Monday, 18 November 2013

Digital Rostrum – using still images to create a more moving experience

Another part of the ‘finishing’ story is the animation of still images. Termed ‘rostrum’ and regularly undertaken by the industry stalwarts Ken Morse in the UK, and Ken Burns in the US. The two Ken’s would painstakingly film photographs using a moving overhead rostrum motion camera, which would then be transferred into the video edit as moving image. These days this process has a more digital workflow.

As with colour grading, digital rostrum can be straightforward, but also can be cleverly incorporated into the narrative to enhance the ‘emotion’ within a film. The simplest is a pan across an image. However, I thought carefully when looking through Andy Cave’s photographs that Producer and Director Paul Diffley had assembled for his feature length documentary ‘Distilled’.

To add a bit of flair, albeit subtly, a simple dissolve between images became a matched shot. That is, the image was rotated to achieve a dramatic perspective when it is first presented to the viewer. This continues, and matches a portion of the image which follows it. Either matching the horizon of the image, or in the case below, the summit ridge and rock wall.

Simple rotate and dissolve using matched frames
Paul had stated that he was looking for a bolder statement for ‘Distilled’ so I looked at adding moving elements to otherwise static photographs. Thus bringing them to life, so that the whole documentary became a moving image, rather than video interspersed with still images. This method was used in the following sequence, where the lens glare from the sun at high altitude is animated and continues into the next image as they rotate and dissolve into each other. Once again with a matched summit ‘horizon’ for added effect. This required the second image to be extended so that the summit line had enough ‘head room’ and could be superimposed over the first image (the sky in the second frame was very slender in the original Andy Cave photograph compared to the second frame in the image below).
Rotate, animated lens flare across the dissolve with matched frames
Once Paul and his co-editor finished the edit, I finally had my first sight of the visuals, as up until then the audio that had been my only reference at that point, it became clear to me that Andy Cave’s story needed a sequence which illustrated his Himalayan expedition to Changabang in 1997, which is the main focus of the latter half of the documentary. Since no moving image was available I suggested to Paul that a montage of this climb be created to allow the audience a breathing point from the moving image. I set about deconstructing a photograph from a high altitude camp with the intention of revealing the objective of the expedition team as it would be seen on the first morning after their arrival at the camp. Something I myself had experienced on my own trips to places that had been years in their planning. Paul had the composer re-time the music to match the cut points within the final montage for added effect.

Deconstructed photograph, animated to create perspective, and an introduction to the next 'chapter'
As work on the documentary progressed I mentioned to Paul that we hadn’t used a really good image of one of the members of that expedition and that we really could do with using it since the latter half of the story mentions him specifically. Paul suggested that we should use it in the opening montage, as if the climber was looking out of the tent at Changabang and its fateful summit. Brilliant! In true film-making style this image would form an ‘echo’ to where the narrative was leading.

Typical two-shot, subject and their point of view
Another poignant use of digital rostrum was in the culmination of Andy Cave’s expedition, where one of the team members is fatally avalanched. I felt that this required careful, but specific attention to heighten the drama and illustrate the voice-over of Andy describing this tragic event, and its immediate aftermath. I felt the original images were not orientated to reflect the desperation of their situation, so I mirrored them (see first two photographs below and compare them to their original orientation). Combined with animated snow to simulate a more creative dissolve to white effect in between jump cuts, beginning with the unfortunate Brendan Murphy looking right. The end of the upwards pan then matches the eye line of an image selected to illustrate the dejected feeling of the remaining team members. This also was reversed with them slumped looking into the left of frame to maintain this eye line and create a more negative orientation than the original. Watch George Stevens' ‘Shane'’ for an example of this simply use of film psychology.

Animated images, orientated to convey the emotion described by the voice-over (frames 1 & 2)
Towards the end of my work on ‘Distilled’ Paul presented a late addition into the edit following our discussion about a too great a jump from this low point in the film’s narrative to the final ‘act’ and closure. He had decided to insert a beautiful timelapse sequence shot by Matt Pycroft which was shot one winter evening of Ben Nevis from Anonach Mor. This served as a transition to the last part of the film. I suggested that the epitaph to Brendan in the previous scene should do more than dissolve and Paul and I agreed that this must be very subtle, given it's purpose. Dan Jones created a simple, but effective animated text whereby the text become part of the stars as they track across the night sky in the timelapse, leaving one behind before the rest of the letter fragments fade out. Title designer Dave Halstead responded quickly to provide the original font in the title style. It was a nice team effort that perhaps mirrors in a very small way that exhibited on the fateful retreat down the mountain with Brendan.

Animated text overlays two dissolving images, whilst animating the fade to combine with the second image
Distilled’ will now be doing the rounds of film festival having won the People’s Choice category against stiff competition at Kendal Mountain Festival on 17th November 2013.

Meanwhile you can buy a download of the film for Christmas direct from Hot Aches for a discounted price of £9.99 using the special code 'Fridge' BUY HERE
RRP £14.99 (Offer ends 20/12/13)

All source images are copyright Hot Aches Productions and photographs copyright Andy Cave © 2013

More information about Hot Aches Productions films can be found on their website

Kendal Mountain Festival

Andy Cave

David Jinks
Fridge Productions Limited
Tel: 0845 604 3582

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Colour Grading – A distillation of ideas, themes and emotion

If one word was to describe the outcome of the art and science of colour grading if would be ‘emotion’. Primarily this stage, of ‘finishing’ as it is often termed, is used to match shots taken with multiple cameras, of quite often different makes, models and settings. Standardising them so that different or incorrect exposures and white balance are corrected, and often ‘legalising’ the output within acceptable broadcast parameters.

However, that is just the beginning of the ‘finishing’ story.

Basic colour grading 

Once the colour grader has done with the vector scopes that allow them to bring each shot into the desired tolerance the art of colour grading can begin. With Hot Aches Productions latest feature documentary ‘Distilled’, this begun with a conversation with the Producer and Director, Paul Diffley.

We have graded two of Hot Aches previous award-winning films; The Long Hope and The Wide Boyz, with some minor colour correction on The Pinnacle and Paul has been a regular and successful film-maker at the Kendal Mountain Festival since about 2002 when we were having our own adventure documentary films screened. So it is fair to say that Paul and I have known each other for most of his film-making career, and this project was to build on that partnership.

Paul and his team had shot ‘Distilled’ in some of the gnarliest Scottish winter mountaineering conditions in which you could possibly hold a camera, and wanted a desaturated look for the resultant film. Paul also wanted to make a bolder statement than merely the odd ‘vinaigrette’ as we tended to call the stylised darkening around the edges (vignette). I set about by choosing one of the most impressive, keynote shots of the film to create a number of test grades which were forwarded to Paul for his preference.

From primary colour grading to applying a subtle mask

Alongside these preliminary tests we also discussed the narrative of the documentary, having been sent an audio recording of the interview with the subject of the film, Alpinist climber Andy Cave. After two versions and a couple of hours of phone conversations Paul assembled what was to become the audio-locked version of the film. By the time we had decided on an overall look and approach to the colour grading and visual effects that were to be applied, the climbing sequences had been assembled by Paul’s co-editor. The film was finally taking shape.

Original video to final look

My suggestion was to enhance the desaturated look of the film with subtle asymmetric vignettes, which in some shots also included a use of blur applied to the foreground. This not only created a more filmic look to the scene, but also served to create further depth in the image and focus the eye on the main action within the shot.

Applying a vignette and foreground image blur

This was particularly important in some of the more snowbound scenes in the film, where blizzards virtually obscured the shot, and added to the drama. Perfectly illustrating the environment of Scottish winter climbing. This was done by selecting a portion of the scene to be of particular interest and darkening the surrounding frame. In the case below, two climbers ascending a snow gully in almost whiteout conditions.

Asymmetric trapezoid mask to highlight portion of the image frame

Of course, as in most films, the ending is by convention generally uplifting. And as the second act of ‘Distilled’ reflects on the avalanche of a fellow mountaineering partner of Andy Cave the finale had to have a more upbeat look. This was achieved partly by Paul and his production team filming Andy climbing in sunnier conditions on Aonach Mor, overlooking Ben Nevis, which had been the focus of most of the earlier part of the film. Together with an even more subtle grade than previously applied.

Toning down the desaturation for the final 'act'

So, the outcome of this colour grading process was a result of long discussions about the narrative curve, content and turning points of the film, as much as stylistic choices of how the film was to look. The process not only standardised the shots recorded over 10 days in a variety of conditions, it also complimented the tone and enhanced the emotive quality of the film.

Paul Diffley has hopefully now began a successful run of accolades for his documentary ‘Distilled’ which won the People’s Choice category against stiff competition at Kendal Mountain Festival on 17th November 2013.

Meanwhile you can buy a download of the film for Christmas direct from Hot Aches for a discounted price of £9.99 using the special code 'Fridge' BUY HERE
RRP £14.99 (Offer ends 20/12/13)

All source images are copyright Hot Aches Productions © 2013

More information about Hot Aches Productions films can be found on their website

Kendal Mountain Festival

Andy Cave

David Jinks
Fridge Productions Limited
Tel: 0845 604 3582