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September 2014
Issue: August 1, 2011

DPs & Colorists

By: Christine Bunish

Technicolor colorist Sam Daley believes that colorists are a “secret weapon” for DPs working “behind the scenes and in the dark.” He calls a colorist “a conduit for the cinematographer. If a cinematographer had the time and the technology I have at my disposal he’d do the color himself. Instead, I’m here to ensure that the images are presented in the way the cinematographer envisioned. And I occasionally get to be their collaborator.”

MILDRED PIERCE 

Daley, who works at Technicolor New York (www.technicolor.com), which at press time was being acquired by PostWorks NY, has observed how the bottom line now often mandates where the post workflow is directed. Nevertheless, some cinematographers still play a key role in deciding where their negative will go. That has enabled him to build strong relationships with a number of major DPs, all of whom have different ways of communicating with him.

“You have to adapt to the communication style of each cinematographer,” he notes, “whether they’re texting, emailing stills or recording microcassettes with voice notes. It’s a matter of making their lives easier in production and when the project’s finished.”

Daley has worked with Matthew Libatique, ASC, on Spike Lee features, commercials and the dailies for Black Swan. “Matty is my age so he prefers to communicate electronically: We’ll text each other and send still frames back and forth,” he says.

Up-and-coming DP Jody Lee Lipes has also partnered with Daley on several long- and short-form projects, the latest being HBO’s new series, Girls. “We work on tests, then he lets me do my thing,” Daley reports. “That allows him to focus on shooting and not worry about how things are looking because I know how he’s exposing the images and have a sense of what he’s going for. Any cinematographer you work with frequently has to have faith that you know what the look is, what they’re intending.”

Although Daley had worked with Edward Lachman, ASC, on commercials, he recently teamed with him on their first long-form project: the dailies and final color correction for HBO’s original miniseries,Mildred Pierce, which has netted Lachman — and many others — an Emmy nomination.

“Ed’s a phone person: He calls me in the middle of a shoot, in the middle of the night, in a van on the way home,” laughs Daley. “I’ve never worked with a cinematographer who is more passionate about every frame he exposes. Working with me on the dailies he’d describe how to help highlight or shadow areas or tell me what to defer until later in post. He called me ‘another member of his lighting team.’” Lachman insisted that Daley be free for both the dailies and final color, which meant keeping Daley’s schedule clear for just shy of a year.

Daley says that Lachman appreciates his film background. “He can communicate in stops and printer lights with me, and I can speak to him in those terms,” notes the colorist. Lachman shot Super 16mm for Mildred Pierce to retain the grain seen in older movies. “It was director Todd Haynes’s idea that the miniseries look like it was made in the 1970s about Los Angeles in the 1930s. There are very specific references to films made in the ’70s.” Haynes and Lachman also pored over the early color photography of Saul Leiter for inspiration, attracted to his composition, subjects and use of reflections.

Daley’s close communication with Lachman during production enabled him to compile “a mental list of what scenes and shots needed more attention” so there were no big surprises in post. “Because I had worked on the dailies I could work on my own a good deal for the final,” he points out. 

The dailies proved to be “a solid foundation” that Daley, Lachman and Haynes could build upon in the final color correction. “Ed likes to work in yellow-green hues, so we pushed scenes more in that direction for the final,” Daley recalls. “Todd likes darkness and shadow. I was surprised at how dark he asked me to take scenes: Usually directors prefer scenes played brighter so the audience can better see the actors’ facial expressions, but Todd really responds to the drama of darkness and shadows.”

In the first love scene between Mildred and Monty Beregon in the latter’s beach house, Haynes asked Daley to alter the time of day. “It was lit in production to be sunset, but Todd wanted more time to have passed from the previous beach scene. So we had to make it look as if the sun had just gone down and they were in a cooler light,” Daley explains. “There was a bluescreen outside the window representing the beach plate. It was tricky to get all the elements to work together: to make sure we had the time of day Todd wanted, that the actors still looked good, that everything still looked romantic.”

Mildred’s scheming daughter Vida’s opera scene featured some colored backgrounds on stage that were slightly out of the film’s color palette. “So we had to iso them as they were constantly changing luminence and hues and swing more into the period palette to better match the wardrobe and art direction,” says Daley.

The colorist performed the dailies color correction on a Spirit 2K telecine with Da Vinci 2K Plus; the final color was done on Autodesk Lustre, which allowed him to “freely move about the timeline” with Haynes, whose availability in sessions was limited since he was simultaneously editing and mixing the miniseries.

Lachman cleared his personal schedule to stay throughout the process and ensure the grading reflected his intentions as the cinematographer. “Ed was exacting and tenacious, and I had a great experience working with him,” Daley says. “I’m looking forward to the next time he calls me at 3 o’clock in the morning!”

CRAZY, STUPID LOVE

Jan Yarbrough, senior DI colorist/technical director at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging, or MPI (www.warnerbros.com), finds that DPs typically want to be part of the DI color session if the project’s budget and the cinematographer’s schedule allow him to participate. Time and money are also factors in how much prepro planning takes place.

“If I’m lucky, I get a call or two early on from a cinematographer who says he’s thinking of using a particular camera or shooting a certain way — is that something we’ll be able to handle?” he reports. “Then I usually don’t see him until the edit is almost complete or they need plates for visual effects.”

Yarbrough will soon get a chance to renew the relationship he established with DP Charles Minsky, ASC, on Garry Marshall’s film, Valentine’s Day. Minsky has finished shooting Marshall’s New Year’s Eve and, since he lives locally, already dropped by as Yarbrough started work on the feature’s VFX shots.

“When a cinematographer comes back you already know their personality and can hit the ground running,” he says. “Charles has his own sense of humor and is a real delight to work with. He doesn’t have to say more than two or three words of a sentence and I know where he’s going. By the time he finishes the sentence I’m already there.”

Yarbrough notes that Minsky shot New Year’s Eve with Arri Alexa. “It’s our first time seeing production images with that camera,” he says. “They’re pretty impressive. I’ve liked what I’ve seen for the VFX sequences.”

The colorist forged a new relationship with UK-based Andrew Dunn, BSC, when he teamed with him for a week-and-a-half on the romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love, which opened in late July. Dunn shot 35mm color negative 3-perf.

“He was cautious at first,” says Yarbrough. “He told me he didn’t enjoy previous post experiences where colorists didn’t look at his notes and told him what to do. We sat down and tried to get an understanding of how we wanted to play the color in this movie, and after the first day we understood where each of us was. Andrew is a true professional and it was a great pleasure working with him.”

Comedies often want a bright look without a lot of mood, notes Yarbrough. “But Andrew wanted the opposite. A good bit of the film takes place in a singles-type bar, and the directors [Glenn Ficarra and John Requa] and Andrew wanted to keep the moody look of a bar. We did some painting with [FilmLight’s] Baselight to create even more pools of light than Andrew shot, and he was quite happy with the result. It’s commonplace now to do a lot of light painting to create depth and dimension.”

For the montage where star Steve Carell, who’s divorcing and suddenly back in the dating pool, gets a makeover, Yarbrough and Dunn tried several different ways to set the sequence apart. “We went from really stylized to progressing from a neutral kind of look to very stylized,” Yarbrough recalls. “We showed the directors, and they decided to keep the look slightly stylized throughout but nothing overboard that would distract from the storyline.”

Yarbrough also found himself adding light to several night scenes shot on location. “The room light didn’t work the way Andrew wished it had, so we added some light in post to separate the actors from the backgrounds,” he explains.

The colorist calls his Baselight system “absolutely the best tool out there, and we’ve had them all.” He has worked on Baselight for about six years and says it’s “flexible, fast, stable and does 4K realtime” although Crazy Stupid Love was finished in 2K.

He believes that his experience with Dunn showed the cinematographer how positive the final color process can be. “We put out the welcome mat and established a comfort factor that made Andrew feel at home,” he says. “He used any manner he chose to describe what he wanted from the color, and I interpreted it.” 

THE LINCOLN LAWYER

Siggy Ferstl, director of telecine at Santa Monica’s Company 3 (www.company3.com), met cinematographer Lukas Ettlin for the first time when he performed the final color correction for The Lincoln Lawyer, but they got together early and found themselves meshing well throughout the process.

“Lukas outlined exactly what he was looking for,” says Ferstl, a firm believer that “the colorist’s relationship with the DP is a very important part of the process.” 

Ettlin likes to work with a colorist who “looks at the image first and the scope second. I respect the need to ensure high quality standards throughout but not at the expense of creative freedom,” he says. The cinematographer also appreciates a colorist’s “willingness to stay open minded and to try something unconventional, even if it occasionally means having to track back.”

Although Ettlin initially wanted to shoot film, he ultimately lensed The Lincoln Lawyer with a Red Digital Cinema Red One MX camera. Nonetheless, he “wanted a traditional film look, so we talked about how to shoot Red to accomplish that,” Ferstl recalls. “Lukas was new to Red so we shot lots of tests, put them up in the theater and worked through them as I pointed out the pros and cons in terms of what he wanted to achieve.”

Ettlin says, “We were going for the classic film look of movies like Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict. By using specific filters, lenses and lighting, as well as color timing, we tried to achieve this look even though [the movie] was shot digitally.”

Ferstl notes that some post facilities choose not to use any film emulation LUTs in DIs for digitally acquired motion pictures. “I’m open to both paths; what you choose goes hand-in-hand with the look or style of the film that the director and DP want to achieve,” he says. “For The Lincoln Lawyer, Lukas wanted a traditional film look so it was a no-brainer to use film emulation LUTs even though he was shooting on Red.”

Working in log space, through film emulation LUTs, has both the technical advantage of ensuring that every look achieved during color grading can be translated to film and the aesthetic advantage of retaining the log-like attributes that our eyes associate with film, Ferstl explains.

The colorist and DP worked closely to develop “a nice stylized look for the flashbacks that maintained the colors and palette that look like the sequences were shot on film,” Ferstl adds. “There are multiple flashbacks that revisit the crime and look at how it could have happened from different angles. So we created a palette that’s a little different for each one. We had a lot of latitude to play in those sequences, to give them a more edgy feel.” 

Ferstl and Ettlin decided that the flashbacks should be a bit more contrasty and the colors should have a little more saturation than the rest of the film to give them a different feel and make them stand out from the present-tense scenes.

Ferstl’s color correction system of choice is the Da Vinci Resolve from Blackmagic. “It’s fast — I can dial up lots of looks really quickly, and in the color suite it’s all about doing up multiple looks and seeing what will and won’t work, how things look and blend together. Having a tool that can do that quickly is really helpful.”

He points out that because Resolve is node-based “it’s easy to turn off and un-layer color correction if I’ve done an entire scene and now it needs to be slightly less warm. I can hit a few buttons and offset the scene a certain amount; I don’t have to go back and manipulate each scene manually.”

Having completed their first film together, Ettlin has kudos for Ferstl, whom he says “has that great mix of technical proficiency and a creative eye. And he has a very relaxed, open temperament which allowed me to push the envelope.”

Ferstl believes “you learn a lot working with someone for the first time, and by the end of the film you feel a connection to that person. I’m really happy with how The Lincoln Lawyer turned out and feel that Lukas and I established a good relationship. I’m sure that both of us would feel confident going into the next project together.” 

The film, which hit theaters in March, is now on DVD and Blu-ray.

RED STATE

Dave Cole, senior digital colorist at Hollywood’s LaserPacific (www.laserpacific.com), has worked on at least half a dozen features with cinematographer David Klein, ASC, including four films from director Kevin Smith. The latest, Smith’s fundamentalist-themed Red State, premiered at Sundance 2011.

The new movie “is Kevin going outside the realm of a typical Kevin Smith film,” says Cole. “He told Dave to have fun, make it look good and play off the emotions on the screen,” some of which are designed to make audiences feel distinctly uneasy. Although the director is often part of the DI “trifecta” with the colorist and DP, Smith believes that Klein knows his aesthetic so well that he has no problem having Klein act as “his eyes” in sessions, according to Cole.

Red State not only went outside the box of Smith’s typical films, it was the first one shot digitally, Cole reports. “Dave used a Red and Canon 7Ds for in-your-face shots that help set up the mood of unease in the second and third acts.”

LaserPacific  already had a well-established Red and Canon 7D workflow, but Cole and Klein partnered early to get prepared for the shoot. For example, a test was shot in a car interior, which led to discussions of not only lighting and exposure but also camera choices, Cole recalls. “Once Dave got on the set it wasn’t exactly guerrilla filmmaking, but he had to be able to hit the ground running.” 

Klein pulled scenes from Red State for Cole while he was still shooting. Cole took R3D files into his Autodesk Lustre system and began grading to give the DP a reference for how to approach the scenes still to be shot.

Cole wrote some plug-ins for Lustre for VFX that he and Klein thought would work well in the feature; director Smith independently was thinking along the same lines of the effects they devised. “We wanted to do a weird kind of motion effect on the camera, to make it jitter around and unnerve viewers but remain stable in certain parts of the film,” Cole explains. “There were some 12-minute hand-held takes in the film, and Dave was also the camera operator. When these long takes were intercut, the software allowed us to enhance the natural movement of the hand-held action.”

It’s customary for Klein to give Cole a few days alone as post begins, then they “work hand-in-hand shaping the movie and getting it where it needs to be,” says Cole. “It’s really good when you have a relationship with the DP. You don’t even have to talk half the time to know what’s effective in a shot. A shorthand evolves.”

Cole has been using Lustre since it hit the market. “Most color correctors are good packages up to a certain level, then it’s a matter of the person driving it,” he says. “But Lustre’s software lets me keep my eyes on the image. I don’t have to look at GUI displays. When you don’t get that kind of response from the gear, when you have to keep looking at menus and buttons, it distances you from the film.” The ability to write plug-ins for Lustre, as he did for Red State, is also a plus.

Cole says the turnaround time for Red State from shoot to finished product was about three-and-a-half months. “Kevin was cutting as he went along, and I was developing looks in production. At wrap Kevin was able to show a version of the movie and shortly thereafter we completed the final version,” he reports.

Early testing with Klein and constant communication with the DP helped to speed post, as well. “Having a relationship where you can finish each other’s thoughts visually is a major asset,” says Cole. “The colorist and cinematographer can act as one unit.”

Editor’s Note: At press time, Technicolor announced the purchase of LaserPacific.

YOU, ME & THE CIRCUS

As cinematographers who met while studying at AFI, Dominique Martinez and Salvador Lleo had a unique perspective on the post business when they opened In a Place Post (www.inaplaceproductions.com) in Hollywood three years ago. The boutique environment offers a Quantel Pablo for DI and color correction; it’s manned by lead colorists Milton Adamou and Bob Curreri.

“Cinematographers and colorists come from a very technical but also very artistic field,” says Martinez. “Many DPs come here specially to work with Milton and Bob. They have established a rapport with them from previous work they did together,” just as Martinez and Lleo had.

The couple, who also own In a Place Productions, a production and rental company, are still active shooters. Martinez lensed the independent feature musical You, Me & The Circus last year, primarily on Red, and considered herself “lucky to have a post boutique in [her] back pocket. We were shooting so fast and on an indie budget. Every circus number went into post with its own color card. Bob [Curreri] was on the same page with us about how to enhance the musical numbers and give them the specific mood and feel we had spoken about in prepro.”

Besides creating signature color for each musical number in You, Me & The Circus, Curreri concentrated on “matching the extreme looks” captured by Red and the Canon EOS 5D used for additional coverage, Martinez recalls. “It’s becoming a more and more common part of the workflow to match different formats and make everything look seamless.”

Lleo tries to ensure as much as possible that the projects he shoots are finished at In a Place Post. “Not because it’s our business but because I know we will have more quality control and more control over how much we can push the image. That gives me peace of mind. And something creative always happens with Milton and Bob that’s very satisfying.”

Last year Lleo shot Tsuyako in Japan capturing images for the short period drama on Red. The film has been winning on the festival circuit in the US and Japan. 

The most challenging aspect of the shoot came when Lleo had to shoot a train station scene. Because the film was a period piece, production had to make five train stations work as one. For this reason, Lleo had to make five company moves over a two-day period.

“I was quite concerned while executing the scene because the film’s train sequence had to look like it all happened at the same time, but  it was tough to get everything to match with the light changing day to day,” he says. “Thanks to Milton, we were able to achieve that. Working with the colorist, a cinematographer is not only able to achieve a great look but also tell the story without pulling the audience out of the story.” 

After doing considerable research Lleo suggested acquiring Pablo because the post house was “looking for a machine that could do a bit of everything, not just color,” says Martinez. “We wanted to do color, editorial and beauty work within the same session. It’s been perfect for what we do here.”