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YOU'VE GOT THE LOOK
by David Fox
Making video look more like film - and making film look even better....
Creating the right image for your production is easier than ever, thanks to digital technology. We look at how George Clooney was given a good dust up, and a video of Steven Spielberg was made to look like film.
Joel and Ethan Coen's latest movie (late 2000), O Brother, Where Art Thou?, starring George Clooney, is set in rural Mississippi in the 1930s. To give it the right sense of time and place, the Coens "wanted to eliminate greens. They favoured a dry, dusty delta look with low golden sunlight," says cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Unfortunately, summer-time Mississippi, where principal photography was taking place, is inclined to be wet and the landscapes would be lush green. To find out how to cope with this, Deakins initially shot tests in an LA park with similar foliage to what he expected in Mississippi. Besides altering the image quality using filters and other techniques during filming, he also put it through a bleach by-pass and other lab processes. Although the resulting images were interesting, they didn't give him the control he needed to tone down the greens without altering the skin tones.
Instead, he went to Cinesite, Los Angeles, to have the film manipulated digitally. After editing, the complete cut negative was scanned at 2k on a Philips Spirit datacine, and the colour was put through a Pandora 2K Megadef colour correction system. Cinesite believes this is the first time that digital intermediate technology has been used purely as an extension of cinematography.
By going digital, Deakins was able to adjust any specific colours and alter the contrast interactively using the Pandora, allowing him work on an individual shade of green without affecting any other colours in shot. The type of colouration he used changed subtly from scene to scene, allowing him reflect the changing emotions of the story.
"When he liked what he saw on the calibrated screen, we recorded those images onto colour intermediate film and printed dailies. Sometimes he'd go back to the digital suite after seeing the film and do more tweaking. When he was totally satisfied, we projected the scene for the Coen brothers," says Sarah Priestnall, Cinesite's director of digital mastering operations.
It wasn't just the vegetation Deakins changed. In a scene where an extra wearing an orange-yellow dress became the brightest thing in shot, distracting the audience from the real focus of the scene, the Coens wanted to draw attention away from here, so Deakins had her dress colour toned down until it blended into the scene. In an interior shot Deakins had them put a some light on a child's face in the background so the audience could see his expression.
"We didn't know exactly what we wanted at first," says Deakins. "The look evolved. It's warm, like an old Kodachrome movie, with the intensity of the colours dictated by the scene. The opening scene is almost monochrome except for skin tones. It's not totally black and white. There is a little sepia and the colours gradually seep in. We dissolve back to that black and white sepia look at the end. It's a little like a 1930's newsreel."
Because the final master was digital, it can act as a single source for all releases, from theatrical to DVD and home video, so that look will remain the same whatever medium it is viewed on.
Cinesite in London has just launched the same service and already has has "a lot of interest and quite a few different projects talking to use," before even starting marketing, says Cinesite's head of production, Courtney Vanderslice.
Its system will be more advanced than that in LA, because it is installing the new Philips Virtual Datacine, which means that all colour grading can be done on data rather than as it comes out of the telecine. To allow this, they have also installed terabytes of disk space. It has also bought the latest High Definition versions of Inferno and Fire, running on a very high speed Onyx, which gives them the flexibility to make editorial adjustments as well as operating in HD.
She says they've taken everything LA has learnt from O Brother, as well as the special computer routines written for LA to colour match the display to the film, "so that whatever they see on the monitor screen is what they'll see on film," she says.
Having the Virtual Datacine will also make the system more usable for broadcast work, as it means just a single master can be used to output to any format, from film downwards.
Most directors prefer to shoot on film, but budgets often mean they have to shoot on video. If they are subsequently going to output on film (or even if they aren't), they won't look so penny-pinching if the results can be made look as if they originated on film.
There have been several attempts at giving video the film look, but not all of them have been successful. However, the latest Hollywood technology is causing ripples even this side of the pond.
The Asiva process, devised for MJM Post, Los Angeles, by an aerospace software expert is not only claimed to give more realistic results, but can help producers lower their budgets.
It takes uncompressed 10-bit D1 video and goes through it frame by frame, doing colour correction and adjustments to alter the colour response to that of film. "It has to do that in a three dimensional way, you can't just do gamma or standard colour balance or saturation. Our process selectively changes the hue, saturation and luminance in different areas of the image as a function of what needs to be done," says Leigh Torgerson, MJM's general manager.
Film has a higher dynamic range, typically about 12 to 14 f-stops compared to the eight to ten of video. "If it is too bright, video cameras tend to saturate and too dark they tend to lose details in the shadows," he says. "Asiva can pull details out of the shadows without overblowing the high-end luminance. It also adds grain to the image, to simulate the grain of 35mm or 16mm film, so you can match video to film stock that someone else has shot."
It also takes the interlaced fields of video and creates discrete frames without throwing away one of the fields, as some systems do. If you just froze each field and tried to put them together, any motion between the first and second field would show up as a blur and you'd get jagged lines. To counteract this, Asiva interpolates the two fields using motion tracking to give "a very clean image where the edges are smooth, not jaggy."
Although LA-based, the system is perfectly happy handling PAL as the computer is format independent - and it will output to film at 25 frames per second.
The system replaces an old analogue process, Filmlook, which had to convert PAL to composite NTSC which produced very unsatisfactory results.
Within a year it should also be able to handle HD. Indeed, he claims that Asiva can make Digital Betacam video look as good as HD material when output to film, at lower cost, as HD "costs almost as much as shooting on film in the first place." He says using Asiva more than halves the costs of originating on HD or film.
While the frame rate issue (whether HD should operate at 24, 25 or 30 frames per second) has become a heated debate, Asiva can alleviate this because it can take material shot at 30 frames per second and convert it to 24 by using its motion compensation system to interpolate new frames and outputting them to disk.
Surprisingly, this even has benefits if the end result has to be output again to 60 interlaced fields for US TV, as film and video can be worked on at 24 fps, then the system will output to 60i using the standard 3:2 pulldown method, but because it produces such clean results the images look better after MPEG compression, whereas some other techniques produce artifacts because the compression doesn't work so well with blurred or jagged images.
A major claim of the system is that the results do look as if they were originated on film, whereas other video to film transfer systems do look as if the material was shot on video. But, this quality does takes time. While other systems are real-time, Asiva isn't.
One interested visitor recently was the director Jean Luis Bunuel, who is considering using it too shoot a feature on PAL and print to 35mm for cinema release. He had previously been quoted $22,000 by a Paris post house to transfer video to film, whereas MJM charges $100 per minute.
Another who has tested the system is producer/director, Eamon McElwee, who is trying to get a feature-length documentary (for cinema and TV) off the ground. His Gallowglass Pictures production, Travellers - The True Bards Of Ireland, has just been granted 25% funding by the Irish Film Board, partly thanks to the 12 minute promo he had MJM put through its Asiva process.
He wants to shoot on Digital Betacam and blow up to 35mm, and has been won over by MJM's claim that if you shoot on Digital Betacam, light for film, and use Asiva, it's hard to tell that it wasn't shot on Super 16. "In terms of the footage we supplied [which hadn't been shot with the process in mind] it improved it a good deal. It gave it more depth, more separation between the foreground and background. It seemed to affect the picture more subtly than maybe Mastergrade [a telecine process he has used before in Dublin facilities], and the field stripping of the video seemed to be quite a subtle treatment."
Because MJM offers to do before and after tests on a minute or two of footage free, McElwee advises anyone interested to take a representative sample of material and see for themselves. Now that he knows what is possible, he is going to shoot some more material using Digital Betacam lit for film, and will test it again before making a final decision, although he has been so encouraged by the initial test that he feels likely to use it. "It not only eases the cash flow [not having to pay for stock and processing during shooting], but the process would also save money itself. Besides, it is easier to get video crews into places film crews won't fit and you can afford a much higher shooting ratio."
Although MJM is based in LA, McElwee says it is perfectly accessible, as it costs little to Fed-Ex the tape there overnight.
Asiva is just now working on its first feature, which uses a mix of DV, Digital Betacam and Betacam SP material. It has also worked on Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation documentary, the Lost Children Of Berlin, as well as treating video footage of the director doing an introduction to Schindler's List when it was shown on cable, where he wanted the video to look like the film - indeed, Torgerson says most of his customers so far don't output to film, they just want the look. Other work it has handled includes lots of music videos, commercials and documentaries by independent film makers. "Our target market is people who'd like to shoot on film but can't afford it," he says.