VFX Supervisor Soren Jensen and Colourist Dwaine Hyde from Digital Pictures joined forces with DP Mark Wareham to give ‘Underbelly: Razor’ its period looks, de-constructing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and creating the underworld of 1920s Sydney.

VFX Supervisor Soren Jensen at Digital Pictures began working on ‘Underbelly: Razor’ very early in pre-production with the director of photography Mark Wareham and production designer Paddy Reardon, planning the best way to tell the story. Digital Pictures had completed the post and colour grade on all of the ‘Under Belly’ series with Screentime for Channel Nine, but this was the first time visual effects were to play an important role.

Historic Research
Paddy and Soren discussed the research requirements and where to find references. “We devoted a lot of time to research and I feel that we achieved a very accurate picture of those times. A lot of documentation is available related to the building and opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an on-going feature of the episodes, and it helped to use it when searching for imagery specific to the time and place,” Soren said.

The visual effects were required mainly for the location shoots, as most of their shots concerned transforming modern Sydney into 1920s scenes, removing and replacing high rise buildings and the Harbour Bridge, and adding smoke and atmospherics caused by the solid fuel people used at that time. “Fortunately, the shoot didn’t take place under blazing blue skies, which helped achieve the slightly gritty look the production wanted. Only a few sky replacements were needed,” said Soren.

Building Bridges
However, the team’s main effort was the 3D model of the Harbour Bridge. Soren explained, “It was built in sections so that we could construct it over the course of the story, which took place during the period 1927 to 1932. Building it this way in 3D allowed the director to place the camera in any position the story needed, and the texture artists would apply textures as each shot was developed.”
Soren worked on set every day of the shoot, collecting data, consulting the director and monitoring conditions on the day, aiming to avoid surprises in post. Most of the clean up work could be done with 2D paintwork or using the textural elements Soren had photographed, such as corrugated iron and peeling paintwork.

“The footage was captured as SR tape on the Sony SRW-9000PL, and we worked on ungraded plates. All material was captured at 4:4:4 and kept at HD resolution throughout production. Nothing needed upresing, including elements. It was of course heavy on space requirements but at that resolution the image quality and colour depth gave a much better result,” he said.

Temporary Comps
All matte paintings were first created as temporary composites to give the production a chance for comments. From there, the temps were used to guide the final composites and, due to the thorough pre production, they rarely needed to go past a second comp. “When it came to actually placing the bridge assets into the plates, we really didn’t encounter any anomalies. The 3D model and the information from the zoom lenses Mark was using proved to be very accurate. I’d also shot a reference cube to check the lens data,” Soren said.

“Our pipeline ran from camera shoot to 3D placement, to matte painting, 2D work and finally to the grade. The colourist graded over our work and any subsequent tweaking was done on the treated shots. The 3D model was built in Maya, and Nuke and Flame were used for compositing. Most tracking could be done in Nuke as well, with some specific tasks done with Bijou.

On Location
“We compiled a library of individual and small groups of people in costume shot on green screen. We could composite these into any shots that needed fixes repaired or to be filled out with characters chatting, socialising in bars or just standing around. I also shot several cars as elements, which were useful to cover stray modern artefacts – especially modern cars left parked on the streets where we were shooting. We sometimes animated cars to add some motion through the backgrounds, too.”

The set location most often used was a couple of streets in the Block in Redfern, as well as Observatory Hill and in the historic Rocks area, which both give good views of the Bridge and include examples of the Bridge architecture, such as the 1930s stairwells. They also shot down along the wharf where the production found useful interiors and night exteriors in which Soren’s team replaced Luna Park with the original shed structures. They removed the Bridge and replaced it with progressively more complete versions of as it was built, until the final episode shows it complete.

The 2D and 3D effects teams devoted to this project were small and efficient, working with a designer and two matte painters alongside colourist Dwaine Hyde. Soren said, “The producers at Screentime were very good to work with, with a realistic understanding of the resources production and post teams need to produce television programming. Furthermore, because this was the first time they had needed a visible, significant amount of visual effects they trusted our judgement on cost and time.”

Colour Palette
‘Underbelly: Razor’ was the first series DP Mark Wareham ACS had shot for the franchise. He shot on the Sony SRW-9000PL, using a recorder that would allow a LUT to be applied to the rushes showing approximately how the images would look after the final grade. He finds this technique is especially useful for television series because, once the producers and director are accustomed to the look they see in the rushes, they may hesitate to add a creative grade in post.
The production agreed that this series should be handled differently from the beginning. They wanted the production values – colour palette, image quality and lighting - to reflect the era of the story, 1927 to 1932, and to emphasise the colours, textures and mood the production design team had created in the sets and costumes.

The production needed to stick to the same fast shooting schedule that all three previous series had adopted, although more scenes in ‘Razor’ needed to be shot on sets in a studio instead of on location. Therefore, taking time early on to work with Colourist Dwaine Hyde to develop the LUT for the rushes helped to establish many aspects of the looks in advance.

Camera Testing
Aware of capturing a period that hadn’t often been depicted on mainstream, commercial TV in Australia, Mark tested several different cameras. He was keen to use a full chip camera to give the post teams more opportunity to work on the looks after the shoot. Dwaine would need full colour information, and VFX Supervisor Soren Jensen’s team would need high quality footage for 3D compositing of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The camera also had to be the right size and weight for the handheld and Steadicam work that had to be done.

“There were a number of other considerations as well, including a requirement that the show be shot on tape to meet various industry commitments in place for the series,” Mark said. “The production was also concerned about the storage implications of a file-based shoot because the previous series had generated a large volume of footage, and they wanted to view the rushes at midday to keep up with the tight delivery schedule.”

The camera that seemed to meet everyone’s requirements was the SRW-9000PL, which he had recently used to shoot a TV series for Fox 8 called ‘SLiDE’. On that project, he found he could create in-camera speed ramps in the footage. This wasn’t necessarily of interest for ‘Razor’, but one of the directors, Tony Tilse, spotted the effect in the tests he liked the look and the ability to control them in various situations.

Happy Surprises
Slow motion has been a consistent part of Underbelly’s look but on ‘Razor’, the speed ramps were used as well. “For some fight scenes, we might ramp up from 20 to 50fps in the middle of a hit, and could adjust and compensate for the ramping with both the shutter and the gain. I actually like a slightly ‘imperfect’ look in the images sometimes, and don’t mind allowing some unexpected results. This was more common when shooting with film, but I’ve found that experimenting with LUTs has brought back occasional opportunities for ‘happy surprises’ that have been missing from HD shoots,” said Mark.

“Using the LUT also meant I could use my light metre to set up the lighting, instead of always checking the rushes. The nature of the costumes and props demanded that every shot be deliberately lit. The ‘Underbelly’ aesthetic called for a shadowy, gritty look but the sets needed to be highlighted in certain ways as well. We were always balancing between several competing factors act at any moment, including deciding whether to focus on being good, low-cost or fast!”

Mark was mainly using Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses on the shoot, plus a set of Ultra Primes although he didn’t need these too often. He was mainly concerned about having enough depth of field and avoiding a high gamma, broadcast look. “The SRW-9000PL rolls off well in the highlights, though it doesn’t have the exposure range of the ALEXA, and I could control the contrast quite well with the on-set lighting.”

The HD Potential
Soren, Dwaine and Mark had worked together before on the series ‘Scorched’, which had involved considerably more compositing, and again had carried out a thorough preproduction stage, creating a LUT for looks and planning carefully for the requirements of the effects team. Mark feels that, for TV projects especially, it is critical that the DP, VFX Supervisor and colourist work together to achieve a coherent result.

Regarding ‘Razor’, he said, “I think it really paid off on this particular project. Shooting in HD has yet to reach its full potential. The SRW-9000PL for example, as a true 1920x1080 resolution camera, is almost ‘too good’ and you might be tempted to say it captures ‘too much’ data. But, based on the experience I’ve now had working with digital footage with post teams, I’m excited by the potential it has for look development.”

Into Colour
Digital Pictures’ colourist Dwaine Hyde worked through pre production with the production designer and DP Mark Wareham, helping Mark with the LUT for the rushes. “Quite a lot more attention was given to production design, lighting and colour than on most television series, resulting from lots of communication between the DP, the production designer and me, the colourist.

“We devoted three full days to testing the effects of different lighting scenarios on the costumes, textures and paints and checked how the sets looked on video tape. It meant making a few changes but also meant we all had the same expectations and knew what to expect. I helped Mark assess the tests he ran on different cameras, noticing in particular the level of detail captured, exposure and how colours looked. Mark felt the SRW-9000PL, which shoots using the S-log gamma, gave the best result under the lighting set up he wanted to use, aiming for a cinematic look with lots of contrast and depth,” Dwaine said.

“Following the tests, we built the LUT. With this, the images could be viewed in the offline with contrasts and looks similar to the intended grade, although much simpler. It was the same idea as a one-light colour treatment that cinematographers used to use with film, and it was useful here because the colours in untreated digital footage look very flat.”

During pre-production, they had discussed using colour to highlight different settings and scenes involving different characters. As the story unfolded on set and they could see the characters in their environments, they settled on the details of different looks. Dwaine also wanted to enhance the period feeling.

Dwaine graded on a 2K DaVinci linear grading system, which suited the fast production schedule. “Mark’s images were quite easy and enjoyable to work with, well shot and lit. None of the shots needed fixing. I was just enhancing the in-camera looks,” Dwaine said. “Mark sat in on grading sessions for the first seven or eight episodes, which was really helpful. We spent about five days on the first one to establish the looks for different settings and scenes, and after that they only took a couple of days each.”www.omnilab.com

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: Courtesy of Digital Pictures