July 1, 2010
By David Shiyang Liu
Colourists have for a long time been a luxury accessible only to large post-production budgets. High initial costs of specific, specialised hardware meant that post-production houses charged a premium on the hours spent in colouring suites. Braced against what appears to be a rapid democratisation of technology across production and post-production pipelines, it comes as no surprise that when the US$995 DaVinci Resolve for the Mac was announced at NAB 2010, feathers were ruffled. Fundamentally crayons The pedantic might argue that the first colourists were probably film pioneers Lumiere brothers when they hand-painted various cels of The Great Train Robbery (1903). Contemporary wisdom, however, largely attributes the beginnings of the craft to when John Logie Baird patented the first working television system, then stepping back, decided that the skin tones could look a bit better, and fiddled with some knobs. The development of television meant that at some point, live broadcasts needed to be recorded. Until the advent of the videotape in 1958, the Kinescope – a video broadcast to film system via a film camera and a video monitor – was the most practical way of recording programs for future broadcasts or distribution. The Kinescope operator was in effect the progenitor of the colourist – at their disposal was a device that could drastically tweak the brightness, contrast, and even the shape of the televised image. While the kinescope handled live video, there was still the matter of broadcasting film on television sets. The Baird Television Ltd – one day known as Cintel – would make the world’s first fl ying spot (or CRT) telecine. By the 1980s, the hulking Cintel Mark III telecine, occupying the space of two huge refrigerators and coupled with a TOPSY (Telecine Operations Programming System) control system was the defacto industry standard. Telecine operators, by this point, wielded a decent amount of control over the image – but only enough to try to match the final broadcast to as close as what it looked like when it was shot. Meanwhile, the photochemical film world was quite reliably finishing motion pictures through optical colour timing, literally timing the length of time red, green and blue light exposures through the negatives onto an intermediate positive print. While tedious, costly, and time-consuming, colour timing traditionally served to match the conformed edits to the approximations of the colours when it was shot. Things changed with the advent of digital media. New and accessible technology meant it became a viable solution to scan film digitally and grade on a colouring suite. Colourists now had tools open to them to not just tweak the entire image, but to also manipulate specifi c regions or elements in the image. For instance, a glaringly distracting red car in the background of a shot could be isolated and have its saturation muted. This paved the way for what is now called the digital intermediate (DI), referring to the process where a film negative is scanned, graded digitally on a colouring suite, then printed back again on film with an optical film recorder. Owing to its prohibitively high initial cost, early adopters of DI weren’t feature films, but TVCs. Many now admire the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) for being the first feature to finish fully through a DI, but it was Super Mario Bros. (1993) that first adopted the process to scan high resolution visual effects plates for compositing. Common features. Software/ Hardware based systems. (200) Despite the array of different colouring suites, all of them are expected to perform the same basic functions. In what is called the ‘primary’ colour correction, the entire image is graded, while ‘secondaries’ focus on tweaking specific areas or colours. Like the aforementioned example, it is the secondary colour corrector that isolates the red car and mutes its saturation. Historically, hardware-based systems such as the DaVinci 2K plus and the Pandora Pogle were substantially more powerful than software-based systems, but were inflexible and limited in their features. While softwarebased correctors often weren’t able to grade in real-time, they spearheaded innovation in developing better keyers, splinebased mattes for more precise secondary correction, and pushed for a better integrated postproduction workflow. Autodesk Lustre for example, works seamlessly with its sister products Flame and Smoke, allowing one to colour grade and finish on the same Linux-based platform. Quantel’s IQ, and now Pablo, have also consistently taken pride in being able to do the same, but within just one proprietary software solution. Most modern colour grading suites are now almost entirely softwarebased. Developments in stacking multi-processors and powerful graphics processor units (GPUs) means that hardware acceleration can be distributed and scalable. So much such that Filmlight’s powerful Baselight range uses the number of GPUs in the system to market the respective platform’s ability at grading HD, 2K, and 4K resolutions in real time. The role of the colourist The evolution of telecine machines from being just primary colour correctors to elaborate digital image manipulators meant that the roles of the colourists have adapted from correcting mis-coloured images to necessarily enhancing them by way of establishing a mood or a look. Through their machines, colourists now deliver the creative vision of the director and the cinematographer. Bolstered by their glittering panels and multiple monitors, they command a dark room with comfortable sofas for clients and directors to lounge on while they deftly manoeuvre trackballs. Naturally, a certain technical and creative expertise is demanded, but colourists are increasingly expected to be adroit people managers too. “Some of the most successful colourist aren’t technical guys, but they are very good people,” Warren Eagles, a colourist with over 20 years of experience said. “They know how to control a room full of people. You have to be creative, you have to be technical, you have to also run six to seven people in a room and entertain them. They come to you because it’s a good all-around experience.” The changing landscape In 2007, Apple launched Color, a colour correction software previously known as Silicon Color’s FinalTouch. Released as part of the Final Cut Studio suite of postproduction tools, it presented an entire new demographic with the same basic grading tools offered by suites which were easily at least several hundred times its price. Suddenly, colour grading became vastly accessible. DaVinci’s recent announcement to price the new Resolve for the Mac at US$995 proves to be doubly disruptive. Compared to Color, the DaVinci Resolve possesses a host of tools unheard of at its price-range, plus a brand name that resonates from since colour grading was in its infancy. The Linux-based Resolve workstation, complete with the Resolve Panel and license, now also starts at US$30,000. Prior to the announcement, these powerful grading suites used to cost from US$200,000, up to US$800,000, depending on the number of GPUs you needed. Furthermore, DaVinci assures us that the lowered costs do not mean any features have been stripped or stunted. “When you buy the $1,000 Mac license, you get all the functionality that we have. Whether it’s the linux version or the mac version, it’s all there,” said DaVinci’s product development manager Peter Chamberlain. What this means for budding colourists is that the doors to professional colour grading tools, doors where previously you were only allowed through after years of working from the bottom rungs of a post-production facility, have just slammed wide open. Rise of the independent It seems like a trend in the industry – large-frame CMOS chips, once only the domain of hideously expensive cameras, are now found in Canon’s latest range of relatively inexpensive DSLRs; and not too long ago, it was unthinkable for professional editors to edit out of their bedrooms with software such as Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Now it seems like professional colour grading solutions are entering the fray of targeting an increasingly tech-savvy, self-taught, prosumer demographic. It won’t be surprising if other industry leaders such as Autodesk, or Digital Vision react in a similar fashion and release a similarly priced colour grading toolset to compete with the DaVinci Resolve for the Mac. Already, colouring utilities such as Red Giant Software’s new Colorista 2, a plug-in within Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, and After Effects, are capable of increasingly advanced features; such as in Colorista 2’s case, floating point colour, GPU acceleration and powerful keyers for their secondary colour correctors. Does this means a young, talented aspiring colourist, with perhaps a Euphonix MC Color or a Tangent Wave color grading panel and any of the affordable suite of colour grading solutions, can producer work similar to colourists in expensive post-production houses? Unlikely. While he believes it a boon, Warren Eagles considers that with the increased accessibility might come at a cost of losing mentors and experience one would otherwise gain from apprenticeships in postproduction house. “I worked for someone for a whole year loading film before I even did a job.” He continued, “Sometimes you work with three senior colourists and you pick bits of things to learn from them. They all grade differently, so as a junior you ask lots of questions and you stay back and talk to them, and ask them why they do that. “That has changed now because there are lots more places where you can just buy the gear and start off.” Additionally, home-setups are likely to lack the infrastructure that a post-production facility possesses. As it is, building Light Up Tables (LUTs) to map their working colour spaces to mimic that of a digital film projector, or especially a film printer, are close to impossible without the aid of expensive hardware or software solutions such as those provided by Filmlight’s Truelight and Cine-tal. The smaller machines are also not going to be able to grade as fast as the suites in larger shops. Arguably, these independent start ups don’t expect themselves to delve into the quasi-expensive film industry anyway, and are likely to start with the lower to middle tier commercials. The undeniable consequence of the relentless migration to digital filmmaking does mean that colourists will be in demand more than ever, and that it could not be a better time for one to start thinking about becoming a professional colourist. —————————————————————- A DI film grade through the eyes of a freelance colourist Contributed by Warren Eagles I met film producer Ravi Vedant at Broadcast Asia 2009 in Singapore. I was doing a demonstration of the DaVinci distributor for Media Village, the product’s distributor. Ravi and I sat down and discussed RED footage, workfl ows and the looks that could be created with it. He obviously liked my demo as he came back the following day to ask more questions and to find out if I would be interested in grading his film. I said I would love to, and we exchanged name cards. I thought I’d never hear from him again, but in October Ravi emailed to see if I was still interested in grading the film The Genius of Beauty. He wanted to finish the picture in Australia and I agreed to help him get a deal with the digital intermediate (DI) post house in Australia, which in turn would have given me two weeks grading work. I gathered the quotes for the DI and passed them on to Ravi and at the same time had my first chat with Bill Gentry and the executive producer and star of The Genius of Beauty. At this point I already seen an early offline cut of the movie. This enabled me to flag any potential grading problems and to start creating some style frames. The film is a comedy set initially in Borneo which then moves to India. I wanted the film to have a strong comic look, with saturated colours but at no time should the grade take anything away from the story. After an audience screening in December, it was decided that a small reshoot and re-edit was needed. They were now looking at finishing in Mumbai due to budget restrictions. I again suggested my favoured houses in Mumbai. The offline got sucked into my laptop and in Final Cut Pro I cut a little trailer of selected scenes and graded it in Apple Color. I emailed the two-minute movie to Bill and Ravi, and suggested a grading reference. The film that kept coming back into my head was Something About Mary, a comedy where the grade never creeps over the story. In February I got an email from Ravi saying the movie was now being recut and that he now wanted to grade and finish in Bangkok, and I told him my two preferred post houses. He decided on Technicolor and we locked down the dates. I only had five days to grade the film, but at least Technicolor is very well calibrated and has a DaVinci Resolve. I had arranged for Steve Calalang, the senior grader at Technicolor, to oversee the transcoding of the RED files, confi rming and pre-grading. I wanted him to balance the film using one layer so I could concentrate on the styles of the film and maximise my five days. MONDAY My day starts with a night flight out of Brisbane, a two-hour stopover in Singapore, then on to Bangkok. After a brief rest I was brought to Technicolor, where I immediately checked out the Resolve system. I had done the initial training when the Resolve was installed so I knew the rooms, but I wanted to check out the look-up table being used and the projector line-up. Technicolor was using their own Fuji LUT that sits in their Barco DP1000 projector – this would guarantee that we colours we saw in their DI room would be faithfully reproduced when projecting the print in a traditional movie theatre. We didn’t have the time or the budget for filmout tests so I was relying on Technicolor’s calibration being spot on. As Steve I and started spinning through the six reels I realised there were still a lot of holes in the conform. These were mostly visual effects shots that were still being finished. The r3d files had all been transcoded to DPX using DVS Clipster. Redspace was used for colour space and Redlog for the gamma curve. The film was then conformed in Autodesk Smoke. A number of wipes had been taken out and the original untreated VFX shots were left in place for grading and would be replaced at stages during the week. Joan Wood, who had recut the film and was then acting as post supervisor, flicked through the movie with me and we discussed what was needed and cross-referenced things I had talked about with Bill. The film looked very consistent. Steve had given me a good base allowing me to group a scene together, then add a grade and apply it to the whole scene. I started grading around 3pm with one of the hardest and most important scenes. I only had four-and-a-half days so I had to prioritise. The opening shot started on a beautiful sunbaked beach. The hero stood with his surfboard gazing at the crystal clear blue water, then it cut straight to a dull rainy day as he entered the water. It was a tough grading challenge. I finished the opening scenes then wanted a change of scenery so I switched to reel 4 (R4) and started working on one of the beauty contest sections. One of the great things about a DI grade is that you can move very quickly to another scene or reel. If things are not falling into place or a grade isn’t working, I usually leave it and start somewhere else. Often when you go back to it the next day you can instantly pinpoint what is wrong. TUESDAY We checked the foot lamberts on the screen (the brightness of the projectors), and we also check that the correct LUT is still applied to the projector. I started working on R3. In this reel we see a lot of the characters for the first time as the scene switches to Mumbai, and I found myself adding extra colour and vibrancy to suit the Indian mood. R3 had just been re-conformed and re-outputted with new VFX shots, fi xed speed ramps and zoomed shots so a new EDL needed to be used. I used the Resolve Colortrace to copy all my grades from my original R3 grade onto the new R3. I worked on a scene at a time, selected a wide shot, decided on a look and checked it on a close-up. If I liked it I would then copy it to the scene. Joan would then check the ‘Master Look’ before I matched the whole scene. In every TV programme, music clip, commercial or film, you have a product. Whatever or whomever your product it, the rules are the same – the product has to look fantastic at all times. So I always ask myself, “Have I done enough here? How does my product look?” I continued to grade the key shots from each scene, then Ravi and Joan either locked them off or changed them, and when I was happy with it I balanced the rest of the scene. The grade was going well – we were on course to finish in five days. WEDNESDAY Joan, Ravi and I reviewed R1 and R3. I realised I had misjudged the time of day in one scene so it all has to be retimed, but otherwise they were very pleased with the results. The newly conformed R2 arrived and it didn’t match the original cut so all my 200 grades had to be manually copied. Slowly the film took shape as the finished VFX shots were added. I began working on the last reel. There were no new locations or sets in R6, so I just had to keep the film consistent with the other reels. THURSDAY I continued with R4 and R5. The film has a number of beauty pageant scenes where the girls have to look very glamorous. These scenes were cut very quickly so it took a lot of time matching everything to make it all consistent. I flagged a potential problem when reviewing R1 – my re-conformed R1 seemed to be three minutes shorter than the locked-off cut! I remember the lead characters arriving at the airport in India, but that scene wasn’t on my newly conformed R1. After checking it turned out that when we had loaded the new R1 reel into Resolve it had not finished rendering from Smoke, and that’s how we lost the final three minutes. I located the missing scenes and added them to my R1 timeline, then completed the colourful Indian arrival. All six reels were by then graded, but I hadn’t done a polishing pass and hadn’t really checked everything. FRIDAY The Genius of Beauty had been graded, but by no means finished. On the second pass I started to add little shapes and vignettes to highlight the characters in the movie. This was when I spotted shots that did not quite match, or windows that needed a little more softening. I even completely regraded one scene. After lunch Ravi, Joan and I reviewed the whole film. Three out of the six reels needed changes, but overall we were very pleased with the results. The Genius of Beauty was a challenge to grade in five days but at the same time it was a pleasure to work with the professional team at Technicolor and Imagical Arts. Warren Eagles is a freelance colourist working out of Brisbane Australia. He is also the co-founder of the International Colorist Academy and balances his time between grading on his own system at home, colouring TVCs and movies on a contact basis or training colourists for the ICA.