Stephen Nakamura, one of a handful of artists who helped to pioneer DI color grading, shares his experience on creating the look for Prometheus as envisioned by director Ridley Scott.
Stephen Nakamura is one of a handful of artists who helped to pioneer DI color grading. He has worked with a list of "A" directors and cinematographers including Martin Scorsese and Michael Ballhaus (The Departed), Quentin Tarantino and Robert Richardson (Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Kill Bill: Vol 2), and Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski (The Terminal) as well as Ridley Scott (Robin Hood, Prometheus). He also performed final grading for Scorsese's The Aviator, which won Richardson a Best Cinematography Oscar, and Kathryn Bigelow's Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker.
Nakamura got his start in DI work at Technicolor Digital Services, and was previously a colorist with The Post Group working on commercial, music video, television and feature film projects. He began his career at California Video Center.
He used Blackmagic Design's Resolve for the Digital Intermediate of Prometheus, which opens today.
Ridley Scott directs Noomi Rapace on the set of Prometheus. Photo Kerry Brown.
My work on Prometheus with [director] Ridley Scott began last year, with some of the effects shots. Ridley usually likes to set color for visual effects plates in advance so everyone involved knows what they're supposed to look like. So we really started the overall process late last year with a "looks" session, doing preliminary color on numerous shots from different scenes in the movie that were going to be VFX-heavy. Almost every day we had a VFX session and made color adjustments until Ridley approved the look.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who shot the movie with the RED Epic, was also able to work with us on the DI. We had some virtual sessions where I would make adjustments from my DI theater at Company 3 in Santa Monica and they could watch the progress of looks in real time from the 20th Century Fox lot. We were all very much in synch as to how important elements such as the spaceship and the planet would look. Once we set the looks, we could use that as the basis for how to give those elements a uniform look throughout the movie.
Dariusz had previously used the RED Epic to shoot Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, so he's very experienced with using that camera, which makes a world of difference. No matter how sophisticated the camera technology is, there's no substitute for a cinematographer who thoroughly understands the tools. It's a very stressful situation for a cinematographer to make sure they hit the exposure in a way that lets the images hold up, even if they're going to be manipulated significantly in post. It's generally understood that you want to avoid overexposure with digital cameras because highlights can clip to a point where they're irretrievable. However, it can also be very difficult to work with shadow information that is underexposed. The Epic has a considerable amount of latitude but it was also extremely helpful that Dariusz had done so much testing of the camera and knew exactly how its sensors respond to light.
The spaceship Prometheus makes its way to a distant planet. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.
Prometheus is also literally a dark movie. A lot happens in shadowy areas, but when you're talking about light and dark in the frame, it's all relative. There's a big difference between a picture looking dark versus "crushed." When you still see details in the black, such as a character walking with navy blue or black pants and you can see their legs moving and you see separation between the black of the picture and the images in it, your brain is satisfied that the scene is dark but doesn't feel crushed - as if you're missing something you should be seeing. The Godfather, for example, is dark, but not crushed. As long as your brain sees detail among objects that are dark, you're okay. If you want to see something and it's not there, that's a whole different issue. If you can see the detail, you can go with the story. If you don't, it can pull you out of the story.
That's how I approach color correction with dark scenes. In the caves, I was always aware that Dariusz captured the shadow detail and that even though it's super dark, the audience has to be able to see it. You can't have the viewer struggle to see detail.
Noomi Rapace (left) and Kate Dickie with David (Michael Fassbender in the background) explore the Ampule room. When you're talking about light and dark in the frame, it's all relative. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.
I also used Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve's aperture correction function to selectively sharpen just certain areas of the frame. Sometimes Ridley really likes to use it on specific objects or areas to draw the viewer's attention, and he's used that throughout his movies, including Body of Lies and Robin Hood, both of which I did the DI work on. It's a way to enhance the illusion of depth of field for certain parts of the shot he wants you to focus more on, whether it's something in the actor's eyes or an object in the foreground. It worked nicely in the previous 2D movies but in an interesting way, it also helps enhance the 3D effect when we use it on Prometheus, in the sense that it almost fakes the viewer into seeing a more limited depth of field.
You can see how we used this in the Prometheus trailer. David (played by Michael Fassbender) is in the cave and all of a sudden he has this lit hologram world around him where he sees the universe, with stars and planets.
Top, Aboard an alien vessel, David (Michael Fassbender) makes a discovery that could have world-changing consequences. Image just above, a stunning star field fills a cavernous alien spaceship. Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.
The aperture correction in the foreground makes you focus more on the objects in the foreground. It gives more depth of focus and makes the viewer pull forward. You feel the effect more with the 3D glasses, and he really did it for the 3D version of the movie more than the 2D. I had to back up on the effect for the 2D version. A lot of the movie was designed for 3D; that's where the experience is.
What sets the DI for Prometheus apart was the fact that we completed six different deliverables. A big 3D movie adds to the deliverables, and you definitely want to maximize the look of each in the DI. We started with the 3D version, and when we finished with it, the 2D came fast and furious. We had to do a 2D translation and make sure we were keeping the feel that Ridley wanted, but not making it too bright. The 2D looks completely different from the 3D, because there are inherent differences in the two kinds of projection systems. In 2D, the screen can get a whole lot brighter than it can using current 3D technology, and that impacts the entire contrast and overall look of every shot. Also, by the time the 2D version rolled around, Ridley was back in London and very busy. He and Dariusz had to trust me and the editor Pietro Scalia to carry through the concept and feel from the 3D to the 2D environment.
A monolithic figure towers over the explorers of a distant planet. Photo: Kerry Brown.
My biggest challenge was maintain Ridley's vision throughout all these deliverables. We graded for different 3D projection systems, one that can put approximately both 4 foot-lamberts, the other 6 foot-lamberts, of light on the screen. We also mastered to 2D for digital cinema (a DCP version) and did another for film-out. We also had to create another one for IMAX, which has an entirely different aspect ratio. We also had to approve all IMAX prints, and there was IMAX digital and IMAX film. So that made for six versions of the film. Then of course there's the Blu-ray and DVD.
We started the workflow for grading the multiple 3D versions with the less-bright 4 foot-lambert version, grading that all the way through. Once that was done, then it's easy to do the 6 foot-lambert version; it's just about pushing more light through when projecting it onto the screen. Some shots that may be on the verge of being clipped, looking totally blown out, in 4 foot-lamberts won't look that way when projected at 6 foot-lamberts. Basically, anything that looks good projected at 4 foot-lamberts will generally look better projected at 6. It still requires some fine-tuning, but it certainly makes a lot more sense than grading for 6 first. So much of what looks good projected that way will look terrible at 4. We also based the 2D master on the 4 foot-lambert 3D master and made refinements for 2D's much brighter projection systems. For the IMAX version, the color remains the same, but it involves panning-and-scanning to accommodate the aspect ratio.
The 4 foot-lambert 3D version is for all the theatres with the projectors that can only push through that amount of light. The more light you can push through for 3D, the better. But in the DI suite, without glasses, the standard is 14 foot-lamberts. That's why, if you look at the 2D first, the 3D looks dark. But the 3D projectors are getting better. That's why they're asking for the 6 foot-lambert version. That's not completely new, but it's always dangerous to do only a 6 foot-lambert version. If you do a DI at 6 foot-lamberts and the theatre only has the ability to project 4 foot-lamberts, then it'll look really muddy. You have to maximize your color first for the lowest light level and then if they can do the 6 foot-lamberts, you give them the option.
That's not the only aspect that makes doing a 3D grade challenging. During the DI, we're also handling a lot of the convergence issues to ensure that the left and right "eyes" work together properly for the 3D effect. This is also a function of the Resolve and we do this in conjunction with an assistant who specializes in convergence.
Company 3's Digital Intermediate (DI): preparing content for Cinema
Yes, the production does set convergence between the two cameras during shooting, but some of those choices may not work perfectly when the film is edited together and projected on a big screen. It doesn't really make sense to fine-tune convergence any earlier because before you get into the DI theater, everyone is looking at a small monitor as opposed to looking at it on a giant screen in a dark room with 3D glasses. It's a completely different experience, and the DI suite is much closer to how it will look in movie theaters. When the material is finally in the DI suite, you also see how all the shots interact with one another, and you can find that you have to push some object in for one shot or pull it back in the next in order to make the whole scene flow smoothly and not cause eye strain for the viewer.
Sean Santiago, who handled convergence issues with the camera rigs on set, came into Company 3 starting with the VFX sessions and supervised the work we did at Company 3 fine-tuning the convergence in post. They have full sessions fixing everything from shot to shot and doing dissolves and making sure it all looks right. At the end, our stereography department merges the convergence files with my color files.
Color grading a big 3D movie is really challenging for everyone involved and takes a lot of work. Right after finishing Prometheus, I started on two others: Oz: The Great and Powerful, directed by Sam Raimi and shot by Peter Deming and Jack the Giant Killer with Bryan Singer directing and Newton Thomas Sigel shooting.
It can be a lot of fun working on these big 3D features, but it can be very challenging. Instead of making something look as good as I can make it for one viewing environment, I have to make it work equally well in multiple environments that all handle the properties of color, light and dark differently.
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