Encounters at the End of the World

Apple has made major strides in getting the professional film and video community to accept Final Cut Pro as a worthy tool, but what about other portions of Final Cut’s software suite? Notably Color, which was originally developed as Final Touch by Silicon Color and integrated by Apple into Final Cut Studio 2 in 2007. Is a desktop tool like Color up to the task of being the hero grading tool for a major film release helmed by a world-renowned director? I have written about Color in the past, including its use in film as Final Touch, but the recent release of Encounters at the End of the World has given me an opportunity to revisit the topic.

 

Encounters at the End of the World is the latest release by noted filmmaker Werner Herzog. The German-born director has produced, written and directed more than forty films and his creative efforts have extended into books and operas, as well. Herzog is the documentarian that brought us Grizzly Man, the story of Timothy Treadwell – a man who thought he could safely live among bears and in the end was eaten by one. In Encounters at the End of the World, which was sponsored by Discovery Films, Werner Herzog turns his eye towards the McMurdo Research Station, the largest settlement of humans in Antarctica. This isn’t a story about cuddly penguins, but rather, Herzog’s subjective look at life in Antarctica and the people who live and work there.

 

A Final Cut finish

 

The film was edited on Final Cut Pro by Joe Bini, who has worked with Herzog on numerous films, including Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn and The Wild Blue Yonder. He is currently cutting Herzog’s latest, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Since the cut had been done in Final Cut Pro, it made the most sense to also finish the film using Final Cut. Through a client referral, that task landed at Alphadogs – a Burbank post house that specializes in Avid and Final Cut Pro finishing services for TV shows and indie features. Alphadogs also posted Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream. One of the folks working on both of these projects was Brian Hutchings, a freelance LA colorist who handles grading in daVinci, Avid and Apple Color. You don’t know it, but you’ve probably seen Brian’s work in the past as the colorist who graded the Oscar-opening tribute clips featuring Billy Crystal. Brian and I chatted recently about using Apple Color to grade Encounters at the End of the World.

 

Although this is a documentary “film”, Encounters at the End of the World generally consists of video sources. Hutchings explained the workflow, “This film uses a mixture of formats, but all the original content that Herzog’s crew shot in Antarctica was recorded in high-def on the Sony XDCAM-HD optical disc format. They felt that the harsh climatic conditions would really impede any other mechanical videotape camcorders and that XDCAM-HD was the best way to go. All the XDCAM-HD material was transferred to DVCPRO HD tape in order to get the file-based media into a more familiar tape-based workflow. Alphadogs handled the conform from Joe Bini’s offline edit, as well as titles, effects and the integration and reformatting of archival footage. The DVCPRO HD tapes were conformed in uncompressed 10-bit HD, which is what I worked with inside Color at Alphadogs. The final output was mastered to HDCAM-SR [1080p/23.98] for delivery.”

 

The director’s point of view

 

Werner Herzog is a director who presents his material from a certain perspective and as with any film, color grading becomes a way to help convey mood and attitude. Hutchings explained what it was like to work on this project. “Antarctica is really a world all its own and this is Herzog’s look at that world. My job is to try to help a director express his or her ideas. This was a maiden voyage with Color for both Bini and Herzog. Typically Joe would give me the guidelines for how scenes should look. He knows Herzog very well and that gave me a good starting point. I would then be on my own to do the color grading. Herzog would come in and review my work for a day and then I’d make the necessary tweaks. Since Bini knows Herzog so well, the starting point I was given by Joe would typically be very close.”

 

“One of the big differences compared to a daVinci,” Hutchings continued, “is that grading in Color requires rendering. You can’t immediately view the results in context in real-time with sync audio. Herzog understood this and was willing to offer the necessary flexibility. We generally followed the process I now encourage with all of my clients. That is, the client sits in for the correction, we render overnight and then review and make any changes the next day. daVinci is still better if you are on a time-stressed project, but Color can save you a lot of money if you can work within its boundaries. The real-time performance of a daVinci isn’t always required.”

 

Hutchings went on to explain about executing Werner Herzog’s vision, “My job is to visually support the vision of the director. Antarctica is a very harsh environment and color grading helped to enhance this mood. The underwater scenes within the film are spectacular and unprecedented, showing unusual ice cliffs and sea creatures. These are very unique images and Herzog really wanted to bring out the blues in these shots. They are really vibrant and I’m not sure I would have naturally gone in that direction; but, after I saw the whole film in context, I could really see what Herzog was going for. Another example of a different vision is inside the building where hydroponics are grown. They use special lights, which create a rather surreal environment. Rather than try to normalize these shots, we opted to play with the look instead – to end up with a result that was more visually interesting.”

 

Using Color’s tools

 

Apple Color uses an tabbed interface divided into Rooms for Primary color correction, Secondaries (up to eight layers), Color FX (filters) and Geometry (sizing and repositioning). No two colorists approach these tools in the same way, so I asked Brian about how he worked with Color. “I know a lot of editors who do color correction that like curves, but I’m a lift/gamma/gain-type of guy. Coming from my daVinci background, I do 99% of my work in the primaries and then use the secondaries for tweaking, like improving skin tones. Antarctica is not California, so you don’t want people to have cheeks that look too rosy! I use the tracking in Color like Power Windows in daVinci.”

 

Even though Encounters at the End of the World was ultimately recorded to film, Hutchings handled all the color grading in a standard video color space. Brian explained how he dealt with that, “I rely on scopes. These are truly essential as we transition from a CRT to an LCD world. I generally grade by the scopes, because I know how that information will translate to different displays. Then a properly calibrated monitor just becomes confirmation for me. I typically work in standard Rec. 601/709 video color space without any special look-up tables [LUTs]. Most labs have their own special LUTs to adjust for proper film-outs anyway. In the case of Encounters, I didn’t know while I was grading it that in the end it was going to be recorded out to film. The correction turned out well, but generally when I know something is going to film, I tend to be a bit more conservative in my grading, making sure not to crush the blacks or blow-out the highlights. This way you protect for shadow and highlight detail, which can still be adjusted before recording to film.”

 

Encounters at the End of the World was recorded to film at Fotokem from Alphadogs’ HDCAM-SR master. Fotokem made minor, final color adjustments for the proper film color space before recording to a film negative.

 

 

Tips for working with Color

 

Brian and I wrapped up the conversation with some tips to help producers get the most out of working with Color. Brian offered these suggestions, “I’ve worked with Color quite a bit now and have a recommended routine that I try to follow. As a daVinci colorist coming from tape, Color’s media management was something I had to get used to. Plus Color’s interface is very un-Mac-like. So now I use a sort of pre-flight scenario. You want to plan time at the front of the process to anticipate and fix any problems. For example, Color has trouble with Final Cut’s multi-clip sequences and shots with speed adjustments. These have to be fixed or ‘baked-in’ before sending the project to Color. You can’t run long sequences through Color. The 90 minute timeline for Encounters at the End of the World was broken into five separate reels.”

 

“Make sure that you budget enough time to prep, grade, render, review, tweak and re-render. As a freelancer it becomes a bit tougher to make sure this is properly scheduled. daVinci is real-time, so I can see the corrections and make sure they are right as we lay off to tape, but Color requires rendering. The producers need to budget the time so that I can check the project after the render and roundtrip back to Final Cut to make sure that all the correction actually ‘stuck’. Encounters at the End of the World was graded in a couple of weeks. Because the producers were flexible with the schedule, they were able to benefit from the advantages offered by a software-based, desktop solution.”

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine and NewBay Media, LLC

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