How collaboration between the DP, VFX and color was key to the film’s look
By Randi Altman
Warner Bros.’ Mad Max: Fury Road is quite a ride, with intense action from start to finish, a ton of visual effects and some pretty unforgiving and sand-filled locations and weather.
While this is a continuation of the Mad Max films of the past, you might notice a very different graphic look, and that was by design. Aussie director George Miller, who helmed the first three Mad Max features — in 1979, 1981 and 1985 — wanted this new film to have the feel of no other post-apocalyptic film that had come before it, including his own.
As part of this process, he called on veteran cinematographer John Seale, ASC, who worked on his first digital film via the Arri Alexa. You can see a story we ran on Seale’s experience on set and working with Miller here.
Next was colorist Eric Whipp of Toronto’s Alter Ego (@alteregotoronto), who worked with Miller on Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, and the two kept in touch. When it came time for Fury Road, the director gave him a call to continue a conversation that actually began while they were working on Happy Feet Two in 2011. “We were doing a lot of tricky things for animation on that one, and George wanted to know how much of this intricate work could be done on a live-action film.”
For Fury Road, Whipp says the production was hard — they shot in Namibia, home to frequent sandstorms and intense heat, which required special precautions by the camera crew. “Because of these challenges, George was focused mainly on the production,” explains Whipp. “It wasn’t until we got to the editing stage that we started to turn some attention to post production and color.”
Thanks to early conversations with Whipp, Miller knew what he could get away with on set — he knew he could push and pull and change things. “He knows the power of what we can do in the color suite,” explains Whipp. “So it was more about forging ahead, shooting and we’ll get to post when we get to it.
The idea of foraging ahead with the shoot must have challenging for a DP, especially one used to working with film?
John, of course, likes beautiful images, but George was telling him not to worry too much about lighting — he was constantly tapping him on the shoulder and saying, “It’s okay, John. It’ll be fine.” (In the interview with him on postPerspective.com Seale explains it this way: “Our edict was ‘just shoot it.’ Continuity of light wasn’t really a question. We knew that the film would be cut very quickly, so there wouldn’t be time to analyze every shot.)
Fury Road was shot over six months and in all kinds of weather, but it is cut so very quickly (by editor Margaret Sixel) that George wasn’t concerned about cutting from a cloudy day to a sunny day because it would be dealt with in post. That was all new to John because this was his first digital film and first time shooting with the Alexa.
You worked with John Seale and the VFX supervisor closely?
Yes. John, myself, and Andrew Jackson (Happy Feet Two), the visual effects supervisor, were involved early on. There were many people involved early and collaborating. That was a big part of this film: the collaboration between the cinematography, visual effects, editing and color.
That collaboration is so important for a film like this because you’re never going to capture all of the image in-camera. You’re going to need visual effects — there’s going to be background replacements, wire removal, there’s going to be changes to the images. Then in the color grading, we’re going to try and enhance it and make it more graphic.
Even editorial played a big role in the look of the film and the collaboration. It’s not really one person responsible for the look of a film anymore, which is the way it should be.
When it came time to talk about the look George wanted from the color, how was that expressed to you?
People were experimenting with looks during the production. Even I took some footage and started experimenting. There was a still photographer on set who shot these fantastic images, but they are a completely different look to the actual film. The still photography had a very desaturated, bleached look, which seemed to be the most natural way to go for a film like this, but ultimately that wasn’t the look George wanted.
What did he want from the look?
Well, in February 2014, I traveled from Toronto, where I live, to Sydney and sat with George in a grading suite. We started by looking at the production stills on the wall and he said, “There are some great qualities about these images; they’ve got great contrast and nice grit, but I don’t want to go desaturated. Every post-apocalyptic film for the last 30 years has gone with a desaturated, bleached look. Let’s do the opposite. I want to go saturated and graphic.”
That was essentially the brief. Other than that, it was, “See what works. Let’s experiment and try to come up with different looks to keep the film visually interesting.”
You, together with Miller?
Yes, we started developing looks, tried a few scenes and worked our way through the film. The biggest challenge was there is about a half-hour of day-for-night footage that we knew that was going to be tricky and time consuming to grade — it involved a lot of intricate work. We had to develop that look first because it was going to take a couple of months of color grading work to get that scene in shape. We sat down, we worked out a few ideas and then I went back to Toronto with the footage and started working on my own, in my spare time between commercial jobs, over the next six to eight months.
How would you work with Miller on approvals?
We would do live remote sessions with George and beam him the live color grade from Toronto to Sydney. He would sit in the theater in Sydney and we would interactively grade.
For the most part, I was just trying to get the film in shape by myself because it required detailed work to even out all the different days. Some are dusty, some are cloudy and some are sunny. It was about trying to get the looks across all the scenes and get it all in shape. With George’s input on these remote sessions, we would refine the look a bit more. Then in November 2014, I went back to Sydney. George and I sat together for about five weeks. That’s where we went through the film and started refining it.
Were you working out of a facility in Sydney?
We had a couple of FilmLight Baselights set up at George’s production house in Sydney, Kennedy Miller Mitchell. We set up a primary Baselight and a projector, and some support Baselights. We had a great DI team headed by DI specialist Justin Tran. He made sure everything was running and worked out all the technical kinks. [Editor’s Note: Tran debayered the Arri raw files for the DI and VFX vendors via the SGO Mistika. He and his team also used it for complex opticals, including dynamic retimes and clean up work.]
Back at Alter Ego in Toronto we have five Baselights and a full team of six colorists. I was able to get their help because the day-for-night footage required a lot of detailed roto work.
Can you talk more about this day-for-night scene?
This was a very unusual way of doing day-for-night photography. John Seale exposed the digital negative about two stops overexposed. This goes against every rulebook, but the Arri Alexa camera has so much range. If you don’t clip the highlights in the roll-off, it’s actually nice and silky, and when you drop the exposure back down in the grading suite, you can pull all this information out of the shadows because you have so much range from being overexposed.
That’s how we created the look… by being able to dig out detail, but selectively. You see what you need to see yet the scene still feels dark, like a night scene.
You use some extreme color in the film.
Yes. We knew going in that this was one big, long road movie. Other than at the beginning of the film there really aren’t any interiors. We knew it could become very boring to watch when the only color palate was sand and some occasional sky.
The mantra in our heads was “keep it looking like a graphic novel”. We would look across the story, look at the scenes and work out how to apply a slightly different look to different scenes to keep it interesting.
Can you offer some examples?
In the scene where Max first meets Furiosa and the wives who are escaping, we went with a very golden and white look — the sky is very white. It’s like they were the golden goddesses. It’s a look that helps tell that story. When we go to night, though, we went the opposite and extremely blue. It’s not necessarily a photorealistic night, but a very graphic night. It’s refreshing to see something blue because you’ve been staring at so much gold for so long with all the sand.
Later in the film there’s a scene where the characters have to come up with a plan, but the audience isn’t sure if the plan will work. For that scene, instead of going with blue skies in the background, we put in new and quite stormy skies, but the characters are in sunlight. So they’re standing in sun and it’s storming in the background and you’re getting an uneasy feeling. That’s helping to tell the story that you’re not sure if the plan will work or not.
How do you work with the Baselight? Can you just talk a little bit about the tool itself?
I think that Baselight is one of the few grading systems out there that can do mini-visual effects type work. It’s quite powerful. The way we approached this film was not just your typical 3-4 weeks of color grading at the end of a movie; it really became the finishing suite.
Can you explain that?
All the visual effects would come in and everything passed through the Baselight. We took mattes from visual effects and the raw footage and put everything together. We tried to tidy it all up because there’s lots of tiny effects work that we would do in Baselight, like sky replacement and other little mini-comps. The goal was to finish everything and get it as smooth and silky as possible.
This is a visual effects-heavy film. Other than everything having to go through your suite there at the end, did the VFX have an affect on your work?
No. Actually, the fact that it was very visual effects heavy was excellent. I have done a lot of animated films where we work with these mattes and break up all the components into every eyeball and mouth and character. The same thing worked with this film. Whenever we got a visual effects delivery, if a background was being enhanced or a mountain was being put in a background, we would get mattes for that so we could control those elements.
Control them how?
With grading, especially with a movie that’s so heavy in its look like this, if you put a very strong, contrast-y look onto the images, you might lose a lot of detail somewhere. Often, that is detail that a visual effects artist has spent a lot of time putting in, and now you’ve just crushed all that detail away. So having the matte to control that element and expose it back up and balance it all out again is actually really useful.
Thanks to Eric Whipp for taking the time to chat with postPerspective, and don’t forget to take a look at our coverage of John Seale’s “Fury Road” experience.