Captain Phillips: Turning Day Into Night with DaVinci Resolve

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Four years after it made headlines, the harrowing ordeal of commercial shipping captain Richard Phillips gets the big screen treatment, care of docudrama specialist Paul Greengrass, in Captain Phillips.

Barry Akroyd was the cinematographer on this intense, high stakes drama telling the true-life story of an American shipping captain swept up in a hostage ordeal after Somali pirates hijacked his ship. The film’s main protagonists are the ship Maersk Alabama’s commanding officer, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his Somali counterpart, Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

The digital intermediary (DI) on Captain Phillips was carried out by Company 3’s senior colourist Rob Pizzey, who reflects on his latest opportunity to work with the duo and the challenge of grading a big ‘day for night’ climax: “It was great to team up again with Paul and Barry after working on Greenzone with Paul and having done the DI on Barry’s last two features.”

Rob-Pizzey

Rob Pizzey

“Barry has a naturalistic style of shooting and Captain Phillips was no different,” explains Pizzey. “Everything is filmed handheld so there are never any locked off shots during the film. Because the camera is always moving, Barry is right on top of the action. You almost feel like a part of the film.”

“His background in documentary filmmaking means he prefers a more natural feel with lots of great looking pictures. And that is exactly what you get with Captain Phillips.

“During the grade I had to differentiate between the film’s start, where we first meet Captain Phillips in his house and traveling on his way to the airport, from the scenes in Somalia where we first see the Pirates. The film starts with a cooler looking colour pallet and then – bang – we cut to Somalia, shot on super 16, which is really hot, really warm.”

The biggest challenge on Captain Phillips was the film’s climax, which takes place at night. “Most of the climax was actually shot in the day with just a few shots filmed at night, which created a big challenge in the grade, making the day shots filmed on various formats match the night shots,” says Pizzey.

“You have footage filmed at night and then you’ve got bright day footage shot in a water tank at Pinewood Studios and then you’ve got other material filmed at sea during the day, literally it is cut next to each other. Barry and I discussed this pre shoot and decided we could make it work, although it would be a monster of a job.”

A month before the DI, Akroyd and Pizzey had the chance to work on the conformed ‘day for night’ scenes, allowing them to start setting the look. “We worked through the scenes making sure we could achieve what we wanted and flagged areas where we could do with some help from vfx.”

“DaVinci Resolve’s unlimited nodes and auto tracking capabilities were a big help during the grade of Captain Phillips’ big day for night scenes,” reveals Pizzey.

“The camera is moving around all over the place because you’re at sea, so the tracking tool was perfect because I could hand draw shapes and then grade within that area,” he explains.

“Then the auto tracking would map to the movement of the camera so we could get on with grading the day shots to match the night footage. It was also really useful for lining up faces and pulling out eyes. With the auto tracking, you get the shape on there and it maps it all the way through. It really did save me a lot of time.”

“That session took us a week. Having got it in a pretty good place we then rendered out the DPX files with the grade baked on and sent them over to the visual effects house who were able to help us in areas where I’d darkened bits down, by adding in lights on to the boats or removing clouds in the sky to help sell the look.”

So when those shots came back into the timeline for the main DI they were 90 per cent final, explains Pizzey. The main DI took three and a half weeks and was attended by Barry for the first seven days. During that time the pair set the look and mood for all the scenes and graded the climax of the film in full.

“When Barry left to shoot his next project I was left to carry on matching everything up. Once finished, Paul and Barry came back to have a final pass of the film where we carried out very minor tweaks on a couple of shots, then we wrapped.”

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