Modern Videofilm Goes the Distance on Color-Grading for Avatar
James Cameron Could Tweak His Look at the Post House or on the Studio Lot
Mark Smirnoff: Yes. Large-scale feature films use one or two color-grading systems, but we were using upwards of four at a time in various stages of the process for various functions. I don’t want to imply that color-correction was spread out – Skip Kimball, who was the head colorist, did the final color-correction – but a lot of background functions were being done on the other systems. And we created a physical location at the Fox lot and at our feature mastering facility that mirrored each other. James Cameron could be at Fox or at Modern and there was no difference in the database or any of the color-correction. He had access to full, live 3D wherever he was sitting.
We were working on mirrored drives at Fox. Everything on our SAN [at Modern] was connected via fiber between Fox and us. It went through various parts of the city but it [worked] as if you were sitting here. If something got changed on the local drives there, it would be mirrored here. The DaVinci database with the edit decisions and color decisions was sitting at a SAN here at Modern. That was the catch and the trick – wherever it was updated it stayed updated, and whatever system you were on accessed the most current, up-to-date list.
Have you set up a system similar to this for other productions?
A system where I’m working here [at Modern] and someone’s seeing my work from a different location has been done on various occasions. But in this case, it was remote satellite locations working from a central server and database. You were actually sitting there with James Cameron and working, whether you were at Fox or at Modern. And obviously we had to make sure we had full control of the viewing environment, as well. The stage we were on at Fox had full RealD 3D Christie projectors that we used for color-correction.
What was it about Avatar, specifically, that demanded this kind of set-up? Was it just the sheer amount of work that Cameron had to do at any given time?
It’s Jim, basically. It’s his style of working. He’s a hands-on guy at every step of the process. As time moves on and deadlines are looming, he can only be in so many places at once. He needed to not be spread across the city. He needed to be near the mix, near VFX, near editorial. He needed to be able to do everything that needed to be done at a post facility without spending an hour and a half in traffic. We had to be part of the solution of how to build that environment for the completion of this film.
Was it a fairly straightforward process to set up the actual network, or did you have to customize a lot of it?
We have a lot of proprietary data-movement processes that we write and build here and tailor to whatever project we’re working on. And there’s equipment purchases and just knowhow. It also takes a little bit of luck – having the lines in the street and getting onto the lot where you need them. We’ve been piped into the dark-fiber network in L.A. and abroad for a while now, as Fox, obviously, is. That helped as well. If we were networking a cafà© in Torrance that didn’t already have fiber in place, that would be difficult.
There were other things happening on that stage [at Fox], so we couldn’t be working 12 hours a day in that room. The other time was spent at a different location, here at Modern, doing what we needed to do. Moving forward, we also built another DaVinci workstation in a different room on the Fox lot. It was more of a utility workstation where Skip [Kimball] could trim things in and do list management and constant list updates. Through the whole process, even through color, there were last-minute VFX shots and shots that needed to be updated. That kept Jim [Cameron] from having to sit in a color session while we were doing maintenance. His time was used to make artistic decisions.
How long was the network up and running?
It was going full steam for about five weeks, but it was up for 10 weeks.
Were you in charge of the multiple deliverables?
Yes. That was a daunting task. The project was captured at a native 1920×1080 resolution. Delivery was 2048×1556 [2K] with some high-res 3K and 4K shots invluded in the IMAX versions. Of course, there were different aspect ratios [for IMAX]. Within each aspect ratio, there were different light levels for the various 3D systems and venues, based on what kind of levels they can achieve. Each one of those was a separate 3D EDL – left eye and right eye. At any given time, we were working on upwards of six to eight different movies and keeping each one of those updated. It was a massive undertaking in terms of data and tracking. It took us six weeks working 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Was your choice of Resolve related to its handling of stereo 3D material?
We’ve been very heavily leveraged with dealing with Resolve and helping develop it into what it is today. Real-time color-correction in 3D is not a tool everybody has. And we know, from working with Jim in the past, that instant gratification is not an option. It’s a requirement. We can’t wait on a render. Everything has to be real time, instantaneous. And this project was never going to be a locked project. It wasn’t locked until it was in the theaters. The way the Resolve works on EDLs was important. We would get updated EDLs and work off them on a moment’s notice, so it gave us the ultimate in flexibility. It kept everything in separate places so that we could grade every shot by itself up until the very end.
The main tools were the SAN, the Resolve, and the Quantel iQ. We did the rough convergence work in the conform world to spit out the EDL, and then the Resolves would pick up the EDLs and do the colors, updates, and final tweaking on the convergence.
Did you have any trouble making the iQ and the Resolve talk to each other?
They don’t need to talk to each other. The charming thing about the Resolve is that it works off the SAN. We publish EDLs off the iQ, and all of the shots are sitting out on the SAN. I don’t render until I’m done. I make 1000 changes and I get a published EDL that comes out of the iQ. “Before, you used that shot. Now, you should use this shot.” That’s how color-correction was able to work in the here and now all the time.