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The outer edges of color space

The jaw-dropping imagery of independent time-lapse documentary TimeScapes pushed LA facility Light Iron to explore the outer limits of 4K 16 bit color space.

TimeScapes, the debut film from cinematographer and director Tom Lowe, is a gorgeous meditation featuring slow-motion and time-lapse cinematography of the landscapes, people, and wildlife of the American South West—all set to specially composed music.

Lowe, an experienced still photographer, lensed the film over the course of two years at sites including Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Park, and includes spectacular images of the night sky including some highly-ambitious time-lapse shots of the Milky Way.

One of the images taken from the film, of a pine tree against the spectacular night sky, won Lowe Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011, while TimeScapes was in production.

The movie was graded and finished on a Quantel Pablo at Hollywood post house Light Iron, and when the team first saw the moving images, they decided that it would require them to up the ante to 4K 16-bit postproduction.

Democratizing filmmaking

“We couldn’t short change the project when you consider the lengths that Tom went through to photograph these images,” explains Light Iron co-founder and CEO Michael Cioni. “There are colors in space and in the skies that we knew we would want; we needed those colors. We could actually drive this to the outer edges of digital cinema’s P3 color space and use the entire spectrum from black to P3 blue.”

For Light Iron and senior Pablo colorist Ian Vertovec, their work on David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) was a pre-curser to TimeScapes. Dragon Tattoo, which opened last December, was graded by Vertovec (who also served as colorist on Fincher’s The Social Network) and finished at Light Iron in 4K at 10-bit.

“There are now ways to acquire digital imagery so that we can use all of 16 bits to make up a picture,” Cioni says. “That is why we went to the extra length of going to 16 bits. It’s cumbersome … but it is worth it.”

Further underscoring the democratization of filmmaking, Lowe not only finished his film at the bleeding edge, but he tapped new multi-platform distribution opportunities by making it available online as a 4K QuickTime download on iTunes.

“TimeScapes really speaks to this whole democratization of filmmaking,” says Cioni. “It is independently produced and distributed—and they didn’t compromise quality. It is probably at a higher quality than pictures released by most major studios.”

Getting to 16-Bit

In the end, this unique 45-minute independent project was lensed in 5K resolution on Red Epic and Canon Mark III DLSR cameras, edited in 4K (4096 x 2304 pixels) in Adobe Premiere and After Effects, and graded in 16-bit 4K at Light Iron Hollywood on a Quantel 4K Pablo system. The Pablo was loaded with version 5.1 software, driven by a Quantel Neo control surface and networked to Quantel GenePool shared storage.

To push out 16-bit imagery, Cioni explains that they used the full power of the Pablo system that is aimed at accommodating a second eye image for 3D—and used it to produce the “gigantic” 2D images. “We are simply allocating that bandwidth for a higher resolution and higher bit depth 2D eye,” he said.

Grading was completed with Lowe’s participation in Light Iron’s DI suites, equipped with a Christie 2K digital projector and a 20 ft. screen. The Pablo allowed the team to easily work with the multiple resolutions and native compression schemes supported by the different cameras.

An added plus, was that they didn’t have to work with proxies – all the media was manipulated in full res. “The native support for the different camera formats during the conform process meant there was no need to make a mezzanine format,” says Cioni. “Even though Tom delivered TIFFs, he also delivered Red and Cineform media. We don’t believe you have got to level everything to a mezzanine format to perform a DI … and nor do we have to pre-transcode it.”

Says Vertovec of grading with the Pablo: “I knew, and Tom knew, that what we were going to get at the end was exactly what we were seeing during the DI process.

“It was three weeks of intense work in post,” he adds. “Tom really wanted to have everything be as bright and sharp and clear as possible. It was a lot of work to get it to snap. We had to have exact control, and we were doing a lot of animating mattes and keying. Fortunately, the Neo control surface is a fantastic tool and very intuitive.”

Quantel’s GenePool “really enabled this job”

With the amount of bandwidth required for the project, post wasn’t a straightforward task. Quantel’s collaborative GenePool technology played a critical role by allowing shared timelines across multiple Pablo stations.
The GenePool means instant sharing and guaranteed playback of multiple high resolution media streams from several attached workstations – increasing efficiency and encouraging creativity whether working in HD, 2K, 4K or stereoscopic 3D. “We could get this done on time because we could draw on the flexibility, creativity and sheer horsepower of the GenePool,” says Vertovec.

While Vertovec was in the DI suite grading the film at 4K in 16-bit with Lowe, another Pablo was in use at 4K 16-bit performing de-noise, retiming and additional editing tasks in a second bay.
Each suite operates completely independently but, if the operator allows it, each suite can work with clips in the other’s libraries. Accessing a clip from another suite is a simple drag and drop operation: no media moves, no media copies are made and all the project history remains live.

“The advantage that Quantel really brought is the GenePool system,” Vertovec said. “GenePool enabled this job because we were able to work collaboratively at such a high bit rate and such a high resolution. We have three Pablos at Light Iron that we can attach to the job if we need to.”

Cioni added that “on most DI systems, when you get into shared projects of this magnitude, they go into a tug of war when one system plays back while other systems stutter. That is a normal problem in DI—a tug of war for bandwidth. But Quantel delivers multiple 4K 16-bit streams at the same time.”

Creative toolset

“He is a photographer and artist with a very unique vision,” says Vertovec of Lowe and his moving image photography, which emphasizes the art of time-lapse and the awesome skyscapes of astronomy in particular. Cioni and Vertovec consider the heart of the film to be a series of time-lapse scenes of the Milky Way—which took up to 13 hours to capture. In some cases they begin as a photograph of an inky black night, and as the bright moon rises out of the frame and lights up the sky, the scenes shifts to what appears to be daylight due to the sensitivity of the cameras. While filming, the slightest bit of additional light—a car driving by miles away with headlights on—could blow-out a shot at these extreme exposures.

The images—which Lowe refers to as a “moon strike”—perhaps best demonstrate how the Pablo toolset was uniquely suited for this production. “That sequence was a challenge for me as a colorist because you are dealing with the most extreme latitude of the camera,” observes Vertovec. “You are going from its darkest exposure and ramping to its brightest exposure. Nothing is exposed at key; you are going from minus 5 to plus 5 inside of the shot. I need to make that work visually. So I’m doing a lot of animated mattes and animating of my color correction to achieve a full contrast shot throughout.”

Vertovec continues: “The main challenge with all of the animating and masking was to make the shots look seamless. We’re not performing visual effects; we are not adding or removing anything that wasn’t in the original photography. We are making the very most out of what’s there in the raw media.”

Vertrovec employed Pablo’s Range control suite of tools, new to Pablo’s version 5 software, to tailor color adjustments within the custom luminance ranges of the 4K 16-bit file. “The exposure was so radically different over the course of the shot that I had to dial it down and make it seamless,” he describes. “In the Pablo I used Ranges and its powerful keyframe animation and masking tools to bring all of it in tow so that the whole sequence feels more natural – closer to the human visual perception.”

Vertovec adds, “The keyframe editor in Pablo version 5 is great. It is very intuitive. I have exact control over all the parameters all of the time.”

Into the future

Cioni points out that with each film handled by the facility on Pablo, the boundaries of what is possible continues to expand. The December 2011 release of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was shot 5K on Red Epics with the express intention of carrying ultra-high quality, true 4K imagery all through post and on to cinema screens via Sony’s new 4K projectors.

“Something David Fincher really wanted to do was ‘center extraction’,” explains Cioni. “This is a great way to make a 4K movie. It gives us 20% headroom – or 3 million spare pixels – to play with, so that motion tracking, digital set extension, stabilization and compositing can all be done without ever having to blow up the picture. If you were just working with a 4K original frame, you would lose part of the picture and so some fidelity in expanding the remaining image to fill the frame.

“David was also able to come into the DI suite, look at a shot and then say ‘zoom in a little bit’ or ‘pan left’ without any resolution penalty,” adds Vertovec.

“It’s a really powerful technique and the entire movie was done this way,” relates Cioni. “And when we did the broadcast deliverables, the studio saved everything so the 16×9 Blu-ray is 4K, and we even did a 4K 4×3 version for the airlines. The point is that the original resolution footage is safe for the future.”

Breaking the rules

That film was finished at 4K in 10-bit, and now less than one year later, the indie film TimeScapes, is finished at 4K in 16-bit. It is also available as a 2560 x 1440 30-inch monitor ready download, on DVD and Blu-Ray and 480p, 720p and 1080p downloads.

“4K 16-bit finishing will become passé by 2016,” Cioni predicts. “That is why it is important to gauge your boundaries—so you know how to get past them. If you don’t learn it, you can’t break the rules safely … and we need to know how to prepare future clients for this.”

Watch the Timescapes trailer at:

At a glance

•Cinematographer and director Tom Lowe chose LA facility Light Iron to color and finish his ground-breaking film Timescapes.

•Light Iron had unique hi-res finishing experience, having already completed the world’s first full length end-to-end 4K feature The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

•Timescapes was posted at 4K 16-bit on Light Iron’s Quantel Pablo systems to give full resonance to Lowe’s stunning time-lapse photography

•The job was completed in just three weeks thanks to the power of the Pablos and the shared workflow offered by the Quantel GenePool

•“We could get this done on time because we could draw on the flexibility, creativity and sheer horsepower of the GenePool”