The fourth season of the sci-fi series The Expanse was finished in HDR for the first time streaming via Amazon Prime Video. Deluxe Toronto handled end-to-end post services, including online editorial, sound remixing and color grading. The series was shot on ARRI Alexa Minis.
In preparation for production, cinematographer Jeremy Benning, CSC, shot anamorphic test footage at a quarry that would serve as the filming stand-in for the season’s new alien planet, Ilus. Deluxe Toronto senior colorist Joanne Rourke then worked with Benning, VFX supervisor Bret Culp, showrunner Naren Shankar and series regular Breck Eisner to develop looks that would convey the location’s uninviting and forlorn nature, keeping the overall look desaturated and removing color from the vegetation. Further distinguishing Ilus from other environments, production chose to display scenes on or above Ilus in a 2.39 aspect ratio, while those featuring Earth and Mars remained in a 16:9 format.
“Moving into HDR for Season 4 of our show was something Naren and I have wanted to do for a couple of years,” says Benning. “We did test HDR grading a couple seasons ago with Joanne at Deluxe, but it was not mandated by the broadcaster at the time, so we didn’t move forward. But Naren and I were very excited by those tests and hoped that one day we would go HDR. With Amazon as our new home [after airing on Syfy], HDR was part of their delivery spec, so those tests we had done previously had prepared us for how to think in HDR.
“Watching Season 4 come to life with such new depth, range and the dimension that HDR provides was like seeing our world with new eyes,” continues Benning. “It became even more immersive. I am very much looking forward to doing Season 5, which we are shooting now, in HDR with Joanne.”
Rourke, who has worked on every season of The Expanse, explains, “Jeremy likes to set scene looks on set so everyone becomes married to the look throughout editorial. He is fastidious about sending stills each week, and the intended directive of each scene is clear long before it reaches my suite. This was our first foray into HDR with this show, which was exciting, as it is well suited for the format. Getting that extra bit of detail in the highlights made such a huge visual impact overall. It allowed us to see the comm units, monitors, and plumes on spaceships as intended by the VFX department and accentuate the hologram games.”
After making adjustments and ensuring initial footage was even, Rourke then refined the image by lifting faces and story points and incorporating VFX. This was done with input provided by producer Lewin Webb; Benning; cinematographer Ray Dumas, CSC; Culp or VFX supervisor Robert Crowther.
To manage the show’s high volume of VFX shots, Rourke relied on Deluxe Toronto senior online editor Motassem Younes and assistant editor James Yazbeck to keep everything in meticulous order. (For that they used the Grass Valley Rio online editing and finishing system.) The pair’s work was also essential to Deluxe Toronto re-recording mixers Steve Foster and Kirk Lynds, who have both worked on The Expanse since Season 2. Once ready, scenes were sent in HDR via Streambox to Shankar for review at Alcon Entertainment in Los Angeles.
“Much of the science behind The Expanse is quite accurate thanks to Naren, and that attention to detail makes the show a lot of fun to work on and more engaging for fans,” notes Foster. “Ilus is a bit like the wild west, so the technology of its settlers is partially reflected in communication transmissions. Their comms have a dirty quality, whereas the ship comms are cleaner-sounding and more closely emulate NASA transmissions.”
Adds Lynds, “One of my big challenges for this season was figuring out how to make Ilus seem habitable and sonically interesting without familiar sounds like rustling trees or bird and insect noises. There are also a lot of amazing VFX moments, and we wanted to make sure the sound, visuals and score always came together in a way that was balanced and hit the right emotions story-wise.”
Foster and Lynds worked side by side on the season’s 5.1 surround mix, with Foster focusing on dialogue and music and Lynds on sound effects and design elements. When each had completed his respective passes using Avid ProTools workstations, they came together for the final mix, spending time on fine strokes, ensuring the dialogue was clear, and making adjustments as VFX shots were dropped in. Final mix playbacks were streamed to Deluxe’s Hollywood facility, where Naren could hear adjustments completed in real time.
In addition to color finishing Season 4 in HDR, Rourke also remastered the three previous seasons of The Expanse in HDR, using her work on Season 4 as a guide and finishing with Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 15. Throughout the process, she was mindful to pull out additional detail in highlights without altering the original grade.
“I felt a great responsibility to be faithful to the show for the creators and its fans,” concludes Rourke. “I was excited to revisit the episodes and could appreciate the wonderful performances and visuals all over again.”