As home theater enthusiasts, we each have our personal reasons for why we are so passionate about the films we watch. Dramatic storytelling? A high-octane action film? Having your imagination taken away by the visual effects (VFX) in the latest science fiction fantasy? In almost every genre of film, intense work and detail have been put into the making of these movies for our enjoyment. At Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, both our staff and our readership appreciate a good home theater comprising of audio and video equipment to experience these films the best that we can. But why is it that these films look so good on the equipment we buy?
Nearly all movies and television series use at least some visual effects to tell their stories. Most of them are so seamlessly integrated that we are oblivious to the VFX being used in the shot. The marriage of live-action and VFX is the magic of today’s filmmaking. But how is this done? After a live scene is shot, what is the process it goes through to become finished with all the final elements in place? I’ve decided to explore these questions while visiting SPIN VFX, a VFX studio located in Toronto, Ontario.
SPIN VFX is a large facility that works on both movies and television series. They’ve done VFX work on recent projects such as See, Zombieland 2: Double Tap, Raising Dion: Season 1, Stranger Things: Season 3, and Star Trek: Discovery: Season 2. Upcoming work includes titles such as The Expanse: Season IV, Altered Carbon: Season 2, The Umbrella Academy: Season 2, and My Spy.
I’ve been calibrating SPIN VFX’s video displays for a little over four years; from the artists’ monitors, the compositing and lighting departments, the editorial suite, and the final screening rooms where the filmmakers critically evaluate their work. All are calibrated for the required visual consistency and accuracy. If you’ve ever questioned the need for calibration at home, a simple visit to the facility would immediately provide you with all the reasons why. But video calibration is just one small step of many for a film to appear in its final form. I’ve reached out to Colin Davies, VFX Supervisor and Partner at SPIN VFX, to discuss these exact processes and to give the readership at Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity a glimpse into the incredible world behind the screen.
SECRETS Mike: I’m here with Colin Davies, VFX supervisor, and partner at SPIN VFX in Toronto, Ontario. And I appreciate you sitting here with me today!
SPIN VFX Colin: My pleasure!
SECRETS Mike: What got you interested in visual effects and studio work?
SPIN VFX Colin: Well, and it was kind of an organic process for me. I went to Film School back in 1991; I went to Vancouver Film School and at that time I wanted to be a filmmaker, a director, or Director of Photography and was concentrated on live-action stuff. It took me a couple of years and I was working on independent film sets, short films, and was working for free, low budget projects doing a variety of different jobs – anything to get me on a film set – work like a boom operator, camera guy, electrician, set deck, the whole gamut! After a couple of years of doing that part-time, I realized that I didn’t actually like being on set that much and I was drawn more to the post-production side. I got interested in editing. And right about that time the Avid digital editing software was really making a surge in the industry. It was very expensive and all the rage. I managed to get some training and get in with a small company that had just bought an Avid. As a result, I got access to their equipment at night when they weren’t using it and was able to gather up the skills needed to work it. From there I was able to get little jobs like corporate videos that I was able to work at night because I got my editing jobs that way. Then I got into animation as an editor back in the 90s. Someone was looking for an editor for a fully CG episodic kids TV show. It was pretty high-end stuff at the time, very state-of-the-art. So, I joined as an editor there, then worked my way up to become a director of episodes. Then I got a contract in Toronto to direct a portion of a 3D IMAX movie called Cyberworld3D, and that was with Spin Productions at the time. They hired me and I joined under contract as a director. When that worked out, they offered me a partnership and a longer-term role, so I decided to stay. From there – you know I’ve been at Spin for 20 years and this is my 20th anniversary here – my career evolved as Spin evolved. Spin had already been around for 10 years and they were doing commercials – mostly high-end compositing on Flame or Inferno suites – and a little CG team, so I was involved with that as well as development work creating TV shows among various things. Over time as Spin started getting more and more into longer-form visual effects work, my next transition was to a visual-effects supervisor. I worked on set as a supervisor. Over the years, some 25 years if I consider the time before Spin, there were so many skills to pick up like how to do things in 3D, work with software packages, and perfecting techniques. Before I became a visual effects supervisor, I had already accrued a variety of skills and knowledge to use when the time came for it.
SECRETS Mike: And visual effects is what Spin is about! Let’s elaborate more on this for our readers. Tell us what Spin’s focus is here in Toronto. What is the company’s mission statement and what do you provide for the film industry?
SPIN VFX Colin: The visual effects that we do are all digital and we work on high-end television and feature films. We run the gamut of services for digital effects work. Some places just specialize in environment work or creature work. We try to be a full-service shop with the ability to do any of those things at a high-quality level. We take pride in our ability to do everything from straight-ahead compositing work, cleanups, to concept design work for environments and creatures, and creating complex digital environments. We have a really great team of creature effects artists. In fact, we were nominated in early 2019 for a VES Award for Outstanding Animated Character in an Episode or Real-Time Project for the character “Eris” from Nightflyers. We do a lot of simulation work such as water and destruction. We have about 240 people working here so we really are a full-service facility.
SECRETS Mike: And I’ve noticed when walking through the front foyer the many awards Spin has on display. What are some of the proud moments Spin has had over the years?
SPIN VFX Colin: We’ve won an Emmy Award for Game of Thrones visual effects, we worked on a Titanic miniseries which won a BAFTA for best visual effects, and several VES Awards. Most recently we’ve had a 2019 Emmy nomination for The Umbrella Academy, “The White Violin” for Outstanding Special Visual Effects.
SECRETS Mike: I like the diversity of the company’s talent! When doing work on movies, does Spin take on the whole film’s work or are movies typically pieced out to a variety of facilities?
SPIN VFX Colin: It’s actually both. If it’s a smaller film, we often get the whole thing. We are on set supervising all the way through every shot that has visual effects in it. But more and more we’re getting into larger productions and in that case, we are almost always one of a few vendors that are involved in a project because there’s a lot of visual effects out there now and there are demands from the audience and our clients. Visual effects are what make these shows work. When it’s portioned out, we will work on our piece and other studios will work on their piece. Rarely are vendors sharing assets; it happens, but we are given our chunk of work that requires a set of assets and we handle that portion.
SECRETS Mike: SPIN VFX has gotten much larger over time and you’ve recently expanded the facility quite substantially. Is this expansion due to the quality of the work you are known for? Behind the scenes, there must be industry conversations such as, “Hey! There’s SPIN, a company in Toronto with a great group of people here” and supported by a marketing team and people who know you from repeat business. What’s the process of getting new projects?
SPIN VFX Colin: A lot of it is through referrals and word of mouth. It’s a relatively small community out there in the world. There’s a limited number of people producing things at the scale that we’re working at. So, word gets around and when you do a good job you’ll get hired again by your clients and these guys talk to each other. So, they’ll say “Hey, we’re shooting in Toronto, we’re looking for a good visual effects studio, I heard you are there, give me some names“, and we’re lucky to have a good rapport with our clients and our name comes up quite a bit.
SECRETS Mike: Let’s go back to when you said back in the day you were on set with the movie and connect it to the final project. Our readers may be wondering about the process from when a movie is shot – and you’ve seen what goes on there on set – to the time that footage comes to SPIN. What does that footage look like? What comes to you before you give the video your magic touch to the point when viewers see it theatrically or on their TV screens at home?
SPIN VFX Colin: Sure, well it does depend on the circumstances. Sometimes circumstances like we can just be adding a single element into a shot. It could be a live-action frame and we’re adding a drone or maybe we’re removing something from the shot like if it’s a period piece. Or if they’re shooting in Toronto and they want it to look like another city, we might have to change or remove lamp posts or mailboxes or anything that might be a giveaway that you’re not in New York or Chicago.
SECRETS Mike: Definitely location elements.
SPIN VFX Colin: Exactly. And all the way up to when they are shooting against a green screen with the actors and a few props. We are providing basically everything that is behind the actor. We replace the entire background.
SECRETS Mike: Let’s talk a bit about how that part happens. When you get the image for the green screen and the actor, how is it determined with what specifically gets put behind them?
SPIN VFX Colin: There is concept art that is referenced that is either provided by the client or that we come up with, or sometimes a combination of both.
SECRETS Mike: So, there are artists here working on hand drawings or computer drawings?
SPIN VFX Colin: It depends on what it is; if it’s a concept for a background, like if we’re doing a medieval castle, we might start with a hand drawing with just a block of the shapes of what the castle looks like. There might be some reference photography that we’ll get from the internet of various types of castles and we’ll put a package together for the client and they’ll be able to point at it and say, “We like this” or “We don’t like that” and they may have their own reference at the production designer brings on. Based on that feedback, we’ll start mocking things up. We’ll do a partial 3D version of that castle and then paint over it digitally. Other times were doing more photo collage. If it’s more of an organic environment, we’ll make the photo collage concept with bits of trees, bits of landscape, and add some water and sky and Photoshop them together to quickly put up an image that looks like the key work that we can do. For creature design, our creature team does a lot of 3D design, which is a little unusual. Our team uses ZBrush, which is a digital sculpting tool and they do that in a particular way. Cesar Dacol Jr., our Creature Art Director, sort of pioneered this way of working where you are actually designing in 3D in this sculpting package, and if you do it in layers in such a way, you are able to have the flexibility and dial in the attributes of the design so you can interactively or iteratively generate options for your client quickly. They’re dealing with something that’s already three dimensional and at a level that’s already easy to visualize what it’s going to be versus drawing the creature design because there’s a certain amount of information that a person’s brain is going to fill in that could be hard to recapture in 3D. Think of a line drawing of a face where the nose is just a squiggle and just the energy of that squiggle – that mark – conveys a certain emotion that could be appealing. But when it’s time to turn that into a 3D sculpture of something, there’s a lot of things that are left to be determined. But if you start out in 3D the clients are immediately looking at it and evaluating it in that context and there’s no ambiguity about what that nose looks like front on versus just a profile. Working in 3D in that way in the creature design stage has helped getting things quickly to the client, making iterations quickly, and giving them something concrete to react against that is not going to change much if that’s what they like.
SECRETS Mike: There must be quite a bit back and forth communication between you and the client during this process.
SPIN VFX Colin: Usually yes. If the creature is a real key piece to the story. Usually the director or the producer or whoever the team is going to be very focussed on what it looks like, how it feels, and what its behaviors are. Depending on what role we are in the production, we are either dealing directly with those people or we’re dealing with the production visual effects supervisor who is sort of the funnel for all the visual-effects vendors being the intermediate between us and the client.
SECRETS Mike: The software that is used to create creatures continues to improve over the years to provide accuracy for visual filmmakers. Do you mostly use third-party software, or do you have anything unique in house?
SPIN VFX Colin: Most of what we use is third party software and we do in-house development but that tends to be for – we call it Glue-code – where you are writing python scripts and little tools that connect various pieces of software together and allow the pipeline, as we call it, to move an asset or a shot through various departments and take care of the handoff between different departments as each have different software they are using. So, we need a way to bridge between these various software packages.
SECRETS Mike: Let’s then talk about the various departments that you have in here. For our interested readers, give us an idea of how a project moves through your facility from start to finish.
SPIN VFX Colin: Sure! We will take an elaborate case starting right at the beginning. So, we will have a department of concept designers early on coming up with looks and ideas. Then we have people involved with the acquisition of data on the set play with taking digital scans of sets and digital scans of the environment. They’ll take high dynamic range images and 360° images of sets to capture lighting information that we would use later in the process.
SECRETS Mike: So, these are the finished sets on location as being filmed?
SPIN VFX Colin: Exactly. So, we’ve got guys that go out on location with their gear, they’ve got laser scanners and special camera rigs that basically acquire all the information about the environment digitally and it reaches the scanning department and that stuff gets ingested and processed and becomes the raw material for us to use later on. In fact, we have just recently added a Scanning Truck to our scanning infrastructure. Our scanning department has been doing incredible scans, high-resolution scans with it. Its purpose is to do hero scanning of characters and assets with a fully mobile 144 DSLR camera rig. Our truck comes to the client’s set to acquire instantaneous captures of animals, sets of all sizes, props, as well as full-body scans. Our scanning team processes all the data to build the client’s collection of production-ready assets.
We have the editorial department that handles all the input and output of frames so the footage that’s shot on set gets funneled into this facility. They’ll parcel it out and organize it all. Then they take care of all the cuts and make sure that we are in sync with what’s going on in production. When it comes time to deliver, they handle all the outputs. Then we have the modeling department that handles modeling on the sets or any other 3D object. We’ll take those 3D models and apply texture maps which are either painted or digitally created images that we apply to the 3D models. A combination of those models and textures go to the Look Development department. The Look Dev guys will bring the models and textures together and connect them up to what we call a shader, which is a bit of the computer code that handles how the raw textures and models get shaded by the renderer: How does it react to light? What color is it? How translucent is it? Does it glow? How does it cast in shadows? All of these are handled in Look Dev. Then we have the character effects department where they will do things like hair or cloth simulation that needs to happen.
Then we’ve got the layout department. The layout handles the cameras and the scene set up. When you’re on set, the film camera is shooting whatever it is you’re looking at. We’ll take certain measurements like what lens they’re using, the height of the camera, and a few other bits of information put that into a 3D tracking software and we recreate a 3D version of the live-action film camera in 3D space by triangulating various points that the software isolates on the frames, or the images being shown on set. If there’s a camera moving and there’s a post in the foreground that’s moving at one speed and the building in the background moving at another speed, the software will be able to triangulate all those points the calculate where the camera must have been in 3D space to capture this view.
Then that camera becomes what we use to render our 3D stuff to fit back into the scene. So, the layout guys will generate those cameras, or if need be, create our own camera moves. They’ll position the sets so the models that have been created – if it’s buildings or environments with trees – the layout guys will lay them out. Where do they sit in 3D space? They’ll compose the scene in that way. If it’s a creature, the rigging department will take the model of the creature, and they will put in a rig, which you can think of as controls for a puppet, to allow the animators to move the arms and the legs, control the head, and move the jaw, etc. So, the rigs are the controls that the animators use to move the 3D objects around. Then the animation department will take the layout; so, the camera, the set, and the characters; load them all into a file and do the performance. They’re the actors. They’ll use the rigs to set keyframes and animate the performance of the characters. We’ll then send quick renders to clients to get feedback and check the performance and the speed, including all criteria in order to get a nice performance. When the animators are all done, it goes to the effects department, and they might do the simulations needed for an explosion or if there’s water to be done like if the character is walking through a river, the effects will take care of all of the simulation work; creating smoke or whatever is required for that shot. Ultimately all that stuff – the animation, the sets, the effects work; all need to get lit and rendered. So, the lighting department will take all of this material, because it’s funneled into the lighting department, and they use the lighting that’s indicated in the plate, which is the live-action photography, in combination with any HDRI images that have been captured on set, and set up the lights to mimic whatever the lighting needs to be matched for the background plate or the creative requirements for the shot. So, they’ll set their lights up and submit their scenes to the render farm, which is a pool of powerful computers we have that will then render for usually many hours for every frame.
SECRETS Mike: The rendering process is very important to put all these pieces together.
SPIN VFX Colin: That’s right, it’s where it all comes together and all those bits of raw material finally get rendered down into a frame, into an image that is our ultimate product. So, those rendered frames need to be combined with whatever foreground or background shots from the clients. So, all those images are brought together in the compositing department. We use Nuke, and the compositors must balance all the colors, the lighting, and the values of the various pieces to match the plate and add in whatever 2D effects like depth of field, lens flares, or glows. All those final touches make it feel like a natural filmed moment.
SECRETS Mike: So, this last step is what makes these frames feel like they were actually shot with all these creatures and effects as real-life like it really happened. It’s what makes the storytelling feel like a reality.
SPIN VFX Colin: All the integration. They’ll be responsible for keying out the green screens, so you get a nice outline of the foreground and all the green screen goes away. They put the foreground element on the background plate. The compositors do all of their final touches and do their own rendering step when they’re ready to go and then it’s all sort of baked down into a single sequence of frames and then that is what gets packaged up and sent off to the client and that’s the end of our involvement.
SECRETS Mike: That’s quite the process there! You’ve mentioned rendering a few times and I’m not sure if “baking” is a similar term or two different processes. The word rendering appears quite often in discussion forums and many home video watchers use the word to try to understand how effects and live footage are brought together. Would you please give us a good definition of what rendering an image is?
SPIN VFX Colin: Sure. Rendering is really just the process of generating the digital image. So, the software takes the various components – the models, the textures, the lights that are set up by the various departments – and runs a calculation. Modern renderers are all ray tracers for the most part. So how it works is that the renderer will fire a ray out of the digital camera out into the 3D scene, and when that ray hits something it triggers a calculation. It says, “there’s something here, send out more rays.” It will first sample the color of the object on that first hit. It’ll interpret, “at this pixel, there is an object that is blue, and it is being hit by a yellow light, and pink light, and a green light”, and the calculations start to happen. Secondary rays will start to go out and that object is now bouncing light back into the environment because all modern renderers are based on real physical light behavior. So, if you have a bright light and you put it up against a white surface, it’s going to bounce off that white surface and illuminate the area around it. So, modern renderers take that into account. So, the secondary rays are sent off and depending on how complex the scene is, if there’s glass, transparency, or water, you can have quite an elaborate ray construct to capture all of that information but fundamentally all of these rays bounce out all to inform the color of that one pixel and then the renderer will do that for one pixel and then all pixels and calculates each one. At the end of that calculation process, you’ve got your image.
SECRETS Mike: And you can render at a variety of different resolutions?
SPIN VFX Colin: Yes, at whatever arbitrary resolution. At minimum our stuff is HD but more and more it’s 4K. On film projects, it’s 2K so it varies.
SECRETS Mike: We’ll talk about resolution a little later. Referring to the material that comes in, how is it delivered to you? Since we’re long gone from the days of shooting on film (although some still prefer to use it), all is being shot digitally. So how is data sent to you?
SPIN VFX Colin: It’s all digital one way or another now. Mostly it’s all sent to us online. We have secure connections to download frames or certain movie file formats. We’ll download that from some repository on the client’s side. Occasionally things come on a drive because for the longest time FedEx would deliver us hard drives full of frames and then we would download them and send back to the client whatever shots we did on the same hard drives.
SECRETS Mike: The downloading is much more time-saving?
SPIN VFX Colin: Exactly, it’s faster and cheaper. Most of it is online.
SECRETS Mike: What video formats are the sent in? You mentioned 2K for films, what about color space and bit depth?
SPIN VFX Colin: Sure. Most of the imagery we get is still logarithmic .DPX files. Since people are shooting on digital cameras, typically they have their own nuances, color spaces, their own formats, etcetera, so typically the DI house – and DI stands for Digital Intermediate – they are the guys that take the dailies/footage from the set, ingest all of that and generate movies for producers to view and editors to take and cut. They’re the hub that processes all the images from the set and they’ll send us the conversion. They’ll de-barre the Red footage – if it was shot on a Red Dragon, they have their own proprietary format. You can think of it as a giant QuickTime movie with its own custom LUT and color space and all the magic to handle compression. So, they’ll de-barre that into an industry-standard format. It’s a hold-over from the film days when we did film scans which were .DPX files in 10-bit, logarithmic and they can be in an arbitrary color space like the old standard of Cineon color space or they can be more common ones like Alexa Log C. Sometimes we’ll get stuff in the Sony color space. It can depend.
SECRETS Mike: Are you able to tell, when looking at a file, what camera was used because of the characteristics of it? Do you say “That’s got to be from a Red. That one’s a Sony.” Do they have their own signature of how the video looks? Do they pose any challenges with how you do your work?
SPIN VFX Colin: Typically, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference by just looking at the footage if you are doing a blind comparison. They are all very good. Once you are dealing with you know, professional-level cinema cameras, they are all very good. We will know what camera it was shot on in 99% of the cases because you know that is information that just comes to us as a result of the data collected on set or in the metadata or whatever the case may be, so it’s rarely a mystery of what it was shot on and often times we will need to know that information to properly handle the color space anyway.
SECRETS Mike: So once all your work is done, how does the approval process go in saying “yup, this is the final touch, the final touch was applied to the video, so we are happy with this, everyone is happy”. How is it determined that the sequence is ready by you guys or the filmmakers? Share with us a little about that.
SPIN VFX Colin: Sure, well we have our own internal review process so we have what we call dailies so typically on a particular show it will be at least once a day that the team will get together with the visual effects supervisor and the leads and the artists involved and producers and review the material from whatever was worked on that day, and then the visual effects supervisor will give their internal notes. Once the visual effects supervisor approves a version internally then that gets sent to the client and then the client will make whatever notes they are going to make and then part of the visual effects supervisor’s job is to interpret that stuff, translate that to the team, makes sure we are hitting the notes and the feedback that the clients are giving us. Then once the visual effects supervisor determines that we have done that, we will send another version to the client, and in that process, it kind of continues until the client is happy with what they are seeing. Into the lower resolution, typically they are looking at this stuff – well it depends, but – often at times they are looking at it on a television monitor say, or even if it’s a film they will be looking at it on a monitor. Then sometimes once it’s approved at that level, they will need to do a high res review for a final approval where they will take it and project it in a theater if it’s for film and look at it in that context to make sure there is something that didn’t show up because it just wasn’t big enough and then once that high res review is done then that’s it, we’re done.
SECRETS Mike: When reviewing these items, let’s talk about the video calibration process at the studio. At SPIN, there are many monitors used by the artists, the supervisors, and in your screening rooms. These monitors are all calibrated to video standards. Why do you feel that monitor calibration is needed? Is there a consistency that is required between the various levels within the studio and throughout the project right to the screening rooms where filmmakers come in and view the final product?
SPIN VFX Colin: Yes absolutely, it’s actually very important. Because this is a visual business and we deal in nuances and subtleties, it is important that the artist sitting at their workstation is seeing an accurate representation of what that image looks like when viewed in the screening room; or when viewed at the supervisor’s desk on the supervisor’s monitor or when we have less control what happens on the client’s side. But ideally, they are dealing with calibrated monitors too, so the client is looking at a calibrated monitor in editorial. If everybody is seeing the same thing, if the black levels are matching, if the hue levels are the same, then things go much, much smoother. We can know with confidence, when the filmmakers say, “well, this needs to be a little warmer”, we can go and make that note and everybody is seeing the same thing and we get to a kind of a final product a lot quicker. We do a lot of our reviews in this large screening room because we’ve got a decent digital projector in there that will do 4K – and you know, a nice quality image – we need to have confidence. When the supervisor is in there making notes about something, the artist goes back to their desk and sees what the supervisor saw and what the filmmakers saw in the theater. So, when they are making their changes, they can trust their eyes and what they see is what we are going to get.
SECRETS Mike: And likewise, once the film moves into a theatrical environment or a home environment that content will look precisely as the filmmaker intended as long as the consumer video display is calibrated correctly. Out of curiosity, when you are working on your projects, are there any different considerations made when creating the effects for theatrical and television releases? Are there any considerations where you say, “this is going to go directly to home video and not into a theatrical environment?” Does the release platform or where the final product is going to be viewed for the rest of its life make a difference?
SPIN VFX Colin: Actually, not really, not at our stage. For one thing, the quality of the television work that is getting done now is oftentimes on par with, or even sometimes exceeds work that is done in some film productions, so the standards are very high in terms of quality. Oftentimes the resolution of the television projects is higher than what is done for theatrical release. If you are doing a 4K project for Netflix, you know that it is higher quality than might get done for a theatrical release of 2K. Also, there is one step after us, after the visual effects, where the image is altered into its true final state and that is back at the DI place, the DI House, and that’s where the colorist will take the entire film and set the look for each scene, balance the shots against each other within the scene and create kind of the visual mood for the whole piece and that’s kind of the final touch. So our mandate is almost always just to match the plate, so whatever the lighting was, whatever the color was on the plate, that is what we are kind of matching to, and then leave those final creative decisions up to the DI house and the director when they can see everything in context all kind of rolling together.
SECRETS Mike: Perfect! That was my next question. I was about to ask about what happens to it after it leaves here so thank you for clarifying that. So right now, TV sets, the television makers are starting to push higher resolutions, wider color space, where they are taking things beyond what we’ve ever had in the home environment. In fact, some are saying that the home environment is starting to surpass what can be viewed in a theatrical environment. Television series are starting to push the envelope on 4K more than 2K in the film industry. What are your thoughts on when things are being shot in 4K? 5K? 8K, or some other variety of resolutions, higher bit depths, and going to P3 color or BT.2020? Moving forward in time, does that change any way you work? Does it put pressure to upgrade equipment and to change the way artists animate as well?
SPIN VFX Colin: Sure, you know resolution has a big impact on us, the more pixels there are the longer it takes to render, the larger the file size is, the more RAM you need to catch your shot, the more time it will take to finish your render, the more storage, disc space you need to store all your frames. Even the network capacity must be able to handle all the large frames moving back and forth. So, the resolution is definitely the biggest factor. In my opinion, there is very little benefit to going beyond 4K. Even 4K is kind of pushing it in my opinion as far as how much better the visual experience is going to get at home because most people still have smaller screens. I don’t think the resolution is as important as some other things in terms of what your viewing experience is like, particularly at the far distances most people are currently viewing their sets at. So, because of those factors, I think its kind of wasted effort and wasted expense. [Sitting closer to the screen or viewing images on larger screens reveals the additional resolution. – Mike] If television screens continue to get bigger and bigger and bigger, there is an argument for more resolution. The way people view material can change; people are looking at headsets or what have you, and there could be arguments made. But really, I think there is more benefit to be had from increasing the dynamic range of the color of the imagery to a point so that you are faithfully able to render or present the filmmaker’s vision. You can see the detail in the highlight, you can see the detail in the blacks like you got that dynamic range to be able to see all that stuff. I think that is good, that’s important.
SECRETS Mike: Is that done here, or the DI house?
SPIN VFX Colin: I’m just talking more of just the technology, like Rec.2020, you know the ability to kind of capture that stuff and show that on the screen I think there is some value to that. What we do doesn’t really change, we just continue to do the best we can do to match the plate and the photography is almost always amazing. I mean the skill level of the DPs out there is high and the quality of the cameras is very high, so we are putting all the detail in there, we are getting all those fine shadows, we are doing all of that stuff. Sometimes in the DI that can get changed; things can get crushed; there can be looks applied to things – that to some of the detail that will be put in there – may not be deemed important in the overall scheme of things because the mood that is desired by the filmmaker supersedes whatever visual detail might be there. They might be looking for something extremely dark and ominous, and so all the work that was done to put detail in the shadows all gets lost. But that is ultimately the choice of the filmmaker. But I think from the home viewer experience, the bigger danger is that all the options that are in these consumer televisions, and all the terms that are used to describe those features, is not very well standardized. I think understanding how to use those controls by a normal viewer – a normal consumer of these TVs – is very important. Home video calibration needs to happen or a lot of the work that we do will just go out the window because the TV just isn’t calibrated right. When people first buy their TV, they sort of jack-up the saturation, or they jack-up the contrast, or change the sharpness, or they did something to the TV that on day two of owning the TV, that’s now what their TV looks like. They just get used to it and it is what it is. Unfortunately, we have no control over any of that.
SECRETS Mike: Especially since the nomenclature between television sets are different; some are labeled as black level or brightness for the same function. There is little standardization of how things are labeled and really no tutorial for most consumers to understand what those controls are about. For all these reasons, consumers need to have their video display calibrated by a professional with a high-quality spectroradiometer and proper standard dynamic range (SDR) and high dynamic range (HDR) pattern generator.
Once video displays at home are calibrated correctly and match what you’re seeing here in the studio, let’s talk about the streaming video as a method of distribution. We are now moving away from an era of physical media. As great as physical media is and it is the best picture quality we can get right now, streaming video is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for how viewers at home watch films and television series. Do you feel that sometimes some of the nuances in your work are lost due to compression because of streaming video? For so much video to arrive in consumers’ homes over the internet, Netflix and Amazon Prime compress the signal a lot more than what’s on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray and 1080p Blu-ray. Are some things your studio does lost in translation as a result of over-compression?
SPIN VFX Colin: I think it can be. I know just from my personal experience there are times when there is some kind of throttling or bandwidth limitation happening. You can just see that very clearly that there is some degradation happening in the signal. When it’s working as well as it’s designed to work, I think it’s remarkable how well they do it, or at least how well it can be done. The algorithms that they are using to do this compression are pretty amazing. When it works well, it works very well. Occasionally you do see banding, you do see things that reveal low light gradients, you’ll get that banding and you see these things.
SECRETS Mike: I’m sure that will improve over time as bandwidth increases into homes, the image quality will increase as well. I must ask, as we start to wrap up here, one of the questions I always wanted to be answered has to do with how you watch movies. Do you ever watch your own work or other people’s work and say, “I know how that was done”! Does working in the industry ever pull you away from your enjoyment of watching movies?
SPIN VFX Colin: Honestly, it happens a lot! It’s actually a great signal to me about how much I enjoyed a film or a program if I’m not thinking about that stuff. Like if I’m just swept up into it and I’m watching and I’m following it along and I’m into the story, that is a real signal that this is a good movie. I start to notice these things if I start to lose interest or I get bored or my mind starts to wander, I’ll start to think about stuff like that. Or occasionally there will be something egregious, or just something bad, it doesn’t have to be the whole movie that has a bad effect, but because I’m in the business, if there is one shot that has a really bad key or just some slip up from a technical perspective, that maybe not everybody is going to notice that but I would. That can sometimes pop me out for a little bit, and I’ll be kind of distracted by that misstep and it can take a bit to get back into the story after that.
SECRETS Mike: What were some of the films that blew you away when you were younger? The ones that made you say, “I want to get into the film industry” or “this was the movie that changed my life.”?
SPIN VFX Colin: I have to say I’m of that generation, Star Wars was the big one for me. I saw it in the theater, I think I was like nine years old at the time, it completely blew me away and changed my life. Other than that, Blade Runner was another classic for me, it definitely got me interested in filmmaking and visual effects. To be honest, a lot of the stuff that I’m drawn to now is not necessarily particularly visual effects oriented. I really like great stories and interesting characters and unusual approaches to things where it has been done in a way you haven’t seen it done before. Or if it’s somebody who’s just a visual master like Terrance Malick, just visually, a lot of his movies are not a lot of plot, they are hard to follow, but each frame could be hung on a wall. That stuff can be inspiring.
SECRETS Mike: A great story with interesting characters should always be essential to filmmaking! Colin, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today!
SPIN VFX Colin: My pleasure.
SECRETS Mike: And I will be looking forward to seeing further creations by the studio and seeing it in the end credits of the film.
SPIN VFX Colin: Absolutely!
SECRETS Mike: Excellent, thank you very much, Colin!