<I>Chupa</I>: Color grading the new Netflix feature
Issue: March/April 2023

Chupa: Color grading the new Netflix feature

NEW YORK CITY — Cinematographer Nico Aguilar, AMC, and Company 3 (www.company3.com) senior colorist Bryan Smaller had worked together on some 30 projects of varying length and type before joining forces to collaborate on the Netflix movie Chupa. Smaller had colored most of Aguilar’s earliest work, including Run, the short for which the Mexican cinematographer received both the ASC Heritage Award and the first place International Kodak Scholarship Award. By the time the two came together to work on the bi-lingual family drama about young boy Alex (Evan Whitten), who secretly adopts a real-life chupacabra (a bloodsucking monster of Latin American lore), the two were completely in sync about how to approach some of the tricky requirements of the shoot. 

Director Jonás Cuarón — co-writer with father Alfonso Cuarón of Gravity, and a director in his own right — had an interesting vision for a film designed to appeal to families. Rather than relying on quick cutting, Cuarón wanted the action to unfold within long takes. Instead of going for the high-key look often associated with kids’ movies, he wanted to approach the photography with more contrast-y lighting and deep shadows.

Aguilar created a significant amount of this work through careful lighting, but, he adds, “We augmented the work in color with the type of techniques that you’d normally approach in visual effects.”

The cinematographer shot with Arri Alexa 65 cameras, filming extended takes primarily within a wide frame that takes in a lot of the space surrounding the characters. 

“The majority was shot with a 35mm lens,” Aguilar recalls. “That makes the field of view close to what an 18mm would be for a standard 35mm motion picture sensor.” 

The entire film was shot in real locations – people’s houses, a ranch, a barn, etc. – and Aguilar was severely limited in where he could place lights. In addition, the long takes, with a frequently-moving camera covering roughly a 270-degree field of view, meant he couldn’t even think of setting any light stands or C-stands. Light had to come from outside windows and from small LED units, such as LED LiteGear LiteTiles and Kino Freestyles hidden away in ceiling beams or other bits of architecture. In addition, the actors, particularly the children, couldn’t be expected to hit exact marks perfectly. This required Aguilar and his lighting team be able to get levels high enough to shoot at a T-5.6 or 8. 

This work took the imagery a long way, but Aguilar knew from years of working with Smaller, that the colorist could use windows, keys and other tools within Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve to augment the images with some additional shaping and contrast beyond what would have been possible to achieve in-camera. 

In the past, while this type of work has been part of a colorist’s arsenal, it has also generally been somewhat limited by the sheer amount of time it can take to draw and animate all the elements in large numbers of shots. 

“I leveraged Resolve’s ‘object detection’ feature to isolate objects precisely when keying wasn’t enough,” says Smaller of a tool within Resolve that uses AI technology to select objects without rotoscoping. 

The tool evolved during Chupa’s post process, unlocking even more shaping of the look for the filmmakers. It helped Smaller really fine tune the look in ways that previously would likely have either required many more weeks (or even months) to accomplish in Resolve, or would have required huge swaths of the film to go to a VFX shop to cut out mattes. 

Cuarón and Aguilar wanted their day interiors to include light rays streaming through the windows. Aguilar initially attempted to create this look practically, but some members of the cast had a negative reaction to the smoke, so Aguilar knew this would be another effect that would have to come together in the grade. This kind of work, not long ago, would be a VFX job, and even then, the texture and movement of the smoke would likely not feel real enough to discerning filmmakers. Smaller acknowledges that he would likely not have been able to accomplish what he did in this regard even a year or two earlier. 

“I combined a few different new tools within Resolve that gave me a variety of methods to create a volumetric haze,” says the colorist. “So, I would actually draw out the areas where the light rays should be and then combine several settings to introduce the haze effect. The shapes I drew would start out with hard edges. I’d leave them that way close to the window where the light was streaming in, and then I’d feather the edges more and more the further we get from the window, so it really looked natural.”

“It's something new, something that I've never seen a colorist do before,” Aguilar recalls.

The overarching grade for Chupa started with a show LUT, which was built by Smaller’s Company 3 colleague, senior colorist Yvan Lucas (Chevalier, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), who shares the filmmakers’ love of the celluloid aesthetic. It was, Aguilar explains, a “film look,” but much more in terms of its curve and how it reacted to light, rather than something that relied entirely on grain and other textures. 

“It had to feel very subtle and organic so that the image never felt too manipulated,” says the cinematographer. “I think what I love the most about the grading process, from the LUT through everything Bryan did, is that it has a filmic look without relying on the usual techniques to achieve it.

“We knew we wanted a lot of color separation,” Aguilar  continues. “It takes place in Mexico, but it was never going to be all tinted warm. It needed to be balanced and rich, with lots of blues, greens, oranges in addition to yellows and earth tones. In fact, the blues in the movie serve a specific purpose.”

“When Alex and Chupa become friends, we see them mostly at night, and the blue mixed with the darkness helps locate the scenes within a sort of magical world,” Smaller elaborates. “Christian Slater's character is the antagonist. He sort of represents the ‘adult’ mindset, and he’s more associated with earthy tones, rather than the colors of Alex and Chupa’s scenes.”

Aguilar captured the color effects, especially the blue of Chupa’s environment, in the “neg,” through lighting effects, knowing that he and Smaller could fine tune it with Cuarón during the final color sessions. Those sessions took place at Company 3 in New York, in a space where Cuaron was concurrently overseeing other post work, including picture editorial. While the company offers sophisticated remote and cloud-based workflows enabling collaboration among key players, regardless of physical location, Smaller says there’s also a lot to be said for having “everybody in the same room, reacting in realtime.”

“We were able to really have very intense creative conversations about the final imagery as it was taking shape,” Aguilar adds. 

Of his ongoing creative collaboration with Smaller, Aguilar says, “He’s able to assure me about what I can do on-set when I run into some kind of issue. I’m always confident that if Bryan says he can accomplish something, he’ll be able to do it, and I’ll be happy with the results.”

Images courtesy of Netflix