Production Style
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 12 (Dec. 2008)

Production Style

The radical innovation for Lionsgate’s The Spirit is not the stylized look director Frank Miller chose for his film adaptation of Will Eisner’s comic book series, although it’s likely that style will capture the most attention. The Spirit’s muted colors and stark black-and-white contrasts provide a subtle variation to the filmmaking aesthetic introduced with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, one in which digital backgrounds created by visual effects studios surround actors filmed on greenscreen stages. It’s a style particularly suited for lifting graphic novels onto the big screen, as the graphic and gritty Sin City and painterly 300, both based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, soon demonstrated.

Stu Maschwitz, visual effects supervisor and second unit director for The Spirit, describes how the visual effects created for this film differ from the previous comic book adaptations. Maschwitz, CTO and co-founder of The Orphanage, where he also directs commercials and short films, was that studio’s visual effects supervisor for Sin City, which Miller co-directed. “Sin City brought that comic book to life,” Maschwitz says. “And, 300 turned the graphic novel into a painting. “But for The Spirit, we wanted to do more than re-create the comic book. We wanted to create a cinematic experience that mimics the emotional reaction people have to the comic book.”

The film’s hero—that is, The Spirit—is a cop killed in the line of duty who doesn’t die. He wears a mask and a red tie, and falls in love with every woman he meets. He doesn’t have superpowers; he feels pain. Miller drew the storyboards in a graphic style.
“It’s hard to achieve minimalism in a live-action film,” Maschwitz says. “It takes great taste to make it look good.”

To help realize Miller’s vision for The Spirit, Maschwitz contracted with 10 facilities that produced the film’s 1950 VFX shots. “I had time to cast to their strengths,” he says. “None of the work was technically challenging, but everything had a unique aesthetic.” The list of studios included Fuel, Furious FX, Look Effects, Olin Studio, Rising Sun, Digital Dimension, Riot, Entity FX, Cinesoup, and Maschwitz’s own The Orphanage.

“The whole project was a great experience from start to finish because it was so well organized with Stu masterminding the approach, and because we had a quick feedback loop,” says Rich McBride, VFX supervisor at The Orphanage and a concept artist for the production.

Digital Dimension, one of 10 VFX studios that worked on the film, created the atmospheric digital background for this live-action shot. Although the actors were filmed on greenscreen and blackscreen stages, the crew added practical sets for items the actors touched and walked on.

And herein lies the innovation. Rather than working from a trailer on a studio lot, Maschwitz and visual effects producer Nancy St. John persuaded producer Deborah Del Prete and Odd Lot Productions to center the visual effects and postproduction management in the basement of the same building that houses The Orphanage. They called it “the Bunker,” and they provided the production staff with special key cards to restrict access.

By locating these production offices a few steps from The Orphanage, Masch­witz had quick access to the visual effects studio’s knowledge, talent, and tools. For instance, he could easily call on McBride, as he did, to help production with concept art. “We could scale the amount we interacted with The Orphanage at a moment’s notice,” Maschwitz says. “That’s part of what made this process unique.” Furthermore, the innovation continued inside the Bunker, where Maschwitz installed a Nucoda Film Master color-grading and finishing system. In doing so, he integrated the DI process fully into the production of the visual effects from day one.

Staging the Production
Work on the film began in the summer of 2007, with Miller storyboarding, Gregory Nussbaum editing the previs in Odd Lot’s offices, and Maschwitz organizing set building. His experience working on Sin City persuaded him to build sets rather than rely solely on digital backgrounds. He remembers a close-up shot of Bruce Willis pounding his fist on the pavement in Sin City as especially painful. “We spent as much time creating the pavement for that shot as any other shot,” he says. “Robert Rodriguez was breaking new territory and achieving a miracle, but what I took away from that shot was to build sets for things the actors touch and walk on.”

Before shooting began, Maschwitz worked with director of photography Bill Pope—who had been the cinematographer for the Matrix trilogy and Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, among other films—to design a library of color corrections, or color lookup tables (LUTs), for The Spirit. He then loaded these color presets into Pana­vision’s Genesis Display Processor (GDP). Thus, although the raw image remained intact, anyone looking through the viewfinder on the Panavision Genesis camera during filming saw a stylized image rather than the captured image.

“Frank [Miller] and the producer had a 100 percent preview of what people would see in the theater,” Maschwitz says. In the viewfinder, green, for example, might look white or black, and other colors appeared desaturated. “A couple weeks after editing, I took them to a screening room to see the [stylized imagery]. They asked, ‘Why are we seeing this?’ They had already seen it on set.”

Equally important, through the GDP, Pope could see how the lights would affect the final processing of the stylized images, and adjust the lights accordingly. “The LUT made things contrasty and moody, and changed the way he lit things,” McBride says. “It could make a big difference for us. In some cases, The Spirit’s tie became very graphic red, and they had to make sure it was lit so that we could extract the tie or enhance the color. Because it was well thought out ahead of time, once we got into shot production, our jobs were much easier.”

The crew could also use the same GDP box with Maschwitz’s LUTs for viewing dailies. “We never inflicted the raw image on Frank,” Maschwitz says. Moreover, the LUT information moved on through the process to the studios creating the effects.

“Stu [Maschwitz] created a long document that was clear about how to apply the color and how to work with the LUT and palette,” McBride says. “It crossed over many pieces of software and tool sets that the studios used. It kept everyone on the same page.”

(Top) As cinematographer Bill Pope filmed the actors on the greenscreen stage, he could see the stylized look through color look-up tables provided by VFX supervisor Stu Maschwitz and adjust the lighting accordingly. (Middle) A digital background created at The Orphanage. (Bottom) The Orphanage assembled all the elements and adjusted the color of The Spirit’s red tie.

Shooting began in October and continued for three months. The cast—which includes actors Gabriel Macht (The Spirit), Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, and Jaime King—worked on two 360-degree stages, one encircled with greenscreen, the other with blackscreen. “We had scenes that were mostly black, so we decided to shoot those against black instead of green,” Maschwitz says. Lines taped to the floor helped everyone on set imagine environments that would be added later in postproduction.

McBride visited the set in November and began working on concept frames. “We did a lot of style frames for sequences that we didn’t do in-house to set a tone for how everything was going to look,” he says. “As soon as the plates were online, we grabbed still frames and filled in the backgrounds.”

The technical document Maschwitz had created helped. “It was great,” McBride says. “Normally, you get that information piecemeal, and sometimes it changes during production. This time there were no questions and no surprises.”

The Digital Hub
Once postproduction started, Maschwitz moved into the Bunker for six months. In the back of a “digital hub” room, flanked by monitors, Aaron Rhodes, a colorist and the associate visual effects supervisor, operated the Nucoda. (In addition to Masch­witz, St. John, and Rhodes, the Bunker crew included four coordinators and four editors working in Apple’s Final Cut Pro to conform shots and create an edit decision list for the Nucoda.)

Maschwitz sat on a black leather couch in front of Rhodes’ desk and reviewed shots as they came in. A JVC high-end home-theater system projected the shots onto a wide, flat-screen monitor. Rising Sun Research’s CineSync review and approval system funneled all the shots in the form of QuickTime files from the 10 studios in Australia, southern California, and Mexico to the San Francisco-based group. It also allowed Maschwitz to scribble and draw on the images using a wireless Wacom tablet and keyboard.

“I’d roll in at nine o’clock and leave at five,” Maschwitz says, “and every minute of my time was scheduled while I was here. I’d spend half the day sketching on frames, and the rest looking at high-res shots.”

When sketching wasn’t enough, Masch­witz asked Rising Sun to add a soft airbrush to the CineSync tool kit. He demonstrates how the resulting tool works by blurring out a background in a shot of The Spirit on a rooftop and darkening the fog to focus all the attention on the heroic character in the now starkly graphic image. “I could be on the phone with a studio and show them what I wanted,” he says. In addition, Rising Sun also added color correction to the CineSync tool set during The Spirit’s postproduction.

To provide raw material for the digital backgrounds, Maschwitz took still images in New York City and Montreal, and drew from his personal library of 80,000 photo­graphs. “I had tons of photographs of cobblestone streets, falling-apart buildings, and water towers, and shots taken from rooftops,” he says. “This movie is Frank’s [Miller] love letter to New York. His pensive hero sits on the skyline and ponders.”

Studios working on the film created the backgrounds using layers of matte paintings, photography, and sometimes 3D elements. At The Orphanage, for example, artists working in the Foundry’s Nuke created matte paintings, which they layered using that software’s 3D cameras and multiplane projections. “We had a couple sequences with full 3D, but we sent a lot of the 3D sequences to the other houses,” McBride says.

Maschwitz singles out Riot’s work on underwater scenes, Fuel and Entity FX’s contributions to the finale, Look Effects’ broad daylight shots in a digital Central City, Digital Dimension’s mud-pit fight, and The Orphanage’s shots in a hospital room, which he calls “insanely realistic.”

The high-res reviews happened on the Nucoda where, with Rhodes’ help, Masch­witz could fine-tune the shots and make color adjustments. Once the final, high-res shots came into the Bunker, Maschwitz and Rhodes considered whether to ask for adjustments or finish the work on the Nucoda. “The DI integration was extremely helpful,” McBride says. “The film had such a stylistic look, it was quick and easy for them to make color adjustments, fine-tune each shot, and bring the shots together in a sequence quickly. It cut out a lot of back and forth.”

McBride explains that it is typical for finals, sent to a client, to need tweaking once the client sees all the shots in context. Usually when that happens, the shots come back to the visual effects studio. The studio re-renders and resubmits them, and they go through another round of approvals, which could take as long as a week. And the same thing could happen again in DI.

“On this film, they cut all that out,” McBride says. “Instead of sending the shots back, Stu [Maschwitz] and Aaron [Rhodes] usually had enough color range in the file to make the adjustments on their own. If a shot was 95 percent final, they could often finish that last five percent. The feedback was quick. Sometimes, real time. And because we got quicker feedback, we had more time to be creative.”

That’s what Maschwitz had in mind. “Usually, visual effects is death by a thousand cuts when the shots are evaluated in context because the supervisors don’t have access to the DI suite,” he says. “But because we built it into the process, we didn’t have to bug the vendors with those last five percent fussy details, and they could stay focused on the fun parts.”

A new soft airbrush and color-correction tools in Rising Sun Research’s CineSync software let Maschwitz give feedback interactively to such studios as Riot, which created this shot.

This experience has convinced Maschwitz and Rhodes that DI should be incorporated into the visual effects process. “This movie was unique because we did the final DI, because Aaron is a colorist and an associate visual effects supervisor, and we have the background,” Maschwitz says, noting that The Orphanage had worked as a service bureau in the past using its Magic Bullet software to give footage shot with video cameras the color depth and appearance of film.

“But, even if a studio doesn’t do the final DI,” Maschwitz adds, “it could still make significantly better decisions. I have a ton of respect for colorists, but they only see the shots once they’re done, which is crazy. DI should be more deeply integrated into the process. Every visual effects studio should expect someone to hand them a LUT with their plates.”

Maschwitz has already put the Bunker to good use on other films. “We used it on Don’t Mess with the Zohan and John Woo’s Red Cliff Part 2,” he adds. “The Bunker model is not restricted to stylized films. DI is playing a larger and larger role, and VFX is becoming more integrated into every type of movie.”

Even so, as is often the case with innovation in visual effects, it took a unique project to drive the change, and The Spirit—with its unique, stylized look, comic book color, a budget that demanded smart solutions, and a producer willing to take risks—was just such a project.
“All the technology existed,” Maschwitz says. “No one had lined it up.”

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at .