How Superman's All-Data Workflow Took Flight
All About High-End Digital Post on Superman Returns
Click here to see post supervisor Steven Kaminsky's PDF of the complete post-production workflow.
Working out the dailies pipeline was the first challenge. Kaminsky credits Revolution Studios head of feature post production Bruce Markoe and LaserPacific Media president Leon Silverman with “bringing the HD dailies workflow into popular use.” For the telecine-style dailies, at Sydney’s Cutting Edge Post, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC, shot stills of every set-up, colored them in his laptop and sent them, via secure FTP, to senior colorist Trish Cahill, who had an equivalent laptop with the same color management software at Cutting Edge.
Cahill used a Da Vinci 2K suite to grade the HDCAM SR 4:4:4 footage, maintaining that format for the dailies. Sigel then viewed the dailies projected by a Barco 2K projector run off a Sony HDCAM SR deck. Although dailies screenings were available to everyone, DVDs were also burned, protected by “water-stained” forensic marking. Avid media was delivered from Cutting Edge Post in Sydney to Warner Bros. in Los Angeles using SohoNet, with secure management and additional encryption using AsperaSoft’s file transfer technology.
The offline edit utilized the Avid Film Composer Meridien v.11.2.6, supplied by Los Angeles’ Pivotal Post, with on-location Avid support from Sydney’s DigiStore. “In Sydney, we were running eight Avids plus a 2 TB Unity server,” Kaminsky says.
“Then back in LA we reached a high mark of 13 Avids and 2 Unity servers split into two locations with the requirement that the director, editors and VFX team could go anywhere and work with up-to-date VFX shot content and edits at any time. We had three mix stages going and our team of 50 spread out over a number of locations.”
Taking Charge of the 'Digital Hub'With the massive number of visual effects, Kaminsky and VFX producer Joyce Cox realized early on that someone internal to the production needed to take charge of digitizing, conforming and color-information management for all the vendors. They turned to VFX veteran Scott Anderson (King Kong, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and his design and project management company, Digital Sandbox.
“We had the concept of a digital hub, which is an air-traffic control system for all the images coming in and out of the production,” Anderson says. “That was our main focus, putting that control into place for Superman Returns for both VFX shots and live-action footage coming in and out of the final conform.”
The pipeline also had to take into account the 1,450 VFX shots, both outbound to a variety of VFX vendors and then inbound back to the Digital Sandbox hub. “When we turned over a sequence to a vendor, we’d re-acquire the ungraded negative of the shot and supply that along with an equivalent scan from the graded dailies master so they’d have a look reference,” Kaminsky says. “Along with that, we developed a technique for capturing the color-correction information during dailies, to provide a grayscale file of the color grade applied. That information was used by Digital Sandbox to reverse-engineer the grade done in dailies.”
For some vendors, Digital Sandbox used the differential between the graded and ungraded file to produce a LUT that gave them a tight technical representation of the grade. “But that’s as much as we could provide,” he says. “We really tried to stick to traditional film terminology on everything. We’d say negative, which meant raw camera files. We’d say print and we’d mean the graded files. We tried to map those concepts for everyone to improve communication.”
When the team returned to Los Angeles, it was able to refine the VFX pipeline. A full six months before the movie was finished, the team conformed the digital negative to test the conform and DI grade process. This allowed Digital Sandbox to provide a “refined target” to the approximately 10 VFX vendors so they could see the direction of the final DI-graded data their shots would be integrated with. Stephen Nakamura at Technicolor Digital Intermediates (TDI) worked with Tom Sigel on the early conform/grade passes and the final release grade for the film and digital cinema releases.
Do It AgainAlthough doing the conform and color grade twice seems like a lot of work, Kaminsky says it was a critical quality-assurance step. “I’d rather invest the work six months out than discover we have all kinds of problems one month before the release,” he says. “I won’t say we didn’t have some color problems, but the problems were creative issues or difficult sequences where it was hard to get the look-as opposed to technical color implementation problems. If you’re only given dailies-level color and that’s all the info the vendors have, you’re setting yourself up for a difficult DI.”
“We looked at it as a multi-stage process,” explains Anderson. “The Genesis has its own unique color space and has to be converted into a space that works for proper color-correction, visual effects and so on. We created the best possible conversion from the capture medium to the working space and then either to a storage or final film color space. We’re strong believers in using the highest common denominator. If there were creative problems, they were judgment calls that fell to Mark Stetson as the film’s visual effects supervisor.” Digital Sandbox recommended (and enforced) 16-bit linear space, although some vendors took it a step farther, working in floating-point.
Digital Sandbox set the goal of all the vendors being able to work within their existing pipelines, as long as a standard was maintained. For color management, the in-house system created a pipeline so that the raw, uncorrected negative, when put through a color LUT, would match the same color information baked in for screening preview or DI. “We also made sure to be able to create QuickTimes where the color information, within the limits of codecs and compressors, all matches to the eye,” Anderson says. “That’s what editorial is seeing, what we’re seeing, and what the director and cinematographer will later see. And they all need to match.”
Anderson reports that although Digital Sandbox used its own in-house color management, TDI shared key information to enable consistent throughput for the entire pipeline (including calibrating all of Digital Sandbox’s monitors and the screening rooms). “Our process married with an outside standard, which is necessary,” says Anderson. After getting test shots and frames and LUT information, the VFX vendors were instructed to run shots through their process and return them to Digital Sandbox to make sure the color was close enough to be acceptable. “Our philosophy is that we’re all making one movie,” Anderson says. “We try to do as much as we can to protect what the production wants and also to help people through whatever problems they have.”
Screening 2K DailiesDirector Bryan Singer was eager to see dailies in 2K DPX files as often as possible. Once the visual effects were underway, Digital Sandbox segued into building digital negative rolls and providing dailies. Anderson tips his hat to Blackmagic Design, which provided “our earliest and some of our biggest help.” Digital Sandbox used Blackmagic Design’s DeckLink HD Pro for digitizing (later moving to the Multibridge Pro), with Adobe Premiere Pro as the front end to the in-house digitizing system. “They made adjustments to their firmware to nail down the spec we needed,” says Anderson. “They rose to the occasion to get us off the ground.” Starting with one deck, says Anderson, the dailies system grew to include that first computer and deck for digitizing, a dedicated dailies colorist, a computer and second deck for dailies layback, and supporting I/O and data stations.
The VFX dailies color grade used Assimilate Scratch software on GlobalStor’s ExtremeStor workstations. The graded dailies were viewed on the hub, or shipped to Hollywood DI, a small facility that set up its viewing space to match Digital Sandbox’s standards and added fiber links to Digital Sandbox and the post/editorial/VFX offices. In addition to screening VFX dailies twice a day, Holllywood DI also was equipped with an Assimilate Scratch grading platform, which allowed Anderson’s team to prepare sequences of work-in-progress VFX shots cut into the latest conform. “This process allowed us to manipulate shot order on the fly [and] color to a limited degree on the fly,” says Kaminsky. “It was an interactive dailies session-Joyce Cox called it Ã¢Â€Â˜performance dailies’-and it definitely saved a lot of time.”
For the final conform, Digital Sandbox’s conform lead Gary Jackemuk built a high-resolution version of each published reel based on the Avid cut coming out of Editorial. “This was the digital equivalent of negative cutting,” says Anderson, who notes that the pre-conformed reels and EDL were then sent to TDI for the final color grading.
'A Pure Data Flow'“[The pipeline] was as much a pure data flow as we could orchestrate,” says Kaminsky. “Even in editorial, we kept 99 percent tapeless by using Final Cut Pro as a data VTR and managed all of our turnovers to sound, music, DSBX and the mixing studio via encrypted and water-stained QuickTimes.
“A traditional pipeline would mean filming everything out and working with mountains of linear video, but we wanted to keep it all in the data realm, with a continuum of data flowing in and out,” he says. “I think that, despite the huge mountain we had to climb, we did it pretty gracefully and it was largely possible at this level by staying in data as much as we could.”
Nobody on this team was a novice, points out Kaminsky, but the process was still “bloody difficult.” “It was our own learning curve, getting into a new workflow that nobody had ever been through, with a camera nobody had used to this extent and trying to manage a pure data workflow, all at a scale nobody had ever attempted. The biggest thing I took away is that the strength of any process is the strength of the people and the appetite and aptitude to go where no one has gone before.”