Monochrome Merger
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 7 (July 2005)

Monochrome Merger

Independent filmmaker Edward B. Sherman knew exactly what kinds of special effects he needed for “Saturday Night at Madame Wing’s,” the third installment in his trilogy, Full Moon Fables. In order to express the central themes of the films-the relationships between the past and the present, and between reality and imagination-the actors and characters from the first two segments also would appear in the third.

However, there was a catch: The second film in the trilogy, “The Studio,” had been shot in black and white, whereas the first, “State of the Artist,” as well as the third, “Madame Wing’s,” were shot in color. Yet, Sherman wanted the characters from “The Studio” to appear as their black-and-white selves against color backgrounds, and alongside color characters, in “Madame Wing’s.”

What Sherman wasn’t sure about was how to achieve this integration, particular-ly since, as an independent filmmaker, his effects budget was limited. But he ultimately found a solution with the help of the Washington, DC-based studio Interface Media Group, which used masking and rotoscoping to integrate black-and-white characters in a color environment.

Sherman began work on Full Moon Fables while he was a film student at UCLA. There, he created an early version of “State of the Artist,” a short film involving a self-important painter, an unfortunate incident with Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Potato Eaters,” and an encounter with the ghost of van Gogh.

Sherman next completed “The Studio,” the second short, about a woman who takes a job at a film studio but isn’t told what the job is. While killing time at her desk, she receives a package that includes a reel of “State of the Artist” and a script for “Saturday Night at Madame Wing’s.” This segment was shot in black and white, Sherman explains, because it was intended as a satirical version of a 1930s-style movie.

Later, Sherman remade “State of the Artist,” then proceeded to do “Madame Wing’s,” the final part of the trilogy, which brings the actors, the characters, and writer/director Sherman himself (played by actor Todd Wall) together at a Chinese restaurant. Both “State of the Artist” and “The Studio” have received a number of industry Peer Awards from the DC Chapter of the International Television Association, including one for best independent short and best script.

The black-and-white characters Kay and Barnabas appear in a color scene during the final episode of the film trilogy Full Moon Fables, which is nearing completion.

Although each part of Full Moon Fables was made separately, and the first two parts stand on their own, they were designed from the beginning to become part of one full-length feature (which is currently in final production and will be submitted to film festivals later this year). As it turned out, when Sherman began caring for his ailing mother, the only way he could carry out the project was by doing small pieces of it at a time. “Madame Wing’s” is, in part, about his struggle to finish the film trilogy despite his own serious illness (Sherman was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease after completing “The Studio”), as well as the usual challenges of time, money, and the realization of artistic vision faced by independent filmmakers.

Inserting black-and-white characters into “Madame Wing’s” was a behind-the-scenes part of that struggle. It wasn’t merely a matter of combining the old footage with the new; rather, Sherman re-shot the same actors from the previous film for the new one, with new lines. However, they had to look exactly as they had in the former film. He first tried to create this effect in-camera by having the actors dress monochromatically and then overexposing them. “But they just didn’t come off as really being black and white,” he says. Adding to the challenge was the fact that the characters magically appear and disappear in some shots.

So, Sherman began working with Interface Media Group, which first sent the 35mm film to the Los Angeles-based lab Efilm, where the company scanned it to 2k resolution for the compositing and effects work, done on Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s Inferno. “The beauty of 2 k, which is a high-resolution scan, is that it retains all the color and details when it’s printed back to film,” says Jeff Weingarten, Interface Media Group’s vice president and lead compositor.

After the crew loaded the scanned files onto the Inferno, it created lookup tables that mapped the values of the colors, such as luminosity and so forth. “Using the lookup tables, while working in 12-bit on the Inferno, was key,” says Weingarten, noting that as the tables and a modified monitor enabled the team to view the film as it would appear on the big screen.

Making sure that scenery colors-such as the vivid reds in this Chinese restaurant-remained true while converting the characters to black and white was by far one of the more challenging aspects facing the effects team.

As Weingarten explains, film files, prior to being color-timed, look washed out, much like a film negative. After the film is shot, it then goes through the color-timing process, which includes matching colors from shot to shot, selecting color density, and so on. For this project, however, the effects team worked with the film prior to color-timing, but needed to incorporate the color-timing data (provided in advance by Efilm) in order to accurately gauge the eventual colors.

To convert a character to black and white, the team drew a matte around the actor by hand, color-corrected the person to black and white, and tracked that matte from frame to frame as he or she moved.

One of the more challenging segments involved a Chinese restaurant scene. The background’s colorful décor contained lots of reds, as well as other distinctly colored items such as the duck sauce on the table. And these had to retain their original hues, even though the effects crew was manipulating elements (the black-and-white characters) against or next to them that might have thrown off the colors.

Moreover, the scene was filmed with a moving camera; therefore, garbage masking (creating the mattes), rotoscoping, and tracking the black-and-white characters amid their vivid surroundings were espe-cially difficult because of all the angles created by the camera motion.

If the process sounds a bit reminiscent of that used in the feature film Pleasantville, it is. In that movie, a black-and-white world suddenly begins to fill with color objects and people (see “Color Bind,” November 1998, pg. 50). “It’s a very similar process,” says Weingarten, “in that they shot the whole thing in color, made it black and white, garbage-matted the objects, and slowly revealed the color back in.” Though Interface Media Group is using the same technique, the result is actually reversed, in that the black-and-white objects were added to the colorized scenes.

Another major difference, notes Weingarten, is the smaller scale of the “Madame Wing’s” project. Being able to work in 2k on the Inferno, as opposed to film resolution, made it possible for the group to do these effects quickly and affordably enough for an independent filmmaker.

After the artists added the black-and-white effects, they sent the 2k data files of the completed scenes back to Efilm, which scanned them to film, then cut them back into the original film. “The biggest challenge here,” says Weingarten, “was making sure that what was sent out to be scanned matched the original material that was not scanned.” Thus, the main character, who is in color, had to look the same in the effects shots as in the all the other shots, a feat accomplished using the lookup tables.

Weingarten credits the 2k work flow with a large part of his team’s success, a process the studio had used before in a commercial. But “in ‘Madame Wing’s,’ these are not just effects for effects’ sake,” Weingarten says. “They really help tell the story.”

To flesh out the movie, Interface Media Group also devised some more traditional effects by re-creating the Baltimore skyline for a dramatic scene with the main character on the balcony, and inserted a very large, very full moon rising above a city street for a scene at the end. The moon is a central metaphor in the film, and “the title, after all, is Full Moon Fables, so a cool-looking moon was important,” notes Sherman.

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at