Discussing (remote) color workflow and cinematic look development for Netflix series ‘Mo’
Now streaming on Netflix and produced by A24, “Mo” is a comedy series created by Mo Amer and Ramy Youssef, directed by Slick Naim and DP’d by Timothy A. Burton. Color grading and finishing was done at LightBender Post in Santa Monica with Juan Cabrera and Fran Lorite deploying SGO’s full-finishing and color grading solutions Mistika Ultima and Boutique. We chatted with our founder, Juan Cabrera about the overall creative process and look development and also touched topics related with remote workflows and deliveries to Netflix. Why do you consider Mo Series an interesting project? Mo is the 8th project where Timothy A. Burton and I have worked together, and it feels like coming back home. I am very comfortable with his style of shooting and our communication is always excellent, so it was a very exciting thing from the get go! Because of schedules and COVID, all the work had to happen remotely. But even with that we barely had any color notes through the process. Working with the director (Slick) and the creator of the show (Mo) was an absolute pleasure. Besides all of that, we are huge fans of what A24 and Netflix are producing, so it was a real treat all around to be able to work in this show.
The look of this comedy series is very cinematic. Why did you decide to go down that road? Since our initial talks Tim always said that he wanted the project to look very cinematic and stir away from the typical comedy “all bright and colorful” look. So we approached it more like a thriller, with density, and smart color separation. We wanted the story to feel grounded, but without loosing completely that veil of fantasy. For this Tim used some creative LUTs on set, that we used as base to create our Master look for the show. From there, we worked each sequence like its own little world, but with the primordial look in mind. Finally we added a layer of film-grain to complete the look.
Where did you draw the inspiration from for the final look? There are two main looks in Mo. The present day, where most of the story happens, and then flashback sequences from when he was a kid. For the flashbacks, Syriana was one of my mental references (funny enough, it was more my memory of it! When I went back to watch it, the movie is way warmer than I remembered, hahaha) It had to feel stark, gritty, dangerous… We didn’t want a typicial “flashback” feel, but we wanted to be clearly different. On the sequence where they family is at their house preparing to flee the country this was almost completely done on camera. It has very little tweak (other than blooming in highlights and heavy grain) but the challenge was keeping that extreme look on other sequences that were shot in a more traditional way. At the end I think we manage to keep that consistency (even though some shots have 15 layers with 5 different selections).
For the regular look, we wanted to feel the heat of Texas, so warm tones were a constant, usually compensated by greens and a few sparks of blue. The contrast had to be a common element too. Not to the point of loosing shadow information, but enough to bring up textures and create expressive images.
Which are your favourite Mistika colour tools and how did they help you achieve the final look of the series? I honestly think we used every single color tool available! :-) We are big fans of the Bands to control lower lights and make sure information is not lost. The same goes for the 4th HDR ball on the Primaries. The Proportional hue selection tool was also used extensively. Either to bring back spikes of color, create separation, or bring color into the Outside of the selection. The show was delivered in 4K HDR (Full Netflix IMF Workflow) so we did quite a lot of HDR-Specific color too! Towards the end of the process we ended up doing the title design for the whole show and experimenting creatively a lot with Mo, so all the Comp3D, Text, and Animation tools also came real handy. Especially when we had to come up with new ways of playing with the “Mo” on every episode in real-time sessions. At the end, the choice was to simplify it all, but we had some pretty fun animations that I wished more people could have seen!
What were the major challenges you encountered working on the series and which piece of tech or even workflow approach helped you surpass them? With every project we do we use our internally-developed workflow to be able to provide editorial with as much time as possible to do the best possible cut. In the case of this project we had the additional challenge of certain things being still changing until almost delivery day, so being able to constantly chase the cut in a reliable way was fundamental. In fact, towards the end, there were three episodes that had MAJOR edit changes (to the point of changing sequences from one to another) and we were able to follow through with ease. Including SDR Color Grading, HDR Color Grading, and Dolby Vision metadata trims! One of the major challenges working on TV series are usually very tight deadlines. Are there any features of Mistika Ultima that you consider time-savers and helped you be more efficient in this project? I would say the three main tools we used were:
Flexible conform: Where we can conform an EDL, AAF, or XML either to media or pre-created stacks of nodes per shot called .rnd
Match & Paste tool: Similar to the previous one, but you don’t need and EDL, AAF, or XML and you can transport stacks of nodes directly from a selection of media to another selection of media. Think about it like a Smart Paste where it always places the right nodes in the right shots, keeping animation and extending if needed.
Infinite Canvas: The freedom of the Mistika timeline allowed us to run multiple versions together and quickly jump from one to the other for review when needed without having to be opening and closing timelines.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Color Management? Which color workflow was deployed for this series and why? We always prefer to work from the camera native color space. In this case, Alexa Log-C Wide Gamut. For Mo we had a Master HDR delivery, so we designed the color pipe-line to be completely non-destructive, even while using LUTs, to ensure we were keeping the full latitude of the image at all times and through all processes.. In regards to the HDR we aimed for a general peak brightness of 600 nits, with sporadic 1,000 nits sparks. Most of the show sits around 150-250 nits. We mastered on our Sony BVM-X300/2
Let’s speak about remote workflows. How do you handle remote reviews at LightBender? The main tool we use for real-time remote review is Streambox. It provides a really good service, regardless if you are using SDI-to-SDI ot via the cloud to iPads and computers. They have their own apps for all devices, so color management is usually pretty accurate. For other cases where real-time review was not needed we would use Frame.io
The show was delivered to Netflix. Could you tell us a bit more about the delivery standards and the overall process? Netflix has the whole process really streamlined, and that makes our work much easier. The main delivery format for Netflix is an IMF package. These can be modified via Supplementals for things like textless or patches, so it helps not having to re-deliver everything all the time! As workflow goes, usually first major approvals happen over a ProRes file. If there are not major red-flags (and the creative side is approved) then you move on to the IMF Creation process. For the actual IMF Package creation we used Resolve 17, importing a 16 bit image sequence from Mistika, along with all the Dolby Vision metadata and audio tracks. All our machines are linked via either fiber or 10GbE, so the process was pretty seamless.