You never know what is real and what is fantasy when you enter the darkly imagined worlds of Philip K. Dick.
The “Electric Dreams” anthology of Philip K. Dick sci-fi stories was produced on both sides of the Atlantic - which is fitting for a series that spans so many worlds of fantasy.
The sci-fi anthology series “Electric Dreams”, based on 10 of Philip Kindred Dick’s short stories, makes you question your own vision of reality if you allow it to take over your consciousness.
But for the purpose of this analysis, it is a perfect example of the subliminal impact of color grading as discussed in The Broadcast Bridge three-part series “Color Grading-The Unseen VFX”. Each of those three tutorials are linked at the end of this article.
Produced on both sides of the Atlantic by Sony Pictures Television in conjunction with Channel 4 in the UK and Amazon in the US, the color timing (as we Yanks would say) or colour grading (in Brit talk) was accomplished at Deluxe post facilities in key markets throughout the UK and US.
Colorists Scott Ostrowsky and Paul Ensby were the golden eyes behind the color grading for all ten episodes of “Electric Dreams”, with Ensby grading the odd-numbered episodes filmed in London and Ostrowsky working in Los Angeles on the even-numbered episodes shot in Chicago, plus episode 7 captured in London.
We’re going to take a deep dive into how this was accomplished on two of the episodes: “The Commuter”, on which Ensby worked to realize the vision of DP Ollie Downey and Director Tom Harper, and the "Autofac" story, on which Ostrowsky guided finishing the imagery shot by DP John Lindley and directed by Peter Horton.
Because the entire series is available on Amazon Video, I’m going to try to avoid spoilers.
That’s not a major hindrance, because this isn’t about plots. It’s about how two colorists on two separate continents made the experience of seeing those plots so visually memorable.
For example, suffice it to say that the episode “The Commuter” is about a train station employee, Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall), who discovers that some of the people riding one of his commuter shuttles are getting off at Macon Heights, a destination that Jacobson knows doesn’t actually exist.
So he investigates.
It will be no surprise to those familiar with Philip K. Dick that Jacobson is likely to encounter something outside of his normal experience.
And getting him there was what colourist Paul Ensby thought was one of his greatest challenges.
Trainman Ed Jacobson (center) leaves Woking station for the unknown destination of Macon Heights in the film, "The Commuter."
“The filmmakers Tom Harper and Ollie Downey knew pretty much what they wanted from the start,” Ensby told me during our interview. “We wanted to have Macon Heights appear different from Jacobson’s drab daily world, so we gave it a mystical look by pushing the cyans and red colors to heighten the look of the set design.”
But here is where the subtlety comes in.
“We didn’t want to go so far that it would look like a Disneyland,” he said. “DP Downey’s idea was to contrast it with the muted hues of the grimy world Jacobson had left, which was imbued with soft sepia tones and sodium lighting.”
Ensby was working on a Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve version 14 system in Deluxe's London facility at the time, which he told me is very popular in UK colour grading. The episode had been offlined with an Avid Media Composer, but finished on an Autodesk Flame for its effects capability.
For me, it was Jacobson’s long walk after exiting the train and trekking over a grassy meadow with the other passengers toward Macon Heights that intoned the mystical overture bringing us to this distant world.
“It was kind of dusky,” Ensby said. “We had three shots to make the transition across the field from the train to Macon Heights. So we used some artistic license to emphasize a kind of magical dreaminess. We added some mist rising above the town to give it some separation, and increase the feeling that Jacobson was walking toward a different somewhere.”
In the “Autofac” episode, colorist Scott Ostrowsky worked on a Baselight 8 system made by Filmlight at the Deluxe facility in Culver City with 200 terabytes of local storage. Ostrowsky needed that much because he told me his source footage was a combination of RAW 4K and 8K shot by DP John Lindley using Red Digital Cinema Dragon and Weapon cameras.
The story involves farmers living in a post-nuclear dystopia who revolt against a factory overseen by robots. The colors are monotonal and the story bleak, until one of the workers, Philbert Noyce (Mel Rodriguez), decides to shut the Autofac down.
Philip K. Dick's Autofac presents a shadowy world of the future, which we'd just as soon avoid if he gave us the choice.
Ostrowsky told me that DP Lindley and director Peter Horton spent three hours going over the desired look of the show and then let him take his cut colorizing it. Two weeks later, after all the VFX had been dropped in and they had thoroughly discussed it, Ostrowsky felt he had achieved his goal of “achieving the desired look and feel that the director, DP and producers want no matter what screen or format.”
That’s what I wanted to take this opportunity to focus on since, with “Electric Dreams” prominently airing on Amazon Prime Video, multi-format delivery and the inclusion of High Dynamic Range (HDR) would be much more important than what is required for today’s less stringent broadcast considerations.
Ostrowsky’s first pass was for HD’s Rec. 709 color space. “Then I take the 709 timed version into a theater, and put a 709 to P3 D60 LUT (Look Up Table) to create a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) version,” he said.
As a short aside, “P3” is the color space for digital cinema, and “D60” means the white point is at 6000K, the value of white identified by the ACES (Academy Color Encoding System) color image encoding system.
Ostrowsky made sure the cinema theater’s projector was outputting 14 foot-lambert projected colour space and trimmed it in that illumination. Then he completed a separate pass in Rec. 2020 color space for the 4K release.
As an example of the difference, there is a scene in Autofac where a flying machine with bright landing lights touches down on the worker’s farm.
Regrettably, a screen shot of that image could not be provided to us, but imagine a sci fi helicopter with ominously glaring lights.
“In 709 you are going to lose the definition in those bright lights,” he explained. When you see it in the DCP, you will get a little more out of it, but not much. In the HD version you will see the actual shape and contour of the lights thanks to HDR, especially at the 4,000 nits brightness level specified for the best HDR that Sony requires for archiving. Then I also do a 1,000 nits version for presentation on Amazon Prime Video.”
That just makes sense because very few home sets can display the ideal of 4000 nits brightness.
Courtesy Amazon Prime
Although colorists Ensby and Ostrowsky did most of their work separated by half a world, they did get together when the VFX shots were inserted into their episodes on the U. S. West coast.
In fact, on the “Crazy Diamond” episode starring Steve Buscemi, Ensby and Ostrowsky found themselves sharing thoughts to accomplish what DP Ole Bratt Birkeland had in mind.
“Paul worked with Bratt first, so he communicated notes on what kind of a look the DP wanted,” Ostrowsky said. “That can be seen in a shot involving a lighthouse tower where I had to match what Paul had previously done. Knowing how Paul worked let me color correct subsequent shots to Birkeland’s satisfaction even though it had been changed to a different color space by another post house.”
Few people, even pros in this industry, really completely understand what a colorist does and how crucial their contribution is to a production.
“What comes out of my color grading process is the final product that will be seen around the world,” Ostrowsky finished up. “It’s always all about the story, but we are painting the pictures that are representative of what the digital creatives wanted to say.”
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