Digital 'Pirates' took crew to different places

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The Digital Intermediate process, which includes digital color timing, is still relatively young, though it has become a commonly used creative filmmaking technique.

Essentially, the film is transferred to data, and all post -- including the color correction -- is accomplished in the digital realm before it goes back out to film for theatrical release and/or to digital formats for digital cinema, home entertainment and other applications.

The color grading aspect of the process has captured a lot of attention because it extends the filmmaker's creative palette with digital creative tools that might be used to shape the look and mood of the imagery. That contribution is evident in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

For the production, "Pirates" helmer Gore Verbinski reteamed with leading colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld, who also handled the grading of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." As many cinematographers do, director of photography Dariusz Wolski also participated in the process.

"We wanted to keep some of the same sensibilities of ('Dead Man's Chest')," Sonnenfeld says. "But Gore said once, 'Let's remember what we did on ("Pirates") 2, then not really refer back to it.' We wanted to take it to different places."

The work was completed in a DI theater at Company 3 (an Ascent Media Group company), where Sonnenfeld serves as president.

"There are a lot of low-light scenes (in the film)," Sonnenfeld says. "It was lit very beautifully and very aggressively in terms of not overlighting, but using natural light and candles. There are very subtle tones.

"One thing I loved about doing 'Pirates 3' is it has a very unique look but also has a nostalgic look," he adds.

The team really pushed the envelope in sequences including the unique alternative reality scenes, one of which takes place on an endless sea of sand. "We played around with the three scenes in Davy Jones' locker," Sonnenfeld says. "All three have distinct looks. That's my favorite part."

Recalling the experimentation that went into those scenes, he says, "We actually shot different types of film stock to see if we could emulate the looks." Sonnenfeld adds that Verbinski and Wolski also liked pushing color in different ways, so there was a lot of blue-greens, black and golds and "not the typical" red and magenta faces.

The scope of the production was evident in the final weeks before delivery. "Gore would be mixing all day and coming in and working 'til 2 or 3 a.m. (supervising the color timing)," Sonnenfeld says.

Between Verbinski's visits, Sonnenfeld says he and the team at Company 3 were going nearly around the clock to move the project forward. "It was a grueling schedule; 18-20 hours a day for roughly 10 weeks."

Adding to the complexity of the project was the fact that the film came in close to three hours in length and contains about 2,000 visual effects shots that had to be incorporated in the film.

Color grading was accomplished with a da Vinci 2K color correction system, and the film was conformed on Autodesk's Smoke. A 2K master was created, but the filmmakers also created a 4K negative from which deliverables were created for major markets. Digital Cinema Packages were all created to spec, including the use of JPEG2000 compression.

Sonnenfeld says that a separate grade was completed for digital cinema versions, to best take advantage of the medium. "Gore is very knowledgeable about post; he is very precise," Sonnenfeld says. "He really pushed us creatively on this movie. We are very proud of it."

As "Pirates" sailed into theaters last week, Sonnenfeld's pace had not slowed. He reports that after a short break, the work began on the version of "At World's End" that would be used for the home video releases, which will include the Blu-ray Disc high-definition format. (The previous two "Pirates" films came out May 22 on Blu-ray Disc, just before "At World's End" opened in theaters.)

Sonnenfeld also was working on the digital color timing/DI for another wildly anticipated film: Helmer Michael Bay's July 4 release "Transformers."
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