Quick Chat: CO3’s Stephen Nakamura on grading ‘The Martian’

Ridley Scott’s The Martian tells the story of an astronaut left behind on Mars. The director, who created that world, called on Company 3’s Stephen Nakamura for the color grade, which he completed in London to be closer to Scott and the production.

We checked in with Nakamura to find out more about his process on The Martian.

You and Ridley have collaborated in the past. We assume you have developed a short hand of sorts?
There are definitely things I know he likes and doesn’t like, but each project is also a little bit different. Obviously, he is very interested in the visuals of every shot. The Martian was relatively straightforward. Something like Exodus: Gods and Kings was much more complex because of the kinds of things we were looking at, like the sea parting. On Prometheus, it was about helping to bring shape and definition to scenes that were really dark. Of course, he’s worked with [Dariusz Wolski, ASC], so a lot of the shaping has already happened between the two of them.

How early does he bring you on a film?

We speak very early on. I know before I see any images what kind of look he’s interested in.

Can you talk about the look of Mars? He referenced the terra cotta/orange look in our recent interview with him.
It was something that we all had a sense of conceptually but it took a lot of work with Ridley, the visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers and me in the DI theater to get it to all look the way it does in the final film. Quite a few shots involved a lot of sky replacements and the addition of mountains in the background. Richard’s team created these additional elements with a combination of CGI practical plates shot in Jordan and combined them with the first unit photography of Matt Damon.

So then when I added the heavy color correction Ridley wanted for that kind of orange look he talks about, it would have an effect on every element in the shot. It’s impossible to know in advance exactly how that correction for the planet’s surface is going to look in context and in a theater until you actually see it. I could get some elements of some shots where we needed them using Power Windows [in the DaVinci Resolve] but sometimes that heavy correction was too much and the effects elements would have to be altered. Maybe the sky needed to be darkened or we needed more separation in the mountains. We might make a change to the foreground, and the background would “break,” or vice versa.

So we had quite a few sessions where Richard would sit with Ridley and me and we would figure that out shot by shot.

You work with Resolve. What is it about that system helps your creative process?
I’ve worked in it as long as it’s been around. I like the way it’s laid out. I like the way I can work… the node-based corrections. I can get to the tools that most colorists use on a normal basis very quickly, and with very few keystrokes or buttons to push. That kind of time saving adds up to a really big deal when you’re coloring complicated movies.

I know there are other great color correctors out there too, but so far Resolve is just the most comfortable for me.

(from left) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars.

Was there one particular scene that was more challenging than others, or a scene that you are most proud of?
There are a number of shots set outside the ship Jessica Chastain’s character commands where we see the ship and some characters in the foreground and the surface of Mars further away and then blackness and stars in the far background.

Here again, we all have a strong conceptual sense of the look, but ultimately it’s something you can’t get to without seeing it in a theater and in context. How saturated should the color of Mars be? How sharp should the focus be on the planet’s surface, on the distant stars? It’s not simply a question of having it look “real.” Ridley’s the kind of filmmaker who wants it feel right for the story. And so I might use Resolve’s aperture correction function to make the stars appear more vibrant, the way Ridley wants it, and that could “break” another part of the shot. And then it’s a question of whether I can use power windows to address that issue or if the VFX team needs to re-render and composite the element.

That kind of massaging of every shot takes a lot of time, but when it’s done you really see the results on the screen.

Can you talk about grading for the brighter Dolby Vision 3D?
It definitely gets rid of one of the major issues in 3D when you can effectively put a stereoscopic image onscreen at the traditional 2D spec of 14-foot lamberts. Previously, doing a stereoscopic pass always involved putting a darker image on screen, and when you have that much less light to work with it affects the whole image. That’s particularly true with highlights that might have plenty of detail at 14 but will blow out when you’re working at 3.5.

Of course, we still did a pass for traditional 3D, since there are very few theaters currently able to show Dolby Vision 3D.

Does that involve a whole different pass or a trim pass, or is it just a LUT that translates everything from the 14-foot lambert world to 3.5?
Company 3’s technology team is always building and updating LUTs that get us a lot of the way there. But when there’s never 100 percent “translation” from the one set of display parameters to the other, image characteristics change. The relative brightness of that practical in the background to the character in the shadows may not feel the same at 14 as it does at 3.5.

So which pass would you do first?
The way I work when we’re doing multiple theatrical deliverables like this is to start with the most “constricted” version [the 3.5 fl 3D] and get that where we want it. Then we go and “open it up” for the wider space. It’s important to be consistent. Very often, it’s a question of building Power Windows around bright parts of the frame and bringing them down for the regular 3D version and then either taking them off or lessening the corrections for the brighter projection spec.


For more on The Martian, read our interview with director Ridley Scott.


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