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FotoKem’s Alastor Arnold helps set look for ‘Ash vs Evil Dead’

The colorist worked hand in hand with director Sam Raimi and editor Bob Murawski

By Randi Altman

Halloween is known for its ghosts, goblins and gruesome zombies, but this year we got an extra serving of the non-alive, dished up by Sam Raimi and Starz Network. Fans of Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and its sequels (Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness) were treated to the pilot episode of Ash vs Evil Dead. Many consider The Evil Dead films cult classics, but they are so much more than that. Yes, they are campy and gory and more bloody than necessary, but it’s all done in an effort to make people laugh.

Back for this comedy/action/horror series on Starz is Bruce Campbell as Ash, the man who lost his hand in battle and then cleverly replaced it with a chainsaw. His quick wit and sarcasm have amazingly not diminished over the years. You know, it’s not easy to keep your sense of humor when evil dead people are after you!

Alistor Arnold

Alastor Arnold

Raimi, who directed the first episode, worked very closely with long-time editor and collaborator Bob Murawski and FotoKem colorist Alastor Arnold to create the look of the pilot.

While the show was shot digitally on Arri Alexa (with a couple of pickups shot via a Sony F55), Raimi wanted a filmic look, and that is a big part of what Murawski and Arnold worked to accomplish.

Arnold has some history with Raimi and Murawski — he remastered The Evil Dead for theatrical and Blu-ray release. While Murawski and Arnold work together often, Ash vs Evil Dead is only the second project for the colorist and Raimi.

“I do a lot of work with Bob. In addition to being an Oscar-award winning editor (The Hurt Locker), he has a company called Grindhouse Releasing,” explains Arnold. “They specialize in the restoration and distribution of exploitation and horror films, and I’ve had the pleasure of remastering numerous titles with Bob over the years. When he can bring me in to work with him, he does. And that’s how we got to do the pilot of Ash vs Evil Dead.”

Let’s find out more about the color grade and creating the look for the pilot and series.

How early were you brought on?
Just after shooting — when they started cutting. They had some questions about what work could be accomplished in the color suite when they were doing their rough cuts for the executive screeners. There was one scene in particular… they wanted to see if we could accomplish a specific look without having to go to visual effects.

What was that look?
There was a scene in a room with no lights, and it needed to be lit by a spinning flashlight. So the actors would be coming in and out of darkness, illuminated by only a flashlight. Originally when they shot it, they intended it to be a visual effect, so it was shot brighter than intended. Through color correction, we were able to create the effect they were going for.

How did they describe the look that they wanted for the pilot and the series?
Bob and Sam are both fans of a “filmic” look. They like the image to stay warm and high contrast. Based on their relationship, Sam entrusted Bob with the first pass of color. When Sam walked in for his first day of grading, the show was already in a good place for dialing in looks and trims, with a focus on shaping the frame with Power Windows and integrating visual effects more thoroughly. The look of the pilot is very warm, saturated and punchy, very chromatic — not what I would call a typical kind of horror movie look. A lot of times horror movies are drab or pretty desaturated and a lot of the times they are very cool. This is against that grain.

The pilot was shot almost entirely with an Arri Alexa. How did that play a role in getting the filmic look?
Arri has done a fantastic job with their color science. It responds in a natural way. All the base grades started with a film emulation, internally built at FotoKem with our color scientist, and based on our film lab experience.

The series has a campy feel. Would you say that’s reflected in the look?
The first Evil Dead was much more of a horror movie when compared to Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. The tone of the series has evolved. Sam always injects humor into his movies, even in the first Evil Dead. In the TV show, there’s lots of horror and definitely gore, but it’s actually really funny. There’s an ingrained sense of humor in what Sam does, and that really comes through. Maybe that is reflected in the chromatic, warm look. It may complement that.

What kind of terms or language do you like to use when talking to someone about a look? And do you get examples, such as stills?
I like to approach color from an instinctual artistic level. When I start a project it’s important for me to engage with clients and discuss not only the literal of what they might like to achieve but also what it is emotionally they’re going for, and how color might enhance that. In addition, visual references are always great. I’m always happy when they reference other movies or projects or bring in stills. It’s common these days for looks to be set somewhat in dailies. Any visual reference is always good, but for me, I find it more important to engage artistically and emotionally with people to derive a look for a project.

What about the technical aspects of the grade and the system, in your case Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve?
There’s an expectation when people walk into a room with a professional colorist that the technical side of things won’t be an issue; that the colorist is going to be able to help you reach your creative goals. Solidifying and understanding what those creative goals are in the beginning is very important. So, I’m generally less concerned with how to technically arrive somewhere than creatively. Often the technical side of things can be driven by the creative goals.

It’s very important to experiment and have fun; that’s what this process is all about. Engage creatively and artistically; that is the most important part. The technical will happen.

Were Sam and Bob open to suggestions and experimenting?
Bob has been involved in just about everything Sam has done since Darkman (1990), which was their first project together; they have a short hand. Sam was very involved in this episode, and we spent probably two or three days together going through the show, but Sam is less technically driven. When he walked into the room, Bob had already gone through it and gotten it to a good starting place, based on his knowledge of Sam’s sensibilities.

Sam is generally more concerned with what is going to enhance the performances or the emotion of a scene. There’s lots of Windowing in different parts of the frame to either bring things up or down, or tinting things slightly to enhance an emotional feel. That’s where Sam comes from.

So the initial sessions with Bob are where you did the heavy lifting and decided on the overall look?
Yes, the technical grading — matching shots, fixes, general levels and looks. That’s what Bob focuses on during the pre-grading.

Ash vs Evil Dead

Can you talk about the lighting and working with the Resolve?
Lighting wise, it’s actually pretty up, even though the intent may be to have it slightly darker in final color. The nice thing about Resolve is its tracking tools are very good, so you can bring up parts of the frame individually while still keeping other areas very dark.

We did have to do some noise reduction in certain parts as well. The built-in noise reduction tool is very good. I find it very easy to use — I don’t find myself struggling to reach a look or correction, it generally happens quick and easy. That’s important when you have a client in the room. You don’t want to take too long to come up with something.

FotoKem used Resolve for the online as well?
Yes. With the exception of the visual effects, the entire online edit was completed in Resolve, in addition to the color and deliverables.

How does being able to do so much in that one system help you?
I came up working on a system that was more of a hero suite, so it did the color, it did the graphics, it did the minor visual effects work. So it’s nice to see Resolve now competing at that level.

Although I didn’t do the bulk of the editorial work, it was nice to be in the room with Bob and be able to slip a shot a couple of frames, or drop in the visual effects as they came in last minute along with their associated mattes… it all happens very quickly and easily in Resolve.

Where do you find your inspiration?
I love movies and find my inspiration in them. I always try to stay artistically engaged; I like to work on my own projects, in addition to enjoying and contributing to other people’s work. I make an effort to get to the theater two or three times a week. I’m a member of the Visual Effects Society, so I go to lots of their member screenings too. To me, it’s important to stay current in my craft and to be inspired by other people’s work. I enjoy seeing what people are doing with different cameras and how things hold up in different theaters. I like seeing films in a theater as they’re intended and viewing them with an audience. To see how other people are practicing the craft is important. If you’re a painter, you’re going to go to the museum. If you’re a colorist, you should go to the movies, and lots of them.

What have you seen recently that you respected?
I really liked the movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl. It was beautiful. Also Cartel Land, which was lovely, especially considering it was a documentary. Those are small movies, but I saw Sicario recently and that was a very impressive and pretty movie… beautifully shot.

Another movie I enjoyed this year was Tangerine, which was shot entirely on an iPhone. The artist in me wanted to see it for the story and craft. But it was also really important for me to view it in the theater on a large screen and see how well it held up technically. For a colorist it’s an artistic and technical exercise to watch movies.

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Ash vs. Evil Dead can be seen weekly on Starz at 9pm EST.

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