely crucial. And while the format choice of Super 16mm film was totally appropriate for the film, it also meant paying particular attention to your grade as you can introduce noise or exaggerate what’s already there.”

FILMOSONIDO

Art met life when Marcos de Aguirre, CEO of Santiago, Chile’s Filmosonido (www.filmosonido.cl) found his post production facility involved with Pablo Larrain’s feature No, the story of the advertising tactics used in the historic 1988 plebiscite in which the Chilean people rejected continuing the Pinochet dictatorship. A professional sound recordist and mixer at the time, de Aguirre participated in the “vote no” ad campaign and his former facility is pictured in archival footage in the film, which has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.


Marcos de Aguirre

Larrain made the unusual choice to shoot the feature on 3/4-inch Sony U-matic format, which was widely used by Chilean TV news crews in the 1980s, so his narrative scenes would blend seamlessly with extensive archival footage of the period. “The option the director chose was risky,” says de Aguirre. “It definitely was not standard operating procedure. When he first talked with me about it I said, ‘Don’t do it!’ My proposal was something like the way they did Argo: shoot in HD or 2K or whatever and then combine formats in post. But Pablo is very ingenious and said no, he wanted to try 3/4-inch. He bought vintage Ikegami cameras in the US, but they weren’t exactly in good working order — he started with three and finished with one!”

While Larrain opted to capture scenes with the old cameras, he had them output directly to AJA Ki Pro mini recorders in SD interlaced mode. “By outputting the video signal from the old cameras to new recorders, the pictures came ready for editing on Final Cut Pro here,” says de Aguirre. “The first time we saw footage we said, ‘Oh, my God!’ We’re so used to seeing sharp, high-definition images these days. But this soft look works perfectly to tell the story — after the first five minutes you’re fully immersed in the movie.”

No was cut on Filmosonido’s premises, where it was also color corrected and finished. Tasks included compositing archival footage into monitors and screens in more than 100 shots; archival material was collected on 3/4-inch and Beta SP tapes. 


Ismael Cabrera

Colorist Ismael Cabrera performed the color grading in standard definition with Assimilate Scratch, a tool he’s been using for several years. “We purchased Scratch for an HBO Latin America show produced by Fabula and directed by Pablo Larrain — 13 one-hour shows with a lot of work and fast delivery. Now we’re doing movies on it. It’s been the right choice for us; it’s a real workhorse,” says de Aguirre.

Much of the vintage look of No was captured in-camera with help from wardrobe, sets and lighting. But Larrain and Cabrera ensured that the “new” period look matched the archival footage’s real period look in color grading. When that was accomplished they still had to resolve the issue of how to make an HD progressive master from the SD conform.

“Ismael recalled the kinescope process of shooting a monitor, so we projected the output and captured it with an HD camera direct to DPX in realtime,” explains de Aguirre. “It was an old-school method that worked great in the digital domain!” A second round of color grading followed to tweak and refine scenes. Then Filmosonido prepared all the deliverables. 

The finished film has the 4x3 aspect ratio of the 1980’s with black pillars flanking the image. “That was a combination of a creative decision and the desire to avoid losing more definition,” de Aguirre says.

De Aguirre’s personal connections to the story of No gave a “really strange” but “very exciting” feeling to the project. “The main music for the ad campaign, the jingle, was composed by my brother, and it plays a very important part in the movie,” he says. “There’s footage of when the jingle was recorded so our old studio is shown in the picture.”

He calls the film’s critical and commercial success around the world “amazing” and hopes that it demonstrates that after 25 years of government sponsorship independent Chilean cinema has finally arrived. “A Chilean movie won an award at Sundance and another one is in the running to win a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival,” he reports. “As a small country, we’re very proud of our films. We’re like Sweden in the 1960s.”

REDLAB DIGITAL

Walt Biljan, one of five partners in Redlab Digital in Toronto (www.redlabdigital.com) and the company’s senior colorist, wishes someone would “come up with a better name” than DI for the process he performs today. “People don’t even know what to call you in film credits anymore,” he says. “I’m simply ‘colorist’ on my last few films.”

Although Biljan’s background is commercials, he eventually segued into features. At Redlab he does projects for every market segment: TV programming, motion pictures, commercials, music videos, documentaries and shorts. He installed Autodesk Lustre when Redlab opened five years ago; he had previously worked at Technicolor, which had “one of the first versions of Lustre out.” Biljan even teamed with the software engineers who were adapting the color grading system for commercials, offering them feedback over the course of a year.


Buzkashi Boys

Last year Biljan was colorist on Buzkashi Boys, an Academy Award nominee for Best Live Action Short Film, which tells a coming of age story set in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was shot with a Red camera, directed by Sam French and produced by Ariel Nasr.

“Lustre works best natively off DPX files, so we take footage and transcode it to DPX with Scratch in our lab. That’s done in the background; then the files move over to Lustre,” he explains. “When I got the footage and saw how epic the locations were, I really went to town on it before the filmmakers came in,” he recalls. “They had shot in a remote location with a minimal lighting budget. They relied on me to give the footage shape and texture wherever possible.”

So Biljan “took the Red log footage and put Lustre film print LUTs on it, which you can use to see how it would look printed to film. But I use it as a tool — it gives an awesome look. I came up with the richest, most organic film print look and used many secondary windows tracked onto faces, skies, walls and ground. It was like Photoshop on steroids. When the filmmakers came in to see it, they loved the direction I was taking and let me run with it.”

Lustre proved a good match for a quite different film, Resident Evil: Retribution, the fifth installment in the hit franchise. It was shot on Red. “We have three Flame finishing suites,” says Biljan. “Lustre and Flame talk to each other and are on the same SAN storage. When we conform in Flame, the timeline is saved and imported into my room.”


Buzkashi Boys

RE5 was transcoded to DPX in Scratch and then these pulls were conformed in Flame to create the timeline. “There were 800 VFX shots in the movie and these needed to be continually updated on a daily basis. Editorial changes to the reels also kept coming right up to the last days of the color session.” Thankfully, Biljan “could click on Change Cut in Lustre and it updated the color correction on my old timeline with the new timeline so I didn’t have to do any organization. Instead, I was done in minutes because all the changes were done in Flame.”

Since RE5 was shot in stereo 3D, footage went through a separate early morning pass with colorist assistant and convergence specialist AJ Mclaughlin doing the convergence with DP Glen MacPherson. Then Biljan began his long daily color grading sessions with the cinematographer. “Color correcting 3D feels like running in water,” he quips. “You’re always checking the left eye versus the right eye for proper color match. Applying a secondary window to an object usually requires an offset for each eye. Things take more time in 3D.”

After a first 3D pass he calls “a painful, boring eye match,” Biljan could begin more creative work on the feature. During the process he was sending out color graded shots to meet Sony Marketing’s numerous requests for trailer material and promotional stills.

“Since Sony Colorworks has Lustre too, when I was busy I could take Lustre’s Grade Bin settings, send them scans for the trailers and the Lustre metadata and their machines would recolor raw shots with my color correction,” he explains. “It saved us a lot of time.”