Walt Disney Pictures’ “The Jungle Book” took home major honors at the 15th Annual Visual Effects Society Awards Feb. 7, 2017. Directed by Jon Favreau, the movie is unique because the only live action, that of the boy Mowgli, was shot on bluescreen while everything else was computer-generated. The visual effects team, led by Rob Legato, included key talent from Technicolor and the Moving Picture Company (MPC).
We caught up with Steven J. Scott, Technicolor’s VP Of Theatrical Imaging & Supervising and Finishing Artist in Los Angeles, where he shared his experience working with Legato and other artists in the making of “The Jungle Book.”
Scott: It’s about communicating with the incredible color science team we have here at Technicolor and the various theatrical display people we deal with. Technicolor is always leading the way as far as image display, and so it’s just being engaged with what is happening now and what’s coming in the future.
One of the very first reasons I became a finishing artist was walking into a room and seeing these big rooms with this beautiful theatrical image. I didn’t know what they were doing there, but it was what I want to be a part of. I was a compositor before and I was used to staring at a screen doing my compositing. But there’s something so alluring when you walk into a truly theatrical experience, which is what we try to present for our clients.
Regarding finishing artist, the term had for a long time been digital intermediate colorist. I’ve always thought that was an awkward term. When I was working with one of the leaders in the field, Joe Matza, at EFILM which is where I started, I asked Joe, “what would you call our position?” And he said “I’d call it a finishing artist, because you’re not really a digital intermediate, everything’s digital.”
It used to be digital intermediate because you were going between film and digital, but there’s nothing intermediate now. We capture on digital and we present in digital. That made a lot of sense to me and so I refer to myself as a finishing artist.
Colorist is a rather limiting term and easily misunderstood – you know, are you the guy who turns my grandmother’s hair blue when she goes into the salon? No, we’re actually dealing with much more than color, we’re actually bridging the gap and blurring the lines between compositing and kind of manipulating the image with color. And we have so many more tools now…it’s so much more advanced than that name would imply. You are also the last step before it goes out to the world, before it’s displayed in theaters. You are finishing the project and there’s so much artistry involved in what you do that the term “finishing artist” seemed to make perfect sense. And so I’ve embraced that moniker.
Scott: Well, in my title, supervising finishing artist, there’s a bit of a clue there regarding that. It does take a village – as Hillary Clinton once said in her book—and there are so many people involved that allow me to do what I’m doing. And I will say that with a project like The Jungle Book, you’ve got brilliant people like [Oscar-winning production VFX supervisor] Rob Legato and [MPC VFX supervisor] Adam Valdez who are working very closely with [The Jungle Book director] Jon Favreau – with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of times.
They really are breaking the mold. And sometimes someone in my position is right at the forefront with them when they’re doing these things. These guys are so far ahead with what they were doing.
Bill Pope, the director of photography (DP), was out shooting on sound stages with this kid and with a virtual reality (VR) set so that he could see [all of the computer-generated images] through his camera. It was amazing the work that Bill did and the world that he found himself in.
When I saw everything, it was in very rough stages, like pre-vis, and you’re just seeing the roughest, barest descriptions, visually, of what you would eventually see.
When you’re starting a [virtual production] project like The Jungle Book, you get these very rough pieces in and you can’t do a lot of work or manipulation with color that’s going to make a big huge difference because you’re not seeing the final product yet.
So it’s initially a bit frustrating in that you get all of your timelines and everything laid out, like you would in the old film days in reel form, and you’re seeing these reels of one, two, three, four, five, six, of the progression of the story, but they are a progression [that is in] in that primitive form initially, with a few interspersed shots that are finals.
And as the deadline approaches for it to be done, you get more and more finals in. And that’s when the DP can come in and say, “Oh, well now that I’m seeing it all together, here’s what I want to do.”
That is when you have a lot of [interaction between] Rob and Adam, where the video effects people are working to create a certain vision they’ve been viewing on their monitors.
There’s incredible value to have Bill, after he comes in and he sees what they’ve done and the pieces are all falling into place, to say, “I see what you’re doing, here’s my fresh perspective on it. We’re going to shift it. We’re going to make it brighter or darker, or I don’t like how the scene’s playing—it’s too open—we’re going to darken down the sides and bring out the center.” And so he offers that fresh perspective that I think is absolutely invaluable.
When you’ve got brilliant people like Adam and Rob, and brilliant people like Bill who shot the original footage of our young friend Mowgli, it’s a magical combination. And I saw it evolve from the original concept to the adjustment.
Sometimes it’s a very big adjustment. For example, when Mowgli’s initially running through the forest of the jungle, Bill wanted it considerably brighter. And so we did that. It was an adjustment, but it was the right thing to do and it looked wonderful.
And there was one water buffalo sequence where Mowgli is trying to escape from Sher-khan and he goes into this gully and all these water buffalo come and it was very, very dark. And when I saw it I thought it was too dark and a little crunched-looking, which kind of lent somewhat of a digital feel to me.
I voiced that opinion, and I am so fortunate to work with these people who say, “Yeah, you know what, let’s step back from that a while,” or “What do you want to try? Why don’t you bring it out and show us what you would do.”
So I’ll take the footage in and I’ll do some windowing and stuff and I’ll basically paint with light. My background is as a classical painter. I’m not a technical person at all. I have difficulty understanding a megawatt from a gigabyte.
To me, one of the most interesting and daunting and frustrating things about doing what I do in this industry is you can be overwhelmed by the technical aspects. You’ve got to know the right software, you’ve got to set the room up right. But all of those things can distract you from making compelling imagery: beautiful, ugly, edgy, ethereal.
In the end, it’s all about that image you see on the screen and whether that’s working for you or working for the clients…and whether you’re conveying what they hoped when they captured it.
It’s easy to lose sight of that, but that’s the most important thing.
Do you have the good aesthetic judgement based on your experience and your observations of the world around you and your ability to draw or paint or do great photography? That’s the most important thing you bring to bear in this.
Scott: Ideally that’s the case. And ideally you get involved in my position as early as you can…to see what’s coming down the pipe…to see what the underlying philosophy of the director is…how that’s being conveyed to the visual effects supervisor, and determine what they want to do.
Ideally you get in with the material at an early stage and you start playing with it and working with all of the key creatives in the room and explore with them how they feel about the material as they’re seeing it.
The benefit of having everyone and playing with those materials and playing with visual effects, is you can say “okay, Rob and/or Adam, really want to go in a different direction than you’re heading with this. I’m going to give you this file now and you can go back to your vendors and say: “we need to shift gears here.’”
So all of a sudden all of your work is shifting gears, you’re doing all of that work in advance, and by the time it gets back to me in the final digital intermediate, it’s very close to where it needs to be and does not need “rescuing.”
That’s what I want to do in any way I can, to help the vendors and everybody along the way as early on as we can in the process, to start working toward that final that we know the director or the DP is going to be happy with.
Scott: Let me just say, the first thing I did was read Kipling’s The Jungle Book. That was the first order of business. Just to understand the underlying philosophy and ideas that are being conveyed, whether it’s a slavishly reproduction or a loose interpretation. You want to get your head wrapped around what that is.
But it wasn’t an essential thing that I needed to do once I saw where they were heading, and [I saw that] they were really kind of reinventing the story.
I’d say the bigger influence was the earlier Disney version. When everybody thinks of The Jungle Book, more people have seen that movie than have read the book. So I think that was probably more of an influence.
I think what John [Favreau] did is he kind of stepped back and said “here’s the story I want to tell, here’s the mood I want to convey and the emotional tone I want to set.” And it’s just thrilling to see how that evolves.
Then you’re working with a lot of directors and creatives that aren’t quite sure that it’s all going to work early on at this stage. They’re wondering, they’re hoping, they’re relying on this village to undertake the journey and explore…and be honest…and be creative…and contribute as much as you can.
When something like The Jungle Book happens, you’re just so thrilled. And I just knew it was going to be successful. Just like when I worked with John on the first Iron Man and I thought “this is going to be amazing.”
Scott: I’m very fortunate to work with a team of finishing artists myself. Very often we’ll have work where we’ll need to bring in other finishing artists, other colorists from throughout Technicolor, and it’s always a privilege because you get to see their work and what they’re doing.
But we have a very structured and disciplined framework that we do certain types of tasks in certain ways because we find it’s the best quality. For example, with rotoscoping, which is where you isolate images by doing shapes — this is an art and there’s great artistry in it.
So I require that people who work with me have that art background. Because it’s not about painting on the screen — although you’re kind of doing that sometimes — it’s about having cultivated an awareness and a sensitivity and an aesthetic so you’re well-informed as far as lighting and shading and color and know how perspective works.
All of these things that you’ve known and gleaned from your experience as an artist are going to all come into play. You have this internal map of how things work and how they should look right.
Scott: I think I didn’t so much learn as had some ideas confirmed. All the technology that’s been used to create something like The Jungle Book has existed for a while. The key in any of it is the level of talent and skill you have at the helm.
Who’s guiding this? Who has the artistic expertise to know what great imagery is and how to use these tools in a way that’s going to give you that?
So, you start with Bill Pope who’s a brilliant cinematographer and does great work, and totally embraces this new world of kind of filming and virtual reality that he does.
Then you go to Rob Legato, who’s the visual effects supervisor and who is absolutely brilliant and who I’ve had the pleasure of working with since the Star Trek days. I learned back then how meticulous he was and how well-informed he was about the visual world.
So he has this great aesthetic, great judgement, and he carries it through by finding people like Adam Valdez. And the work is brilliant.
So it’s about working with people who you can trust their aesthetic judgement and who are going to deliver art and beauty in ways that surprise you constantly.
It’s always, always, always going to boil down to the people you’ve chosen to carry out your dreams and your ideas. So as much as the technology advances, some people will be able to take the most primitive tools and make something amazing, and some people will have all the tools in the world and not quite understand how to use it to its fullest.
You think back to Michelangelo. What were his tools? A chisel, a hammer, a big rock. And you create the Pieta or David out of that. And you’ve got this amazing thing because you had Michelangelo at the helm.
It’s confirmation that talent is king.