ANATOMY OF AN INDIE – Color and VFX
In my last installment, we completed the color work grading our movie. Unfortunately, as I have learned the hard way, nothing in life is free. It is not that Paul or Mark or Michael were anything but the kindest, most generous people – they are. The issue is that at that point no film had ever been colored there before. They did not have an engineer or a conform editor on staff. And so Paul, who is a colorist, had to oversee everything – he had to be an engineer and a conform artist and everything else. Paul had a friend Stephen, who is also a fine colorist, and the two of them set out to color my movie.
It took weeks to bring the footage in and for quite a few nervous days, it looked like we had a problem conforming the movie (which means bringing in the exact right shots, with the exact right edits, etc.) but ultimately we got it figured out. It took quite a few weeks, but after a while, the movie was colored and gorgeous.
My immediate need was to prepare the footage for the visual effects and the animation. We output the footage needed for the VFX company (the company we used is Baked FX – owned by an old friend and collaborator of mine, George Lucas – a different George Lukas). George heard my story, watched the movie, loved the movie, took pity on my situation and made me an irresistible offer. He would composite the animation and do the visual effects for a very, very reasonable price.
So we exported the footage. But when I delivered it to Baked FX, the footage looked funky. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but it didn’t look the same as we had in the theater.
I wanted to go back to CineActive to look at the colored footage again, but Paul had now taken a job. It was late October at this point. We were 95% of the way there, but until we are 100% of the way, we don’t have a movie. Stephen had also gone on to another job. I was stuck.
In November, I called my old friend, Michael Alberts. Michael and I went to film school together at UCLA. Michael is an editor and a savant in all things post-production. I told Michael of my quandary and he had some suggestions. Michael was aware of the movie, but he was also aware that post-production was starting to take an inane amount of time – and so he helped. He suggested a colorist I could hire to come in and finish the last 5% of the movie.
However, when we got to CineActive, we realized that there was a bigger problem than I could have known. I knew that the footage I brought to Baked FX was funky, but I didn’t know why. What we discovered that ugly afternoon was that the projector and the coloring machine had never been synchronized or calibrated. What we were seeing on screen was not what the computer was seeing. The computer was set to digital settings and the projector was set to video settings. Essentially, the image and the computer were speaking different languages. What that means is that 10 weeks of work was for naught. All of that color work had to be done AGAIN!
I thought I was going to keel over. My friend Paul had done beautiful work, it had taken weeks and months and now we had to do it again. As I said, nothing in life is free.
And so, we had to start all over again. But this time, my friend Michael Alberts was at the helm. He introduced me to a different colorist who introduced me to a different color facility and we found a way to get it done. It was painful, but ultimately, it was a blessing. My friend and cinematographer Roman Jakobi and I went in and painstakingly went through the whole film again. We set the look of the film, the look of each scene and our new colorist, Andrew, will take it the whole way home.
Like everything on this movie, color has been a learning experience. I have personally overseen the color on more than 400 commercials, but I never thought to check the calibration of the projector with the machine. I didn’t even know what a “conform editor” was. I’ve been directing on a pretty high level for 20 years, but I had huge gaps in my knowledge.
There is a happy ending here – but that ending came with a lot of work, heart-ache and help from friends.