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On Star Trek Into Darkness, VFX producer Ron Ames was concerned about standardizing color information between production company Bad Robot and the VFX companies ILM and Pixomondo as well as DI facility Company 3. The solution was installing Dolby's PRM-4200, a professional reference monitor that can be calibrated so that every one shows the exact same color. In this article, Ames and Pixomondo VFX supervisor Ben Grossman talk about how the Dolby Professional Reference Monitor improved the workflow and gave them the confidence that everyone was seeing the same thing.
Do you see what I see? That's the burning question in every visual effects facility when it comes to knowing if what they see on their monitor is what the director or producer sees on his. That's because everyone is looking at dailies or VFX shots on wildly different, usually uncalibrated screens as diverse as hotel room TVs, iPads and prosumer flat-screen TV receivers. Since the demise of the CRT monitor, the lack of a monitor that can be calibrated to a standard has been the Achilles heel of the post production workflow.
That's the situation that faced Ron Ames, who was the VFX producer for Bad Robot
and Paramount Pictures
on Star Trek Into Darkness
. "I work with people in VFX who are extremely color sensitive, so I've had a long concern with color," he says. "It became very clear to me as a VFX producer that the viewing environment is very important going forward. Color should be non-destructive, that is, color is something that VFX should not destroy. But at the same time, we have to work with some idea of how it's going to look and fit into the movie."
Ames decided to give the Dolby
PRM-4200 monitor a try, using it to standardize color between Bad Robot and its in-house VFX facility, VFX vendors ILM
(the lead VFX house), Pixomondo
and DI house Company 3
. [Atomic Fiction
was the fourth VFX vendor, but did not have a Dolby monitor installed.] The Dolby PRM-4200 monitor, released in 2010 after nearly three years of R&D, is based on the company's patented dual modulation process. A direct backlight of over 4,500 RGB LEDs is modulated on a per-LED basis; the monitor is also 14-bits in depth.
"The Dolby monitor is the closest I've seen to viewing in a theatre," says Ames. For that reason, he decided to give the Dolby PRM-4200 a leading role in the VFX and post production workflow. "This way, we could put the monitor in-house and at the other facilities and we could all look at the footage and know that, color-wise, it was exactly what it should be," he says.
From Ames' point of view, the monitor was not simply for the process of creating VFX but for several points in the workflow. "From the beginning, it was clear that dailies are important, not throwaways," he says. "Color is becoming important earlier and earlier in the process. When I start a movie, it's something I try to set up at the very beginning between the lab, VFX and editorial: what is the standard going to be, what color information will be carried through."
Ron Ames, the VFX producer for Bad Robot and Paramount Pictures on Star Trek Into Darkness.
A.S.C. cinematographer Dan Mindel's dailies went to FotoKem
, which gave the production a file with dailies color information. "For every shot, we'd get a LUT which we'd sent to the VFX company with the scan so they knew what the color values were and they'd be able to apply that," says Ames. "We could apply it to everything in the movie and it would fall right back into the cut."
According to Ames, Star Trek Into Darkness
VFX supervisor Roger Guyett [who was also ILM's VFX supervisor] did much of his screening in Bad Robot's digital screening room, outfitted with a Barco
DLP projector. "We would look at our VFX there," says Ames. "But there was one screening room and sometimes it was busy. To look at works-in-progress in the screening room wasn't always possible." Dolby installed and calibrated the monitors at ILM, Pixomondo and Company 3, says Ames. "Once Dolby set up the monitors, the dials stay very closely calibrated," he says.
Above, Pixomondo visual effects supervisor Ben Grossman and top, Klingon warrior. (©2013 Paramount Pictures.)
in Los Angeles handled nearly 400 shots, says visual effects supervisor Ben Grossman, including three big sequences: the conference room attack on the Starship Enterprise at the beginning of the movie, the planet Kronos and the Klingons, and when Spock climbs into the warp core and dies of radiation poisoning. Although Grossman hadn't used the Dolby PRM-4200 monitor before, he'd read about it and was up for a means to achieve a unified color management.
"That's why on this project, it was pretty exciting to use the monitor," says Grossman. "It gave us the convenience and locality of the old CRT broadcast monitors but adds an enhanced dynamic range so you can look at a film range rather than a broadcast range - and in a package that's small enough that you don't need a half a million dollar theatre build-out."
Prior to the Dolby PRM-4200, says Grossman, "the only way we could be assured we were all looking at the same thing was to have a known calibrated studio-grade projector, which costs $100,000 to $500,000." "They take up a lot of space and cost a lot of money," he says. "And you don't know what kind of screen they're using. So everyone had $200,000 projectors but even then we couldn't be 100 percent sure."
Although Pixomondo is located practically next door to Bad Robot -- which allowed Grossman to attend screenings there -- he notes that the facilities that worked on Star Trek Into Darkness
were far-flung. "At the same time they stopped making CRT monitors, the film industry became more global," Grossman points out. "On Hugo
, I was reviewing shots from facilities in five countries around the world, and never had a concrete way of resolving how or if the monitors are calibrated. We would say to one facility, It looks too dark, and they'd say, you're crazy, it's way too bright here. So it's a frustrating moment where you have to say, if I think the image is too cold and you think it's too warm, someone has to calibrate the monitor. When Dolby came out with this monitor, it resolved that issue."
Grossman points to the scene on Kronos with Klingons that Pixomondo worked on as an example of what could have happened without the calibrated Dolby monitors. "Kronos is a very dark atmosphere," he says. "A lot of what we were trying to do is hide Klingons or Starfleet officers so they're buried in atmosphere and coming out of the shadows. If you don't look at it with the most perfect calibration, then the storytelling changes. If the monitor [the producer is watching on] is too bright, we'll get the note that they can see the Klingon and it's not a reveal when he comes out. So when monitors are not calibrated, we get flawed notes if you're not all looking at the same thing."
Pixomondo built a special room with a computer that could drive the Dolby monitor so that any artist in the building could log into their computer and see their shots actively on the monitor. "Any artist worried about color on his shot could go in and see exactly how it would appear," says Grossman. "Additionally supervisors like myself could do shot reviews for dailies. Sometimes it was easier and better than going into the theatre; we could control the session in a faster, more lightweight way."
©2013 Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Pixomondo.
Even when people involved in the process didn't use the Dolby monitor, they relied on it to double-check the work. "We could have cineSync
reviews or take notes on a laptop at Starbucks, and then check it on the Dolby back at the office," says Grossman, who reports the Dolby monitor was also used for Pixomondo's work on After Earth
. "That happened a lot. Sometimes we thought the projector in the theatre shifted in color -- rather than get it re-calibrated, we could just run into the Dolby room. So it doesn't matter if someone else has the monitor -- it matters that the images we're sending out are kosher."
Ames notes that the Dolby monitor enabled them all to catch issues that might have slipped by otherwise. "It became very subtle, like the reflection on a white surface from a greenscreen," he says. "You take away the greenscreen and put in the blue sky but you can see a small edge on a hairline or a green reflection. It's very subtle attention to that level of detail is what makes it or breaks it, and the Dolby PRM-4200 really helped."
He points out the folly of using a prosumer monitor to judge "very expensive, labor-intensive VFX. " "These are very complex shots created by talented artists," he says. "When you're creating the universe of Star Trek
, it has to look real. It's like a detective's job to find what doesn't look right and if you're not looking at it in an unreliable way, you're getting wrong information
©2013 Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Pixomondo.
Ideally, says Ames, the methodology of carrying color from beginning to end starts on the set. "In my dream world, we'd have a Dolby monitor like this on set in a prominent place where color decisions could be made, and it would follow through dailies through VFX until the end," he says. "I would have the entire process be like this if I could. One of the benefits is that all filmmakers, including the editors, fall in love with the film they're looking at, whether the color is right or not."
©2013 Paramount Pictures.
This is a color-centric version of the well-known phenomenon of "temp music love," in which a director becomes attached to whatever temporary music is used as a holding place. Ames suggests that correcting color early on in the production process allows the early footage to be used for test screenings and trailers. "It's no longer a serial process," he says. "I would say that, as technology becomes more and more immediate, it becomes more and more important. When you see an image that's really magnificent compared to one not so great, you can see it clearly. It becomes a perception of the issue and a storytelling issue, because it really affects the audience."
Ames is already looking ahead to how he will manage the color pipeline on the next film he's working on, another blockbuster that is likely to utilize 10 to 12 VFX vendors and have even more visual effects. "That will be a really interesting situation to figure out how we get it so everyone is looking at the same thing," he says. "It starts with the DP on set, what he wants to look like. It becomes my sacred trust and duty to carry the look that the director and DP create until the end."
Workflow is a topic of discussion in the industry, for good reason. With so many cameras, formats and special requirements, every production has to create its own workflow. Whereas the basic workflow may be a snowflake -- no two alike -- VFX supervisors and artists as well as the director and cinematographer would like one part of that workflow to become standardized and stable. A unified color management is the goal, and the Dolby PRM-4200 monitor is one very solid step in that direction.