Yesterday was grading day (take two) for the pilot. Although Pogo Films did a great job for us last year, grading it for the Sci-Fi London screening, yesterday’s experience at Pepper Post was on a whole new level.
The grade took place in a very swanky state-of-the-art DI (Digital Intermediate) suite, like a mini cinema with a screen about 25x10ft, several comfy armchairs and a big control desk with lots of monitors and impressive-looking twiddly bits. The only thing that was missing was a Thunderbird 5 style reel-to-reel tape recorder whirring away in the background. When Carl and I arrived, colourist Alex had already imported the project and applied the Look-Up Table (LUT). Since we were grading in the digital domain (not to be confused with Digital Domain, Cameron fans), the LUT is a filter which allows us to preview how the images will look when printed to film. The raw scanned film frames that we have been dealing with up to now are very low contrast, retaining all the detail from the negative. Applying the LUT immediately restored the contrast and colour saturation, making the footage look a million dollars before we’d even started grading.
I was delighted to finally see the full resolution material on a big screen for the first time. Full resolution is 2048×1556 pixels (a.k.a. 2K) which, although large, didn’t feel large enough when I looked at the images on my computer. More than once I thought, “Surely I’m going to see the invidual pixels when this is projected on a big screen.” But that wasn’t the case at all. I could walk right up to it there in Pepper’s suite and it still looked great – you could just see more film grain. Mmmmmm, film grain.
It was easy to see why Carl has always been so keen for potential financiers to see it on the big screen, and not on a DVD or a web page. It’s a completely different experience and one that I think will blow people away.
After the initial admiration of the large and lovely images, it was time to get down to work and make them even more lovely. The look I wanted to achieve was markedly different from the one I chose last year. That first grade was warmed up considerably, to bring out the wood and earth tones in the set and costumes, and overall it was quite bright. I was probably too close to the project, still in love with the fantastic production design (and still all too aware of how much it had cost to put on screen) and wanted to make sure that every last detail of it could be seen. But, as Carl wisely said to me, no matter how brilliant your design is, it will look even better if it’s dark and shadowy and your imagination has to fill in the gaps. Not to mention the fact that these scenes are set on the DARK side of the earth, not the bright, overlit, prime-time ITV1 side of the earth. (Catchy sequel title, methinks.)
And I do here wish to lament the effect that eleven years of freelancing on corporate videos has had on me. When I started my career, I lit and graded even the most mundane of corporates in a moody, cinematic style. But over the years, the many complaints from clients that it’s too dark have worn me down to the point that I’m now almost as afraid of shadows as they are. So yesterday it was a pleasure, a joy and thing of beauty to bring the shadows to the Dark Side of the Earth.
Once again, muchos complimentos must go to Oliver Downey, director of photography, whose great work we have finally done justice to. But the hero of the hour was undoubtedly Alex, who worked swiftly and skillfully to bring the best out of every shot. It’s very impressive to watch how quickly he can track and isolate an element – Benedict’s face within the porthole of his helmet, for example – and grade that separately to the rest of the image.
So big thanks to Helle, Ben, Alex and everyone at Pepper who was so generous with their time and treated us so well, including the runners who occasionally slipped in to supply teas and coffees, struggling not to stumble and fall in the near-pitch darkness of the grading suite. And Alex’s work is not done yet, as he still has to paint out all the scratches and address a couple of other issues before delivering the data to Cinesite, who will soon be shooting the material out onto film.
And finally, why did Screen West Midlands reject our latest application for development money? Because the script is too good. Yes, that’s right. The script is too good, apparently. It doesn’t need any signficant development. Last time I applied it was too bad, too bad even to merit money being spent on developing it to make it better. And now it is too good.
Well, Screen West Midlands may think that, but everyone else who’s read it still thinks there’s room for improvement. And since Quay, the script editor Carl introduced me to in Cannes, has agreed to help out, I’m starting a new draft next week.