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Inside the Colour Grade of Percy Jackson And The Olympians

Jun 21, 2024

An Olympian Effort: Co-showrunner Dan Shotz and senior colourist Charles Bunnag share the process of shaping the look of the Disney+ original series.

The first season of the Disney+ series Percy Jackson And The Olympians meticulously builds a world that makes fantasy feel real. Based on the book series by Rick Riordan and guided to the screen by co-showrunners Dan Shotz and Jonathan Steinberg, the show tells the story of its eponymous hero (played by Walker Scobell), a 12-year-old boy living a mostly ordinary life until extraordinary experiences permanently alter his perspective.

Principal photography was based in Vancouver, where the production made extensive use of Industrial Light & Magic’s StageCraft virtual-production platform. Light Iron provided dailies and final colour for the show, with senior colorist Charles Bunnag working closely with series cinematographers Pierre Gill, CSC and Jules O’Loughlin ACS ASC to ensure viewers felt grounded in the onscreen world. Here, Bunnag and Shotz share their insights into the creation of this modern-day mythology.

Light Iron: Dan, what brought you and the team to Light Iron for Percy Jackson?

Dan Shotz: Jon Steinberg and I have had a great partnership with Light Iron since we launched our series The Old Man for FX in late 2019 with supervising colourist and Light Iron co-founder Ian Vertovec. When Disney greenlit our next series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Light Iron was our first call. Ian and the Light Iron team recommended we work with Charles Bunnag, who had just joined the company after working on the iconic Disney+ series The Mandalorian. Since Charles had done extensive work with ILM’s StageCraft technology, we knew he would be the perfect fit for our ambitions, as ILM had just built a new volume stage for the series in Vancouver.

In your early conversations with Charles, how did you describe the desired look for the project to ensure you were envisioning it in the same way?

Shotz: From the very beginning, Charles and I were on the same page. This iconic series needed to be epic and intimate. It needed to be grounded and relatable. When fantasy invaded our real-world story, we needed to make the creatures, gods and monsters feel like they could exist in the fabric of our world.

Charles Bunnag: Dan’s mandate was that everything had to feel real and not like a fantasy show. Even though this is a show that deals with fantastic elements and the gods of Olympus, every kid who watches this show needed to feel that they were already in this world and not like it was some fantasy that they could only dream about — it needed to look like the world they’re living in right now. Once that baseline was set with Dan, we then pushed the look while still staying within the mandate of ‘real.’

Shotz: As a road adventure, every episode needed its own specific look, as the environments changed consistently — NYC, Camp Half-Blood, St. Louis, Vegas, the Underworld and Mt. Olympus. While Charles had to keep consistency between the episodes, he also understood that the color and textures had to evolve as the characters evolved. As Percy, Annabeth [Leah Jeffries] and Grover [Aryan Simhadri] were coming into their own, facing their worst fears, the look had to match these changes. The best example of this was how the visual language of the deeply heartbreaking flashbacks in [episode] 107 transitioned beautifully to each of the Underworld tests our heroes encountered.

Bunnag: That episode gave us an opportunity to break away from our mandate of reality. Our heroes travel to the Underworld, and we wanted a look that would make that location stand out from the rest of the show. In the end, we settled on a bleach-bypass-inspired look to suck the ‘life’ out of the image since this was the land of the dead. However, Percy, Annabeth and Grover were each rotoscoped so we could keep separate control over their colour, especially their skin tones. Our three heroes are the only people in the underworld who are still alive, so this was a way to show that they don’t belong there. Finding the right balance of colour and saturation for them to stand out from the rest of the frame without looking like a bad comp was key to making this sequence work.

Charles, with production happening in Vancouver and you being based in Los Angeles, how were you communicating with cinematographers Pierre Gill and Jules O’Loughlin over the course of the project?

Bunnag: Remote collaboration was absolutely necessary for Percy to be a success. The start of the show involved several remote sessions using ClearView and Google Meet with DP Pierre Gill to create the show LUT and also with DP Jules O’Loughlin and ILM VFX supervisor Jeff White to create background plates for the playback on the LED walls.

Pierre and Jules and I stayed in contact through phone calls and emails. They would give me general thoughts about contrast, mood and specifics based on their experiences with certain sets and with the volume [stage]. Jules also came to Light Iron to set looks on a few episodes, and we continued to stay in touch over email when I would send him stills to keep him informed.

What were some of the main areas of focus in the final grade?

Bunnag: As usual, my goal was to help guide the viewer’s eye towards the focus of the story, that usually being the performance of the actors. Often that means a lot of windows, which was still the case here, but adjusting the intensity of certain colours and objects in the frame also made a big difference in how each shot felt.

Pierre and Jules shot such incredible images with such intention that it allowed me to go further than usual with my first pass just based on instinct. After completing a full, in-depth colour pass, Dan came to Light Iron to supervise a final pass on all episodes. Because hundreds of VFX shots were also coming in at this time, senior VFX supervisor Erik Henry also joined through Google Meet and ClearView.

My background as a VFX artist/matte painter also came into play on this show. Dan Shotz and Erik Henry were truly gracious collaborators who allowed me to share my thoughts and ideas across many VFX sequences. It’s the type of work I take a lot of pride in, and I’m very grateful to them both for allowing me to help in that way.

Shotz: As the thousands of VFX shots were delivered over a six-month window, Charles and I would huddle with Erik Henry and PJ Tancinco, our post producer, to study every single shot. Charles was the final barometer of how these complicated effects would hold up.

What unique considerations did the StageCraft technology pose for the colour workflow?

Shotz: One of the highlights of working with the StageCraft tech on Percy Jackson and the Olympians was that Charles was on our series from day one as we built the overall look for this show. While we created assets for the ILM StageCraft volume wall, Charles helped us define how the backgrounds would read on the digital screens.

While we did use the volume for a couple of scenes in The Old Man, this was our first time using it as our hero tool for a show. So, with the daunting task ahead, it was crucial to have someone with Charles’ experience guiding us. He was instrumental in creating the initial look, the dailies look and our final look. His collaboration with our DOPs, Pierre Gill and Jules O’Loughlin, was beautiful to watch.

Bunnag: The background plates were shot on a nine-camera rig, and ILM later stitched them together to create 360-degree video playback on their StageCraft volume. The tricky part in terms of colour was individually grading all nine camera angles with complicated windows, keys and animations so they would seamlessly line up across the different cameras. One of the camera setups required day for night, and another setup required three different versions: night, dawn and early morning.

About 30 percent of the show was shot in the volume. The in-camera finals we received in the DI looked great, with all the interactive lighting benefits one would expect from a virtual production stage. From there, the DI allowed to us to take the integration of the shots to another level by pushing and pulling contrast levels and adding atmosphere and lighting effects.

The DI also became another QC step for the volume. Because the show was finished in HDR with the Sony X300 as the hero monitor, we were able to see things that, up until that point, hadn’t been visible before.

Dan, any final thoughts as we look forward to Season 2?

Shotz: Some of the highlights of my experience on this show were sitting directly next to Charles, talking out the goals, watching him work the scene, and then both shouting, ‘There it is!’ when he nailed the exact look I had imagined. For example, for the Minotaur sequence in the pilot, the way Charles carved out the details we wanted to see and silhouetted the ones we wanted to tease was exceptional. The passion, care and time he put into perfecting these moments shows throughout the season. The collaboration we had was really special.


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