Digital Grading Part II : 5D Colossus. LOTR & We Were Soldiers

One of the most exciting things we saw at NAB was in the 5D booth. This marked the first NAB for Colossus, a software-based, digital grading and mastering solution. One of the only areas remaining in the film post production process without computerization has been color correction. On feature films this has primarily remained a photo-chemical process done by a lab color timer, for television it has meant a very expensive room with equipment from variou

Colossus can take scanned film frames as 2k log files and color correct them. Since the scans are all online this can be done in context of the conformed edit.

Primary Controls
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What has excited the film community is that primary grading can be done on projection-cropped 2K material, working on standard scanned Cineon or DPX files from the disk array. The internal architecture is 16-bit/channel linear or log processing. Key to the buzz Colossus has generated is its ability to grade in either printer lights and fstops or using more traditional video style color grading controls.

Selective Colour Correction Controls
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Curve Controls
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The toolset looked very powerful and the controls could either be operated with a mouse/tablet or using a control surface with the kinds of controls and feel colourists would expect (we’d love some feedback on this from colourists!). The control surface is made by Tangent Devices and you can see a photo and explanation of it on their web site.

Geometry Controls
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Colossus offers the normal shapes and ‘power windows’ that colourists will find familiar, plus the ability to draw freeform shapes that can be animated or tracked using on-board trackers.

The engine inside Colossus is Colorfront. This base technology was spun off for use in Lord of the Rings, it is also in use by EFILM in Los Angeles, and 5D has commercialised it for general use.
In addition to checking out Colossus on 5D stand at NAB, we recently spoke to Peter Doyle who was in charge of the Digital Grading of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and we visited EFILM in LA to see the work they have just completed on Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers.

Peter Doyle is the Creative Director of The PostHouse, well known from his work at D-film, – with such films as Dark City, the Matrix and most recently for using the Colossus technology for the digital grading of the Oscar winning LOTR, – we discussed with him the relationship between the Director of Photography, the visual effects supervisor and his role on LOTR which he decribed as the digital gaffer. With the rise of such new roles – questions need to be addressed such as who is responsible for the lab grading and colour timing – the DOP or the “guy who grades it like me” Peter described this new role as almost being a wedge in the the traditional relationship of the DOP and the lab colour timer who ultimately does the final colour grading on any film, and this needs careful management.

In terms of the technical details of digital film, LOTR already represents 27 terra bytes of data, the project was post-produced in 10bit log Cineon colour space, Peter pointed out that by working 10 bit they were working in negative colour space, to work in 8 bit would be to work in only print density colour space, (although as he also points out – anything is good enough if it works for the look of that project, at that time). He prefers 10bit log or 16 bit and normally at only 2K resolution. In discussing the 2K vs 4K resolution debate, Peter pointed out that as soon as the camera is moved the effective resolution drops to about 1K, and thus the cost and time penalties of working higher resolution are lost. A better use of a features film budget, if it wants to improve the images on screen, is not to spend time and money on higher resolutions but rather focus on the duplication process of the final film. On LOTR I 10,000 contact print copies were made from dup neg ( duplicate copies of the edited film). Peter stated that rather than work on higher resolutions they are aiming to do away with the dup neg and produce multiple original negatives for prints to be struck from. By LOTR III hopefully instead of making one negative, coping it and producing thousands of prints, they will aim to output via a film recorder up to 13 master negatives and make the release prints directly from these 13 “printing negs”. By removing the dup neg – and providing multiple digital negs a film digitally mastered can produce a significantly better quality projected films. This trend was decribed by Peter as ‘the single biggest push in digital film at the moment”.

Producing “Printer Negs” is exactly what E-FILM achieved for We Were Solders. EFILM graded the film aided by the film’s DOP Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, Mad Max). EFILM output 3 original negs for We Were Soldiers, 2 copies were used to directly produce release prints, and the third was used for traditional Interpos and Interneg. Given that the film was output directly onto 2000 foot reels on Polymer Stock, a single Laser printer error would kill a reel. At 4 seconds a frame it took 40 hours per 2000 ft reel, and required 4 Arri Laser recorders to complete. EFILM will shortly have 8 Arri Lasers in service. This is because to service a film for digital grading in an expected 4 to 6 weeks EFILM needs massive scanning, storage and output. Currently, EFILM is installing equipment as fast as it can. When we visited there were rows of ONYX 3’s waiting to be installed, and they were new building suites as fast as they can.

While EFILM do not use exactly the Colossus, but rather their own enhanced version of the original software, their model of film grading really validates the concept. EFILM interact visual effects shots into the film by taking direct Cineon files from the effects houses and while film outs were initally done, soon the enitre production team were happy to rely on the digital grading suite. This was in part due to the enormous work EFILM has done in calibrating their digital projector and lab process. EFILM digitally projects 1K proxies which can be graded in real time and then the master 2K files are handled off line. While we were at EFILM’s LA Office, we we shown in the digital grading suite, the first reel of We Were Soldiers from the DLP projector, immediately followed by the final print film projected. In out professional opinion, they were the same, the match was amazing. To complete the digital grading process, EFILM calibrates each Hollywood lab daily with test frames, allowing each frame of film to be adjusted to the individual chemical baths or ‘soup’ of each lab. So successful is the process that when We Were Solders hit the lab, it was put through as a 1 light by the lab – with unity ( or no colour timing required by the lab).

EFILM’s use of Digital Grading is so revolutionary since feature film directors and producers have never had the ability for real time response, tracking and power windows or minute fractional print point grades. While EFILM seem confident of streamling the process even further the industries response has been extremely favourable.

5D’s Colossus is not cheap but then neither are traditional DaVinci, or Pogle desks or grading suites, but for a section of the industry that has been denined these tools, 5D has expanded the tool set and deservedly generated enormous interest on their booth at NAB. The significance of this new area of computerisation will be felt for years to come.

All in all we thought Colossus represented a great leap forward over current technology and workflow, initially for feature film grading, but it did not take much imagination to see this as the future telecine bay.

For additional information on Colossus visit: