Grading on the Orient Express

When you look for an All-Star-Cast, you can’t top Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley and all the others who travelled this year’s “Murder on the Orient Express”. But what you might not have known is that for the Dailies Grading, DaVinci Resolve came into play. We wanted to know how the rich, saturated look was accomplished.

The Story of “Murder on the Orient Express” (MotOE) is widely known – but incredibly easy to spoil, which is why we didn’t ask Sam Spurgeon about anything story-related – suffice to say, if it could be spoiled for you, you need to brush up on your movie history. Sam Spurgeon, the Dailies Colorist, was – besides MotOE – involved in other productions, for example “Star Wars: Rogue One”, “Denial”, “Jason Bourne” and our favourite TV-series, “Black Mirror”.

DP: Could you describe your setup and workflow for “Murder on the Orient Express”?
Sam Spurgeon: I primarily worked from a grading theatre we set up at Longcross Studios (where the bulk of the film’s photo-graphy took place – Our suite consisted of Tangent grading panels with an audio mixer and 12 core dual monitor Mac Pro running Resolve Studio. Projection was facilitated using a connected Blackmagic Ultrastudio 4K which fed a 2K 4:4:4 signal to a calibrated Barco projector at 24fps via dual link SDI. This enabled us to grade in a full DCI-P3 colour space and host high quality daily selects screenings for director, cinematographer and department heads. The suite also had a direct connection to the Avid ISIS system used by the editorial department so the transfer of MXF material to them was a smooth process. Any transfers to offsite locations were facilitated by either encrypted hard drives or over the internet via IBM’s Aspera software. A working copy of rushes from the entire shoot was kept live on a large rackmount RAID drive connected via Thunderbolt so that we could refer back to any shot or scene if required.

A lab in the room next door facilitated the LTO backups on a dual LTO6 deck connected to a Mac Mini. A secondary screening room was also set up there using smaller 48 Tbyte RAIDs, a Mac Pro and a 65” LCD panel. This was used if there were multiple requests to view material and also to QC rushes. In terms of workflow, 65mm rushes would be canned up and shipped to our 65mm bath twice daily. After the neg was developed it was cleaned and put up on a GoldenEye 2K dailies scanner. This material was then added to a daily Resolve project and cut up into clips with metadata added with an initial QC pass of the material taking place. The DPX scans and Resolve project were then taken by rushes driver to the Longcross grading theatre for dailies grading, LTO backup and QC. Haris (Zambarloukos, BSC GSC, the project’s cinematographer) would come in to preview the grades and discuss any changes (on busy days, we’d take selects to him on set for preview).

Dailies were generated with all the metadata including the primary grade in the form of CDL values and would travel with the dailies to the edit (via ALE files) and ultimately on to the final conform/DI at Goldcrest London (via AAF with the edited timeline). Final high resolution scans for the conform were undertaken by Fotokem in Los Angeles on their Imagica 8K scanner. Goldcrest’s Chief Technology Officer Laurent Treherne spent some time ensuring that the two scanners were calibrated so that the CDL values would match from scan to scan. Having a full grading theatre set up so close to set meant that we could work closely with shooting crew and near set post-production staff. During the day, material would be screened on an ad-hoc basis for Producers, VFX team, Editorial, for Kenneth and Haris when they wished and anyone else with a need to view material on the big screen.

DP: You used Resolve, which isn’t usually thought of as a Dailes Grading tool – how did it handle the speed and load?
Sam Spurgeon: On a 12 core Mac Pro, Resolve handled the 10 bit 2K DPX scans our dailies scanner produced very rapidly indeed, enabling us to stay on top of even our heaviest two unit days (20,000 – 30,000 ft plus), generating MXF, ProRes and even the more complex compression scheme of H.264 for multiple dailies outputs.

DP: Do you use any plug-ins or scripts to speed up tasks or automate things?
Sam Spurgeon: I developed custom software in order to better process metadata inputs and provide as much information for editorial and the conform as possible. This included extracting key code start and end metadata from the DPX files themselves, providing custom file naming schemes for the Avid system and setting 65mm/5 perf flags that helped Avid interpret the timecode/keycode relationship. In addition to this, I created a standalone QC report generator which created quality control reports at the scan stage and dailies colouring stage (which were geographically different).

DP: With the settings of the movie what were your preparations for those scenes?
Sam Spurgeon: As far as LUTs were concerned, we used a set of FilmLog conversion LUTs supplied to us by Goldcrest that would allow us to output material for DCI-P3 and Rec. 709 display devices. Other than that, no other LUTs were used and we relied on the grade alone to colour correct. I worked closely with Haris, discussing his philosophy and inspirations for the film; he referenced a number of photographers during his prep (Saul Leiter being one of those) and we kept their books in the lab to use as reference. The Art Department also made prints for us of a number of concept artist Luigi Marchione’s visualisations of key locations. To complement the classical opulence of the Orient Express, Haris wanted to adopt what he described as a painterly approach to his composition and colour, avoiding too much contrast and retaining the rich details of the interior of the train. Brighter parts of the image such as snowy landscapes through windows were balanced with the darker interior of the train and I often manipulated specific hues to maintain the luxurious feel of the materials and textures of the train. The scenes themselves move from the warmth of Stamboul to the beautiful but cooler and more isolated French Alps to the darker blizzard and tunnel locations to set the mood as events unfold. I took cues from this, augmenting each colour palette where necessary and pulling just enough details back from the highlights and shadows (where it was required) to maintain Haris’ notion of creating a “painterly” image.

DP: What were your other preparations for this movie, and what was the difference to – for example – “Denial” or “Black Mirror”?
Sam Spurgeon: Those two projects both had established digital workflows in place but MotOE was the exact opposite of that. The facilities to process and scan 65mm film for dailies had only just been introduced in the UK, so preparation was designing a way of working that would allow Haris to control colour through the dailies pipeline as much as possible whilst still delivering dailies to editorial, Fox and other stakeholders in a timely fashion. We designed quality control so that any issues with scans or neg dev were flagged up as soon as possible with a first pass QC report that took place at the lab with a secondary QC looking at on set issues (such as crew in shot, exposure etc).

DP: How often did issues get flagged in the QC?
Sam Spurgeon: Well, the rushes were expertly handled by our lab team but film is a physical medium and support for the 65mm workflow was at that stage fairly limited – the technology was only just starting to respond to the resurgence of the medium. Sometimes it was necessary to get rolls recleaned or rescanned as a result of QC issues which led to the repetition of some (but not all) stages of the workflow process. This did lead to an increase in our workload without a doubt! What was important was to be able to identify quickly the source of any QC fail – was it something that could be resolved with a rescan or reclean or was it something more permanent on the neg itself. For example, our very
knowledgeable camera department would help us out when we needed it, shooting steady tests to determine if jitter in a scan was from the camera (and therefore on the negative) or whether a recalibration of the scanner would fix the problem (which was the case in this instance). The other thing to bear in mind is that rushes shot digitally come as single clips for every take and are often very metadata rich. Film scans come as one long clip that require cutting into separate clips (which we did in Resolve) plus metadata for each new clip needs adding, so before problems are even encountered there is an additional workload to deal with.

DP: If it was up to you: What should be the next features in Resolve?
Sam Spurgeon: Background rendering would really be an aid for productivity as it would allow non-CPU intensive work to continue while the dailies rendered out. A minor improvement, but access to all metadata in the burn-ins pane would be handy. The collaborative features of new versions seem very promising.

DP: What advice would you give everyone interested in doing Dailies Grading?
Sam Spurgeon: Learn the tools inside out. There are so many learning resources available as well as free versions of extremely powerful grading programs, there is no reason not to do this if you are interested in Dailies Grading. When the tools become second nature, you are able to think clearly and discuss ideas, implementing them (or at least a rough version of them) in realtime as you go. This allows you to develop a good creative working relationship with whoever is in the room, be it Cinematographer, Director, VFX Supervisor or someone else.

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