35 years ago Jim Henson and his team began broadcasting its one-of-a-kind 1/2 hour television entertainment comedy program, “The Muppet Show.” Through the last three decades, 10 additional Muppet movies were made for the big screen and home video enabling this unique cast of characters to transcend at least 2 generations. Though the Walt Disney company purchased Muppets in 2004, the last major Muppet theatrical release was 12 years ago with 1999’s “Muppets in Space.” But the latest Muppet movie is taking the franchise to a new level and I believe Disney and the filmmakers have taken advantage of a powerful technological edge: file-based digital cinema. This result may seem small, simple or even typical, but a lot had to happen to make Muppets what I consider a digital cinema milestone. -And the story isn’t all about technology, rather how the technology breathed a new dimension of creative potential to an entirely new and exciting chapter of the Muppet history books and, thus, an entirely new generation of Muppet fans. Being a part of it is not only a privilege, but one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on.
So why does digital cinema mark any significance to a seemingly timeless act like the Muppets?
Like most stories, it starts at the beginning. In the late 1970’s, baby boomers loved The Muppet Show during it’s 5 year, 120 episode run, to the point where it’s hard to find people that weren’t fans of the original series. By the late 1980’s, way before I was old enough to have a Blockbuster card, my brother Peter and I would rent movies from our church library (I guess they thought renting movies to 8 year old children through a church was okay, even though it wasn’t cool with Blockbuster). Encouraged by our parents who loved the Muppets, I even recall renting the same Muppet movies several times a year (“The Muppets Take Manhattan” and “The Great Muppet Caper” being our favorites).
Nearly 10 years later by the time I was in high school, the Muppets were still making movies and keeping the attention of my generation. During high school, “Muppet Treasure Island” came out and my friends and I couldn’t get enough. I remember realizing I was finally old enough to understand all of the jokes that I wasn’t able to get as a kid. Until that time, I didn’t catch all the jokes most of the Muppet movies packed in for an older audience. But the effects and the modern themes they hidden in the story behind RL Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” seemed to make a perfect fit for a contemporary Muppet rendition. I even remember a strangely familiar “Muppet” that showed up in “Treasure Island” that looked a little too much like Kurt Cobain. Because Kurt had only died a few years earlier, old photos are all that could circulate and one of Kurt’s trademark striped sweaters and long blonde hair seemed to be the inspiration of this Muppet, which always made me smile.
In August of 2010, collaboration on a new Muppet Movie under the Disney umbrella ended up blowing in my direction. But a lot had to happen in order for this to work out - both creatively and technically - but the makings for the first digital Muppet movie seemed to be comfortable to everyone involved.
At this time, we were about 2/3rds through the shooting of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean 4, which was the largest RED (MX) movie every shot at that time, one of the largest 3D movies ever produced as well as Disney’s first tent-pole film shot on a file-based camera. While Alexa had entered the market a few months earlier, ARRI RAW was not yet available and so my discussions with Disney prior to meeting the filmmakers was that RED was the right tool for the job. That notion, plus our collaboration with Freehill Productions on Pirates removed any concern Disney had about RED files, solid pictures, or a solid workflow.
I think DP Don Burgess had the same idea as Disney. Don had shot an early theatrical release on RED (non MX) called “The Book of Eli.” This highly stylized movie played an important role in pushing digital cinema forward, especially since 75% of that film is shot in direct sunlight and the whole film looked great. On September 9th, 2010, Jim Jannard, Jarred Land, Deanan DaSilva and I met Don at RED Studios to talk about RED MX, the latest color science, early EPIC cameras and my proposed fully on-set Muppet workflow. I was working at RED on The Social Network that summer, which was the first MX film, so I remember talking a lot about the sensor as it was still fairly new to the community. About a month earlier, Graeme Nattress had finished development on REDLogFilm and REDGamma (v1) and it was just coming out for experimentation. RLF was really offering a significant benefit in terms of additional dynamic range which we hadn’t yet been able to use on features at that time, including The Social Network. We knew this would be an added advantage for Muppets.
Don struck me as an instant master of the craft. I had always been a fan of his work because one of my favorite movies of all time was Robert Zemekis’ “Contact” and I love how so many of Don’s movies incorporated visual effects in ways in which they were nearly impossible to notice. But after getting to know him better, it is largely because of Don’s experience with visual effects, digital cinema capture and digital intermediate that “The Muppets” looks so amazing. He truly is a master of the craft.
On September 28th, we shot the first Muppets test at Disney Studios with the puppeteers. My partner Chris Peariso and I provided on-set data support with our OUTPOST cart and started to carve out a workflow with all the specific Disney departments that need unique versions of the content. The test we shot was hysterical. I was told that it might make it as an “easter egg” on the BluRay, but this was no ordinary camera test. I wasn’t the only person behind the camera laughing at the content, in fact, the test was shot in the executive offices on the Disney lot! Imagine Disney execs like Jeff Zacha and Leon Silverman working in their offices and when they walk into the hall, they are greeted by Muppets on skateboards being towed by a RED camera. Since Zacha and Silverman are big advocates of this technology, the whole day was probably like any other - part of me wants to think that on the Disney lot, Muppets in the bathroom is “normal.”
The test was as funny as it was educational and practical, and Don himself even made an appearance in the test when the Fozzie asked “Why are we even here doing this?” Kermit answers “It’s a camera test! (points at Don) We need to know how we look on a digital camera and figure out how to do perspective cheats!”
On October 28th, production began shooting for 3 months. Working again with Freehill Productions, Cory Schulthies operated one of our OUTPOST carts where the data for this job was 100% done on set. This was a big deal for Disney because it was the first time they were going to get everything done on set by (essentially) one person. On some previous works with Disney and ABC, the task of downstream data was shared across our onset OUTPOST systems and post houses. But for Muppets, the studio and filmmakers agreed to move forward with all of the data management taking place on set.
Even the dailies for the filmmakers were screened on set, which is never an easy thing to accomplish. Thanks to the help of Jeroen Hendriks’ mobile trailer, the filmmakers could review their work from ProRes 422 transcodes with a Panasonic projector right on location and on the same day.
Cory and the OUTPOST cart on set:
Don and James reviewing takes an hour after photographing right on set:
While there are projects out there in 2010 that did similar workflows, I’m fairly confident in saying that Muppets was the first movie of this magnitude and for a major studio that literally did not have a post house on the show at all until the DI. Archiving, LTO, dailies color, syncing, web deliverables, visual effects pulls and temp conforms were all done by the OUTPOST operator, Disney’s on-site DEPOT backup and the Muppet editorial team. Muppets followed our recommended workflow exactly, creating what was a completely self-sufficient machine that was independent of outside, 3rd party post production support. On the scale that Muppets was with the talent and politics involved, this was a huge task and couldn’t have been done without the blessing of Don and director James Bobin, Jeff and Leon, the talented and forward-thinking DIT Carissa Ridgeway and one of the sharpest and most up-to-date post supervisors out there, Jill Breitzman.
A good workflow on paper should always be simple. I’m shocked when I see workflows that look more like the electrical plans of an office building than a flowchart. If a workflow cannot pass the Occam’s Razor test, it means its overt complexity on paper is likely to manifest itself in practice, thus hard to execute in reality. The Muppets workflow was simple, streamlined and proximal. Cory was on set, and worked in between the production party (led by the DP and DIT) and the post production party (led by the post supervisor and assistant editor). Putting the heavy-horsepower of OUTPOST with Cory on set allowed him to satisfy the needs of both entities while simultaneously eliminating unnecessary 3rd party involvement such as post laboratory…including Light Iron! And that’s the way I like it.
The Muppets workflow as it was finalized:
As an example, while on set each day, Cory created the following elements as they happened. There was no entity outside of Cory and OUTPOST and Disney and their offline cutting rooms involved in this process:
Triple backups of R3Ds: 2x Raid 5 and 1x Raid 0
REDCode 36 @ 16:9 (4096x2304)
Color: looks set by Don or Carissa, applied by Cory
Synced sound: audio fed and synced in REDCine-X (v. 400+)
Avid files: DNx115 (MXF) were chosen because of expected test screenings in 2011
ProRes files: 422 (MOV) used for screening in a portable RV screening room made by Jeroen Hendriks
H264 #1: for Disney intra-net (1080 @ 8Mbs)
H264 #2: for Web & iPad distribution (720 @ 2Mbs)
It was actually during the camera and makeup tests that I started noticing something different about the Muppets. There was a small joke floating around the set based on an inaccurate rumor that people claim; “RED can’t get good skin tones.” While I personally have never had trouble with RED skin tones, the joke we made on Muppets was the very real concern over Muppet skin tones! -It sounds strange, but it’s actually very important. A major actor might have a slightly different look in tone from movie to movie. This can be based on the the time of year, type of lighting or filtration or the color correction at the end. But so long as the look is “natural” or “appropriate,” no one would probably notice. But unlike people, the Muppets have a very distinct set of colors. Kermit green is bright, but not electric. Fozzie orange is semi-saturated, but not too brown. Gonzo is blue with purple, not purple with blue. It is critical that the RED captures the colors of these characters that look, essentially, “perfect” based on 35 years of memory. Until now, most memories you have of the Muppets were photographed on film and almost none of them went through any precise digital color correction whatsoever. But it was clear after a couple days that Muppet skin tones were looking perfect and people were immediately talking about the content, not the technology (which is more important).
But as soon as people started looking closer at the iPads and the projected dailies, everyone realized that there was a new dimension of Muppets we have not seen before: texture.
You know what Kermit looks like, but when you see the Muppets, you will know what he feels like. You know what Rolf looks like, but when you see the Muppets, you will know what he feels like. This additional level of dimensionality brings these characters to life in an entirely new way. I didn’t see it coming, but it was clear to me that what Don was lighting and what the RED MX was capturing was a combination that the Muppets have never experienced before. This merging of elments: Don & Book of Eli, Disney & Pirates, RED MX & Epic, RedLogFilm and REDGamma, the list goes on and on, but it was a fantastic intersection of talent and trust that enabled this film to look the way that audiences will experience upon it’s release tomorrow night.
A common criticism of digital cinema in general is that the texture (or lack of grain) doesn’t produce a look as good as film. But with Muppets, I believe it was film grain itself that robbed Muppets of the unique multi-dimensional textures that were always there. When I first saw the Muppet puppets at an early camera test, I asked a puppeteer how old they were (since the looked exactly as I remembered them). He told me that some Muppets have multiple puppets, which is to be expected. For example, Kermit with legs is different than Kermit that you wear on your arm. But to my surprise, he also mentioned that some of the Muppets are still the originals! That made me feel good because it tells me that the characters I and millions have come to love are some of the same physical characters we’ve seen in the past. But it also told me that the same Muppet’s I’ve laughed with in decades past were never fully translated to film.
As I mentioned before, the only portion of “The Muppets” that was done at a post house was the final conform, DI and film record. We did the conform on a Quantel Pablo 4K using the RED Rocket for debayering in P3 using REDLogFilm and REDColor2. Other than small adjustments to some other metadata fields, our initial preparation for these files to look as good as they do are elements that I’m pleased to reiterate everyone has access to. Corinne Bogdanowicz pre-colored the film as the reels were locked one-by-one. Soon after, Don, Michael Burgess and James came in for what was some of the most efficient collaboration we’ve had in DI hands down. And because of the forward-thinking leadership of Disney folks like Jeff and Leon, “The Muppets” is a 100% end-to-end file based success. Not a single tape was made to create the content people are about to see or have seen. From trailers, the DCP, the Fuji film record or even the home entertainment deliverables such as BluRay and iTunes, only files were created from the 1:1 master (DSM) all sourced directly from the Pablo. By significantly minimizing the translations created by various tapes, “The Muppets” is among the most “pure” of films that is literally the closest to the original source an exhibition format can be. Props to Disney for taking a much-needed anti-comprimise stand in file-based acquisition, exhibition and distribution.
And so the latest chapter of the Muppet story brings with it an entirely new level of audience interaction. I am convinced that every person that sees “The Muppets” will have a strong, positive reaction to how it looks and feels - even those who are not savvy enough to fully comprehend the element that 4K digital cinema or file-based delivery brings to the film. Jason Segel, James Bobin, Don Burgess and many others deliver a film that will not disappoint on a creative and story level. But for people that are savvy enough to go beyond the great story and peer closer at the images as they unfold this Thanksgiving season, I encourage you to examine a level of textural detail rarely experienced on the big screen. Part of what make Muppets such believable and lovable characters is their very being - and thanks to the MX, Don’s lighting and Corinne’s skills as a colorist, the textures and nuisances of these beings hopefully enhances the experiences of new and old audiences so they can better suspend disbelief all over again.