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DP Pedro Luque grades Society Of The Snow at Deluxe Spain using DaVinci Resolve Studio

Dec 14, 2023

Director of Photography Pedro Luque works with Deluxe Spain and a DaVinci Resolve Studio workflow to postproduce J.A Bayona’s retelling of The Miracle of the Andes.

On October 13, 1972, the Uruguayan Air Force flight 571crashed into the Andes Mountains with 45 people on board, mostly members of a Uruguayan rugby team. By the time they were found 72 days later, only 16 remained alive. Quickly dubbed ‘the miracle of the Andes’ this remarkable story of courage and endurance was also the ultimate tragedy for the lost and their families. 

A new Spanish-language film, directed by J.A Bayona (The Impossible and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), offers a fresh retelling of the story previously adapted in the 1993 movie Alive by Frank Marshall. This latest version aims to present a more authentic portrayal of the characters’ humanity.

Bayona’s source is the 2008 book ‘La Sociedad de la Nieve’ by author and journalist Pablo Vierci, which contains interviews with all of those who survived the plane crash.

“We wanted the audience to feel they were really at the Valle de las Lágrimas (Valley of Tears),” explained cinematographer Pedro Luque of the crash location. “This movie is not about heroism. It is about what really happened.”

Luque is responsible for the photography of films such as Don’t Breathe (2016) and The Girl In The Spider’s Web (2018). He said, “I knew from the start that this was a mutating story, not written in stone and that we were going to discover how to tell it in the journey of making it.”

Crucially, that included the films, designed in concert with Chema Alba at Deluxe Spain, who took the project through picture post entirely within DaVinci Resolve Studio.

The project was begun with colourist Quique Cañadas at Deluxe Barcelona, who had coloured Bayona’s previous work, including A Monster Calls. Cañadas assisted Luque in preparing camera tests that the DoP made in the Italian Alps with a small crew, some actors and the wardrobe department months before principal photography. Here, Luque shot various cine cameras and lenses and presented the results to Bayona in a blind test projected at Deluxe. The director preferred Alexa Mini LF with Panavision T-Series anamorphic glass expanded for full frame.

This camera package not only had the larger format to encompass the majesty of the epic landscape the crash passengers find themselves in, but the vintage glass would also deliver the aberrations and classic cinema look they desired.

Luque, who also has experience in documentary filmmaking, explained that they wanted to avoid an overly rigid shoot to leave the door open to improvisation. “I’ve always wanted to use the camera to show the psychology of characters, and I did that in this film. We avoided the pursuit of perfection, and instead, we pursued intensity and realism.”

He added, “We planned many things, but at a moment’s notice, we had to be ready to film anything that might spontaneously happen. It was clear that we would never make the photography take precedence over the acting, the story or the moment.”

Translating this to cinematographic language, the filmmakers felt they could better convey the truth of events by fusing a cinema aesthetic with an approach to camerawork close to that seen in a documentary. “This fusion is key to Society of the Snow,” Luque said. “It is an excellent line between realism and the poetry of cinema.”

There was a practical necessity for the desire to be spontaneous with the camera too. The production was primarily shot chronologically, during which time the actors stopped eating, under the supervision of a nutritionist. The desire for authenticity went so far as to simulate the wasting effects of starvation for those imperiled on the mountain.

“There were two landscapes: the majestic monstrosity of the mountain and the faces of our main characters changing and mutating before our eyes. Within that dialogue is where the story takes place.”

Specialist VFX 

Supervision of the film’s DI and grade passed to the colourist and head of DI, Chema Alba at Deluxe Madrid. Alba was already up to speed having seen test projections in Barcelona.

“The moment we started the grade in earnest, Pedro, Bayona and I agreed we only had, in essence, two conditions to grade for,” Alba said. “One for daylight snow and one for night interiors. The film doesn’t deviate from the account of what happened. There is no fantasy, no dream sequence. The essence is documentary.”

The workflow itself was anything but basic. However, the complexity of the production called for multiple layers of footage shot in different locations to be combined with VFX.

In a bid for realism, they shot in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada ski resort in Granada, Spain, including constructing a reproduction of the actual mountain on a parking lot 1,000 meters up, a more extensive set built at 2,000 meters, and an upper set at 3,000 meters. Each set contained life size models of the plane’s wrecked fuselage.

A specialist mountain crew spent two weeks in the Andes shooting background plates of the Valley of Tears, which were displayed on an LED Volume on the parking lot stage.

“Because we were shooting chronologically we had to jump from interior to exterior and back to interior,” Luque explained of the complex production arrangement. “Even for some interiors, we wanted to look out of a window or when a character comes out of the fuselage, we needed that immediate environment to be real.”

Shooting on a mountain for many weeks also presented its share of difficulties. Luque explained, “In addition to the cold, the altitude affects you, albeit you become accustomed to it after a while. Most of all, there’s the difficulty of moving the teams, as well as the equipment you need to depict that environment as best you can, to places that are very difficult to access.”

This made it challenging to apply rigorous colour management on location. Luque shot with a basic LUT to ensure a level of consistency with the decision making only truly beginning in the grade.

A metallic, sterile look

Luque spent six days of prep in the Valley of Tears noting the light changes and look of the snow and rock. Based on this, he decided to take the colour green out of everything that happens on the mountain, including costumes and props, because it represented life and nature.

The mountain is instead presented as a world of blues, greys and whites.

“I was looking for a very metallic, very sterile look for exterior shots and a very textured and rich look for interior shots. Another thing we wanted was to have a very organic look. It couldn’t appear digital.”

That was partly because the drama is intended to mirror the 1970s setting. “We didn’t want it to appear like ‘found footage’ from the seventies but as if the film could have been shot then,” explained Alba.

To achieve this, once the film was given its first grade, the digital files printed to 35mm Kodak VISION3 250D stock at Cinelab Film & Digital in London. The negative was then rescanned back to digital for the whole project to be graded, onlined and finished in DaVinci Resolve Studio. This photochemical step added a fine layer of texture, which Alba amplified a further within the final DI grade.

“The process of moving from photochemical to digital is for me a beautiful treat and the best workflow for this type of film,” says Alba, who was an ARRILaser technician before becoming a colourist. “The chemical process can create inconsistency in blacks or skin tones, which needs addressing but only subtly since we wanted to make everything look difficult and retain the imperfections.”

Skin tones tell the story

It was clear from reading the first person accounts of the survivors (who were also interviewed by Bayona and the film’s producers for this film) that they had in a sense adapted to the extreme environment. Luque felt this himself in the Andes, bringing a key concept to the film.

“There’s a strong connection between the characters and the environment. There comes a moment when the bodies are the mountains. Even the living blend into the mountains.”

In the grade, Alba gave the shadows cast by the mountains a cyan blue tint and the sky a hue of yellow and orange, depending on the time of day. In the foreground, he aimed for ‘clean snow’ and to represent this vast surface of white without colour. In the midground were the actors.

“Everything we see is pure white, or with cyan in the shadows and some rocks and stones with the actors’ grey or pale green and pale blue costumes. Pedro’s great idea was to try to tell the story through their skin tones.

“The snow doesn’t change but if, like me, you see this film many times you can identify which part of the film you are looking at by the skin tone alone. Every day and week that passed during the shoot became harder for the principal actors. Week four is different from week ten as the skin gets progressively worse. In a sense the skin is dying, even while people are living.”

If the skin tones were the critical element in a sea of pale colours for the daytime scenes, the night interiors were an altogether different puzzle. A 15 minute sequence in the middle of the film is told in almost complete darkness after an avalanche buries the fuselage and its sheltering passengers under snow.

This was the most challenging section of the film to grade for Alba, given the lack of any apparent light or colour to latch onto. “We tried more contrast, more colour, more blue, more white to lift the scene visually while remaining true to the nightmarish scenario of a total blackout. Pedro suggested trying to achieve a black that felt like smudged newspaper ink or like coal – a black that does not reflect any light, so you don’t know where the light is coming from.

“We tested different ways to simulate this and to balance the darkness with the brightness of the light when the passengers do manage to break through to the surface and spread a window of light below.”

HDR and workflow management

Society of The Snow was made for theatrical release, with a specific requirement for an HDR version for Netflix. Alba, focusing on delivering the best experience for cinema-goers, first prioritised the theatrical projection. Following this, Deluxe then shifted their focus to perfecting the final HDR master.

Deluxe was responsible for the film’s picture, colour, and sound, allowing the director to be actively involved and provide immediate feedback. “Before we started the grade in earnest, extensive tests were conducted to find the right balance in HDR before going to SDR. And since Bayona was often in the same city working on the sound, we had ample time to discuss the grade. Actually, the various stages of sound mix helped us a lot in putting the grade together and understanding how the story was working.”

DaVinci Resolve Studio played a pivotal role in the project, particularly in managing the film’s multiple versions in HDR, SDR, and DCP. This included handling more than 1500 VFX shots from the lead vendor, El Ranchito in Madrid.

“Resolve was especially useful for managing the ACES workflow and in going back and forth between the DI and 35mm at the Cinelab and back to digital. It’s a fantastic editorial tool for maintaining consistency between multiple versions.

“It was important not to lose that documentary feel and to be connected to the reality of the film and introduce nothing artificial.”

DaVinci Resolve’s Depth Map and Magic Mask features were instrumental for Alba, enabling the tracking of individual objects and people. This allowed for subtle effects, such as adding clouds or mist, using the Fast Noise plugin.

“I often used Fast Noise to help unify scenes shot in different locations against a green screen. You can separate the actors from the background and add in clouds, mist and even some reflections – just small details, alongside the ability to color and adjust the person. Again, we were never trying for perfection in every shot. More the opposite. The mantra was to keep it simple and work on skin texture.”

Alba supervised additional colourists Manu Vázquez and Charlie Villafuerte. The team of online editors were Juan Ugarriza and Mario Martínez Duque and the postproduction producers Paula Lidón, Henar Renieblas and Elena Araco.

The film’s cultural significance was highlighted by Luque, a Uruguayan who grew up with the story that predates his birth. This deep connection to Uruguayan culture is a core element of the film’s narrative.

“While there is a sense of pride in surviving against the odds, it’s important to remember that this was a tragedy for everyone involved. Even those who survived carry lasting scars. The movie held great importance for all concerned. When we presented it to them, they shared with us how healing it was to watch it alongside the relatives of the dead. It provided a shared space for understanding and feeling the depth of what transpired.”

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