Supervising Digital Colourist

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Miles Fisher – “New Romance”

Miles Fisher rounds up his “Final Destination 5” co-stars for his pop single “New Romance”, paying homage to the 90s TV classic “Saved by the Bell”, complete with death-inducing falling lockers and razor-sharp flying records! Directed by Dave Green and shot by Benji Bakshi, the music video spoof is part of Warner Bros. online viral marketing campaign for the movie.

“New Romance” by MILES FISHER © 2011

Shot in a single day at Red Studios in Hollywood, it seems appropriate that the camera of choice was the Red One MX, combined with a Cooke Varatol 18-100 zoom lens. This was a single day shoot, and although Dave storyboarded the entire music video, the cast and crew had to move fast to get all the coverage. Zooms are essential in this respect, and came in handy when also pulling off those cheesy zooms!

For lighting, Benji did a great job of lighting the set to look like a 90s sitcom. He used 20 4K supersoft lights, 5 6K spacelights, and relied on Source 4 Leikos for accent. “We built our own grid and rigged all the lighting to an Expression 2 dimmer board for control and practical dimming gags. We prelit all 3 sets so we could meet our schedule”. A few supersofts on stands to move around for fill lights rounded up the lighting package.

Bubble-Gum Look

For New Romance, Benji wanted the images to have a real poppy, bubble-gum look, which in my world translates to bright, saturated colours with warm and healthy skin tones. The debayered image (see below) provided a good starting point, with a rich palette and plenty of fill light to help replicate that classic sitcom look Benji was after. I was happy when I looked at the images and didn’t see any clipping – not a given considering the huge range of exposure between the off white walls, chequered floor and everything in between!

Debayered Image

Final Grade

I started off with a simple base grade, using master controls and the joyballs to establish some cleans blacks and highlights. This got rid of some of the green residue I could see creeping into the highlights and the mid tones. From there on it was all about finessing; using a nifty tool called Revolver I was able to quickly qualify up to 10 colours and boost their saturation, swing the hue and generally lower the brightness to bring out the richness in the primaries. Generally with a look like this I prefer to blast the reds, greens, blues and purples, being a little more careful with the reds and yellows, which is where the skin tones sit.

The ability to key back to any colour layer is very important, especially to recover skin tones, shadows and highlights. For this music video I ended up creating different layers to treat each element separately. This was essential for achieving warm but realistic skin tones, as well as for pulling back the clipped walls and floor, a by-product of my attempt to keep the image bright and cheerful. I’m a firm believer of simplicity, but sometimes the simplest looks end up being the toughest to achieve. Having that kind of flexibility gives you a lot of flexibility.

You can check out the final piece on my Vimeo and more stills in the Gallery.

To see more examples of Benji’s work, visit his website.

New Romance was colour timed at In A Place Post in Los Angeles.

World Of Tanks

Roaring across scorched deserts and rumbling across war-torn city streets comes a trailer for the MMO; World Of Tanks. This two minute trailer took director Steven Ilous across the Atlantic to Imagination Studios, where 60 artists worked for 60 days to create this CG extravaganza. The result – a photorealistic trailer for the game that holds the Guinness World Record for the “Most Players Online Simultaneously on one MMO Server”.

World Of Tanks by WARGAMING.NET © 2011

This was my second collaboration with Steven, and a return back to the world of pure CGI, with its own set of challenges. The raw images that Steven brought back with him had a real energy to them, but as great as they looked, Steven was wise enough to know that clean renderered images are simply the beginning of the process, not the end.

Since this was Steven’s first time directing tanks, he needed to rely on certain tricks to convey a sense of scale. Steven; “To prevent consumer confusion, we couldn’t use humans! We tried to offset that by incorporating human artifacts that would subconsciously establish a familiar sense of scale”. You can see this clearly in the shot of a baby doll being crushed by a tank. “I wasn’t quite sure how I would go about applying real world choices to these massive, cumbersome machines. They have a tendency to miniaturize the sets.”

The good news is that colour can help a great deal in this situation. For example, by reducing the contrast and focus on foreground objects, you can kill their volume, and thus reduce the effects of miniaturization. This is one of the tricks we also use in stereoscopic photography and conversion, and it’s amazing how these two simple adjustments can skew the monocular depth cues enough to create a false sense of scale and perspective. We used this technique on the sand dunes in the desert scenes, as well as certain shots in the streets of Berlin.

War-Torn Berlin

To recreate the final days of the allies charging through the streets of Berlin, Steven went into incredible detail: he called a photographer friend in Berlin and asked him to take pictures of the cobblestones as a reference for these scenes. He worked very closely with the Wargaming.net team, who were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Ultimately this attention to detail paid off in the colour session, because the images we were starting with had subtle details and realistic textures.

Original Render
Primary Grade
Final Composite

For most Berlin shots, I used contrast and density to establish a base grade, which instantly revealed a magenta tint in most shots. Pushing green into the blacks and mid tones helped, but also reduced the intensity of the flames, which I didn’t want. To fix this, I created a secondary correction for the flames, dialing back some of the original warmth. Even with this addition though, the flames felt anaemic.

At this point we started experimenting with blending modes. Just like with Photoshop or any other compositing application, the Quantel Pablo allows you to freely combine the colour tools with paint and compositing, and that includes blending modes. We composited the colour corrected shot over itself and then played with modes like Screen and Overlay. Screen worked particularly well, bringing out the flames nicely. However, I wanted the effect to spare the shadows, so I used a simple luminance key and opacity slider to ‘mix in’ just the right amount of vibrance and contrast.

This is one thing I love about working with a system that allows you to ‘composite with colour’: what would normally take many layers of colour to achieve on a pure colour grading system can simply be achieved using a blending mode and an opacity slider in the Pablo!

Tanks with presence

Diffusion vs. Sharpening

Many times with CG there is a requirement to use diffusion filters to even out some of the sharpness you get with certain renderers. However, for World Of Tanks we wanted to retain a lot of the sharpness for the tanks themselves. The answer was an unusual approach: we diffused many of the shots using some light grain, before colouring them and finally selectively sharpening them to bring back some of the ‘crispness’. The effect has an almost documentary-like feel to it, and works particularly well with the exteriors.

The bridge above shows this effect. The diffusion combines nicely with all the particle FX, adding to the overcast and dull sky. Where there is contrast though, the ‘unsharp mask’ filter brings out the detail, giving the tanks a real presence and an overall more modern look to piece.

You can check out the final trailer on my Vimeo site by following this link and more stunning visuals by visiting the Gallery.

For more examples of Steven’s work, visit his website by following this link.

Noel Gallagher – “The Death Of You And Me”

Noel Gallagher finds himself surrounded by an eclectic cast in his debut solo single “The Death Of You And Me” from the album “High Flying Birds”. Directed by Mike Bruce and lensed by cinematographer Salvador Lleo, this music video was shot out in the desert at Club Ed, Lancaster, CA. Famous for movies like Rob Zombie’s recent “The Devil’s Rejects”, the Last Chance Cafe serves as the perfect setting for a stuck-in-a-rut waitress longing for something better than her pitiful existence serving the local bizarre folk.

“The Death Of You And Me” by NOEL GALLAGHER © 2011

Salvador used the Red Epic with Zeiss T2.1 lenses for this shoot. The 5K camera is capable of capturing some striking images, and the compact size makes it ideal for use with Salvador’s latest toy – a 28 foot telescopic Technochrane. “This is the perfect tool for a new generation of lightweight cameras. It is light, steady, fast and programmable, and can be operated by a single person.”

For all the exteriors, Salvador fought hard to keep the exposure from running away under a beating sun. For the diner scenes, he resorted to a technique he refers to as ‘invisible lighting’, using soft fill light to keep the shadows from falling off too much. Since he was dealing with daylight for both locations, Salvador rated the camera at 5600K. He used an ISO of 500 for both setups.

Last Chance Cafe

For this music video I created two distinct looks: a sombre grade for the diner interior with its scary characters, versus a Van Dyke-inspired look for the exteriors as the travelling troupe passes through. In both instances I added some Grain to soften some of the sharpness you sometimes get from digital cinematography.

Diner Denizens

The diner itself had some great key light streaming through the shutters, but because these scenes were shot during midday, the overall images were very hot – the direct opposite of what I was trying to achieve! The ‘fix’ was to bring down the gain and reduce the overall contrast, while raising the gamma a little to compensate. Crashing down the pedestal by 20%  kept the right amount of snap in the image. I also added some blue in the highlights to help pull back some of the red in the booths.

Another thing I used to accentuate the mood was heavy off-centre vignettes. These are great for burning off frame edges or for spotlighting people. Usually I’ll bring down the gamma but raise the gain in order to keep some highlights poking through. Varying their position and keeping the edges soft keeps them hidden and unobtrusive.

Soaking Wet

The one character I wanted to stand out from this moody backdrop was the brooding waitress. Her longing for a better life separates her from the rest of the diner’s denizens, and so I wanted to make this distinction by separating her from the background. This is where good casting and wardrobe are so important in the storytelling process, and ultimately makes the colourist’s life so much easier.

Hope in a dreary setting

The two areas I focused on were her skin tones and her blue dress. The skin tones I kept bright and healthy by keying back to the ‘richer’ base layer, which didn’t have the low contrast treatment. This was a little tricky since there was so much red in the diner, so muting the red walls and the booths in advance helped. I also had to rely on some loose roto-splines to further qualify her face.

The blue dress was relatively easy to separate. However, instead of just applying saturation – which often knocks the selected area out of balance and introduces noise – I cranked up the contrast using an S-curve and then brought down the density a little. This approach worked particularly well once the waitress emerges from the pool all wet. The intense blue ties up with one of the Gypsies’ blue shoes, creating colour continuity between the two scenes.

Van Dyke Processing

The outside world brings with it the promise of something better in the form of a travelling gypsy troupe. For these exteriors, Mike wanted a very stylised, almost sepia feel. I liked the idea, and thought it could work well with the earthen tones in the caravan and the mules, as well as the gypsies’ clothes. I decided to try out a technique I had toyed with to replicate the rich browns found in an early printing process known as Van Dyke. This would create an almost ‘rusty’ feel with deep browns and red-tinted skies.

Original Debayered Image

Van Dyke Shadows

For this special treatment I turned to Curves. Combined with saturation, there is very little that can’t be achieved using these controls. After balancing the image with a base grade and bringing down the saturation, I started adjusting the individual RGB curves to get my Van Dyke look. To create the deep browns, I brought down the black points for both the green and blue curves, using the latter to control how much brown I wanted to mix into the shadows. For the red curve I ended up creating five points: points two and four were brought down while point three was brought up. In the end the red curve looked like a Double-S. This alternating approach keeps the reds in check, and ultimately creates a more interesting image. The blue and green curves were used to control the overall contrast.

Finally, to give the troupe an extra whimsical dimension, I qualified the red shirts, instruments and the blue shoes and ramped up the saturation. As the gypsies move closer towards us, our eye catches more and more flashes of colour, hinting at the life and excitement they bring to this otherwise dull world.

You can check out the final music video on my Vimeo site by following this link. For more stills from “The Death Of You And Me”, visit the Gallery.

Salvador Lleo’s personal website can be found here.

Stay tuned for the next installment. Coming soon…

American Apparel

Shot and directed by photographer Tony Kelly, this latest commercial for American Apparel pits the superb talents of two break dancers – Lil Demon and Jalen – against each other in this high-rise dance off.

American Apparel by TONY KELLY

Tony was searching YouTube one day for break dancers and came across these two world champions separately. He had the idea of bringing them together for the first time, and having them battle it out against a glamorous backdrop, instead of the grimy surroundings usually associated with the breakdancing scene. The commercial is shot on the rooftop of American Apparel’s HQ in downtown LA to showcase the company’s new kid collection.

For this shoot, Tony paired a Red One camera (MX sensor) with an Angenieux 25-250 zoom lens. The entire commercial was shot at 120 fps for a slow motion effect that is cut to classical music – a strong contrast to the breakdance performances. Tony wanted a colourful, youthful look with glowing, bright faces full of life.

Grey Skyline
Vibrant Colours

A Softer Approach

This was easier said than done. Since it was overcast on the day of the shoot, only the dancers in the foreground had any colour in them; the background was almost completely grey. In this situation, it becomes very difficult to pull an accurate key because you are missing the Hue component for an HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) qualification. A different approach is needed.

I began by adding contrast and increasing saturation a little. You need to be careful though: cranking up the saturation in a desaturated image will introduce noise – the opposite of the clean, youthful look we a going for. Instead, I decided to pull a couple of ‘loose’ keys on the background buildings and then the skyline, adding some warmth in the former and some blue to the latter, creating an almost duotone effect. Because we are introducing colour instead of saturating what is already there, we end up with crisper, more uniform colours. For the sky I further restricted my qualification with a feathered ellipse, essentially graduating the amount the blue added. Now with a much ‘cleaner’ set of colours I applied overall saturation before bringing out the faces a little that were now buried in the contrast.

This approach can work when you are going for a more ‘fluid’ look, where you really don’t care about colours spilling into each other. The pastel feel of the background helps the break dancers in the foreground stand out. Overall, the client was thrilled with the way we managed to transform the overcast photography into the colorful images you can see in the Gallery.

An HD version of this commercial can be seen here.

You can see more of Tony Kelly’s amazing work here.