The fourth season of fan-favorite sci-fi series “The Expanse” ventures into new territory, both on-screen and off. Along with introducing new locations, and spaceships, the latest season was finished in HDR for the first time and is being released via Amazon Prime Video. Contributing to the series’ fresh look and feel this season, Deluxe Toronto handled end-to-end post services, including online editorial, sound re-mixing, and color grading.
In preparation for production, Cinematographer Jeremy Benning, CSC shot anamorphic test footage at a quarry that would serve as the filming stand-in for the season’s new alien planet, Ilus. Deluxe Toronto Senior Colorist Joanne Rourke then worked with Benning, VFX Supervisor Bret Culp, Showrunner Naren Shankar, and series regular Breck Eisner to develop looks that would convey the location’s uninviting and forlorn nature, keeping the overall look desaturated and removing color from the vegetation. Further distinguishing Ilus from other environments, production opted to display scenes on or above Ilus in a 2.39 aspect ratio, while those featuring Earth and Mars remained in a 16:9 format.
“Moving into HDR for season four of our show was something Naren and I have wanted to do for a couple of years,” Benning noted. “We did test HDR grading a couple seasons ago with Joanne at Deluxe, but it was not mandated by the broadcaster at the time so we didn’t move forward with it then. But Naren and I were very excited by those tests and hoped that one day we’d go HDR. With Amazon as our new home, HDR was part of their delivery spec, so those tests we had done previously had prepared us for how to think in HDR. Working with Joanne and the Deluxe team to get us set up for HDR was an inspiring process, and watching season four come to life with such new depth, range and the dimension that HDR provides was like seeing our world with new eyes. It became even more immersive. I am very much looking forward to doing season five (we are shooting now) in HDR with Joanne!”
Rouke, who has worked on every season of “The Expanse,” explained, “Jeremy likes to set scene looks on set so everyone becomes married to the look throughout editorial. He is fastidious about sending stills each week, and the intended directive of each scene is clear long before it reaches my suite. This was our first foray into HDR with this show, which was exciting as it is well suited for the format. Getting that extra bit of detail in the highlights made such a huge visual impact overall. It allowed us to see the comm units, monitors, and plumes on spaceships as intended by the VFX department, and accentuate the hologram games.”
After ensuring initial footage was even and making adjustments, Rourke then refined the image by lifting faces and story points, and incorporating VFX, with input provided by Producer Lewin Webb, Benning, Cinematographer Ray Dumas, CSC; Culp, or VFX Supervisor Robert Crowther. To manage the show’s high volume of VFX shots, Rourke relied on Deluxe Toronto Senior Online Editor Motassem Younes and Assistant Editor James Yazbeck to keep everything in meticulous order. The pair’s work was also essential to Deluxe Toronto Re-recording Mixers Steve Foster and Kirk Lynds, who have both worked on “The Expanse” since season two. Once ready, scenes were sent in HDR via Streambox to Shankar for review at Alcon Entertainment in Los Angeles.
“Much of the science behind ‘The Expanse’ is quite accurate thanks to Nareen, and that attention to detail makes the show a lot of fun to work on and more engaging for fans,” noted Foster. “Ilus is a bit like the wild west so the technology of its settlers is partially reflected in communication transmissions. Their comms have a dirty quality whereas the ship comms are cleaner sounding and more closely emulate NASA transmissions.”
Added Lynds, “One of my big challenges for this season was figuring out how to make Ilus seem habitable and sonically interesting, without familiar sounds like rustling trees, or bird and insect noises. There are also a lot of amazing VFX moments and we wanted to make sure the sound, visuals, and score always came together in a way that was balanced and hit the right emotions story-wise.”
Foster and Lynds worked side by side on the season’s 5.1 surround mix, with Foster focusing on dialogue and music, and Lynds on sound effects and design elements. When each had completed their respective passes using Avid ProTools workstations, they came together for the final mix, spending time on fine strokes, ensuring the dialogue was clear, and making adjustments as VFX shots were dropped in. Final mix playbacks were streamed to Deluxe’s Hollywood facility where Naren could hear adjustments completed in real time.
In addition to color finishing season four in HDR, Rourke also re-mastered the three previous seasons of “The Expanse” in HDR, using her work on season four as a guide and finishing with Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 15. Throughout the process, she was mindful to pull out additional detail in highlights but not alter the original grade. She noted, “I felt a great responsibility to be faithful to the show for the creators and its fans. I was excited to re-visit the episodes and could appreciate the wonderful performances and visuals all over again.”
“The Expanse” season four premiered on December 13, 2019. To check it out, visit: https://www.amazon.com/The-Expanse-Season-4/dp/B07YLBPJXW