Defining color for Marvel
VFX Supervisor Jake Morrison on cineSync's Hue Wheel
In 2017 we introduced the Hue Wheel to cineSync Pro, an interactive tool that enables users to modify color, brightness, saturation, and more in synchronized real-time. We spoke to Jake Morrison, the Marvel VFX supervisor behind shows like Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man, and Avengers Assemble to learn why the Hue Wheel isn’t just useful, but can change the entire creative direction of a show, all in a few minutes.
Could you please tell us how the cineSync Hue Wheel plays into the work you do at Marvel?
Every comic book hero has an iconic look, and color plays a vital role in establishing that look within the Marvel Universe. Besides adding personality and tone, a standout color scheme for each character can help audiences keep track of heroes amid a heated battle royale.
Back in the golden and silver age of comics, they didn’t spend the time they do now on minuscule details. They had some fantastic line art, like Jack Kirby’s work, but the subtle variations between the colors weren’t there. That came later. When you make the leap to motion pictures, your palate grows massively because you’re attempting to represent the real world. Even within Loki’s green palette, for example, there are 50 shades from which we could choose. And don’t get me started on the Hulk’s skin color! It needs to be precisely right in each shot.
And the color use is hugely varied. The chosen colors apply to powers, costumes, cosmetic elements – everything. The challenge escalates when you consider that the Marvel universe, with its creatures and alien planets, can present anything that we can imagine. The possibilities are endless.
Any tools that enable us to work swiftly narrow down the infinite VFX possibilities are incredibly important. And that’s where cineSync helps with its Hue Wheel functionality.
With the Hue Wheel, you can move a slider and spin through 360 degrees worth of color options. Using the Hue Wheel in combination with color, contrast, and saturation sliders, you can isolate almost any color. If you want to make the Hulk teal or mauve, for example, then you certainly could do that in very quickly in cineSync. I mean, I wouldn’t, but you could!
The great thing is that you receive immediate feedback on everyone’s screens, including the big projection screen we use for cineSync reviews, right in front of both you and the vendor at the same time. I also present this way to the director and producer. You have all these controls available to make quick comparisons and decisions, which saves our vendors a lot of iterations!
Did the Hue Wheel in cineSync affect any significant changes in the work you’ve completed on the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
On Thor: Ragnarok, for sure. We shot a considerable amount of additional photography close to the release date – maybe four or five weeks before the premiere. We reshot the scene where the film introduces Hela, for instance. Previously the scene took place in a New York back alley, but the filmmakers felt the tone wasn’t quite right. In the new version, Hela walks out of a portal to find Loki and Thor in a field in ‘Norway’ (actually Atlanta). Vancouver’s Image Engine had just days to recreate the alleyway portal effect in its new rural setting.
The team did a fantastic job. They created a roiling mass called a ‘Kirby Crackle’, almost like a three-dimensional lava lamp. The only thing that wasn’t working was the color. We had initially used brown with a yellowish backing to suggest rays of light in the distance. Now, set in the field, the color looked unpleasant and out of place. Nobody was satisfied with it, so we grabbed hold of the cineSync Hue Wheel then and there, with everyone present – we had the head of the studio, the co-president, Victoria Alonso, the director – and we just started spinning through all the colors. When we got to green, everybody went ‘That’s it!’ almost at the same time. It’s so obvious in hindsight that you’d pick that color since it’s directly pulled from the comics, but we hadn’t considered it before because that portal was such a fresh effect. The great thing was that we didn’t have to go back and do five different rounds of particle simulations to have that creative realization. It was just that quick and simple.
We ended up taking Hela in a completely different direction than planned after that. Using the Hue Wheel in cineSync review sessions, it started to look like we had ripped a hole right back into the comic book world: the shade of green we decided on was so strong and really popped out. It set the tone for work over the last five weeks of the picture.
Do tools like the Hue Wheel make things easier for you as a supervisor?
People think the filmmaking process is much more structured then it is. Some refer to these productions as “machines” or “juggernauts”, but it’s really just a group of people in a room at the end of the day. The tools available in that room – those that can give the decision-makers options in seconds – is what cements key creative choices for a picture. cineSync is one of those tools, and it’s essential.
I also use cineSync to present the work because I can make so many quick changes and annotations, rather than having to hop between lots of different suites. It’s much more fluid a process than people expect. In a creative discussion, the best idea wins, and the only way to get the best idea is to explore options. cineSync makes it easy to do so.
Can you tell us a little about the process behind the Hue Wheel’s creation?
It’s an interesting story, and one that shows the dedication of the cineSync development team: I actually asked them for the Hue Wheel some time ago.
I have worked with Marvel for a very long time, and the one thing you’re sure to have with superheroes is a lot of different colors. Each superhero needs to have a personal, defining color – the same goes for villains. We used to get a wedge of colors from the vendor, which you selectively apply to a few moving sequences. It takes a lot of time; we were wasting effort when we could have spent more time on the actual shots. I wanted to streamline things.
I remembered visiting the US in the 80s and 90s. They had a hue dial on the front of the television where we were staying, which you could spin, and the newscasters would roll through red, yellow, green, etc. I loved it as a kid, and I thought maybe this would be possible in our review sessions. I dropped an email to Cospective’s development team; they said they could do it, and I had the new feature in cineSync within a week. From that to redefining a critical moment in Thor – that’s a pretty impressive feat.