<I>Elvis</I>: Color grading Warner Bros.' hit feature
Issue: July/August 2022

Elvis: Color grading Warner Bros.' hit feature

In Warner Bros. Pictures’ Elvis, audiences gain insight into the famed singer’s career and complicated relationship with manager Colonel Tom Parker. The feature, directed by Baz Luhrmann, is presented as a cinematic drama, while also loaded with musical performances. Austin Butler stars as The King, while Oscar winner Tom Hanks plays his manager — Colonel Tom Parker — who, while greedy and manipulative, was instrumental in Elvis’ success. The film was shot in Queensland, Australia, with post production and VFX taking place in Sydney, Brisbane, and Miami in the City of Gold Coast.

The Post Lounge (www.thepostlounge.com) provided dailies color and DI/final color for the film, enhancing the work of production designers Catherine Martin (“CM”) and Karen Murphy, who were tasked with recreating Graceland, Beale Street in Memphis, TN, and The International Hotel in Las Vegas, among other settings.

Photo (L-R): Colorists Kali Bateman and Kim Rene Bjørge

Mandy Walker served as cinematographer, shooting on the Arri Alexa 65, and entirely recreating many well-known scenes from performances on Steve Allen and Milton Berle shows, as well as the ’68 Special in Las Vegas.

According to colorist Kim Rene Bjørge, who worked on the dailies, as well as final color, the production shot up to five cameras each day, resulting in an abundance of footage. Working closely with Mandy Walker and using Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve software, he would create color decision looks (CDLs) and hand the footage off for transcoding, with files then moving on to editorial.

As both the dailies colorist and DI colorist, Bjørge had the advantage of having seen all the footage when it came time to apply final color.

“It was interesting…being able to be a part of that because, normally, the dailies colorist is not also the finishing colorist, so it’s a good process, where I know the history of every scene.“

The film’s color palette is very specific to the time period. Colored light doesn’t come in until later on in Elvis’s life. The early years of his life in Memphis was dubbed by Luhrmann as “color black & white.” The director referenced 20th century American photographer Gordon Parks and his early color photography. 

“It’s sort of more like the Kodachrome kind of feeling or look [of] the early days,” Bjørge explains. “The color doesn’t pop as much…The later stuff, like [when] we hit the ‘50s and Las Vegas era, the colors pop more. Our references, a lot of times, would be the documentary stuff of Elvis that was shot at that time.”

In addition to Bjørge, the final color team included Kali Bateman, who once worked at The Post Lounge and now works as a freelance colorist. DaVinci Resolve, she notes, is everywhere in Australia, allowing her to easily integrate into different studios' color workflows. She points to Resolve’s collaboration tools as one of the strong features that allowed her and other contributors, whom would later come onboard, to keep the project moving forward.

“It was sort of set up with this central database, and that was where the server was for all the projects,” says Bateman. “And then all of the footage was on a shared media SAN. We were able to work — sometimes in the same room, sometimes in different rooms — on the same material, or even in the same reel at times. Often, one of us would be doing a session, and then the other one would be implementing the notes from that session at the same time. There were quite a few times when we were in Miami, Kim would often be doing a session with Baz and CM, and I would be sitting next to him on a separate machine, implementing those notes at the same time, so that by the time they’d gotten through a spool, we’d already implemented the notes from the start of the spool and could see whether or not those were going in the correct direction…Kim could be presenting what we’d worked on, and doing broad brush strokes, and then I could be going through and doing sort of more custom-based things, where you really wanted to pop a color here or push a color back there.”

Bjørge points to some of the film’s early scenes, where Elvis, as a young boy, is drawn to the music coming from a religious service being held in a tent nearby, and another sequence where a teenage Elvis attends a party on Beale Street.

“The young Elvis scenes…I think it was shot by second unit, so Baz wasn’t really there,” Bjørge explains. “This is one scene where we definitely treat it a little bit different to what the dailies were, bringing the colors and using Gordon Parks as a reference. That sort of treatment went through Beale Street and daytime — that muted color kind of look, which is something we developed together with Baz in the grading theater. (It’s) something that wasn’t developed while they were shooting.”

“It was just really gorgeous,” adds Bateman of the sequence. “It was warm, so there was a matter of warming up the mid-tones and then darkening the reds and giving them a Kodachrome-red look. There were sort of big set pieces that were important, like there was a Coca-Cola sign that had a red in it, and there were a few other red pops in the scene. They were actually dark and dropped down in luminance, and (were) given this really sort of rusty, vintage feel, which was really effective. And in the skies, with counterpoint, it didn’t feel too sepia toned. It didn’t feel too washy. There was a little bit of blue bit coolness through those skies that cut through the warmth in a really lovely way and balanced it.”

Bateman also points to young Elvis’ signature piercing blue eyes.

“The real guy was known to have gorgeous blue eyes,” she states. “So that also cut through the warmth in a really lovely way. And it all just came together beautifully. That had also been shot with that ‘color black & white’ feel, so there wasn’t too much there in terms of bold and big colors that we had to turn back. It all had a gorgeous, muted tone to it to begin with…It was very much that stark palette to begin with, and it was a matter of just constraining and refining that.”

For the final color, Bjørge and Bateman worked with what they described as a ‘semi-locked’ edit.

“Certain scenes are way more locked than other scenes, but it sort of evolves,” Bjørge explains. “We had a good amount of coloring time on this movie, so the edit did change a little bit here and there. Obviously, the (visual) effects kept dropping in throughout.” 

Bjørge spent three weeks with cinematographer Walker last September, doing an initial color pass on the entire movie. The color team then picked up again in February and continued worked through mid-April to complete it.

“There was one really stand-out session for me,” recalls Bateman, referring to a remote session she and Bjørge had with Luhrmann, who was at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles.

“We were able to do live session with Baz while he was in LA in the theater, and Kim was off site, so he was he was streaming,” she explains. “He was able to hear Baz’s responses as we were watching the same download. I could just hear the sound in the theater — it was a big music moment — and Baz in the ear going, ‘Wow!’”

The Post Lounge is headquartered in Brisbane, with additional facilities in Sydney and Melbourne. For this project, the work took place in Sydney and Brisbane, as well as Miami at Gold Coast, where the editors and VFX teams were working. There, they configured a 4K theater with a with a Christie projector.

“All the assistant editors and editors, and Baz and CM, they were all at the Gold Coast,” recalls Bjørge. “So we actually moved down to the Gold Coast for part of the DI because it was more convenient just being there. Baz and CM could just walk in when they had a free schedule and look at the picture in the theater.”

The final push, Bjørge notes, took place in Sydney. All of The Post Lounge’s locations have formal grading theaters with 4K projectors and DaVinci Resolve.

“We had a couple of other colorists who helped out at different points as well,” recalls Bateman. “That was Candace Mars Williamson and also Brett Manson. We had a really great support team and we made use of the collaboration mode with that as well. We had Marcus Newman, Baro Lee and Neer Shelter…We had Sylvia Warmer during the final color, but during dailies color, Kait Bennett helped to keep that process happening correctly, making sure we had the right versions for everything and making sure we had everything in.”

Again, Bateman points to the importance of DaVinci Resolve’s collaboration features.

“I don’t think we would have been able to work without it, especially on this film because it was all about collaboration with two colorists and other colorists who came on to help us.”

In this case, The Post Lounge’s grading theater had a dual setup, featuring a projector and OLED monitor, allowing both Bjørge and Bateman to work side-by side.

"One of us would be working with the projector as the output, and the other one would be working with an OLED as the output,” Bateman explains.  

“We would swap between us, depending on what scene we’re doing, because obviously the projector looks a bit different than an OLED,” adds Bjørge. “It worked really well. Just being in the same room and being able to say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?' And just looked up and go, ‘Yeah, it looks great!’ And then we move on.”