Color grading trends: John Daro looks at AI, the cloud & remote workflows
May 24, 2024

Color grading trends: John Daro looks at AI, the cloud & remote workflows

John Daro, lead digital intermediate colorist with Warner Post Production Creative Services, has helped create and polish the look of feature-length live-action and animated films ranging from Space Jam: A New Legacy to Behind the Candelabra, Contagion and The Boxtrolls to Sea Beast. He began his career at FotoKem in 2001 and worked his way up to senior colorist in 2005. As well as a keen eye for color, John is also a skilled technician, who has invented technology to create the perfect look for each project. These include a technique using machine vision to auto-segment images into mattes, and MatchGrader, an AI tool that artistically color grades based on a given reference image. He is also behind SamurAI, which adds the right amount of detail back to the image based on the quality of the input.

He recently shared insight into the trends affecting the color grading business, including the cloud and AI.

How close are we to achieving MovieLabs’ goal of moving post production, including the grade, into the cloud by 2030?

“It’s the direction that the industry is going, and I definitely think it will be achieved. There's nothing really stopping my Baselight system from being a cloud instance and sending video compressed as a JPEG XS stream to properly-calibrated monitors to a client for remote approvals. It’s a pretty slick workflow, and it gets us away from needing the big iron to live on-prem.

“This transformation will happen organically as cloud economics works itself out. Right now, it's cost prohibitive to be working in the cloud with that much data. But the more people do it, the volume will go up and the price will come down. Then, all of a sudden, it will make sense for productions. The gains we will get from working in the cloud will eventually outweigh that cost.”

What are the principal gains of working entirely in the cloud?

“It’s really all about geography. Often, when I'm working on a project, the DP is already shooting another show. So having the ability to be anywhere in the world and be able to collaborate on the same project will free everyone’s time. And that includes my time too. I can be working or collaborating with colleagues at our Burbank location or in New York or Leavesden Studios in the UK. To be in any one of those places and handle media as if I was here in my bay is a natural progression. It also opens up the talent pool to the entire world. Clients will be able to get the best artists regardless of their location and that’s an exciting prospect.

“Finishing, however, is a different story and you're always going to want to be in the proper environment. For example, if you're working on a Dolby HDR version, there's no gain by doing a cloud Dolby version because you need to be in a Dolby-certified theater. But when you're talking about dailies and being able to make sure that color is maintained from camera all the way through to finish, then the cloud conversation starts to make a lot more sense.”

You are talented both creatively and technically. You program code as well as edit with color. Does that combination make for the most successful filmmaking? 

“I think there's really no difference between artistry and technology when crafting beautiful images. They have gone hand in hand since the inception of film. In the early 1900s, it was all kind of a science project. Chemistry was involved in film processing. So, from the beginning, it's always been a collaboration between the science and the art of trying to bend light.

“There's no higher technical position than the director of photography, but at the end of the day, the output of their work is to tell a story — visually and artistically. We’re hopefully creating a picture that makes you feel something. 

“I see technology and coding as tools in service of making better pictures. My whole goal, my mission statement if you like, would be, ‘Let me show you something you've never seen before.’ That's what gets me out of bed every day. 

“On that note, AI could probably show us things we've never seen before. But what’s the endgame with AI? Where does its functionality stop and human creativity takeover? With each new technology there are concerns that existing processes will be replaced, but it never quite happens that way. Technology is always a tool to be more efficient, more productive, to create projects at greater scale.

“I like to think of it like this: a high-end animation shot 20 years ago took two weeks to render. In 2024, it still takes two weeks to render. It just looks a lot more polished and a lot more photoreal because of the amount of data that it is being created with.”

Can AI replace the colorist? 

“Absolutely not. Clearly AI tools will evolve, but they will assist our job by removing the minutia of the process and freeing up time for more creative work. 

“I break down color into two different areas: color correction and color grading. Color correction, for example, is matching the light for continuity of scenes that could have been shot over a whole day on location, but are supposed to take place in five minutes in the story.  This type of work is necessary, but not stimulating. Color grading on the other hand is always in service of a story. It’s very similar to the editorial process, where we cut things that don't serve the story and enhance the things that are promoting the story.

“AI tools can save us time with color correction. Time can be passed along to the client. The introduction of AI should mean we're not watching paint dry in the theater anymore, and we can more quickly get to the more collaborative enhancements. It will give us more options and, importantly, more time to craft a strong powerful story. Speeding that process up and having it become more interactive will fuel creativity. In addition, it will make the process so much more pleasurable, not just for me, but for the director and DP to hit their vision faster.”

To what extent do you and your clients like to run sessions remotely?

“Four years ago during COVID, the industry was thrust into the best experiment ever — being forced to work remotely. A lot of tools were created to bridge the gap out of necessity. I primarily used ClearView Flex. It was really the only way that folks could have some interaction with the work at that time.  

“Flash forward and a lot of remote work has stayed with us because people are now comfortable with the tools. For many project notes, it is not critical to be in a correctly tuned display environment. We all know that once you release a project to the world, filmmakers have little control over how it will be viewed. For quick approvals, ClearView is great because all we need on the client side is a calibrated iPad Pro. But for final finish, the theatrical, Dolby and HDR versions, ultimately, you do have to come back in a properly-calibrated environment for no other reason than to ensure you are hitting your target and are all in agreement.”

What recent film or show inspires you from a color perspective?

“I think infrared (IR) is having a moment. Ad Astra was one of the first in recent time where Hoyte Van Hoytema, ASC, used a stereo beam splitter rig to produce an IR version and a RGB version of the same shot film. The whole moon sequence in that film blew me away. The Zone of Interest [DP Łukasz Żal, PSC] used IR in a really interesting way to present another aspect to the story. It’s very striking and super effective while being sensitive to the story. Dune: Part 2 [Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS] features a stunning IR sequence that captures the essence of the colorless planet and stark fascistic rule of the Harkonnens. They hit on a visually-immediate way to show that world without having to go into great detail describing it. You got that vibe really, really fast. It’s very cool.”