The technology behind the striking imagery in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button goes beyond the Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream and Sony F23 HD cameras used by cinematographer Claudio Miranda. Miranda, who has earned an Academy Award nomination for his work, also used 35mm film for certain scenes. So, to fine tune the movie’s images, Lowry Digital, based in Burbank, applied their proprietary image processing techniques. The main goals were to balance the look of visual effects scenes, film-captured scenes and digitally originated material; to reduce noise; and to bring out subtle details.
Director David Fincher had worked with Lowry on the 2007 feature film Zodiac, photographed by Harris Savides, ASC. “When David saw that we could help unify the look of mixed media capture, and bring out fine detail that traditional noise reduction would just crush away, we became part of their standard workflow,” says Lowry Digital’s Alan Silvers.
The images for Benjamin Button were delivered to Lowry Digital after an initial color correction pass at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI). Patrick Cooper, Lowry’s supervising imaging specialist, employed automated processing that eliminated any noise, flicker or artifacts.
“We enhanced the pictures to achieve the desired amount of sharpness and noise throughout the film,” says Cooper. “Anytime you’re shooting in a variety of situations, there will be differences in detail and noise or grain levels, and we smooth those out by engaging a variety of settings and parameters we’ve developed. Afterwards, the files were sent back to MPI where final color correction was performed.”
Lowry also processed visual effects shots to remove noise and flicker, and to adjust for consistent sharpness levels. Appropriate noise was added back in after keying and compositing. Decisions were made in concert with Fincher and post-production supervisor Peter Mavromates.
“Even if David had shot all of Benjamin Button on film, he would have wanted to do the Lowry processing because it unifies the visual palette, making it more consistent,” says Mavromates “This film covers eight decades and jumps to different places on the planet, so the goal was not to unify everything; it was more about unifying certain sections of the story.”
Lowry Digital’s proprietary image processing is custom-designed to compute away artifacts, manage grain and noise levels, and find and reveal greater picture detail—typical challenges that arise from electronic capture, according to Silvers.
“We do that by evaluating the best of each frame, and averaging that resolution across all frames,” he says. “We developed this image processing technology for restoration, but we’re finding that the world is catching up to our tools. We are now using them to optimize images at every stage of production and for all outputs. For example, when you reduce noise, enhance fine detail and stabilize the picture, you allow compression engines to allocate more resources to the images themselves. The result is superior quality images on film, or for digital cinema—Blu-ray or web-placed video.”
In addition to earning 13 Oscar nominations, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is nominated for 11 BAFTA Awards, and an American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Award.