Using Assimilate Scratch for Color, Comping and VFX and Building a Post Collective

I first sat down with colorist and Local Hero Post owner Leandro Marini back in September during IBC. In front of a full Assimilate Scratch system in a curtained corner of Assimilate's booth, he showed me some of the things he was able to do on one of his recent projects. At the time, the film we discussed was still under NDA. That film, The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, let Marini experiment with Scratch in ways even he and Assimilate never imagined. The boutique facility also did the DI for the successful Universal comedy Pitch Perfect, and Marini and Dark Highway Films (founded by Local Hero Post partner James Cotten) will produce I Remember You, the facility's first independent film; Claudia Sparrow will direct. Marini calls his Scratch-evolved workflow "creative DI," a term since adopted by Assimilate through their close collaboration with Marini. We spoke again recently when Marini was on a break from his current project, a reboot of a familiar horror classic from the late 1980s.

StudioDaily: How do you define "creative DI"?

We're really about pushing the DI art form to the next level, where we're incorporating visual effects into our DIs. On every project we try to move the goal posts forward on what can be done. We want to be the creative DI shop. I was one of the ones that pushed Assimilate in that direction early on, to be honest. I was showing them what we were doing with Scratch, and they were very excited to see what could be done. The reason we were getting these larger films is because of the workflow we're employing. We try to never say no to a client. Whatever kooky, crazy thing they want to try in a DI, we try it. We usually go back to Assimilate and say, 'Hey, this client wants to try doing 400 digital breath shots in Scratch, or this client wants to do 600 ghost VFX during their DI. We think we can do it this way, what do you guys think?' We collaborate with the guys at Assimilate and they come up with some crazy workflow and we try it. Every time we hit the limits of our abilities and the system's, we go back to Assimilate and say, 'Here's what we learned on this film. What if we had this feature or features?'

Do you think Scratch, in its current version 7, is a VFX tool that can stand on its own?

Very nearly. We're starting to get to the point where I have all the features I need to consider it a true VFX system. It's really amazing. The surprising thing for me is that more people don't use Scratch. I think they may be daunted by the complexity of it. It looks a little complex when you're first approaching it. But once you get into how it thinks, it's an unbelievably powerful system. I've been able to impress everyone from the most demanding studio filmmakers to the smallest art-film directors with what the system can do. And these are people who are walking out of million-dollar suites at big facilities and coming to our suite and preferring the experience.

Can you give an example?

A client might say, 'Hey, the sky in that scene really bothered me,' and by the time they finish talking about how it bothered them, we've changed it. Larger facilities that have built-in workflows that were established a long time ago just won't do. It's not even an option, and filmmakers don't even get to dream. They just get told no right away. Whereas we always ask the filmmakers, 'If you could do anything, what would you want to do here?' If it's a matter of a dinosaur running through the shot, I'm obviously going to tell them it's better to do that at a VFX company. But if they say, 'There's lighting equipment in the background that no one's ever noticed before,' or 'I don't like this guy in the background,' we can fix that. In the case of Haunting in Connecticut 2, we did a massive amount of visual effects in the DI. I would say we did about 400 shots. That was probably the most intense effects work we'd ever done up to that point in the color bay. We were actually comping people and ghosts into the shots. We did it in the DI theater, in real time with the director. That was a workflow I had just never heard of before.

What new features allowed you to get there?

We became so enamored with Scratch in the first place because at the heart of Scratch are three things that I think are brilliantly balanced. First, it's all real time, no matter what you do. That is huge. Secondly, it thinks like a compositing system. It doesn't come from a telecine-style background. It evolved from a kind of VFX background. It is set up like a compositor. If you mix those two elements—real-time workflow and the compositing brain—you can do so much. And the third thing is that they've done a great job of integrating color-correction. When you're operating it, it feels like this really nice, hand-in-hand combination of a compositor and a color-corrector, not just one thing or the other. The truth is, those two art forms have been too separated in the past. We want to, say, move something to the left and darken it. Color-correction and compositing are so similar these days that you kind of want to have access to both of those sides of your brain at all times, instead of always shipping it out to another room or waiting for VFX vendors to send it in.

It halts the flow.

Yeah, and it also stops creativity to do it the old way. When the shots are manipulated by so many different hands, I think clients get scared to ask for things they really want because it gets too complicated.

What was your workflow like on Pitch Perfect? Did you do anything unique with Scratch?

Pitch was really well shot and didn't need a lot of visual effects. Something we did that normally you wouldn't is flares. A lot of the scenes take place on a big, American Idol-type stage. We had about a third of the flares in the film in the DI in real time with the director. The director saw the footage and although there was a lot of flaring going on with the lights that were there already, he thought the stage felt kind of empty. In the DI we filled in more of the flares and added spotlights and moving spotlights. It just made the world feel bigger and more expensive. We did those directly in the color system. When you watch the final film, it just makes those scenes look more exciting. And that's work you'd typically ship out to VFX vendors. What was nice about doing that in the color bay in the theater was the director didn't have to wait for versions, didn't have to give notes to outside vendors. He could just say, 'I want it bigger, I want it softer, move it to the right' and we would just hit play. Upon seeing it, he might want to tweak it more or go back to the beginning. He could polish those VFX as we went.

Would you say there are economic savings with this workflow as well?

It's not a cost savings. I don't want to make it sound like it is. It is no more or less than a traditional workflow. What it is, is just plain smarter. It's a time savings more than a cost savings. Your budget doesn't shrink or grow but what you can do is get your effects done more efficiently and quicker. As an example, on Haunting in Connecticut 2, we had about four to six weeks to do all the VFX. They had a hard deadline delivery date to Lionsgate. It that case, there just wasn't enough time to do it any other way. We literally would have missed the deadline if we hadn't come up with a creative solution to do all the VFX and color in one house with the director. We could have installed a bunch of other VFX systems and had him moving from room to room, but it just ended up being a smarter workflow.

So creative DI is really about putting more creativity back into the hands of the director.

Absolutely. It's a much more hands-on approach to the finishing of their film. When you have to go through the process of sending things out to multiple vendors and giving notes, everything is a complication. The director wants to give a certain note but doesn't want to piss off the VFX vendor, and he wants to try to make it simple for everybody. He gets scared to give too many notes. Let's say you're trying to do a composite against a background. From the time you first get that shot, you're probably going to go through 10 to 12 versions of that comp on a laptop for approvals. Then the director goes to the DI and sees it on the big screen. He's already approved it, but now that he sees it on the big screen in the context of the entire film, he wants to make some changes. Now you'll have even more revisions. If you're sitting in the bay with the director and you do some simple effects, you can do those 10 iterations in 10 minutes. You don't realize that each time the director says, 'right, left, more, less' is an iteration that would each normally take a day for approval. If you're doing it in the DI, you're doing it in context. You're doing it in the right color and you can roll the reel back a little bit and play the scene. You can play the scene with the audio as it will appear in the film and you can see the effect in context of the scene. Now you can see, in context, that it's maybe way too big or shiny or subtle. That's what happened on Haunting in Connecticut 2. we could see it all in context. And I think we achieved a level of effects in context that we would never have been able to do on that deadline without Scratch.

You're about to produce Local Hero's first original feature. Will you be doing more of that in the future?

I don't have aspirations to do that. Local Hero is becoming too important to the creative process of some movies — as important in some cases as editorial. We're really not just a color house. If you are, you're just a step in the process and pretty much interchangeable with other color houses. We handle the entire DI from picture-lock to VFX, color, mastering and delivery. We take a movie all the way to the hand off to a studio or distributor. There are a lot of creative choices that have to happen between the end of editorial and delivery of a film — all the VFX, the color, the finishing and the DI and the titles. We're becoming a creative partner on the films that we're on. We want to be a home for filmmakers where they can do a lot of different things. We're partnered with an editorial company, a sound company, a trailer company. We're trying to build this kind of creative hub where filmmakers can do a lot of things in post-production, not just color. It made sense to produce a film because we had all those resources and it was a script we were really excited about. I don't think it will be a regular thing for us, but I do think it will be a once-in-a-while thing for us.

Do you see Local Hero expanding as a result?

Actually, we just formed something called The Hub at 1201. We just officially named it. We're in a 12,000 square foot building at 1201 Olympic in Santa Monica in a facility that's too big for us. But we're surrounded by filmmakers. Local Hero has joined a small collective in the building. Those companies do different art forms in the post process. Digital Difference is the editorial house and they have nine edit suites just above us. A lot of films cut in our building and come downstairs. A VFX company is part of our family now, and a trailer company, and we're just bringing on a sound company. We're trying to build a creative collective in one building. People can still hire Local Hero a la carte. About half our clients do that. And the other half want to stay in one place for everything. Clients used to complain to me, 'Oh, now I have to drive all the way to Burbank to look at some titles, or Glendale to go back to the edit room.' The films that cut and DI in our building love this. Directors love being able to leave the color suite and go and talk to a VFX artist. Sometimes these folks are not just off-site but out of the country. We don't force this option on anyone but most people really love it. Local Hero is probably going to stay the size it is, but the Hub is going to grow.

For more on Local Hero, Leandro Marini and Scratch, watch the video below.