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How Unit delivered the vfx for Sky Atlantic's Britannia

UNIT and its TV & Film Division, UNIT Studios worked on Sky Atlantic’s Britannia, the 9-part drama set in Britain in 43AD as the Romans invade.

The show was a co pro between Sky and Amazon Studios and Vertigo Films in association with Neal Street Productions.

Unit’s team explain how the post work was completed.

UNIT Studios Executive Producer was Nicola Kingham: “We’re a relatively new TV & Film division of UNIT and were approached back in February 2017 to work on a handful of VFX shots, but Simon Frame (the Series VFX Producing Supervisor), was so impressed with our collaborative and creative contribution that the shot count soon grew to over 300 shots.  Notably, the Underworld, a high concept mythical location where the Druids go to see the future and to communicate with their dead, Handfasting and a Druid Initiation Ceremony”. 
UNIT’s VFX Supervisor, Nuno Pereira, oversaw the production over four months and managed a pipeline with workflows for a 3.2K ACES delivery.

In light of the logistics, it was decided that the teams would be split and run in parallel. Pereira oversaw the whole of production comprising 23 artists. Creative Director Alon Ziv led a splinter team of two concept artists and one of UNIT’s in-house editors, Scott Ryan, devoted to creating the Underworld scenes.

 “In the beginning, no one really knew what the Underworld was or what it was supposed to look like. It was an inherited sequence of loosely scripted dramatic performances by the actors, which had been shot against blue screen several months earlier catering for a simple line in the script which had read (we paraphrase here) 'Divis goes into the Underworld'.  So, from a storytelling and editorial point of view there was a lot to be done,” says Pereira.

In creating the Underworld environment Ziv says, “The first challenge was to come up with a look and feel which clearly defined it.  It somehow needed to be a mix between a drug-induced hallucination and a believable location.   It was important to keep the reality of the Underworld vague because for the characters it’s a real place that changed and evolved every time the characters visited it, and what happens there has consequences in the real world.

From a practical point of view, another challenge was to keep the actors eye lines and spatial placement believable in these new environments especially because they were shot before any of the environments where designed.”

Pereira adds: “Once concepts were approved, these shots were taken into production. Due to its nature, it ended up being a full VFX build with every shot, except for the actors, being fully computer generated.  Our creative team worked on creature animation and simulations for the snake, with atmospherics and textures added in the smoke simulations and finally compositing. The team worked tirelessly to bring the concept art to life. The Underworld albeit real, is heavily stylized so it was quite challenging to make it grounded and believable and not just an imaginary sequence parallel to the story.”

Scott Simmonds, one of UNIT’s Lead Nuke Compositors says, ‘The biggest and most exciting challenge for me was bringing the 2D matte paintings to life, adding lighting, atmospherics, camera moves and parallax. The next challenge was then embedding our blue screen actors into the shot especially when the lighting was completely different. We had to really go in and mask off different body parts to either lighten or darken them in order to make the actors feel like they were shot in situ”.

On grading the Underworld sequence, UNIT’s Colour Team enhanced the otherworldly graphic feel with strongly saturated and desaturated tones.

In the end, UNIT created four sequences for the Underworld with around 100 shots in total. UNIT led and carried out all post-production:  from concept art, to direction and editorial, FX, creature work, compositing and final grade.
Back in the ‘real world’ of Britannia, and the drama of 43AD, the second VFX team was working on two other sequences.  The first, a Druid Initiation Ceremony, where they were tasked with creating an optical Lensbaby effect.  Parts of this sequence had been shot in camera but the remainder needed to emulate the shallow depth of field, stronger centres of focus and the distorted outer edges of the effect across some 80 shots. 

The other sequence was the Handfasting scene. Nuno comments, “This was a VFX heavy scene which incorporated a lot of invisible VFX over five minutes. This ritual marriage ceremony quickly turns sour and a battle ensues. Since this sequence was actually shot at different times, on different days, with different lighting conditions, it needed extensive work to create one seamless sequence.

We were tasked with matching all the skies and the environments, then added smoke to the atmosphere (foreground, mid ground and background) balancing this with the existing smoke shots which had been shot on location.  The battle sequence itself, required clean up and removal, as well as the addition of blood, wounds and blood splatter”.
On grading the Handfasting scene, one of UNIT’s Senior Colourists Simon Astbury adds, “The biggest challenge was to match together an action heavy scene shot on three different days with four different cameras. To ensure a smooth flow of images in an action scene is difficult enough, but if you add varying weather and camera formats into the mix it becomes very challenging”.

UNIT Britannia Credits

Nuno Pereira:            VFX Supervisor

Nicola Kingham:        Executive Producer
Emma Watterson:        Executive Producer
Patrizia Mulè:            VFX Producer

Scott Ryan:            VFX Editor

Alon Ziv:            Creative Director, Underworld
Scott Simmonds:        Compositor, Sequence Lead
John Kennedy:        Matte Painter
Stephanie Joy:        Compositor, Sequence Lead
Ashwini Prabhu:        Compositor
Paul Sullivan:            Compositor
Bence Varga:            Compositor, Shoot Supervisor
Sandra Roach:        Compositor
Enrico Lambiase:        Compositor
Valentina Bartiromo:        Compositor
Sam Meisels:            Compositor, Sequence Lead
Pavel Vicik:            Compositor
Jaime Fernandez:        Creature Animator
Richard Nelson:        3D Animator
Craig Healy:            3D Animator
Will Davies:            3D Animator
David Knight:            Houdini Artist
Tom Clapp:            Compositor
Klaudija Cermak:        Compositor, Sequence Lead
Vincent Goodsell:        Compositor
Zissis Papatzikis:        Compositor
Jorge Mazariegos:        Compositor
Vincent Trollard:        Compositor
U-Sun Hu:            Compositor
Elizabeth Schuch:        Concept Artist
Kirk Hendry:            Concept Artist

Production Credits

Co-produced by 
Sky and Amazon

Production companies 
Vertigo Films, Neal Street

Created by 
Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson

Executive producers 
James Richardson, Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Nicolas Brown, Jez Butterworth and Anne Thomopoulos

 Rick McCallum

 Jez and Tom Butterworth, Richard McBrien
Series VFX Supervisor Simon Frame

Posted 23 January 2018 by Jon Creamer

How to grade in HDR

Many high-end dramas are now getting an HDR grade, but post producing in HDR takes  another level of technical and creative know-how,
finds Jon Creamer

The Farm

The Farm worked on both SDR and HDR versions of the Sky Atlantic drama. Aidan Farrell graded the series

What was the desired ‘look’ for the show? Rather than manipulating the colours to create a ‘stylised’ look, Aidan wanted the grade to reflect a very natural and ‘European Cinematic’ feel. The end result is a very natural grade, both in the SDR and HDR versions. The locations really came to life in HDR, and coupled with the great cinematography, there are several exterior shots that really do stand out in HDR.

How was the workflow different to a single SDR delivery? The difference in workflows between traditional HD/rec. 709 pipelines comes mainly down to two points - data and colour management. Designing efficient workflows to encompass both storage considerations and deliveries in multiple colourspaces is a relatively new occurrence in the broadcast domain, and requires a similar approach to feature film DI workflows - there is much more of an overlap between the two worlds (broadcast and cinema) with UHD and HDR.

What do you need to think about when delivering in HDR? HDR delivery alongside SDR takes a little more planning, with the main question regarding which version of the grade is more important, as this has implications for colour management throughout the post production process. This is the main delta between traditional broadcast colour pipelines (where a single rec. 709 delivery was the only requirement), and is more in line with those relating to feature and cinematic delivery where you may see final masters in three or more different colour spaces.

What was the creative upside of working in HDR? The key creative upside of HDR is one of storytelling, as the technology enables more immersive and engaging visuals. Not only is the potential there for ‘bigger and brighter’, but the wide colour gamut also gives a great deal more creative expression throughout the picture, allowing more nuance and detail to be explored.

What are the top tips for delivering in HDR? It’s important to engage with all suppliers (both creative and technical) as early on as possible to discuss HDR, it has effects throughout the production pipeline. A key decision with Riviera was that the HDR grade be designed from the outset to be an enhancement and complement to the SDR - the aim being a more immersive experience for the audience, without the technology becoming a distraction from the story.


Colourist Asa Shoul on the HDR grade Amazon’s drama pilot Oasis

What did you have to think about when delivering in HDR? Apart from the technical requirements we had to consider creative intent and where extra highlight detail was wanted or might become distracting.
What was your workflow for this?
That’s a secret. But Filmlight have put workflow tools into Baselight that make HDR grading as easy as possible.
What were the difficulties you encountered? We composited skies in Baselight and had to finesse these in HDR as its unforgiving with edges of keys. We also saw lamps, lights offset and through windows that were not visible in SDR.
What was the creative upside of HDR? It is more immersive and almost gives a three dimensional feel to the project.
Are there any particular scenes that really lent themselves to HDR? The sunrise and sunset scenes in Oasis are absolutely stunning in the HDR version.
What advice would you give other people that are working in HDR today? Don’t go crazy! There’s a fine line between a bright skin tone looking pleasing or “electronic”. Also there is a need to watch out for reflected light starting to look emitted. You can’t simply accept that a window or light next to your actor now has lots more detail and brightness, as it may now distract from their performance.  Also don’t assume an HDR pass won’t require windowing and additional time as we have to correct these issues.

Marvel’s The Defenders

Encore’s Tony D’Amore balanced distinct looks in HDR and SDR for Marvel’s The Defenders

The various Marvel series were some of the first shows Netflix posted in HDR, with colour grading by Encore senior colourist Tony D’Amore. He was brought in again to grade Marvel’s The Defenders and worked alongside series DP Matthew J. Lloyd. D’Amore delivered a grade for The Defenders that informed both Dolby Vision and SDR outputs. Unlike HDR 10, which requires separate HDR and SDR passes, the Dolby Vision master can stream data for SDR and transmit content in the appropriate brightness for a viewer’s display. The drawback is that one pass must stand up to both HDR and SDR displays. Since dailies were conducted in SDR, much of the look was set in the colour suite, where D’Amore worked in the P3 colour space using DaVinci Resolve. D’Amore would execute an initial pass using a colour script provided by production that outlined preset character tones: red for Daredevil, cyan for Iron Fist, yellow for Luke Cage and blue for Jessica Jones. He also made sure the colour palettes were appropriately married into the scene. “Managing each character’s look separately was easy,” says D’Amore. “But the shots where they share the screen proved challenging, particularly fight sequences, which required an insane amount of tracking and shapes to ensure that each character’s colour story integrated well within the scene. And we had to make sure the grade worked in both HDR and SDR. Sometimes the colours would really pop in HDR, cyan in particular looks great, but when you switch back to SDR, it’s very muted in comparison, so we’d often turn off the HDR display and evaluate with fresh eyes. Dolby Vision has a wide colour gamut and highlight latitude, so we used it to bring out high resolution detail, and avoid blasting viewers with brightness. The format shines in the darker scenes; it’s shocking what you’re able to see.” 

Bounty Hunters

Goldcrest provided post including the SDR and HDR grades for Sky One’s Bounty Hunters
What did you have to think about when delivering in HDR? Delivering in HDR 10 ‘limits’ you to 1000 nits so the challenge is to find the right balance between using the additional headroom and not deviating too far from the SDR ‘hero’ grade.
What was different about working in HDR compared to SDR? HDR affords you a much broader dynamic range. The trick is to exploit this whilst remaining true to the intention of the original SDR grade.
What was your workflow for this? We used the same workflow as we would for any HDR feature we have done previously. We always grade from the source data. We never do the HDR grade from the SDR rendered master. This gives us the maximum latitude to adjust the grade for each type of delivery. For the HDR, we use the live SDR project and replace our display LUT to a Rec2020/PQ bespoke version. The live SDR grade, including secondary online effects etc. is used as the starting point and the colourist builds the HDR pass on the top of it. Because everything remains live, the colourist can unpick anything he would have done on the SDR grade to get the most out of the HDR grade.
What was the creative upside of HDR? The extra dynamic range afforded by HDR allows for a particularly strong image; far more vivid than SDR. HDR is particularly impressive when grading landscapes. The ability to significantly increase brightness in the sky whilst retaining detail gives the image extra dimensionality and a feeling closer to reality.
Are there any particular scenes in the project that really lent themselves to HDR?
Bounty Hunters has three different locations, each with its own grade theme to separate them: New York - green, UK - neutral , Mexico - extra contrast with a yellow bias. HDR was particularly effective in all the Mexico scenes as I could push the contrast further without losing detail in the highlights. The result had the desired sweaty, scorched feel.
What advice would you give others? Care should be taken when choosing how much of the 1000 nits range is too be used. Pushing the highlights too far can result in an image so bright so as to be painful to watch, particularly when cut next to a dark scene.

The Trip to Spain

Technicolor delivered SDR and HDR versions of the series for Sky Atlantic along with an SDR feature length theatrical version for the US

When did you know you had to deliver an HDR version? We discussed delivery of an HDR version before production began so we had time to prepare a workflow. Dan Coles did the SDR grade first, and we spent time discussing the Baselight setup so we could best translate his grade in to an HDR world. Alex Gascoigne did the HDR version.

What was your workflow for this? With any show with an HDR deliverable, there is always discussion as to which version to do first. As there was a feature-length SDR theatrical delivery for the US as well as the series for the UK, it made sense to do the SDR pass first. The drama was captured primarily on ALEXA Mini, with a DJI drone camera system used for aerial shots. Grading in Baselight on a Sony BVM-X300 display, we used an ACES workflow which allowed us to seamlessly switch between the SDR 100-nit and HDR 1000-nit grades.

What was different about working in HDR compared to SDR? Working in HDR gives access to a greater range of contrast and colour. Highlights can be significantly brighter, allowing more contrast in cloudy skies, for example. This opens up many creative possibilities but care has to be taken to avoid pushing the images too far from the original intent. Decisions have to be made as to how far to push the HDR grade relative to the SDR version. The Trip series is shot in a naturalistic style so pushing the look too far could detract from the performances. Having very bright highlights behind an actor’s head, for example, can direct the audience’s attention away from the subject.

What were the difficulties you encountered?
Increases in contrast and saturation have a tendency to highlight elements unnoticed in the SDR grade. For example, in one of the interior restaurant locations, green spill from the trees outside was reflected by the large white shutters either side of the windows. In SDR this was quite a subtle effect, but in the HDR version we had to suppress the green significantly to avoid it being distracting.

What was the creative upside of HDR? The production made great use of drones to capture gorgeous sweeping Spanish vistas and we took the opportunity to really celebrate the range of warm earthy tones and blue skies. 

Posted 12 January 2018 by Jon Creamer
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