Somewhere near Vasquez Rocks (and a ditch in Santa Clarita), a camper van unleashes a group of revelers chasing a Summer Of Love. At least that’s the vibe the director, Randal Kirk II, was hoping to capture with his latest branded piece for Night:Shift Goods. With hippie-styled attire and rainbow flares galore, as well as a guest appearance from legendary folk musician and photographer Henry Diltz, I’d say he got pretty close!
Old School meets Instagram
Summer of Love is intended to showcase Night:Shift’s home goods collection, marketed towards a diehard Doors fan base. The inspiration for the piece came from watching classic Doors music videos with Director of Photography Gordon Yould; “We felt that an ‘on the road’ vibe would capture the spirit of Jim Morison”, Randal recounts.
But in a world where everything old is new again, that fan base is shifting, and so the intent was to capture a new audience of young fans, without alienating the old timers. “I wanted to cast someone influential in a younger demo that would fit this vibe, so I cast psychedelic skater Richie Jackson, a very popular skater in the social age.”
And Richie can skate, though that’s not wholly why Randal cast him for this piece: “Richie has broken away from the core skate scene and is more of an artist using his board as a brush.” That statement dovetails one of the surreal sequences, with Richie bouncing on and off a bed draped in Doors merchandise. It’s a stunt he’s performed on Instagram to an audience that Night:Shift, through Randal, is trying to reach.
This is familiar territory for Randal, who has made his living doing promos for skate and urban clothing companies, viral videos on YouTube and Vine, and genre-bending music videos.
Throw me a camera!
Gordon had some strong opinions on recreating that 60s magic: “when I heard it was for Doors material I instantly blurted out FILM! WE NEED TO SHOOT FILM!” Luckily Randal and Gordon were on the same page: “We were tired of seeing retro pieces shot digitally with Super 8 and flare effects added in post. They’re missing the textures and magic that can be done on film. Digital flare and digital film burns can work, if you augment it with actual film.”
And to get that carefree, organic texture, Gordon decided to go experimental with the film that he used; “I had some old 400′ short ends in a shoebox and figured let’s load ‘em up and see what happens! In the end the film came out a little grainy but kinda cool considering over 10 years of heat and cold fluctuations”
Alongside the two film cameras – an S16 Aaton XTR with an Angenieux 12-240mm Zoom and a S8 Canon 814 – digital coverage came courtesy of two Sony cameras – an FS7 and a A7Sii DSLR. The subject matter and the need to capture tons of B roll necessitated two small crews shooting guerilla-style. It’s debatable which material ended up the A roll and which the B roll!
Putting it all together
When it came to the cut, the services of Andrew Polich were employed, who wrangled all the footage from the various sources. The final piece moves at a good clip, but the combination of slo-mos and longer takes ensure the audience doesn’t feel they’re on a roller coaster. It’s a fine balance, and it works really well! Randal is very vocal on the style: “It might be my ADD but I’ve always cut at a fast pace. The biggest challenge filmmakers face today is keeping the audience tuned in so they won’t grab their phones and check out something else.”
There are a lot of ‘retro’ techniques on display here – sprockets and keycode punching through the left side of the frame, blending modes used to simulate double exposures, and a cute use of multicam.
Enter the Monkey
The combination of that much material from so many different sources created certain challenges, the most glaring of which was the presence of grain, or none at all. To make the visuals flow and feel like one cohesive piece, I had one of two choices: ‘clean up’ the film a little to make it match the Sony material better, or add some texture and grit to the digital pictures to make them look more like film. As a self-confessed film fanatic (my still camera of choice is a Canon AE-1 Program), there was only ever going to be one way. For this I turned to my grain plugin of choice, Film Convert by Rubber Monkey.
Most film grain plugins I’ve used do a great job in three areas: grain profile, correct tone, and controls for applying the grain as a positive or negative effect. Let’s call these the ‘post controls’ of a film grain plugin. However, because there’s no regard for the Transfer Curve or Colourspace of the underlying footage, the applied grain often ends up looking ‘superficial’. The lack of ‘transfer controls’ means the contrast and density of the resulting image is typically off, and you need to tweak the image further to get it to the right place before you can even evaluate the grain. Cumbersome, yes, but this is what we’ve had to deal with for many years.
Film Convert takes a different approach; it gives you direct access to the ‘transfer controls’, allowing you to select both the camera and the profile used during the shoot. Once selected, the film grain is applied, and the default results are great! You can use additional controls – de facto 3-way joyballs, lift/gamma/gain and saturation – to tweak the final result. Film Convert comes in both stand-alone edition (the image above), as well as a plugin for your colour corrector or editor. I use both versions for my work.
With the grain out of the way and the blend effects in place, it was time to have some fun. In my mind, The Doors is all about experimentation, freedom and psychedelia. I wanted the grade to reflect this.
I already had a head start with some of the tricks Andrew pulled in the edit, namely using film burns and black & white flips as transitions. I loved the organic effect this had on the footage, and worked towards accentuating that.
For my base grade, I didn’t want the piece to have too much contrast, which would have given it a more ‘modern’ look. So I floated the blacks more than I usually would, and kept the mid tones and highlights a little lighter. The flash frames and film edges gave me the contrast I wanted without having to put that in the image. I also let the exposure ride, sometimes wildly, between shots, which felt more natural to me.
To push the psychedelic look, I relied on key shots and techniques; skies were given a teal, slightly electric treatment, which added to the ethereal quality. Offsetting the teal shadows and skies, I added some warm vignettes; this gives the picture a ‘faded’ look, like old photographs, and also creates colour tension between the warmth and the cooler shadows and skies.
The rainbow flares, which were achieved using practical prism and rainbow filters, were pushed further. Also with the flares, because I was pushing the mids and the highlights just that little bit more, magenta started to wring around the hot spots. Normally I would correct this, but I kept it in, sometimes even accentuating it, to get some interesting, almost cross-processed looks.
Finally for the skate scene, it was gold all the way! This was largely a matter of embracing all the variance in the native photography: the expired super 16mm film, the erratic grain, the layered film and digital effects, all as the sun was setting. I pushed tons more warmth into the shadows, flatlined the blue gain for the digital shots to get that strong yellow highlight, and added more contrast compared to the previous scenes, which gave me those strong, iconic silhouettes.
I think for this job, Gordon sums it up just perfectly: “on the day it was amazing to film with our talents and the legendary [Henry] Diltz. Randal is always great to work with and his visions are a blast to bring to life through cinematography.”
You can check out more stills by going to the Summer Of Love Gallery.
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”.
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.
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.
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!
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 overall a more modern look to the piece.
You can check out more stunning visuals by visiting the Gallery.
For more examples of Steven’s work, visit his website by following this link.
“What is the future of mobility?”
That is the question BMW poses in its four-part webisode series entitled “Wherever You Want To Go: Four Films About the Future of Mobility”. Influential academics, pioneers, and entrepreneurs stir the imagination with their unique visions of the past, present and future of technology, cities and transportation.
The four webisodes are directed by Kurt Mattila. Each episode has a running time of almost 6 mins, and focuses on a particular subject.
Activate The Future was shot on the Canon 5D, a regular in many of todays documentaries. As I have stated before, this lightweight camera offers compelling HD images at an unbeatable price. As the post production tools have improved over the past two years, we have seen the images coming out of this game-changing camera gradually improve. Practically, this means that the bottom end has improved to the point were we are able to capture subtle details without having to expose for the darker areas. You can see this in the image above, where Buzz Aldrin’s suit jacket still has a lot fine detail in the shadows.
Blending Film, VHS & HD
Many times with documentaries, the basic role of the colourist is to ‘even things out’. This is because the material can come from so many different sources: film archives, old TV VHS recordings, and then modern HD video and graphics. Making all of this feel cohesive relies on picking the right approach.
For all the 1970s flying car infomercials, I was dealing with badly deteriorated VHS tapes, with severe white balance problems, interlacing and sharpness issues. Colour balancing and then sharpening the shots made a dramatic difference. At the same time, I applied subtle blurs to the backgrounds in the graphics and models (above) to blend the surrounding shots better with the stock footage. Most times matching saturation and contrast is enough to bring the images closer.
Each other scene had its own treatment depending on the subject matter, and generally I tried to retain a lot of the mid tone in the image and keep the saturation up. With the right lenses, the Canon 5D already produces some very photographic images, so it was just a matter of giving each scene that little bit extra. For example, in the image below of Mike Musto, Editor-In-Chief of ridelust.com, I decided on a cooler look, a nod towards the steely blue BMW commercials we have all seen over the years. I used printer lights to add an overall blue tint, and then desaturated my blacks a touch. I then qualified the skin tones separately to bring back some of the warmth that I had lost. I finally saturated the blue jeans and the red brakes to give a little extra punch.
Working on mixed format jobs is always a challenge, especially documentaries. Filmmaker’s expectations of what a documentary should look like have changed, and with a job as high a profile as this, the clients were every bit as interested in ‘the look’ as they were in the narrative. As cameras continue to improve, those expectations slowly begin to align with what is possible under a constrained budget, and that’s where the colourist can really make a difference.