As immersive and experiential projects are being mounted in more and more settings — and as display technology allows for larger and more high-resolution screens to be integrated into these installations —colorists are being called on to grade video and film content that’s meant to be viewed in vastly different settings than in the past. No longer are they grading for content that will live on a 50-inch flat screen TV or a 9-inch tablet —they’re grading for wall-sized screens that dominate museum exhibits or public spaces.
A recent example is when the Manhattan office of Squint /Opera, a London-based digital design studio, tapped Moving Picture Company colorist James Tillett to grade content that has taken over floor-to-ceiling screens in the new Second Floor Experience in the iconic Empire State Building. Comprising nine interactive and immersive galleries that recreate everything from the building’s construction to its encounter with its most famous visitor and unofficial mascot, King Kong, the 10,000-square-foot space is part of the building’s multimillion dollar renovation.
Here, Tillett discusses what went into grading for such a large-scale experiential project such as this.
How did this project come about?
Alvin Cruz, one of our creative directors here in New York, has a designer colleague who put us in contact with the Squint/Opera team. We met with them and they quickly realized they’d be able to do everything on this project except the color grade. That’s where we came in.
How did this project differ from the more traditional color grading work you usually do?
You have to work in a different color space if the final product will be shown in a theater versus, say, broadcast TV or online. The same thinking goes here, but as every experiential project is different, you have to evaluate based on the design of the space and the type of screen or projection system being used, and then make an educated guess on how the footage will respond.
What were the steps you took to tackle this kind of project?
The first thing we did when we got the footage from Squint/Opera was to bring it into the suite and view it in that environment. Then my executive producer, Ed Koenig, and I jumped on the Q train and went into the space at the Empire State Building to see how the same footage looked in the various gallery settings. This helped us to get a feel for how it will ultimately be seen. I also wanted to see how those spaces differed visually from our grading suite. That informed my process going forward.
What sections of the Experience required extra consideration?
The “Construction Area” gallery, which documents the construction of the building, has very large screens. This meant paying close attention to the visual details within each of the films. For example, zooming in close to certain parts of the image and keeping an eye on noise and grain structure.
The “Site Survey” gallery gives the visitor a sense of what it would be like on the ground as the building surveyors are taking their measurements. Visitors are able to look through various replica surveying devices and see different scenes unfolding. During the grade (I use FilmLight Baselight), we had a prototype device in the suite that Squint/Opera created with a 3D printer. This allowed us to preview the grade through the same type of special mirrored screen that’s used in the actual replica surveying devices in the exhibit. In fact, we actually ended up setting the calibration of these screens as part of the grading process and then transferred those settings over to the actual units at the ESB.
In the “King Kong” gallery, even though the video content is in black and white, it was important that the image on the screens was consistent with the model of King Kong’s hand that reaches into the physical space, which has a slightly reddish tone to it. We started off just trying to make the footage feel more like a vintage black and white film print, but realized we needed to introduce some color to make it sit better in the space. This meant experimenting with different levels of red/sepia tint to the black and white and exporting different versions, with a final decision then made on-site.
Were you able to replicate what the viewing conditions would be for these films while working in the color suite? And did this influence the grade?
What’s important about grading for experiential projects like this is that, while you can’t replicate the exact conditions, you still have to give the footage a grade that supports the theme or focus of the film’s content. You also have to fully understand and appreciate where it’s going to be seen and keep that top of mind throughout the entire process.