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A Blustery DI

Late last year, just prior to sailing off to shoot the next two Pirates of the Caribbean films, director Gore Verbinski finished up what he refers to as his so-called “little, low-budget” movie starring Nicholas Cage — The Weather Man. Verbinski and his crew shot the movie in 2004 and wrapped up the digital intermediate and production of other deliverables at the end of that year. Paramount delayed the theatrical release twice, finally greenlighting it for October, in part to match the timing of the release to the film’s subject matter and look, which can be summed up in one word — blustery.

Director Gore Verbinski worked closely with DP Phedon Papamichael (pictured, left) and colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld to establish and maintain—from production through the DI to final output—a distinct but subtle range of colors.

The movie tells the tale of a Chicago-based weatherman, played by Cage, who can’t quite get his act together as he grapples with major life changes. The story itself is greatly dependent on the gray-blue-green winter palette that Verbinski personally designed and placed onto celluloid. In that process, Verbinski heavily relied on a DI performed at Company 3, Santa Monica, Calif., by his longtime collaborator and Company 3 president, Stefan Sonnenfeld.

“Gore was very specific about what he wanted from the outset,” says Sonnenfeld. “Cool, green, desaturated, a bit oppressive, nice contrast, but not super constrasty. Basically, an interesting blend of colors in a wintry palette, with a clear differentiation between the colors. It was very tricky to pull off.”

Verbinski recently outlined for Millimeter how the project’s visual challenge evolved into the pursuit of “the right cocktail,” as he describes the film’s complex color palette, and how he, DP Phedon Papamichael, and Sonnenfeld’s team at Company 3 concocted the right mixture.

“It started with a digital photo [see accompanying image, page 29] I took on a location scout in Chicago, long before principal photography,” Verbinski explains. “It was a bizarre winter day, with blues and mustards and grays, and a touch of green in the air, and I thought it would be interesting to try to maintain that look. I knew nature would never provide that look throughout production, but I thought we could use this photo as our template. It was very soft — a skyline, with trees and snow and stuff. I sent the picture to Stefan. He did some preproduction tests with it, and that set the basic look for [HD] dailies and the DI.

“It was a big challenge to maintain that soft kind of a look without getting too classic. When you have something contrasty and punchy with color, you can keep the contrast, slam the contrast, or desaturate it on film. But with pale hues, and a very soft curve, it’s so much more fragile. A quarter point off in the timing life, and the whole movie can fall apart. So, it was a tricky film to keep consistent through the DI and the lab and release print processes and onto the DVD and everything else.”

Verbinski (top and bottom left) credited a strict reliance upon DI as the only economical means to achieve the imagery he wanted.

The Shoot

Papamichael adds that an extensive round of reference filming in Chicago quickly followed. That filming finalized the details of what exactly Verbinski was looking for and captured establishing shots.

“Working with Gore, most of the creative part of the collaboration, in terms of setting the look, happens in prep,” Papamichael explains. “Once we start shooting, he generally comes in with a board, like on a commercial, with everything we’ll shoot that day storyboarded and broken down, with specific directions highlighting everything — very well organized. But before that, on this film, we had about eight weeks of prep, more than I normally get on a typical feature. We did extensive scouting and took digital photos and some previz, all those things.

“But mainly, he and I went around Chicago with [an Arriflex] 35mm film camera system that we hired locally before any of our own crew or equipment arrived. We did a bunch of pre-shooting, going out to Lake Michigan at six or seven in the morning and acquiring all sorts of establishing shots. We literally had our little camera package in our hotel room on standby, along with a driver and a van. If Gore saw snow out his window, he called my room and met me in the lobby 10 minutes later, and off we went. Our mini unit would film as much of the snow as we could, driving all over the place — filming things like snow smearing on windshields. We then sent that footage to Stefan, and he had his team color correct it, and that literally set the tone for the entire picture while conditions were favorable to us. It was important that we did it this way, because by the time production started, winter got very mild in Chicago, and we did not have the same kind of weather and snow as we did when our mini unit went out.”

Verbinski emphasizes that point, saying that the entire project “essentially would have been screwed” without a DI. He explains that the only economical way to get the imagery he wanted was through a strict reliance on the process.

An environmental shot typical of The Weather Man, significantly altered during DI—the original frame as captured in-camera (top) and the color-graded version of the shot after changes made at Company 3 (bottom).

“This movie is a performance piece, and when you are focusing on the actors’ performances, you can’t have that hijacked by the environment or the look of the weather, especially on our schedule,” he explains. “When everyone is ready to perform, you can’t call timeout for three hours if the sun comes out. If you did that, you would be sacrificing performance, and that would be a disservice to everybody. So we shot all the way through and protected for performance, worrying about the look secondarily because we knew we were going to address that in the DI, according to the scheme we established in prep. That methodology helped us stay on schedule and helped get better performances. But if we had shot for a photochemical print release, it would have looked jarring. So, in this case, the DI was the perfect tool to blend it all together and give us more freedom in shooting the piece.”

Papamichael shot the movie 1:85.1 with a Panavision package, relying primarily on Panavision Primo lenses, regular primes, and 4:1 and 11:1 zooms. His main stock was Kodak 5246 daylight stock, along with occasional use of Fuji 500 daylight stock for specific sequences.

“5246 was our basic stock because I wanted to stay high-speed the whole way through; since we were shooting in the winter and I knew it would get dark, our shooting days would get short, and our ambient light would be gone before 4 p.m.,” he says. “Faster stock helped me stretch our day a little bit. I carried Fuji for certain shots by the lake or at early dawn. All interiors were shot with [Kodak Vision 2] 5218 [tungsten] stock.”

Besides the inconsistent weather, the production struggled with another issue that would later benefit from the DI: Shooting virtually the entire movie on location in downtown Chicago caused sunlight to reflect off skyscrapers in odd ways.

“Gore wanted this combination of reduced contrast, cooler, grayer, greener tones, and so forth, and the DI helped us fine-tune all that, but we also had a lot more sunny days than we were expecting,” the DP says. “We were working mostly in the canyons of downtown Chicago, with those big buildings casting shadows and helping us avoid a lot of direct sunlight. But at the same time, the buildings acted like a big tunnel of mirrors, with sun kicking off glass fronts of buildings and onto our set — often, double- or triple-kick bounces of sunlight coming back and forth at us. Our grips did a great job controlling those reflections, but the DI was needed to help smooth it all overall and better texture the film.”

Verbinski elaborates that the snow featured prominently in the film also benefited from the DI. “When snow gets direct light and it gets all specular, the contrast between foreground and the snow is horrific,” he says. “On an overcast day, a guy in a dark suit walking in snow gives you more [light] bouncing, more of an even range. You are not so soft between the snow and the guy’s face. On a bright, sunny day, you are [soft]. So, a lot of times, Stefan would help us take the highlights down specifically, or take warmth out or creep warmth in. It was all very subtle stuff.”

Director Gore Verbinski took this photo during a location scout; Stefan Sonnenfeld used the photo to help develop the template for the film”s wintry palette.

Dailies and DI

A long those lines, the use of HD dailies was crucial to the project, with Sonnenfeld supervising Company 3 colorist Mark Osborne’s work on the imagery during production. Company 3 transferred incoming film on a Spirit Datacine, and Osborne then applied the film’s color scheme to those images using a Da Vinci 2K Plus (v. 3.7.2) system. That work eventually turned into an HD preview version of the film, which Sonnenfeld later used as a map for the final DI.

The results were shipped to Verbinski in Chicago on a variety of media — Beta SP, DVD, and HD-CAM tapes — which were routinely viewed in Chicago during production on a Sony 24in. DVM-D24E1 monitor calibrated to match the monitor used at Company 3 for both the dailies work and the DI.

“We could deal with adjusting contrast and saturation on many levels by using HD dailies — things we couldn’t do photo-chemically,” says Verbinski. “The fact that we could adjust those parameters on the dailies moved us much closer to the final look of the film. If we did film dailies and then jumped to a DI, it would have been too big a playground — too much that we might be tempted to change [during the DI]. This way, much of that was already set, making it more efficient. Also, with HD dailies, we get to view and consider more takes. You don’t print every take with film dailies, but with HD dailies, you can.”

Osborne adds that filmmakers were most concerned that he be able to seamlessly match imagery captured in different weather situations. “I had close contact with Gore and Phedon, and Stefan supervised everything,” he says. “Phedon would call me every day and let me know what was coming up, or he sent me handwritten notes. The look is so cool — cold tones when you are outdoors — that they were concerned about the consistency. The HD dailies were going to eventually be used as a master to cut together preview screeners, so this was an important issue.

“Fortunately, Gore told me he was very happy with the consistency, and that allowed Stefan to concentrate on the tape-to-tape color correction for the preview screeners and then get a good jump on the final DI. That’s important because it means Gore and Stefan could concentrate on final tweaks, details, and any changes Gore might want to make. That’s the great thing about this approach [to HD dailies]. The director can get whatever he wants in terms of his original idea, and then, weeks or months later, he can come back and tweak that during the DI, or he can change or improve it completely if new ideas strike him along the way. That adds value and efficiency to the final DI.”

Papamichael adds that the DI process was also valuable in addressing subtle desaturation and de-graining issues. “Without a DI, we could have gotten this picture close to the final look we have now with conventional timing, but there is a very slight desaturation that we achieved that simply would not be possible any other way,” the DP explains. “There were also a few shots where we found artifacts doing the DI — shots of flat, gray skies where you could notice the grain structure moving. Gore had some concern about that, so we used the DI to pinpoint what was causing that and adjusted it. We basically did a de-grain grab off the top of the sky to fix that. When you don’t have a lot of contrast, which this picture doesn’t, you don’t have that much grain. But we did a de-grain grab off the sky, sort of like a grab filter, and that allows us to de-grain detail on the bottom or the top of the frame, as needed. With the frozen lake in the background, and buildings in the background, we didn’t want to de-grain the bottom of the frame, so we could only apply the de-graining process to just the upper two-thirds of the frame.”

For the DI, Company 3 transferred the images on a Spirit 2K datacine. Sonnenfeld relied on his Da Vinci 2K Plus (v. 3.7.3) system and a Sony DVM-D24E1 HD monitor, while online editor Rob Doolittle conformed the piece in a Quantel iQ system. The filmout was done at Efilm on Arrilaser recorders. Shortly after the DI was completed, Company 3 opened its new digital theater, and all DIs for major features are now done there, viewed on a large screen through a Barco DP 100 2K DLP projector. The company has also upgraded to a Spirit 4K system for scanning.

“I’ve worked with Gore a long time, and we have a creative comfort with each other, but it’s difficult to explain how we work on a DI,” says Sonnenfeld. “This movie was so specific, so meticulous, that it was largely a question of doing a lot of subtle stuff to make sure you weren’t even a half point off in the printing process — otherwise, the look would be compromised. With bright sunshine, for instance, some sequences were shot on gray and overcast days, and some on rainy and snowy days, and some in bright sunshine. It was just a lot of finesse work.”

At press time, Osborne was busy cranking out HD dailies for the two Pirates sequels, and Verbinski and Sonnenfeld were prepping to tackle the DI for those films. That project is a much different animal from The Weather Man, but it will be equally reliant on the DI process, according to Verbinski.

Pirates is much more contrasty,” Verbinski says. “We had issues on the first Pirates movie with smoke and things that the DI really helped with. The sun would come out on a foggy day, and we had to create fog with machines but had warm sunlight combining with it, and it didn’t always feel right. Our master on one side of the ship’s sail was very neutral, and we had a close-up on the other side. It was very useful to have a DI for those kinds of things — to take the warmth out of the sail to match things. But most of that movie, and these next two, are more contrasty and colorful. In that sense, Pirates will be more resilient in terms of the photochemical process than Weather Man was. If we were a quarter point off, we could just make it louder and stronger. Therefore, there are no real lessons from this DI we can apply to the Pirates movies. Pirates is a very different type of project — much more extreme, more solid.

“But that shows why the DI is such an efficient tool — it can handle all sorts of widely different projects just as effectively, including the more subtle jobs. Right now, it’s a creative choice, but as we move on, it’s becoming more cost-effective, as well, and you do, in fact, shoot faster if you know you are doing a DI. That’s why I think the standard photochemical processing approach will soon be heading the way of the optical laboratory. There is more that can go wrong there, and if something goes wrong, you have to run a new print, which can also do damage to your negative. So I have no doubt that the future for major feature films is the DI.”