Channel 4’s Skins achieved top ratings and critical acclaim for its controversial storylines with themes like anorexia, drugs, underage sex and parental uselessness. Produced by Company Pictures (Shameless, The Life & Death of Peter Sellers, Mansfield Park), Skins was aimed at an audience familiar with sophisticated visuals, so to be a success the post work had to be spot on. BBC Post Production, part of BBC Resources Ltd, was charged with creating a look for the series that would appeal to both teenagers and older kids alike.
Shot on HD, Autodesk’s Lustre digital grading system and Smoke editing and finishing system were both used to complete the series. BBC Post Production Smoke operator Steve Olive says the biggest challenge was the bedroom scenes of one of the lead characters, Sid. The set had to have a green screen in place of a ‘window’, and as this room was the scene for some of the most intense, emotional moments, it was important to get it right. Olive used Autodesk’s keyer to do the green screen work, which enabled him to easily animate objects such as masks as people and things move.
Putting the view into Sid’s bedroom was “far from easy” says Olive. “In the initial cut there were quite a few relatively fast camera moves which would have killed the keying because of the blur. We consulted with the production team and it was decided that the scene should be re-cut to lose the fast moves.” The slower camera movements weren’t as difficult, but Olive adds that once you’ve thrown in a wide variety of camera angles it becomes less straightforward.
He deployed a variety of Smoke’s toolsets and plug-ins to achieve what he wanted, including the ‘regrain’ tool to “put back a little noise in some areas where it had disappeared through processing”. He also distorted some images in the DVE, to line up the nighttime stills that he took, and used the Sapphire glows to give the streetlights a little more interest. Olive also adds that the paint tool was good for required manual fixing.
To give the illusion of reflections in the window Olive took a second layer of each shot with the colour taken out, and lightly mixed it back over the window to provide ‘reflections’. And he shot the ‘original’ view through the window himself, “on my way to and from work”.
A big problem for Olive was Sid’s head. He was seen wearing a hat through nearly the whole series, but not for the scenes in his bedroom. “It would have made my life really easy if he’d had it on for those scenes,” says Olive, “but his hair was on show. Hair is horrible for keying.”
But the biggest problem was a time-lapse sequence at the end, showing Sid working through the night. It was 25 seconds long, featuring lots of jump cuts as time passed. Olive explains: “As night fell in the sequence, I used the same outside view that I had shot at night, and put in some extra street lights and lit windows. I also threw in a still of the moon, then animated it through the sky. I used the Sapphire Nightsky plug-in to create an animated star field. The moon was a stock image from the internet and I used the DVE to drift it through the sky. I spent about four hours on that one shot.”
BBC Post Production Colourist Neil Hopkinson had a different set of challenges when it came to grading. He explains that when the first episode was graded, the look was established as being very high key and bright. “The four different DoPs had worked hard to preserve the detail in the highlights with no crushing so I extensively used the soft clipping in Lustre to pull back the detail in the whites when the images were brightened up, and to give more contrast.”
Each of the nine episodes took Hopkinson an average of 10 hours to grade, and with four DoPs their styles differed significantly, from using high key rushes to much flatter ones. Using Lustre, Hopkinson said he was “able to pull all the episodes together to ensure a consistent look over the series.”
He adds that he used masks extensively to improve contrast in faces, particularly when actors were positioned in front of bright windows. This was also done to faces on some low-key interior scenes. Tracking mattes were used, for example to improve the contrast of a shot looking through a window into a house from outside.
Hopkinson’s biggest headache was in Episode 7, where the anorexic character Cassie is in rehab. A series of scenes were shot outside a National Trust property just outside Bristol. The sequences were shot over several days and of course, being Britain, there were a few changes in the weather. Hopkinson says wryly: “The digital grading system was used to its full, to balance these out. Problems included the stone work of the building burning out on one angle, whilst being quite dull on another”. Testing maybe, but Hopkinson enjoyed working on Skins, saying it was “very fulfilling and rewarding.”