It was a case of real life aping reel life in the making of The Lego Batman movie. Just like the main serious protagonist who lightens up through the course of the movie, the makers were smiling all the way to banks and applause all around, especially as the animated film landed 11 nominations for the 2017 Golden Trailer Awards.
What caught the audience’s attention about the film was its spectacular and expressive animation, which is not an easy feat to achieve keeping the Lego-bricked landscape in perspective. But that is something Warner Bros has been able to create and recreate over the years, by collaborating with partners who can do justice to its projects.
Take the case of Sydney’s Animal Logic that has worked with the studio on films such as Happy Feet, The Owls of Ga’Hoole, The Lego Movie (released 2014) from pitch and proof of concept through to post. After the success of the first Lego film, it was only natural that when Warner Bros decided to work on its spin-off three years later, its ideal partner would be Animal Logic as the post-production company.
Collaborating from the start
For this all-animated feature, Animal Logic’s team acted less as post-production and more as part of the production group. Sam Chynoweth, colourist at Animal Logic, recalled that where they normally get four weeks to grade a live action movie, in this instance they were embedded in the production process for a year. “Almost since the beginning of the project we were working with production designer, Grant Freckelton, to develop looks and essentially became an extension of the lighting, compositing and output departments, rather than waiting for finished shots to be delivered to us.”
The process began with Freckelton and film director Chris McKay working closely with Animal Logic’s team to get the right look and feel. “Very early on, the makers had some ideas where they wanted elements of a 1970s film. So, we had to work out how to incorporate those, but keep it feeling modern. Then, we lifted it up a little to include a bit of fun. We ended up coining the phrase ‘baby’s first apocalypse’ – dark and gritty and Gotham-like, but all the bits that could be made fun would be fun, and anything that could be turned up was turned up to 11. Our motto all the way through was “enhance, enhance!” Chynoweth said.
While watching an animated movie the entire package comes together as a mélange of images and shots. Little do viewers, or even industry professionals for that matter, know that the shots reach the post-production without any balancing. Often, all of this has to be done from scratch for every scene, which means detailed planning is required at every step.
Animal Logic had about 300 artists working on scenes throughout the Lego Batman movie, and there were different compositors putting in their own nuances shot-to-shot, so a fair amount of basic balancing was needed to bring it into line.
“From there we did a lot of secondaries. Working alongside production gave us the opportunity for massive attention to detail. We had a heavily multi-channel EXR set-up delivering us a series of passes from lighting, so we were really able to get in there and manipulate things to the nth degree,” Chynoweth said.
Taking the load off
One of the most beneficial aspects of this process was that the team was taking pressure off the up-stream departments. Since they would take on the load, the artists could produce more work.
Explaining the workflow process, Chynoweth said that for every frame of the movie, they got a single EXR file which had three views: the standard left and right stereo 3D channels and they would often have a mono camera as well to maintain symmetry. Packed into each EXR file, they would have a breakdown of mattes for characters, body parts, camera and world position, and so on.
One of the most important layers they used was a surface colour pass, which gives the base, non-reflective colour of the scene. If they found events where maybe things had too much reflection they could multiply that pass back to bring the reflection down. It not only restored natural colour to the characters, but it also helped to control that crazy, saturated look.
“So, we were basically using Baselight like a very fast compositor to combine all these layers. And although we did not need to use keying a huge amount as we had all the mattes in the EXR files, we used a lot of shape mattes to do subtle re-lighting. It was much quicker for us to accent things than to send it back to production for relighting,” Chynoweth stated.
Bram Tulloch, editorial and DI Engineer at Animal Logic noted that the power and flexibility of the Baselight grading system and the cloud network architecture enabled them to work this way relatively easily. “We have a Baselight TWO as our hero seat in the grading theatre, and also a Baselight ONE to do some supplementary grading as well as handling much of the stereo 3D work. We needed a massive amount of storage – the EXR images were between 50 and 150 megabytes a frame – but the FLUX Store sorted that out for us. In fact, we worked with the same data on both on the FLUX Store and the Baselight TWO, because that gave us added security and the ability to switch between machines almost instantly if anything went down.”
Chynoweth further explained that the generalised colour spaces in Baselight allowed them to work flexibly as they could switch in and out of colour spaces non-destructively to get the most out of our images. Sometimes they needed a big gamut, but sometimes that big gamut started hampering things when they were trying to fine tune the grade.
“We were working primarily in ACEScc with some custom tweaks, but we would switch in and out of different spaces as we needed them for different tools. That allowed us to stretch the image in such a way that we could get the most out of it: we could push sections while still maintaining key colours, like Batman’s eyes or Robin’s cape. Even when we were pushing our crazy apocalypse colours we had to keep those catch colours in there so people could easily recognise the characters.”
A scene that Chynoweth said he particularly enjoyed to work on is a dog-fight sequence at the climax of the film, and here the whole ‘more is more’ ethos came into play. “We scaled the saturation and the dynamic range up to the maximum, but we used a lot of fast tracking for key characters. There were a lot of important things you needed to be following, but at the same time we wanted to present a spectacle you could just sit back and watch.”
And that sums up the appeal of The Lego Batman movie – there is more to it than meets the eye.