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THE MARVEL PLATES LAB

Marvel's innovative approach to VFX with its Burbank centralised facility

 



CAPTAIN MARVEL



Since its debut in March of 2019, Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel has brought in more than $1 billion at the box office. Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Disney, the film places a female superhero at the center of the action.

“The story is a very personal and intimate journey,” says director of photography Ben Davis, BSC. “It’s one woman trying to find out who she was and where she comes from - to discover herself. It’s her story, and the camera must connect with her. It’s a wider lens-close camera approach, with a handheld camera communicating a human response to her actions. We’re trying to tell a story and connect the audience emotionally with the character.”

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Marvel Studios’ state-of-the-art visual effects process provided no shortage of astonishing cinematic legerdemain. Over the course of more than 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios has fine-tuned its VFX practices, taming a Wild West of formats and tools and streamlining the assembly process to make polished, photo-real miracles an everyday occurrence. Codex has been an essential partner in this endeavour.

On Captain Marvel, visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend oversaw contributions from eleven different companies, including ILM, Framestore, Digital Domain, and Trixter. Steven Shapiro, Director of Production Technology, also played a key role, as did Michael Maloney, who served as Manager of Image and Color for Marvel Studios. Maloney is responsible for the image and colour workflow on all Marvel Studios productions.


Marvel Studios is unique among studios in that it coordinates VFX and VFX plate pulls at its own centralised facility, in Burbank, called the Marvel Plates Lab. This arrangement has been in place since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The Codex Vault is an essential part of the pipeline. Every frame from the camera is stored in an air-gapped storage pool. When a VFX facility needs a particular piece of imagery to complete its work, they submit an EDL, which is uploaded to the Codex Backbone, which communicates with the Codex Vault XL system and generates an OpenEXR files from the RAW camera negative. Shot metadata and CDL information from the set accompany the files, as does a reference QT file.

On Captain Marvel, Davis shot with ARRI ALEXA 65 large format cameras and used the Codex Vault 65 for on-set and near-set media management of the resulting data-rich image files. “Consistency is very important to us, not only within a project, but across multiple shows,” says Maloney. “We use ACES colour management, which is fully supported in our Codex Vaults. We also appreciate that the Vaults are always faithful—they refer to the camera SDKs, unlike other software, where we sometime run into problems. We always have a lot of confidence in the Codex Vault. If specific updates are needed for a certain workflow, Codex is very responsive to our needs. We have a great relationship.”

Matt Walters, CTO at Codex commented, “Pushing the envelope and is always risky, but since we have such a good development relationship with the Marvel team, we are both testing and communicating our findings as soon as we have a new camera or process working. Before we deliver anything to Marvel we make sure it is rock solid at that point, and we know it is going to be ready for everyone else too."



Traditionally, several departments feed into a production workflow. There’s software on the set used to control the image, and a dailies facility processes the dailies. VFX does their work, and eventually the digital intermediate brings everything together. Plates need to be delivered to all the various facilities, including effects houses.

“We found that by internalising this process, we are at the centre of the workflow making sure that we’ve validated the various image and colour pipelines end-to-end,” says Maloney. “With the Codex Vault, we de-Bayer all of our plates from all cameras into a common EXR set of imagery, with a common ACES colour space. But then we also provide workflow templates that validate the deliveries from onset to dailies before we deliver it to VFX. So we basically do a validation or QC check of the work prior to delivering to VFX. That helps bridge the gap between those two departments, so that we know that the plates that are delivered to VFX and DI truly represent what is viewed onset.”

One goal is efficiency. Another is to create dependable standards that translate to future projects. Working against that goal is the accelerating pace of change. “The challenge of creating these standards is keeping up with the latest technology,” says Maloney. “Marvel Studios productions always want to use the latest and greatest cameras that are released. One huge benefit of using the Codex Vaults is that they tend to be among the first to update to the latest SDKs to support the newest cameras. We can very quickly integrate new cameras and workflows into our production pipelines.”



WE ALWAYS HAVE A LOT OF CONFIDENCE IN THE CODEX VAULT PLATFORM


In some cases, Maloney is interacting with dailies facilities that use Codex Production Suite. On Captain Marvel, Technicolor provided the dailies using Colorfront. In the near future, HDE (High Definition Encoding) will make the movement of image data much more efficient. On Captain Marvel, the data-rich RAW files coming off the ALEXA 65 sensor helped lay the foundation for subsequent manipulations.

“The idea is to get the cleanest image possible, in layman’s terms,” says Maloney. “We make a lot of grading adjustments to the camera imagery, in some cases to match different cameras seamlessly. We do a theatrical release and an HDR release.  We need to maintain as much of the range and image fidelity that the sensor can capture as possible, so that we have the flexibility and latitude for all the departments downstream. Most of the cameras are capturing more than today’s consumer HDR displays can show, and frankly, we require all that latitude in post production in order to make the imagery that we make.”

Looking to the future, Maloney says that he and Marvel Studios have been working closely with Codex on expanding flexibility in grading. “We are constantly trying to get better at quickly balancing some of the differences between multiple cameras and shots,” he says. “We’re envisioning a grading system that is very flexible for balancing things out but is also non-destructive in terms of delivery to departments downstream. We’d like to streamline that, to become more efficient and to separate that idea from the creative look.

“We’re also looking at the ability to view and deliver things in HDR throughout the process,” he says. “Right now, a lot of our deliverables are in HDR, but we’re working on making it part of the production from the set to final delivery. We’re actively testing that now.”

No doubt Codex will be an important part of the solution, as they have been on virtually every Marvel Studios production, including the forthcoming - and eagerly anticipated - Spider-Man: Far From Home, which is due in theatres on July 2, 2019.












Camera Type: ARRI ALEXA 65 
Camera Rentals by: ARRI Rental US
Lenses: ARRI DNA
VFX Services by: Marvel Studios, ILM, Framestore, Digital Domain and Trixter


Codex related product and workflows




Images courtesy of their respective owners.



 
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