Vancouver-based post house, SKYLAB (formerly Digital Film Central), recently developed an innovative new workflow to integrate creative grading with both editorial and VFX for Neill Blomkamp’s new movie, Chappie. Working with visual effects studio Image Engine, the team created a feature-finishing architecture which took advantage of FilmLight’s BLG file format, Baselight and Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) technology.
During SKYLAB’s work with Blomkamp on Elysium, the team began discussing ways to innovate even more on Chappie. They soon began designing an ACES color workflow to weave VFX, dailies, editorial and color grading together, giving everyone greater creative control across the production, along with more secure data management. SKYLAB calls its approach “meaningful color” because accurate creative color decisions can be made at any point during production.
Chappie is set in the near future where crime is controlled by an oppressive mechanized police force. The title character – realised entirely in VFX, based on a motion capture performance by Sharlto Copley – is stolen and loaded with experimental software which allows it to think and feel for itself. But it’s not just the central character that relies on VFX – armies of robots, new cityscapes and some impressive battles also needed to be created in post, so the majority of the movie is comprised of VFX shots.
Principal photography took place in South Africa, with a Baselight grading system on set to create proxies for editorial and to prepare the full resolution content for transport. SKYLAB managed all of the media as well as color metadata on behalf of the studio. Background plates were delivered to Image Engine and other VFX houses as OpenEXR files, using ACES to ensure consistency between viewing environments and BLG files to manage technical grade information in a non-destructive way. SKYLAB was then able to leverage Image Engine’s own Baselight grading system to harmonize color throughout the VFX process.
Using Baselight’s color grading and finishing tools, creative director and colorist Andrea Chlebak began to develop the look before and during the shoot. This created enormous efficiencies in the finishing process and provided a context for other departments to make their decisions. “Crafting the final look from the start of VFX – in a movie where practically every frame has some effects in it – was really valuable,” she said. “They were able to preview the full gamut of a shot on Baselight, and see where we were going to take it in grading on the fly.”
SKYLAB’s technical director Chris Davies also developed a range of custom LUTs to be applied automatically to particular scenes and VFX layers to ensure each element would work well together in the final grade.
“When a project involves as much VFX as Chappie, it is far better for editorial, effects and grading to take place in parallel to avoid the pressures that mount up at the end of a typical DI,” explained Davies.
“In the past, visual effects companies and DI laboratories all had their own internal color pipelines,” Davies added. “Now we are finally at the point where we can link technologies together and produce an overall workflow that allows everybody to work with one unified system. FilmLight’s BLG-supported systems, combined with ACES, are invaluable in helping us achieve that.”
“We are not your usual DI house. We are more of a finishing company with a holistic approach,” said SKYLAB CEO James Tocher. “It just makes sense that the company who has to finish the movie works backwards from the DI, through dallies, VFX and editorial, to deliver a system that actually makes color meaningful for everyone.”