Color By Numbers

MPI’S Maxine Gervais breaks down a new post workflow for Pacific Rim

By ICG Staff. All frame grab images courtesy of Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures.

It was a tough summer for Hollywood blockbusters. Many failed to live up to the sky-high box office expectations imposed by the massive budgets of today’s VFX-heavy franchise projects. Pacific Rim, produced by Chris Nolan’s Legendary Pictures, and released by Warner Bros. was one such casualty, although that wasn’t for any lack of effort on the part of the film’s dynamic creative team, which included Oscar-nominated writer/director Guillermo del Toro and Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC. Set in the near future, the world of Pacific Rim is under threat by huge invaders who come from beneath the sea. Mankind’s only hope is the Jaeger, a giant robot that takes two human brains linked together to operate.

Although critics and audiences may not have fully noticed, Pacific Rim was revolutionary in many respects, not the least of which was its use of highly saturated colors, and a spontaneous, filmmaker-friendly post workflow headed up by Maxine Gervais, colorist at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging.

Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost

Originally from Quebec, Gervais studied fine arts in school, where she also developed a passion for lighting and texturing. Her work eventually brought her to Hollywood and work on a number of highly successful movies, including Book of Eli and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Gervais has been a lead colorist at MPI since 2009.

All the live action on Pacific Rim was shot on RED cameras at 4K resolution for a 2K finish but, as Gervais describes, “the look was set in a digital setup and needed to be translated into film with the same bold statement. They were going for a very poppy look, where digital spectrum would allow such latitude.”

Del Toro and his team also decided, during production, to make a 3D version of the movie. Given the massive scale of the project, the workflow needed to be nailed tightly down. For Gervais, this meant getting a clear idea of the intentions of the director and cinematographer.

Maxine Gervais, Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI)

“I took my laptop Baselight on set,” she recalls, “and made sure I was using all the right color curves, to sync up with where Guillermo [Navarro] was going. He loved the tests, and that’s how I got the gig.

“When I did the first pass,” she continues, “I showed it to Guillermo del Toro and got notes from him, but they were somewhat minimal and very much on the same page as Navarro. They gave me a lot of freedom and once I knew what they were reacting to I could predict and work to that.”

“I was working with Maxine for weeks and we quickly established a common language that maximized the nature of the colors and depth of blacks I wanted,” Del Toro adds. “We were seeking a very strong, graphic look, almost painterly. By the end of the process, Maxine and I had developed almost instant communication. The color coding of the film is very strong and specific and we achieved it thoroughly.”

Ron Perlman (F) as Hannibal Chau

Gervais was determined to maintain the high quality of the RAW camera output throughout. With Baselight EIGHT, she ran comprehensive trials on the de-Bayering algorithms, i.e., setting up the way she wanted the processed files to look precisely and then making sure the conversions in RED tools achieved exactly the same results.

“I verified everything in real time inside Baselight, and if I had to pull scenes really quickly then I could just load the RED plug-in and do it in real time,” she explains. “Baselight was always the reference, and was the guide if we did anything outside.”

Much of the movie depends on detailed effects layers, produced by VFX vendor Industrial Light & Magic. The live action plates were quality confirmed and de-Bayered by Gervais, but shipped up to ILM as RAW EXR files: nothing was pre-timed. The enhanced workflow allowed for dynamic zooms or repositioning, which meant shots could be adjusted when they came back from ILM, along with the color grading. Del Toro says he liked the flexibility of being able to create dynamic repos and zoom on the fly. And if needed it could be baked in and sent to Stereo D for the 3D pass.

“There are a lot of saturated colors in some of the scenes,” Gervais notes, “and it is great to be that saturated but still maintain good skin tones. The Baselight workflow was helpful in that it gave me the ability to easily create separation between colors.”

In fact, Gervais worked with a color science engineer from MPI (supported by FilmLight) to create a smooth workflow. “We created a LUT as a grade,” she says by way of as an example. “I just kept it in the timeline – a minimal thing but very helpful. If it didn’t work for a scene it was easy to just throw it out, but it was a good starting point.”

Gervais was on the movie for close to a year, including two months of full-time coloring. “All the effects shots came as composites, but it was easy for me to create mattes if I needed them,” she adds. “During the production process we also switched to 3D, which needed individual tweaks from the 2D grade. I wore 3D glasses, and relied on Baselight to give me two 2K files in real time – that’s 4K real-time playback with stacks of color and floating windows. I also did a scene-by-scene compare between 2D and 3D, to make sure all translated perfectly.”

Stereo grading is a standard capability in Baselight, and for Pacific Rim the tools were used intensively, including a large number of floating windows. “We had about a gazillion,” Gervais laughs. “And a very structured workflow to keep track.”

Gervais says the essence of a successful outcome was having the ability to provide real-time processing. “Nothing was baked in,” she continues. “It was all done in real time – with clients watching, you need to be able to do it and play it, whether it’s 2K or 4K, it has to be real time.

“Baselight was definitely the right tool for this show,” she concludes. “It gave me everything I needed – nothing was missing. We used it all the way through, from conform to final grade, and even for some small visual effects. Everything was in Baselight, in terms of the DI.”