Smoke and Mirrors

Mark Horrobin
Head Colorist

Grading Knows No Boundaries: Smoke & Mirrors uses Blackmagic to Grade Across the Atlantic

In the last five years, color correction has made leaps and bounds in terms of the way we grade, the performance capabilities of grading systems and even the locations where we grade. Only a few years ago, color correction suites were isolated rooms that were nearly impossible to connect to other offices or artists. But the color world has changed and geography no longer has to separate color artists from their clients.

For international brand owners and ad campaigns, this new color workflow is allowing real-time editing and a near 24X7 creative workflow. HSBC, one of the largest banking and financial services organisations in the world, is one of the first to turn around a campaign that was color corrected between New York and London when HSBC’s ad agency, JWT, approached Smoke & Mirrors to govern the look and feel of their new global campaign. The campaign was remotely graded in London, England while the creative director conveniently watched the grading process from a comfy cinema seat at Smoke & Mirrors’ New York office, all in real-time.

Smoke & Mirrors is based in Soho, London, which is the creative Mecca for some of the UK’s best in vfx, 3D and color grading. So it takes a lot to stand out from the elite. Smoke & Mirrors has been climbing it’s way to the top for the past 15 years and stepped up its game with their recent investment in high-end grading suites, the recent opening of their Shanghai office and a state-of-the art remote grading facility connecting its New York and London office, which makes this post-house a gem.

Mark Wildig, one of the four founders of Smoke & Mirrors, started the operation in a shed in Covent Garden, London 15 years ago. He began the company as a VFX post-production house and in 2005 they acquired Red post-productions, which allowed the business to naturally grow into a full post-production facility, branching out to color grading with DaVinci Resolve, using the Resolve Control Surface.

“Before we acquired Red Productions, we were a post production company focusing on special effects, so we wanted to expand our services and do everything from VFX to grading to finishing. In order to offer this, I had to look at investing in color grading and DaVinci had such a great reputation and performance capabilities, we had to go with it. Resolve has lived up to our expectations and it’s working beautifully,” said Mark Wildig.

Part of the Smoke & Mirrors team is Mark Horrobin, head colorist, who is a well-respected and known colorist in London and who joined Smoke & Mirrors in 2009. Since he’s been with Smoke & Mirrors, Mark has worked on a number of global advertising campaigns – including Marks & Spencer, HSBC and Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Best Restaurant’.

Mark has well and truly made a name for himself at Smoke & Mirrors. He now heads up the remote grading suite, where he completed the grading for HSBC’s global advertising campaign. The campaign was filmed on location in Rio de Janeiro and follows a family’s move to Brazil and their unique experiences of integrating into new culture and society – carrying out the campaign’s core message of ‘Live Life Without Boundaries’. Fitting to the campaign’s message, the commercial was remotely graded (without boundaries) on Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve in real-time between the London and New York grading studios.

Real-time grading was key for this project. It needed the ‘wow’ factor not only in the creative process but also in performance of the system to have an impression on Smoke & Mirrors’ clients. “When we did the HSBC grading, our colorist in New York allowed me to take over his machine and grade in real-time while the director watched in the New York studio and I had the agency next to me in London. The remote grading was the one thing I thought would be a bit flaky but we haven’t had any complications with the real-time performance or using Resolve in this way - the workflow is very robust,” said Mark.

DaVinci Resolve Linux supports more real time color correction than any other system by smashing the limitations of a single computer and allowing a cluster of computers with high performance GPU cards, so processing is always real time. And by using a PCI Express expansion chassis colorists can double or triple their grading performance.

As the New York office was being built, Mark made sure that the grading suite was a mirror image of the London suite. This allowed the director of the HSBC commercial in New York to have the same grading experience as the advertising agency in London. This was a seamlessly easy process because of the preparation, set-up and performance provided by the Resolve’s real-time capabilities. Mark said, “We have enough bandwidth to play seven uncompressed real-time 2K streams, which is very important for us to get the most out of the Resolve’s real-time performance capabilities. We are one of the first companies to do this and we’ve replicated it in New York and London. We are the only company that can operate at that bandwidth, which is fantastic!”

With both studios, the project footage is scanned into DPX files and sent directly to a server that sits at the center of Smoke & Mirror’s facilities. They use a real-time Spirit DataCine, which has the capability to scan in real-time with both DaVinci Resolves, Autodesk Flame or multiple Flames working off the system, and the files can be accessed via the server immediately from any of the grading suites; anywhere in the world.

“When I was approached by Smoke & Mirrors, they wanted me to bring the grading department into the non-linear world and get the remote grading suite up and running. We chose DaVinci Resolve for these suites because it’s an very intuitive grading tool, it has more than 25 years of grading history and it’s a product that has been built by colorists, not engineers,” said Mark.