After developing a new DI stitching methodology for the Oscar-winning "Birdman," Technicolor raised the bar for dealing exclusively with uncontrollable natural light on this year's frontrunner, "The Revenant."

This entailed creating another unconventional methodology for handling complex data management and color grading dailies on location in the Canadian wilds of Alberta, and then full color finishing in the production offices in Calgary and British Columbia.

READ MORE: "How 'The Revenant' Changed Emmanuel Lubezki's Life" 

The Revenant
"The Revenant"

"[Cinematographer Emmanuel] Chivo [Lubezki] always knew it would be an extremely complex undertaking, and that he would not have the typical lighting support and setups," explained Steve Scott, who heads Technicolor's finishing department. “In fact, he planned strategically based on the fact that he would have no [lighting] control.

"He was keenly aware of the issues that would bring about, and he wanted to be as prepared as possible. So we talked about that early on, as soon as he started doing scouting and conducting tests. I saw all that [test] material, and we would get together and play with it and establish preliminary looks. In fact, even before he shot a frame of this movie, Chivo knew what kind of pipeline we would have to set up, and he knew how long we would need for the finishing and that it would be a longer schedule than typical. We discussed the kinds of work we would be doing, and that we would be isolating and playing with different parts of individual frames. That was all planned out in advance.” 

Thus, with limited "magic hour" daylight shooting (usually 9:30 a.m to 4:00 p.m.) in late fall and winter and shifting clouds and giant trees blocking and changing the direction of light and producing moving shadows, data management to editorial and the various VFX companies — including Technicolor-owned MPC, which worked on the early ambush, and ILM, which did the grizzly attack — had to be consistent throughout the entire project. 

The Revenant

More specifically, Lubezki needed Technicolor’s in-house VFX department (led by VP Doug Spilatro) to work in tandem with the finishing department because he not only required unusual flexibility but also because he made changes until the very last minute, necessitating light shifts during finishing with the aid of hand-animated mattes.

A team of finishing artists under Scott’s supervision color graded the imagery using Autodesk Lustre 2015 Extension 3 software and a Christie 4220 4k projector. Simultaneously, a team of 10 VFX artists under Spilatro’s supervision worked to hand animate mattes and use them to perform roto work on faces, bodies, and other elements photographed by Lubezki in order to assure that directional key light, backlight, or shadows were hitting exactly where he wanted and moving correctly in a natural, undetected way.

According to Scott, they even coined names for the types of lighting shifts they were executing on particular frames: “volumization” when creating extra shadows on a person and “characterization” when adding more detail to natural elements, such as snow or cascading water.

Then, once Technicolor had a locked cut from Oscar-nominated editor Steve Mirrione, they would painstakingly go through every shot and build keyframe mattes and then use the in-house Ftrack shot tracking software and spreadsheets to pass the info onto the VFX team.

READ MORE: "How They Made 'The Revenant' into a Transcendent Journey for Leonardo DiCaprio"

The Revenant

But Technicolor always built on the foundation of Lubezki’s original material to dig into his digital "negative" and re-balance it in precisely the way he wanted: manipulating light on location or on set, and giving him the flexibility he needed to make adjustments for dramatic purposes during the finishing.

Technicolor then created a master 4k DCP for the movie, while the Dolby master, award-season screeners, and home entertainment versions were finished by colorist Skip Kimball.

"Our whole approach was conceived and based on what Chivo said he needed to achieve and what Alejandro [González Iñárritu] and he were envisioning,” Scott concluded. “We advanced the technology and our thinking about how to do things so that they could be in the middle of the process. That is a fairly new concept for this industry, but it is the best way for the cinematographer to continue to guide the imagery, even after production ends, and not to sit to the side waiting for 'post' to do its thing."

For more info, check out Technicolor's "Call of the Wild" case study on "The Revenant."