Justin Bieber gets into the festive spirit with this theatrically released music video, timed to coincide with the animated feature “Arthur Christmas”. Directed by Charles Oliver and shot in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, the music video meshes a Steampunk version of Santa’s Grotto complete with wind-up dolls reminiscent of the classic birthday party scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This was my first time working with this creative team, and an ideal opportunity to combine my skills as both a colourist and stereo specialist.
“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was shot and released theatrically in stereoscopic 3D. This was Charles’ second project shot in this medium: “I was very pleased to work in 3D again. The first project I did in 3D was a year earlier – a piece for The League of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD) called MATCHED“. No doubt Charles’ work on “The LXD” and his own dance background was the reason why Scooter Braun, Justin’s manager, approached Charles with the project. “As a young kid, I was in musical theater and toured various countries as part of a performing group. From there, I started teaching dance for a few summers as a way to not have to work for my father’s construction company. I don’t think there is film musical made that I haven’t seen, especially the old ones.”
Camera, Lights & Stereo Rigs
Cinematographer Alice Brooks was the eye behind the lens, continuing her collaboration with Charles Oliver, which started with The LXD series. The cameras used were Red Epics paired with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses, ranging from 20mm to 85mm. To a large extent the selection of camera came down to choice of stereo rig, which in this case was the Helios Rig provided by ParadiseFX. “It’s a great rig, very reliable. We only had it go down once on a two-day shoot, which is rare for 3D”, Alice recalls. The Red Epic’s small form factor also makes it the perfect choice for smaller, more lightweight stereo rigs, which is a good thing since 99% of the music video was shot on steadicam, with Nick Franco operating. Supervising the stereo onset was veteran stereographer Max Penner.
The camera was rated at 800 ISO and 5000 Kelvin, yielding an overall rusty warm palette in the original photography. “We were going for a desaturated, industrial feel, while intending to make the color red pop.” The warehouse itself was dressed in a very monochromatic way, with cold concrete floors and cinder blocks, but there was enough red in the costumes that I was able to isolate and create good colour contrast. However, the surrounding brick walls were also red, which I wanted to treat in order to bring the focus to the dancers. The lighting Alice designed helped hugely in this respect, giving the dancers good separation from the background: “We used lots of large backlights that were rigged in the ceiling and we skip-bounced all of our front light into the concrete floor. The floor was very dirty and the concrete was grey. It gave this really beautiful cool glow. We brought in smaller sources to cross-light and edge-light from time to time too.”
From RAW to Real
When it comes to ‘transferring’ RAW images into something that will give you flexibility in the timing suite, there are literally thousands of permutations. Answering some basic questions allows you to make the right choices at this critical stage. The most important variable for me is what the final deliverable will be, followed by the nature of the material itself. Regardless of whether you are going out to film or not, I always like to start with a Log-like image. In cases where the primary deliverable is a DCP vs. film (more and more these days), I rely on a small number of density curves I have built that emulate an Input LUT. The nature of the material dictates which curve I use to get the image to a good starting point.
For this music video, I used a REDlogFilm gamma curve and picked REDcolor over REDcolor2 as my colour space. REDcolor gives me a little more saturation in the ‘negative’, which is better than adding it later on with the potential of introducing noise. As usual, from here I established my base contrast and density level. Again, the choices here are endless, but generally at this stage I try to confine myself to using density and gain controls: limiting my options helps me get to where I am going faster.
The Steampunk Look
We tried various grades with Alice that we would present to Charles the next day. We generally pushed towards a much cooler palette, with varying degrees of blue. After experimenting with half a dozen looks, we settled on what we referred to as our ‘Steampunk Look’ – a cool, shadowy image with glowing highlights and red costumes bleeding through. Our coolness didn’t come in the form of a blue tint though, we simply added ‘white’ to the scene. Care was taken to ensure that the image didn’t feel ‘monochromatic’ by retaining enough colour in the image.
Neutralising the colours involved adding a ton of blue gain, as well as taking out blue points using printer lights (printer lights work in reverse as you are theoretically working on the negative). This got rid of the rusty tint, but left us with a desaturated image. From there I began sculpting, using a luminance key to select and suppress the shadows and low mid tones, which was also where the background fell. On the other end of the scale, I used a hicon key to pick off the highlights and really bloom them, adding both gain and defocus. For the red costumes and skin tones, I selected the upper range of reds (leaving out the darker red bricks) and slowly eased them back into the picture, pushing the saturation a little further. A final S-curve pulled it all together and gave the image more ‘snap’.
Every music video has challenges, especially when you add the element of stereo into the mix. However, not having the talent available until the day before the shoot presented a unique challenge, especially for a dance-based video. Charles approached the problem from a different angle: “we knew we would not be able to teach Justin any choreography before the day of the shoot. Alice and I worked with Tom (Production Designer) to create a space that could be broken up and shot in sections, each covering different parts of the song. Then I worked with Galen (Choreographer) to create both freestyle and tightly choreographed sections that would work in that space. The result gave us plenty of options when it came time to cutting the video. It’s actually not my preferred method of working – I would much rather create a fluid piece with contiguous choreography and have our lead in the center of that dance the whole time. But frankly, I was surprised to see how pleased I was with the result of this different approach.”
It’s hard to believe that the sweeping fields in The Smell Of Success are nothing more than soundstages at Melody Ranch Studios in Santa Clarita! Expertly lensed by David Mullen, ASC, the story is about a manure salesman in 1960s heartland America, and even though the gags are overdone at times, the images ooze quality. Pun intended ;)
Timing this movie was challenging, especially because the DP was not available during the DI. As a starting point David had sent me a handful of stills, which evoked the overall ‘feel’ of the picture. A further challenge was the fact that the movie had already gone through a lengthy preview process, which left it with a lifeless sepia look and little colour separation. This was far from the painterly look both the DP and the Production Design department had planned for.
After untangling what had already been done, I started with a clean slate. This movie was shot on the Red One camera long before the upgraded MX sensor became available, and as such before Red’s FLUT colour science offerings. I picked RedLog for my gamma curve, giving me maximum detail in the highlights. The Zeiss Ultra Primes and Angenieux zooms David used gave me crisp images with excellent definition – a good starting point.
I started by discovering what was in the image, playing mostly with contrast and density and pulling out all the nuances that I knew existed in the ‘negative’; I was right – David had captured some remarkable, ‘filmic’ images, tempering the sharpness of digital cinematography with Classic Soft Blacks and Smoque filters. Through his lighting he created a soft overhead skylight for the outdoor farm scenes, using a combination of daylight Kinos, HMI lighting balloons or Lumapanels, the effects of which can be seen in the ‘Midday’ and ‘Afternoon’ images below.
Even though the gorgeous images had a well designed earthen palette, I still felt that some subtle accents could be used to signify the different times of day.
Seeing the same colour tint over the course of an entire movie soon nulls the effect, and so to keep the eye ‘entertained’ I experimented by adding graduated pinks into the dramatic skies earlier on in the day. This combined well with the hard sunlight being simulated by the 18K HMI. I qualified the clouds and pulled back on the luminance so that I wouldn’t tint the brightest parts. I then brought the gamma down to expose a little more detail in the clouds, and offset the colour by adding a hint of orange. This created a nice transition between the horizon and the clouds.
For later on in the day, I followed the same technique but used less pink. I also wanted to make the clouds feel heavy, almost like they’re engulfing the foreground. I turned to S-curves for this, giving me contrast in the ‘body’ of the clouds while snapping the highlights and deepening the blacks. At times the clouds almost look like they’re touching the ground!
For the afternoon I replaced the pink with orange, especially in the mids and the blacks, giving the ground a sweltering and humid feel. This worked well with David’s afternoon setup – a tungsten 12-light HPL MaxiBrute to simulate the warmer sunlight late in the day. By the time we reach ‘golden hour’, the sky is on fire, with the dipping sun blasting through the trees. For this I actually composited two identical layers over each other, blew out the base layer and blurred the whites. I then used a Soft Light blending mode on the top layer, which I also keyed through to reveal the base. The blending mode provides a nice transition between the two layers.
The whole treatment is in keeping with the whimsical nature of the story, and despite the added ‘texture’, I feel remains true to the cinematography.
I also had a little fun with the ‘high-on-mushrooms’ night scene, where I played with a stylized violet-blue wash and stark contrast. I also kept the blacks a little cooler than I normally would. This is one example of where you can use saturation to really fill in an image in the absence of mid tones. Overall, the movie has a very painterly quality.
For more stills from The Smell Of Success, click here.
To see more of David Mullen’s work, check out his website.