|Colorists and DPs have forged strong bonds inside and outside the color suite as powerful software- and hardware-based color grading tools expand what they can achieve together.
MASTERING MORE THAN FILM
Siggy Ferstl, director of telecine for commercials and TV/senior colorist for feature films at Santa Monica's Company 3 (www.company3.com), has always worked hand in hand with DPs and directors. His close collaborative relationship with them remains the same, but what's changed is the colorist's need to master more than film.
"With the proliferation of capture formats and directors and DPs wanting to use new cameras, I need to be a lot more diverse," he says. "It's not just about knowing what to get out of negative film stocks. I have to know the new digital formats and the latest cameras and their nuances. When a cinematographer calls and says he plans to shoot with a particular camera, he wants to know how the image will look and react, the ins and outs of the format and how to get it to me: Is it file-based? Shot linear, log, panalog? Is it 4:2:2, 4:4:4, data, uncompressed, compressed, RD3 files, QuickTimes, Tiff or DPX sequences? I have to be able to guide him through."
Recently, Ferstl had a DP ring him and report he wanted to shoot a commercial with a Canon 5D still camera, which can now shoot HD video. "He went and shot it on a bunch of Flash cards and wanted to deliver it as a Tiff sequence," he recalls. "And the recent feature Crank High Voltage was shot linear on a Canon AH1. I had to test the camera and how best to get a linear format in a film color space without losing quality or image information. You always have to be on the cutting edge because everyone you deal with is at a different level of experience with these formats."
Ferstl's telecine bay is equipped with a da Vinci 2K Plus, and Company 3's theater is outfitted with a da Vinci Resolve. "The 2K Plus is basically a video box that's great for dealing with video formats," he explains. "The Resolve handles Red, QuickTimes, DPX and data formats. What I like about them is that they're both very quick systems: They allow me to put out a lot of color suggestions very fast. And they have all the toolsets I require."
Ferstl worked with DP Scott Duncan on a touching, evocative two-minute video, Yogi's Bronx — The Final Game at Yankee Stadium, which was part of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball's coverage of the last game the New York Yankees' played in the legendary House That Ruth Built. Steve Lawrence was the director.
"I've worked with Scott for about 10 years," says the colorist, "so I've gotten to know what he wants. I know he's always trying to push the boundaries, and I know he has total faith in what I do." Early on Duncan sent Ferstl a script of the narration, voiced by Yogi Berra, along with still photos and ideas of the look he was seeking.
The DP shot 35mm footage of the stadium's empty seats and blank scoreboard, Yogi alone and foreshortened on the infield, the plaques of Yankee heroes, timelapse clouds above the stands, the El and the stadium's Bronx neighborhood in his "usual cinematic style," Ferstl reports.
The colorist tapped the da Vinci 2K Plus for the project. "The trick was to take Scott's negative and give it that reflective, nostalgic feel that old reversal film stock gives you," he explains. "Using Custom Curves I was able to compress the highlight and shadow detail to emulate reversal. Limiting how the whites and blacks clipped, desaturation and color tints were all part of establishing the final look, making images obviously shot present day look old.
"As a colorist, it was also about knowing how far you can push the capture format, in this case 35mm negative, and the tools you are using to create the desired look," he adds.
LINES OF COMMUNICATION
At New York City's Nice Shoes (www.niceshoes. com) partner/colorist Chris Ryan, who heads an extensive telecine department, enjoys getting the perspective of DPs who shoot commercials when they can find time to attend sessions. "Some New York-based director/DPs come in or, at the very least, the DP will communicate with me in some way — it's rare that we don't communicate," he says.
Nice Shoes has been testing FilmLight's Baselight color grading system for the past year and has installed it in two of its telecine suites; the remaining two rooms will be outfitted with it by summer's end. "We knew five years ago that we wanted to switch to something new," Ryan recalls, "but Baselight wasn't a serious contender at the time." As Nice Shoes transitioned to a Thomson Specter DI system and began evaluating color grading systems, Ryan discovered that Baselight had made "so many advancements" while other systems "remained static or took a backward approach."
Ryan appreciates Baselight's Flame-style effects capabilities. "With Baselight I can do things in the color correction room that we've never been able to do in the past. DPs almost never come to a Flame session; they never get to see how their footage looks when it's finished and pulled together. Now, what used to take multiple color correction passes and Flame compositing can be done in one shot in my room."
A case in point was GE's Wrench spot from BBDO/NY in which a worker at a GE aircraft engine assembly plant needs a certain wrench, which a colleague at a GE wind farm delivers to him via a series of seamless tosses to employees at other GE factories. GE and BBDO are longtime clients of Ryan's and are responsible for "some of the most beautiful spots I've worked on," he says.
For Wrench he teamed with DP Tony Walberg, whom Ryan has known since he was a junior colorist and Walberg a second unit AC, and director Lenny Dorfman — both attended sessions. In one shot where the technician with the wrench is working high off the ground in a wind farm, he appeared too close to a blade to reveal the magnificent vista of valley and sky behind him. So Ryan used Baselight to "window down the sky and cut mattes around the blade while keeping everything looking natural."
"Natural" was the mandate from Walberg and Dorfman, who wanted to convey the reality of the actual GE workers cast in the spot without resorting to a handheld-documentary style, Ryan points out. Baselight's ability to put all the transferred footage in cut order was especially helpful given the seamless edits. "The spot was beautifully edited and flowed really well," he says. "Baselight put all the material in cut order so I could color correct it that way. It made things much easier."
Ryan sees Baselight performing well into the future as Nice Shoes sees more digital acquisition and tapeless workflows. "It can handle everything — Red, Sony HD, Panasonic P2, Genesis — and put mixed formats together in one big timeline," he says. "We can scan to any resolution and output to files or tape."
Colorist and creative director Seamus O'Kane of The Mill's London office (www.the-mill.com) finds that his involvement with DPs tends to vary depending on the type of work. "Almost invariably, if it's a longform project with DI finishing, the DP is contracted to be in attendance," he reports. "Commercial DPs who are good are very busy and often move onto the next job, but we do get them in, although in smaller numbers than a few years ago."
Many DPs are repeat visitors to The Mill, so "we know each other's styles," says O'Kane. "You have a feel for what [the DP] would do" even if direct communication on a project is minimal. Other times, phone calls and emails are exchanged to help gain that insight when the DP can't be present.
O'Kane's color suite, one of three at The Mill in London, features Pandora's Revo/YoYo Data Grade system. "It's quite modular and resolution and speed independent, so if I want to run data through it at 2K and output at HD resolution it's completely realtime. Since we have been beta testing the new PCIe data link, which was released at NAB, we now have realtime 2K/SAN data write back and theoretically faster-than-realtime data write back at sub-2K resolutions.
Revo's realtime processing means there's no rendering or caching, so results are "very immediate — you do something and you see it," he points out. And "there's almost an infinite ability to keep adding layers. There's something like 50 layers of primaries, keys and secondaries within the Revo structure. But we don't color just within traditional layers; we effectively have realtime manipulation of 3D color Cubes concatenating together for very complex effects that are seamless in how their colors blend and match. And they're very clean with no apparent signal or key noise."
Last Christmas, O'Kane worked with DP Bruno Delbonnel (who was cinematographer on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and director Chris Palmer of Gorgeous Films on a spot for Head & Shoulders Hair Endurance, designed to tackle split ends, that spoofed the classic British film of the 1940s, Brief Encounter. Only this time, instead of the man breaking up with his forbidden lady love, he's in danger of breaking up his hair — a four-foot wig, which is leaving on a steam train without him.
"They tried to copy that black-and-white period look with older lenses but still were required to shoot color film stock," O'Kane explains. "I could take advantage of this situation because I was looking at the original color film and could create a balanced and beautiful color image that allowed for the monochrome image to be developed from deeper within the Revo. Thus I was able to manipulate entire layering structures based on this color information and use the results to enhance the monochrome look."
He sees Revo as "a very good example of how software-based systems enhance our abilities but the realtime processor engine makes it enjoyable rather than tedious. When I have involved maybe 10 to 15 separate layered elements within an image, and each of those may have keys with spatial blurs and shapes, the addition or subtraction of an isolation or primary makes no difference to my playback. The client is never aware of what complex manipulation an image is given other than by the result, and, as is typical in commercials, the directional changes during a session are never an issue. If a director says, 'Can we just see the whole thing with some desat and a little more contrast?' I can ripple that through my corrections and play back the spot in an instant. This is a powerful creative edge."
HE'S A COLORIST AND A DP!
LA-based Andrew Huebscher (www.andrewdp.com) has been a DP for more than a dozen years and a colorist for the past four. He was supervising the DI on Chasing Ghosts, a feature he shot on 35mm, when the colorist became unavailable and he decided to take on the process himself using Final Touch software (now part of Apple Color).
Huebscher realized that with modern desktop PCs he was no longer restricted by budget or hours, as with past telecine and tape-to-tape sessions. "I've chosen to grade projects I also shoot when it makes sense," he says. "With budgets constantly shrinking, I've got to stay competitive and still turn out a good-looking product. If I'm at the dials, I can control the look and do more tweaking. But you really have to know what you're doing. Color grading is an art that requires great skill and technical understanding and not something that can be learned overnight."
As a cinematographer Huebscher, who's aware of the vast possibilities of the phrase, "we'll fix it in post," aims for a different approach. "I think it's more important to get it right [in-camera] rather than relying on fixing things later," he declares. "Modern color grading tools offer powerful options for crafting a look or repairing an image, but I think those should complement, rather than replace, what is done on set."
The majority of his work is digital acquisition, which "is not yet able to capture the full dynamic range and latitude of negative film," he notes. "Shooting digitally has the benefit of immediate feedback, but it also requires an attentiveness to technical details that is more demanding than capturing with film."
In addition to performing color correction on projects he shoots, Huebscher is senior colorist for LA-based Bandito Brothers. "Our DI suite is driven by Iridas SpeedGrade XR for its flexible format options — it works with native raw and file-based content — its powerful grading tools and its relative lower cost compared to similar systems. The work that comes in there is shot on every camera known: lipstick, XDCAM, Red, 5D, Super 35mm. It keeps me on my toes."
Earlier this year, Huebscher shot the pilot for Rachel: Classified, an action-filled Webisode about a young hit woman. "We shot on the Panasonic VariCam in 720p and offlined in Final Cut Pro," he recalls. "We reconformed in Final Cut, recapturing from our camera masters at 1080p, and exported a CineForm HD file via After Effects. That file was then notched and graded in SpeedGrade."
While he believes that high-end DI suites will always have their place he likes "the option of retaining image control on some projects, and I think it's slowly becoming a trend." Although working as a DP and colorist is "still a rarity, it's basically a natural extension of the cinematography process," he observes. "Fundamentally, it's not much different than a photographer working in a darkroom. Instead of chemicals, we have software."
Toronto's RedLab (www.redlabto.com) opened in 2008, initially offering dailies processing of Red footage in a digital, tapeless workflow. Last September, colorist Walter Biljan joined to set up the new company's color department. The Toy Box and Technicolor veteran has seen his new department "slammed this year" with commercials, TV series, feature films and music videos.
When Biljan, one of RedLab's five partners, works on major commercials it's likely that the DPs have moved onto other projects and agency art directors take their place in color sessions. But for TV series, music videos and features, DPs typically work alongside him. The strong bonds he's forged with these cinematographers inspired him to purchase a film camera and short ends of film and start shooting vacation travel footage. Now he's lensing the occasional commercial, short film and music video.
"I see everything in my eye piece as a 2D image in my color suite," he reports. "I see what I want to do with it, where the levels lie. To know how the light affects it, to analyze how to fix it, save it, pull it out — it's all a huge advantage for me."
Biljan has been a Lustre user since Autodesk acquired the color grading system and he tested it at Toy Box and Technicolor. Autodesk's responsiveness to his input led him to select the high-power Lustre Incinerator for his color suite at RedLab. "The things I like about it are the things DPs like too," he says. "Unlike less powerful systems, I've never had playback speed issues at 2K resolution, which is the norm today. I can put up as many windows and blurred mattes as I need without slowing the frame rate. And I don't have to render shots before playback."
If Biljan is given an EDL he can "color correct the whole project and Lustre will put the shots back in cut order which is great for features and music videos," he points out. "DPs also love the storyboard viewer, which spreads out a horizontal timeline so you can see 150 stills of every scene in a movie to locate certain shots." The faster-than-realtime Autotracker, which the colorist calls "the best tracking device out there," is popular as well. "The functionality of Lustre, the way it organizes data and its features make it a very solid tool to work with," Biljan reports.
One of RedLab's partners, Vinit Borisson, served as producer and cinematographer on a new medium-budget horror feature, Spiderhole, which he shot on Red in Ireland. Biljan was charged with helping build suspense as a group of kids decide to house squat for a lark, then discover they're locked in a house with a psychopath.
"They break into the house and there's no power so the kids have a lot of Xenon flashlights," says Biljan. "Vinit lit those scenes flat and brought the room ambience up in a flat way so we could bring it down as if there were ambient light. We needed it to feel like pitch black with details."
At the outset the kids are a bit scared but still having fun, so Biljan aimed for a David "Fincher-esque mood of contrast and desaturation" to reflect that the kids are frightened but nothing happens to them.
Then the lights get powered up, people start to disappear and the kids realize there's a madman in their midst. With that plot twist the look changes. "It has a more real feel; it puts viewers closer to the real fear that starts at this stage. Things are not as contrasty and we have real colors not the heavy blues and grays of many horror films."
The DP spent a week in session with Biljan where the colorist also used Lustre to manipulate picture in ways typically reserved for Flame or Smoke suites. "Repositioning shots was huge for Vinit," Biljan says. "Lustre enabled me to go back to the 4K original files and do blow-ups and pans and scans without losing resolution. And where Vinit was unable to control a wall with a light or flag it down, I could rotoscope people and bring down the wall behind them so it made the people stand out and the wall disappear," he explains.
"There are lots of systems out there to choose from that can support our type of digital workflow," Biljan notes, "but when you add up the pros and cons for upgrades, support, feature sets and speed, Lustre won out for me."
EXTENDING THEIR VISION
DI colorist Milton Adamou is a freelancer, and former Quantel employee, working at LA's PlasterCity Digital Post (www.plastercitypost.com), whose Digital Lab sports a pair of Quantel Pablo color grading systems as well as a Quantel iQ. He has established strong ties to many DPs and often gets involved with projects early on, as when he helped DP John Leonetti, ASC, craft the look for the feature Hybrid from stills he took on the set two months before the DI began.
"The DP is clearly in charge of the image," he says. "I'm an extension of the DP's vision in the same way that the DP is an extension of the director's vision," he explains. "The most important thing is being in sync with each other."
Adamou recently teamed for the first time with Roberto Schaefer, ASC, on Leaves of Grass, a dark comedy written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson in which Edward Norton stars as twins. The feature also marked the first time that Schaefer used the Red One camera to shoot a motion picture. PlasterCity was awarded the DI after Adamou excelled at handling Red test footage presented to four facilities in town.
"Milton and PlasterCity have a lot of experience with Red footage," Schaefer remarks. "They really care about delivering the best images and are constantly making improvements: The work they did on the DI three weeks ago is even better than what we saw on tests a few months ago. The quality of the images has increased exponentially because of the way they handle new debayering techniques."
Adamou agrees, saying that a combination of "my own settings and workflow techniques coupled with optimizations I have asked Quantel to implement have ultimately produced cleaner, noise-free pictures from the same Red RAW file that was used for the initial tests back in 2008."
During Red acquisition, Schaefer finds "doing colorizing on set is a waste of time." Instead, he shoots "a raw image, trying to fully capture images in the range I've decided to use."
With that in mind, Adamou was tasked with assisting Schaefer to achieve two different looks for twins Bill and Brady. The East Coast environment of Bill, the academic brother from Brown University, has a "finer, sharper and cooler" look than the Oklahoma home of Brady, which is "a bit grainier, grittier, with colors more saturated," says Schaefer. Shreveport, Louisiana, doubled for both locales during the shoot.
Although production design and wardrobe "helped enormously" in setting the respective color palettes, "the devil is in the details," says Adamou, who employed Pablo's extensive color curves to progressively add warmth to Bill's life in subtle ways as he moves west to join Brady. "Using curves gives you pin-point accuracy," he explains, "while potentially offering more 'organic' results."
Additionally, Adamou makes extensive use of Pablo's keyers. "You can qualify any color and work with great precision on the key signal softening it, feathering it and then further refining it using shapes and layers. I call this 'compositing with color,'" he says. This technique enabled him to brighten or darken the grass or add some magenta to the lake highlights during a barehanded catfish-catching sequence shot over several days. "Keeping the integrity of the image is crucial; it can fall apart when being heavily manipulated," Adamou points out.
Schaefer says that he did a digital intermediate for another feature on da Vinci Resolve and found Pablo to be "pretty much its equal in control and quality. It really comes down to having a top-end system and somebody who knows how to use it properly and efficiently. Milton really becomes one with the machine when he uses Pablo."