Category Archives: Collaboration

Colorist Bob Festa on Yellowstone’s modern Western look

Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, from creator, writer and director Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water), is a 10-episode modern-day Western starring Kevin Costner as the patriarch of the Duttons, owners of the largest ranch in the contiguous United States.

The Dutton family is in constant conflict with owners of the property surrounding their land, including developers, an Indian reservation and a national park. The series follows Costner’s character and his dysfunctional children as they navigate their bumpy road.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson and Efilm senior colorist Mitch Paulson already had a color lock on the pilot for Yellowstone, but brought on Encore senior colorist Bob Festa to work on the episodes. “As a Deluxe sister company, it was only natural to employ Encore Hollywood’s television resources,” explains Festa. “I was keen to collaborate with both Ben and Mitch. Mitch then served as supervising colorist.”

Let’s find out more from the veteran colorist.

How did you work with the director and DP?
Honestly, my first discussions with Ben were quite involved and fully articulated. For instance, while Ben’s work with Beasts of the Southern Wild and Wind River are wildly different looking projects —and shot on different formats — the fundamentals that he shared with me were fully in place in both of those projects, as well as with Yellowstone.

There is always a great deal of talking that goes on beforehand, but nothing replaces collaboration in the studio. I guess I auditioned for the job by spending a full day with Ben and Mitch at Encore. Talk is a cheap abstraction, and there is nothing like the feeling you get when you dim the lights, sit in the chair and communicate with pictures.

The only way I can describe it is it’s like improvising with another musician when you have never played together before. There’s this buildup of ideas and concepts that happens over a few shots, grades get thrown out or refined, layers are added, apprehension gives way to creativity, and a theme takes place. If you do this over 50 shots, you develop a language that is unique to a given project and a “look” is born.

What was your workflow for this project? What did you use tool-wise on Yellowstone?
ARRI RAW and Resolve were the foundation, but the major lifting came from using a Log Offset workflow, better known as the printer lights workflow. Although printer lights has its roots in a photochemical laboratory setting, it has tremendous real-world digital applications. Many feel this relationship to printer lights is very elementary, but the results can be scaled up very quickly to build an amazingly natural and beautiful grade.

The Resolve advanced panel can be remapped to use an additional fourth trackball as a fuel-injected printer light tool that is not only very fast and intuitive, but also exceptionally high quality. The quality angle comes from the fact that Log Offset grading works in a fashion that keeps all of the color channels moving together during a grade. All curves work in complete synchronicity, resulting in a very natural transition between the toe and the knee, and the shoulder and head of the grade.

This is all enhanced using pivot and contrast controls to establish the transfer characteristic of a scene. There is always a place for cross process, bleach bypass and other twisted aggressive grades, but this show demanded honest emotion and beauty from the outset. The Log Offset workflow delivered that.

What inspired the look of Yellowstone? Are there any specific film looks it is modeled after?
As a contemporary western, you can draw many correlations to cinematic looks from the past, from Sergio Leone to Deadwood, but the reality is the look is decidedly modern western.

In the classic film world, the look is very akin to a release print, or in the DI world it emulates a show print (generationally closer to the original negative). The look demands that the curves and saturation are very high quality. Ben has refined an ARRI LUT that really enhances the skies and flesh tones to create a very printy film laboratory look. We also use Livegrain for the most part using a 35mm 5219 emulation for night shots and a 5207 look for day exteriors to create texture. That is the Yellowstone recipe.

How did you approach the sweeping landscape shots?
Broad, cinematic and we let the corners bleed. Vignettes were never used on the wide vistas. The elements are simple: you have Kevin Costner on a horse in Montana. The best thing I can think of is to follow the medical credo of “do no harm.”

What was the most challenging aspect of coloring Yellowstone?
Really just the time constraints. Coordinating with the DP, the VFX teams and the post crew on a weekly basis for color review sessions is hard for everyone. The show is finished week by week, generally delivering just days before air. VFX shots are dropped in daily. Throw in the 150 promos, teasers and trailers, and scheduling that is a full-time job.

Other than color, did you perform any VFX shots?
Every VFX vendor supplied external mattes with their composites. We always color composite plates using a foreground and a background grade to serve the story. This is where the Resolves external matte node structure can be a lifesaver.

What is your favorite scene or scenes?
I have to go with episode one of the pilot. That opening shot sets the tone for the entire series. The first time I saw that opening shot, my jaw dropped both from a cinematography and story background. If you have seen the show, you know what I’m talking about.

Frame.io Masters launches with director Mark Toia

The makers of the video collaboration tool Frame.io has launched Frame.io Masters, a short-film series examining the inspiration, motivation and work of master filmmakers — in their own words. The inaugural installment features commercial director Mark Toia and explores his journey in becoming an award-winning director.

“Mark Toia launched his career off a $50 job and has since flown the world many times over,” says Emery Wells, co-founder/CEO of Frame.io. “His story is the epitome of why any of us do what we do — to make a life creating art. We can’t wait for aspiring artists to dive deeper into his incredible journey, as well as the journey of many more Frame.io Masters to come.”

“The [art of] filmmaking brings a great community of people together. But I’ve also been able to meet a lot of great VFX artists and freelance editors around the world, and that’s where Frame.io comes in,” says Toia. “I’ve been able to set up a sort of virtual post house working with Frame.io, and that has saved me so much time and money. I don’t need to have a building to house all of these people. Through all the folder procedures that we’ve set up, I can collaborate with editors and artists around the world.”

Hailing from Australia, Toia has worked with global commercial clients including Virgin Airlines, Jeep, Coca-Cola, Yamaha, Powerade and Mazda. More detail on Toia’s work and his story is available on Variety.com, as well as in the first Frame.io Masters film.

DG 7.9.18

Behind the Title: Jogger Studios’ CD Andy Brown

This veteran creative director can also often be found at the controls of his Flame working on a new spot.

NAME: Andy Brown

COMPANY: Jogger Studios (@joggerstudios)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
We are a boutique post house with offices in the US and UK providing visual effects, motion graphics, color grading and finishing. We are partnered with Cut + Run for editorial and get to work with their editors from around the world. I am based in our Jogger Los Angeles office, after having helped found the company in London.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Creative Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Overseeing compositing, visual effects and finishing. Looking after staff and clients. Juggling all of these things and anticipating the unexpected.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I’m still working “on the box” every day. Even though my title is creative director, it is the hands-on work that is my first love as far as project collaborations go. Also I get to re-program the phones and crawl under the desks to get the wires looking neater when viewed from the client couch.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
The variety, the people and the challenges. Just getting to work on a huge range of creative projects is such a privilege. How many people get to go to work each day looking forward to it?

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
The hours, occasionally. It’s more common to have to work without clients nowadays. That definitely makes for more work sometimes, as you might need to create two or three versions of a spot to get approval. If everyone was in the room together you reach a consensus more quickly.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
I like the start of the day best, when everyone is coming into the office and we are getting set up for whatever project we are working on. Could be the first coffee of the day that does it.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I want to say classic car dealer, but given my actual career path the most likely alternative would be editor.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
There were lots of reasons, when I look at it. It was either the Blue Peter Book of Television (the longest running TV program for kids, courtesy of the BBC) or my visit to the HTV Wales TV station with my dad when I was about 12. We walked around the studios and they were playing out a film to air, grading it live through a telecine. I was really struck by the influence that the colorist was having on what was seen.

I went on to do critical work on photography, film and television at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Part of that course involved being shown around the Pebble Mill BBC Studios. They were editing a sequence covering a public enquiry into the Handsworth riots in 1985. It just struck me how powerful the editing process was. The story could be told so many different ways, and the editor was playing a really big part in the process.

Those experiences (and an interest in writing) led me to think that television might be a good place to work. I got my first job as a runner at MPC after a friend had advised me how to get a start in the business.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
We worked on a couple of spots for Bai recently with Justin Timberlake creating the “brasberry.” We had to make up some graphic animations for the newsroom studio backdrop for the shoot and then animate opening title graphics to look just enough like it was a real news report, but not too much like a real news report.

We do quite a bit of food work, so there’s always some burgers, chicken or sliced veggies that need a bit of love to make them pop.

There’s a nice set extension job starting next week, and we recently finished a job with around 400 final versions, which made for a big old deliverables spreadsheet. There’s so much that we do that no one sees, which is the point if we do it right.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Sometimes the job that you are most proud of isn’t necessarily the most amazing thing to look at. I used to work on newspaper commercials back in the UK, and it was all so “last minute.” A story broke, and all of a sudden you had to have a spot ready to go on air with no edit, no footage and only the bare bones of a script. It could be really challenging, but we had to get it done somehow.

But the best thing is seeing something on TV that you’ve worked on. At Jogger Studios, it is primarily commercials, so you get that excitement over and over again. It’s on air for a few weeks and then it’s gone. I like that. I saw two of our spots in a row recently on TV, which I got a kick out of. Still looking for that elusive hat-trick.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
The Flame, the Land Rover Series III and, sadly, my glasses.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Just friends and family on Instagram, mainly. Although like most Flame operators, I look at the Flame Learning Channel on YouTube pretty regularly. YouTube also thinks I’m really interested in the Best Fails of 2018 for some reason.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
More often than not it is podcasts. West Wing Weekly, The Adam Buxton Podcast, Short Cuts and Song Exploder. Plus some of the shows on BBC 6 Music, which I really miss.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I go to work every day feeling incredibly lucky to be doing the job that I do, and it’s good to remember that. The 15-minute walk to and from work in Santa Monica usually does it.

Living so close to the beach is fantastic. We can get down to the sand, get the super-brella set up and get in the sea with the bodyboards in about 15 minutes. Then there’s the Malibu Cars & Coffee, which is a great place to start your Sunday.


Showrunner/EP Robert Carlock talks Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

By Iain Blair

When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt first premiered back in 2015, the sitcom seemed quite shocking — and not just because NBC sold it off to Netflix so quickly. While at the streaming service, it has been a big hit with audiences and critics alike, racking up dozens of industry awards and nominations, including 18 Primetime Emmy nominations.

Robert Carlock

Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the sunny comedy with a dark premise stars Ellie Kemper as the title character. She moves to New York City after being rescued from an underground bunker where she and three other women were held captive for 15 years by doomsday cult leader (John Hamm).

Alone in the Big Apple, and armed only with her unbreakable sense of optimism, Kimmy soon forges a new life that includes her colorful landlady Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane), her struggling actor roommate (Tituss Burgess) and her socialite employer (Jane Krakowski). The strong cast also boasts recurring talent and A-list guests, such as Tina Fey, Martin Short, Fred Armisen, Jeff Goldblum, Amy Sedaris and Lisa Kudrow.

Last year Netflix renewed the show for a final season, with the first six episodes premiering in May 2018.

I recently spoke with Carlock about making the show, the Emmys and the planned movie version.

When Kimmy Schmidt first came out, its premise seemed bizarre and shocking — a young woman who was kidnapped, abused and held captive in an underground bunker. But looking back today, it seems ahead of its time.
Unfortunately, I think you’re right. At the time we felt strongly it was a way to get people talking about things and issues they didn’t necessarily want to talk about, such as how women are really treated in this society. And with the #MeToo movement it’s more timely than ever. Tina would say, “It keeps happening, it’s in the news all the time, and at this level,” and it’s really sad that it’s true. The last two seasons we’ve been dealing more and more with issues like this, and now people really are talking about sexual harassment in the workplace. But we have the added burden of also trying to make it funny.

Is Season 4 definitely the final one?
I think so, and the second half will stream sometime early next year. In the meantime, we’re talking about the movie deal that Netflix wants and what that will entail. We kind of thought about it as, “Let’s give our characters endings since there’s still so much to talk about,” but you also have to bear in mind the topicality of it all in a year or so. So it gave us the luxury of being able to finish the show in a way that felt right, and Season 5 — the second half of Season 4 — will satisfy fans, I think. We’re also very happy that Netflix is so enthusiastic about doing it this way.

Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, and I love it better than not being in charge. The beauty of TV is that, unlike in movies, and for a variety of reasons, writers get to be in charge. I love the fact that when you’re a showrunner, you get to learn so much about everything, including all the post production. You work with all these really skilled artisans and get to oversee the entire process from start to finish, including picking out what shade of blue the dress should be (laughs). It’s much better than watching other people make all the key decisions.

What are the big challenges of showrunning?
The big one is trying to think outside of the writer’s room. You have all that ambition on the page, but then you have to deal with the reality of actually shooting it and making it work. It’s a lot easier to type it than execute it. Then you have to be really objective about what’s working and what isn’t, because you fall in love with what you write. So you have to realize, “Maybe this needs a little insert, or more jokes here to get the point across,” and you have to put that producer hat on — and that can be really tricky. It’s a challenge for sure, but we’ve also been fortunate in having a great crew that’s been with us a while, so there’s that shorthand, and things move quickly on the set and we get a lot done.

Where do you shoot and post?
We do the shooting at the Broadway Stages in Brooklyn, and have all the editing setup there as well. Then we have Tina’s production offices at Columbus Circle, and we do all the sound at Sync Sound in midtown Manhattan.

Do you like the post process?
I love post and the whole process of seeing a script come alive as you edit.  You find ways of telling the story that you maybe didn’t expect.

You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
One of the big creative challenges of a single-camera show — which ultimately also gives you so many more tools in writing, shooting and editing — is that you don’t get to see rehearsals. So one of the reasons our episodes are going into post and often coming out of post so stuffed with story and jokes is that we don’t get so many opportunities to see exactly what’s making the scene tick. We’re hitting the story, hitting the jokes and hitting the characters too many times, and  a lot of the challenge is scraping all those away. Our episodes come in around the mid-30s often, and we think they live and play best around 26 or 27 minutes. That’s where I think the sweet spot is. So you can feel, “Oh, I love that joke,” but the hard reality is that the scene plays so much better without it.

Talk about the importance of sound and music.
I think it’s so important in comedy, and it can totally change the feel of a scene. Jeff Richmond — Tina’s husband and one of our producers — does all the music. He’s also fantastic in the edit. So if I’m not available or Tina isn’t, then he or Sam Means, another producer, can take our edit notes and interpret them. We’ll type up 15 pages on a Director’s Cut, and then we hone the show until it’s a lock for the network, and we go through it all frame by frame.

How important are the Emmys to you and a show like this?
Increasingly now, with all the noise and static out there, and so many other good shows, it’s really important. I think it helps cut through the clutter. When you’re working hard on a show like this, with your head down all the time, you don’t really know where you stand sometimes. So to be nominated by your peers means a lot. (Laughs) I wish it didn’t, but we’re small-minded people who only really care about other people’s opinions.

What’s the latest on talk about a movie? Will it be a theatrical release or just Netflix, or both?
That’s a great question. Who knows? We’re in the middle of trying to figure out the budget. I imagined it would be just streaming, but maybe it will be theatrical as well. One thing’s for sure. We won’t be one of those TV shows that gets a whole new cast for the movie version. Lightning struck with our first cast, and we’re not looking to replace anyone.

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
I can only speak for us, but we like shows where there’s a lot of diversity and different voices, and sometimes we step in a bear trap we didn’t even know was there because we’re trying to write for so many different voices. For us, it just makes sense to embrace diversity, but it’s such a complicated and thorny issue. I’m just glad we’re talking about it more now. It’s what interests us. When Tina and I first sat down to write this, we didn’t want to do something salacious and exploitive. We were thinking about a really startling way to get people talking about gender and class. It’s been a fun challenge.


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.


Quick Chat: Freefolk colorist Paul Harrison

By Randi Altman

Freefolk, which opened in New York City in October 2017, was founded in London in 2003 by Flame artist Jason Watts and VFX artist Justine White. Originally called Finish, they rebranded to Freefolk with the opening of their NYC operation. Freefolk is an independent post house that offers high-end visual effects, color grading and CG for commercials, film and TV.

We reached out to global head of color grading Paul Harrison to find out his path to color and the way he likes to work.

What are your favorite types of jobs to work on and why?
I like to work on a mix of projects and not be pigeonholed as a particular type of colorist. Commercials are my main work, but I also work on music videos and the odd feature or longform piece. Each form has its own creative challenges, and I enjoy all disciplines.

What is your tool of choice, and why?
I use the FilmLight Baselight color system because it’s extremely versatile and will cope with any file format one cares to mention. On so many levels it allows a colorist to get on with the job at hand and not be bogged down by the kit’s limitations. The toolset is extensive and it doesn’t put boundaries in the way of creativity, like other systems I’ve used.

Are you often asked to do more than just color?
These days, because of the power of the systems we use, the lines are blurring between color and VFX. On most jobs I do things that used to be the realm of the VFX room. Things like softening skin tones, putting in skies or restoring elements of the image that need to be treated differently from the rest of the image.

Traditionally, this was done in the VFX room, now we do it as part of the grade. When there’s more difficult or time-consuming fixes required, the VFX artists will do that work.

How did you become a colorist? What led you down this path?
I started as a runner at the Mill in London. I had always had a keen interest in photography/art and film so this was the natural place for me to go. I was captivated by the mystery of the telecine suite; they looked hideously complex to operate. It was a mix of mechanical machinery, computers, film and various mixers and oscilloscopes, and it spoke to my technical, “How does this work” side of my brain, and the creative, photography/art side too.

Making all the various bits of equipment that comprised a suite then work together and talk to each other was a feat in itself.

Do you have a background in photography or fine art?
I’ve been a keen photographer for years, both on land and underwater. I’ve not done it professionally; it’s just grown through the influence of my work and interests.

In addition to your photography, where do you find inspiration? Museums? Films? A long walk?
I find inspiration from lots of different places — from hiking up mountains to diving in the oceans observing and photographing the creatures that live there. Or going for a walk in all weathers, and at all times of the year.

Art and photography are passions of mine, and seeing the world through the eyes of a talented photographer or artist, absorbing those influences, makes me constantly reassess my own work and what I’m doing in the color room. Colorists sometimes talk about learning to “see.” I think we take notice of things that others pass by. We notice what the “light” is doing and how it changes our environment.

If you had three things to share with a client before a project begins, what would that be?
Before a project begins? That’s a tough question. All I could share would be my vision of the look of the film, any reference that I had to show to illustrate my ideas. Maybe talking about any new or interesting cameras or lenses I’ve seen lately.

How do you prefer getting direction? Photos? Examples from films/TV?
Photos are always good at getting the message across. They describe a scene in a way words can’t. I’m a visual person, so that’s the preferred way for me. Also, a conversation imparts a feeling for the film, obviously that is more open to interpretation.

Do you often work directly with the DP?
DPs seem to be a rarer sight these days. It’s great when one has a good relationship with a DP and there’s that mutual trust in each other.

Is there a part of your job that people might not realize you do? Something extra and special that is sort of below the line?
Yes. Fixing things that no one knows are broken, whether it’s sorting out dodgy exposures/camera faults or fixing technical problems with the material. Colorists and their assistants make the job run smoothly and quietly in the background, outside of the color room.

What project are you most proud of?
Certain jobs stand out to me for different reasons. I still love the look of 35mm, and those jobs will always be favorites. But I guess it’s the jobs that I’ve had the complete creative freedom on like the Stella, Levi’s and Guinness commercials, or some of the music videos like Miike Snow. To be honest I don’t really have a top project.

Can you name some projects that you’ve worked on recently?
Since moving over to NYC recently, I’ve worked on some projects that I knew of before, and some I had no idea existed. Like a Swiffer — I had no idea what that was before working in NYC. But I’ve also graded projects for Cadillac, Bud Light, New York Yankees, Lays, State Farm and Macy’s, to name a few.


Roundtable: Director Autumn McAlpin and her Miss Arizona post team

By Randi Altman

The independent feature film Miss Arizona is a sort of fish out of water tale that focuses on Rose Raynes, former beauty queen and current bored wife and mother who accepts an invitation to teach a life skills class at a women’s shelter. As you might imagine, the four women who she meets there don’t feel they have much in common. While Rose is “teaching,” the women are told that one of their abusers is on his way to the shelter. The women escape and set out on an all-night adventure through LA and, ultimately, to a club where the women enter Rose into a drag queen beauty pageant — and, of course, along the way they form a bond that changes them all.

L-R: Camera operator Eitan Almagor, DP Jordan McKittrick and Autumn McAlpin.

Autumn McAlpin wrote and directed the film, which has been making its way through the film festival circuit. She hired a crew made up of 70 percent women to help tell this tale of female empowerment. We reached out to her, her colorist Mars Williamson and her visual effects/finishing artist John Davidson to find out more.

Why did you choose the Alexa Mini? And why did you shoot mostly handheld?
Autumn McAlpin: The Alexa Mini was the first choice of our DP Jordan McKittrick, with whom I frequently collaborate. We were lucky enough to be able to score two Alexa Mini cameras on this shoot, which really helped us achieve the coverage needed for an ensemble piece in which five-plus key actors were in almost every shot. We love the image quality and dynamic range of the Alexas, and the compact and lightweight nature of the Mini helped us achieve an aggressive shooting schedule in just 14 days.

We felt handheld would achieve the intimate yet at times erratic look we were going for following an ensemble of five women from very different backgrounds who were learning to get along while trying to survive. We wanted the audience to feel as if they were going on the journey along with the women, and thus felt handheld would be a wise approach to accomplish this goal.

How early did post — edit, color — get involved?
McAlpin: We met with our editor Carmen Morrow before the shoot, and she and her assistant editor Dustin Fleischmann were integral in delivering a completed rough cut just five weeks after we wrapped. We needed to make key festival deadlines. Each day Dustin would drive footage from set over to Carmen’s bay, where she could assemble while we were shooting so we could make sure we weren’t missing anything crucial. This was amazing, as we’d often be able to see a rough assembly of a scene we had shot in the morning by the end of day. They cut on Avid Media Composer.

My DP Jordan and I agreed on the overall look of the film and how we wanted the color to feel rich and saturated. We were really excited about what we saw in our colorist’s reel. We didn’t meet our colorist Mars Williamson until after we had wrapped production. Mars had moved from LA to Melbourne, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to work in close quarters, but we were confident we’d be able to accomplish the desired workflow in the time needed. Mars was extremely flexible to work with.

Can you talk more about the look of the film.
McAlpin: Due to the nature of our film, we sought to create a rich, saturated look color wise. Our film follows a former pageant queen on an all-night adventure through LA with four unlikely friends she meets at a women’s shelter. In a way, we tried to channel an Oz-like world as our ensemble embarks into the unknown. We deliberately used color to represent the various realities the women inhabit. In the film’s open, our production design (by Gabriel Gonzales) and wardrobe (by Cat Velosa) helped achieve a stark, cold world — filled with blues and whites — to represent our protagonist Rose’s loneliness.

As Rose moves into the shelter, we went with warmer tones and a more eclectic production design. A good portion of Act II takes place in a drag club, which we asked Gabe to design to be rich and vibrant, using reds and purples. Toward the end of the film as Rose finds resolution, we went with more naturalistic lighting, primarily outdoor shots and golden hues. Before production, Jordan and I pulled stills from films such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Black Swan and Short Term 12, which provided strong templates for the looks we were trying to achieve.

Is there a particular scene or look that stands out for you?
McAlpin: There is a scene when our lead Rose (Johanna Braddy) performs a ventriloquist act onstage with a puppet and they sing Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.”  Both Rose and the puppet wore matching cowgirl wardrobe and braids, and this scene was lit to be particularly vibrant with hot pinks and purples. I remember watching the monitors on set and feeling like we had really nailed the rich, saturated look we were going for in this offbeat pageant world we had created.

L-R: Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Shoniqua Shandai, producer De Cooper, Johanna Brady, Autumn McAlpin, Otmara Marrero and Robyn Lively.

Can you talk about the workflow from set to post?
McAlpin: As a low-budget indie, many of our team work from home offices, which made collaboration friendly and flexible. For the four months following production, I floated between the workspaces of our talented and efficient editor Carmen Morrow, brilliant composer Nami Melumad, dedicated sound designer Yu-Ting Su, VFX and online extraordinaire John Davidson, and we used Frame.io to work with our amazing colorist Mars Williamson. Everyone worked so hard to help achieve our vision in our timeframe. Using Frame.io and Box helped immensely with file delivery, and I remember many careful drives around LA, toting our two RAID drives between departments. Postmates food delivery service helped us power through! Everyone worked hard together to deliver the final product, and for that I’m so grateful.

Can you talk about the type of film you were trying to make, and did it turn out as you hoped?
McAlpin: I volunteered in a women’s shelter for several years teaching a life skills class, and this was an experience that introduced me to strong, vibrant women whose stories I longed to tell. I wrote this script very quickly, in just three weeks, though really, the story seemed to write itself. It was the fall of 2016, at a time where I was agitated by the way women were being portrayed in the media. This was shortly before the #metoo movement, and during the election and women’s march. The time felt right to tell a story about women and other marginalized groups coming together to help each other find their voices and a safe community in a rapidly divisive world.

I’m not going to lie, with our budget, all facets of production and post were quite challenging, but I was so overwhelmed by the fastidious efforts of everyone on our team to create something powerful. I feel we were all aligned in vision, which kept everyone fueled to create a finished product I am very proud of. The crowning moment of the experience was after our world premiere at Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Fest, when a few women from the audience approached and confided that they, too, had lived in shelters and felt our film spoke to the truths they had experienced. This certainly made the whole process worthwhile.

Autumn, you wrote as well as directed. Did the story change or evolve once you started shooting or did you stick to the original script?
McAlpin: As a director who is very open to improv and creative play on set, I was quite surprised by how little we deviated from the script. Conceptually, we stuck to the story as written. We did have a few actors who definitely punched up scenes by making certain lines more their own (and much more humorous, i.e. the drag queens). And there were moments when location challenges forced last-minute rewrites, but hey, I guess that’s one advantage to having the writer in the director’s chair! This story seemed to flow from the moment it first arrived in my head, telling me what it wanted to be, so we kind of just trusted that, and I think we achieved our narrative goals.

You used a 70 percent female crew. Can you talk about why that was important to you?
McAlpin: For this film, our producer DeAnna Cooper and I wanted to flip the traditional gender ratios found on sets, as ours was indeed a story rooted in female empowerment. We wanted our set to feel like a compatible, safe environment for characters seeking safety and trusted female friendships. So many of the cast and crew who joined our team expressed delight in joining a largely female team, and I think/hope we created a safe space for all to create!

Also, as women, we tend to get each other — and there were times when those on our production team (all mothers) were able to support each other’s familial needs when emergencies at home arose. We also want to give a shout-out to the numerous woman-supporting men we had on our team, who were equally wonderful to work with!

What was everyone’s favorite scene and why?
McAlpin: There’s a moment when Rose has a candid conversation with a drag queen performer named Luscious (played by Johnathan Wallace) in a green room during which each opens up about who they are and how they got there. Ours is a fish out of water story as Rose tries to achieve her goal in a world quite new to her, but in this scene, two very different people bond in a sincere and heartfelt way. The performances in this scene were just dynamite, thanks to the talents of Johanna and Johnathan. We are frequently told this scene really affects viewers and changes perspectives.

I also have a personal favorite moment toward the end of the film in which a circle of women from very different backgrounds come together to help out a character named Leslie, played by the dynamic Robyn Lively, who is searching for her kids. One of the women helping Leslie says, “I’m a mama, too,” and I love the strength felt in this group hug moment as the village comes together to defend each other.

If you all had to do it again, what would you do differently?
McAlpin: This was one fast-moving train, and I know, as is the case in every film, there are little shots or scenes we’d all love to tweak just a little if given the chance to start over from scratch. But at this point, we are focusing on the positives and what lies in store for Miss Arizona. Since our Bentonville premiere and LA premiere at Dances With Films, we have been thrilled to receive numerous distribution offers, and it’s looking like a fall worldwide release may be in store. We look forward to connecting with audiences everywhere as we share the message of this film.

Mars Williamson

Mars, can you talk about your process and how you worked with the team? 
Williamson: Autumn put us in touch, and John and I touched based a little bit before I was going to start color. We all had a pretty good idea of where we were taking it from the offline and discussed little tweaks here and there, so it was fairly straightforward. There were a couple of things like changing a wall color and the last scene needing more sunset than was shot. Autumn and John are super easy and great to work with. We found out pretty early that we’d be able to collaborate pretty easily since John has DaVinci Resolve on his end in the states as well.  I moved to Melbourne permanently right before I really got into the grade.

Unbeknownst to me, Melbourne was/is in the process of upgrading their Internet, which is currently painfully slow. We did a couple of reviews via Frame.io and eventually moved to me just emailing John my project. He could relink to the media on his end and all of my color grading would come across for sessions in LA with Autumn. It was the best solution to contend with the snail pace uploads of large files. From there it was just going through it reel by reel and getting notes from the stateside team. I couldn’t have worked on this with a better group of people.

What types of projects do you work on most often?
Williamson: My bread and butter has always been TV commercials, but I’ve worked hard to make sure I work on all sort of formats across different genres. I like to make sure I’ve got a wide range of stuff under my belt. The pool is smaller here in Australia than it is in LA (where I moved from) so TV commercials are still the bill payers, but I’m also still dipping into the indie scene here and trying to diversify what I work on. Still working on a lot of indie projects and music videos from the states as well so thank you stateside clients! Thankfully the difference in time hasn’t hindered most of them (smiles). It has led to an all-nighter here and there for me, but I’m happy to lose sleep for the right projects.

How did you work with the DP and director on the look of the film? What look did you want and how did you work to achieve that look or looks?
John Davidson: Magic Feather is a production company and creative agency that I started back in 2004. We provide theatrical marketing and creative services for a wide variety of productions. From the 3D atomic transitions in Big Bang Theory to the recent Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom week-long event on Discovery, we have a pretty great body of work. I came onboard Miss Arizona very much by accident. Last year, after working with Weta in New Zealand, we moved to Laguna Niguel and connected with Autumn and her husband Michael via some mutual friends. I was intrigued that they had just finished shooting this movie on their own and offered to replace a few license plates and a billboard. Somehow I turned that into coordinating the post-Avid workflow across the planet and creating 100-plus visual effects shots. It was a fantastic opportunity to use every tool in our arsenal to help a film with a nice message and a family we have come to adore.

John Davidson

Working with Jordan and Autumn for VFX and final mastering was educational for all of us, but definitely so with me. As I mentioned to Jordan after the showing in Hollywood, if I did my job right you would never know. There were quite a few late nights, but I think that they are both very happy with the results.

John, I understand there were some challenges in the edit? Relinking the camera source footage? Can you talk about that and how you worked around it?
Davidson: The original Avid cut was edited off of the dailies at 1080p with embedded audio. The masters were 3.2k Arri Alexa Mini Log with no sync sound. There were timecode issues the first few days on set and because Mars was using DaVinci Resolve to color, we knew we had to get the footage from Avid to Resolve somehow. Once we got the footage into DaVinci via AAF, I realized it was going to be a challenge relinking sources from the dailies. Resolve was quite the utility knife, and after a bit of tweaking we were able to get the silent master video clips linked up. Because 12TB drives are expensive, we thought it best to trim media to 48-frame handles and ship a smaller drive to Australia for Mars to work with. With Mars’s direction we were able to get that handled and shipped.

While Mars was coloring in Australia, I went back into the sources and began the process of relinking the original separate audio to the video sources because I needed to be able to adjust/re-edit a few scenes that had technical issues we couldn’t fix with VFX. Resolve was fantastic here again. Any clip that couldn’t be automatically linked via timecode was connected with clap marks using the waveform. For safety, I batch-exported all of the footage out with embedded audio and then relinked the film to that. This was important for archival purposes as well as any potential fixes we might have to do before the film delivered.

At this point Mars was sharing her cuts on Frame.io with Jordan and Autumn. I felt like a little green shift was being introduced over H.264 so we would occasionally meet here to review a relinked XML that Mars would send for a full quality inspection. For VFX we used Adobe After Effects and worked in flat color. We then would upload shots to box.com for Mars to incorporate into her edit. There were also two re-cut scenes that were done this way as well which was a challenge because any changes had to be shared with the audio teams who were actively scoring and mixing.

Once Mars was done we put the final movie together here, and I spent about two weeks working on it. At this point I took the film from Resolve to FCP X. Because we were mastering at 1080p, we had the full 3.2K frame for flexibility. Using a 1080p timeline in FCP X, the first order of business was making final on-site color adjustments with Autumn.

Can you talk about the visual effects provided?
Davidson: For VFX, we focused on things like the license plates and billboards, but also took a bit of initiative and reviewed the whole movie for areas we could help. Like everyone else, I loved the look of the stage and club scenes, but wanted to add just a little flare to the backlights so the LED grids would be less visible. This was done in Final Cut Pro X using the MotionVFX plugin mFlare2. It made very quick work of using its internal Mocha engine to track the light sources and obscure them as needed when a light went behind a person’s head, for example. It would have been agony tracking so many lights in all those shots using anything else. We had struggled for a while getting replacement license plates to track using After Effects and Mocha. However, the six shots that gave us the most headaches were done as a test in FCP X in less than a day using CoreMelt’s TrackX. We also used Final Cut Pro X’s stabilization to smooth out any jagged camera shakes as well as added some shake using FCP X’s handheld effect on a few shots that needed it for consistency.

Another area we had to get creative with was with night driving shots that were just too bright even after color. By layering a few different Rampant Design overlays set to multiply, we were able to simulate lights in motion around the car at night with areas randomly increasing and decreasing in brightness. That had a big impact on smoothing out those scenes, and I think everyone was pretty happy with the result. For fun, Autumn also let me add in a few mostly digital shots, like the private jet. This was done in After Effects using Trapcode Particular for the contrails, and a combination of Maxon Cinema 4D and Element 3D for the jet.

Resolve’s face refinement and eye brightening were used in many scenes to give a little extra eye light. We also used Resolve for sky replacement on the final shot of the film. Resolve’s tracker is also pretty incredible, and was used to hide little things that needed to be masked or de-emphasized.

What about finishing?
Davidson: We finalized everything in FCP X and exported a full, clean ProRes cut of the film. We then re-imported that and added grain, unsharp masks and a light vignette for a touch of cinematic texture. The credits were an evolving process, so we created an Apple Numbers document that was shared with my internal Magic Feather team, as well as Autumn and the producers. As the final document was adjusted and tweaked we would edit an Affinity Photo file that my editor AJ Paschall and I shared. We would then export a huge PNG file of the credits into FCP X and set position keyframes to animate the scroll. Any time a change was made we would just relink to the new PNG export and FCP X would automatically update the credits. Luckily, that was easy because we did that probably 50 times.

Lastly, our final delivery to the DCP company was a HEVC 10-bit 2K encode. I am a huge fan of HEVC. It’s a fantastic codec, but it does have a few caveats in that it takes forever to encode. Using Apple Compressor and a 10-core iMac Pro, it took approximately 13 hours. That said, it was worth it because the colors were accurately represented and gave us a file that 5.52GB versus 18GB or 20GB. That’s a hefty savings on size while also being an improvement in quality over H.264.

Photo Credit: Rich Marchewka

 


Zoe Iltsopoulos Borys joins Panavision Atlanta as VP/GM

Panavision has hired Zoe Iltsopoulos Borys to lead the company’s Atlanta office as vice president and general manager. Borys will oversee day-to-day operations in the region.

Borys’ 25 years of experience in the motion picture industry includes business development for Production Resources Group (PRG), and GM for Fletcher Camera and Lenses (now VER). This is her second turn at Panavision, having served in a marketing role at the company from 1998-2006. She is also an associate member of the American Society of Cinematographers.

Panavision’s Atlanta facilities, located in West Midtown and at Pinewood Studios, supplies camera rental equipment in the southern US, with a full staff of prep technicians and camera service experts. The Atlanta team has provided equipment and services to productions including Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Baby Driver and Pitch Perfect 3.


An editor recaps Sight, Sound & Story 2018

By Amy Leland

Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Sight, Sound & Story (SS&S) was established in June of 2013, first offering post-related events, and then those based around cinematography as well.

As a working editor always looking to learn, I attend numerous industry events throughout the year, but this one has become one of the “can’t miss” items on my list. They bring in top-notch panelists sharing their work and their insights. This year’s post event was once again a chance to hear from professionals at the top of their craft across documentary, scripted television and feature film.

Documentary Panel
First up was the panel of documentary editors, including Bryan Chang (Brasslands, Narco Cultura, A Year in Space), Ann Collins (Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Swim Team), Matthew Hamachek (Cartel Land, The Trade, Amanda Knox, Meet the Patels) and moderator Garret Savage (My Perestroika, Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship).

Ann Collins

The panel started at a logical place — at the beginning. Savage asked each of them how they like to begin the cutting process. Both Chang and Collins described processes that involve screening the footage and pulling selects, a fairly traditional approach. While Hamachek said he used to work that way, when faced with hundreds of hours of footage, his process evolved. Now he just starts cutting. Part of his motivation is the pressures of schedule, which made sense given that his most recent project was The Fourth Estate, a documentary series rather than a feature. To cut the first 90-minute episode of the series, he had 14 weeks. He described the advantages of getting to a rough cut as fast as he can. “Editing is a process of failure. The sooner I can get to my first mistakes, the better,” he said.

The difference in his process can also be explained by working with a story producer. A good story producer provides a path through the footage. Feature editors often work as their own story producers. Both Chang and Collins talked about the need to see the footage and find those special clips and sound bites. This way when the time came in the edit where they had to fill the blank, they would know where to find them. Though they used different methods — Chang will lay out selects in a sequence, while Collins creates subclips with metadata — both create a library of moments to draw on later.

Interestingly, when asked if he might change his process if he were editing an indie feature documentary, Hamachek said no. Though his process developed in part because of working on a series, it was a process he had grown to really enjoy. And Collins pointed out that regardless of what process an editor uses, they must always be willing to go back to the footage and make changes as the story reveals itself.

The audience was shown a clip from Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, and Collins explained, “Beginnings are the hardest part of the film, and the part that changes the most often. As the film evolves, that beginning changes a lot.” She said that with the beginning, you have to establish what the world of this film is — the pace, the tone, the style, the rules, etc. All of that has to be taken care of silently and invisibly while you convince the viewer to come with you. What you may find is that as the rest of the film develops you’ll understand later what that beginning should be.

Bryan Chang

Chang addressed a different kind of documentary editing challenge in presenting a clip from Narco Cultura, about the music that glorifies the narco lifestyle, and specifically one of the musicians who traveled to Mexico to meet the narcos. Shaun Schwarz, with whom he had collaborated many times, primarily on shorts for Time, directed the film.

One challenge documentarians often face is the question of permission from the subjects in front of the camera. On their trip to Mexico, one of the narcos that was there kept saying he didn’t want to be in the movie and to not shoot him, but he also kept bragging and showing off in front of the cameras. So, ultimately, they did leave him in and didn’t blur his face. They felt he had put himself in the film. Though editors face a lot of challenges that are technical, sometimes the challenges are more abstract and the solutions are less black and white.

Scripted Television Panel
Next up was a panel of scripted television editors: Naomi Geraghty (Billions, Bloodline, Treme) and Lynne Willingham, ACE (Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, The X-Files), moderated by Michael Berenbaum, ACE (Sex & the City, The Americans, Divorce).

One of the most popular topics for the TV panel every year is the question of how to break into a scripted television edit room. This year’s panelists addressed this in two important ways. First, in talking about how each of them got their start, they made it clear that there is no one way in. Willingham did not go to film school. She was able to find her way into a studio because her brother was an assistant at Warner. She started as an apprentice, working her way up. She said, “I got my free education just working anytime I could.”

Geraghty, on the other hand, did attend film school in Ireland, which is where she discovered that she was drawn to the process of editing. There wasn’t much work in Ireland, so she got a work visa and came to New York. She eventually got her foot in the door working at Jonathan Demme’s company on a documentary. This led to an opportunity assisting on a feature back in Ireland.

L-R: Naomi Geraghty and Lynne Willingham.

Equally important, both described helping their own assistants get opportunities to cut on the shows where they worked. Willingham’s longtime assistant on Breaking Bad was Kelley Dixon. They had been working together a long time, and Willingham encouraged her to cut whenever possible. Because of union rules, she couldn’t get her a solo credit on an episode, but was able to get her shared credit. By having her in that position, Dixon was eventually able to move up and became the lead editor on the show herself.

One caution that Willingham offered was that the workload for assistants has grown so much that it is difficult to find the time to be in the room when the cutting is happening. It isn’t the same process it used to be when assistants were in the room with their editors for much of the process. So the challenge is to balance the workload with seeing the action and being seen. But the flip side to that, Geraghty pointed out, is that there is so much work in television these days that the path to moving forward can actually be more readily available in television than in film.

A frequently popular topic when discussing television these days is the rising quality of shows, and the “cinematic” quality of the work being done. Both talked about the joys of working on shows that are more character driven and developed over a long period of time. One interesting aspect of this, said Willingham, it that with the current popularity of doing more compact seasons — 10 episodes, instead of 22 or 23 — and shooting them all at once, the work attracts higher-end talent. Actors and directors can commit to the projects, shoot all of the episodes in one concentrated period, and then move on to other projects. All of which is opening the doors to better — and more — work for everyone involved in the process.

Scripted Television Panel

Willingham shared the opening scene from the pilot of Breaking Bad. When asked if she knew, while she was working on it, how good and how popular it would be. She said, yes and no. Everyone working on it knew what they were doing was going to be brilliant simply because it was created by Vince Gilligan. She said that as much as she wanted to take credit for how great that opening scene was, everything she cut came from the script. Gilligan had such a clear plan. But even with all of that, none of them knew just how big a phenomenon it would become.

The one unplanned moment in that opening scene was the footage of Walter talking into the camera. Though that footage was shot that day in the desert, Gilligan never intended for that footage to be used until the very end of the series. But because he let Willingham work so independently, she didn’t know that. She saw the footage, saw a way to use it, and just did it. And it worked. She encouraged everyone — if you are inspired to try something while you are cutting, then try it. It could be exactly what is needed.

Geraghty showed the final scene from Season 1 of Billions. What was fascinating was that, though the scene consisted almost entirely of two men standing and talking to each other, it was filled with tension and drama. She described that sometimes, as an editor, it is your job to not get in the way of the work. The language was so rich, and the performances were so fantastic, that her job was simply to respect the performances and protect the integrity of the work being done. She could certainly help drive the scene by finding the best takes, and the moments when particular angles were the best choice, but she felt the most important thing was to let the performances shine.

Inside the Cutting Room
An ever-popular aspect of Sight Sound & Story is Inside the Cutting Room, an interview with a prominent member of the editing community, moderated by writer and film historian Bobbie O’Steen (“Cut to the Chase,” “The Invisible Cut”). Her subject this time was Kevin Tent, ACE (Sideways, Election, The Descendants, Nebraska, Blow), longtime editor for director Alexander Payne.

Kevin Tent and Bobbie O’Steen.

As with the other panels, they spoke about beginnings, and Tent’s was especially interesting. After working in educational films, he got the opportunity to work with Roger Corman. While working for the king of B-movies might seem like an inauspicious way to become an Oscar-nominated editor, it became clear what a perfect foundation this actually was. Working in a production house churning out movies at a fast pace, Tent was able to collect experience at an accelerated rate. Corman’s way of working also provided additional learning opportunities. Tent described Corman as ruthless — he would think nothing of cutting out an entire scene if it wasn’t working for him. So the challenge for all of the editors was to make every scene so interesting that Corman would leave it in the movie. They also did a lot of work that involved pulling films from the vault that hadn’t been widely seen and cutting clips from them into new movies. He wondered why the big studios don’t do this, since their vaults are also filled with movies that were rarely seen. It’s an interesting thought.

One other unexpected benefit — when his reel came across Alexander Payne’s desk, Tent’s work with Corman was one of the things Payne liked. Payne was looking for an editor for his first feature, Citizen Ruth. The studio wanted him to hire a bigger editor with more credits, but Payne wanted a partner, not a more seasoned figure telling him what to do and how to do it. And with that, a longtime creative partnership was born.

As expected from such a great partnership, there were many fascinating stories about both collaboration and conflict. One of the great moments came in cutting Election. In a pivotal scene with Matthew Broderick, Payne wanted to cut it like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, with long shots and back and forth looks. Tent didn’t. He felt it would be too drawn out and long. So he offered to pay Payne $75 to let him cut it the way he wanted, and the test audiences loved it. So it worked.

One interesting aspect of Tent’s work is his willingness to manipulate the footage for effect. Especially these days, feature editors tend to work in a more straightforward, vérité way. Tent showed two great examples of times when manipulation created iconic scenes. In their first cut of James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted, the biggest problem was that the film was way too long. One solution was to collapse some of the scenes. The example he played was a scene showing day-in-the-life moments in the institution where the girls were. They were put in montage over one another, cross-dissolved into one another, and cut in a very stylistic way over music. Ultimately it was their plan to change it for the final film, but the preview audience print cost $12K. When they told the producer they wanted to change it, the producer said no, they couldn’t print the film again. So this incredibly beautiful scene came from a moment they thought of as a temporary fix, and cut on a whim on a Saturday.

Nebraska

He also employed a fair amount of image manipulation for Nebraska. For example, he occasionally added pauses to Bruce Dern’s performance, which worked because he didn’t move around a lot. And he admitted that, yes, he was guilty of using a lot of fluid morph in order to accomplish this. Every time he did it, Payne would say, “When you do that, you’re saying I’m a bad director.” He also showed an example, near the end of the film, when he would use strategic speed changes to draw out moments in an emotional way. He likes to experiment with those tools and techniques. He said it comes from being greedy and wanting all of the best stuff, which he sometimes does by piecing things together.

Tent won the Eddie and was nominated for the Oscar for The Descendants. They hadn’t cut a feature together in seven years because Payne had been working on writing Downsizing and trying to get it off the ground. Tent said when they first got together, there was a little nervousness in the cutting room, but once they started working they fell into their good rhythm again.

A lot of their work together had been about walking the line between comedy and drama. With The Descendants, in particular, Payne was concerned about being too melodramatic. So he wrote and shot a lot of comedy elements. But when they were in the edit, those moments kept getting in the way and felt disrespectful to what the characters were going through. Eventually they stopped trying to be funny, and found that sometimes there were funny moments anyway, simply because of the humanity of the situation.

O’Steen quoted Payne saying about Tent, “Our process is essentially cowriting the final draft together. Kevin is my audience, and I hunger to please him.” As we were treated to an overview of their work together, it was obvious that they wrote wonderful final drafts together and, ultimately, pleased their audiences a great deal.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.


Color for Television Series

By Karen Maierhofer

Several years ago I was lucky enough to see Van Gogh’s original The Starry Night oil on canvas at a museum and was awestruck by how rich and vibrant it really was. I had fallen in love with the painting years before after seeing reproductions/reprints, which paled in comparison to the original’s striking colors and beauty. No matter how well done, the reproductions could never duplicate the colors and richness of the original masterpiece.

Just as in the art world, stories told via television are transformed through the use of color. Color grading and color correction help establish a signature look for a series, though that can, and often does, change from one episode to another — or from one scene to another — based on the mood the DP and director want to portray.

Here we delve into this part of the post process and follow a trio of colorists as they set the tone for three very different television series.

Black-ish
Black-ish is an ABC series about a successful African-American couple raising their five children in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood. Dre, an advertising executive, is proud of his heritage but fears that culture is lost when it comes to his kids.

There is no struggle, however, when it comes to color grading the show, a job that has fallen to colorist Phil Azenzer from The Foundation in Burbank starting with this past season (Season 4).

The show is shot using an Arri Alexa camera. The dailies are then produced by the show’s in-house editor. The files, including the assembly master, are sent to Azenzer, who uses the raw camera files for his color grading, which is done using Blackmagic’s Resolve.

Azenzer starts a scene by rolling into the establishing shot and sets the look there because “you can see all light sources and their color temperatures,” he says. “I get a feel for the composition of the shot and the gradation of shadow to light. I see what light each of the actors is standing in or walking through, and then know how to balance the surrounding coverage.”

In his opinion, networks, for the most part, like their half-hour comedies to be well lit, more chromatic, with less shadow and contrast than an average one-hour drama, in order to create a more inviting, light feel (less somber). “And Black-ish is no different, although because of the subject matter, I think of Black-ish as more of a ‘dramedy,’ and there are scenes where we go for a more dramatic feel,” Azenzer explains.

Black-ish’s main characters are African-American, and the actors’ skin tones vary. “Black-ish creator Kenya Barris is very particular about the black skin tones of the actors, which can be challenging because some tones are more absorbent and others more reflective,” says Azenzer. “You have to have a great balance so everyone’s skin tone feels natural and falls where it’s supposed to.”

Phil Azenzer

Azenzer notes that the makeup department does an excellent job, so he doesn’t have to struggle as much with pulling out the bounce coming off the actors’ skin as a result of their chromatic clothes. He also credits DP Rob Sweeney (with whom he has worked on Six Feet Under and Entourage) with “a beautiful job of lighting that makes my life easier in that regard.”

While color grading the series, Azenzer avoids any yellow in skin tones, per Barris’s direction. “He likes the skin tones to look more natural, more like what they actually are,” he says. “So, basically, the directive was to veer away from yellow and keep it neutral to cool.”

While the colorist follows that direction in most scenes, he also considers the time of day the scene takes place when coloring. “So, if the call is for the shot to be warm, I let it go warm, but more so for the environment than the skin tones,” explains Azenzer.

Most of the show is shot on set, with few outdoor sequences. However, the scenes move around the house (kitchen, living room, bedrooms) as well as at the ad agency where Dre works. “I have some preferred settings that I can usually use as a starting point because of the [general] consistency of the show’s lighting. So, I might ripple through a scene and then just tighten it up from there,” says Azenzer. But my preference as a colorist is not to take shortcuts. I don’t like to plug something in from another episode because I don’t know if, in fact, the lighting is exactly the same. Therefore, I always start from scratch to get a feel for what was shot.”

For instance, shots that take place in Dre’s office play out at various points in the day, so that lighting changes more often.

The office setting contains overhead lighting directly above the conference table, like one would find in a typical conference room. It’s a diffused lighting that is more intense directly over the table and diminishes in intensity as it feathers out over the actors, so the actors are often moving in and out of varying intensities of light on that set. “It’s a matter of finding the right balance so they don’t get washed out and they don’t get [too much shadow] when they are sitting back from the table,” explains Azenzer. “That’s probably the most challenging location for me.”

Alas, things changed somewhat during the last few episodes of the season. Dre and his wife, Rainbow, hit a rough patch in their marriage and separate. Dre moves into a sleek, ultra-modern house in the canyon, with two-story ceilings and 20-foot-tall floor-to-ceiling windows — resulting in a new location for Azenzer. “It was filled with natural light, so the image was a little flat in those scenes and awash with light and a cool aura,” he describes. Azenzer adjusted for this by “putting in extra contrast, double saturation nodes, and keying certain colors to create more color separation, which helps create overall separation and depth of field. It was a fun episode.”

In the prior episode, the show toggles back and forth from flashbacks of Bow and Dre from happier times in their marriage to present day. Azenzer describes the flashbacks as saturated with extremely high contrast, “pushing the boundaries of what would be acceptable.” When the scene switched to present day, instead of the typical look, it was shot with the movie Blue Valentine in mind, as the characters discussed separating and possibly divorcing.

“Those scenes were shot and color corrected with a very cool, desaturated look. I would latch onto maybe one thing in the shot and pop color back into that. So, it would be almost grayish blue, and if there was a Granny Smith apple on the counter, I grabbed that and popped it, made it chromatic,” explains Azenzer. “And Dre’s red sweatshirt, which was desaturated and cool along with the rest of the scene, I went back in there and keyed that and popped the red back in. It was one of the more creative episodes we did.”

When Azenzer first took over coloring the show, “everybody was involved,” he says. “I had a relationship with Rob Sweeney, but I was new to Kenya, the post team, and Tom Ragazzo, co-producer, so it was very collaborative at the beginning to nail the look they were going for, what Kenya wanted. Now we are at the point so when I finish an episode, I give Rob a heads-up and he’ll come over that day or whenever he can and bring lunch, and I play it back for him.”

It’s not as if the episodes are without change, though Azenzer estimates that 85 percent of the time Sweeney says, “‘Beautiful job,’ and is out the door.” When there are changes, they usually involve something nominal on just a shot or two. “We are never off-base to where we need to redo a scene. It’s usually something subjective, where he might ask me to add a Power Window to create a little shadow in a corner or create a light source that isn’t there.”

Azenzer enjoys working on Black-ish, particularly because of the close relationship he has with those working on the show. “They are all awesome, and we get along really well and collaborate well,” he says. Indeed, he has forged bonds with this new family of sorts on both a professional and personal level, and recently began working on Grown-ish, a spin-off of Black-ish that follows the family’s eldest daughter after she moves away to attend college.

The 100
Dan Judy, senior colorist at DigitalFilm Tree (DFT) in Hollywood, has been working on The CW’s The 100 starting with the pilot in 2014, and since then has helped evolve it into a gritty-looking show. “It started off with more of an Eden-type environment and has progressed into a much grittier, less friendly and dangerous place to live,” he says.

The 100 is a post-apocalyptic science-fiction drama that centers on a group of juvenile offenders from aboard a failing space station who are sent to Earth following a nuclear apocalypse there nearly a century earlier. Their mission: to determine whether the devastated planet is habitable. But, soon they encounter clans of humans who have survived the destruction.

“We have geographical locations that have a particular look to them, such as Polis (the capitol of the coalition),” says Judy of the environment set atop rolling hills lush with vegetation. “In this past season, we have the Eden environment — where after the planet incurs all this devastation, the group finds an oasis of thriving foliage and animated life. Then, gradually, we started backing off the prettiness of Eden and making it less colorful, a little more contrasty, a little harsher.”

The series is shot in Vancouver by DP Michael Blundell. The dailies are handled by Bling Digital’s Vancouver facility, which applies color with the dailies cut. As an episode is cut, Bling then ships drives containing the camera master media and the edit decision list to DFT, which assembles the show with a clip-based approach, using the full-resolution camera masters as its base source.

“We aren’t doing a transcode of the media. We actually work directly, 100 percent of the time, from the client camera master,” says Judy, noting this approach eliminates the possibility of errors, such as dropouts or digital hits that can result from transcoding. “It also gives me handles on either end of a shot if it was trimmed.”

Dan Judy

Vancouver-based Blundell sets the palette, but he conveys his ideas and concepts to Tim Scanlan, director and supervising producer on the show, with whom Judy has a longstanding relationship — they worked together years before on Smallville. “Then Tim and I will sit down and spot the show, setting looks for the scenes, and after the spotting session, I will fill in the gaps to give it a consistent look,” says Judy. Although Scanlan is in nearby Santa Monica, due to LA’s traffic, he and Hollywood-based Judy collaborate remotely, to save valuable time.

“I can remote into [Scanlan’s] system and color correct with him in full resolution and in realtime,” explains Judy. “I can play back the reference file with the dailies color on it, and I can split-screen that with him in realtime if he wants to reference the dailies color for that particular scene.”

For coloring the show, Judy uses Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve, which is also used to conform the series. Using Resolve’s Project Management tools, the editors and colorists “can all work on the project and contribute to it live, in realtime, simultaneously,” Judy points out. “So, I can be color correcting at the same time the editor is building the show, and getting all of his updates in mere seconds.”

Scanlan uses a remote Resolve system with a monitor that is calibrated to Judy’s, “so what he is seeing on his end is an exact replica of what I’m seeing in my room,” Judy says.

One scene in The 100 that stands out for Judy occurs early in the episode during the premiere of Season 5, which finds Clarke Griffin, one of the prisoners, trapped in a wasteland. He explains: “We had several different evolutions of what that look was going to be. I gave them a few designs, and they gave me some notes. Before the show was cut, they gave me little snippets of scenes to look at, and I did test looks. They came back and decided to go with one of those test looks at first, and then as the show progressed, we decided, collaboratively, to redesign the look of the scene and go with more of a sepia tone.”

Much of The 100 is filmed outdoors, and as everyone knows, nature does not always cooperate during shoots. “They deal with a lot of different weather conditions in Vancouver, unlike LA. They’ll get rain in the middle of a scene. Suddenly, clouds appear, and you have shadows that didn’t exist before. So, when that’s the only footage you have, you need to make it all blend together,” explains Judy. “Another challenge is making these amazing-looking sets look more natural by shadowing off the edges of the frame with power windows and darkening parts of the frame so it looks like the natural environment.”

Judy points to the character Becca’s abandoned lab — an elaborate set from last year’s season — as a scene that stands out for him. “It was an amazing set, and in wide shots, we would shape that picture with power windows and use color levels and desaturation to darken it, and then color levels and saturation to brighten up other areas,” he says. “This would make the room look more cavernous than it was, even though it was large to begin with, to give it more scope and vastness. It also made the room look dramatic yet inviting at the same time.”

All in all, Judy describes The 100 as a very edgy, dramatic show. “There’s a lot going on. It’s not your standard television fare. It’s very creative,” he says. “Tim and I did a lot of color design on Smallville, and we’re carrying on that tradition in The 100. It’s more feature-esque, more theatrical, than most television shows. We add grain on the picture to give it texture; it’s almost imperceptible, but it gives a slightly different feel than other shows. It’s nice to be part of something where I’m not just copying color for a standardized, formulaic show. This series gives me the opportunity to be creative, which is awesome.”

Dear White People
Sometimes color grading decisions are fairly standard on television shows. Black and white, so to speak. Not so for the Netflix series Dear White People, a comedy-drama spin-off from the 2014 film of the same name, which follows students of color at a predominantly white Ivy League college as they navigate various forms of discrimination — racial and otherwise.

Helping achieve the desired look for the series fell to senior colorist Scott Gregory from NBCUniversal StudioPost. Starting with Season 1, day one, “the show’s creator, Justin Simien, DP Jeffrey Waldron, executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser and I huddled in my bay and experimented with different ‘overall’ looks for the show,” notes Gregory.

Simien then settled on the “feel” that is present throughout most of the series. Once he had locked a base look, the group then discussed how to use color to facilitate the storytelling. “We created looks for title cards, flashbacks, historical footage, locations and even specific characters,” Gregory says.

Using stills he had saved during those creative meetings as a guide, he then color corrects each show. Once the show is ready for review, the executive producers and DP provide notes — during the same session if schedules permit, or separately, as is often the case. If any of the creatives cannot be present, stills and color review files are uploaded for review via the Internet.

According to Gregory, his workflow starts after he receives a pre-conformed 4:4:4 MXF video assembled master (VAM) and an EDL supplied by online editor Ian Lamb. Gregory then performs a process pass on the VAM using Resolve, whereby he re-renders the VAM, applying grain and two Digital Film Tools (DFT) optical filters. This gives the Red camera footage a more weathered, filmic look. This processing, however, is not applied to the full-frame television show inserts to better separate them from the visual palette created for the show by Simien, Bowser and DPs Waldron and Topher Osborn.

Scott Gregory

Once the VAM is processed, Gregory creates a timeline using the EDL, the processed VAM, and the temp audio, applies a one-light correction to all of the shots, and gets to work. As the color progresses, he drops in the visual effects, cleaned shots, composited elements, and some titles as they are delivered. Once the show is locked for color and VFX approval, he renders out a 3840×2160 UHD final 4:4:4 MXF color-timed master, which then goes back to the online editor for titling and delivery.

“Blue contaminated and lifted blacks, strong vignettes, film-grain emulation and warm, compressed filmic highlights are characteristics present in most of the show,” says Gregory. “We also created looks for Technicolor two-strip, sepia, black-and-white silent-era damaged print, and even an oversaturated, diffused, psychedelic drug trip scene.”

The looks for the flashback or “historical” sequences, usually somewhere in Act I, were created for the most part in Resolve. Many of these sequences or montages jump through different time periods. “I created a black-and-white damaged film look for the 1800s, Technicolor two-strip for the early 1900s, a faded-emulsion [Kodak] Ektachrome [film] look for the ’70s, and a more straightforward but chromatic look for the ’80s,” says Gregory.

Simien also wanted to use color “themes” for specific characters. This was reflected in not only the scenes that included the featured character for that particular show, but also in the title card at the head of the show. (The title card for each show has a unique color corresponding to the featured character of that episode.)

When coloring the series, Gregory inevitably encounters processing issues. “Using all the filters and VFX plug-ins that I do on this show and being in UHD resolution both eat up a lot of processing power. This slows down the software significantly, no matter what platform or GPUs are being used,” he says. In order to keep things up to speed, he decided to pre-render, or bake in, the grain and some of the filters that were to be used throughout each show.

“I then create a new timeline using the pre-rendered VAM and the EDL, and set a base correction,” Gregory explains. “This workflow frees up the hardware, so I can still get realtime playback, even with multiple color layers, composites and new effects plug-ins.”

Gregory is hardly new to color grading, having a long list of credits, including television series, full-length movies and short films. And while working on Seasons 1 and the recently released Season 2 of Dear White People, he appreciated the collaborative environment. “Justin is obviously very creative and has a discerning eye. I have really enjoyed the collaborative space in which he, Yvette, Jeffrey and Topher like to work,” he says. “Justin likes to experiment and go big. He wants the artists he works with to be a part of the creative process, and I think he believes that in the end, his final product will benefit from it. It makes for good times in the color bay and a show we are all very proud of.”


Karen Maierhofer is a longtime technical writer with more than two decades of experience in segments of the CG and post industries.

Indie film Hoax calls on ACES

By Debra Kaufman

Shot in the remote mountains of southwestern Colorado, Hoax follows a brilliant primate specialist and ruthless TV producer as they investigate the site of a camping trip gone terribly wrong. They soon find themselves fighting to survive — and coming to grips with the fact that Big Foot may not be a legend after all. The movie, which will complete post production in mid-June, is the brainchild of Matt Allen, who wrote and directed it. His friend, freelance editor and colorist Peder Morgenthaler wore many hats, starting with multiple readings of the script. “As Matt was pulling the production together, he asked if I’d like to edit and color grade,” says Morgenthaler. “I ended up post supervising too.”

Peder Morgenthaler

The Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) was already on Morgenthaler’s radar. He’d followed its early development and began experimenting with it as soon as he could. As a result, he immediately thought ACES would be ideal for the Hoax, which would be shot with Red Helium and Monstro cameras. “We wanted to work with the Red RAW data instead of baking in a look,” he says. “The challenge would be how to maintain the full dynamic range present in the camera originals all the way through every step of post production — from dailies to visual effects — so that when the footage came to the color grade none of the information would have been flattened out or lost.”

He also was aware that High Dynamic Range was being discussed as a new display format. “In my research about ACES it became clear that it was a really good way to be able to make an HDR master down the road,” says Morgenthaler. “That would be a big advantage for an indie film. We don’t have access to image scientists or an advanced image processing pipeline. ACES offers us opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise have because of our limited resources.”

Because the production was going to take place in a remote area, with no opportunity for a DIT station, Allen and Morgenthaler made the decision that ACES would only be implemented in post. “We weren’t doing all the on-set color grading and look previewing that you would do in a full ACES pipeline,” notes Morgenthaler. Cinematographer Scott Park shot at 6K and 8K resolution, framing for a 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio while shooting 1.78:1 to give enough room for reframing in post. “In addition, we shot segments on ENG and Flir infrared and night vision cameras, so we had several codecs and color spaces in the workflow,” Morgenthaler says. “We also had 120 VFX shots — mostly invisible ones — planned, so we needed a color pipeline that could handle that component as well.”

In post, Morgenthaler used Adobe Premiere Pro for editing, Adobe After Effects with the OpenColorIO plug-in for visual effects and Blackmagic Resolve for dailies, color grading and finishing. “All this software can work in an ACES environment,” he says. “Our goals were to enable a responsive and efficient editorial workflow; maintain image quality, resolution and dynamic range; simplify color management between VFX artists and the colorist; and generate deliverables for multiple display standards with minimal additional grading.”

For dailies, assistant editor Ricardo Cozzolino worked in Resolve, syncing dual-system sound to picture and performing a quick color balance using the Red RAW controls, then exporting the shots as Rec. 709 HD ProRes 422 proxies. “During the edit, I’d apply temp color correction, compositing and stabilization in the Premiere timeline for preview purposes, knowing I would likely have to rebuild those effects in Resolve during the finishing process,” Morgenthaler says. “There were no ACES operations required during editorial; we just worked with the color corrected dailies in Rec. 709 space.”

One unexpected challenge was getting the After Effects compositors up to speed working in ACES scene linear space. “It wasn’t familiar to them,” he says. “They’re used to working in Rec. 709, and since After Effects doesn’t support an ACES pipeline natively you have to use a third-party plug in like OpenColorIO, which has been developed for a number of platforms including AE to enable the ACES color transformations.” The plug-in allows the user to disable AE’s internal color management functions and replace them with the proper ACES color transforms.

Using Resolve, the editorial team exported each plate at 4K as an ACES 16-bit OpenEXR image sequence in linear space. The visual effect artists then executed their shots in After Effects, using the OpenColorIO (OCIO) plugin. In the end, the ACES process worked for VFX exactly like he hoped it would. “All the dynamic range is there,” Morgenthaler says. “I just conformed the completed VFX shots into my color timeline and it worked perfectly, seamlessly replacing the original footage. The shots look wonderful, and they grade exactly like the camera-original R3D files.”

In color grading, Morgenthaler conformed back to the original 6K and 8K Red files inside Resolve, targeting a DCI Scope 4K finish. “After the master grade is completed, we’ll create additional versions targeting various display technologies simply by switching the ACES Output Transform,” he explains. “We can easily create versions for digital cinema, HDR and streaming, which is one of the huge benefits of the ACES process.”

Having the right storage is important to the ACES workflow, since 16-bit OpenEXR at 4K is around 45MB per frame, or just over 1,000MBps at 24 fps to play back in realtime, says Morgenthaler. “Not all storage can do that.” Morgenthaler, who consults with Seagate on their storage systems for post, relied on a Seagate RealStor shared storage system with 144TB of fibre channel storage. “The file sharing is based off of Tiger Technology’s Tigerstore, which enables simultaneous access for all users on the network at full quality and resolution,” he says “That greatly increased the efficiency of our workflow. It meant instant collaboration between team members, with no syncing of separate drives required to maintain collaboration.” In total, the production generated 44 hours of footage and ended up with 19.5TB of total data, not including visual effects.

“We may be on the front edge of using ACES in indie films, but it’ll be more important for indie filmmakers going forward,” he predicts. “There are real benefits to doing so. It’s a powerful tool for maintaining dynamic range and quality, and the pre-built color management pipeline simplifies complex VFX processes. It also increases the film’s desirability to distributors by enabling generation of additional versions such as HDR.

“I don’t know that we could have achieved what we did on this film without ACES,” concludes Morgenthaler. “Large films have access to color scientists and secret sauce, and ACES gives you that in a turnkey package, which is really powerful for a small film.”


Debra Kaufman has covered media and entertainment for 30 years for publications including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, American Cinematographer, International Cinematographer, Wired and others. She currently also writes for USC’s Entertainment Technology Center’s daily newsletter, ETCentric.