Tag Archives: Siggy Ferstl

Color grading Togo with an Autochrome-type look

Before principal photography began on the Disney+ period drama Togo, the film’s director and cinematographer, Ericson Core, asked Company 3 senior colorist Siggy Ferstl to help design a visual approach for the color grade that would give the 1920s-era drama a unique look. Based on a true story, Togo is named for the lead sled dog on Leonhard Seppala’s (Willem Dafoe) team and tells the story of their life-and-death relay through Alaska’s tundra to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to the desperate citizens of Nome.

Siggy Ferstl

Core wanted a look that was reminiscent of the early color photography process called Autochrome, as well as an approach that evoked an aged, distressed feel. Ferstl, who recently colored Lost in Space (Netflix) and The Boys (Amazon), spent months — while not working on other projects — developing new ways of building this look using Blackmagic’s Resolve 16.

Many of Ferstl’s ideas were realized using the new Fusion VFX tab in Resolve 16. It allowed him to manipulate images in ways that took his work beyond the normal realm of color grading and into the arena of visual effects.

By the time he got to work grading Togo, Ferstl had already created looks that had some of the visual qualities of Autochrome melded with a sense of age, almost as if the images were shot in that antiquated format. Togo “reflects the kind of style that I like,” explains Ferstl. “Ericson, as both director and cinematographer, was able to provide very clear input about what he wanted the movie to look like.”

In order for this process to succeed, it needed to go beyond the appearance of a color effect seemingly just placed “on top” of the images. It had to feel organic and interact with the photography, to seem embedded in the picture.

A Layered Approach
Ferstl started this large task by dividing the process into a series of layers that would work together to affect the color, of course, but also to create lens distortion, aging artifacts and all the other effects. A number of these operations would traditionally be sent to Company 3’s VFX department or to an outside vendor to be created by their artists and returned as finished elements. But that kind of workflow would have added an enormous amount of time to the post process. And, just as importantly, all these effects and color corrections needed to work interactively during grading sessions at Company 3 so Ferstl and Core could continuously see and refine the overall look. Even a slight tweak to a single layer could affect how other layers performed, so Ferstl needed complete, realtime control of every layer for every fine adjustment.

Likewise the work of Company 3 conform artist Paul Carlin could not be done in the way conform has typically been done. It couldn’t be sent out of Resolve and into a different conform/compositing tool, republished to the company network and then returned to Ferstl’s Resolve timeline. This would have taken too long and wouldn’t have allowed for the interactivity required in grading sessions.

Carlin needed to be able to handle the small effects that are part of the conform process — split screens, wire removals, etc. — quickly, and that meant working from the same media Ferstl was accessing. Carlin worked entirely in Resolve using Fusion for any cleanup and compositing effects — a practice becoming more and more common among conform artists at Company 3. “He could do his work and return it to our shared timeline,” Ferstl says. “We both had access to all the original material.”


Most of the layers actually consisted of multiple sublayers. Here is some detail:
Texture: This group of sublayers was based on overlaid textures that Ferstl created to have a kind of “paper” feel to the images. There were sublayers based on photographs of fabrics and surfaces that all play together to form a texture over the imagery.
Border: This was an additional texture that darkened portions of the edges of the frame. It inserts a sense of a subtle vignette or age artifact that framed the image. It isn’t consistent throughout; it continually changes. Sublayers bring to the images a bit of edge distortion that resembles the look of diffraction that can happen to lenses, particularly lenses from the early 20th century, under various circumstances.
Lens effects: DP Core shot with modern lenses built with very evolved coatings, but Ferstl was interested in achieving the look of uncoated and less-refined optics of the day. This involved the creation of sublayers of subtle distortion and defocus effects.
Stain: Ferstl applied a somewhat sepia-colored stain to parts of the image to help with the aging effect. He added a hint of additional texture and brought some sepia to some of the very bluish exterior shots, introducing hints of warmth into the images.
Grain-like effect: “We didn’t go for something that exactly mimicked the effect of film grain,” Ferstl notes. “That just didn’t suit this film. But we wanted something that has that feel, so using Resolve’s Grain OFX, I generated a grain pattern, rendered it out and then brought it back into Resolve and experimented with running the pattern at various speeds. We decided it looked best slowed to 6fps, but then it had a steppiness to it that we didn’t like. So I went back and used the tool’s Optical Flow in the process of slowing it down. That blends the frames together, and the result provided just a hint of old-world filmmaking. It’s very subtle and more part of the overall texture.”

Combining Elements
“It wasn’t just a matter of stacking one layer on top of the other and applying a regular blend. I felt it needed to be more integrated and react subtly with the footage in an organic-looking way,” Ferstl recalls.

One toolset he used for this was a series of customized lens flare using Resolve’s OFX, not for their actual purpose but as the basis of a matte. “The effect is generated based on highlight detail in the shot,” explains Ferstl. “So I created a matte shape from the lens flare effect and used that shape as the basis to integrate some of the texture layers into the shots. It’s the textures that become more or less pronounced based on the highlight details in the photography and that lets the textures breathe more.”

Ferstl also made use of the Tilt-Shift effect in Fusion that alters the image in the way movements within a tilt/shift lens would. He could have used a standard Power Window to qualify the portion of the image to apply blur to, but that method applied the effect more evenly and gave a diffused look, which Ferstl felt wasn’t like a natural lens effect. Again, the idea was to avoid having any of these effects look like some blanket change merely sitting on top of the image.

“You can adjust a window’s softness,” he notes, “but it just didn’t look like something that was optical… it looked too digital. I was desperate to have a more optical feel, so I started playing around with the Tilt-Shift OFX and applying that just to the defocus effect.

“But that only affected the top and bottom of the frame, and I wanted more control than that,” he continues. “I wanted to draw shapes to determine where and how much the tilt/shift effect would be applied. So I added the Tilt-Shift in Fusion and fed a poly mask into it as an external matte. I had the ability to use the mask like a depth map to add dimensionality to the effect.”

As Ferstl moved forward with the look development, the issue that continually came up was that while he and Core were happy with the way these processes affected any static image in the show, “as soon as the camera moves,” Ferstl explains, “you’d feel like the work went from being part of the image to just a veil stuck on top.”

He once again made use of Fusion’s compositing capabilities: The delivery spec was UHD, and he graded the actual photography in that resolution. But he built all the effects layers at the much larger 7K. “With the larger layers,” he says, “if the camera moved, I was able to use Fusion to track and blend the texture with it. It didn’t have to just seem tacked on. That really made an enormous difference.”

Firepower
Fortunately for Ferstl, Company 3’s infrastructure provided the enormous throughput, storage and graphics/rendering capabilities to work with all these elements (some of which were extremely GPU-intensive) playing back in concert in a color grading bay. “I had all these textured elements and external mattes all playing live off the [studio’s custom-built] SAN and being blended in Resolve. We had OpenFx plugins for border and texture and flares generated in real time with the swing/tilt effect running on every shot. That’s a lot of GPU power!”

Ferstl found this entire experience artistically rewarding, and looks forward to similar challenges. “It’s always great when a project involves exploring the tools I have to work with and being able to create new looks that push the boundaries of what my job of colorist entails.”

Netflix’s Lost in Space: mastering for Dolby Vision HDR, Rec.709

There is a world of difference between Netflix’s ambitious science-fiction series Lost in Space (recently renewed for another 10 episodes) and the beloved but rather low-tech, tongue-in-cheek 1960s show most fondly remembered for the repartee between persnickety Dr. Smith and the rather tinny-looking Robot. This series, starring Molly Parker, Toby Stevens and Parker Posey (in a very different take on Dr. Smith), is a very modern, VFX-intensive adventure show with more deeply wrought characters and elaborate action sequences.

Siggy Ferstl

Colorist Siggy Ferstl of Company 3 devoted a significant amount of his time and creative energy to the 10-episode release over the five-and-a-half-month period the group of 10 episodes was in the facility. While Netflix’s approach to dropping all 10 episodes at once, rather than the traditional series schedule of an episode a week, fuels excitement and binge-watching among viewers, it also requires a different kind of workflow, with cross-boarded shoots across multiple episodes and different parts of episodes coming out of editorial for color grading throughout the story arc. “We started on episode one,” Ferstl explains, “but then we’d get three and portions of six and back to four, and so on.”

Additionally, the series was mastered both for Dolby Vision HDR and Rec.709, which added additional facets to the grading process over shows delivered exclusively for Rec.709.

Ferstl’s grading theater also served as a hub where the filmmakers, including co-producer Scott Schofield, executive producer Zack Estrin and VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani could see iterations of the many effects sequences as they came in from vendors (Cinesite, Important Looking Pirates and Image Engine, among others).

Ferstl himself made use of some new tools within Resolve to create a number of effects that might once have been sent out of house or completed during the online conform. “The process was layered and very collaborative,” says Ferstl. “That is always a positive thing when it happens but it was particularly important because of this series’ complexity.”

The Look
Shot by Sam McCurdy, the show’s aesthetic was designed, “to have a richness and realness to the look,” Ferstl explains. “It’s a family show but it doesn’t have that vibrant and saturated style you might associate with that. It has a more sophisticated kind of look.”

One significant alteration to the look involves changes to the environment of the planet onto which the characters crash land. The filmmakers wanted the exteriors to look less Earthlike with foliage a bit reddish, less verdant than the actual locations. The visual effects companies handled some of the more pronounced changes, especially as the look becomes more extreme in later episodes, but for a significant amount of this work, Ferstl was able to affect the look in his grading sessions — something that until recently would likely not have been achievable.

Ferstl, who has always sought out and embraced new technology to help him do his job, made use of some features that were then brand new to Resolve 14. In the case of the planet’s foliage, he made use of the Color Compressor tool within the OpenFX tab on the color corrector. “This allowed me take a range of colors and collapse that into a single vector of color,” he explains. “This lets you take your selected range of colors, say yellows and greens in this case, and compress them in terms of hue, saturation and luminance.” Sometimes touted as a tool to give colorists more ability to even out flesh tones, Ferstl applied the tool to the foliage and compressed the many shades of green into a narrower range prior to shifting the resulting colors to the more orange look.

“With foliage you have light greens and darker greens and many different ranges within the color green,” Ferstl explains. “If we’d just isolated those ranges and turned them orange individually, it wouldn’t give us the same feel. But by limiting the range and latitude of those greens in the Color Compressor and then changing the hue we were able to get much more desirable results.” Of course, Ferstl also used multiple keys and windows to isolate the foliage that needed to change from the elements of the scenes that didn’t.

He also made use of the Camera Shake function, which was particularly useful in a scene in the second episode in which an extremely heavy storm of sharp hail-like objects hits the planet, endangering many characters. The storm itself was created at the VFX houses, but the additional effect of camera shake on top of that was introduced and fine-tuned in the grade. “I suggested that we could add the vibration, and it worked very well,” he recalls. By doing the work during color grading sessions, Ferstl and the filmmakers in the session could see that effect as it was being created, in context and on the big screen, and could fine-tune the “camera movement” right then and there.

Fortunately, the colorist notes, the production afforded the time to go back and revise color decisions as more episodes came into Company 3. “The environment of the planet changes throughout. But we weren’t coloring episodes one after the other. It was really like working on a 10-hour feature.

“If we start at episode one and jump to episode six,” Ferstl notes, “exactly how much should the environment have changed in-between? So it was a process of estimating where the look should land but knowing we could go back and refine those decisions if it proved necessary once we had the surrounding episodes for context.”

Dolby Vision Workflow
As most people reading this know, mastering in high dynamic range (Dolby Vision in this case) opens up the possibility of working within a significantly expanded contrast range and wider color gamut over Rec.709 standard for traditional HD. Lost in Space was mastered concurrently for both, which required Ferstl to use Dolby’s workflow. And this involves making all corrections for the HDR version and then allowing the Dolby hardware/software to analyze the images to bring them into the Rec.709 space for the colorist to do a standard-def pass.

Ferstl, who worked with two Sony X-300 monitors, one calibrated for Rec.709 and the other for HDR, explains, “Everyone is used to looking at Rec. 709. Most viewers today will see the show in Rec.709 and that’s really what the clients are most concerned with. At some point, if HDR becomes the dominant way people watch television, then that will probably change. But we had to make corrections in HDR and then wait for the analysis to show us what the revised image looked like for standard dynamic range.”

He elaborates that while the Dolby Vision spec allows the brightest whites to read at 4000 nits, he and the filmmakers preferred to limit that to 1000 nits. “If you let highlights go much further than we did,” he says, “some things can become hard to watch. They become so bright that visual fatigue sets in after too long. So we’d sometimes take the brightest portions of the frame and slightly clamp them,” he says of the technique of holding the brightest areas of the frame to levels below the maximum the spec allows.

“Sometimes HDR can be challenging to work with and sometimes it can be amazing,” he allows. Take the vast vistas and snowcapped mountains we first see when the family starts exploring the planet. “You have so much more detail in the snow and an amazing range in the highlights than you could ever display in Rec.709,” he says.

“In HDR, the show conveys the power and majesty of these vast spaces beyond what viewers are used to seeing. There are quite a few sections that lend themselves to HDR,” he continues. But as with all such tools, it’s not always appropriate to the story to use the extremes of that dynamic range. Some highlights in HDR can pull the viewer’s attention to a portion of the frame in a way that simply can’t be replicated in Rec. 709 and, likewise, a bright highlight from a practical or a reflection in HDR can completely overpower an image that tells the story perfectly in standard dynamic range. “The tools can re-map an image mathematically,” Ferstl notes, “but it still requires artists to interpret an image’s meaning and feel from one space to the other.”

That brings up another question: How close do you want the HDR and the Rec.709 to look to each other when they can look very different? Overall, the conclusion of all involved on the series was to constrain the levels in the HDR pass a bit in order to keep the two versions in the same ballpark aesthetically. “The more you let the highlights go in HDR,” he explains, “the harder it is to compress all that information for the 100-nit version. If you look at scenes with the characters in space suits, for example, they have these small lights that are part of their helmets and if you just let those go in HDR, those lights become so distracting that it becomes hard to look at the people’s faces.”

Such decisions were made in the grading theater on a case by case basis. “It’s not like we looked at a waveform monitor and just said, ‘let’s clamp everything above this level,’” he explains, “it was ultimately about the feeling we’d get from each shot.”

Meet the Artist: Company 3’s Siggy Ferstl

NAME: Siggy Ferstl

COMPANY: Company 3  (@Company3)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Company 3 is an international post production company offering services for feature films and commercials. We offer color grading and other finishing services such as conforming.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Senior Colorist.

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I work in a digital grading suite or theater, where I run through a commercial or feature film and “color” the images. That runs the gamut from making small tweaks to help shots match, Continue reading