Sydney’s Taronga Zoo is a world famous tourist attraction for good reason. It’s location alone has some of the best harbour and city views in the world and it has long been a world leader is making enclosures that are more comfortable and realistic for the animal inhabitants. Not many visitors realise that there is a whole other side to Taronga which is a large and active conservation organisation with important wildlife projects around the world.
The new Centenary Theatre and it’s inaugural film “Wild Squad Adventures” aims to change that by giving visitors to the zoo a dramatic and excitingly immersive cinema experience into the “secret” world of Taronga’s Wild Squad.
My production company Main Course Films was chosen to create the film for what is a very unusual theatre. The word unique gets thrown around a lot but when we were preparing for the production we searched for theatres that would serve as some point of reference and the closest we came was a mix between IMAX and the old Cinerama format of the 60’s.
The Centenary Theatre’s screen is over 80 ft wide which puts it on par with the largest IMAX screens as it curves around the audience with an aspect ratio of 5:1. On top of this, the audience sits extremely close to the screen for a very immersive experience.
In my three roles as Producer, Cinematographer and Colorist it was immediately apparent that this would be a completely unforgiving screen for picture quality so it would require a carefully designed workflow in order to take the audience on an emotional journey without technical issues distracting from the experience.
My partner Clara Chong also served in her usual triple roles as Writer, Director and Editor and together we worked out what would be required.
Over the last 14 years Clara and I have started taking on these multiple roles is a product of our background skill sets combined with the fact that the technology now makes it much more practical to do these different roles.
We shot the film with a combination of Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6k cameras cropped to the 5:1 format and a specially built rig called the Trident which had three Blackmagic Micro Cinema Cameras in a fixed panoramic array. The footage was all shot in Lossless RAW in order to have the cleanest possible images for the massive screen.
The single camera footage was prepped in DaVinci Resolve and rendered to half res ProRes Proxy files for editing. About two years ago, Clara made the transition to Final Cut Pro X, largely because of the Placeholder Generator that allows her to very quickly create animatic edits while she is developing a script. This timeline then evolves through storyboarding and the into the actual edit once the real footage has been shot. This process allows for very rapid script development, efficient shooting because a lot of unnecessary material can be “edited” out at script stage and then a quick turnaround on the real edits.
The proxy files that we created in Resolve are basically the same as what FCPX would create internally except that doing them in Resolve allowed us to apply a custom LUT so that the edit proxies would be the equivalent of a one-light workprint with a rough approximation of the look built in.
The LUT went through 4 major variations before we settled on a final version. I began by using Blackmagic’s own LUT as a starting point on one node and then applying some tweaks on another node so that it was easy to switch the tweaks on and off for comparison, then creating the new LUT cube from there.
What I was looking for with the LUT was a fairly neutral look to use as a basis for the subsequent grading but in a way that a bit softer and gentler curve than the default Rec.709 look.
After this I began to experiment with creating a curve from scratch and found I was able to more easily get the look I wanted by starting with a “clean sheet of paper”. The basic curve took shape very quickly and then I continued to make minor improvements of the course of a couple of months before locking in the settings that were then used for the rest of the production.
The Trident footage was roughly stitched together by Assistant Editor Meredith Calthorpe in Fusion. This involved arranging the three separate images and then quickly smoothing out the joins with soft edges and a bit of grid warping. This was rendered with a LUT at 2700×540 ProRes Proxy to be used in FCPX.
Once we had lock off on the thirteen selected Trident shots, these were conformed in Resolve and rendered out as 16 bit LOG EXR files to be sent to Holey Cow where Fusion artist Graham Davidson did the fine stitching. Because of the size of the screen and the proximity of the audience, it was vital that the joins were invisible and this required a painstaking manual process that involved adjusting the joins frame by frame. Through this process Graham worked with the LUT that we supplied but then delivered back to us as LOG so that we would have full flexibility in the grade.
Because the theatre was still under construction through most of the film’s production we decided to do the first work in progress screening for the Taronga theatre team at the nearby Hayden Orpheum cinema. The Orpheum is a spectacular old picture palace that is lovingly maintained and has state of the art 4k digital projection in it’s main auditorium. For the work in progress screening we did a preliminary conform from the RAW files and then rendered the full 5:1 image letterboxes into a 4k Scope DCP. To create the DCP I decided to render directly to JPEG2000 and XYZ colorspace straight from Resolve, but then wrap this image sequence into and MXF and generate the DCP in OpenDCP. This was delivered on a USB thumb drive which loaded easily into the cinema’s Dolby DCP server. The picture quality was fantastic and although the image on screen was still less than half the size it would eventually be in the Taronga theatre, it was still a spectacular first impression of how the film was progressing.
After the team had seen this and basically calibrated their own perspective, we were then able to successfully work with HD resolution previews of the evolving edit directly from FCPX.
Once we had picture lock on the full edit, the film was conformed in Resolve using an XML from FCPX. Because of the massive amount of data involved in the original RAW files, I decided to do a conformed render in Resolve.
To do this the conformed edit was set up with a timeline that had the full 5.4k resolution width of the final delivery format but added 15% top and bottom to the 1080 delivery height, so that we would still have some room to rack up and down later.
In the RAW settings I chose to decode to BMD LOG and Gamut and apart from a couple of shots with tricky contrast situations, didn’t adjust the other debarring settings except for setting the sharpening to “0”. This was to allow for some sharpening to be happening on the eyes and that always works better if there’s not sharpening already applied to the shot.
This was then rendered out from Resolve as if it was going to Round-trip back to FCPX with each shot rendered into ProRes 4444 XQ with 10 frame handles.
Instead of going back to FCPX, we created a new Resolve project and brought in the conformed edit using it’s round-trip XML. This gave me a clean, new project that had the conformed edit ready for grading with the cleanly de-bayered footage retaining it’s dynamic range in the beautiful 12 bit XQ codec.
This allowed me to get the whole film onto a single external SSD drive at full quality and get realtime playback and grading.
As is my usual process the starting point for the grade was three nodes, with the middle one applying our custom LUT and a normal level of sharpening. The other two nodes then make it quick and easy to apply adjustments under or above the LUT since they can behave so differently. I often do exposure adjustments and an initial colour balance for a scene on the pre-LUT node and then go through with this consistent starting point and start building the look post-LUT.
For shots where we decided to do some eye sharpening we could turn off the sharpening on the LUT node and then apply as much as we wanted to a downstream node with bezier windows for the eyes. Resolve’s tracker makes this such a quick and easy process, even working at 5.4k.
Clara wanted to create two worlds for the film – a magical world for the Zoo, and a more science-fiction adventure style world for the fictional Wild Squad HQ, so the grade required two main looks.
I started the process of getting these different looks by using Angenieux zooms on the surface and then Zeiss zooms in HQ. While this did give us slightly different looks as a starting point Clara and I decided to takes them much further in the grade.
For the surface of the zoo we went for a warm, more saturated palette and made extensive use of Sapphire Lens Flares within Resolve. This made it easy to adjust the grade and the flares interactively and we found that this helped enormously in getting the right flare balanced with the right amount of shading to make it work.
In HQ we settled on a cooler and more desaturated look and then did a secondary on everything but the skin tone range of the spectrum. This was then pushed a long way into the blues and desaturated further, but balanced but the more natural skin tones.
Because we have the luxury of grading in house, I was able to keep refining this look while Clara was continuing to work on the edit, so it was able to evolve over several months of post production.
For depth and shading we started with the standard big, soft Power Window to vignette around the focus of the shot. On top of this we made extensive use of an upside down grad to darken down the bottom quarter to third of the frame.
This is a technique I’ve been using more and more over the last couple of years but I was surprised that it worked so well, even though we were working with such an extremely wide format. We ended up using this low-grad on most of the film, both on the surface and in HQ because it adds another layer of dimensionality and depth while also helping to draw the audience’s attention to the actors faces and eyes to keep them engaged with the characters.
The conformed renders also made it easy to get shots to VFX house Vandal and with more VFX shots in the twelve minute film than in the whole of Jurassic Park, this was a big advantage! We were able to pul the shots out of the conform render folder and they were ready in ProRes 4444 XQ with 10 frame handles and 15% above and below the frame. VFX supervisor Phil Stuart-Jones personally did the bulk of the design and compositing in Flame, working at full 5.4k resolution with our supplied LUT and then returned the finished shots in the same ProRes format but with the LUT turned off so that they would slot straight into the Resolve project as LOG and the grades that I’d been continuing to refine, could be copied across.
One of the main elements of the VFX work was creating massive holograms that are projected around the HQ bunker to update the Wild Squad agents on the conservation projects that are happening in the field. This is also a major plot point which leads into the three animal stories that are the layer of real world meaning in the film.
Phil delivered most of the holograms as pre-comped layers which could be put into the Resolve timeline and comped over the base shot using a combination of Screen composite mode and alpha channel. This made it possible for me to continue the develop the look of the HQ grade even after the final VFX renders had been delivered because I was grading the shots, underneath the hologram FX layers. This turned out to be especially helpful when we added another element to the grade during the final stages of finishing.
While we were mostly happy with the look for HQ, Clara went back to her visual references and decided that it wasn’t quite there yet. After some discussion I decided to try another technique to try and get the more sophisticated, almost metallic look that we wanted. This was mostly achieved by adding a new node at the end of the node tree and reducing the contrast of the RGB channels and then using Resolve’s YRGB colorspace, putting that contrast back in on the Y channel. This creates an interesting look that has some similarities to a bleach bypass process in film and I quickly found that copying this additional node to all of the HQ shots worked beautifully on top of all of the other grading we had done to that point. Because of the layered hologram FX, there was also no need to get VFX re-rendered meaning that this last minute change to the look of about half of the film’s screen time and most it’s VFX shots, took less than an hour to apply.
The curved screen also presented it’s own challenges because, like Cinerama, light from the image on one part of the screen could fall onto other parts of the screen resulting in reduced contrast. Because of the power of the three projectors and the fact that the screen is much more curved than Cinerama, this was a big challenge to the moody, dramatic look were aiming for in HQ but also for the rich, warm look on the surface.
To combat this problem, I ended up adding very heavy shading to the parts of the frame that weren’t the main focus of the shot. This went a long way beyond the kind of shading that is normally done for depth and polish. As we started to learn what was working on what was now known as the WildScope screen, we would go back and add more an more elements of darkening. On some shots I ended up with as many a thirteen different Power Windows applying different amounts of darkening to different parts of the frame. These were often circles but I also made a lot of use of rectangles and custom shapes, depending on the objects in the frame.
All of this extreme darkening works because the immersive nature of the screen means that wherever you look, a big part of the frame is always in your peripheral vision. However on a normal flat screen it goes way beyond what’s acceptable because the perception is so different.
The finished film was rendered directly to ProRes HD which plays off the Modulo media server in the theatre. The Modulo plays back the single 5.4k file and splits the signal off to the three Panasonic Laser Phosphor projectors and handles all the blending and warping required to join them back up as a single image on screen.
The ProRes file was rendered in Rec.709 with a Gamma of 2.4 and once these settings were correctly applied to the projectors and the server output, we had a very good match to what were seeing in the Resolve suite.
The massive and thoroughly exciting challenges for workflow and color on “Wild Squad Adventures” have been an adventure to produce in their own right and the techniques and processes this film has pushed us to develop will have benefits on a wide range of different projects. And with the theatre situated in one of the most prominent sites in the zoo and with an approach ramp that passes the most spectacular view of the city, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, Taronga’s new Centenary Theatre is sure to become a tourist landmark.