Deadheads take note — Long Strange Trip, director Amir Bar-Lev’s four-hour documentary on rock’s original jam band, the Grateful Dead, is now available for viewing. While the film had a theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles on May 26, the doc was made available on Amazon Video as a six-episode series.
Encompassing the band’s rise and decades-long career, the film, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, was itself 14 years in the making. That included three months of final post at Technicolor PostWorks New York, where colorist Jack Lewars and online editor Keith Jenson worked with Bar-Lev to finalize the film’s form and look.
The documentary features scores of interviews conducted by Bar-Lev with band members and their associates, as well as a mountain of concert footage and other archival media. All that made editorial conforming complex as Jenson (using Autodesk Flame) had to keep the diverse source material organized and make it fit properly into a single timeline. “We had conversions that were made from old analog tapes, archival band footage, DPX scans from film and everything in between,” he recalls. “There was a lot of cool stuff, which was great, but it required attention to detail to ensure it came out nice and smooth.”
The process was further complicated as creative editorial was ongoing throughout post. New material was arriving constantly. “We do a lot of documentary work here, so that’s something we’re used to,” Jenson says. “We have workflows and failsafes in place for all formats and know how to translate them for the Lustre platform Jack uses. Other than the sheer amount, nothing took us by surprise.”
Lewars faced a similar challenge during grading as he was tasked with bringing consistency to material produced over a long period of time by varying means. The overall visual style, he says, recalls the band’s origins in the psychedelic culture of the 1960s. “It’s a Grateful Dead movie, so there are a lot of references to their experiments with drugs,” he explains. “Some sections have a trippy feel where the visuals go in and out of different formats. It almost gives the viewer the sense of being on acid.”
The color palette, too, has a psychedelic feel, reflecting the free-spirited essence of the band and its co-founder. “Jerry Garcia’s life, his intention and his outlook, was to have fun,” Lewars observes. “And that’s the look we embraced. It’s very saturated, very colorful and very bright. We tried to make the movie as fun as possible.”
The narrative is frequently punctuated by animated sequences where still photographs, archival media and other elements are blended together in kaleidoscopic patterns. Finalizing those sequences required a few extra steps. “For the animation sequences, we had to cut in the plates and get them to Jack to grade,” explains Jenson. “We’d then send the color-corrected plates to the VFX and animation department for treatment. They’d come back as completed elements that we’d cut into the conform.”
The documentary climaxes with the death of Garcia and its aftermath. The guitarist suffered a heart attack in 1995 after years of struggling with diabetes and drug addiction. As those events unfold, the story undergoes a mood change that is mirrored in shifts in the color treatment. “There is a four-minute animated sequence in the last reel where Jerry has just passed and they are recapping the film,” Lewars says. “Images are overlaid on top of images. We colored those plates in hyper saturation, pushing it almost to the breaking point.
“It’s a very emotional moment,” he adds. “The earlier animated sequences introduced characters and were funny. But it’s tied together at the end in a way that’s sad. It’s a whiplash effect.”
Despite the length of the project and the complexity of its parts, it came together with few bumps. “Supervising producer Stuart Macphee and his team were amazing,” says Jenson. “They were very well organized, incredibly so. With so many formats and conversions coming from various sources, it could have snowballed quickly, but with this team it was a breeze.”
Lewars concurs. Long Strange Trip is an unusual documentary both in its narrative style and its looks, and that’s what makes it fascinating for Deadheads and non-fans alike. “It’s not a typical history doc,” Lewars notes. “A lot of documentaries go with a cold, bleach by-pass look and gritty feel. This was the opposite. We were bumping the saturation in parts where it felt unnatural, but, in the end, it was completely the right thing to do. It’s like candy.”
You can binge it now on Amazon Video.