Fall TV: Creating the look for <I>American Horror Story</I>
Issue: October 1, 2018

Fall TV: Creating the look for American Horror Story

Colorist Kevin Kirwan of Deluxe’s Encore Post (www.encorepost.com) in Hollywood has been working on FX Network’s American Horror Story franchise since it began eight seasons ago. In fact, his collaboration with series creator Ryan Murphy goes back even further.

“I have done everything Ryan Murphy’s done since he started out as a writer, essentially, going all the way back to Popular, through Nip/Tuck,” says Kirwan. “Pretty much everything Ryan has done, I have colored…I pretty much do his work exclusively, with the exception of SpongeBob, which I’ve done every season since the pilot. I do that one thing on the side for Nickelodeon, and other than that, it’s all Ryan Murphy.”

Kirwan and his son Dean

Every season of American Horror Story stands as its own unique storyline. Past seasons, for example, have been dubbed Asylum and Freak Show. The latest takes on an Apocalypse theme.

“The look changes to some extent every season,” says Kirwan. “Each season is its own creature. Season 2, which was called ‘Asylum’ — where they were literally in an insane asylum back in the ‘50s — that had a very, very noticeable look. It was very desaturated. Very drab, intentionally so, because of the content. A lot of the seasons don’t go that far as far as the look, [but] we do set a specific look for each season.”

Apocalypse is shot by DP Gavin Kelly, ASC, with an Arri Alexa. Kelly shot Season 7 of American Horror Story (Cult) as well as half of its sixth season (Roanoke). He also shot the pilot and first season of Fox’s 9-1-1 for Ryan Murphy, helping establish the dynamic, energized look of the show. 

“The first three episodes are set in a post apocalyptic world,” notes Kirwan of the new American Horror Story season. “A lot of the interiors take place in an underground silo, so most of that is lit by fire light and candle light. It’s a really cool look.”

The lack of electric lighting and stylized costumes, say Kirwan, help create the rich, warm atmosphere inside the silo.

The exteriors, by contrast, are very dystopian, he notes. “Not really bleach bypass, but it’s super desaturated, almost to the point of being black & white. Everything is kept overcast.”

Kirwan says that he was told early on that the first few episodes would have this apocalyptic look, and that around the fourth episode, things would take a dramatic turn, only to take yet another turn later on in the 10-episode season. He says he found a look for the opening of the season, but with the understanding that it wouldn’t carry over the season as a whole. 

“I am expecting some surprises down the line, and that’s fun,” he states, having graded just four episodes at press time. A dailies colorist will set the show’s initial look. After the show has been edited, Encore receives an edit decision list (EDL) and will go back to the Alexa files.

“We reassemble from the original camera masters so that we are starting pure,” Kirwan explains. “We can then apply, over the top of that, a CDL, which includes the LUT, if they are using a LUT on-set, which they typically are. It also includes the color that my dailies colorist has created. And I can use that or not use that, as the case may be, but that is all applied to the original files, so we go right back to the beginning.”

Kirwan operates a Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve suite at Encore.

“I have worked on most of the boxes out there and I just love the Resolve. I have been working on DaVinci forever and they’ve gotten it to a point where it’s just bullet proof. That’s my color correction of choice.”

He will spend approximately eight hours on a first pass, which DP Kelly will then review and offer notes. He’ll also get notes from the producers. Kelly will come in for a session and the two will spend around three hours fine tuning the final look.

Resolve’s Power Windows feature really allows Kirwan to isolate and enhance the material.

“[Gavin Kelly] loves to shape the shots of the show, almost on every single shot,” says Kirwan. “We will go in and use multiple windows.”

Kirwan says he will knock down the lighting on ceilings and walls, and highlight certain characters. 

“That is something we do throughout the episode on almost every single shot,” he says of the color process.
After he completes a high definition version, he will go back and perform an additional HDR pass.

“They are shooting 4K, I believe, on that show,” he notes. “My initial pass is standard HD, and then we go back and do an HDR pass after the fact.”

In the end, Kirwan describes the color process as a bit of a balancing act, where he works to meet the needs of all of the show's various contributors — the DP, the post team and the executive producers. 

“Alexis Martin Woodall, who is Ryan’s executive producer…she controls the look based on what Ryan wants to see, so I know what they want to see…I am always keeping that in mind.”