Emmanuel Lubezki’s decision to shoot ‘The Revenant’ in natural light, a challenging choice, paid off when he bagged his third Oscar. The support from the teams of Technicolor and Moving Pictures Company equally helped him deliver one of the most cinematically riveting movies of the year
When cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won an Oscar for ‘Best Cinematography’ for ‘The Revenant’ in 2015, he set a new record. ‘The Revenant’ was shot mostly in natural light in harsh climatic conditions, giving it a wraithlike luminosity. The punishing survival epic depicted by director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s was about the true-life trial survived by 19th century explorer Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Iñárritu and Lubezki opted to shoot the movie using only natural light under the harshest of conditions in chronological order during the fall and winter of 2014 and 2015.
In various interviews, Iñárritu, Lubezki, DiCaprio, and various cast and crewmembers have referred to the shoot as the most arduous project of their careers. What has been less discussed, is how uniquely challenging and often unorthodox the project’s post-production requirements were!
In particular, the filmmakers’ needs for the colour-finishing process over the course of eight weeks were more complex and unusual than any motion-picture that Steven Scott, Technicolor’s Supervising Finishing Artist on the project and the company’s VP of Theatrical Imaging, had ever experienced in his 25 years career as a visual effects artist and colourist working on major motion pictures.
Aware that this would be a challenging movie, Lubezki had Technicolor work with him from day one to plan the complex workflow that would allow him to complete its colour finishing the way he wanted. To accomplish this, Technicolor put together a team of people, including visual effects animators and artists, led by Doug Spilatro, Technicolor’s VP of Visual Effects.
The team had to bring their technique to a whole new level since Lubezki shot the movie relying exclusively on natural light, which was constantly shifting during production. Indeed, the project posed challenges in this regard because of the subtle properties of the natural light that Lubezki captured on location while shooting the movie with a combination of Arri Alexa camera systems—the Alexa XT, Alexa M, and the then-brand new Alexa 65 system, to permit an ultra-wide-angle visual aesthetic.
COLOUR CORRECTION ON-SITE
Shooting in the woods, on mountains, and on the plains of Alberta in the late fall and winter, Lubezki’s team was often limited to daylight shooting that started around 9:30 a.m. and ended before 4 p.m. most days. With shifting clouds and giant trees constantly blocking and changing the direction of light and producing moving shadows, the cinematographer knew from his earliest location scouts that his job mastering natural light to his satisfaction would be an ongoing process—one that would begin on location and be completed at Technicolor during the finishing phase. Scott emphasized that the seamless integration of Technicolor’s finishing department was not only crucial to the project, it was also made easier by the fact that Technicolor’s On-Location Services unit was tasked with handling data management and dailies work as the production laboured in the Canadian wilds. In fact, Technicolor unit travelled with Lubezki’s crew to all locations for principal and second-unit photography, and handled dailies distribution back to multiple visual effects vendors and editorial, and made sure data management was consistent throughout the entire project.
An Autodesk Lustre colour-correction system was utilized on location for colour grading dailies, allowing for full finishing colour and controls on a 2K projector, which was set up in a Technicolor trailer near the show’s production offices in Calgary and British Columbia. Colourists Jodie Davidson, Jeff Olm and Dave Wilkinson handled dailies colour-grading responsibilities.
BEING PREPARED FOR ISSUES
Technicolor’s dailies platform, rendered-out deliverables in multiple formats as needed—DNX36 175 for editorial, H.264 for the PIX dailies viewing platform, and HDCam SR for 20th Century Fox marketing requests, while all dailies were backed up to LTO drives. Additionally, a dailies screening room was set up for editorial and creative needs in the production offices. Lubezki would frequently supervise grading in the trailer in 2k, and then go to the screening room for nightly screening sessions.
Kenny Vicent, Technicolor’s Director of Field Engineering, helped support the location work. “Chivo (Lubezki’s nickname) always knew it would be an extremely complex undertaking, and that he would not have the typical lighting support and setups,” he said.
An Autodesk Lustre colour-correction system was
utilized on location for colour grading dailies.
Scott explained, “He strategically planned based on the fact that he would have no [lighting] control. He was keenly aware of the issues that would bring about, and he wanted to be as prepared as possible. So we talked about that early on, as soon as he started doing scouting and conducting tests. I saw all that [test] material, and we would get together and play with it and establish preliminary looks. In fact, even before he shot a frame of this movie, Chivo knew what kind of pipeline we would have to set up, and he knew how long we would need for the finishing and that it would be a longer schedule than typical. We discussed the kinds of work we would be doing, and that we would be isolating and playing with different parts of individual frames. That was all planned out in advance.”
More specifically, Lubezki needed Technicolor’s in-house visual effects’ department to work in tandem with the finishing department to do the job that Lubezki envisioned. In fact, Spilatro emphasized that Lubezki “told them early on, ‘I’m going to make changes until the very last minute,’ so we would need to be flexible. We understood that, with his [cinematography plan accounting for] light shifts during the finishing, we would have to build our own hand-drawn animated mattes and track them, and that there would be a large number of them, far more than on Birdman, where we originally experimented with this technique.”
The project required a visual effects team in-house, under the same roof as the finishing team, precisely as Technicolor Hollywood has been structured. The subtle visual effects-related work inside the finishing processes that Lubezki planned for was precisely within Technicolor’s wheelhouse. A team of finishing artists under Scott’s supervision colour graded the imagery using Lustre 2015 Extension 3 software and a Christie 4220 4k projector.
Emmanuel Lubezki shooting Forrest Goodluck who
plays Leonardo DiCaprio’s son, Hawk, in the movie.
ADDING LUSTRE FOR MAXIMUM FLEXIBILITY
Spilatro adds that Technicolor was able to perform all the animation work using the Lustre software, though it is traditionally considered a colour-correction tool first and foremost. This was required, once again, for what Spilatro calls “maximum flexibility,” because of the need to rapidly move mattes and other digital material through the finishing pipeline to keep the process from bogging down.
“The visual effects pipeline [within the finishing suite] that we designed started very early with Chivo, Steve, and myself,” Spilatro states. “We sat with Chivo on early cuts to map out the type of looks he was requesting. Once we had a locked cut (from picture editor Steve Mirrione, ACE), Steve and [finishing artist] Charles Bunnag would painstakingly go through every shot and build keyframe mattes—single frames of the requested mattes.
Steve and Charles would then use our shot tracking software [called Ftrack] and spreadsheets to pass the information onto the VFX team. Then, the matte was animated, reviewed, and sent to the finishing team for integration.” Using Lustre in this way was largely made feasible through the company’s unique partnership with Autodesk, according to Scott. “We have always worked closely with Autodesk, and their team, led by Bernard Malenfant, doing things which allowed us to complete the challenging roto in the way that we did,” Scott said.
GETTING GLOBAL SUPPORT
The project also benefitted from the fact that Technicolor’s global reach includes its subsidiary The Moving Pictures Company (MPC), one of the world’s leading visual effects producers, and the fact that MPC’s pipeline seamlessly plugs into Technicolor’s finishing pipeline. The MPC team worked on the film’s early ambush sequence.
Supervised by Arundi Asregadoo with support from VFX producer Lena Scanlan, the scene was meant to supplement Lubezki’s execution of an extended, one-take illusion in which a brutal, surprise assault on a trapper encampment by native fighters along a riverbank is seen—and felt—as intimately as possible.
Lubezki choreographed and shot much of it handheld, and operator Scott Sakamoto shot the rest via Steadicam and Technocrane. But Iñárritu wanted to subtly enhance the brutality and realism of the moment with the addition of more photo-real elements. MPC also created photo-real CG animals, including a beaver, deer, vultures, and horses; and its effects and compositing teams added smoke, fire, flying mud, and sky replacements, and strategically placed CG arrows to complete the illusion.
Emmanuel Lubezki shooting with the Arri Alexa 65 for ‘The Revenant’.
“Our whole approach was conceived and based on what Chivo said he needed to achieve and what Alejandro and he were envisioning,” Scott stated. “We advanced the technology and our thinking about how to do things so that they could be in the middle of the process. That is a fairly new concept for this industry, but it is the best way for the cinematographer to continue to guide the imagery, even after production ends, and not to sit to the side waiting for ‘post’ to do its thing. This is his work, and he should be able to continue in his role as the author of the images until the movie is released. Our job was to support him in doing that.”
That support was made possible thanks to an all-hands-on-deck commitment from Technicolor. Under Scott’s supervision, in addition to Bunnag, the film’s finishing colour-work also included finishing artists Michael Hatzer and Ntana Key, finishing producer Mike Dillon, finishing assistant producers Laura Holeman and Brandie Konopasek, and finishing data assistants Juan Flores, Chris Jensen and Kevin Razo. Supervising finishing editor Bob Schneider and finishing editor Carrie Oliver handled the film’s editorial conform responsibilities, interfacing with the production’s editorial team, led by Mirrione. Technicolor created a master 4K DCP for the movie, while the film’s Dolby master, award-season screeners and home-video versions were finished by colourist Skip Kimball.