Tag Archives: Darkest Hour

Peter Doyle on coloring Churchill’s England for Darkest Hour

By Daniel Restuccio

Technicolor supervising digital colorist Peter Doyle is pretty close to being a legend in the movie industry. He’s color graded 12 of the 100 top box office movies, including Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, six Harry Potter films, Aleksander Sokurov’s Venice Golden Lion-winning Faust, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and most recently the Golden Globe-nominated Darkest Hour.

Grading Focus Features’ Darkest Hour — which focuses on Winston Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during WWII — represents a reunion for Doyle. He previously worked with director Joe Wright (Pan) and director of photography Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis). (Darkest Hour picked up a variety of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography for Delbonnel.)

Peter Doyle

The vibe on Darkest Hour, according to Doyle, was very collaborative and inspiring. “Joe is an intensely visual director and has an extraordinary aesthetic… visually, he’s very considerate and very aware. It was just great to throw out ideas, share them and work to find what would be visually appropriate with Bruno in terms of his design of light, and what this world should look like.”

All the time, says Doyle, they worked to creatively honor Joe’s overall vision of where the film should be from both the narrative and the visual viewpoint.

The creative team, he continues, was focused on what they hoped to achieve in terms of “the emotional experience with the visuals,” what did they want this movie to look like and, technically, how could they get the feeling of that imagery onto the screen?

Research and Style Guide
They set about to build a philosophy of what the on-screen vision of the film would be. That turned into a “style guide” manifesto of actually how to get that on screen. They knew it was the 1940s during World War II, so logically they examined newsreels and the cameras and lenses that were used at the time. One of the things that came out of the discussions with Joe and Bruno was the choice of the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “It’s quite an ensemble cast and the 2.35:1 would let you spread the cast across the screen, but wide 1.85:1 felt most appropriate for that.”

Doyle also did some research at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s very large photographic collection and dug into his own collection of photographic prints made with alternate color processes. Sepia and black and white got ruled out. They investigated the color films of the time and settled in on the color work of Edward Steichen.

Delbonnel chose Arri Alexa SXT cameras and Cooke S4s and Angenieux zoom lenses. They mastered in ArriRaw 3.2K. Technicolor has technology that allowed Doyle to build a “broad stroke” color-model-based emulation of what the color processes were like in the ’40s and apply that to the Alexa. “The idea,” explains Doyle, “was to take the image from the Alexa camera and mold it into an approximation of what the color film stocks would have looked like at the time. Then, having got into that world, tweak it slightly, because that’s quite a strong look,” and they still needed it to be “sensitive to the skin tones of the actors.”

Color Palette and Fabrics
There was an “overall arc” to this moment in history, says Doyle. The film’s setting was London during WWII, and outside it was hot and sunny. Inside, all lights were dimmed filaments, and that created a scenario where visually they would have extremely high-contrast images. All the colors were natural-based dyes, he explains, and the fabrics were various kind of wools and silks. “The walls and the actual environment that everyone would have been in would be a little run down. There would have been quite a patina and texture on the walls, so a lot of dirt and dust. These were kind of the key points that they gave me in order to work something out.”

Doyle’s A-ha Moment
“I took some hero shots of Kristin Scott Thomas (Clementine Churchill) and Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill), along with a few of the other actors, from Bruno’s rushes,” explains Doyle, adding that those shots became his reference.

From those images he devised different LUTs (Look Up Tables) that reflected different kinds of color manipulation processes of the time. It also meant that during principal photography they could keep referencing how the skin tones were working. There are a lot of close-ups and medium close-ups in Darkest Hour that gave easy access to the performance, but it also required them to be very aware of the impact of lighting on prosthetics and makeup.

Doyle photographed test charts on both 120mm reversal film of Ektachrome he had sitting in his freezer from the late ’70s and the Alexa. “The ‘a-ha moment’ was when we ran a test image through both. It was just staggering how different the imagery really looked. It gave us a good visual reference of the differences between film and digital, but more accurately the difference between reversal film and digital. It allowed us to zero in on the reactions of the two imaging methods and build the show LUTs and emulation of the Steichen look.”

One Word
When Doyle worked on Llewelyn Davis, Delbonnel and the Coen brothers defined the look of the film with one word: “sad.” For Darkest Hour, the one word used was “contrast,” but as a multi-level definition not just in the context of lights and darks in the image. “It just seemed to be echoed across all the various facets of this film,” says Doyle. “Certainly, Darkest Hour is a story of contrasting opinions. In terms of story and moments, there are soldiers at war in trenches, whilst there are politicians drinking champagne — certainly contrast there. Contrast in terms of the environment with the extreme intense hot summer outside and the darkness and general dullness on the inside.”

A good example, he says, is “the Parliament House speech that’s being delivered with amazing shafts of light that lit up the environment.”

The DP’s Signature
Doyle feels that digital cinematography tends to “remove the signature” of the director of photography, and that it’s his job to put it back. “In those halcyon days of film negative, there were quite a lot of processes that a DP would use in the lab that would become part of the image. A classic example, he says, is Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which was shot mostly during sunrise and sunset by Nestor Almendros, and “the extraordinary lightness of the image. Or Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which was shot by John Alcott with scenes lit entirely by candles “that have a real softness.” The looks of those movies are a combination of the cinematographer’s lighting and work with the lab.

“A digital camera is an amazing recording device. It will faithfully reproduce what it records on set,” says Doyle. “What I’ve done with Bruno in the testing stage is bring back the various processes that you would possibly do in the lab, or at least the concept of what you would do in the laboratory. We’re really bending and twisting the image. Everyone sees the film the way that the DP intends, and then everyone’s relationship with that film is via this grade.”

This is why it’s so important to Doyle to have input from day one rushes through to the end. He’s making sure the DP’s “signature” is consistent to final grade. On Darkest Hour they tested, built and agreed on a look for the film for rushes. Colorist Mel Kangleon worked with Delbonnel on a daily basis to make sure all the exposures were correct from a technical viewpoint. Also, aesthetically to make sure the grade and look were not being lost.

“The grades that we were doing were what was intended by Bruno, and we made sure the actual imagery on the screen was how he wanted it to be,” explains Doyle. “We were making sure that the signature was being carried through.”

Darkest Hour and HDR
On Darkest Hour, Doyle built the DCI grade for the Xenon projector, 14 foot-lambert, as the master color corrected deliverable. “Then we took what was pretty much the LAD gray-card value of that DCI grade. So a very classic 18% gray that was translated across to the 48-, the 108-, the 1,000- and the 4,000-nit grade. We essentially parked the LAD gray (18% gray) at what we just felt was an appropriate brightness. There is not necessarily a lot of color science to that, other than saying, ‘this feels about right.’ That’s (also) very dependent on the ambient light levels.”

The DCI projector, notes Doyle, doesn’t really have “completely solid blacks; they’re just a little gray.” Doyle wished that the Xenon could’ve been brighter, but that is what the theatrical distribution chain is at the moment, he says.

When they did the HDR (High Dynamic Range) version, which Doyle has calls as a “new language” of color correction, they took the opportunity to add extra contrast and dial down the blacks to true black. “I was able to get some more detail in the lower shadows, but then have absolutely solid blacks —  likewise on the top end. We opened up the highlights to be even more visceral in their brightness. Joe Wright says he fell in love with the Dolby Vision.”

If you’re sitting in a Dolby Vision Cinema, says Doyle, you’re sitting in a black box. “Therefore, you don’t necessarily need to have the image as bright as a Rec 709 grade or LAD gray, which is typically for a lounge room where there are some lights on. There is a definite ratio between the presumed ambient light level of a room and where they park that LAD,” explains Doyle.

Knowing where they want the overall brightness of the film to be, they translate the tone curve to maintain exactly what they did in the DCI grade. Then perceptually it appears the same in the various mediums. Next they custom enhance each grade for the different display formats. “I don’t really necessarily call it a trim pass; it’s really adding a flare pass,” elaborates Doyle. “A DCI projector has quite a lot of flare, which means it’s quite organic and reactive to the image. If you project something on a laser, it doesn’t necessarily have anywhere near that amount of flair, and that can be a bit of a shock. Suddenly, your highlights are looking incredibly harsh. We went through and really just made sure that the smoothness of the image was maintained and emulated on the other various mediums.”

Doyle also notes that Darkest Hour benefited from the results of his efforts working with Technicolor color scientists Josh Pines and Chris Kutchka, working on new color modeling tools and being able “to build 3D LUTs that you can edit and that are cleaner. That can work in a little more containable way.”

Advice and Awards
In the bright new world of color correction, what questions would Doyle suggest asking directors? “What is their intent emotionally with the film? How do they want to reinforce that with color? Is it to be approached in a very literal way, or should we think about coming up with some kind of color arc that might be maybe counter intuitive? This will give you a feel for the world that the director has been thinking of, and then see if there’s a space to come at it from a slightly unexpected way.”

I asked Doyle if we have reached the point where awards committees should start thinking about an Academy Award category for color grading.

Knowing what an intensely collaborative process color grading is, Doyle responded that it would be quite challenging. “The pragmatist in me says it could be tricky to break it down in terms of the responsibilities. It depends on the relationship between the colorist, the DP and the director. It really does change with the personalities and the crew. That relationship could make the breakdown a little tricky just to work out whose idea was it to actually make it, for example, blue.”

Because this interview was conducted in December, I asked Doyle, what he would ask Santa to bring him for Christmas. His response? “I really think the new frontier is gamut mapping and gamut editing — that world of fitting one color space into another. I think being able to edit those color spaces with various color models that are visually more appropriate is pretty much the new frontier.”


Daniel Restuccio is a producer and teacher based in Southern California.

Joe Wright on directing Darkest Hour

By Iain Blair

Maybe it’s something in the water, but Dunkirk and Winston Churchill seem to be popping up everywhere these days. While the British statesman and prime minister merely hovered unseen in the background of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk epic, he’s front-and-center in Joe Wright’s aptly titled Darkest Hour, which was nominated for Best Picture.

Starring Academy Award-nominee and BAFTA Award-winner Gary Oldman as Churchill, it tells the story of his first weeks in office during the fraught early days of World War II. A witty and brilliant statesman, Churchill is a stalwart member of Parliament, but at age 65 is an unlikely candidate for prime minister. However, the situation in Europe is desperate, with allied nations continuing to fall against Nazi troops and with the entire British army stranded in France at Dunkirk. (Oldman got an Oscar nod for Best Actor for his role as Churchill.)

Writer Iain Blair and director Joe Wright.

He’s appointed PM as the threat of invasion of the UK by Hitler’s forces looms, only to find his own party is plotting against him and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) skeptical that the new prime minister can rise to the challenge. He is confronted with the ultimate choice: negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany and save the British people at a terrible cost, or fight on against incredible odds.

With the support of his wife of 31 years, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill looks to the British people to inspire him to stand firm and fight for his nation’s ideals, liberty and freedom. Putting his power with words to the ultimate test, and with the help of his tireless secretary (Lily James), Winston must write and deliver speeches that will rally a nation as he attempts to change the course of world history forever.

Working from a script by Anthony McCarten, Wright also assembled a stellar below-the-line team that included DP Bruno Delbonnel, editor Valerio Bonelli and composer Dario Marianelli.

Wright first grabbed Hollywood’s attention with his debut film, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, which won a raft of awards and four Oscar nominations. He followed that up with the Oscar-winning war drama Atonement, and in 2012 reunited with his Atonement star Kiera Knightley to remake Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s classic tale of love and betrayal.

Now, the master of period pieces, whose credits include The Soloist, Pan and Hanna, is getting a lot of awards and Oscar buzz for Focus Features’ Darkest Hour, and Oldman looks like a lock for an Oscar nomination.

I met up with Wright to discuss making the film.

This is definitely not your usual biopic. It’s a real political thriller, but also a character study.
Yeah, and that’s what I wanted to make. I didn’t realize there were so many Churchill projects going on in both movies and TV, and I wasn’t interested in trying to cover his whole life. This is a very concentrated slice about a pivotal moment in his life — and in history.When I first read the script, it was such a page-turner, full of all this drama and emotion, highs and lows.

First off, he was this complete English eccentric who’d hold meetings while taking a bath, or in his bed, and he’d drink whisky and scotch at lunch and discuss matters of state in his nightshirt… that’s an appealing character. I think he was also a bit of a genius. I say “bit of,” because he also got a lot wrong in his life and career, such as Gallipoli. But when it really counted the most — the resistance to Hitler, tyranny, bigotry and Nazism — he got it exactly right.

Casting the right actor as Churchill was obviously crucial, but what made you choose Gary Oldman — who looks nothing like him?
I’ve always been a huge fan of his — he’s the man — but for this role I wanted an actor with the right level of intensity.  I saw Churchill as almost bi-polar, with all this energy both in thought and action that led him to brilliance, but that also sometimes led him to disastrous and reckless acts. Gary has that kind of energy, which is impossible to fake. You can do all the rest — prosthetics and make-up and body suits, but the essence is what’s most important.

What were the main challenges of the shoot?
It wasn’t a big shoot though it’s got a big scale and deals with epic themes. It wasn’t a micro-budget, but it was tight, so a main challenge was how to deliver a movie that feels truly epic with very limited resources. It’s a very dialogue-heavy film, and with a lot of scenes — including a 10-minute one with people sitting around a table talking — so we had to find a way to make all that very dramatic and as suspenseful as possible.

Fair to say your visual approach on this marries a lot of cutting-edge camera moves to a very classical style?
I think that’s right. I kind of like classicism, and I strive to achieve what might be called “modern classicism,” and I also use a lot of sweeping and unusual camera moves at the same time. Because so much is set in the underground bunkers, whenever we left I wanted to give it a lot more scope and scale, so we designed a lot of shots with that in mind. As I read the script, I envisaged it, and then I spent many, many hours lying on the sofa, listening to music and thinking about what I might do. That’s when I dreamed up those sequences. And we started with all the VFX and post from day one. It all happened together.

Do you like the post process?
Love it, and it’s probably my favorite part, though I like the whole filmmaking process. There are times when post can be very frustrating, but that’s also true of shooting.

Where did you do the post?
All in London. I cut it at my house, and it was set up in such a way that I could do most of the post there, which was great.  Craig Berkey, the supervising sound editor — did my first film and every one since — does most of his cutting and work at home in Canada, and then he came over, and we did all the mixing at Halo Post in London.

Then we did the DI at Technicolor in London, with colorist Peter Doyle, who has a very subtle hand and eye, and he does a lot of my stuff. I really enjoy that process so much as well. Back in the ‘90s in London, everyone was doing music videos, and we all used to spend long nights in telecine smearing stuff all over the film and trying to experiment with all sorts of looks. So it’s always been very important to me, and exciting, and I’m pretty involved.

The film was edited by Valerio Bonelli, who worked with you on Black Mirror, and whose credits include Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins for Stephen Frears. How did that relationship work?
Black Mirror was a good opportunity to try someone new. I loved working with him, and that rolled straight into this. He was on location with us up in Yorkshire at the house we used, and we set a cutting room up there. After shooting every day, I’d come back, we’d watch dailies and discuss the edit. The edit took about six months, and for the first time —  I’d committed to directing a play — I took a six-week hiatus and found it to be very helpful with the edit. I didn’t watch it once during that time, so it was abundantly clear where I was being indulgent when I came back to it with fresh eyes. I plan to take a break like that during editing from now on, it was so helpful.

What about visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
We had about 60, and Framestore did them all. I really like working with VFX as they’re such a useful tool, a means to an end. But when they become the end, then you have a big problem.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
For me it’s half of the experience. I sent the composer the script prior to shooting and we talked about my ideas. I wanted something quite minimalist, which was unusual for him as he’s more in the lush, romantic tradition. I also sent him a photo of Gary as Churchill walking, to show him the energy. He wrote a piece based on that photo, and did a fantastic score.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would?
You always have a picture of it in your head and it’s always different from the way you originally pictured it, but I’m very happy with it.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.