By Randi Altman
Christopher M. Ray is a veteran colorist with a varied resume that includes many television and feature projects, including Tomorrowland, Warcraft, The Great Wall, The Crossing, Orange Is the New Black, Quantico, Code Black, The Crossing and Alpha. These projects have taken Ray all over the world, including remote places throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
We recently spoke with Ray, who is on staff at Burbank’s Picture Shop, to learn more about his workflow on the feature film Alpha, which focuses on a young man trying to survive alone in the wilderness after he’s left for dead during his first hunt with his Cro-Magnon tribe.
Ray was dailies colorist on the project, working with supervising DI colorist Maxine Gervais. Gervais of Technicolor won an HPA Award for her work on Alpha in the Outstanding Color Grading — Feature Film category.
Let’s find out more….
How early did you get involved in Alpha?
I was approached about working on Alpha right before the start of principal photography. From the beginning I knew that it was going to be a groundbreaking workflow. I was told that we would be working with the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, mainly working in an on-set color grading trailer and we would be using FilmLight’s Daylight software.
Once I was on board, our main focus was to design a comprehensive workflow that could accommodate on-set grading and Daylight software while adapting to the ever-changing challenges that the industry brings. Being involved from the start was actually was a huge perk for me. It gave us the time we needed to design and really fine-tune the extensive workflow.
Can you talk about working with the final colorist Maxine Gervais and how everyone communicated?
It was a pleasure working with Maxine. She’s really dialed in to the demands of our industry. She was able to fly to Vancouver for a few days while we were shooting the hair/makeup tests, which is how we were able to form in-person communication. We were able to sit down and discuss creative approaches to the feature right away, which I appreciated as I’m the type of person that likes to dive right in.
At the film’s conception, we set in motion a plan to incorporate a Baselight Linked Grade (BLG) color workflow from FilmLight. This would allow my color grades in Daylight to transition smoothly into Maxine’s Baselight software. We knew from the get-go that there would be several complicated “day for night” scenes that Maxine and I would want to bring to fruition right away. Using the BLG workflow, I was able to send her single “Arriraw” frames that gave that “day for night” look we were searching for. She was able to then send them back to me via a BLG file. Even in remote locations, it was easy for me to access the BLG grade files via the Internet.
[Maxine Gervais weighs in on working with Ray: “Christopher was great to work with. As the workflow on the feature was created from scratch, he implemented great ideas. He was very keen on the whole project and was able to adapt to the ever-changing challenges of the show. It is always important to have on-set color dialed in correctly, as it can be problematic if it is not accurately established in production.”]
How did you work with the DP? What direction were you given?
Being on set, it was very easy for DP Martin Gschlacht to come over to the trailer and view the current grade I was working on. Like Maxine, Martin already had a very clear vision for the project, which made it easy to work with him. Oftentimes, he would call me over on set and explain his intent for the scene. We would brainstorm ways of how I could assist him in making his vision come to life. Audiences rarely see raw camera files, or the how important color can influence the story being told.
It also helps that Martin is a master of aesthetic. The content being captured was extremely striking; he has this natural intuition about what look is needed for each environment that he shoots. We shot in lush rain forests in British Columbia and arid badlands in Alberta, which each inspired very different aesthetics.
Whenever I had a bit of down time, I would walk over to set and just watch them shoot, like a fly on the wall quietly observing and seeing how the story was unfolding. As a colorist, it’s so special to be able to observe the locations on set. Seeing the natural desaturated hues of dead grass in the badlands or the vivid lush greens in the rain forest with your own eyes is an amazing opportunity many of us don’t get.
You were on set throughout? Is that common for you?
We were on set throughout the entire project as a lot of our filming locations were in remote areas of British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. One of our most demanding shooting locations included the Dinosaur Provincial Park in Brooks, Alberta. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site that no one had been allowed to film at prior to this project. I needed to have easy access to the site in order to easily communicate with the film’s executive team and production crew. They were able to screen footage in their trailer and we had this seamless back-and-forth workflow. This also allowed them to view high-quality files in a comfortable and controlled environment. Also, the ability to flag any potential issues and address them immediately on set was incredibly valuable with a film of such size and complexity.
Alpha was actually the first time I worked in an on-set grading trailer. In the past I usually worked out of the production office. I have heard of other films working with an on-set trailer, but I don’t think I would say that it is overly common. Sometimes, I wish I could be stationed on set more often.
The film was shot mostly with the Alexa 65, but included footage from other formats. Can you talk about that workflow?
The film was mostly shot on the Alexa 65, but there were also several other formats it was shot on. For most of the shoot there was a second unit that was shooting with Alexa XT and Red Weapon cameras, with a splinter unit shooting B-roll footage on Canon 1D, 5D and Sony A7S. In addition to these, there were units in Iceland and South Africa shooting VFX plates on a Red Dragon.
By the end of the shoot, there were several different camera formats and over 10 different resolutions. We used the 6.5K Alexa 65 resolution as the master resolution and mapped all the others into it.
The Alexa 65 camera cards were backed up to 8TB “sled” transfer drives using a Codex Vault S system. The 8TB transfer drives were then sent to the trailer where I had two Codex Vault XL systems — one was used for ingesting all of the footage into my SAN and the second was used to prepare footage for LTO archival. All of the other unit footage was sent to the trailer via shuttle drives or Internet transfer.
After the footage was successfully ingested to the SAN with a checksum verification, it was ready to be colored, processed, and then archived. We had eight LTO6 decks running 24/7, as the main focus was to archive the exorbitant amounts of high-res camera footage that we were receiving. Just the Alexa 65 alone was about 2.8TB per hour for each camera.
Had you worked with Alexa 65 footage previously?
Many times. A few year ago, I was in China for seven months working on The Great Wall, which was one of the first films to shoot with the Alexa 65. I had a month of in-depth pre-production with the camera testing, shooting and honing the camera’s technology. Working very closely with Arri and Codex technicians during this time, I was able to design the most efficient workflow possible. Even as the shoot progressed, I continued to communicate closely with both companies. As new challenges arose, we developed and implemented solutions that kept production running smoothly.
The workflow we designed for The Great Wall was very close to the workflow we ended up using on Alpha, so it was a great advantage that I had previous experience working in-depth with the camera.
What were some of the challenges you faced on this film?
To be honest, I love a challenge. As a colorist, we are thrown into tricky situations every day. I am thankful for these challenges; they improve my craft and enable me to become more efficient at problem solving. One of the largest challenges that I faced in this particular project was working with so many different units, given the number of units shooting, the size of the footage alone and the dozens of format types needed.
We had to be accessible around the clock, most of us working 24 hours a day. Needless to say, I made great friends with the transportation driving team and the generator operators. I think they would agree that my grading trailer was one of their largest challenges on the film since I constantly needed to be on set and my work was being imported/exported in such high resolutions.
In the end, as I was watching this absolutely gorgeous film in the theater it made sense. Working those crazy hours was absolutely worth it — I am thankful to have worked with such a cohesive team and the experience is one I will never forget.