Captain Marvel finished with flying colours

Technicolor colourist Doug Delaney has revealed his workflow on Captain Marvel and how he used Baselight to manage both the look of the film and his team of experts on the VFX-heavy blockbuster.

The latest big hit from the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) was finished at the facility in Los Angeles, and had to adhere closely to the established visual language of the film series.

“It’s a huge technical, effects-laden film,” says Delaney. “From a colour point of view, I got involved in it very late by comparison to other projects.” 

Delaney says the colour of particular items In the MCU is set:  “Captain Marvel’s suit needs to be a very specific colour regardless of the environment, because this is intrinsic to an iconic brand.”

In a movie that depends so much on complex effects, the colourist came to this project relatively late in post-production. Delaney, who started his career in visual effects before specialising in digital intermediate finishing, says the VFX pipelines were set up a year before the main post. This includes look development, which comes inevitably from the VFX as much as the live action photography. 

“The effects are carefully crafted,” he adds. “Look development and the lookup tables have been distributed because you have vendors literally all over the world working on shows like this simultaneously. 

“General looks have already been approved by the directors and the VFX supervisor prior to the finish. It’s different than another type of film where you’re doing look development in the grading suite during the final grade. Here you’re very much a steward of the digital effects. 

“Your role in these situations is to ensure that the VFX comes through,” Delaney explains. “You may enhance their consistency from shot to shot. And of course, you embellish and add to the sequence. But in general, when the grade gets too heavy handed you can begin to diminish the quality of the effects from a creative point of view. 

“We were using some new tools in Baselight like Base Grade, which allows you to really refine the image in a rather unique way. And Base Grade really is a game changer in how I approached the grade for HDR and EDR.” 

Passing places  

One important task on movies such as this is to develop the sequence by smoothing the transition between effects. Some of the relighting tools in Baselight were used to massage effects to help the story flow. “You’re saying ‘this works really well, but what if we add some interactive light because these are all visual effects shots from cut to cut, and maybe we need to help join the cuts a little’,” Delaney explains. 

Another significant change in the way that VFX movies are made today is that the grading suite also takes on much of the compositing and finishing. “We’re no longer colourists – we’re finishers,” says Delaney. 

This means that the lead colourist is not only responsible for the whole look of the finished film, he also manages a team of experts to ensure that everyone is cohesively working towards the same goal – on this project, using the categories and notes system within Baselight to communicate specific needs, create task lists, and keep track of progress. 

Delaney and VFX supervisor Chris Townsend were the principal arbiters of the way the movie looked. But as supervising finisher, Delaney relied on the creative team working with him. 

“Chris and I were the ones grading the film to the point where we would present to the filmmakers and to the Marvel creative team,” he says. “Jeff Pantaleo was the second colourist, who helped me on the 2D version. Then there were a few other specialists – Gray Marshall, Dave Franks, Travis Flynn, and Jason Fabbro – helping me with tracking, rotoscoping and all the technical in- between work as well as the home video versions.” 

This team also helped in creating the multiple deliverables, which are an inevitable part of finishing a blockbuster. “Before you’ve finished the 2D version you’ve already started the stereo 3D version, and some of the guys would shift over to that,” Delaney recalls. “Then before we finished the stereo version we’d start the EDR, the laser projection, HDR, IMAX version and so on. So there are probably 10 or more versions of each film. 

“I like to say it’s like spinning plates,” says Delaney. “The more plates the more complicated it gets, so you really need a team of people to manage it all.

“We would finish the 2D then import that into stereo. Then, if we saw something we would back that colour into the 2D version and propagate it throughout. Without Baselight that could become very, very complicated.” 

Captain Marvel was conformed in Baselight as well as graded. “That’s really almost the only way to manage it, because therefore you can propagate both ways all the information, whether it is colour, matte work, or the VFX versions,” explains Delaney. 

“One of the extraordinary things about Marvel is that they are always refining – they are never done; they keep looking for perfection and the best result,” he adds. “That also goes for editorial: they’re making little changes up to the very last minute. So, having the flexibility of doing everything with the native content – that allows us the ability to make these last-minute changes really easily.” 

Choice cuts

Delaney says particular scenes were a challenge or a delight to accomplish, including a dusk scene.  The challenge here was that it needed to be shot over the course of several days, and the golden hour light is never quite the same from day to day. 

“The sun’s going down in Louisiana. It’s an emotionally powerful scene,” Delaney explains. “There was some inconsistency, so we needed a lot of grading techniques to get it all looking even, so the emotional heart is there without distractions. It’s a very common thing we have to deal with as colourists, but it could impact the film as much as a giant VFX scene”. 

The other example he cites was a space battle from the third act. “The VFX are extensive and beautifully crafted,” he says. “But there were some over-the-shoulder shots where we added a lot of grading and interactive lighting, almost finishing the visual effects work in Baselight. We’re adding some depth: adding lighting to reverse shots to reflect the effects added to the primary shot, and sell the idea from cut to cut.

“One of the great things is that FilmLight is willing to listen and observe,” he adds. “For this particular film, Jacqui Loran and Sam Lempp, both from the support team at FilmLight, were in the room with us all the time. 

“They want to understand the pressures of the client session and the real application of their tools – to understand the actual implementation of those tools in a working and creative environment. They really are evolving the colour science and toolset of Baselight to meet the changing needs and demands of the colourist and modern technologies.” 

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