My experience with visual effects movies was in the pre-digital era. I was very fortunate to work on classics like Blade Runner and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, shooting second-unit for visual effects genius Douglas Trumbull. My first real experience with digital VFX as Director of Photography was Stuart Little 2, where the characters were animated and placed into the live action. That process was amazing, but was still (in 2002) in a very early stage of refinement. I recall meetings we had with the production designer, VFX supervisor, producer, and director, where we all went to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles to look at dead falcons. No one had done feather work prior to that film, and the VFX vendor needed to learn how to create digital feathers.
One of the most important takeaways from Stuart Little 2 was my realization that I needed to color-grade each background plate before it was composited with VFX. It was essential for the compositor to know what the color was going to be in the final assembly – if we had to change the background color in the digital intermediate (only the third film to use a DI at that time) after marrying the VFX, it would also change the foreground, and the color of our white hero mouse. I was able to work closely with Sony Imageworks to color-time each plate, on film, before it went to the compositor, ensuring a workflow that would protect the project’s look and be consistent all the way through to release.
In today’s world, where both live action and CG animation are in the digital space, we can do that same process as we are shooting, guaranteeing a consistency of the intent of the image all the way through postproduction. But up until very recently, that was not an easy task, living in what I would describe as the “dark ages of digital filmmaking.”
In fact, when it comes to digital moviemaking, my mantra has been consistent for the last twenty years: we need to create an end-to-end, device-independent color-management system. That’s been the goal of every technologist and digital artist since the dawn of the digital age. Of course we have been getting closer and closer, and now, with the soon-to-be launch of ACES 1.0 (Academy Color Encoding System) at this year’s NAB Show in Las Vegas, we have taken a giant leap toward achieving that “holy grail,” that end-to-end, device-independent color-management workflow that I, and so many others, have been seeking.
ACES means we can have color management from the set that will be attached to each digital file and travel throughout the postproduction pipeline. So when we, as cinematographers, see yet another project with five to ten post houses and VFX vendors, we can feel secure (with ACES) that there won’t be confusion among the vendors, or that each house will be applying its own “secret sauce,” potentially altering the creative intent that originated on set with the cinematographer and director.
The process will be standardized to such a degree that the image we all see and labor so much toward perfecting on the set will indeed be the same vision that appears at the end of the pipeline, up on the screen.
That’s a very exciting proposition, to finally have all our digital feathers perfectly flocked together, exactly as they would appear in the real world.
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600