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July 2014
Issue: August 1, 2010

DPs & COLORISTS

By: Christine Bunish
Strong partnerships forged between colorists and DPs are expanding the creative role of the DI suite and pushing the boundaries of what DI colorists and cinematographers can achieve together.

PREDATOR

At Efilm in Hollywood (www.efilm.com), it’s senior DI colorist Natasha Leonnet’s experience that DPs increasingly succeed in participating in the DI process, even if they’re working on another project. Their presence in the room is invaluable, she says. “It’s a very collaborative process. I get to hear their ideas about what they wanted to achieve on the set, what they want to do in the room and how we can take things one step further.”
The introduction some time ago of software-based color correction systems that work in printer lights, the calculation unit labs use for color correction, helped to foster this collaboration, she believes. Now all systems incorporate printer lights, including those that were originally hardware-based. “Printer lights reproduce the experience cinematographers have in the lab, so they are able to take the language of the lab and bring it into the DI suite,” she explains. “With printer lights we can strive to make the film look as natural as when it came to the lab and sweeten it with the different tools we have.”
At Efilm, Leonnet employs Eworks, a proprietary, Autodesk Lustre-based color correction system built to capture the broadest dynamic range of film. It features a custom Autodesk GUI and plug-ins.
Leonnet recently partnered with cinematographer Gyula Pados on Predators, the Robert Rodriguez-produced sci-fi film. To prepare for their initial meeting she watched Pados’s previous features, The Duchess and Evening. Although Predators is a completely different genre, I could see how his sensibilities translated to the film,” she says. “When I saw the material I could tell it was shot by the same person based on his mixed lighting and color palette. There’s a complexity to his cinematography, a very painterly quality that’s so beautiful, especially as Predators develops and scenes become moodier with mixed lighting and low-key lighting. There’s one scene in a hunting camp that’s very evocative of a Goya painting: dark and moody but with a lot of color separation. He challenged my image of the sci-fi genre.”
Pados made himself available “just about every second” of the DI process. His goal was to produce “the most natural images possible,” she notes, with the color correction tools used primarily for continuity. “The movie was shot in Hawaii and Texas, where the natural light was different, so the DI helped bridge that gap. In Hawaii there was sun one minute and rain the next, which changed contrast values. So we did a lot of subtle tweaks and manipulations of contrast, especially in daylight footage where contrast was really strong yet we wanted to preserve all the detail in the lower end of the image.”
Predators has many dark night scenes, including one sword fight that Leonnet describes as a homage to the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. “Gyula painted the main character with rim light and picked up the subtle detail on his tattooed back,” she reports. “An intrinsic part of DI is LUTs and having a very sound match from what you do in the suite to the film-out. Our LUTs are so good that we were able to preserve all of the detail in the extreme low lights when the material was output to film.”

THE OTHER GUYS

John Persichetti, senior colorist at Sony Colorworks, the new DI facility at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, remembers the pre-DI days when “the relationship with the DP happened more at the home video stage; traditional color timing was done in the film laboratories. Now they’re involved in the post production of the film and frequently earlier on with camera tests.”
Persichetti recently welcomed back cinematographer Oliver Wood — they had worked on the Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly feature Step Brothers — for the DI of The Other Guys, an action-comedy starring Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.
“As soon as we finish shooting, John comes into the picture with VFX and greenscreen shots,” says Wood. “When we have the first rough cut we screen it together in a big theater —two or three months before he’s going to work on it — to get an idea of the look we’re going for as the VFX shots start to come in.”
The colorist began to pre-time background plates for The Other Guys and when a final cut was approved, he started to work his way through the DI reel by reel. The film’s “very organic” look was captured in camera, notes Wood. “We shot in Manhattan on 35mm 3-perf and wanted a real New York look, like you saw in The French Connection,” he says.
“There’s a mistake people make thinking that comedies need to be bright and colorful,” Persichetti observes. “But you don’t need to oversaturate things. You can keep things looking natural and feeling like New York.”
A big portion of most DIs is devoted to focusing viewers’ eyes in the frame, directing them away from distractions by isolating areas of the frame and bringing down color or exposure so the emphasis is on the actors’ faces and not on a blindingly white shirt, for example. “That can only happen with the DI process,” Wood notes.
From crafting major color treatments to finessing subtleties, the role of the colorist varies from film to film and reel to reel. It can be “as big as creating the whole look of a film or as small as addressing the tiniest detail,” Wood points out. But overall, “Colorists have a much bigger say than they’re typically given credit for. The DI is a bigger part of the movie than it used to be, and the tools are better than ever.”
Persichetti mans FilmLight’s Baselight color correction system. “I’ve used most other color correctors and prefer the Baselight because it incorporates all the tools I need, and it enables me to do my job fast and efficiently,” he reports.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

Digital colorist Jason Fabbro’s work with DPs at Technicolor Hollywood (www.technicolor.com) runs the gamut from “making new looks with windowing and layers — which almost act as VFX in certain shots — to something as simple as pulling down a bright shot,” he reports. Although he believes the involvement of DPs in the DI process has increased, DPs are often at work on their next project by the time his sessions are scheduled, so they don’t always have time to appear in person. Directors are a more consistent presence in the DI suite, he notes.
For the comedy feature The Kids Are All Right, starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, Fabbro had the luxury of collaborating with both cinematographer
Igor Jadue-Lillo and director Lisa Cholodenko; the DP had to leave before Fabbro finished so Cholodenko teamed with him for the final polish pass.
Fabbro characterizes the film as “one of the more subtle I’ve done. Igor’s well-exposed negative made my life easier; he knew exactly what he wanted and we went straight to it — layering on top of what he’d done.” Sometimes Fabbro needed to pull down a scene, giving a warmer, dusk feel to a bright ping-pong game sequence, for example. He also used vignetting to direct viewers’ eyes to an actor’s performance.
“Lisa set the looks initially and didn’t want anything crazy that would distract from the actors,” he notes. “The film was shot in LA and she wanted a sense of the story taking place there, so we made some scenes less contrasty for a smoggy, hazy feel.”
He also occasionally tracked windows on Mia Wasikowska’s face. “She is very fair skinned and tended to soak up the light in certain scenes,” he explains. “One shot in particular, I remember, was where she and two other actresses were eating dinner. It’s a long take that starts in a wide shot and ends up being a close up of Mia. I needed to track a window on her face to bring it down to match the others.”
Fabbro’s tool of choice is Blackmagic Design’s Da Vinci Resolve, which he believes most Technicolor colorists find “operationally the easiest system to work with. It tends to be more efficient and quicker than others — the last thing you want is to keep the client waiting for 10 minutes. You want to move on to the next scene.”
For the film Fabbro was working on at press time, the DP was able to spend a week with him going over selects before he  had to leave for another job; the director will be his main partner for color sessions. “It’s always nice when it’s built into a DP’s contract to come in during DI, but few have the clout to do that,” he notes. “Some DPs are making themselves available for the DI even when they’re not getting paid to be here. Hopefully, the studios will see that projects run much more smoothly when the DP is around.”

LXD: THE LEGION OF EXTRAORDINARY DANCERS

A freelance DI colorist who was a longtime staff member of Company 3 and now works primarily at Light Iron Digital (www.lightiron digital.com) in Culver City, Mark Todd Osborne says colorists and DPs have always had a “strong, symbiotic relationship. They’re primarily who we answer to; most directors depend on the eye of the DP to guide them through the color process.”
Osborne likes to have a prepro meeting with DPs, if possible, to address “any problems going into the shoot and what we can and can’t get away with in DI.” When projects wrap, DPs are participating in the DI more than ever before, he reports. “They used to set the looks for half a day then go back to shooting and I’d send them stills as I went along. Now, most try to be there for the entire DI from setting key scenes, which is exciting, to the more mundane task of matching and putting reels together.”
Although Osborne has used FilmLight’s Baselight system and Autodesk Lustre, he’s especially fond of the Quantel Pablo, which he calls “the most logical and user-friendly” of the boxes. “With the level of clients I work with you have to be able to give them five looks fast, and Pablo tends to be a one-button, instead of a three-mouse-click, solution. It’s a real deep box, and I’m still learning just how deep it goes. It’s also a strong VFX compositor and editor.”
The colorist recently finished season one of Paramount Digital’s Web video series, LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, produced by Jon M. Chu (who also directed a few of its 10 episodes) and airing on Hulu. The five- to eight-minute episodes, showcasing the talents of the LXD dance troupe, were shot by Alice Brooks on Red.
“She’s a real Red aficionado with a beautiful eye, so she gave me great images that I further enhanced and shaped,” says Osborne. With the Red One camera “you want to shoot as Raw as you can get it,” he explains. “I’ve found that any manipulation in the camera to help the color subtracts from overall image quality. But if Red Raw footage is shot well, you should be able to see what the DP saw and discuss what’s in the image from lighting techniques to inconsistencies in makeup.”
Osborne’s modus operandi is “beauty in simplicity,” he says. “I can use all of Pablo’s magic bag of tricks, but the DP may have already painted the shot beautifully.” For LXD he largely finessed Brooks’s images. But sometimes the DP captured the exposure and was open to ideas about what to do in the DI suite. “Since I see so much footage every day, I’m often asked what I think the client should do,” Osborne notes. “That’s what I love about the collaboration.”
Overall, the Web video series had “a motion picture look, a strong feature film direction,” which became even more apparent to Osborne when episodes were screened at Paramount. “I color corrected off plasma screens, but the footage held up well projected: The blacks were deep and rich and strong — they didn’t break up and get flat.”

THAT’S WHAT I AM

Doug Delaney, DI colorist at Hollywood’s iO Film (www.iofilm.net), has developed a serial relationship with cinematographer Kenneth Zunder, ASC. Delaney is working on the third-in-a-series of theatrical features shot by Zunder for WWE Studios, the LA-based subsidiary of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. The films — the latest of which is That’s What I Am, starring Ed Harris — are largely shot in New Orleans and, with a staggered production schedule, Zunder has not attended final color sessions.
Nevertheless, the colorist and DP have been able to sit down and screen the locked picture with dailies color. “It’s a way for us to begin talking face to face,” Delaney says. “It’s a great start to have that dialogue and be able to refer to my notes afterward once DI grading starts. I have a jumping-off point. The last time Ken was in LA I calibrated his Mac laptop to rec709 color space. So during the course of the DI I can save JPEGs of my color correction and send them to him in New Orleans. That gives Ken a fairly accurate representation of what I’m seeing in the room.” The pair continues to have conversations while the DP is on location as well.
This long-distance interaction is “the best way to continue to involve Ken when he’s not able to be in the room,” notes Delaney. “It’s always best to have the cinematographer in the room while grading the film they shot, of course. But in lieu of that, this simple and direct approach to sharing images and communicating works very well for us.”
That’s What I Am is set in the 1960s, but a heavy color treatment was not used in support of that period. “With this film, the art department and wardrobe departments did a great job establishing the time period,” says Delaney. “With that in mind, Ken and I decided to let the photography play as captured in front of the lens. Conversations about look, style or approach are difficult to have with just words. So the time together to discuss the film as well as the still-frame references give us the confidence we’re making the right choices.”
He calls Zunder “a very consistent shooter, which expedites the grading process, of course.” The WWE Studios films are being shot on 35mm 3-perf and graded at iO Film on the Digital Vision Nucoda FilmMaster. “Coming from Lustre, Da Vinci and Baselight, going to Nucoda has been a painless process,” Delaney reports. “These systems all have the horsepower for realtime grading, allowing us to stay on time and on budget while delivering excellent quality.”
DP David Stump, ASC
Cinematographer David Stump, ASC, likes to be involved in the DI process “every chance” he gets, despite “the resistance of studios to pay cameramen to do DI work,” he reports. One of numerous colorists he enjoys working with is Lou Levinson of Laser Pacific, whom he calls “a guardian of the image. Lou has absolute integrity interfacing between cameramen, the DI process and the studios. There’s a certain amount of trust that goes into that relationship. If you work with a colorist who consistently gives you results that are pleasing and expected, it builds a trust that can’t be beat.”
In fact, the colorist often gets a chance to perform a first DI color pass solo doing “eight or 10 hours of unsupervised work that are as good as 20 hours supervised,” Stump points out. “The informed first pass the colorist makes usually sets the tone for where the rest of the color sessions are going to go. It gives a head start toward the final look, and a good head start can be priceless.”
He teamed with Levinson last year on the ASC camera assessment series, a project he describes as “more challenging than any movie I’ve ever done. It entailed putting footage from seven different digital cameras, as well as film cameras, into the same color space without the full benefit of highly-developed Input Device Transforms (IDTs) for every camera.
“The camera assessment taught us an enormous amount about what the state of the art of cinematography and digital intermediate are at this moment, but, more importantly, it gave us a great indication of where we ought to drive our craft in the future.”
Stump prefers Barco, Christie or NEC projectors in the DI suite and he finds that the DVS Clipster server “works well in the DI environment.” He also likes to have a Panasonic plasma display and Sony BVM CRT “handy” so he can check, “with great confidence,” the calibration of the color loop.
He is currently working as VFX supervisor on a stereoscopic 3D film that has an all-Red pipeline. “My preferred tool for on-set color correction and LUT management through to post in a 3D pipeline is Assimilate’s Scratch,” he says. “There’s a custom 3D toolset from Scratch in release now. Color correction for 3D requires a vastly more critical match for left and right eyes — you need very tight color matching.”
Stump served on the ASC’s DI sub-committee that recognized the need to be able to export color information from one system to another. “It didn’t exist, so we built ASC CDL (Color Decision List) from the ground up to take color information from the set to post production,” he explains. “It’s a very important component of DI color work and has become standard practice in the last few years.”