When a film project that was partly shot in a virtual environment (with Unreal Engine) is combined with the art of classical painting, something magical has to emerge; especially when every frame that was captured by camera during the live-action shoots is to be hand-painted afterwards. How big must the challenge have been to coordinate the entire production team on the filming and painting parts in order to achieve the intended creative visual language in the end?
Krzysztof Wlodarczyk was DIT on such a film project recently. The Peasants is a movie whose creative approach was inspired by the painting style of the arts and crafts movement Young Poland. Even before the elaborate re-coloring process took place, this production was already characterized by complex, technological workflows. Krzysztof was responsible for color grading and data management on set.
In the following interview, he explains how ShotHub helped him complement his work with Silverstack and Livegrade, and why working on The Peasants was a challenge that he enjoyed and drew motivation from.
First of all, thank you for sharing some insights into your productions with us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your work first?
Thank you for inviting me! My name is Krzysztof Wlodarczyk. I am based in Poland and have been working in the film industry for over 15 years now. I have started my adventure with digital cameras in a rental company and, after a couple of years, switched to working as a freelance Digital Imaging Technician.
I have traveled all the way in the “digital era”, starting with Digital Betacams and HD Camcorders, to arrive in the world of Digital Cinema Cameras. Though I have always been involved with the digital part of the cinema market, I have never expected that I will end up surrounded by so many computers and software. It took me quite some time to tailor all of the tools to work as I imagined. And I must admit Pomfort made it much easier to achieve.
What kind of projects are you usually working on?
Recently I work mainly on feature films. I used to work a lot on commercials before, but nowadays, I focus on cinema. I think shooting movies is more demanding and working on them gives me more satisfaction. I like the creative process that happens while working on a feature, starting with preparations long before the actual shooting. Being involved in technical and creative decisions before the show starts is one of the most important parts of the job of a DIT for me. Discussing the equipment, looking for inspiration for the looks, tweaking my gear, and drawing the workflow diagrams. So much fun! Obviously, there is time to do all of that while preparing a feature film rather than commercials. So the choice is obvious for me.
You recently worked on a production, called The Peasants, on which you used ShotHub. Can you tell us a bit about this project? How did the team come together and what role did you play?
I was invited to work on The Peasants by my friend DP Radek Ladczuk, with whom I have been working for around 13 years now. On this project, Radek shared his DP responsibilities with Kamil Polak. Both of them bringing to life the vision of the director – Dorota Kobiela, who was also the screenwriter of The Peasants.
The Peasants movie is based on a polish Nobel Prize-winning novel by Wladyslaw Reymont. It is not the first time when the novel was filmed, though, but this time I feel that it is going to be much more appealing. Dorota decided to shoot The Peasants in a similar style as her previous film Loving Vincent, which was first shot with the actors and then hand-painted frame by frame. This time though, it is inspired by different painting style – Young Poland and the art of painters like Józef Chelmonski and Wladyslaw Slewinski.
To create the reference world for the painters Radek and Kamil divided their DPs’ responsibilities – Radek was more focused on traditional cinematography, while Kamil was in charge of Unreal Engine world on set, and later developing virtual world of The Peasants during CGI work. Both of them worked close on set to achieve the director’s vision. Before the shoot, they have planned the lighting setups for every scene, both for camera shooting and Unreal Engine backgrounds. When we started shooting, I had already gotten their mood boards, painting references, and a precise light breakdown for all of the shots, in a kind of all the seasons’ timeline (which I called “weather forecast”). Using this as a guideline for me was really helpful.
Working on The Peasants was this kind of a challenge that I like the most. Despite the fact that I knew how the film should be prepared from a DIT’s perspective, all of the surroundings were new for me. The use of Unreal Engine, complex metadata workflow, but also having in mind the fact that the film finally is going to be wholly painted by real painters. The project involved so many levels of art that it was really exciting.
As ShotHub is a cloud system to upload libraries from either Silverstack or Livegrade and not a stand-alone tool, the question is: Which desktop application did you use in combination with ShotHub?
The heart of my workflow is Livegrade. Color grading on set has always been the core part of my work. It comes from my background in working with broadcast cameras (called camcorders), which we used for digital cinema/television productions back in the days (e.g., Sony CineAlta FW900R, etc.). At the time, on all this kind of shooting, we used “paint-boxes” for grading the image live on set. These times gave a really good and strict practice, as we were dealing with cameras with low light sensitivity (~250 ASA) and narrow dynamic range (~8 stops). On broadcast camcorders, everything was done live and sent straight to the camera. There was one very important thing, which taught me all the craft – all color decisions were “baked in” the image. And that approach gave excellent confidence in my work on set – we knew with the DP that we are getting really close to the final effect while on set, so it had to look good straight away.
This is the workflow I have learned in my first days and was trying to recreate with the new tools, which came along with digital cinema cameras, RAW recording, and metadata workflow. Livegrade was my tool of choice since its first version. LUT and CDL workflow was a great start to learn the opportunities of work with logarithmically encoded images. But nothing made me as happy as the introduction of the HHS (HueHueSaturation) tool in Livegrade. This gave me huge possibilities to adjust secondaries on set – exactly in the same way as I could use Multi-Matrix control back on Sony’s CineAltas.
Another thing that I need to refer to as the genesis of my style of work is the consistency of the looks. When we were “baking in” the looks in the image, there was no possibility that something would look different during editing and color correction. And I have always missed that since then. Nowadays, you have to worry about the whole pipeline – sending stills, reports, LUTs, CDLs, and so on. There are so many things that can go wrong later on.
And that long introduction finally leads to my answer – with the combination of Livegrade and ShotHub, I could get close to my desired style of work. The metadata path provided now reassures me that all my work will travel just as if it was “baked in”.
Livegrade gives the possibility to grab most of the metadata live along with the image, both when connected to the camera by WiFi or from the SDI feed to my computer. All the looks I create are synchronized to the material by timecode, so I don’t have to worry about how they will be applied later – everything should go smooth if I copy the proper CDLs, LUTs, or look archives. But with ShotHub, I didn’t have to think about exporting anything from Livegrade and copying to Silverstack – everything was done in the cloud.
That solution was perfect for me – I was sure that after I tweaked a shot, the look applied will travel all the way until creating dailies or even to final correction without the need to checking reports or manually applying LUTs and CDLs. Finally, I felt like now I could feel secure about the whole look pipeline.
What were the different purposes of your Livegrade and your Silverstack cloud project?
On The Peasants, Livegrade was not only a software to create looks but also to grab and update metadata. This is a really convenient way of transferring it further in the whole pipeline, as it is easy to fill all additional notes like scene, shot, or take numbers, but also used filters and writing down camera notes. Most of the camera metadata travels with the video feed and can automatically be gathered by Livegrade.
After finishing work on the looks, I usually would have to copy part of the day’s data as Pomfort Look Archive each time I wanted to offload a card in Silverstack. That means moving it from one machine to another on pendrives over and over again. While working on set, often in a rush, I tend to lose those pendrives, and it was always kind of a problematic part for me.
With ShotHub, I could forget all the pendrive craziness. The whole process was done by itself. I didn’t have to worry about moving the data manually as long as I had both machines connected to the internet, of course.
All of the data management jobs on The Peasants could finally be done the way I like the most – almost automatically. When a card got registered in Silverstack, it already had all corresponding looks and metadata updated from ShotHub. Obviously, I had to check from time to time if the automation worked.
On this project, I was not transcoding in Silverstack. I did it in Resolve. The reason for that was that the next steps, like editing and color correction, were to be done in Resolve as well. So while transcoding in Resolve, I could make sure that everything worked as smoothly as communication between Livegrade and Silverstack using ShotHub. And it did – while everything was in one database already, I was just exporting metadata from Silverstack to Resolve. And with just a few clicks, I had all the looks and metadata synchronized; and the data management job done.
Which cameras and which additional software were used on this project?
All the choices of equipment on this project were made having the visual effect in mind, as well as the whole artistic path that the film had to pass. While choosing the camera, Radek knew that every frame would finally be hand-painted at the end of the process, so the images from the camera also had a purpose as a “guide” for the painter. But before the brush would cover the frames, the image would have to go through a complex visual effects route. That is why he needed a camera that can pass all of the metadata in an easy way. Sony Venice was an obvious choice for this one. Before The Peasants, we shot two other films (The Hater; My Neighbor Adolf) on Sony Venice, and Radek was pleased with the look the camera could provide.
The Venice paired up with Zeiss Supreme Prime lenses on this project. The combination of these two gives the possibility not only to record usual lens data like focal length, T-stop or distance but also Zeiss eXtended Data like lens shading and vignetting, which is important information when creating visual effects. All of that stored in metadata for each frame.
Another benefit was the Dual ISO option and specifically the Low Light sensitivity. On this project, control over depth of field was really important – it had to correspond to the paintings or painters’ perspective, who don’t use shallow depth of field. In some shots, when recreating paintings, we had to be free to choose a wide depth of field. Venice with Dual ISO gives you additional 2 stops straight from the box. And this was exactly what this project needed.
Sony Venice has been chosen in the first place, but in the whole production, we used more cameras from Sony’s range. There were some shots from “body cam” rigs, shot with Sony Alpha 7S. But also, just from curiosity, we tested Sony FX9 for some exterior shots. The biggest benefit was that we could seamlessly match these cameras using the same ACES CDLs, as all of them have been set to the same color space. Of course, when we were working in ACES, we could have used any other extra camera, and it still should’ve been easy to match them using proper IDTs. But having all of them from the same manufacturer was making it even easier.
As additional software, I have used DaVinci Resolve, which for DITs is one of the first choices (after Silverstack and Livegrade, of course). On this project, I could transcode with Silverstack XT, but Resolve was also kind of a checking tool for how all of the material would behave in the next steps of the production. Editing and grading were supposed to be done in Resolve as well. So I could test how the metadata can improve the workflow. All the information that I was writing down manually in Livegrade during shooting could be recalled afterward to create Smart Bins in Resolve to organize scenes in no time.
Another interesting thing is that on The Peasants, color grading will be done twice – first before the painting process, and then in the end when the work of the painters is done. I wanted to provide a smooth workflow until the painting part – so all the CDLs could be used during the first grading. To make sure this happens, I used the DaVinci export tool from Silverstack and Color Trace back in Resolve. It worked like a charm.
How was the decision made to use a combination of Silverstack, Livegrade and ShotHub? Were there specific requirements for the use of each application?
Livegrade and Silverstack have been the main software I use for DIT work on set for years now, so the choice was obvious. The regular data workflow didn’t change on this project. The thing that I wanted to improve further was the handling of the metadata. I decided to try ShotHub (beta at that time) to check if being able to transfer information without physical drives will be easier.
The work of DITs requires that you divide parts of your activities between adjusting camera setups, controlling exposure, creating looks, and handling data. The fewer things you need to focus on in one moment, the better. Sometimes you feel like you would need a second pair of eyes or need to be in two places at once. For me, the most important thing is staying focused on live grading.
For that reason, I like the offloading and transcoding process to be done almost automatically, without the need to sit by the backup station. And Silverstack is providing me with that possibility. Hence, combining it with ShotHub became a no-brainer. The only thing I did was syncing the looks and metadata with Livegrade – and that’s about it.
My workflow in the first days of my career was literally to correct live, shoot, and…forget. When the shot was done, it was done – no tweaking, correcting, applying looks, etc. And now, using ShotHub, I could recreate that. Even if I had to move through two different applications to finish my work, I didn’t have to check reports and apply looks manually. Just connect to the internet, tick a few options in the software, and it is done.
Can you please briefly describe your on-set workflow on the production? For which aspects of your work did you use ShotHub?
On The Peasants, I was using my classic workflow – divided the DIT tasks between two machines. One is always on set for live grading, and the backup station usually is on the camera truck or another place so that I don’t need to move it for most of the production. On this particular film, it was much easier because we were shooting most of it in the studio, so I could keep my carts close. For the exterior days, I had the live grading and backup stations far away from each other, but the process was the same.
Usually, I would have to move data on a pendrive between the machines to transfer the looks or Pomfort Look Archive. With ShotHub, I just connected both machines to the internet, and the communication between them was done live.
Even when I didn’t have an internet connection, I could use my phone as a hotspot. On the exterior shots, I just had to keep my phone in my pocket, and when I moved away from my computer on set to offload a card in the truck, my backup station would automatically connect to the internet by phone. By the time I started offloading, all the metadata was ready to be imported. This was super simple unless I forgot my phone, of course.
Did using ShotHub influence your workflow?
It made my workflow much easier and faster. First of all, I didn’t need physical drives to move the metadata and looks. This is a huge benefit as I used to forget to collect them from both machines quite often. And when I needed them, they were never there.
But seriously – the biggest benefit was a clear path to store and edit metadata. All the information arriving in ShotHub could be modified at any point. I could correct some of the missing information when moving the data to Silverstack. For example, sometimes, I might have written the wrong scene number in Livegrade or forgot to write down a filter. When moving to Silverstack, I could easily track that error with the information on the slate and quickly update it in my Silverstack database. After that, all the database was complete – it collected information from Livegrade, but also the cameras, sound recorder media, and QTake Video Assist. I could have access to it from any device with a web browser at any time.
After collecting all the metadata, I could export everything combined for reference in the post and also for editing the media further down in the pipeline. For my purposes, I was using the DaVinci Resolve Metadata Export feature to create dailies. It was a no-brainer, as I didn’t have to worry about what CDL to apply – the Color Trace function did everything for me using data received from Silverstack. Basically, this kind of workflow assured me that once I did a change in Livegrade, it would travel all the way up to DaVinci Resolve, without the need of manually imputing any look names, etc. The only condition that had to be met – I had to be connected to the internet. As simple as that.
There also were other features we used after the production was finished. When the editing process started, the director wanted to look for some B-rolls from extra cameras (Sony Alphas in our case) that were not registered in the script supervisor notes. In just a couple of seconds, I was able to track them and sent the exact folder path to the editorial, where they could look for the original rushes but also transcoded editorial files. No need to check the daily reports or the drives themselves – I just wrote the number of the scene, and I had all the metadata needed – including the path on the hard drives. And I didn’t need to have access to my backup station – I did it on a web browser on my home computer.
How was your overall experience with ShotHub? Were there any features that you used frequently or liked in particular?
The feature I used the most was obviously importing looks and metadata to Silverstack from Livegrade. But I have also used it to access my Silverstack library from the computer I was using for live grading on set. Sometimes I just wanted to make sure which card number should be on the B or C cameras that were arriving to set, but also to access any other data that I would normally need to check on my backup station. I was quite pleased with the option to organize what metadata you can see in the ShotHub web-view and that the presets can be saved.
Sometimes I just needed to check on which production drive particular shots were, but I had also made some presets that helped me check at what time I finished work on each day. With this solution, I could count how much overtime I had if there were days when I forgot to write it down. It seems like ShotHub also helped in the accounting part of the job.
There was another way I used it in some cases. Since the feature of exchanging looks between different live grading stations was not possible on the beta version, I have used a little workaround to “copy” the looks from one live grading station to the other. The Peasants was done using ACES CDL looks only, so I could “manually transfer” the data from ShotHub to another computer I was occasionally using. Simply, I was just checking the values of CDL on the ShotHub page in the web browser and copying/pasting them straight to my CDL and Saturation nodes in Livegrade.
Were there any particularly challenging situations or setups on this project?
Since the beginning of preparations, we knew that this film was going to be technically demanding. The whole film was supposed to be shot with actors and then painted on canvas frame by frame. The studio shooting the movie, despite telling the story, was supposed to work as a guide for the painters as well.
We had to keep in mind that many of the regular cinematography techniques might be tricky or hard to reproduce for the painters, like the depth of field, for example. If you watch the paintings, you don’t see this kind of aesthetics because the painter’s eye doesn’t see shallow depth of field. During the whole shoot, we had to check what worked best for each shot; if this is a film language or painting technique that is better telling the story in a particular scene.
Camera movement was also another tricky thing. The more the camera moves, the harder it is for the painters to recreate the whole scene, as they have literally more work to do – every change in the frame has to be reproduced. But on the other hand, sometimes a master shot tells a story much better than many locked frames. There were many challenging decisions to be made on this film, but I think it was making the work more interesting.
And from my perspective, live grading a project shot on green screens was also very challenging. In the script, the story takes place in all four seasons spread over a couple of years. Radek and Kamil prepared the light breakdown for the entire film, describing how light conditions change for every scene. According to that, the gaffer was using different light setups. But to see the effect when everything is surrounded by green screen was a real challenge.
At this point, backgrounds generated by Unreal Engine helped a lot in the first place. Since we could match them quite easily with the metadata from cameras, we could visualize the exact mood that the Director and both DPs wanted in the particular scene. I cannot imagine how I could create a look of a snow-covered field during sunset, with just seeing one actor in a wide shot, only surrounded by green screen. And with Unreal Engine, it was just a couple of fast tweaks, and we had a shot ready in seconds.
How does using Unreal Engine Backgrounds impact your role as a DIT, your responsibilities, and your equipment? What are the additional requirements?
The idea of using Unreal Engine appeared early in the preparation process. On The Peasants, it was supposed to be a kind of post-production support on set. This would later be replaced entirely by more precise CGI in a controlled environment of the post-production facility. So in the case of our film, we didn’t use LED screens but went for a green screen shooting approach. The Unreal backgrounds were generated live to mix them with the camera feed using the QTake Video Assist system. This way, we could see on the monitors how the scene will look like later.
According to that, we had to be sure that the images from UE and Livegrade matched. To achieve this, we had to make sure that both systems have the same color pipeline. It seemed straightforward to use ACES since UE’s filmic tonemapper uses ACES, and CGI is ACES too. And with Livegrade, I could easily apply the looks in ACES for all cameras we used on this production.
To match both systems, we ran a simple test, using the same color charts in UE and in front of the camera. We set up both ODTs for REC709 gamma and color space as all monitoring was done in that space. And that was it.
Another thing we had to take care of was how to export the image from Unreal Engine to offline editing. The simplest way was just to record the feed from the computer using Unreal Engine straight to QTake. Using this solution, the editor could edit on set on the mixed image from the camera and Unreal Engine, but at the same time, I was able to offload the backgrounds recorded by QTake only. In this way, the editor had the possibility to edit on set using a mixed image and replace it on the first stage of editing with transcoded rushes and backgrounds recorded on set.
When you think back to The Peasants, what is your most memorable experience? What did you enjoy the most?
Apart from the technical approach, in my opinion, the role of a DIT is to have an influence on the creative process with your skills too. As I mentioned, The Peasants is this kind of film that touches many forms of visual art. We create a world inspired by classical paintings, not only using cinematography but also computer-generated graphics. And for me, the most exciting part was trying to recreate the real paintings, which the Director was inspired by.
There are a couple of “painting quotes” in the film that are classics in Young Poland style. When we were shooting them, first we tried to reproduce the painting and then see how the action in it comes to life in the classical frame. It was an amazing experience. It feels like the scenes you imagined on these paintings through all your life suddenly are telling the story of The Peasants. To be part of that creative process was a thrilling experience – I felt like mixing the paints on Chelmonski’s palette and passing it to him before he puts the Hues on the canvas.
Big ‘Thank You’ to Krzysztof for letting us be part of this exciting project!