Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Mouth Quest

Color correction is typically limited to the world of live action. Animation has the luxury of ensuring their colors are right and match scene to scene and shot to shot through the animation process. In the word live action, we rarely have that luxury between passing clouds, small lighting adjustments, blocking changes, or any one of a myriad of variables throwing off the shot to shot balance. Recently, I was fortunate enough to work on a project that gave me a unique opportunity to blend these two worlds.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force is Adult Swim's longest running original series. This year represents the last season of the show (a tragedy) and to kick it off, Adult Swim wanted something special. The premiere episode, Mouth Quest, is that something special. 12 minutes of outrageous stop motion and live action (occasionally blended) separate this episode from their standard hand drawn fare (though there are other episodes with live action, but no others without their regular animation). The stylistic choices also meant that a modified post workflow had to be adopted (as the studio beyond ATHF, Awesome Inc, is largely an animation house). Decisions had to be made about acquisition, color space, when to composite and color, etc. This all provided a unique opportunity to shape the workflow of a special episode from a classic series.

I came onto the project shortly after live-action production had completed. Production shot on Alexa (under DP Tom Bingham) at ProRes 4444 Log-C (which I'm always pleased to work with). I took these live action shots and did a preliminary grade for the compositors. This basic one-light was primarily the addition of the Log-C to Rec709 LUT, but also included occasional shot to shot balance (within a scene) and general color adjustments (particularly dialing out some of the green that Alexa Log-C to Rec709 often seems to feature). These roughly graded shots were used by the compositors to better match the stop motion elements with the live action scene.

Stop motion was shot on both Canon and Nikon DSLRs in RAW, then processed to a fairly standard look (close to Rec709). I did not have any part in the post-processing which would cause one or two issues for me later in the final grade. At this point, a decision had to be made of what color space we wanted to work in within the final grade and when we wanted to match all these disparate elements. The two main possibilities were doing a grade of everything off the rough cut and using the looks generated to finalize composites or simply waiting for pic and fx lock while they worked off the one-light and raw stop motion material. We also needed to figure out if we were going to enter this grade with Log-C footage or work off the Rec709 converted looks.

Ultimately, a decision was made to let the compositors work in a rough Rec709 color space and use a few custom LUTs on each composited element to bring them to Log-C. To clarify, the workflow was as follows: Log-C plate/live action footage, DSLR stop motion with custom LUT to bring to Log-C-ish space, additional 3D elements/vfx rendered in Log-C, Arri Log-C to Rec709 LUT on everything for working with in the composite and disabled to render pic lock. This means when final pic lock came to color, the footage was arriving fairly close to Arri Log-C.

The grade itself was completed in one day, half of which was overseen by director Dave Willis and editor Paul Painter. The process of grading was fairly simple due to the merging of color space into a single working environment. Lots of time and thought were put into figuring out what each character's "look" needed to be in terms of color, saturation, and general tone. With 10 previous seasons of defined animation, making sure Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad looked like the Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad we all know and love took lots of time and care.

The biggest challenge throughout the process was managing saturation levels in part because of the DSLR to Log-C-ish conversions and also due to the color of some of the elements. In the opening scene, there is a yellow couch (see the first image) which initially provided trouble with being slightly overexposed and extremely saturated. We were forced to address this particular element with adjustments to the composite (which required a re-render of the first scene). By lowering the saturation and brightness of the element before the application of the LUT, the clipping issues were avoided when it came into the color suite, giving me full control of the color/saturation/etc. The other difficulty was in the very pink/red of Links (the Honest Abe hot dog mascot). We were constantly fighting chroma clipping and were forced to dial back saturation to less than what was wanted in order to preserve some of the detail in the modeling clay of Links' body.

The episode also featured a basic "day to night" sequence where the characters are supposed to be having a conversation with the lights off. Since there is no diagetic lighting in the wide sequence, we had to find a balance of "dark" and "actually able to see the characters." We cooled the image a little (though it's still warm) and focused on reducing contrast and muting color tones to sell the darkened room beyond simply darkening the image.

Stylistically, we tried to emphasize the clay wherever possible. Within the actual stop motion animation, there are several points where elements adjusting the animation (hands, wires, etc) are left in for a frame or two. These are not mistakes and are intended to be there. The idea was to make the episode feel cheap (which follows the plot of the episode) and the animation lacking. Wherever possible we enhanced this in color. Detail and focus were added to the clay to emphasize thumbprints and imperfections within the materials. Similarly, the live action sequences were not heavily polished and we favored a very real look to accompany the "crappy" apartment. The overall effect is that of a cheap show, which is exactly what we wanted!

The episode breaks the fourth wall shortly after the opening scene where our heroes have a "Toy Story" moment of being frozen when we first move from stop motion to live action. We decided not to differentiate the "stop motion world" from the "live action world" as later in the episode, these two worlds blend (and get even more ridiculous) and the 11 or so minutes we had didn't feel like quite enough to pull off a transition and blending successfully.

In the end, the episode turned out as something really different than the typical ATHF fare - love it or hate it. Blending the live action and stop motion was tons of fun and the project was a real blast to work on.