Tag Archives: Sam Daley

Color plays big role in director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project

Director Sean Baker is drawing wide praise for his realistic portrait of life on the fringe in America in his new film The Florida Project. Baker applies a light touch to the story of a precocious six-year-old girl living in the shadow of Disney World, giving it the feel of a slice-of-life documentary. That quality is carried through in the film’s natural look. Where Baker shot his previous film, Tangerine, entirely with an iPhone, The Florida Project was recorded almost wholly on anamorphic 35mm film by cinematographer Alexis Zabe.

Sam Daley

Post finishing for the film was completed at Technicolor PostWorks New York, which called on a traditional digital intermediate workflow to accommodate Baker’s vision. The work began with scanning the 35mm negative to 2K digital files for dailies and editorial. It ended months later with rescanning at 4K and 6K resolution, editorial conforming and color grading in the facility’s 4K DI theater. Senior colorist Sam Daley applied the final grade via Blackmagic Resolve v.12.5.

Shooting on film was a perfect choice, according to Daley, as it allowed Baker and Zabe to capture the stark contrasts of life in Central Florida. “I lived in Florida for six years, so I’m familiar with the intensity of light and how it affects color,” says Daley. “Pastels are prominent in the Florida color palette because of the way the sun bleaches paint.”

He adds that Zabe used Kodak Vision3 50D and 250D stock for daylight scenes shot in the hot Florida sun, noting, “The slower stock provided a rich color canvas, so much so, that at times we de-emphasized the greenery so it didn’t feel hyper real.”

The film’s principal location is a rundown motel, ironically named the Magic Castle. It does not share the sun-bleached look of other businesses and housing complexes in the area as it has been freshly painted a garish shade of purple.

Baker asked Daley to highlight such contrasts in the grade, but to do so subtly. “There are many colorful locations in the movie,” Daley says. “The tourist traps you see along the highway in Kissimmee are brightly colored. Blue skies and beautiful sunsets appear throughout the film. But it was imperative not to allow the bright colors in the background to distract from the characters in the foreground. The very first instruction that I got from Sean was to make it look real, then dial it up a notch.”

Mixing Film and Digital for Night Shots
To make use of available light, nighttime scenes were not shot on film, but rather were captured digitally on an Arri Alexa. Working in concert with color scientists from Technicolor PostWorks New York and Technicolor Hollywood, Daley helmed a novel workflow to make the digital material blend with scenes that were film-original. He first “pre-graded” the digital shots and then sent them to Technicolor Hollywood where they were recorded out to film. After processing at FotoKem, the film outs were returned to Technicolor Hollywood and scanned to 4K digital files. Those files were rushed back to New York via Technicolor’s Production Network where Daley then dropped them into his timeline for final color grading. The result of the complex process was to give the digitally acquired material a natural film color and grain structure.

“It would have been simpler to fly the digitally captured scenes into my timeline and put on a film LUT and grain FX,” explains Daley, “but Sean wanted everything to have a film element. So, we had to rethink the workflow and come up with a different way to make digital material integrate with beautifully shot film. The process involved several steps, but it allowed us to meet Sean’s desire for a complete film DI.”

Calling on iPhone for One Scene
A scene near the end of the film was, for narrative reasons, captured with an iPhone. Daley explains that, although intended to stand out from the rest of the film, the sequence couldn’t appear so different that it shocked the audience. “The switch from 4K scanned film material to iPhone footage happens via a hard cut,” he explains. “But it needed to feel like it was part of the same movie. That was a challenge because the characteristics of Kodak motion picture stock are quite different from an iPhone.”

The iPhone material was put through the same process as the Alexa footage; it was pre-graded, recorded out to film and scanned back to digital. “The grain helps tie it to the rest of the movie,” reports Daley. “And the grain that you see is real; it’s from the negative that the scene was recorded out to. There are no artificial looks and nothing gimmicky about any of the looks in this film.”

The apparent lack of artifice is, in fact, one of the film’s great strengths. Daley notes that even a rainbow that appears in a key moment was captured naturally. “It’s a beautiful movie,” says Daley. “It’s wonderfully directed, photographed and edited. I was very fortunate to be able to add my touch to the imagery that Sean and Alexis captured so beautifully.”

Sam Daley on color grading HBO’s ‘Show Me a Hero’

By Ellen Wixted

David Simon’s newest and much-anticipated six-part series Show Me a Hero premiered on HBO in the US in mid-August. Like The Wire, which Simon created, Show Me a Hero explores race and community — this time through the lens of housing desegregation in late-‘80s Yonkers, New York. Co-written by Simon and journalist William F. Zorzi, the show was directed by Paul Haggis with Andrij Parekh as cinematographer, and produced by Simon, Haggis, Zorzi, Gail Mutrux and Simon’s long-time collaborator, Nina Noble. Technicolor PostWorks‘ Sam Daley served as the colorist. I caught up with him recently to talk about the show.

A self-described “film guy,” New York-based Daley has worked as colorist on films ranging from Martin Scorsese’s The Departed to Lena Dunham’s Girls with commercial projects rounding out his portfolio. When I asked Daley what stood out about his experience on Show Me a Hero, his answer was quick: “The work I did on the dailies paid off hugely when we got to finishing.” Originally brought into the project as dailies colorist, Daley’s scope quickly expanded to include finishing — and his unusual workflow set the stage for high-impact results.

Sam Daly

Sam Daly

Daley’s background positioned him perfectly for his role. After graduating from film school and working briefly in production, Daley worked in a film lab before moving into post production. Daley’s deep knowledge of photochemical processing, cameras and filters turned him into a resource for colorists he worked alongside and piqued his interest in the craft. He spent years paying his dues before eventually becoming known for his work as a colorist. “People tend to get pigeonholed, and I was known for my work on dailies,” Daley notes. “But ultimately the cinematographers I worked with insisted that I do both dailies and finishing, as Ed Lachman (cinematographer) did when we worked together on Mildred Pierce.”

The Look
Daley and Show me a Hero’s cinematographer, Andrij Parekh, had collaborated on previous projects, and Parekh’s clear vision from the project’s earliest stages set the stage for success. “Andreij came up with this beautiful color treatment, and created a look book that included references to Giorgio de Chirico’s painted architecture, art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka’s highly stylized faces, and films from the 1970s, including The Conformist, The Insider, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and The Yards. Sometimes look books are aspirational, but Andrij’s footage delivered the look he wanted‚ and that gave me permission to be aggressive with the grade,” says Daley. “Because we’ve worked together before, I came in with an understanding of where he likes his images to be.”

bar before

Parekh shot the series using the Arri Alexa and Leica Summilux-C lenses. Since the show is set in the late ‘80s, a key goal for the production was to ground the look of the show firmly in that era. A key visual element was to have different visual treatments for the series’ two worlds to underscore how separate they are: the cool, stark political realm, and the warmer, brighter world of the housing projects. The team’s relatively simple test process validated the approach, and introduced Daley to the Colorfront On-Set Dailies system, which proved to be a valuable addition to his pipeline.

“Colorfront is really robust for dailies, but primitive for finishing — it offers simple color controls that can be translated by other systems later. Using it for the first time reminded me of when I was training to be a colorist — when everything tactile was very new to me — and it dawned on me that to create a period look you don’t have to add a nostalgic tint or grain. With Colorfront I was able to create the kind of look that would have been around in the ’80s with simple primary grades, contrast, and saturation adjustments.”

meeting before

“This is the crazy thing: by limiting my toolset I was able to get super creative and deliver a look that doesn’t feel at all modern. In a sense, the system handcuffed me — but Andrij wasn’t looking for a lot of razzle-dazzle. Using Colorfront enabled me to create the spine of an appropriate period style that makes the show look like it was created in the ‘80s. Everyone loved the way the dailies looked, and they were watching them for months. By the time we got to finishing, we had something that was 90% of the way there.”

Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 11 was used for finishing, a process that was unusually straightforward because of the up-front work done on the dailies. “Because all shots were already matched, final grading was done scene by scene. We changed the tone of some scenes, but the biggest decision we made was to desaturate everything by an additional 7% to make the flesh tones less buzzy and to set the look more firmly in the period.”

Belushi beforeBelushi after

Daley was enthusiastic about the production overall, and HBO’s role in setting a terrific stage for moving the art of TV forward. “HBO was awesome — and they always seem to provide the extra breathing space needed to do great work. This show in particular felt like a symphony, where everyone had the same goal.”

I asked Daley about his perspective on collaboration, and his answer was surprising. “’The past is prologue.’ Everything you did in the past is preparation for what you’re doing now, and that includes relationships. Andrij and I had a high level of trust and confidence going into this project. I wasn’t nervous because I knew what he wanted, and he trusted that if I was pushing a look it was for a reason. We weren’t tentative, and as a result the project turned into a dream job that went smoothly from production through post.”  He assures this is true for every client — you always have to give 110 percent. “The project I’m working on today is the most important project I’ve ever worked on.”

Daley’s advice for aspiring colorists? “Embrace technology. I was a film guy who resisted digital for a long time, but working on Tiny Furniture threw all of my preconceptions about digital out the window. The feature was shot using a Canon 7D because the budget was micro and the producer already owned the camera. The success of that movie made me stop being an old school film snob — now I look at new tech and think ‘bring it on.’”