Now that the Academy Awards are over and "Birdman" won best picture, it can be revealed that Technicolor developed a new DI methodology for carrying out Alejandro González Iñárritu’s bold, single-take experiment. This involved layering final color down on top of the final cut of the movie in a collaboration between the Oscar-winning director, two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, Rodeo FX and Technicolor (led by senior supervising digital colorist Steve Scott, who performed the DI and final conforming process).
Stepping out of their comfort zone, the Technicolor DI team had to disregard where the official editorial cuts were located, and instead, subtly insert cuts designed specifically to meet their own needs as it related to the color grading process exclusively. This was a process that Technicolor eventually came to refer to as subtly "stitching" color-corrected sections together.
"We figured out a way to insert cuts wherever they had a stationary camera, and when we inserted those cuts, we called them ‘sections,’" Scott explains. "Then, when the cameras starts to move or whip-pan around again, we thought, that would be a good place to put a dividing line. So we would do the cut in the middle of whatever camera move there was, and then, instead of just a cut, we made a form of a dissolve, so that when you go from cut-to-cut for every shot, and every section in the movie, we are dissolving from one section to the next section to the next.
"This technique enabled us to do our color correction for each section where the characters land, and not worry about what was happening in the next shot, because in that next shot, we would know that the color would organically and seamlessly dissolve from one section to the next. That let us do all these independent, crazy, complicated color corrections that would flow organically from one to another."
Digital colorist Charles Bunnag adds that Technicolor perfected the process with Scott refining and testing the approach on the first reel, and once Lubezki and Iñárritu became satisfied, he launched into the rest of the movie and edited each timeline to create what he calls "more colorist-friendly timelines." Eventually, they got to the point where Lubezki and the Technicolor DI team could strategically identify relatively large camera moves, hone in on smaller and faster ones, such as whip-pans, and efficiently select those as locations to "hide" their cuts as crafted dissolves.
Central to this methodology, of course, was making sure the actors’ faces were readable and complex, which meant that Lubezki’s lighting of faces was properly highlighted, but also that environmental lighting was, as Bunnag puts it, "shaped to help the audience focus on the faces, while still keeping a realistic look. One of Chivo’s goals in the color grading of ‘Birdman,’ therefore, was not just to simply brighten up a face, but to also bring out as much modeling and dimension as possible."
Using the Autodesk Lustre 2013 Spec 4 color-correction platform, Scott drew complex power windows that followed the contours of the faces of each character to either highlight one side or darken the shadow side, while being careful to plot lighting on the actors’ faces in a realistic manner. This same level of detail and complexity was also utilized with background and environments in the form of animated vignettes, articulated multi-point shapes and god-rays for added atmosphere. The workflow generally involved Scott setting such looks on single frames, and handing the shots over to Bunnag to carry out the animation of those shapes and creatively solving any problems that might arise later in the sequence. This detailed "lighting" in the color grading, combined with the long nature of each shot, provided a three-dimensional quality to the images.
Complex rotoscoping was also required to insert the dissolves seamlessly between shots. However, despite working with Lubezki on rotoscoping long sequences of "Gravity," Technicolor had to devise a different approach with Autodesk supplying a new rotoscope tool for the single-take "Birdman." Thus, the dissolves between shots allowed the shapes and color to blend into each other in a way that was imperceptible.
"There were so many windows involved — many places where you would want to open up a left eye or bring down the right eye or take some red out of the skin or brighten the sky or darken the foreground or make the base brighter as it flies off," says Scott. "Plus, lots of animated, hand-tracked mattes for every shot. Every single moment in the movie, there is something going on like that, all directed for us by Chivo. He would give us notes on what he inevitably would like to be tracking, and what mattes he would like for what, and then we would, while he was gone, work on animating all of those mattes, so that by the time he came in, they were ready."
But if Lubezki wanted to change mattes, Technicolor scrambled to make necessary adjustments. For example, if the cinematographer wanted to change the highlight on an actor’s cheek as they walk across the frame, Technicolor tracked a matte for that highlight and toned it down, just as the highlight comes into play.
It was all part of a new way of blending color, editing and VFX into a seamless whole for this Don Quixote-inspired character study of ego and madness.