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Bringing Meaning to Chappie’s Color

SkyLab designs an integrated ACES color workflow with FilmLight’s BLG and Baselight grading system

ChappieLeading post-house, SkyLab (formerly Digital Film Central), recently developed an innovative workflow to integrate creative grading with both editorial and VFX for Neill Blomkamp’s new movie, Chappie. Working with visual effects studio, Image Engine, the team created a seamless feature-finishing architecture which took advantage of FilmLight’s BLG file format, Baselight and Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) technology.

During SkyLab’s work with Blomkamp on previous effects-heavy movie Elysium, the team began discussing ways to innovate even more on Chappie. They soon began designing an ACES color workflow to weave VFX, dailies, editorial, and color grading together, giving everyone greater creative control across the production, along with more secure data management. SkyLab calls its philosophy “meaningful color” because accurate creative color decisions can be made at any point during production, and the approach offers significant time- and money-saving efficiencies.

Chappie is set in the near future where crime is controlled by an oppressive mechanized police force. The title character—realized entirely in VFX, based on a motion capture performance by Sharlto Copley—is stolen and loaded with experimental software which allows it to think and feel for itself. But it’s not just the central character that relies on VFX: armies of robots, new cityscapes and some impressive battles also needed to be created in post, so the majority of the movie is comprised of VFX shots.

Principal photography took place in South Africa, with a Baselight grading system on set to create proxies for editorial and to prepare the full resolution content for transport. SkyLab, working as a digital version of the traditional lab, managed the entirety of the media, as well as color metadata, on behalf of the studio. Background plates were delivered to Image Engine and other VFX houses as OpenEXR files, using ACES to ensure consistency between viewing environments and BLG files to manage technical grade information in a non-destructive way. SkyLab was then able to leverage Image Engine’s own Baselight grading system to harmonize color throughout the VFX process. The same result also can be achieved using any of the BLG-enabled products from FilmLight, including Baselight Editions, FLIP and Daylight.

Using Baselight’s color grading and finishing tools, creative director and colorist Andrea Chlebak began to develop the look before and during the shoot. This created enormous efficiencies in the finishing process and provided a context for other departments to make their decisions. “Crafting the final look from the start of VFX—in a movie where practically every frame has some effects in it—was really valuable,” she said. “They were able to preview the full gamut of a shot on Baselight, and see where we were going to take it in grading on the fly.”

SkyLab’s technical director, Chris Davies, also developed a range of custom LUTs to be applied automatically to particular scenes and VFX layers to ensure each element would work well together in the final grade.

“When a project involves as much VFX as Chappie, it is far better for editorial, effects, and grading to take place in parallel to avoid the pressures that mount up at the end of a typical DI,” said Davies. SkyLab’s ACES workflow blends the portability of BLG metadata files into their own MULTIVERSE™ conform architecture.

“In the past, visual effects companies and DI laboratories all had their own internal color pipelines,” added Davies. “Now we are finally at the point where we can link technologies together and produce an overall workflow that allows everybody to work with one unified system. FilmLight’s BLG-supported systems, combined with ACES, are invaluable in helping us achieve that.”

SkyLab CEO James Tocher explained, “We are not your usual ‘DI house’—we are more of a ‘finishing company’ with a holistic approach. It just makes sense that the company who has to finish the movie works backwards from the DI, through dallies, VFX and editorial, to deliver a system that actually makes color meaningful for everyone.”

“One of the best ways to improve post workflows, particularly in this era of high dynamic range cameras, is by starting with a good look, capturing it on set and refining it all the way to the final grade,” said Wolfgang Lempp, CEO of FilmLight. “We have built our BLG strategy to allow next generation post-production company such as SkyLab efficient and flexible control of the look at every stage of the colour pipeline.”

Chappie premiered in the United States on March 6, 2015. At NAB, the team at SkyLab and FilmLight will be participating in the ACES panel discussion ‘Coming To You Live: ACES 1.0’ on Tuesday, April 14 at 3:00 p.m., S220, with other filmmaking experts.


March 31, 2015