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Setting the mood for the film ‘Palo Alto’

By Christine Bunish

Based on James Franco’s short story collection about rebellious high school kids in a Northern California suburb, the film Palo Alto is a coming of age story told by director/screenwriter Gia Coppola.

Coppola, in her feature film debut, and cinematographer Autumn Durald worked closely with FotoKem colorist Alastor Arnold, who performed the DI for Palo Alto.

Durald and Coppola are frequent collaborators and came into the project with a short hand already in place. “Gia and I had worked together on five projects prior to this feature, so we have similar visual language, taste and sensibilities,” says Durald. “Gia is from a photography background, and we pulled a lot of photographic references for the tone and mood we wanted — photos by Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. It was important to have a more filmic, softer texture to the image that harkened back to movies like The Outsiders and Dazed and Confused — something that looked more aged with softer tones in the blacks as well. And nothing overly saturated and contrasty.”

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Autumn Durald on set.

Durald shot the feature with a “Panavised” Red Epic camera, mounted with Panavision Super Speed lenses and vintage 1970s glass to give a softer feel to the image. The on-set DIT handled basic data management and adjusted stills in RedCine-X, but no LUTs were applied. Durald’s Red raw R3D files were transcoded for final color using RedLogFilm for flexibility with various film/lab emulations.

When Coppola and Durald met with colorist Arnold, who is based in Burbank, they brought their look-book of still photography and suggested some films for him to watch, including The Last Picture Show, American Graffiti and The Virgin Suicides. They also experimented with different combinations of film emulation LUTs and grain treatments on various scenes from the feature.

“We didn’t have the budget to shoot 35mm, but our goal was to create the look and feel of 35mm,” adds Durald.

“First and foremost, they wanted a very filmic approach to keeping the image natural, smooth and, most importantly, beautiful,” recalls Arnold. “We weren’t pushing in a hyper digital direction. Autumn’s photography was awesome, a unique look with a consistency of tonality — it was in a very warm place with naturalistic skin tones.”

Arnold demonstrated Fuji and Kodak film emulation LUTs along with variants involving slightly different color spaces and lab processes. “We were really happy with the Kodak LUT as the base, and then we added grain over that as well,” says Durald.

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Using the Quantel Pablo for grading, Arnold suggested using its noise treatment feature in different blending modes and intensities to give a grain pass to the entire film. “It all ran in realtime, so it was really interactive and fast to adjust noise to emulate different exposures,” he reports.

He gave particular attention to sodium vapor night exterior shots, tilting toward warm ambers instead of greens and making sure that black levels “felt appropriate for night but didn’t bury anything — you always felt you could get into them.”

In particular, there was a scene between James Franco and Emma Roberts on a couch and Durald wanted the light to move across her face and into shadow but wasn’t able to capture that in camera. “So we played with it in color and used the Quantel’s editorial features to get a very naturalistic wipe across her face,” Arnold explains.

He credits Durald’s talents as a DP with making the DI process more about collaboration and experimentation than fixing things. “We never struggled to match a key to another key or to even things out,” Arnold notes. “It was all about finding the right feel, tonalities, densities and grain. It was great to have the filmmakers walk in with a concise understanding of where they wanted to go stylistically with the finish. We weren’t trying to figure that out in the room.”

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Alastor Arnold

Durald in turn credits Arnold: “Alastor has a really great eye — he understood what we were going for from the outset. It’s really important to find people with the same taste and sensibilities who can translate your visual language emotionally and technically. Alastor is that kind of colorist.”

As good friends who were passionate about their project, Coppola and Durald are extremely proud of the reception that Palo Alto has received on the film festival circuit and now in commercial release. “It’s such a special movie for us,” says Durald. “Many of the reviews have cited the tonality, mood and softness of the picture. They point to that look. It’s great that FotoKem helped us accomplish what we set out to do.”

Christine Bunish is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who has been covering the post and production industries for over 25 years.

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