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Digitally Fine Tuning 'The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes'

Andy Stout reports on how Optical Art and The Foundry collaborated on a new DI process to achieve the soft and surreal look in the latest feature from the Brothers Quay.

Perfectly Quayesque, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is a mix of live-action and stop-motion animation. This dark fairy tale is the Brothers first foray into live action since 1995. All images courtesy of Illumination Films.

Perfectly Quayesque, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes is a mix of live-action and stop-motion animation. This dark fairy tale is the Brothers first foray into live action since 1995. All images courtesy of Illumination Films.

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes marks the second full-length feature from the Brothers Quay (Stephen and Timothy) and, as with everything they do, is thus guaranteed attention on a worldwide scale. Devotées of the Czech animation legend Jan Svankmajer, they have reinterpreted the tradition of European stop-motion animation for a wider audience while still remaining faithful to the original concepts and moods of its East European legacy.

Piano Tuner, exec produced by Terry Gilliam, is a mix of live-action and stop-motion animation, and is their first foray into live action since 1995s Institute Benjamenta. An Anglo-German production scheduled for a U.K. release in November, the film is a suitably Quayesque and dark fairytale. A famous 19th century opera singer is mysteriously killed the night before her final performance, and is then transported by a magician to a bizarre half-life world, where he has constructed an orchestra from machines (all animated by the Brothers) in the hope of turning her into a mechanical nightingale. There she comes across the piano tuner, a blind hero, who strongly resembles the divas dead husband and resolves to save her and return her to the real world.

Live action was composited inside miniature sets and stop-motion work was composited inside live action. Not surprisingly, a Brothers Quay film always represents a particular challenge when it comes to post-production.

We did all of the 82 major visual effects on this movie and a total of 300 shots overall, says Frank Hellman, digital intermediate supervisor at German vfx specialists Optical Art. The major shots included a water spout/tornado in a cavern that was done as a 2.5D effect, people drowning in the ocean, where the water was added in compositing. Keeping in mind too that this was shot entirely on stage, there were a lot of set extensions. Also we had the stop-motion shots in the film that needed deflickering and a lot of motion-effects, like extreme slow-mos.

The Foundry wrote a custom diffusion spark plug-in to run seamlessly with Optical Arts Baselight grading system from FilmLight, which saved four weeks of compositing time.

The Foundry wrote a custom diffusion spark plug-in to run seamlessly with Optical Arts Baselight grading system from FilmLight, which saved four weeks of compositing time.

The deflickering was a particular challenge. During the pre-production phase, the Brothers Quay decided to use a Nikon D100 digital camera for the stop-motion sequences. The problem is that most digital cameras arent really designed for that kind of repetitive work and tend to give slightly different exposures. Usually this isnt a problem, but run those digitally photographed sequences at film speed and you get a slight, but very annoying flicker. Not too much of a challenge to deal with until you look at the numbers: 60,000 frames at 4K resolution. Thats a lot of processing.

Piano Tuner was shot on HDCAM using a Sony F900. As a result, the resolution was too sharp for the required surreal atmosphere of this strange love story.

There was quite a lot of compositing going on, either our live-action material into their pictures or their material into ours, explains cinematograher Nic Knowland. We shot quite a lot against greenscreen and Optical Arts understandably didnt want to have diffusion on that, but one of the whole things about the twins look is that its quite heavily diffused. They shoot through lots of dirty glass and that sort of stuff. Sowhen we were doing all live action we used the equivalent of a number one pro mist, and when we were shooting greenscreen or bluescreen we didnt use any. The agreement was that we would add two doses to the clean material, one dose to the not [so] clean material and it would all come out looking the same. We did suffer quite a lot for that decision.

The film boasts 82 major visual effects shots. There were a lot of set extensions, stop-motion shots that needed deflickering and a lot of motion-effects.

The film boasts 82 major visual effects shots. There were a lot of set extensions, stop-motion shots that needed deflickering and a lot of motion-effects.

Initially the production was looking at the daunting prospect of six weeks in post to soften the images before grading could take place. Fortunately, the indie feature benefited as the first Open FX project. The open API for visual effects software essentially enabled The Foundry, the London-based developer, to step in and write a plug-in a custom diffusion spark, producing a glow and anti-glow effect which could run seamlessly on Optical Arts Baselight grading system from FilmLight, also located in London.

This meant we could do all of the heavy diffusion effects inside Baselight during the grading session, adds Hellman. The best thing is, that you have total control over the final result and can see it side by side your other scenes in realtime and tweak it accordingly. I guess that this saved us four weeks of compositing time, which is also a big money saver for clients.

Knowland says he enjoyed working on the Baselight and that it enabled him to take a more painterly approach to the film, especially utilizing the flexibility of different grading windows and pushing some of the effects available via tracking objects through a scene.

I would say being able to work on your pictures, in a degree only possible for TV productions before, will enable you to get a much better looking film out, suggests Hellman. Compared to working in a lab with printer lights, where you can only tweak the color of the whole frame, its like using an exacto-knife instead of a machete to get the job done. No reprints, no delays, not having to worry about the stress put on the negative...You can control all aspects of your image on screen in realtime and if you dont like something, youll just change it.

Andy Stout is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who has spent more than a decade writing about 3D and vfx for numerous magazines in the U.K. and elsewhere.

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