From 'Thor' to 'Captain America': Why Marvel Developed a Standard Production Pipeline
As part of the process, the studio wants to "reduce or eliminate" on-set dailies color grading.
It's often said that digital production workflows are like snowflakes -- meaning that each one is different.
But Bruce Markoe, senior vp feature postproduction at Marvel Studios – whose Thor: The Dark World opens on Friday -- aims to put systems in place so that the studio doesn't have to reinvent the wheel for each movie.
"We are trying to standardize our workflow in particular for color and on set," Markoe told The Hollywood Reporter, noting the overall goal is consistency. "Since our movies are 90 percent VFX shots, having a consistent color pipeline makes a huge difference, especially when shots are coming in from different vendors."
And Marvel does rely on multiple VFX vendors for each film. "Even when we have a primarily vendor, we still have a dozen or so smaller ones," Markoe said.
He acknowledged that Technicolor's colorist Steve Scott, (who is Marvel's go-to colorist), has in some situations "spent a lot of time just trying to deal with problems and balancing things out" -- something he aims to address with a consistent pipeline across a production.
One of the key aspects of the Marvel workflow is that the studio wants to "reduce or eliminate" on-set color correction of dailies. "We are trying to limit them to RGB adjustments. We don't want them doing secondaries, or lift, gamma and gain."
Markoe added that the cinematographer could instead create a separate color bible for reference. "They still create the look that they want -- but just not in the dailies. … When [the grade] was built into the dailies, it sometimes became a nightmare for VFX and DI because they had trouble matching," he said.
"We are also now pretiming a large percentage of the visual effects shots with Steve. That's an extra expense and extra step, but that really gets us in very close proximity to where we are going to wind up. The director of photography is involved, as is the VFX team. Once we do the pretime, then the color is baked in … and now in the DI those shots should match," Markoe explained.
As to the tools they use, there's some favorites and some flexibility.
For production, the studio is encouraging -- though not requiring -- cinematographers to use the Arri Alexa (a camera that is already popular with many directors of photography). "We have used Alexa on our last four movies," Markoe said, including Thor: The Dark World, which was lensed by DP Kramer Morgenthau. "We like the Alexa … but we are not forcing anyone to use it."
Marvel has chosen Codex, having purchased three of its Vaults. "It can take any camera format, so even if we are using Red or Canon you can us it," Markoe said. "And it securely makes two LTO backups right away. We keep one on set and ship the other to Technicolor. It's a small package that we use to verify and make backup -- and it's consistent."
The on-set color-grading tool is the choice of the filmmakers. FilmLight's Truelight was used for the upcoming Thor film, while Iron Man 3 and 2014 release Captain America: The Winter Soldier used Technicolor's DP Lights.
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