With the Academy Awards a memory and the “Birdman” team walking away with a boatload of Oscars, nondisclosure agreements keeping a lid on the secrets of the film's elaborate post-production digital “stitching” process have allowed a revelation to out. Technicolor, it turns out, invented an entirely new digital intermediate methodology to meet director Alejandro González Iñárritu's visual demands for the project, adding a whole new layer of depth to the already startling craftsmanship on display.
The “single take” quality of “Birdman” started out as whispers in the summer. I first heard about it from producer John Lesher on the set of “Black Mass” in June, that it was “sort of a magic trick” how the effect was achieved. But it was also made clear at the time that they weren't really talking about it, in part to maintain the illusion when viewers finally got a look at it (as they eventually did at the Venice Film Festival world premiere). Indeed, when I talked to González Iñárritu at the Telluride Film Festival in September, the director deflected any probing into the technical razzle dazzle. “In a way, I prefer to have the rabbit in the hat,” he said. “I don't want people to be distracted. It's experienced as one shot but I don't want people to think about that.”
Along the way, the wizards at Technicolor who were largely responsible for pulling off the experience had to keep mum about their role in things… until now. In a case study drafted by Technicolor publicity (and still at this late date unsanctioned by the filmmaker), the work done by wizards of the company like digital colorists Steve Scott and Charles Bunnag, DI editor Bob Schneider, color data assist manager Juan Flores and DI producer Michael Dillon, among others, finally gets its due.
“In editorial, they had a particular way they had to cut the various pieces to make it seem like it was seemingly one take over the course of many reels,” Steve Scott says in the release. “The problem was, that didn”t really work from the point of view of color timing because, basically, there were no visible cuts. There were, however, sections where a character was in one place and would walk to another room and meet new characters. Normally, we would color time each sequence so that it was seamless and matched everything else in that sequence. But here, it looks like the sequence never ends, even though the environment and people change.”
Scott called the project “the most challenging DI project” of his career, one that left him and his team no choice but to invent an entirely new methodology to the color timing process. Here's a solid chunk of the report that goes deeper still:
Scott, Bunnag, and Schneider put their heads together and eventually came to the conclusion that, like Iñárritu and Lubezki, they would have to be bold and try something they had never tried before – totally disregard where the official editorial cuts were located, and instead, subtly insert cuts designed specifically to meet their own needs as it related to the color grading process exclusively. This was a process that the Technicolor team eventually came to refer to as subtly “stitching” color-corrected sections together. “We figured out a way to insert cuts wherever they had a stationary camera, and when we inserted those cuts, we called them 'sections.' Then, when the cameras starts to move or whip-pan around again, we thought, that would be a good place to put a dividing line. So we would do the cut in the middle of whatever camera move there was, and then, instead of just a cut, we made a form of a dissolve, so that when you go from cut-to-cut for every shot, and every section in the movie, we are dissolving from one section to the next section to the next. This technique enabled us to do our color correction for each section where the characters land, and not worry about what was happening in the next shot, because in that next shot, we would know that the color would organically and seamlessly dissolve from one section to the next. That let us do all these independent, crazy, complicated color corrections that would flow organically from one to another.”
It's heady stuff. If you're interested in learning more, you can read the full case study here.