Photo © Marvel Studios 2017
Writer-director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe deep into the cosmos, where interstellar explorer Peter Quill ends up as the object of an unending bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan, a powerful arch-nemesis with ambitions that threaten the entire universe. As Quill discovers the hidden power of the orb and the danger it poses to the cosmos, he must do his best to rally his ragtag allies for a last, desperate stand, with the galaxy’s fate hanging in the balance.
Back down on Earth where the story was filmed, the production broke ground in numerous ways. As the follow-up to Marvel’s $850 million-grossing Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 had some large shoes to fill. The first Guardians installment was a rare creature, a financial and critical success. The film earned massive grosses worldwide, becoming a huge hit for Marvel and Disney. Gunn teamed with British cinematographer Henry Braham, BSC, to lens the film. Braham and Gunn turned to L.A./London-based post-production house SHED to provide a solution for the complex workflow that would be needed as the filming began.
Post-Production At SHED
Matt Tomlinson, senior vice president of imaging science at SHED, elaborates, “We were excited to have been selected to work on an amazing franchise like Guardians of the Galaxy. Our team worked hard to prepare the dailies to help provide the highest-quality image continuity on developing a refining workflow for the dailies, all of the way through DI, to make the rest of the teams’ jobs smoother and more efficient. Our team at SHED believes that providing a high level of attention to detail simply results in the best-looking films.”
The standard release for the film is in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, with IMAX theaters featuring 40 minutes of 1.9:1 scenes throughout the film. The film was the first feature to be shot with RED Cinema’s Weapon 8K VV camera, a VistaVision 8K camera that in 2015 was at the black box prototype stage, not even a finished camera that was available for sale. Gunn and Marvel settled on the RED Weapon 8K VV after extensive testing with the ARRI Alexa 65 and the RED Epic Dragon 6K, since Gunn felt that having extra resolution for VFX, the IMAX release, as well as a post-converted 3D version, was of paramount importance for the project. Principal photography on the film commenced in February 2016 at Pinewood Atlanta Studios. The size of the film meant that additional sets were fabricated at the Georgia International Convention Center as well. High-speed shots were photographed with the Vision Research Phantom Flex4K camera at up to 1,000 fps.
As pre-production, then production progressed, the film’s post-production workflow also began to take shape accordingly. SHED’s Tomlinson worked with the entire post-production workflow team to develop an innovative and unusual approach to handling the massive amounts of footage that would arrive from the production and then need to be processed and distributed to the numerous visual effects vendors and companies all over the world—including RED Cinema, Vision Research, Framestore, Weta, Method Studios, Trixter, Scanline, Animal Logic, Lola, Luma and Cantina Creative—that would touch the images.
SHED was instrumental in developing neutralized VFX plates needed by so many collaborators. It transformed traditional dailies that the director and studio would view to check progress on the film into a digital-negative mastering process.
Tomlinson explains, “The film utilized the ACES workflow. Three tools that were incredibly important to us achieving our goal were the Codex Vault, the Codex Production Suite and FilmLight’s Daylight. Marvel already uses Codex XL hardware and Codex Backbone software for their visual effects pull system, so the synergy with us supporting their infrastructure made sense.”
For dailies and archiving, SHED relied on Codex Vault XL hardware, which includes GPU-accelerated decoding of RED R3D files. Once the files were backed up and available for dailies grading, DOP Braham’s Kelvin and Tint decisions were neutralized by SHED’s dailies technicians, who then applied ASC CDL grades to match the cinematographer’s creative look.
In simple terms, the neutralized raw image plus CDL equaled the on-set look. The files were graded within the ACES color space. This neutralization has benefits for post-production. Compositing tends to be easier and produce more realistic results when the plates are neutral and matched. Also, skin tones tend to be more natural-looking. Codex, in conjunction with SHED, implemented a tool within Codex’s Vault software that let the operator select a “pivot” color (the most important color) in the source image and calculate new Kelvin and Tint camera settings, plus new CDL offsets to replicate the original look. For the high-speed photography in the film, Codex integrated the Vision Research Phantom Flex4K into its ACES pipeline, which helped to unify the look and feel between two disparate cameras.
If you don’t have experience in working with dailies, you might wonder why they’re such an important part of the workflow. SHED’s Tomlinson replies, “The DI [Digital Intermediate] starts at dailies. Dailies flow into VFX. VFX flows into DI. If dailies are strong, everything that flows downstream is smoother and more streamlined. Amazingly, there was no DIT on set for this show. All of the content was managed through SHED. The initial dailies grade was created from a Grey Ball/Chart measurement, and then creative intent was applied in offsets only. The Codex Production Suite was integral to this.”
With the evolution of feature workflow utilizing tools like the Codex system, ACES and advanced 8K photography from cameras like the RED Weapon VV, how does this affect the post workflow, better or worse?
Tomlinson contemplates the question, then replies, “One of the hurdles that we are all facing is the size of the files that are being created today. The Red Weapon captures an 8K file, and Half Float EXR is also becoming a common workflow for VFX and DI. The horsepower and massive amounts of storage needed to handle such intense amounts of this data is a subject to be taken seriously.”
Since some of the main characters from the film are completely CGI, notably, the Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket (a swashbuckling raccoon) and Baby Groot (a small tree-like creature) voiced by Vin Diesel, the VFX work for the film relied heavily on the dailies workflow provided by SHED. Marvel Studios used Codex Vaults to pull its own plates for the VFX collaborators, delivered as linear 16-bit floating point Open EXR files with ACES AP0 primaries. The simplified on-set color grading meant the plates supplied to VFX facilities were “neutral,” so the VFX vendors knew exactly what they were receiving—ACES AP0 files. The CDL metadata that communicated the intended look was embedded in the Open EXR file headers as well as the R3D metadata, enabling the artists to toggle the creative grade on and off for comparison during the compositing process.
About that CDL metadata, Tomlinson reports, “We collaborated with Codex, RED and Vision Research for code creation and integration. Existing tools were used where applicable, but in some cases we needed to develop new tools and ways of implementing them in order to make the workflow usable. Codex wrote custom tools for use within the Codex Production Suite to calculate CDL values for neutral.”
According to Marvel Studios, ACES helped streamline the workflow, which also required an HDR grade. The AP0 files were used in the Autodesk Lustre color-grading system.
Notes Tomlinson, “This workflow was a bit of a departure from the first Guardians of the Galaxy. I will freely admit that I did not work on the first movie, but the goals for this movie were to be as streamlined as possible and remain open and honest in communication, and this was Marvel’s first full ACES show. Being that ACES was embraced on this show made it inherently a new venture from the previous Guardians of the Galaxy.”
For the Dolby Vision HDR finish, the SDR ODT was replaced with a non-proprietary ODT to optimize the image for the Dolby Vision projector, and then a different ODT was used for the home HDR version. This simplified the grading of these trim passes. ACES was also used in the title work for the film, with both title house Sarofsky and the Disney Title Graphics group creating AP0 files that were inserted seamlessly into the ACES workflow and DI. DI grading for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was performed at Technicolor in Los Angeles by Steve Scott.
Marveling at the detail and ingenuity involved in engineering a workflow this complex, I asked Tomlinson about the type of background one needs in order to develop solutions like this.
“I went to film school at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles,” says Tomlinson. “From there I jumped right in to imaging science within VFX, working at Boss Film, Pacific Ocean Post and at Tippett Studio. From there, I transitioned to EFILM, and today I am at SHED. This is all over the course of 20-plus years in the business. I have been lucky enough to have some very good mentors along my journey who taught me a lot about a business that’s always changing and evolving. I personally was not on set for this show. There were many others who were from SHED, including Stephen Ceci and Matt Watson, but I was in almost daily contact with the Marvel team as we worked through the dailies and paved the way into VFX. My main contact on set was Edwin Rivera. My interaction with Edwin was key. We established a fantastic line of communication that helped create a continuous knowledge loop.”
As of press time, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has surpassed the total domestic, international and worldwide grosses of the 2014 original. As tent-pole franchise films become more and more successful, dailies and post-production workflows will become more complex and ambitious, just like the films themselves. It appears that SHED, with its sophisticated dailies workflow, has developed a blueprint for success.
Learn more about SHED at shed.la. Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.