Adam Dolniak, a Baselight colourist experienced in live action work, here talks about his first animated project, relying on the software’s colour management, isolation and tracking tools.
'The Amazing Maurice' is an animated movie based on the novel by Terry Pratchett telling the story of Maurice, a goofy but streetwise cat. Having found a talented boy who plays a pipe and, appropriately, has his own horde of strangely literate rats, Maurice thinks he has the perfect money-making scam...
The movie was graded in London by colourist Adam Dolniak at Splice, who took the job as his inaugural animation project. He found the experience was quite different to the films he’s used to working on.
Live Action vs Animation
Adam contrasted his colour grading process for a live action movie with his approach to animated productions. “On a live action project, I try to get involved with the DoP or director from quite early on,” he said. “The majority of 'the look' would be down to the art department, the DoP and me. From a given start point captured in the footage, I would have the option to take the images in a totally different direction in post.
“I normally have a lot of leeway in how far I can push and pull the images, in both technical and creative terms. The log conversion alone allows for enormous amounts of creative choices, using FilmLight Baselight’s colour management or LUTs, or sometimes a combination of both. The creative possibilities are endless.”
But, in the case of 'The Amazing Maurice', a team of talented designers had already spent years making careful colour decisions on very detailed elements in the images, which meant that conversions were not an issue, and that Adam’s job as animation colourist becomes more technical than creative. Nevertheless, he describes it in creative terms.
“Decisions had already been made and locked in on minute details such as the colour of a stone gravel path, the exact hue of some hanging salami or the correct glow of an alcoholic’s nose,” said Adam. “Essentially, for animation, I am not creating a look – my part in the process is to polish a very pretty diamond.”
Working Colour Space
Adam joined the production at the beginning of 2020. As the film was finished in 3D stereo, some of his initial meetings with the producer helped iron out the details regarding 3D delivery.
An important part of the work was ensuring the colour management was accurate. Adam worked with FilmLight’s colour pipeline tools to support this procedure, focusing specifically on how the highlights were being processed.
“Lots of the speculars in the images were going out of range, so it was important to get those corrected,” said Adam. “We ended up opting for FilmLight T-log as the working colour space, because of its suitability for animation – it is not only expansive generally but has extra accommodation for specular highlights – although in certain scenes for various reasons I switched that to P3-D65, which was also my viewing colour space.”
Adam's favourite scene, in a forest at night, is almost devoid of colour.
Display P3 is about 25 percent larger compared to the usual sRGB colour space display, meaning that it can represent more colours with better accuracy and stay truer to how those colours actually look in real life.
A Technical Grade
Since the animation studio was located in Germany, Adam had not seen any of the animation as it progressed from stage to stage, apart from one short scene they had received early on to check the 3D stereo characteristics.
He said, “The film had an incredibly tight turnaround. It might surprise you to realise that the first time I saw it was on the first day of the grade! The EXR media arrived from Germany in the morning, I had a few hours to conform it and by 1pm I was sitting with the two directors and a producer, ready to grade.”
A scene from the final show-down, at dawn.
With the look already carefully set out by the designers and animators, Adam could focus on the technical aspects of the image, finessing skin tones, brightening faces, applying subtle tweaks to highlights and shadows and making sure colours were consistent across scenes. The animators had not worked through the scenes in narrative order, so occasionally a scene’s tone didn’t quite match others around it.
In particular, each of the characters had specific looks and colour palettes, which made Adam responsible for tweaking the images to make sure their trademark looks were consistent throughout. “We paid particular attention to Maurice’s orange fur. It didn't always match from shot to shot and it was important to keep it consistent,”he said. “The white fur of the rats occasionally had an unwanted colour cast as well, so I would isolate it and make it a cleaner white.”
Adam also used colour to try to steer the narrative a little, one of the colourist’s roles he is more familiar with, using different tones to convey certain messages. For instance, in the den where Keith and Malicia are captured by the rat catchers, he leaned into threatening green tones. Also, in the sequence when the audience is first introduced to the rat king’s house, the images were initially too warm and saturated. He toned down that scene and made it more neutral.
“My favourite scene in the film takes place in the forest,” Adam remembered. “It's a great example of when the absence of colour creates a striking look. Here, we focused a lot on the darkest parts of the image, making sure we retrieved just the right amount of detail.”
Adam had only ten days to grade the movie, plus time for all renders and deliveries. As all the secondaries were completed manually without mattes, he relied extensively on his own shapes and keys to gain control when lifting faces and eyes, and adjusting fur.
“The trickiest sequence was the final showdown,” said Adam. “It unfolds over a long period of time – from night through to sunrise and then finishing in bright sunshine. Such scenes are generally dominated by one overall tone so it's easy to spot discrepancies.”
The mini scenes within this sequence were generally all animated at different times – that is, not in story order. In fact, the end scene was actually one of the first to be animated. Consequently, by the time Adam received the entire sequence, much of it was disjointed in tone. “It took multiple watch-throughs and minute adjustments to make sure there was a smooth progression in the sunrise. We spent almost one day just on that scene,” he said.
The Splice team are constantly adapting and improving their workflows and colour pipelines, which are based on Baselight. Adam has been grading on Baselight since 2011 and finds the system aids his role as a colourist in many ways.
“The software and hardware work so harmoniously together,” he remarked. “The tracking and keying are brilliant. I do a lot of sky replacements and have created a template stack that I can apply from job to job. On a simple moving shot I can track, key and replace the sky in about a minute. Baselight’s simple layering makes it possible.”
For The Amazing Maurice, Adam used several features such as the DKey isolation and tracking tools as well as stereo mode. DKey is a 3-dimensional keyer designed to extract out regions of the 3D RGB colourspace, producing a custom matte for secondary work. It can be used to create complex mattes to isolate specific areas and add critical colours throughout a project.
Adam said, “In the absence of additional mattes, I couldn't have come through this grade without the DKey isolation and tracking features in Baselight. The speed and accuracy of DKey surprises me every time I use it. Just when you think it won’t be able to differentiate and isolate a messy area, it delivers exceptional precision.
“Also, in stereo mode, the way Baselight manages the left and right eyes is very user friendly. It allows you to combine both tracks on the timeline to work in a single-stack mode. This means any grade is applied to both tracks by default, so there is no need to sync grades between stacks. It's a very streamlined way of working.”
The Amazing Maurice was selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2023 and was also longlisted for a BAFTA in the animated film category. www.filmlight.ltd.uk