By Randi Altman
Netflix’s Altered Carbon is a new sci-fi series set in a dystopian future where people are immortal thanks to something called “stacks,” which contain their entire essence — their personalities, their memories, everything. The one setback is that unless you are a Meth (one of the rich and powerful), you need to buy a “sleeve” (a body) for your stack, and it might not have any resemblance to your former self. It could be a different color, a different sex, a different age, a different everything. You have to take what you can get.
Based on a 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, it stars Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman.
We reached out to the show’s colorist, Jill Bogdanowicz, as well as post producer Allen Marshall Palmer to find out more about the show’s varied and distinctive looks.
The look has a very Blade Runner-type feel. Was that in homage to the films?
Bogdanowicz: The creators wanted a film noir look. Blade Runner is the same genre, but the show isn’t specifically an homage to Blade Runner.
Palmer: I’ll leave that for fans to dissect.
Jill, can you talk about your process? What tools did you use?
Bogdanowicz: I designed a LUT to create that film noir look before shooting. I actually provided a few options, and they chose my favorite one and used it throughout. After they shot everything and I had all 10 episodes in my bay, I got familiar with the content, wrapped my head around the story and came up with ideas to tell that story with color.
The show covers many different times and places so scenes needed to be treated visually to show audiences where the story is and what’s happened. I colored both HDR (Dolby Vision) and SDR passes using DaVinci Resolve.
I worked very closely with both DPs — Martin Ahlgren and Neville Kidd — in pre-timing the show, and they gave me a nice idea of what they were looking for so I had a great starting point. They were very close knit. The entire team on this project was an absolute pleasure, and it was a great creative collaboration, which comes through in the final product of the show.
The show is shot and posted like a feature and has a feature feel. Was that part of your marching orders?
Bogdanowicz: I’m primarily a features colorist, so I’m very familiar with the film noir look and heavy VFX, and that’s one reason I was included on this project. It was right up my alley.
Palmer: We approached Altered Carbon as a 10-part feature rather than a television series. I coined the term “feature episodic entertainment,” which describes what we were aspiring to — destination viewing instead of something merely disposable. In a world with so many viewing options, we wanted to command the viewer’s full attention, and fans are rewarded for that attention.
We were very concerned about how images, especially VFX, were going to look in HDR so we had weekly VFX approval sessions with Jill, our mastering colorist, in her color timing bay.
Executive producers and studio along with the VFX and post teams were able to sit together — adjusting color corrections if needed before giving final approval on shots. This gave us really good technical and creative quality control. Despite our initial concerns about VFX shots in HDR, we found that with vendors like Double Negative and Milk with their robust 16-bit EXR pipelines we weren’t “breaking” VFX shots when color correcting for HDR.
How did the VFX affect the workflow?
Bogdanowicz: Because I was brought on so early, the LUT I created was shared with the VFX vendors so they had a good estimation of the show’s contrast. That really helped them visualize the look of the show so that the look of the shots was pretty darn close by the time I got them in my bay.
Was there a favorite scene or scenes?
Bogdanowicz: There are so many spectacular moments, but the emotional core for me is in episode 104 when we see the beginning of the Kovacs and Quell love story in the past and how that love gives Kovacs the strength to survive in the present day.
Palmer: That’s a tough question! There are so many, it’s hard to choose. I think the episode that really jumps out is the one in which Joel Kinnaman’s character is being tortured and the content skips back and forth in time, changes and alternates between VR and reality. It was fun to create a different visual language for each space.
Can you talk about challenges in the process and how you overcame them?
Bogdanowicz: The show features a lot of VFX and they all need to look as real as possible, so I had to make sure they felt part of the worlds. Fortunately, VFX supervisor Everett Burrell and his team are amazing and the VFX is top notch. Coming up with different ideas and collaborating with producers James Middleton and Laeta Kalogridis on those ideas was a really fun creative challenge. I used the Sapphire VFX plugin for Resolve to heavily treat and texture VR looks in different ways.
Palmer: In addition to the data management challenges on the picture side, we were dealing with mixing in Dolby Atmos. It was very easy to get distracted with how great the Atmos mix sounds — the downmixes generally translated very well, but monitoring in 5.1 and 2.0 did reveal some small details that we wanted to adjust. Generally, we’re very happy with how both the picture and sound is translating into viewer’s homes.
Dolby Vision HDR is great at taking what’s in the color bay into the home viewing environment, but there are still so many variables in viewing set-ups that you can still end up chasing your own tail. It was great to see the behind the scenes of Netflix’s dedication to providing the best picture and sound quality through the service.
The look of the AI hotel was so warm. I wanted to live there. Can you talk about that look?
Bogdanowicz: The AI hotel look was mostly done in design and lighting. I saw the warm practical lights and rich details in the architecture and throughout the hotel and ran with it. I just aimed to keep the look filmic and inviting.
What about the look of where the wealthy people lived?
Bogdanowicz: The Meth houses are above the clouds, so we kept the look very clean and cool with a lot of true whites and elegant color separation.
Seems like there were a few different looks within the show?
Bogdanowicz: The same LUT for the film noir look is used throughout the show, but the VR looks are very different. I used Sapphire to come up with different concepts and textures for the different VR looks, from rich quality of the high-end VR to the cheap VR found underneath a noodle bar.
Allen, can you walk us through the workflow from production to post?
Palmer: With the exception of specialty shots, the show was photographed on Alexa 65 — mostly in 5K mode, but occasionally in 6.5K and 4K for certain lenses. The camera is beautiful and a large part of the show’s cinematic look, but it generates a lot of data (about 1.9TB/hour for 5K) so this was the first challenge. The camera dictates using the Codex Vault system, and Encore Vancouver was up to the task for handling this material. We wanted to get the amount of data down for post, so we generated 4096×2304 ProRes 4444XQ “mezzanine” files, which we used for almost all of the show assembly and VFX pulls.
During production and post, all of our 4K files were kept online at Efilm using their portal system. This allowed us fast, automated access to the material so we could quickly do VFX pulls, manage color, generate 16-bit EXR frames and send those off to VFX vendors. We knew that time saved there was going to give us more time on the back end to work creatively on the shots so the Portal was a very valuable tool.
How many VFX shots did you average per episode? Seems like a ton, especially with the AI characters. Who provided those and what were those turnarounds like?
Palmer: There were around 2,300 visual effects shots during this season — probably less than most people would think because we built a large Bay City street inside a former newspaper printing facility outside of Vancouver. The shot turnaround varied depending on the complexity and where we were in the schedule. We were lucky that something like episode 1’s “limo ride” sequence was started very early on because it gave us a lot of time to refine our first grand views of Bay City. Our VFX supervisor Everett Burrell and VFX producer Tony Meagher were able to get us out in front of a lot of challenges like the amount of 3D work in the last two episodes by starting that work early on since we knew we would need those shots from the script and prep phase.