Color Grading: Amazon's <I>Uncle Frank</I>
Issue: January/February 2021

Color Grading: Amazon's Uncle Frank

LOS ANGELES – Technicolor’s Andrew Francis handled the color grade for the 2020 Sundance hit Uncle Frank, from filmmaker Alan Ball. The feature, which recently premiered on Amazon, is set in the late ’60s and early ‘70s, and tells the story of Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany) and his 18-year-old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis). 

The two are from the conservative South Carolina town of Creekville. Frank left the south behind, and is now a professor at a university in New York City. When Beth graduates from high school, she decides to re-shape her life — inspired by her uncle’s advice — and attend New York University, where Frank is tenured. It’s there that she finds out her uncle has long kept a secret from the family — his relationship with Saudi Arabian boyfriend Walid (Peter Macdissi). When Beth’s grandfather (Frank’s dad) dies unexpectedly, the two agree to drive back to South Carolina for the funeral, as stressful as it might be for Frank to confront his past.
While it was Francis’s first time working with writer/director Alan Ball, the colorist had a connection to director of photography Khalid Mohtaseb. The three worked closely to develop the film’s period look, drawing on family photos from the ‘70s to create a warmth that was authentic to the time period. 

Colorist Andrew Francis (Instagram: _aa_francis)

“We were very faithful to these photographs that Khalid had found,” Francis recalls. “He was very mindful not to lean into any films that had gone before. And he had the idea of family photos that anyone could actually take — but these were exquisitely shot — so we used them as our ‘look bible’. Once we had ingested those, we used them to make some corrections for his camera and lens tests. He lit and shot exactly how he feels most comfortable, and then with the color, I would manipulate it to lean into these still images.”

Mohtaseb shot the feature on Sony’s Venice camera, and Francis graded the project using Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve Studio.

“The feedback that I gave (Mohtaseb) — which was quite minimal — was that it was nice to have a slightly denser digital negative, just so we have more latitude in a way,” Francis recalls.

His starting off point was a look up table developed by Colorfront CTO Bill Feightner.  “It was very much in the wheel house of the negative of that time,” Francis explains. “It was loosely based on a Kodak stock, but we tweaked it for the grade.”

The film begins in the late ‘60s, when Beth is still in high school. At a family event, Frank tells her about life in New York, and how she should choose her own path in life. It then moves forward several years to the early ‘70s, when Beth is beginning her college studies. Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to when Frank was younger and living in South Carolina.

“That swimming sequence is very pretty, with the ethereal music and color pallet,” Francis says of one flashback sequence. “Because there were throwbacks within the period, it was kind of interesting to develop slightly different looks and feels... I really loved those periods where it was Frank as a young man. I think there is a nice distinction between what our present day was. It still had this really elegant, vintage feel to it without it being sepia.”

Francis says he went for somewhat of a silver quality for the sequences featuring Frank during his high-school days. 

“The contrast was quite soft, but we popped the highlights a little harder, but with a sort of white/silvery light. It’s a really elegant aesthetic for those sequences.”

The color grading process spanned 80 hours over 10 days in which he created a theatrical master for the Sundance premiere, as well as HDR and Rec. 709 deliverables. 

“They all happened in tandem,” he recalls. “That’s one thing I love about using Resolve: they were separate projects within the folder, with the different color spaces, and it was really nice to dip in and out of those as the project developed.”

Francis also used Live Grain texture mapping software to further tweak the looks of the different time periods. 

“The exciting thing for me was the HDR (deliverable), because ultimately, I think that’s where it’s future proofed,” he notes. “Although many people have not experienced HDR yet, the TV sets are becoming more commonplace.”

Jonathan Alberts edited the film, which features an original score by Nathan Barr.