Colorist Andrea Chlebak on Managing Naturalistic Looks for a VFX-Heavy Film

Director Neill Blomkamp made his mark on the movies with 2009's District 9, a VFX-heavy science-fiction allegory anchored by its distinctive South African setting and naturalistic visual approach. Hailed by critics and audiences as a thoughtful and original take on established science-fiction tropes, the film pulled in a worldwide box-office gross of $210 million on a reported budget of just $30 million. Those are franchise-starting numbers, but rather than push forward with a rumored sequel, Blomkamp cooked up a new dystopian story — in Elysium, which enters worldwide release next week, the Earth's upper class has fled to the huge, luxurious space station called Elysium, where they live in splendid isolation from the rabble who populate the planet's violent, poverty-stricken surface. One of those have-nots, Max De Costa (Matt Damon), plans an unauthorized sojourn to Elysium.
The visual challenges of the film were many. First, there was the question of how best to contrast the worlds of the desolate planet Earth and the pristine environment of Elysium floating far overhead. And then there were the demands of complex action sequences that involved humans fighting with robots, the latter played on set by actors in grey suits, where the interaction between actors and CG characters needed to be absolutely believable. The project found a home at Vancouver post facility Central, which prides itself on color management and VFX integration, where the project got a 4K DI. We talked to Senior DI Colorist Andrea Chlebak about sharing information on the film's look with its VFX providers, working with the Filmlight Baselight digital color-grading system, and watching the film over and over again.
StudioDaily: So how did you get the job of doing the DI for Elysium?
Andrea Chlebak: The project started with us at Central early on, just around the beginning of the shoot. The first part of shooting was in Vancouver and the second part in Mexico City. We're kind of a boutique facility, but we're pretty well known in town and in Los Angeles for our color management workflows, so we started working with Image Engine, the main VFX company on the show. The film had a big payload of VFX shots involved, and the production wanted to ensure everyone would be working in a managed environment. The post supervisor, Brad Goodman, approached us for guidance on the color workflow and, through a series of quick meetings where we discussed ways to fulfill the project's needs, we ended up getting a meeting to talk about the DI. It was pretty quick. It was about a year before the real DI when I first sat with [director] Neill Blomkamp and he talked to me about the look he was going for. We spoke the same language and just connected, and we set off from that point. I worked on the VFX pre-grading during the year leading up to the DI. So when the time came, it was a natural progression into the next stage of color. 
What's involved in VFX pre-grading?
Before they got the VFX work going, they wanted to know what the look of the film was going to be. We actually did a very early DI look session with the director to lock down a few hero shots — "this is what this exterior looks like, this is what earth looks like, and this is Elysium." Broad strokes. We created look LUTs to distribute to the VFX companies so they could preview their work confidently. At the same time, plates were being pulled from editorial for VFX. They decided it was best to let the DI facility manage the set-up look, so VFX supervisor Peter Muyzers and I were looking at 50-plus plates at a time in context with the rest of the scene and making overall adjustments. They were pretty basic adjustments, but they were made with knowledge of the context those effects would be placed in, and what the scene would eventually look like in the DI. Having VFX and the DI facility work together that early on meant a seamless integration of VFX at the end of the DI process.
Do you see that emerging as a standard workflow for handling color on big VFX films?
A lot of bigger companies have VFX departments and post departments that do something similar. We found it to be a rare collaboration between separate entities in VFX and post. Often you don't get that overlapping sense with another team. We would go into their theater and help with color management, and they would come to us and say, "Here's the effect, and here's how bright we want it to be," and so on. It makes a lot of sense. At Central, we think it would be a great way to work on any show that has a lot of VFX.
I've spoken with VFX artists in the past who felt like their work was cheapened when it was manipulated in the DI suite in ways they didn't anticipate.
That's what happens when you have to make assumptions [about how a VFX shot should look] without being directly involved with the artists. For Neill, his vision involves VFX all the time. There are flying ships and droids and things that obviously aren't real, but they have to look real. That's part of the storytelling method. They are meant to integrate in a naturalistic sense [with the live-action footage]. So I wouldn't say everyone was in a panic, but it was at the forefront of everybody's mind — let's make sure everyone's looking at the same thing so there are no surprises later on. It was nice to be able to champion that kind of VFX vision through the whole process. There are only a couple of grade layers on most of the VFX shots, and that's pretty much what the artists saw when they let them go at the facility. 
It sounds like Blomkamp supervised the DI. Was the director of photography, Trent Opaloch, involved?
I think Trent came in a couple of times and was able to review our work. But the way that team works is Trent does his work on set — and he's very thorough — and he hands it to Neill, and Neill moves forward. They have a mutual-trust relationship and Neill is the primary vision-holder of the film. But it was nice to get Trent in the room to see what he thought.
So when the color-grading began in earnest, what was that collaboration like?
We started out simple. Neill didn't want the color to have a transformative effect on the film. A big discussion early on was how much the look would change the photography he already had as the story unfolded. With that in mind, I took a pretty subtle color-grading approach. The guiding theme for everything was the idea of two worlds: the world of Earth and the world of Elysium, looking 150 years into the future. We had to decide what the play between those two was going to look like. We spent a bit of time playing with Elysium, making it look very sci-fi, very poppy and saturated and glossy. And then we played with Earth to make it the complete opposite, totally gritty and desaturated. We could give Earth a filtered effect, almost like bleach bypass, and then see how that played. We started color-grading a bit early in the process. The cut was still going, and we started conforming the show about two months before the show actually locked. It was a gift. We had the luxury of working over a number of months on the DI. We'd be a day on and a day off, or a couple hours on and a couple hours off. It allowed us to try some crazy things, with the knowledge that we would take a step back and return to it the next day.
You'd come back to it when your eyes weren't so tired.
We might decide that Earth was starting to look too crushed and filtered-looking, so we'd pull back. You're combing through the film until you get the balance between those two worlds just right. We needed a lot of time because we needed to step away and come back with fresh eyes. Starting early on while they were still cutting, Neill could step away from that environment, where he was looking at dailies color, and come into the DI suite and be in a whole new world where he could take the opportunity to experiment with some looks and further articulate his vision. He called it an honest approach — he wanted the image to feel honest and not like it had been graded. That's a tricky order. It's easy to make everything look cool and contrasty. You can hide behind that. And day by day, we'd get more shots with new VFX elements involved. It was interesting to see how the project evolved through grading. It almost got to where his original vision was, but I think he was able to approach a few different environments in ways he wouldn't have imagined originally because of the time we had to play around with them.
It must have been a relief to be on that kind of schedule.
We work on a ton of different projects where we're told, "You have five days to color-grade this film." Or, "You have two weeks, but the director's not going to be there after the first day." When i looked at the schedule, I knew I wanted this film to look as perfect as possible, and I also knew it was only going to get there if we were in a relaxed environment. Neill's style is very relaxed. He let me get my own grounding with the images before our sessions. A really interesting approach for the DI process in general would be to see if you could back it up into the editing stage a little bit more and get the feeling worked out then. If the pressure's off in the beginning, you might uncover a direction that you might never have imagined [on a tight deadline].
Another interesting thing is that we used ACES color for the project, although it wasn't integrated on set. The shoot took place in 2011, so ACES was still kind of in beta. We were testing it on a TV series at the time. But on our next project we have the opportunity to do that, and it will be interesting to see how that influences the process even more deeply, making it more efficient and allowing you to go farther down those creative avenues. For any director, it's a dream to be able to separate from the technical aspects and just focus on the creative process. Neill said, "The DI is the most relaxing part of my day."
Tell usabout your DI suite. Did you use the Baselight?
We are primarily a Baselight facility and that's my tool of choice. We started with Baselight HD and upgraded it over the last few years. We have a 2K Christie projector just because of the size of our room. It's not huge. We are actually building a bigger screen across the street from our facility, but I like to work in a smaller environment just because it allows you to talk with everyone in the room. It's not as intimidating as a big theatrical space, but it's big enough to get the feel of theatrical projection. About five or six times along the way we took test footage to our local Cineplex [a Canadian theater chain] and saw it projected on the AVX silver screen. That enabled us to make a few shifts along the way. We have a Dolby PRM monitor that we use for all of our video deliverables, and it was used for the trim pass on all of the Elysium HD and Ultra HD versions. We also have a Dolby digital cinema mastering system that lets us create DCPs and DCDMs in house. 
You said the Baselight is your tool of choice. What do you like about it?
We did a little science fair with four or five different [color-grading] systems. It was pretty crazy to have them all in the same room at our luxury. The vendors didn't all seem happy about that, but Filmlight didn't seem to care. I have to say that just sitting at the Blackboard [control surface] is a major part of the experience. The Blackboard becomes an extension of you. To me, it was the most obvious fit when i sat down. And everyone looks at the same image on screen. There are no GUIs on screen when the client is in the room. They're really able to just watch their movie, and they're not distracted by the toolset. That was the most seamless experience, and it was the kind of experience I wanted to create for my clients in the room. You don't have to interact with the interface to get what everyone wants to see quickly. You don't feel like there are any barriers between you and your work, and that's the key to a really great grading system.
What cameras were used to shoot the film?
Some parts of the film were shot with the Canon 5D and helmet-cams, but most of it was shot anamorphic on the Red Epic. The Epic is a 5K camera, but Elysium shot 3.3K in the end. The scope aspect ratio is 3296×1350 [squeezed down from 3296×2700 when recorded anamorphically] so we worked in 3.3K and upres'd it to 4K. That was a pretty small step up, and it shows up very well. It was amazing on a huge screen — I'm quite impressed with Red at this point, and what they're able to do with their cameras.
Did any individual scenes or sequences constitute a special challenge?
The blending of visual effects is always going to be a challenge. One of the major scenes in the film is essentially a heist scene, where you see Matt Damon in physical combat with a droid. That scene is probably the most challenging in the whole film. It was shot in an open-air space in Mexico City that I've come to learn was, effectively, the dump. It's an area on the edge of the city right by a big slum. They would be shooting in locations called Poo River [as it was nicknamed by the crew on set] — they were probably unfathomable working conditions. There was a high degree of action with really quick cuts, and the actual scene was shot over the course of three days with pretty drastic light shifts. One day there was a cast of smog coming in, and then they'd be shooting with choppers in place of the cool airborne vehicles they would eventually put in, kicking up dust, and that creates its own issue for air quality and variations in the sky between different shots. I was able to add some color to the sky and redirect the light a little bit and shape it as the scene progressed. And then the guy in the grey suit doing the action eventually turns into a droid as part of the VFX process. Getting all of that to play like one scene was the greatest challenge. That would be the only scene where we used mattes in the whole film, just to tweak the color on the droid to get it just right. I'm proud of it. I got to see it raw, when it was cutting from sunset to morning to dust in the air to no dust and now, hopefully, it plays like a seamless scene. And it's one of the most interesting things visually in the film. You put Matt Damon and Sharlto Copley in this disgusting environment, but it is so interesting visually. It's Mad Max-like. It's not a desert, and it doesn't look like a foreign planet. It's Earth, and there are these crazy vehicles in that environment. The scene is unique. It was extremely complex, and it definitely needed the attention we gave it in the end.