Mad Max: Fury Road – The Ultimate Digital Intermediate

The Mad Max: Fury Road shoot was long and arduous and eventually lost a dimension when 3D was delayed to a post process. The DI became a huge eight month process and was much more than a colour statement.

“First and foremost my role on the film was the colourist. But it was a little different, there was a lot of work trying to come up with looks trying to keep the film interesting.” Eric Whipp was the colourist on Mad Max: Fury Road. “The film is shot essentially along one giant road in the desert. So it could get very visually boring with the same look throughout the whole movie. Further to that George (Miller - the director) said, rightly so, since he made Mad Max he has watched other post apocalyptic films over the years and says they pretty much do the same thing, they all have a de-saturated bleached look on them. So for Fury Road he was adamant about not going down that route and in fact wanted to do the opposite and make it a saturated film.

“The  whole concept of the film has always been about being based on a graphic novel so that was essentially the brief to keep it as graphic as possible and give it a rich, colourful graphic novel feel. If the film had that de-saturated bleach feel I think it would be very boring to watch after about the first hour. 

“I started over a year ago with the movie, I came down to Sydney in February 2014 and started setting looks with George then. At that point there was somewhat of an assembly of the film and we were ready to actually get in to it. I live in Canada so I essentially took the film with me over the next eight to 10 months whenever I had time because one of the things we knew going in to the film were the ‘day for night’ sequences were going to be very tricky and were going to need a lot of time and a lot of massaging. 

“On a  typical film you’re given your four weeks at the end of the film to grade the movie. We knew we needed at least two months to do the ‘day for nights’ so it was kind of a bit of a pleasure to have so much time to work on a film and just be able to chip away at it whenever we can. That also gives you a good chance to revise it and try and make it better  if you don’t like it as much as you did. Which is great.

“The process is almost like a two stage thing, coming up with the looks was just a lot of experimenting and trying different things. We knew certain scenes had their own struggles and their own looks, we would try and develop that and once we were happy with that then it is essentially a frame by frame thing. There is a lot of detail we put in to the grade, it might be roto’ing somebody’s eyeballs or sharpening or something just to get in to their eyes or there were plenty of times within the film where we had changed skies - we did a lot of the sky replacements in colour. It came down to trying to get that look working. One of the things we found on this film was that  purposefully the art direction had been very bland in terms of colour. I mean the art direction isn’t bland on the film but in terms of colour everything has been designed very much beige and a neutral tone. On purpose there were no vibrant colours, no one is walking around in red dresses anything like that, it’s all very neutral. But we wanted a saturated look for the film. You have sand and neutral tones and that’s all we really have to work with so the only other real colour we have to work with was the sky. So whenever we could we would try and push that and get a really rich and graphic sky. 

“Having shot almost six months in the desert in different weather conditions and also in Namibia they have this strange fog that comes in, in the morning then clears up and goes blue sky. So it’s very difficult to match a lot of the scenes as the weather was all over the place. 

“One of the things that really helped was actually replacing a lot of the skies. We started off trying to do it just through grading by just keying out the sky and little bit and wash it blue but it looked like a bad 1990s music video or something like it. So we said what if we actually change the sky and then we can actually position clouds exactly where we want them and come up with more of a graphic image. The beauty of doing that in the grade is that George can change it at any time, he can position the sky, he can switch the sky, we can grade the skies interactively with the scene.” 

Continuous Process

“You can’t use this kind of process on every film. If this was a Rom Com for instance it might be a different look. But for this kind of graphic film it’s a very good way of working. There a lot of work that gets done with the colour but it’s really a collaboration. John Seale shot an amazing digital negative to work from, there’s a lot of latitude in it. It’s probably as good as you can get on the set considering all the lighting conditions and everything he had to work with and the time constraints they had. Then visual effects are enhancing things as well and so the collaboration between visual effects and colour and cinematography. They all go hand in hand. We’re all trying to achieve that graphic frame.

“They shot this film with 3,500 storyboards to work from so every time they’re framing a shot it’s like framing up that graphic storyboard frame. When it comes to me I try and think what can I do to make it graphic. So you are doing a fair amount of so called ‘Digital Lighting’ in the colour suite but it’s all for the common good  and everybody’s on board with the process and I think it works quite well. 

“So they shot everything first and spent a bit time assembling a cut and I came in once we had one of the first rough cuts. I did a little bit of testing earlier on but really only started once the cut was done. The cut was forever evolving as well, we were constantly changing looks almost chasing our tails a little bit trying to find the right thing. It’s all part of the development process.”   

Day for night scenes were a massive challenge for the DP and DI .

Day for night scenes were a massive challenge for the DP and DI .

Day For Night

“There’s also a lot of work in collaboration with visual effects, the night scene is a good example which was all shot ‘day for night’. There was a fair amount of visual effects work done to the scene just to add little elements. Add water to sell the ‘bog’ concept, fog was added and stuff like that. But it’s very hard to add those visual effects to a two stops over-overexposed daytime scene and then bring it into colour and then I’m probably going to crush away all that details that they’d just added. There was a lot of back and forth trying to get the look and work out where the look’s going to go, everybody’s got to be working on the same page. 

“Almost every shot has rotoscoping involved in the colour suite whether it be eye balls and faces or just one side of the face or picking up an element that we want to show off, might be a wheel or something else. The way we worked on this film is that I would try and conform essentially whatever we had so whether there were visual effects shots done already or whether it was just the digital neg for those shots. We could at least set a look and see how a scene is flowing. So if a specific shot was slated to become a visual effects shot, something was being added to it or a wire was being removed  whatever might happen, I could still work on that shot. Then the visual effects shot would be replaced with the raw version that I had. 

“It felt like this was what digital intermediate had been design for. It felt like sometimes we were breaking a lot of rules, people don’t usually think of sky replacements in the DI suite or adding lens flares but the technology in the colour suite is getting so good that you can do some of these minor visual effects. I call them minor visual effects  because we’re not bringing in CG elements or anything crazy but we can do some basic 2D compositing work. But it makes a huge difference to the image especially if you’re trying to make a really graphic look.  You don’t want to be limited just to a couple of circles and some keys, you really want to shape the picture as much as you possibly can. 

“What I am doing is always about what is happening in the story. For example George is big on the eyes of a character you know the old classic saying, ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’. So I think 80 percent of the human brain when you’re looking at a picture of a person on a screen you focus on their eyes. Because there’s not a lot of dialogue in this film you really look to a character’s eyes to understand what they’re thinking and what’s going on and what their reactions are so a lot of work was just spent on really enhancing eyes and making sure they’re really clear. Then whatever else is happening in the scene - we might specifically tone down something off to the side because it’s not an important feature but happens to be frame in the shot and in the next shot there might be something very important so we’ll make sure that is brighter or clearer so the audience is not having to struggle where to look. There are a lot of cuts in this film, I think there are 2,700 shots, some of the shots are literally five frame long so you really don’t have a lot of time to register, so you don’t want the audience searching the frame looking for what’s important you’ve got to  guide them straight there with the few frames that you have. Just make sure that the action is flowing very clearly. 

“The editor, Margaret Sixel, is amazing and I think she’s done some of the best action cutting that I’ve ever seen and a lot of work happening in the edit suite and again in the colour suite is about just trying to guide the eye. George is also very big on what he calls ‘eye scan’ , if you’re following some action from left to right the cut should not be back on the left again. It should start where you just finished off so you know where you’re looking and you’re following the action. So we’re enhancing the editing and making it flow better too. There’s a scene in the film, we call it the ‘redemption’ scene where Max talks to Furiosa about a plan that he has to move forward and we specifically chose skies in that scene that have a bit of a stormy quality to them and yet the characters are shot under sunlight so you’re almost confused as an audience to whether where they’re heading next, is it stormy in the background or is is sunny and the storm is about to clear? What’s going to happen, is it a good thing or a bad thing? That’s helping you tell the story. As an audience we don’t know which way we’re going to go, is it going to be trouble or not? It’s just little things like that we tried to add to the graphic quality of it all.”

Best DI footage

“Ideally you do need something which is essentially a raw image. On this film it was shot on the Arri and they shot ArriRAW so there is a lot of latitude on that camera. A good example of that again is the ‘day for night’ sequences. It was about two stops over exposed in the day time which is going against every rule book. As long as we’re not clipping the highlights there is a lot of latitude in that digital negative. I can then take that image, close it down to a night feel, give it our blue look that we’re going for but then I can pull out all the information with no noise out of the shadows and there are no issue problems. You’d get into a lot of trouble doing that in any other camera but the Alexa definitely has the range to pull off something like that. Film gives you a slightly different feel when it rolls off in the highlights but you could probably do something similar with film. The way Alexa captures everything in the highlight areas becomes a slightly creamier compressed feel which worked quite well for the look for the night.

“To get a starting point of the look of the film I went back and watched all the original Mad Max movies which actually wasn’t much help! That wasn’t the look we wanted, we wanted to take it in to a new world. But it was interesting just to see the way those films were cut, the way they were shot and the way the action was put together. It was really working with what John Seale had shot and looking at each frame and really stopping on each frame and thinking what can we do to make this graphic. 

“Towards the end of the film there is a big action scene with a lot of people running around on the tops of vehicles, there’s a lot of fighting going on. A lot of those shots were pretty much pointed in to white skies  or cloudy skies and that’s a perfect example of those really short shots, often only eight to ten frames long. But we would just look at those and work it out. Bring out this characters face, that’s a scary looking mask lets bring that out, lets put a new sky in, lets frame them up against the cloud so the clouds aren’t distracting from the action, let shape it with a vignette. We just tried to shape each frame as we went along.”    

Schedules

“This was strangely one of the easier films to work on schedule wise because we had so much time. Most of the time we are crammed up against the deadline and it becomes really crazy near the end but we were working at a really nice pace which was refreshing. But this way of working is totally something you can do on any film. I think it’s the way a lot of films should be working, there should be a collaboration between all the departments and that is what I think is missing a lot in the world of film making especially on the colour grading side, it always seems to be an afterthought thrown in at the end. I think it needs to be part of that process. The cinematography, colour and VFX department are all striving to make that image and if the DP knows that he can fix something in colour then let him do it. There are also times when we are grading that we find a tricky shot that we don’t think we can do, we hand it off to visual effects. But we’re also taking a huge amount of work away from visual effects so they don’t have to worry about that. A lot of the sky replacement, there was talk about whether we could do that. You couldn’t send out 600 shots to visual effects for sky replacements, you’d blow your budget. It’s so fast to do these things in the colour suite now, you can do it quickly and interactively and you can change it at any time, so why not?

“For George it’s a big thing. He can sit in the room and see it change and see it move and then shape it interactively. He’s really getting the look that he wants without waiting three days for a visual effect. People shouldn’t be afraid of encroaching in to each other’s department. We were encroaching in to the visual effects department and maybe in to the cinematographer’s world. We shouldn’t see it as encroaching but thinking about it as a collaboration - where’s the best place to get this resolved? This would be constantly changing on a daily basis, where things are done. 

“Whenever I did sessions with George I would go to Sydney for a month and work one on one but essentially the bulk of the work was done, all the boring rotoscoping and cutting out shapes and tracking skies, I tried to do it in my own time back at my facility in Canada. Here at Alter Ego we have an interactive long distance grading thing so we had that set-up while we were working on the night scenes where we would stream images over to his theatre in Sydney so we could see where we were at. At Alter Ego we have five Baselight systems, I’ve got a team of colourists here so they helped enormously with the work.”

Posted on June 8, 2015 and filed under colour correction, Grading, post, vfx.