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Quick Chat: MPC New York’s color grading team

By Randi Altman

Three years ago, London-based MPC grew its footprint even further — they also have offices in LA, Vancouver, Bangalore, Montreal, Amsterdam and Mexico City — opening its doors in New York City and focusing on the advertising community. Since then they have been adding talent as their needs grew.

The most recent addition is executive producer of color grading Adina Birnbaum, who comes to the VFX and color house with a resume that includes time at some big-name agencies, including BBDO, EnergyBBDO, Mullen and Havas. She was most recently at Pure Growth, as managing partner.

Birnbaum oversees all aspects of color grading, working with colorists James Tillett (who joined a few months back moving from MPC London) and Adrian Seery, also from England.

Not long after Birnbaum’s hiring, we decided to reach out to the color grading team at MPC and pick their brains a bit about workflow and life.

How do you match up a colorist and a client? What is the process?

Adina Birnbaum: Given my agency producer background, I approach this the same way I would when building the right team for any production — carefully considering the creative, point of view and artistic style of the director and DP as well as the personalities involved from the agency creative team.

Oftentimes, we get a specific request for a colorist based on a pre-existing relationship or familiarity with the reels, but when an open request comes our way, we look to create a harmonious pairing that will yield the best creative result.

Is your work mostly for spots? Broadcast? Web? Both? If it’s both, does that affect the way you approach a project?
Birnbaum: At the moment, we’re seeing a nice mix of content, broadcast and longer format films, including shorts, music videos and installation work. Our colorists also get to grade features through Technicolor, which provides additional creative challenges and experience.

With the growth of MPC Creative, we’re pushing into new areas, including projects that span across a number of disciplines. While the workflow and output will vary, we approach each grading project with the same level of artistic integrity and collaboration.

Sia_chandelier_still_9Use 1 Sia_chandelier use 2

Adrian Seery recently graded this Sia Chandelier music video.

Adrian Seery: We will make anything look better! We are agnostic as far as the destination of what passes through our hands goes. Everything will be given the appropriate love and care. Features need color correcting in different lighting conditions and a slightly different color space. We can accommodate all eventualities; our equipment and grading system (Filmlight Baselight) can cope with pretty much anything thrown at it. And if in the unlikely event that we come up against something new and perplexing, we have our global network of talent who, collectively, literally know everything!

What are some of the questions you ask of clients in order to make sure you are getting the exact look they want? Do you ask them to bring in examples, etc?
Seery: The director of photography usually knows what’s possible, but every now and again they’ll call and run things by you, in case there’s something they may not have thought of.

James Tillett: I’ll usually ask the client if they had something specific in mind for the grade. It really depends from job to job. Sometimes clients know exactly what they want, and other times we are given creative freedom and asked to make it look nice! I’ll always try to get a general sense of the mood and tone they are after though.

What are some misconceptions among people out there in the industry regarding color grading?
Tillett: I think people are sometimes intimidated by grading suites — the console, waveform monitors and the dark room. Obviously, there’s a lot of specialized knowledge involved but I think the complexity has less to do with knowing what all the buttons do and more about the creative choices a colorist has to make during a session. The fact that there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to do something, it’s largely about taste and judgment or knowing when something looks “just right.”

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James Tillett graded this spot for Replay jeans

 

Seery: I think some clients will initially think that they need an amount of technical knowledge in order to run a grading session. They don’t. It is a reasonably technical process, but it is primarily a creative process. We, as colorists, need an amount of technical know-how, but the client just needs to tell us what they want, using whatever terminology they like, and we need to interpret that and make it happen on the screen. It literally is as simple as that.

Another major misconception is that corners can be cut and jobs graded on platforms like Nuke, which have grading capabilities. What they don’t have are artists who have spent their whole careers training in the field of color correction.

You mention using Baselight. Is it studio standard or based on each individual project or the want of each artist?
Seery: We [all] grade on Baselight. Having used most grading systems past and present, I can say that Baselight has amalgamated the best of other systems and created something that is quick and has all the tools a colorist needs. I like the way it makes me think differently. Keeps my brain from seizing up!

When I started 25 years ago, all I had were three joysticks and an “enter” button. It was pretty basic stuff, grading print, never negative. Then grading systems gradually became more and more sophisticated. It was always at the point when things could have become a bit boring when there’d be a big leap in the technology, so there would be something new to learn and a whole lot more that you could do to the pictures. It’s been a very gradual process of liberation.

MPC NY

MPC NY

Now that tools allow colorists to do more than just grading, what kind of things are you being asked to do that you weren’t just a couple of years ago?
Tillett: We are able to go into a much greater level of detail in terms of things like shapes and tracking of shapes. Processes that in the past would have been split into multiple passes and composited together in Flame can be done in one pass in the Baselight.

Also we often add grain to the image, or noise reduction. In this sense the pictures that leave our suite now tend to be more finished than perhaps they would have been just a few years ago.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?
Tillett: In terms of direction of the project, it’s when you have a lot of different opinions in the room. For example if the director and agency aren’t quite on the same page sometimes we find ourselves playing the part of mediator.

Seery: Most things are possible to achieve, within reason. Though I think if people shoot in one way and expect you to be able to fight everything about the way it’s been lit/art directed, you’re on a hiding to nothing, a compromise at best.

I know some of your talent has come over from the UK. Can you talk about that transition?
Seery: In terms of color grading, it doesn’t matter if the colorists are located in the US or the UK, they can still work with the same directors and DPs through the remote grading network.

For those of you who relocated to New York from England, what was the biggest surprise about the move (work or just life!)?
Tillett: The atmosphere in the New York studio is quite different from the London studio, which is a much larger facility. Though it’s the same company and culture, the day-to-day ambience is quite different in the New York studio — it really feels more like a boutique. On the whole, that’s been a nice change!

Seery: The language barrier! (Laughs) Just kidding. I had only been to New York once before coming to work here and most of my American experience had been on the West Coast. New York, to me, is far less similar to London as I was led to believe. I’m quite happy about that. I’m actually working from MPC in London this week, where I haven’t set foot in four years, and I’m very conscious of how different both cities are. It’s lovely to be here, but I’m looking forward to getting back home to America!

Assuming you guys have World Cup fever. Is there a particular bar/pub you would recommend for watching in NYC?
Tillett: Adrian and I watched England lose to Italy at the Toad Hall in Soho.

Seery: What World Cup? England weren’t in it! I’d also recommend the Black Horse pub in Brooklyn — it has great atmosphere — quite British. Brass Monkey in the Meatpacking District is another good one.

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Thanks to the MPC NY color grading crew for taking the time. And Adrian, I love The Brass Monkey, especially the roof area. Good fun.

Main Photo Caption: (L-R) James Tillett, Adina Birnbaum and Adrian Seery.

 

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