Star Wars - Episode VII: Advanced Workflows
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Non-destructive workflows for color and stereo on multi-studio and multi-platform environments.
I can’t think of a better way to inaugurate the LightBender Blog than remembering “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on the 5th anniversary of its release. It was one of the most memorable projects I’ve ever worked on, both personally (I’m a massive geek at heart) and on a professional level. In this article, I would love to talk a bit about the unique workflows we used through Post-Production.
Before Star Wars, I had the opportunity to work at Bad Robot on Star Trek: Into Darkness. That feature defined a lot of the workflow that we later used on Star Wars. The idea was to buy editorial as much time as possible by taking care of most of the finishing tasks locally at Bad Robot instead of externally at the color facility. Traditionally, editors work on the movie, and eventually a cut gets approved. Then you get the elusive “picture lock” where no more changes are made and you can focus on all the other finishing tasks like conform, color, sound, etc… Both for Star Trek and Star Wars we went as down to the wire as you can be, and I think that helped editorial, VFXs, and JJ Abrams create more solid, cohesive, and polished films. Here are some of the things we took over internally:
VFX Reviews: All High-res VFX reviews, even with shots within the cut, were run and performed at the Bad Robot Theater, not an external vendor.
Stereo Reviews: Similar to VFXs, since the movie was being converted for stereo-3D by StereoD, all the shots were updated, conformed, reviewed, and adjusted if needed internally. All in final resolution with no proxies.
Internal color passes: Every time we had an internal screener for producers or the studio, either of some reels or the whole movie, I was doing that temp color grading internally at Bad Robot. That allowed for great freedom to discuss looks and spot potential issues way ahead of time, as well as being able to watch a more cohesive version of the movie.
Final Conform (both 2D and 3D). We did full conform of the movie from film scans and VFX finals, both on 2D and 3D, and on different aspect ratios (2.39 scope, 1.85 digital IMAX, and 1.66 Film IMAX); this involved adjusting pan & scan on all the exterior shots, since the viewing area was changing and we needed to keep the focus on the action. These conformed reels were then sent as DPX sequences to final color grading at Co3 along with an EDL so they could cut the events and color-trace if necessary.
I want to clarify: This was not about taking away work from a vendor for the sake of it, but about creating a flexible and collaborative environment where we could optimize time and resources to help the movie be the best it could be. Making a movie is a tremendous collaborative effort between different people, departments, and companies, and we really wanted to make sure everybody could have the most time and resources to do the best on their specific task. To achieve this is very important to take into account the words on the sub-title of this article:
Non-Destructive Workflows: The movie was alive. Changing constantly, updating constantly… Whatever the workflow used, it had to be flexible and reversible because everything could change at any moment, and if you pin yourself on a corner where a change creates a cascade of time-consuming events then you are at risk of losing a deadline if said change happens too close to the finish line. For this, it’s imperative to start designing workflows from Pre-Production and keep testing them and tweaking them as production evolves! A rigid workflow is not helpful at all.
For Color and Stereo: It’s one thing to have to deal with a movie with thousands of Visual Effects, all the versions, and the final color grading of it all, but if that movie is also going through a 2D-to-3D conversion process, then it’s a game in its own league!! You have to define a very solid versioning and naming system, and have a conform system that allows you to move quickly between conforms. Everything has to work like clockwork because, eventually, something will fail… and at that point, you will have to be able to spot it quickly and either fix it or kick it back to be fixed ASAP. It is essential to keep very fluent communication with VFX and Stereo editorial teams and have ways to quickly version-check to make sure everybody is on the same page, and nothing falls through the cracks! (or through the crackers, as a friend of mine used to say)
Multi-Studio and Multi-Platform Environments: You need to know who is going to be involved, what locations, what software, understand the limitations of it all, and figure out both workarounds and communication between all these (Once again, Pre-production and communication are key!!!) even the simplest thing, like one of the locations not having adequate internet bandwidth, or differences in file systems (Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux) can become a huge issue when you are on a tight deadline! In the case of Star Wars, we were lucky to be relatively close to most of the vendors involved, and had a quite seizable internet connection, so depending on the asset we would use physical hard drives with a runner going down the street, or services like Aspera to send and receive image sequences quickly and securely. As software goes, all internal conform, review, and temp color was done using SGO Mistika Ultima at Bad Robot. Final color grading happened at Co3 and they use Resolve, so we needed to make sure both systems were able to find common grounds. We did it by primordially relying on DPX sequences, EDLs, CDLs, SDLs, and some scripting to make sure everything was seamlessly transferred.
Here is an overall image of the Episode VII workflow taking into account all these principles:
Most of these processes we had to develop as we were working on the project. Nowadays, five years after release, a lot of these obstacles have been smoothed out with more powerful tools: A better understanding of CDLs, ACES, and other set-to-post tools, most software can accurately interchange AAFs or XMLs, and you even have initiatives like OTIO to facilitate scripting of timeline interchange between apps, and online tools like Frame.IO for accurate remote reviews.