By Karen Moltenbrey
A workstation is a major investment for any studio. Today, selecting the right type of machine for the job can be a difficult process. There are many brands and flavors on the market, and some facilities even opt to build their own. Colorists have several tools available to them when it comes to color grading, ranging from software-based systems (which typically use a multiprocessor workstation with a high-end GPU) to those that are hardware-based.
Here, we examine the color workflow of two different facilities: Technicolor Vancouver and NBCUniversal StudioPost in Los Angeles.
[Editor’s note: These interviews were conducted before the coronavirus work limits were put in place.]
Technicolor is a stalwart in the post industry, with its creative family — including VFX studios MPC, The Mill, Mr. X and Mikros — and wide breadth of post production services offered in many locations around the world. Although Technicolor Vancouver has been established for some time now, it was only within the past two years that the decision was made to offer finishing services again there, with an eye toward becoming more of a boutique operation, albeit one offering top-level effects.
With this in mind, Anne Boyle joined as a senior colorist, and immediately Technicolor Vancouver began a co-production with Technicolor Los Angeles. The plan was for the work to be done in Vancouver, with review and supervision handled in LA. “So we hit the ground running and built out new rooms and bought a lot of new equipment,” says Boyle. “This included investing in FilmLight Baselight, and we quickly built a little boutique post finishing house here.”
This shared-location work setup enabled Technicolor to take advantage of the lucrative tax credits offered in Vancouver. The supervising colorist in LA reviews sessions with the client, after which she and Boyle discuss them, and then Boyle picks up the scene and performs the work based on those conversations or notes in the timeline. A similar process occurs for the Dolby SDR deliverables. “There isn’t much guesswork. It is very seamless,” she says.
“I’ve always used Baselight,” says Boyle, “and was hoping to go that route when I got here, and then this shared project happened, and it was on a Baselight [in LA]. Happily for me, the supervising colorist, Maxine Gervais, insisted that we mirror the exact setup that they had.”
Gervais was using a Baselight X system, so that is what was installed in Vancouver. “It’s multi-GPU (six Nvidia Titan XPs) with a huge amount of storage,” she says. “So we put in the same thing and mimicked the infrastructure in LA. They also put in a Baselight Assist station and plan to upgrade it in the coming months to make it color-capable as well.”
The Baselight X turnkey system ships with bespoke storage and processing hardware, although Technicolor Vancouver loaded it with additional storage. For the grading panels, the company went with the top-of-the-line Blackboard. The Vancouver facility also purchased the same displays as LA — Sony BVM-X300s.
The mirrored setup was necessary for the shared work on Netflix’s Messiah, an HDR project that dropped January 1. “We had to deliver 10 episodes all at once in 4K, [along with] both the HDR PQ masters and the Dolby SDR deliverable, which were done here as well,” explains Boyle. “So we needed the capability to store all of that and all of those renders. It was quite a VFX-heavy show, too.”
Using Pulse, Technicolor’s internal cloud-based system, the data set is shared between the LA and Vancouver sites. Technicolor staff can pull down the data, and VFX vendors can pull their own VFX shots too. “We had exact mirrors of the data. We were not sending project files back and forth, but rather, we shared them,” Boyle explains. “So anyone could jump on the project, whether in Vancouver or LA, and immediately open the project, and everything would appear instantaneously.”
When it comes to the hardware itself, speed and power are big factors. As Boyle points out, the group handles large files, and slowdowns, render issues and playback hiccups are unacceptable.
The color system proved its mettle on Messiah, which required a lot of skin retouching and other beauty work. “The system is dedicated and designed only for colorists,” says Boyle. “And the tools are color-focused.”
Indeed, Boyle has witnessed drastic changes in color workstations over the past several years. File sizes have increased thanks to Red 8K and raw materials, which have driven the need for more powerful machines and more powerful GPUs, particularly with the increasingly complex HDR workflows, wherein floating points are necessary for good color. “More work nowadays needs to be performed on the GPU,” she adds. “You just can’t have enough power behind you.”
NBCUniversal StudioPost knows a thing or two about post production. Not only does the facility provide a range of post, sound and finishing services, but it also offers cutting-edge equipment rentals and custom editorial rooms used by internal and third-party clients.
Specifically, NBCUniversal offers end-to-end picture services that include dailies, editorial, VFX, color correction, duplication and encoding/decoding, data management, QC, sound, sound editorial, sound supervision, mixing and streaming.
Each area has a plethora of workstations and systems needed to perform its given tasks. For the colorists, the facility offers two choices, both on Linux OS: a Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 16.1.2 (fully loaded with a creative suite of plugins and add-ons) running on an HP Z840 machine, and Autodesk Lustre 2019 running on an HP Z820.
“We look for a top-of-the-line color corrector that has a robust creative tool set as well as one that is technically stable, which is why we prefer Linux-based systems,” says Danny Bernardino, digital colorist at NBCUniversal StudioPost. Furthermore, the facility prefers a color corrector that adapts to new file formats and workflows by frequently updating its versions. Another concern is that the system works in concert with all of the ever-changing display demands, such as UHD, 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision.
According to Bernardino, the color systems at NBCUniversal are outfitted with the proper CPU/GPU and SAN storage connectivity to ensure efficient image processing, thereby allowing the color talent to work without interruption. The color suites also are outfitted with production-level video monitors that represent true color. Each has high-quality scopes (waveform, vector and audio) that handle all formats.
When it comes time to select machines for the colorists there, it is a collective process, says senior VP Thomas Thurau. First, the company ascertains the delivery requirements, and then the color talent, engineering and operations staff work together to configure the proper tool sets for the customers’ content. How often the equipment is replaced is contingent on whether new image and display technology has been introduced.
Thurau defines a solid colorist workstation as a robust platform that is Linux-based and has enough card slots or expansion chassis capabilities to handle four or more GPU cards, Fibre Channel cards and more. “All of our systems are in constant demand, from compute to storage, thus we look for systems and hardware that are robust through to delivery,” he notes.
NBCUniversal StudioPost is always humming with various work. Some of the more recent projects there includes Jaws, which was remastered in UHD/HDR, Casino (UHD/HDR), the How to Train Your Dragon series (UHD/HDR) and an array of Alfred Hitchcock’s more famous films. The company also services broadcast episodic (NBCU and others) and OTT/streaming customers, offering a full suite of services (Avid, picture and sound). This includes Law & Order SVU, Chicago Med, Will & Grace, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Mr. Robot, as well as others.
“We take incredible pride in all aspects of our color services here at NBCUniversal StudioPost, and we are especially pleased with our HDR grades,” says Thurau.
For those who prefer to do their own work, NBCUniversal has over 185 editorial rooms, ranging from small to large suites, set up with Avid Media Composer.
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer, covering visual effects and post production.