Category Archives: On-Set Dailies

DP Chat: Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC

Cinematographer Polly Morgan, who became an active member of the ASC in July, had always been fascinated with films, but she got the bug for filmmaking as a teenager growing up in Great Britain. A film crew shot at her family’s farmhouse.

“I was fixated by the camera and cranes that were being used, and my journey toward becoming a cinematographer began.”

We reached out to Morgan recently to talk about her process and about working on the FX show Legion.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
I am inspired by the world around me. As a cinematographer you learn to look at life in a unique way, noticing elements that you might not have been aware of before. Reflections, bouncing light, colors, atmosphere and so many more. When I have time off, I love to travel and experience different cultures and environments.

I spend my free time reading various periodicals to stay of top of the latest developments in technology. Various publications, such as the ASC’s magazine, help to not only highlight new tools but also people’s experiences with them. The filmmaking community is united by this exploration, and there are many events where we are able to get together and share our thoughts on a new piece of equipment. I also try to visit different vendors to see demos of new advances in technology.

Has any recent or new technology changed the way you work?
Live on-set grading has given me more control over the final image when I am not available for the final DI. Over the last two years, I have worked more on episodic television, and I am often unable to go and sit with the colorist to do the final grade, as I am working on another project. Live grading enables me to get specific with adjustments on the set, and I feel confident that with good communication, these adjustments will be part of the final look of the project.

How do you go about choosing the right camera and lenses to achieve the right look for a story?
I like to vary my choice of camera and lenses depending on what story I am telling.
When it comes to cameras, resolution is an important factor depending on how the project is going to be broadcast and if there are specific requirements to be met from the distributor, or if we are planning to do any unique framing that might require a crop into the sensor.

Also, ergonomics play a part. Am I doing a handheld show, or mainly one in studio mode? Or are there any specifications that make the camera unique that will be useful for that particular project? For example, I used the Panasonic VariCam when I needed an extremely sensitive sensor for night driving around downtown Los Angeles. Lenses are chosen for contrast and resolution and speed. Also, sometimes size and weight play a part, especially if we are working in tight locations or doing lots of handheld.

What are some best practices, or rules, you try to follow on each job?
Every job is different, but I always try to root my work in naturalism to keep it grounded. I feel like a relatable story can have the most impact on its viewer, so I want to make images that the audience can connect with and be drawn into emotionally. As a cinematographer, we want our work to be invisible but yet always support and enhance the narrative.

On set, I always ensure a calm and pleasant working environment. We work long and bizarre hours, and the work is demanding so I always strive to make it an enjoyable and safe experience for everyone,

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
It is always my aim to get a clear idea of what the director is imagining when they describe a certain approach. As we are all so different, it is really about establishing a language that can be a shorthand on set and help me to deliver exactly what they want. It is invaluable to look at references together, whether that is art, movies, photography or whatever.

As well as the “look,” I feel it is important to talk about pace and rhythm and how we will choose to represent that visually. The ebb and flow of the narrative needs to be photographed, and sometimes directors want to do that in the edit, or sometimes we express it through camera movement and length of shots. Ideally, I will always aim to have a strong collaboration with a director during prep and build a solid relationship before production begins.

How do you typically work with a colorist?
This really varies from project to project, depending if I am available to sit in during the final DI. Ideally, I would work with the colorist from pre-production to establish and build the look of the show. I would take my camera tests to the post house and work on building a LUT together that would be the base look that we work off while shooting.

I like to have an open dialogue with them during the production stage so they are aware and involved in the evolution of the images.

During post, this dialogue continues as VFX work starts to come in and we start to bounce the work between the colorist and the VFX house. Then in the final grade, I would ideally be in the room with both the colorist and the director so we can implement and adjust the look we have established from the start of the show.

Tell us about FX’s Legion. How would you describe the general look of the show?
Legion is a love letter to art. It is inspired by anything from modernist pop art to old Renaissance masters. The material is very cerebral, and there are many mental planes or periods of time to express visually, so it is a very imaginative show. It is a true exploration of color and light and is a very exciting show to be a part of.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I got involved with Legion starting in Season 2. I work alongside Dana Gonzales, ASC, who established the look of the show in Season one with creator Noah Hawley. My work begins during the production stage when I worked with various directors both prepping and shooting their individual episodes.

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of how it turned out?
Most of the scenes in Legion take a lot of thought to figure out… contextually as well as practically. In Season 2, Episode 2, a lot of the action takes place out in the desert. After a full day, we still had a night shoot to complete with very little time. Instead of taking time to try to light the whole desert, I used one big soft overhead and then lit the scene with flashlights on the character’s guns and headlights of the trucks. I added blue streak filters to create multiple horizontal blue flares from each on-camera source (headlights and flashlights) that provided a very striking lighting approach.

FX’s Legion, Season 2, Episode 2

With the limited hours available, we didn’t have enough time to complete all the coverage we had planned so, instead, we created one very dynamic camera move that started overhead looking down at the trucks and then swooped down as the characters ran out to approach the mysterious object in the scene. We followed the characters in the one move, ending in a wide group shot. With this one master, we only ended up needing a quick reverse POV to complete the scene. The finished product was an inventive and exciting scene that was a product of limitations.

What’s your go-to gear (camera, lens, mount/accessories you can’t live without)?
I don’t really have any go-to gear except a light meter. I vary the equipment I use depending on what story I am telling. LED lights are becoming more and more useful, especially when they are color- and intensity-controllable and battery-operated. When you need just a little more light, these lights are quick to throw in and often save the day!

DITs: Maintaining Order on Set

By Karen Moltenbrey

The DIT, or digital imaging technician, can best be described as that important link between on-set photography and post production. Part of the camera crew, the DIT works with the cinematographer and post production on the workflow, camera settings, signal integrity and image acquisition. Much more than a data wrangler, a DIT ensures the technical quality control, devises creative solutions involving photography technology and sees that the original camera data and metadata are backed up regularly.

Years ago, the DIT’s job was to solve issues as the industry transitioned from film to digital. But today, with digital being so complex and involving many different formats, this job is more vital than ever, sweating the technical stuff so that the DP and others can focus on their work for a successful production. In fact, one DIT interviewed for this piece notes that the job today focuses less on fine-tuning the live look than it did in the past. One reason for that is the many available tools that enable the files to be shaped more carefully in post.

The DITs interviewed here note that the workflow usually changes from production to production. “If you ask 10 different DITs what they do, they would probably give you 10 different answers,” says one. Still, the focus remains the same: to assist the DP and others, ensuring that everyone and everything is working in concert.

And while some may question whether a production needs the added expense of a DIT, perhaps a better question would be whether they can afford not to have one.

Here, two DITs discuss their ever-changing workflows for this important job.

Michele deLorimier 
Veteran DIT Michele deLorimier describes the role of a digital imaging technician as a problem solver. “It’s like doing puzzles — multiple, different-size puzzles that have to be sorted out,” she says. “It always involves problem solving, from trying to fix the director’s iPhone to the tech parameter settings in the cameras to the whole computer having to be torn apart and put back together. All the while, shooting has not stopped and footage is accumulating.”

There are often multiple cameras, and the footage needs to be downloaded and QC’d, and cards erased and sent back into rotation in order to continue shooting. “So, I guess the greatest tool on the cart is the complete computer workstation, and if it is having a problem, it requires high-gear, intense problem solving,” she adds.

And through it all, deLorimier and her fellow DITs must keep their cool and come up with a solution — and fast.

deLorimier has been working as a DIT for many years now. She honed her problem-solving skills working at live concerts, where she had to be fast on her feet while working with live control of multiple cameras through remote control units and paint boxes. “I’d sit at a switcher, with a stack of monitors and one big monitor, and keep the look consistent — black levels, paint controls — on all cameras, live.”

Later, this segued into setting up and controlling on- and off-board videotape and data-recorder digital cinema cameras on set for commercial film production.

“I just kind of fell into [DIT work] because of what I had done, and then it just continued to evolve,” says deLorimier. With the introduction of digital cinema cameras, DITs with a film and video background were needed during the transition period — spawning the term “digital imaging technician.”

“It went from being tape-based, where you’re creating and baking in a look while you’re shooting, to tape-based where you’re shooting sort of a flat pass and creating a timeline of looks you’re delivering alongside the videotape. And then to data recording, delivering files and additionally honing the look after the footage is ingested,” she says.

Among the equipment deLorimier uses is a reference grade monitor “that must be calibrated properly,” she says, a way to objectively assess exposure, such as with a waveform monitor, and some method of objectively assessing color, so a type of vectorscope. That is the base-level equipment. For commercials, efficient hardware and software are needed for downloading, manipulating and QC’ing the footage, color correcting it and creating deliverables for post.”

deLorimier prefers Flanders Scientific monitors — she has six for various tasks: a pair of 25 inch, a 24 inch, a pair of 21 inch and a 17 inch — as well as a Leader waveform monitor/vectorscope.

“We’re using wireless video a lot these days so we can move around freely and the cables aren’t all over the ground to trip on,” she says. “That part of the chain can have the incorrect setting, so it’s important to ensure that everything is [set at] baseline and that what you are adding to it — usually some form of a LUT to the livestream — is baseline too.” This starts with settings in the camera and then anything the video signal chain might touch.

Then there is various software, drivers, readers, cables and power management, which change and get updated regularly. Thus, deLorimier stresses that any software change should be tested and updated during prep, to ensure compatibility. “There are unexpected things that you can’t prep for. There are times when you show up at a shoot and will be told, ‘We shot some drone footage yesterday,’ and it’s with a camera that you had no control over the settings,” she says. “So, the more you can prep for, the higher the rate of success you will have.”

Over the years, deLorimier has worked on a variety of productions, from features to TV commercials, with each type of project requiring a different setup. Preparing for a commercial usually entails physically prepping equipment and putting pieces together, as well as checking its end-to-end signal chain, from camera settings, through distribution of the video signal, to the final destination for monitoring and data delivery.

A day before this interview, deLorimier finished a Subaru commercial, shooting in Sequoia National Forest for the first few days, then Griffith Park and some areas around LA. Before that was a multi-unit job for a Nike spot that was filmed in numerous cities over the course of five days. For that project, each of the DITs for the A, B and C units had to coordinate with one another for consistency, ensuring that the cameras would be set up the same way, that they had the same specs and were delivering a similar look. “We were shooting with big projectors onto buildings and screens, and the cameras needed to sync to the projectors in some instances,” deLorimier explains.

According to deLorimier, it is unusual for the work of a DIT not to be physical. “We’re on the move a lot,” she says, crediting her past concert experience for her ability to adjust to adverse and unexpected conditions. “And we are not working in a controlled environment, but we do our best under the constraints we have and always try to keep post in mind.”

She recalls one physically demanding job that required three consecutive nights of shooting in the rain near Santa Barbara, to film a train coming down the tracks. Part of the crew was on one side of the tracks, and part on the other. And deLorimier was in a cornfield with her carts, computer system and monitors, inside a tent to keep dry. “They kept calling me to come to B camera. But I was also remotely setting up live looks inside my tent.

“I had a headlamp on because I had to deal with cables and stuff in my tent, and at one point illuminated by my headlamp, I could see that there were at least 45 snails crawling up the inside of my tent and cart. I was getting mud on my glasses and in my eyes. Then my whole cart, which was pretty heavy, started tipping and tilting, and I was bracing myself and my feet were starting to get sucked into the mud in the mole holes that were filling with rainwater. I couldn’t even call for help because it took both of my hands to hold up the cart, and the snails were everywhere! And, through it all, they kept calling on the walkie-talkie, ‘Michele, B camera needs you. The train’s coming.’”

Insofar as acquisition formats are concerned, deLorimier says that it’s higher resolution and almost always raw files for commercials these days. “A minimum of 4K is almost mandatory across the board,” she notes. And if the project is shooting with Red Digital Cinema cameras, it is between 6K and 8K, as the team she works with mostly use Red Monstros or ARRIRAW. She also works with Phantom Cine raw files.

“The higher data rates have definitely given me more gray hairs,” says deLorimier with a smile. “There’s no downtime. There’s always six or seven balls in the air, and there’s very little room for error or any fixing on set. This is also why the prep day is vital; so much can be worked out and pre-run during the prep, and this pays off for production during the shoot.”

Francesco Luigi Giardiello
Francesco Luigi Giardiello defines his role as that of an on-set workflow supervisor, as opposed to a traditional DIT. “Over the last five to 10 years, I have been designing a workflow that basically extends from set to post production, focusing on the whole pipeline so we don’t have to throw away what has been done on set,” he says.

Giardiello has been designing a pipeline based on a white balance match, which he says is quite unusual in the business because everything gets done through a simplified and more standardized color grading. “We designed something that goes a bit deeper into the color science and works with the Academy’s ACES workflow, trying to establish a common working colorspace, common color pipeline and a common method to control and manipulate colors. This — across any possible camera or source media used in production — is to provide balanced and consistent footage to the DI and visual effects teams. This allows the CG to be applied without having to spend time on balancing and tweaking the color of the shots.”

The Thor team (L-R): Francesco Giardiello, Kramer Morgenthau ASC (DP), Fabio Ferrantini (data manager).

This is important, especially today, where people are shooting with different digital systems. Or maybe even film and digital cameras, plus different lenses, so the shots look very different, even with the same lighting conditions. To this end, Giardiello’s role as DIT would be to grade or match everything so it all looks the same.

“Normally this gets done by using color tools, some of which are more sophisticated than others. When the tools are too sophisticated, they are intractable in the workflow and, therefore, become useless after leaving the set. When they are too ‘simple,’ like CDLs, often they are insufficient in correctly balancing the shots. And, because they are applied during a stage of the pipeline where the cinematographer’s look is introduced, they end up lost or often convolute the pipeline,” he notes. “We designed a system where the color balance occurs before any other color grading, and then the color grading is applied just as a look.”

Giardiello is currently in production on Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: Far from Home, scheduled for release July 5, 2019. Not his first trip into the Marvel universe, he has worked on Thor: The Dark World, in addition to a number of episodic TV series and other big VFX productions, including Jurassic World and Aladdin. “You are the ambassador of the post production and VFX work,” he explains. “You have to foresee any technical issue and establish a workflow that will facilitate them. So, doing my job without being on set would be a complete waste of time. Sure, I can work in the studios and post production facilities to design workflows that will work without a DIT, but the problem is that things happen on set because that’s where decisions get made.”

As Giardiello points out, the other departments, such as camera and VFX, even the cinematographers, have different priorities and different jobs to fulfill. So, they’re not necessarily spending the time to ensure that every camera, every lens and every setting is in line with a consistent workflow to match the others. “They tend to shoot with whatever camera or medium they think is best and then expect that VFX or post will be able to fit that into an existing workflow.”

On average, Giardiello spends a few weeks of prep to design a project’s workflow, probably longer than producers and production companies would like. But, he believes that the more you plan, the less you have to deal with on set and in post production. When a shoot is finished, he will spend a week or two with the post facility, more to facilitate the handoff than to fix major issues.

Jurassic World was shot with 6K Arri Alexa 65s and the 8K Red Digital Cinema Helium camera, but the issue with high-resolution cameras is the amount of data they generate. “When you start shooting 4, 5, 6 or 8 terabytes a day, you have to make sure you are on set as a data point and that post production is capable of handling all this incoming data,” Giardiello advises. To this end, he had been working with Pinewood Digital to streamline a workflow for moving the data from set to post, whereby rather than sending the original mags to post, his group packaged up the data into very fast, very secure Codex Digital SLEDs.

The most important challenge on a VFX-oriented film, Giardiello says, is the color pipeline, as large studios, like Marvel, Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal, are focused on making sure that the so-called “digital negatives,” or raw footage, that arrive to post and VFX is well balanced and doesn’t require a lot of fixing before those departments can begin their work. “So, having balanced footage has been, and still is, one of the biggest concerns for any major studio when it comes to managing color from set to post production,” he notes.

So, for the last few years, this issue has been handled through the in-camera white balance with a system developed by Giardiello. “We changed the white balance on every single camera, using that to match every single shot before it gets to post production. So when it arrives in front of a VFX compositor and the DI suite, the average color and density of every single shot is consistent,” he adds.

Francesco Giardiello’s rig on Jurassic World.

Giardiello’s workflow is one that he has designed and developed over a five-year period and shines particularly when it comes to facilitating VFX interaction with action footage. “If you have to spend weeks fixing things in VFX on a big job like Jurassic World, Aladdin or Spider-Man, we’re talking about losing thousands of dollars every day,” he points out.

The work entails using a range of tools, some of which are designed for each new job. One tool that has been used on Giardiello’s last few films modifies the metadata for Red cameras to match them with that of the Alexa camera. Meanwhile, on set he uses Filmlight’s Prelight for light grading or to design CDLs. Probably the most important tool for dealing with RAW footage, he maintains, is Codex Digital’s Codex Production Suite. “It allows us to streamline the cloning and backup processes, to perform a visual QC near set and to access the metadata of raw footage and change it (when it is not changed in-camera).

“When those files get to post production in [Filmlight’s] Daylight, which is mostly used these days to process rushes, Daylight doesn’t recognize that change as an actual change, but as something that the DIT does on set in-camera,” Giardiello says.

In addition, he also uses the new SSD SLED designed by Codex, which offers encryption — an important feature for studios like Marvel or Sony. Then, on set, he uses BoxIOs, a LUT box from Flanders Scientific, as well as Flanders monitors, either DM240s (LCDs) or DM250s (OLEDs), depending on the type of project.

Over the years, Giardiello has often worked with the same DPs, but in the past three years, his major clients instead have been studios: Universal, Marvel and Warner Bros. “But my boss is still the DP,” he adds.

During the past 12 years, Giardiello has witnessed an evolution in the role of DIT and expects this to continue, particularly as media continues to converge and merge — from cinema or television to mobile devices. “So yeah, I would say our job has changed and is going to change, but I think it’s more important now than it was 10 years ago, and obviously it’s going to be even more important in the next 10 years.”


Karen Moltenbrey is a longtime writer and editor in the CG and post industries.

DG 7.9, 8.27, 9.26

Our Virtual Color Roundtable

By Randi Altman

The number of things you can do with color in today’s world is growing daily. It’s not just about creating a look anymore, it’s using color to tell or enhance a story. And because filmmakers recognize this power, they are getting colorists involved in the process earlier than ever before. And while the industry is excited about HDR and all it offers, this process also creates its own set of challenges and costs.

To find out what those in the trenches are thinking, we reached out to makers of color gear as well as hands-on colorists with the same questions, all in an effort to figure out today’s trends and challenges.

Company 3 Senior Colorist Stephen Nakamura
Company 3 is a global group of creative studios specializing in color and post services for features, TV and commercials. 

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
By far, the most significant change in the work that I do is the requirement to master for all the different exhibition mediums. There’s traditional theatrical projection at 14 footlamberts (fL) and HDR theatrical projection at 30fL. There’s IMAX. For home video, there’s UHD and different flavors of HDR. Our task with all of these is to master the movie so it feels and looks the way it’s supposed to feel and look on all the different formats.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The colorist’s job is to work with the filmmakers and make those interpretations. At Company 3 we’re always creating custom LUTs. There are other techniques that help us get where we need to be to get the most out of all these different display types, but there’s no substitute for taking the time and interpreting every shot for the specific display format.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work? And do you feel that DPs are working differently now that laser projection and the home HDR experiences are becoming more relevant?
Not too long ago, a cinematographer could expose an image specifically for one display format — a film print projected at 14fL. They knew exactly where they could place their highlights and shadows to get a precise look onscreen. Today, they’re thinking in terms of the HDR version, where if they don’t preserve detail in the blacks and whites it can really hurt the quality of the image in some of the newer display methods.

I work frequently with Dariuisz Wolski (Sicario: Day of the Soldado, All the Money in the World). We’ve spoken about this a lot, and he’s said that when he started shooting features, he often liked to expose things right at the edge of underexposure because he knew exactly what the resulting print would be like. But now, he has to preserve the detail and fine-tune it with me in post because it has to work in so many different display formats.

There are also questions about how the filmmakers want to use the different ways of seeing the images. Sometimes they really like the qualities of the traditional theatrical standard and really don’t want HDR to look very different and to make the most of the dynamic range. If we have more dynamic range, more light, to work with, it means that in essence we have a larger “canvas” to work on. But you need to take the time to individually treat every shot if you want to get the most out of that “canvas.”

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future?
The biggest change I expect to see is the development of even brighter, higher-contrast exhibition mediums. At NAB, Sony unveiled this wall of LED panels that are stitched together without seams and can display up to 1000 nits. It can be the size of a screen in a movie theater. If that took off, it could be a game changer. If theatrical exhibition gets better with brighter, higher-contrast screens, I think the public will enjoy it, provided that the images are mastered appropriately.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
As there are more formats, there will be more versions of the master. From P3 to Rec.709 to HDR video in PQ — they all translate color information differently. It’s not just the brightness and contrast but the individual colors. If there’s a specific color blue the filmmakers want for Superman’s suit, or red for Spiderman, or whatever it is, there are multiple layers of challenges involved in maintaining those across different displays. Those are things you have to take a lot of care with when you get to the finishing stage.

What’s the best piece of work you’ve seen that you didn’t work on?
I know it was 12 years ago now, but I’d still say 300, which was colored by Company 3 CEO Stefan Sonnenfeld. I think that was enormously significant. Everyone who has seen that movie is aware of the graphic-novel-looking imagery that Stefan achieved in color correction working with Zack Snyder and Larry Fong.

We could do a lot in a telecine bay for television, but a lot of people still thought of digital color correction for feature films as an extension of the timing process from the photochemical world. But the look in 300 would be impossible to achieve photo-chemically, and I think that opened a lot of people’s minds about the power of digital color correction.

Alt Systems Senior Product Specialist Steve MacMillian
Alt Systems is a systems provider, integrating compositing, DI, networking and storage solutions for the media and entertainment industry.

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
Traditionally, there has been such a huge difference between the color finishing process for television production verses for cinematic release. It used to be that a target format was just one thing, and finishing for TV was completely different than finishing for the cinema.

Colorists working on theatrical films will spend most of their efforts on grading for projection, and only after there is a detailed trim pass to make a significantly different version for the small screen. Television colorists, who are usually under much tighter schedules, will often only be concerned with making Rec.709 look good on a standard broadcast monitor. Unless there is a great deal of care to preserve the color and dynamic range of the digital negative throughout the process, the Rec.709 grade will not be suitable for translation to other expanded formats like HDR.

Now, there is an ever-growing number of distribution formats with different color and brightness requirements. And with the expectation of delivering to all of these on ever-tighter production budgets, it has become important to use color management techniques so that the work is not duplicated. If done properly, this allows for one grade to service all of these requirements with the least amount of trimming needed.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work?
HDR display technology, in my opinion, has changed everything. The biggest impact on color finishing is the need for monitoring in both HDR and SDR in different color spaces. Also, there is a much larger set of complex delivery requirements, along with the need for greater technical expertise and capabilities. Much of this complexity can be reduced by having the tools that make the various HDR image transforms and complex delivery formats as automatic as possible.

Color management is more important than ever. Efficient and consistent workflows are needed for dealing with multiple sources with unique color sciences, integrating visual effects and color grading while preserving the latitude and wide color gamut of the image.

The color toolset should support remapping to multiple deliverables in a variety of color spaces and luminance levels, and include support for dynamic HDR metadata systems like Dolby and HDR10+. As HDR color finishing has evolved, so has the way it is delivered to studios. Most commonly it is delivered in an HDR IMF package. It is common that Rec.2020 HDR deliverables be color constrained to the P3 color volume and also that Light Level histograms and HDR QC reports be delivered.

Do you feel DPs are working differently now that laser projection and the home HDR experiences are becoming more relevant?
Not as much as you would think. Two things are working against this. First, film and high-end digital cameras themselves have for some time been capturing latitude suitable for HDR production. Proper camera exposure is all that is needed to ensure that an image with a wide enough dynamic range is recorded. So from a capture standpoint, nothing needs to change.

The other is cost. There are currently only a small number of suitable HDR broadcast monitors, and most of these are extremely expensive and not designed well for the set. I’m sure HDR monitoring is being used on-set, but not as much as expected for productions destined for HDR release.

Also, it is difficult to truly judge HDR displays in a bright environment, and cinematographers may feel that monitoring in HDR is not needed full time. Traditionally with film production, cinematographers became accustomed to not being able to monitor accurately on-set, and they rely on their experience and other means of judging light and exposure. I think the main concern for cinematographers is the effect of lighting choices and apparent resolution, saturation and contrast when viewed in HDR.

Highlights in the background can potentially become distracting when displayed at 1000 nits verses being clamped at 100. Framing and lighting choices are informed by proper HDR monitoring. I believe we will see more HDR monitoring on-set as more suitable displays become available.

Colorfront’s Transkoder

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future?
Clearly HDR display technology is still evolving, and we will see major advances in HDR emissive displays for the cinema in the very near future. This will bring new challenges and require updated infrastructure for post as well as the cinema. It’s also likely that color finishing for the cinema will become more and more similar to the production of HDR for the home, with only relatively small differences in overall luminance and the ambient light of the environment.

Looking forward, standard dynamic range will eventually go away in the same way that standard definition video did. As we standardize on consumer HDR displays, and high-performance panels become cheaper to make, we may not need the complexity of HDR dynamic remapping systems. I expect that headset displays will continue to evolve and will become more important as time goes on.

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
We are experiencing a period of change that can be compared to the scope of change from SD to HD production, except it is happening much faster. Even if HDR in the home is slow to catch on, it is happening. And nobody wants their production to be dated as SDR-only. Eventually, it will be impossible to buy a TV that is not HDR-capable.

Aside from the changes in infrastructure, colorists used to working in SDR have some new skills to learn. I think it is a mistake to do separate grading versions for every major delivery format. Even though we have standards for HDR formats, they will continue to evolve, so post production must evolve too. The biggest challenge is meeting all of these different delivery requirements on budgets that are not growing as fast as the formats.

Northern Lights Flame Artist and Colorist Chris Hengeveld
NY- and SF-based Northern Lights, along with sister companies Mr. Wonderful for design, SuperExploder for composing and audio post, and Bodega for production, offers one-stop-shop services.

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
It’s interesting that you use the term “finishing of color.” In my clients’ world, finishing and color now go hand in hand. My commercial clients expect not only a great grade but seamless VFX work in finalizing their spots. Both of these are now often taking place with the same artist. Work has been pushed from just straight finishing with greenscreen, product replacement and the like to doing a grade up to par with some of the higher-end coloring studios. Price is pushing vastly separate disciplines into one final push.

Clients now expect to have a rough look ready not only of the final VFX, but also of the color pass before they attend the session. I usually only do minor VFX tweaks when clients arrive. Sending QuickTimes back and forth between studio and client usually gets us to a place where our client, and their client, are satisfied with at least the direction if not the final composites.

Color, as a completely subjective experience, is best enjoyed with the colorist in the room. We do grade some jobs remotely, but my experience has clearly been that from both time and creativity standpoints, it’s best to be in the grading suite. Unfortunately, recently due to time constraints and budget issues, even higher-end projects are being evaluated on a computer/phone/tablet back at the office. This leads to more iterations and less “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” mentality. Client interaction, especially at the grading level, is best enjoyed in the same room as the colorist. Often the final product is markedly better than what either could envision separately.

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future?
I see the industry continuing to coalesce around multi-divisional companies that are best suited to fulfill many clients’ needs at once. Most projects that come to us have diverse needs that center around one creative idea. We’re all just storytellers. We do our best to tell the client’s story with the best talent we offer, in a reasonable timeframe and at a reasonable cost.

The future will continue to evolve, putting more pressure on the editorial staff to deliver near perfect rough cuts that could become finals in the not-too-distant future.

Invisalign

The tools continue to level the playing field. More generalists will be trained in disciplines including video editing, audio mixing, graphic design, compositing and color grading. This is not to say that the future of singularly focused creatives is over. It’s just that those focused creatives are assuming more and more responsibilities. This is a continuation of the consolidation of roles that has been going on for several years now.

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
The biggest challenge going forward is both technical and budgetary. Many new formats have emerged, including the new ProRes RAW. New working color spaces have also emerged. Many of us work without on-staff color scientists and must find our way through the morass of HDR, ACES, Scene Linear and Rec.709. Working with materials that round trip in-house is vastly easier than dealing with multiple shops all with their own way of working. As we collaborate with outside shops, it behooves us to stay at the forefront of technology.

But truth be told, perhaps the biggest challenge is keeping the creative flow and putting the client’s needs first. Making sure the technical challenges don’t get in the way. Clients need to see a seamless view without technical hurdles.

What’s the best piece of work you’ve seen that you didn’t work on?
I am constantly amazed at the quality of work coming out of Netflix. Some of the series are impeccably graded. Early episodes of Bloodline, which was shot with the Sony F65, come to mind. The visuals were completely absorbing, both daytime and nighttime scenes.

Codex VP Business Development Brian Gaffney
Codex designs tools for color, dailies creation, archiving, review and networked attached storage. Their offerings include the new Codex ColorSynth with Keys and the MediaVault desktop NAS.

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
While it used to be a specialized suite in a post facility, color finishing has evolved tremendously over the last 10 years with low-cost access to powerful systems like Resolve for use on-set in commercial finishing to final DI color grading. These systems have evolved from being more than just color. Now they are editorial, sound mixing and complete finishing platforms.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work?
Offering brighter images in the theatre and the home with laser projection, OLED walls and HDR displays will certainly change the viewers’ experience, and it has helped create more work in post, offering up another pass for grading.

However, brighter images also show off image artifacts and can bring attention to highlights that may already be clipping. Shadow detail that was graded in SDR may now look milky in HDR. These new display mediums require that you spend more time optimizing the color correction for both display types. There is no magic one grade fits all.

Do you feel that DPs are working differently now that laser projection and the home HDR experiences are becoming more relevant?
I think cinematographers are still figuring this out. Much like color correction between SDR and HDR, lighting for the two is different. A window that was purposely blown out in SDR, to hide a lighting rig outside, may show up in HDR, exposing the rig itself. Color correction might be able to correct for this, but unless a cinematographer can monitor in HDR on-set, these issues will come up in post. To do it right, lighting optimization between the two spaces is required, plus SDR and HDR monitoring on-set and near-set and in editorial.

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future?
It’s all about content. With the traditional studio infrastructure and broadcast television market changing to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the demand for content, both original and HDR remastered libraries, is helping prop up post production and is driving storage- and cloud-based services.

Codex’s ColorSynth and Media Vault

In the long term, if the competition in this space continues and the demand for new content keeps expanding, traditional post facilities will become “secure data centers” and managed service providers. With cloud-based services, the talent no longer needs to be in the facility with the client. Shared projects with realtime interactivity from desktop and mobile devices will allow more collaboration among global-based productions.

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
Project management — sharing color set-ups among different workstations. Monitoring of the color with proper calibrated displays in both SDR and HDR and in support of multiple deliverables is always a challenge. New display technologies, like laser projection and new Samsung and Sony videowalls, may not be cost effective for the creative community to access for final grading. Only certain facilities may wind up specializing in this type of grading experience, limiting global access for directors and cinematographers to fully visualize how their product will look like on these new display mediums. It’s a cost that may not get the needed ROI, so in the near future many facilities may not be able to support the full demand of deliverables properly.

Blackmagic Director of Sales/Operations Bob Caniglia
Blackmagic creates DaVinci Resolve, a solution that combines professional offline and online editing, color correction, audio post production and visual effects in one software tool.

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
The ability to work in 8K, and whatever flavor of HDR you see, is happening. But if you are talking evolution, it is about the ability to collaborate with everyone in the post house, and the ability to do high-quality color correction anywhere. Editors, colorists, sound engineers and VFX artists should not be kept apart or kept from being able to collaborate on the same project at the same time.

New collaborative workflows will speed up post production because you will no longer need to import, export or translate projects between different software applications.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work?
The most obvious impact has been on the need for colorists to be using software that can finish a project in whatever HDR format the client asks for. That is the same with laser projection. If you do not use software that is constantly updating to whatever new format is introduced, being able to bid on HDR projects will be hard.

HDR is all about more immersive colors. Any colorist should be ecstatic to be able to work with images that are brighter, sharper and with more data. This should allow them to be even more creative with telling a story with color.

Do you feel that DPs are working differently now that laser projection and the home HDR experiences are becoming more relevant?
As for cinematographers, HDR gives viewers a whole new level of image details. But that hyper reality could draw the viewer from the wanted target in a shot. The beautiful details shining back on a coffee pot in a tracking shot may not be worth worrying about in SDR, but in HDR every shot will create more work for the colorist to make sure the viewer doesn’t get distracted by the little things. For DPs, it means they are going to have to be much more aware of lighting, framing and planning the impact of every possible item and shadow in an image.

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future?
Peace in our time amongst all of the different post silos, because those silos will finally be open. And there will be collaboration between all parts of the post workflow. Everyone — audio, VFX, editing and color correction — can work together on the same project seamlessly.

For example, in our Resolve tool, post pros can move between them all. This is what we see happening with colorists and post houses right now, as each member of the post team can be much more creatively flexible because anyone can explore new toolsets. And with new collaboration tools, multiple assistants, editors, colorists, sound designers and VFX artists can all work on the same project at the same time.

Resolve 15

For a long-term view, you will always have true artists in each of the post areas. People who have mastered the craft and can separate themselves as being color correction artists. What is really going to change is that everyone up and down the post workflow at larger post houses will be able to be much more creative and efficient, while small boutique shops and freelancers can offer their clients a full set of post production services.

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
Speed and flexibility. Because with everyone now collaborating and the colorist being part of every part of the post process, you will be asked to do things immediately… and in any format. So if you are not able to work in real time or with whatever footage format thrown at you, they will find someone who can.

This also comes with the challenge of changing the old notion that the colorist is one of the last people to touch a project. You will be asked to jump in early and often. Because every client would love to show early edits that are graded to get approvals faster.

FilmLight CEO Wolfgang Lempp
FilmLight designs, creates and manufactures color grading systems, image processing applications and workflow tools for the film and television industry

How has the finishing of color evolved recently?
When we started FilmLight 18 years ago, color management was comparatively simple: Video looked like video, and digital film was meant to look like film. And that was also the starting point for the DCI — the digital cinema standard tried to make digital projection look exactly like conventional cinema. This understanding lasted for a good 10 years, and even ACES today is very much built around film as the primary reference. But now we have an explosion of new technologies, new display devices and new delivery formats.

There are new options in resolution, brightness, dynamic range, color gamut, frame rate and viewing environments. The idea of a single deliverable has gone: There are just too many ways of getting the content to the viewer. That is certainly affecting the finishing process — the content has to look good everywhere. But there is another trend visible, too, which here in the UK you can see best on TV. The color and finishing tools are getting more powerful and the process is getting more productive. More programs than ever before are getting a professional color treatment before they go out, and they look all the better for it.

Either way, there is more work for the colorist and finishing house, which is of course something we welcome.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work?
Laser projection and HDR for cinema and TV are examples of what I described above. We have the color science and the tools to move comfortably between these different technologies and environments, in that the color looks “right,” but that is not the whole story.

The director and DP will choose to use a format that will best suit their story, and will shoot for their target environment. In SDR, you might have a bright window in an interior scene, for example, which will shape the frame but not get in the way of the story. But in HDR, that same window will be too bright, obliterate the interior scene and distract from the story. So you would perhaps frame it differently, or light up the interior to restore some balance. In other words, you have to make a choice.

HDR shouldn’t be an afterthought, it shouldn’t be a decision made after the shoot is finished. The DP wants to keep us on the edge of our seats — but you can’t be on the edge in HDR and SDR at the same time. There is a lot that can be done in post, but we are still a long way from recreating the multispectral, three-dimensional real world from the output of a camera.

HDR, of course, looks fantastic, but the industry is still learning how to shoot for best effect, as well as how to serve all the distribution formats. It might well become the primary mastering format soon, but SDR will never go away.

Where do you see the industry moving in the future?
For me, it is clear that as we have pushed resolution, frame rate, brightness and color gamut, it has affected the way we tell stories. Less is left to the imagination. Traditional “film style” gave a certain pace to the story, because there was the expectation that the audience was having to interpret, to think through to fill in the black screen in between.

Now technology has made things more explicit and more immersive. We now see true HDR cinema technology emerging with a brightness of 600 nits and more. Technology will continue to surge forward, because that is how manufacturers sell more televisions or projectors — or even phones. And until there is a realistic simulation of a full virtual reality environment, I don’t see that process coming to a halt. We have to be able to master for all these new technologies, but still ensure compatibility with existing standards.

What is the biggest challenge for color grading now and in the future?
Color grading technology is very much unfinished business. There is so much that can be done to make it more productive, to make the content look better and to keep us entertained.

Blackboard

As much as we might welcome all the extra work for our customers, generating an endless stream of versions for each program is not what color grading should be about. So it will be interesting to see how this problem will be solved. Because one way or another, it will have to be. But while this is a big challenge, it hopefully isn’t what we put all our effort into over the coming years.

BlackboardThe real challenge is to understand what makes us appreciate certain images over others. How composition and texture, how context, noise and temporal dynamics — not just color itself — affect our perception.

It is interesting that film as a capture medium is gaining popularity again, especially large-format capture. It is also interesting that the “film look” is still precious when it comes to color grading. It puts all the new technology into perspective. Filmmaking is storytelling. Not just a window to the world outside, replaced by a bigger and clearer window with new technology, but a window to a different world. And the colorist can shape that world to a degree that is limited only by her imagination.

Olympusat Entertainment Senior DI Colorist Jim Wicks
A colorist since 2007, Jim has been a senior DI colorist at Olympusat Entertainment since 2011. He has color restored hundreds of classic films and is very active in the color community.

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
The phrase I’m keying in on in your question is “most recently.” I believe the role of a colorist has been changing exponentially for the last several years, maybe longer. I would say that we are becoming, if we haven’t already, more like finishing artists. Color is now just one part of what we do. Because technologies are changing more rapidly than at any time I’ve witnessed, we now have a lot to understand and comprehend in addition to just color. There is ACES, HDR, changing color spaces, integrating VFX workflows into our timelines, laser projection and so on. The list isn’t endless, and it’s growing.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work?
For the time being, they do not impact my work. I am currently required to deliver in Rec.709. However, within that confine I am grading a wider range of media than ever before, such as 2K and 4K uncompressed DPX; Phantom Digital Video Files; Red Helium 8K in the IPP2 workspace; and much more. Laser projection and HDR is something that I continue to study by attending symposiums, or wherever I can find that information. I believe laser projection and HDR are important to know now. When the opportunity to work with laser projection and HDR is available to me, I plan to be ready.

Do you feel that DPs are working differently now that laser projection and the home HDR experiences are becoming more relevant?
Of course! At the very heart of every production, the cinematographer is the creator and author of the image. It is her creative vision. The colorist is the protector of that image. The cinematographer entrusts us with her vision. In this respect, the colorist needs to be in sync with the cinematographer as never before. As cinematographers move because of technology, so we move. It’s all about the deliverable and how it will be displayed. I see no benefit for the colorist and the cinematographer to not be on the same page because of changing technology.

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future and the long-range future?
In the near future: HDR, laser projection, 4K and larger and larger formats.

In the long-range future: I believe we only need to look to the past to see the changes that are inevitably ahead of us.

Technological changes forced film labs, telecine and color timers to change and evolve. In the nearly two decades since O Brother Where Art Thou? we no longer color grade movies the way we did back when the Coen classic was released in 2000. I believe it is inevitable: Change begets change. Nothing stays the same.

In keeping with the types of changes that came before, it is only a matter of time before today’s colorist is forced to change and evolve just as those before us were forced to do so. In this respect I believe AI technology is a game-changer. After all, we are moving towards driverless cars. So, if AI advances the way we have been told, will we need a human colorist in the future?

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
Not to sound like a “get off my lawn rant,” but education is the biggest challenge, and it’s a two-fold problem. Firstly, at many fine film schools in the US color grading is not taught as a degree-granting course, or at all.

Secondly, the glut of for-profit websites that teach color grading courses have no standardized curriculum, which wouldn’t be a problem, but at present there is no way to measure how much anyone actually knows. I have personally encountered individuals who claim to be colorists and yet do not know how to color grade. As a manager I have interviewed them — their resumes look strong, but their skills are not there. They can’t do the work.

What’s the best piece of work you’ve seen that you didn’t work on?
Just about anything shot by Roger Deakins. I am a huge fan of his work. Mitch Paulson and his team at Efilm did great work on protecting Roger’s vision for Blade Runner 2049.

Colorist David Rivero
This Madrid-born colorist is now based in China. He color grades and supervises the finishing of feature films and commercials, normally all versions, and often the trailers associated with them.

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
The line between strictly color grading and finishing is getting blurrier by the year. Although it is true there is still a clearer separation in the commercial world, on the film side the colorist has become the “de facto” finishing or supervising finishing artist. I think it is another sign of the bigger role the color grading is starting to play in post.

In the last two to three years I’ve noticed that fewer clients are looking at it as an afterthought, or as simply “color matching.” I’ve seen how the very same people went from a six- to seven-day DI schedule five years ago to a 20-day schedule now. The idea that spending a relatively small amount of extra time and budget on the final step can get you a far superior result is finally sinking in.

The tools and technology are finally moving into a “modern age” of grading:
– HDR is a game changer on the image-side of things, providing a noticeable difference for the audience and a different approach on our side on how to deal with all that information.

– The eventual acceptance by all color systems of what was traditionally compositing or VFX tools is also a turning point, although controversial. There are many that think that colorists should focus on grading. However, I think that rather than colorists becoming compositors, it is the color grading concept and mission that is (still) evolving.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work? And do you feel that DPs are working differently now that laser projection and the home HDR experiences are becoming more relevant?
Well, on my side of the world (China), the laser and HDR technologies are just starting to get to the public. Cinematographers are not really changing how they work yet, as it is a very small fraction of the whole exhibition system.

As for post, it requires a more careful way of handling the image, as it needs higher quality plates, compositions, CG, VFX, a more careful grade, and you can’t get away with as many tricks as you did when it was just SDR. The bright side is the marvelous images, and how different they can be from each other. I believe HDR is totally compatible with every style you could do in SDR, while opening the doors to new ones. There are also different approaches on shooting and lighting for cinematographers and CG artists.

Goldbuster

The biggest challenge it has created has been on the exhibition side in China. Although Dolby cinemas (Vision+Atmos) are controlled and require a specific pass and DCP, there are other laser projection theaters that show the same DCP being delivered to common (xenon lamp) theaters. This creates a frustrating environment. For example, during the 3D grading, you not only need to consider the very dark theaters with 3FL-3.5FL, but also the new laser rooms that are racking up their lamps to show off why they charge higher ticket prices with to 7FL-8FL.

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future and the long-range future?
I hope to see the HDR technologies settling and becoming the new standard within the next five to six years, and using this as the reference master from which all other deliveries are created. I also expect all these relative new practices and workflows (involving ACES, EXRs with the VFX/CG passes, non-LUT deliveries) to become more standardized and controlled.

In the long term, I could imagine two main changes happening, closely related to each other:
– The concept of grading and colorist, especially in films or long formats, evolving in importance and relationship within the production. I believe the separation or independence between photography and grading will get wider (and necessary) as tools evolve and the process is more standardized. We might get into something akin to how sound editors and sound mixers relate and work together on the sound.

– The addition of (serious) compositing in essentially all the main color systems is the first step towards the possibilities of future grading. A feature like the recent FaceRefinement in Resolve is one of the things I dreamed about five or six years ago.

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
Nowadays one of the biggest challenges is possibly the multi-mastering environment, with several versions on different color spaces, displays and aspect ratios. It is becoming easier, but it is still more painful than it should be.

Shrinking margins is something that also hurts the whole industry. We all work thanks to the benefits, but cutting on budgets and expecting the same results is not something that is going to happen.

What’s the best piece of work you’ve seen that you didn’t work on?
The Revanant, Mad Max, Fury and 300.

Carbon Colorist Aubrey Woodiwiss
Full-service creative studio Carbon has offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
It is always evolving, and the tools are becoming ever more powerful, and camera formats are becoming larger with more range and information in them. Probably the most significant evolution I see is a greater understanding of color science and color space workflows.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work? And do you feel that DPs are working differently now that laser projection and the home HDR experiences are becoming more relevant?
These elements impact how footage is viewed and dealt with in post. As far as I can see, it isn’t affecting how things are shot.

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future? What about in the long-range future?
I see formats becoming larger, viewing spaces and color gamuts becoming wider, and more streaming- and laptop-based technologies and workflows.

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
The constant challenge is integrating the space you traditionally color grade in to how things are viewed outside of this space.

What’s the best piece of work you’ve seen that you didn’t work on?
Knight of Cups, directed by Terrence Malick with cinematography by Emanuel Lubezki.

Ntropic Colorist Nick Sanders
Ntropic creates and produces work for commercials, music videos, and feature films as well as experiential and interactive VR and AR media. They have locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.

How has the finishing of color evolved most recently?
SDR grading in Rec.709 and 2.4 Gamma is still here, still looks great, and will be prominent for a long time. However, I think we’re becoming more aware of how exciting grading in HDR is, and how many creative doors it opens. I’ve noticed a feeling of disappointment when switching from an HDR to an SDR version of a project, and wondered for a second if I’m accidentally viewing the ungraded raw footage, or if my final SDR grade is actually as flat as it appears to my eyes. There is a dramatic difference between the two formats.

HDR is incredible because you can make the highlights blisteringly hot, saturate a color to nuclear levels or keep things mundane and save those heavier-handed tools in your pocket for choice moments in the edit where you might want some extra visceral impact.

How has laser projection and HDR impacted the work? And do you feel that DPs are working differently now that laser projection and the home HDR experiences are becoming more relevant?
In one sense, cinematographers don’t need to do anything differently. Colorists are able to create high-quality SDR and HDR interpretations of the exact same source footage, so long as it was captured in a high-bit-depth raw format and exposed well. We’re even seeing modern HDR reimaginings of classic films. Movies as varied in subject matter as Saving Private Ryan and the original Blade Runner are coming back to life because the latitude of classic film stocks allows it. However, HDR has the power to greatly exaggerate details that may have otherwise been subtle or invisible in SDR formats, so some extra care should be taken in projects destined for HDR.

Extra contrast and shadow detail mean that noise is far more apparent in HDR projects, so ISO and exposure should be adjusted on-set accordingly. Also, the increased highlight range has some interesting consequences in HDR. For example, large blown-out highlights, such as overexposed skies, can look particularly bad. HDR can also retain more detail and color in the upper ranges in a way that may not be desirable. An unremarkable, desaturated background in SDR can become a bright, busy and colorful background in HDR. It might prove distracting to the point that the DP may want to increase his or her key lighting on the foreground subjects to refocus our attention on them.

Panasonic “PvP”

Where do you see the industry moving in the near future? What about the long-range future?
I foresee more widespread adoption of HDR — in a way that I don’t with 3D and VR — because there’s no headset device required to feel and enjoy it. Having some HDR nature footage running on a loop is a great way to sell a TV in Best Buy. Where the benefits of another recent innovation, 4K, are really only detectable on larger screens and begin to deteriorate with the slightest bit of compression in the image pipeline, HDR’s magic is apparent from the first glance.

I think we’ll first start to see HDR and SDR orders on everything, then a gradual phasing out of the SDR deliverables as the technology becomes more ubiquitous, just like we saw with the standard definition transition to HD.

For the long-range, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a phasing out of projectors as LED walls become more common for theater exhibitions due to their deeper black levels. This would effectively blur the line between technologies available for theater and home for good.

What is the biggest challenge you see for the color grading process now and beyond?
The lack of a clear standard makes workflow decisions a little tricky at the moment. One glaring issue is that consumer HDR displays don’t replicate the maximum brightness of professional monitors, so there is a question of mastering one’s work for the present, or for the near future when that higher capability will be more widely available. And where does this evolution stop? 4,000 nits? 10,000 nits?

Maybe a more pertinent creative challenge in the crossover period is which version to grade first, SDR or HDR, and how to produce the other version. There are a couple of ways to go about it, from using LUTs to initiate and largely automate the conversion to starting over from scratch and regrading the source footage in the new format.

What’s the best piece of work you’ve seen that you didn’t work on?
Chef’s Table on Netflix was one of the first things I saw in HDR; I still think it looks great!

Main Image: Courtesy of Jim Wicks.


Netflix’s Lost in Space: mastering for Dolby Vision HDR, Rec.709

There is a world of difference between Netflix’s ambitious science-fiction series Lost in Space (recently renewed for another 10 episodes) and the beloved but rather low-tech, tongue-in-cheek 1960s show most fondly remembered for the repartee between persnickety Dr. Smith and the rather tinny-looking Robot. This series, starring Molly Parker, Toby Stevens and Parker Posey (in a very different take on Dr. Smith), is a very modern, VFX-intensive adventure show with more deeply wrought characters and elaborate action sequences.

Siggy Ferstl

Colorist Siggy Ferstl of Company 3 devoted a significant amount of his time and creative energy to the 10-episode release over the five-and-a-half-month period the group of 10 episodes was in the facility. While Netflix’s approach to dropping all 10 episodes at once, rather than the traditional series schedule of an episode a week, fuels excitement and binge-watching among viewers, it also requires a different kind of workflow, with cross-boarded shoots across multiple episodes and different parts of episodes coming out of editorial for color grading throughout the story arc. “We started on episode one,” Ferstl explains, “but then we’d get three and portions of six and back to four, and so on.”

Additionally, the series was mastered both for Dolby Vision HDR and Rec.709, which added additional facets to the grading process over shows delivered exclusively for Rec.709.

Ferstl’s grading theater also served as a hub where the filmmakers, including co-producer Scott Schofield, executive producer Zack Estrin and VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani could see iterations of the many effects sequences as they came in from vendors (Cinesite, Important Looking Pirates and Image Engine, among others).

Ferstl himself made use of some new tools within Resolve to create a number of effects that might once have been sent out of house or completed during the online conform. “The process was layered and very collaborative,” says Ferstl. “That is always a positive thing when it happens but it was particularly important because of this series’ complexity.”

The Look
Shot by Sam McCurdy, the show’s aesthetic was designed, “to have a richness and realness to the look,” Ferstl explains. “It’s a family show but it doesn’t have that vibrant and saturated style you might associate with that. It has a more sophisticated kind of look.”

One significant alteration to the look involves changes to the environment of the planet onto which the characters crash land. The filmmakers wanted the exteriors to look less Earthlike with foliage a bit reddish, less verdant than the actual locations. The visual effects companies handled some of the more pronounced changes, especially as the look becomes more extreme in later episodes, but for a significant amount of this work, Ferstl was able to affect the look in his grading sessions — something that until recently would likely not have been achievable.

Ferstl, who has always sought out and embraced new technology to help him do his job, made use of some features that were then brand new to Resolve 14. In the case of the planet’s foliage, he made use of the Color Compressor tool within the OpenFX tab on the color corrector. “This allowed me take a range of colors and collapse that into a single vector of color,” he explains. “This lets you take your selected range of colors, say yellows and greens in this case, and compress them in terms of hue, saturation and luminance.” Sometimes touted as a tool to give colorists more ability to even out flesh tones, Ferstl applied the tool to the foliage and compressed the many shades of green into a narrower range prior to shifting the resulting colors to the more orange look.

“With foliage you have light greens and darker greens and many different ranges within the color green,” Ferstl explains. “If we’d just isolated those ranges and turned them orange individually, it wouldn’t give us the same feel. But by limiting the range and latitude of those greens in the Color Compressor and then changing the hue we were able to get much more desirable results.” Of course, Ferstl also used multiple keys and windows to isolate the foliage that needed to change from the elements of the scenes that didn’t.

He also made use of the Camera Shake function, which was particularly useful in a scene in the second episode in which an extremely heavy storm of sharp hail-like objects hits the planet, endangering many characters. The storm itself was created at the VFX houses, but the additional effect of camera shake on top of that was introduced and fine-tuned in the grade. “I suggested that we could add the vibration, and it worked very well,” he recalls. By doing the work during color grading sessions, Ferstl and the filmmakers in the session could see that effect as it was being created, in context and on the big screen, and could fine-tune the “camera movement” right then and there.

Fortunately, the colorist notes, the production afforded the time to go back and revise color decisions as more episodes came into Company 3. “The environment of the planet changes throughout. But we weren’t coloring episodes one after the other. It was really like working on a 10-hour feature.

“If we start at episode one and jump to episode six,” Ferstl notes, “exactly how much should the environment have changed in-between? So it was a process of estimating where the look should land but knowing we could go back and refine those decisions if it proved necessary once we had the surrounding episodes for context.”

Dolby Vision Workflow
As most people reading this know, mastering in high dynamic range (Dolby Vision in this case) opens up the possibility of working within a significantly expanded contrast range and wider color gamut over Rec.709 standard for traditional HD. Lost in Space was mastered concurrently for both, which required Ferstl to use Dolby’s workflow. And this involves making all corrections for the HDR version and then allowing the Dolby hardware/software to analyze the images to bring them into the Rec.709 space for the colorist to do a standard-def pass.

Ferstl, who worked with two Sony X-300 monitors, one calibrated for Rec.709 and the other for HDR, explains, “Everyone is used to looking at Rec. 709. Most viewers today will see the show in Rec.709 and that’s really what the clients are most concerned with. At some point, if HDR becomes the dominant way people watch television, then that will probably change. But we had to make corrections in HDR and then wait for the analysis to show us what the revised image looked like for standard dynamic range.”

He elaborates that while the Dolby Vision spec allows the brightest whites to read at 4000 nits, he and the filmmakers preferred to limit that to 1000 nits. “If you let highlights go much further than we did,” he says, “some things can become hard to watch. They become so bright that visual fatigue sets in after too long. So we’d sometimes take the brightest portions of the frame and slightly clamp them,” he says of the technique of holding the brightest areas of the frame to levels below the maximum the spec allows.

“Sometimes HDR can be challenging to work with and sometimes it can be amazing,” he allows. Take the vast vistas and snowcapped mountains we first see when the family starts exploring the planet. “You have so much more detail in the snow and an amazing range in the highlights than you could ever display in Rec.709,” he says.

“In HDR, the show conveys the power and majesty of these vast spaces beyond what viewers are used to seeing. There are quite a few sections that lend themselves to HDR,” he continues. But as with all such tools, it’s not always appropriate to the story to use the extremes of that dynamic range. Some highlights in HDR can pull the viewer’s attention to a portion of the frame in a way that simply can’t be replicated in Rec. 709 and, likewise, a bright highlight from a practical or a reflection in HDR can completely overpower an image that tells the story perfectly in standard dynamic range. “The tools can re-map an image mathematically,” Ferstl notes, “but it still requires artists to interpret an image’s meaning and feel from one space to the other.”

That brings up another question: How close do you want the HDR and the Rec.709 to look to each other when they can look very different? Overall, the conclusion of all involved on the series was to constrain the levels in the HDR pass a bit in order to keep the two versions in the same ballpark aesthetically. “The more you let the highlights go in HDR,” he explains, “the harder it is to compress all that information for the 100-nit version. If you look at scenes with the characters in space suits, for example, they have these small lights that are part of their helmets and if you just let those go in HDR, those lights become so distracting that it becomes hard to look at the people’s faces.”

Such decisions were made in the grading theater on a case by case basis. “It’s not like we looked at a waveform monitor and just said, ‘let’s clamp everything above this level,’” he explains, “it was ultimately about the feeling we’d get from each shot.”


Color for Feature Films

By Karen Maierhofer

Just as with episodic series, making the right color choices can greatly impact a film and its storytelling. While the look and mood of a project is set by the director and DP, colorists face creative decisions while delivering those desired results, even when nature or other factors prevent it from being captured on set.

As a result of their work, colorists help set the atmosphere, tone, emotion and depth of a project. They help guide storylines and audiences’ reactions to what is playing out on screen. They can make us happy, sad, scared or thrilled. And, they can make us fall in love, or out of love, with a character.

Here we look at three tent-pole films and their color process.

Deadpool 2
Like the original film, Deadpool 2 is colorful, especially when it comes to the overall tone of the character and action. However, that was the focus of the writers. Deluxe’s Efilm colorist, Skip Kimball, was concerned with the visual look of the movie, one that delivered a filmic style for the over-the-top destruction and gore playing out on the screen.

Amid the movie’s chaos, Kimball used understated saturation and limited contrast, with minimal stylization to preserve the on-set lighting choices of DP Jonathan Sela.

Skip Kimball

The working relationship between Kimball and Sela dates back nearly 15 years and spans several projects, including The Omen, Die Hard 5 and Max Payne, resulting in an informal shorthand of sorts between the two that enables them to dial in looks quickly. “Jonathan’s work is consistently great, and that makes my job easier. I simply help his on-set choices shine further,” says Kimball.

Despite the popularity of the original Deadpool, which Kimball did not work on, there was no directive to use that film as a guide for the sequel. Kimball attacked Deadpool 2 using Blackmagic Resolve, working with the raw camera footage whenever possible, as long as it was not a visual effects shot. “I get what the DP had exposed onto my screen, and then the DP and director come in and we discuss the look and feel of their project. Then I just kind of make things happen on the screen,” Kimball says, noting he prefers to work alongside the DP and director in the same room, as he can pick up on certain body language, “so I am making a change before they ask for it.”

At times, the DP and director will provide stills of examples they have in mind for certain shots, although mostly Kimball gets his direction from discussions they have. And that is exactly how they proceeded with Deadpool 2 — through discussions with the DP mostly. “It was kind of desaturated and low contrast in spots, while other shots had a lot more chroma in them, depending on the scene,” says Kimball.

One sequence Kimball particularly likes in the film is the prison scene with Deadpool and the young mutant Firefist. “It’s just a different look, with lots of cyans and greens. It’s not a typical look,” he says. “We were trying to make it feel uncomfortable, not a pleasant place to be.”

According to Kimball, the biggest challenge he faced on Deadpool 2 was managing all the VFX drop-ins. This required him to start with plates in his timeline, then update it accordingly as VFX shots were delivered from multiple vendors. In some instances, Kimball blended multiple versions of the effects to achieve director David Leitch’s vision. “There were a lot of VFX houses working on various shots, and part of my job is to help get them all to flow and look [unified],” he adds.

One of those VFX vendors was Efilm’s sister company, Method Studios, which provided approximately 300 VFX shots. As Kimball points out, it is more convenient when the VFX are done in-house with the coloring. “You can walk down the hall and bring [the VFX team] in to show them what you’re doing with their shots,” he says. “When it’s done out of house and you want to grade something a certain way and have to push it so far to where it breaks the visual effect, then you have to get them on the phone and ask them come in or send them examples of where the scene is going.”

In addition to Deadpool 2’s overall cinematic style, the film contains unique flashback and afterlife sequences that are differentiated from the main action through varied light and color. A lot of the afterlife glow was accomplished on set through in-camera filters and angled light rays, though Kimball augmented that further through additional glow, warm sepia tones and light VFX within Resolve.

“They wanted it to stand out and the audience to recognize immediately that it is a flashback,” he explains. “It was fun to create because that was all done in Resolve, with color correction and power windows, along with the OpenFX plug-ins.” Kimball explains he blurred unimportant scene elements and used a tilt lens effect. “For color, they went with a desaturated cyan feel and warmth in the highlights to create a dreamy quality that’s also a bit spooky,” he adds.

This film required many output formats — UHD, HD, HDR10 and IMAX. In addition, Kimball color graded all the promotional trailers, home entertainment release, and the related music video for Celine Dion’s Ashes.

When asked what sets this project apart from many of the others he has done, Kimball pondered the answer before responding, “It’s hard to say because it is all instinctual to me.”

Fans have many favorite scenes in the film, but for Kimball, it’s not so much about the individual sequences that make the movie memorable, but rather it’s about bringing it all together and making everything flow. He adds, “Executing the vision of the director, you know.”

Black Panther
One of the hottest movies of the year so far is Marvel’s Black Panther, a film about a prince who, after the death of his father, returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. His path isn’t easy, though, and he must fight for the right to lead his people. Technicolor colorist Maxine Gervais was charged with creating a distinctive look as the movie jumped from conventional cities to the isolated, yet technologically advanced, nation of Wakanda. To handle the huge workload, her team called on a network of six or more FilmLight Baselight color grading workstations, operating simultaneously.

Maxine Gervais

“We knew that this was a fantasy movie with big themes and a strong story,” says Gervais, adding that since the film wasn’t an established franchise but a completely new departure, it gave the team more creative freedom. On most Marvel movies you have a sequel to match. Characters’ wardrobes, skin colors, sets, but on Black Panther everything was new so we didn’t have to match a particular aesthetic. We were creating a new world. The only scene where we needed to somewhat match in tones was to Captain America: Civil War, a flashback of Black Panther’s father’s death. Everything else was literally a ‘blank’ canvas in some ways — rich warm tones, colorful, darker filmic scenes.”

Gervais worked very closely with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison, ASC, (Mudbound) to create colors that would follow the film’s story. “We wanted the film and photography to feel real, unlike most superhero movies,” explains Morrison. “Our aim was to highlight the beauty of Africa. And like all of our work, we were hoping for a subjectivity and clear point of view.”

Black Panther has very distinct settings and looks,” added Gervais. “Wakanda is this magical, futuristic African nation, with a lush colorful world the audience has never experienced. Then you have the darker reality of cityscapes in Oakland, plus the lab scenes, which have a more sterile look with cooler colors and tones.”

According to Gervais, for her, the most demanding part of the grade was the jungle scenes. “It was shot at night, so to keep all the detail we needed to see, and to make it feel organic, I ended up grading in multiple levels.” Cinematographer Morrison agrees: “The jungle scene was the biggest challenge. It was shot interior on a sound stage and had a bit of a ‘set’ feel to it. We knocked everything down and then really worked to amplify the contrast in the background.”

“We were both looking for a high sensitivity for contrast, deep blacks and shadows and a strong, rich image. I think we achieved that very well,” says Gervais. “The way we did this was almost in reverse engineering. We isolated a different part of the image to bring it up or down add contrast or remove it. You don’t want the cars to be shiny; you want minimum light reflection on cars, but you do want a bit of moonlight hitting foliage, etc. You want to see faces but everything should still be very dark as it is deep in a forest. We took down strong highlights but we also added highlights where they were mostly absent. I followed Rachel’s directions on this and worked it until she was happy with it.”

Looking back on how it started, Gervais says, “We first looked at an Avid output of the movie with Ryan (Coogler), Rachel and executives. Some of the VFX had a CDL applied from Ryan’s notes. As the movie played we could all call out comments, ideas. I wrote down everything to have a general feel for what was being said, and for my first pass Rachel gave me some notes about specific scenes where she was after a rich contrast look. This was very much a team effort. Before any supervised session with director, DP and executives, I would sit with 3D supervisor Evan Jacobs and VFX supervisor Geoffrey Baumann and review my first pass with notes that were taken from session to session. This way, we could make sure we were all going down the right path. Ryan and Rachel are wonderful to work with. They are both passionate and have a strong vision of what they want. I really enjoyed working with them — we were all new to the Marvel world.”

When it came to deliverables, multiple variations were required: 2D and 3D, laser projector as well as standard digital cinema. It is also available in IMAX, and of course there are multiple home video versions as well. “To complete all the work within the tight deadline, we extended the team for the first time in my career,” explains Gervais. “My assistant colorist Jeff Pantaleo and I went on to rotoscoping a lot of the shots and tried to avoid using too many mattes so it would simplify other deliveries like 3D. Then we had a team dedicated to offset all the shapes for 3D. Thankfully, Baselight 5.0 includes tools to speed up the way shapes are translated, so this helped a great deal. We ended up with a huge number of layers and shapes.

Creating the futuristic scenes and superhero action inevitably meant that the movie was highly reliant on VFX, featuring 2,500 shots within 134 minutes. Ensuring that the large team could keep track of VFX required extensions to Baselight’s Categories function, which made it immediately obvious which shots were temporary and which were final on the client monitor. This proved essential to keeping the project on track.

Overall, Gervais loved her first Marvel movie, and all the challenges it brought. “It was an amazing experience to work with all these talented people,” she says. “On Black Panther, I used way more composite grading than I have ever done before, blending many layers. I had to push the technology and push myself to find ways to make it work. And I think it turned out pretty good.”

Gervais has also employed Baselight on some upcoming titles, including Albert Hughes’ Alpha and director Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
One of the most revered movie series in history is Star Wars. Fans are not simply fans, they are superfans who hold dearly all tenets associated with the franchise — from the details of the ships to the glow of the lasers to the nuances of the characters and more. So, when color grading a film in the Star Wars universe, the colorist has to appease not only the DP and director, but also has to be cognizant of the galaxy of fans with their ultra-critical eye.

Joe Gawler

Such was the pressure facing Joe Gawler when color grading the recent Solo: A Star Wars Story, one of the two stand-alone Star Wars features. Directed by Ron Howard, with cinematography by Bradford Young, Solo follows the antics of young Han Solo and his gang of smugglers as they plan to steal coaxium from the planet Kessel.

While on the project, Gawler was immersed in the lore of Star Wars from many fronts, including working out of the famed Skywalker Ranch. “The whole creative team was at the Ranch for four weeks to get the color done,” he says, attributing the film’s large amount of visual effects for the extended timeframe. “As the new shots were rolling in from ILM, we would add them into the timeline and continue color grading.”

Harbor Picture Company’s Gawler, who usually works out of the studio’s New York office, stepped into this production during its early stages, visiting the London set where he, along with Young, helped finalize the aesthetic and look for the show’s look-up table, through which the movie would be lit on set and dailies would be created. Meanwhile, on set, any changes the dailies colorist Darren Rae made were passed through to VFX and to final color as a CDL (color decision list) file.

In fact, Solo introduced a number of unique factors to Gawler’s typical workflow. Among them was working on a film with so many visual effects — a hallmark of any Star Wars feature, but far more than any production he has color corrected in the past. Also, while he and Young participated in tweaking the LUT, it was created by ILM senior image and process engineer J. Schulte. Indeed, the film’s color pipeline was both developed and managed through ILM, where those fabled visual effects were crafted.

“That was something new to me,” Gawler says about the pipeline establishment. “There were some specific lasers, lights and things that are all part of the Star Wars world that were critical to ILM, and we had to make sure we got just the right hue and level of saturation. Those kinds of colors can get a little crazy if they’re not managed properly through the color science,” he explains. “But the way they managed the color and the way the shots came in from ILM was so smooth and the work so good that it moved like principal photography through the process, which isn’t always the case with visual effects, in my experience.”

So, by the time Gawler was at Skywalker Ranch, he had an informed timeline and CDL values, such as the actual dailies and decisions made for the production, already sitting inside his color correction, ready for him to decide what to use. He then spent a few days balancing out the shots before Young joined him and they dug in. “We’ve been working together for such a long time, and there’s a level of trust between us,” Gawler says of his relationship with the DP.

The pair started working together on an indie project called Pariah — which won the Excellence in Cinematography: Dramatic at Sundance in 2011 — and continued to do so as their resumes grew. Last year, they worked together on Arrival (2016), which led to a Best Cinematography Academy Award nomination for Young. “And now, holy cow, he is shooting a Star Wars film,” says Gawler. “It’s been one of those special relationships everyone dreams of having, where you find a director of photography you connect with, and you go places together.”

Gawler used Resolve for his color grading. He and Young would work alongside each other for a few days, then would meet with Howard. “It is such a big movie, and I was really pleasantly surprised at what a creatively collaborative experience it was,” he notes. “Ron respects Bradford, his editors, his sound mixers and me as a colorist, so he would take in whatever we were presenting to him and then comment. Everyone had such a wonderful energy on the show. It felt like every single person on the VFX team, editorial team, director, producers, Bradford and I were all rowing the boat in the same direction.”

The work Gawler does with Young is kept as natural as possible, with the light that is available. “His work is so good that we generally refrain from doing too much power windowing and secondaries. We only do that when absolutely necessary,” he says. “We try to keep more of a photo-chemical feel to the images, like you would have if you printed on film.”

Young, Gawler contends, is known for a dark, underlit aesthetic. But on this particular film, they didn’t want to go too dark — though it does have Young’s classic underlit, subtle hue. “We were making an effort to print up the image, so it almost felt like it had been flashed in processing,” he explains. “We had to find that balance of having it bright enough to see things we needed to see clearly, without compromising how Bradford shot the movie to begin with. The image is very committed; it’s not the most flexible thing to make his photography look like 20 different things.”

As a result, plenty of time was spent with the on-set lighting. “So, a lot of the work was just staying true to what was done on the day of the shoot,” he adds.

Solo is like most Star Wars films, with diverse locations and setups, though there are a few scenes that stand out in Gawler’s mind, including the one at the beginning of the film with the underground lair of Lady Proxima, which shows tunnels spanning the city. The sequence was shot with a blacklight, with lots of blues and purples. “We had a very narrow bandwidth of color to work with, but we wanted to back away from it feeling too electric to something that felt more organic,” he explains. “We spent a lot of time homing in on what kind of saturation and formality it would have.”

The scene Gawler spent the most time on, though, was the heist aboard a special train that weaves through snow-capped mountains. “That’s the biggest, longest, most cutty action sequence in the entire movie,” he says. “We had all these exterior plates shot in the Dolomites [in Spain]. We spent a tremendous amount of time just trying to get everything to match just right on the cut.”

All told, Gawler estimates the sequence alone contains 600 to 700 cuts. And he had to create a progression, wherein the characters drop down on top of the train before dawn’s first light, when it’s dark and cool, and the heist occurs during sunrise as the train rounds a bend. “We made sure they were happy with how every shot cut from one to the next and how it progressed [time-wise]. It was probably our biggest challenge and our biggest success,” he says. “It really gets the audience going.”

Most of Solo’s scenes were shot on stage, in highly controlled environments. However, scenes that occur on the planet Savareen were filmed in the Canary Islands, where wind and weather became factors, with shifting clouds and light. “I felt that it was one of the few spots in the movie where it was up to the colorist to try and pull all these different types of shots together,” notes Gawler, “and it was beautiful. It felt a little like a Western, with this standoff. It comes right after a chase with the TIE fighters and Millennium Falcon in space, and then Boom! You’re on this desert-like planet with a blaring sun and sand and dust everywhere.”

Another standout for Gawler was the large number of deliverables. Once the master was locked and approved (the grade was done in 4K) with support from Efilm in Hollywood, they had to sit with an IMAX colorist to make sure the work translated properly to that format. Then they moved to Dolby Vision, whose laser projector has a much greater range of contrast and brightness than a halogen digital cinema projector. “I give credit to J Schulte at ILM. He had these output display lookup tables for each flavor of delivery. So, it wasn’t a heavy lift for me to go from what we did at the Ranch to sitting in the Dolby cinema theater, where we spent maybe another three days tweaking everything,” he adds.

And then there was a 3D version and a Dolby 3D version of Solo, along with those for home video, 3D for home video, RealD 3D, and Dolby Vision’s home theater. “Being a colorist from New York, I don’t generally get a lot of tent-pole films with so many different flavors of deliverables,” Gawler says.

But this is not just any tent-pole. It’s Star Wars.

Throughout the project, that fact was always in the back of Gawler ’s mind. “This is a real part of culture — pop culture, film culture. There’s all this lore. You work on other projects and hope the film is going to find an audience. But with Star Wars, there’s no doubt millions of people are going to see it,” he adds.


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


A colorist weighs in on ‘the new world’ of HDR

By Maxine Gervais

HDR is on many people’s minds these days. Some embrace it, some are hesitant and some simply do not like the idea.

But what is HDR really? I find that manufacturers often use the term too loosely. Anything that offers higher dynamic range can fall into the HDR category, but let’s focus on the luminance and greater contrast ratio brought by HDR.

We have come a long way in the last 12 years — from film prints to digital projection. This was a huge shift, and one could argue it happened relatively fast. Since then, technology has been on the fast forward.

Film allows incredible capture of detail information in large formats, and when digital was first introduced we couldn’t say the same. At the time, cameras were barely capable of capturing true 2K and wide dynamic range. Many would shoot film and scan it into digital files hoping to preserve more of the dynamic range offered by film. Eventually, cameras got better and film started to disappear, mostly for convenience and cost reasons.

Through all this, target devices (projectors and monitors) stayed pretty much the same. Monitors went from CRT to plasma to LCD, but kept the same characteristics. For monitors, everything was in a Rec.709 color space and a luminance of 100 nits. Projectors were in the P3 colors space, but with a lower luminance of about 48 nits.

Maxine at work on the FilmLight Baselight.

Philosophically, one could argue that all creative intent was in some ways limited by the display. The files might of held much more information than the display was able to show. So, the aesthetics we learned to love were a direct result of the displays’ limitations.

What About Now?
Now, we are at the break in the revolution of these displays. With the introduction of OLEDs for monitors and laser projection for theaters, the contrast ratios, color spaces and luminance are now larger than before. It is now possible to see the details captured by cameras and or film. This allows for greater artistic freedom: since there is less limitation one can push the aesthetic to a new level.

However, that doesn’t mean all of a sudden everything is brighter and more colorful. It is very easy to create the same aesthetic one used to love, but it is now possible to bring to the screens details in shadows and highlights that were never an option prior. This even means better color separation. What creatives can do with “HDR” is still very much in their control.

The more difficult part is that HDR has not yet taken over theaters and or homes. If someone has set their look in a P3 48-nits world and is now asked to take this look into a 4000-nits P3 PQ display, it might be difficult to decide how to approach it. How do we maintain the original intent yet embrace what HDR has to offer? There are many ways to go about it, and not one is better than the other. You can redefine your look for the new displays, and in some ways have a new look that becomes its own entity, or you can mimic your original look, taking advantage of only a few elements of HDR.

The more we start using brighter luminance, bigger contrast ratio and color cube as our starting point, the more we will be able to future-proof and protect the creative intent. The afterthought of HDR, in terms of never having planned for it, is still something difficult to do and controversial in some cases.

The key is to have those philosophical discussions with creatives ahead of time and come up with a workflow that will have the expected results.

Main Image: Maxine Gervais working director Albert Hughes on his upcoming film, Alpha.


Maxine Gervais is a senior supervising colorist at Technicolor Hollywood.  Her past credits include Black Panther; The 15:17 to Paris; Pitch Perfect 3 and American Sniper.


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.


HPA Tech Retreat: The production budget vs. project struggle

“Executive producers often don’t speak tech language,” said Aaron Semmel, CEO and head of BoomBoomBooya, in addressing the HPA Tech Retreat audience Palm Springs in late February. “When people come to us with requests and spout all sorts of tech mumbo jumbo, it’s very easy for us to say no,” he continued. “Trust me, you need to speak to us in our language.”

Semmel was part of a four-person HPA panel that included Cirina Catania, The Catania Group; Larry O’Connor, OWC Digital; and Jeff Stansfield, Advantage Video Systems. Moderated by Andy Marken of Marken Communications, the panel explored solutions that can bring the executive and line producers and the production/post teams closer together to implement the right solutions for every project and satisfy everyone, including accounting.

An executive and co-producer on more than a dozen film and TV series projects, Semmel said his job is to bring together the money and then work with the best creative people possible. He added that the team’s job was to make certain the below-the-line items — actual production and post production elements — stay on or below budget.

Semmel noted that most executive producers often work off of the top sheet of the budget, typically an overview of the budget. He explained that executive producers may go through all of the budget and play with numbers here and there but leave the actual handling of the budget to the line producer and supervising producer. In this way, they can “back into” a budget number set by the executive producer.

“I understand the technologies at a higher level and could probably take a highlighter and mark budget areas where we could reduce our costs, but I also know I have very experienced people on the team who know the technologies better than I do to make effective cuts.

L-R: Jeff Stansfield, Aaron Semmel, Cirina Catania

“For example, in talking with many of you in the audience here at the Retreat, I learned that there’s no such thing as an SSD hard drive,” he said. “I now know there are SSDs and there are hard drives and they’re totally different.”

Leaning into her mic, Catania got a laugh when she said, “One of the first things we all have to do is bring our production workflows into the 21st century. But seriously, the production and post teams are occasionally not consulted during the lengthy budgeting process. Our keys can make some valuable contributions if they have a seat at the table during the initial stages. In terms of technology, we have some exciting new tools we’d like to put to work on the project that could save you valuable time, help you organize your media and metadata, and have a direct and immediate positive impact on the budget. What if I told you that you could save endless hours in post if you had software that helped your team enter metadata and prep for post during the early phase — and hardware that worked much faster, more securely and more reliably.”

With wide agreement from the audience, Catania emphasized that it is imperative for all departments involved in prep/production/post and distribution to be involved in the budget process from the outset.

“We know the biggest part of your budget might be above-the-line costs,” she continued. “But production, post and distribution are where much of the critical work also gets done. And if we’re involved at the outset, and that includes with people like Jeff (Stansfield), who can help us come up with creative workflow and financing options, that will save you and the investors’ money, we will surely turn a profit.”

Semmel said the production/post team could probably be of assistance in the early budget stages to pinpoint where work could be done more efficiently to actually improve the overall quality and ensure EPs do what they need to do for their reputation… deliver the best and be under budget.

The Hatfields and the McCoys via History Channel

“But for some items, there seem to be real constraints,” he emphasized. “For example, we were shooting America’s Feud: Hatfields & McCoys, a historical documentary in Romania — yes, Romania,” he grinned; “and we were behind schedule. We shot the farmhouse attack on day one, shot the burning of the house on day two and on day three we received our dailies to review for day one’s work. We were certain we had everything we needed so we took a calculated risk and burned the building,” he recalled. “But no one exhaled until we had a chance to go through the dailies.”

“What if I told you there’s a solution that will transfer your data at 2800MB/s and enable you to turn around your dailies in a couple of hours instead of a couple of days?” O’Connor asked.

Semmel replied, “I don’t understand the 2800MB/s stuff, but you clearly got my attention by saying dailies in a couple of hours instead of days. If there had been anything wrong with the content we had shot, we would have been faced with the huge added expense of rebuilding and reshooting everything,” he added. “Even accounting can understand the savings in hours vs. days.”

Semmel pointed out that because films and TV shows start and end digital, there’s always a concern about frames and segments being lost when you’re on location and a long distance from the safety net of your production facilities.

“No one likes that risk, including production/post leaders, integrators or manufacturers,” said O’Connor. “In fact, a lot of crews go to extraordinary lengths to ensure nothing is lost; and frankly, I don’t blame them.”

He recalled a film crew going to Haiti to shoot a documentary that was told by the airline they were over their limit on baggage for the trip.

“They put their clothes in an airport locker and put their three RAID storage systems in their backpacks. They wanted to make certain they could store, backup and backup their work again to ensure they had all of the content they needed when they got back to their production/post facility.”

Stansfield and Catania said they had seen and heard of similar gut-level decisions made by executive and line producers. They encouraged the production/post audience not to simply accept the line item budgets they are given to work with but be more involved at the beginning of the project to explore and define all of the below-the-line budget to minimize risk and provide alternative plans just in case unexpected challenges arise.

“An EP and line producer’s mantra for TV and film projects is you only get two out of three things: time, money and quality,” Semmel said. “If you can deliver all three, then we’ll listen, but you have to approach it from our perspective.

“Our budgets aren’t open purses,” he continued. “You have to make recommendations and deliver products and solutions that enable us to stay under budget, because no matter how neat they are or how gee-whiz technical they are, they aren’t going to be accepted. We have two very fickle masters — finance and viewer — so you have to give us the tools and solutions that satisfy both of them. Don’t give us bits, bytes and specs, just focus on meeting our needs in words we can understand.

“When you do that, we all win; and we can all work on the next project together,” Semmel concluded. “We only surround ourselves with people who will help us through the project. People who deliver.”


Mercy Christmas director offers advice for indie filmmakers

By Ryan Nelson

After graduating from film school at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I was punched in the gut. I had driven into Los Angeles mere hours after the last day of school ready to set Hollywood on fire with my thesis film. But Hollywood didn’t seem to know I’d arrived. A few months later, Hollywood still wasn’t knocking on my door. Desperate to work on film sets and learn the tools of the trade, I took a job as a grip. In hindsight, it was a lucky accident. I spent the next few years watching some of the industry’s most successful filmmakers from just a few feet away.

Like a sponge, I soaked in every aspect of filmmaking that I could from my time on the sets of Avengers, Real Steel, Spider Man 3, Bad Boys 2, Seven Psychopaths, Smokin’ Aces and a slew of Adam Sandler comedies. I spent hours working, watching, learning and judging. How are they blocking the actors in this scene? What sort of cameras are they using? Why did they use that light? When do you move the camera? When is it static? When I saw the finished films in theaters, I ultimately asked myself, did it all work?

During that same time, I wrote and directed a slew of my own short films. I tried many of the same techniques I’d seen on set. Some of those attempts succeeded and some failed.

Recently, the stars finally aligned and I directed my first feature-length film, Mercy Christmas, from a script I co-wrote with my wife Beth Levy Nelson. After five years of writing, fundraising, production and post production, the movie is finished. We made the movie outside the Hollywood system, using crowd funding, generous friends and loving family members to compile enough cash to make the ultra-low-budget version of the Mercy Christmas screenplay.

I say low budget because it was financially, but thanks to my time on set, years of practice and much trial and error, the finished film looks and feels like much more than it cost.

Mercy Christmas, by the way, features Michael Briskett, who meets the perfect woman and his ideal Christmas dream comes true when she invites him to her family’s holiday celebration. Michael’s dream shatters, however, when he realizes that he will be the Christmas dinner. The film is currently on iTunes.

My experience working professionally in the film business while I struggled to get my shot at directing taught me many things. I learned over those years that a mastery of the techniques and equipment used to tell stories for film was imperative.

The stories I gravitate towards tend to have higher concept set pieces. I really enjoy combining action and character. At this point in my career, the budgets are more limited. However, I can’t allow financial restrictions to hold me back from the stories I want to tell. I must always find a way to use the tools available in their best way.

Ryan Nelson with camera on set.

Two Cameras
I remember an early meeting with a possible producer for Mercy Christmas. I told him I was planning to shoot two cameras. The producer chided me, saying it would be a waste of money. Right then, I knew I didn’t want to work with that producer, and I didn’t.

Every project I do now and in the future will be two cameras. And the reason is simple: It would be a waste of money not to use two cameras. On a limited budget, two cameras offer twice the coverage. Yes, understanding how to shoot two cameras is key, but it’s also simple to master. Cross coverage is not conducive to lower budget lighting so stacking the cameras on a single piece of coverage gives you a medium shot and close shot at the same time. Or for instance, when shooting the wide master shot, you can also get a medium master shot to give the editor another option to breakaway to while building a scene.

In Mercy Christmas, we have a fight scene that consists of seven minutes of screen time. It’s a raucous fight that covers three individual fights happening simultaneously. We scheduled three days to shoot the fight. Without two cameras it would have taken more days to shoot, and we definitely didn’t have more days in the budget.

Of course, two camera rentals and camera crews are budget concerns, so the key is to find a lower budget but high-quality camera. For Mercy Christmas, we chose the Canon C-300 Mark II. We found the image to be fantastic. I was very happy with the final result. You can also save money by only renting one lens package to use for both cameras.

Editing
Good camera coverage doesn’t mean much without an excellent editor. Our editor for Mercy Christmas, Matt Evans, is a very good friend and also very experienced in post. Like me, Matt started at the bottom and worked his way up. Along the way, he worked on many studio films as apprentice editor, first assistant editor and finally editor. Matt’s preferred tool is Avid Media Composer. He’s incredibly fast and understands every aspect of the system.

Matt’s technical grasp is superb, but his story sense is the real key. Matt’s technique is a fun thing to witness. He approaches a scene by letting the footage tell him what to do on a first pass. Soaking in the performances with each take, Matt finds the story that the images want to tell. It’s almost as if he’s reading a new script based on the images. I am delighted each time I can watch Matt’s first pass on a scene. I always expect to see something I hadn’t anticipated. And it’s a thrill.

Color Grading
Another aspect that should be budgeted into an independent film is professional color grading. No, your editor doing color does not count. A professional post house with a professional color grader is what you need. I know this seems exorbitant for a small-budget indie film, but I’d highly recommend planning for it from the beginning. We budgeted color grading for Mercy Christmas because we knew it would take the look to professional levels.

Color grading is not only a tool for the cinematographer it’s a godsend for the director as well. First and foremost, it can save a shot, making a preferred take that has an inferior look actually become a usable take. Second, I believe strongly that color is another tool for storytelling. An audience can be as moved by color as by music. Every detail coming to the audience is information they’ll process to understand the story. I learned very early in my career how shots I saw created on set were accentuated in post by color grading. We used Framework post house in Los Angeles on Mercy Christmas. The colorist was David Sims who did the color and conform in DaVinci Resolve 12.

In the end, my struggle over the years did gain my one of my best tools: experience. I’ve taken the time to absorb all the filmmaking I’ve been surrounded by. Watching movies. Working on sets. Making my own.

After all that time chasing my dream, I kept learning, refining my skills and honing my technique. For me, filmmaking is a passion, a dream and a job. All of those elements made me the storyteller I am today and I wouldn’t change a thing.

The A-List: LBJ director Rob Reiner

By Iain Blair

Director/producer/actor Rob Reiner has long been one of Hollywood’s most reliable, successful and versatile talents. Over the past three decades he’s created a beloved body of work in a diverse mixture of styles and genres that includes comedy (When Harry Met Sally, The American President), fantasy-adventure (The Princess Bride), satire (This Is Spinal Tap), suspense (Misery) and drama (Stand By Me, A Few Good Men).

Writer Iain Blair and director Rob Reiner.

Now the co-founder of Castle Rock Entertainment, who first found fame as one of the stars of the long-running hit series All in the Family, has taken on the timely subjects of political in-fighting and civil rights in LBJ. After powerful Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (Woody Harrelson) loses the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to Senator John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), he agrees to be his young rival’s running mate. But once they win the election, despite his extensive legislative experience and shrewd political instincts, Johnson finds himself sidelined in the role of vice president. That all changes on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy is assassinated and Johnson, with his devoted wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by his side, is suddenly thrust into the presidency.

As the nation mourns, Johnson must contend with longtime adversary Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David) and one-time mentor Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) as he seeks to honor JFK’s legacy by championing the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In addition to an all-star cast that also includes Bill Pullman, Reiner assembled the below-the-line team of DP Barry Markowitz, editor Bob Joyce and composer Marc Shaiman.

I spoke with Reiner about making the film, which is getting a lot of awards and Oscar buzz — particularly for Harrelson’s performance — and his love of working quickly.

You don’t seem like someone who would jump at the chance to direct a film about LBJ. So what was the appeal of making this?
You’re right. I didn’t initially think I’d ever make a film about Johnson because I was draft age during Vietnam, and I hated LBJ. He was my enemy and could send me to my death. But I’m older now, and I’ve spent a lot of time in politics and crafting policy, and it’s given me a far greater understanding of what he was able to accomplish — domestically, at least, because his domestic policies and accomplishments are only second to FDR’s. You can’t ignore Vietnam of course, but had it not been for the war, he’d have gone down as one of the greatest presidents of all time.

So I thought, let’s take a look at him and really examine the man. I always thought of him as this bully, and a bull in a china shop, boorish and holding meetings while he’s using the toilet, and so on, but I did a lot of research, read a lot of books and got a much fuller picture of this complicated man. And two things struck me; he had a recurring nightmare where he was paralyzed, which I thought was very strange, and there was his relationship

with his mother, who withheld her love to him. It was very conditional, and he often felt unloved by her, which is also very interesting. So I wanted to use this narrow sliver of time, when he was facing his most challenging moments, to examine the man and his true nature.

Casting the right actor as LBJ is obviously crucial, but what made you choose Woody — who’s brilliant and a revelation — as Johnson?
No one thought it made sense when I told them Woody was starring. It was like, ‘Really?’ But first of all, he’s a Texan, and he’s a great actor, so I knew he could deliver the whole range needed, as he also has this very sensitive side. He also has this humanity and great sense of humor — so it was this all-in-one package.

Were you surprised by just how timely it’s become?
Completely, especially since we shot this way before Trump became president. It’s now become a different film, which is bizarre. I’ve never had a situation before like this, where I finished it, it was the film I set out to make, and then a few months later I’m looking at a totally different film — and I haven’t changed a frame. It’s so weird.

What were the main challenges of the shoot?
We did most of it in New Orleans, some in DC, and some in Dallas, which was the biggest challenge logistically. They only gave us six hours to shoot the motorcade assassination scenes in Dealey Plaza, so I planned it out very carefully and we used four cameras and 12 different angles. Period pieces are always tough, getting rid of modern stuff especially, so going in we knew all the problem areas with our locations and we had all the CGI stuff and post integrated into the budget and schedule from the start.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. I love shooting, but pulling together all the material with your editor and doing all the post is where you really make your movie.

Where did you post?
We did it in a couple of different places. Bob Joyce and I did the cutting at our Castle Rock offices, and then we did some other stuff and the DI at Local Hero, and I’m very involved in the DI. We spent a lot of time going through every shot. And I love working digital, as you can manipulate every frame if you want. (Local Hero’s Leandro Marini used Assimilate Scratch on a Silverdraft Demon workstation for the DI.)

Joyce cut your last feature film, Being Charlie. Tell us about that relationship, and the editing challenges.
He wasn’t on the set. We sent him dailies back here in LA, and he knows what I want. I don’t even talk to him. He did a rough assembly and then we start cutting when I got back. I don’t even look at dailies because I know exactly what I’m shooting. I start editing in my head as I go, but Bob might suggest getting an extra shot, and I’ll do that. I shoot very quickly, and we did this in just 27 days.

That’s amazingly fast for a film of this size and scope. Is it true you also edit quickly?
You won’t believe this, but we actually edited this in just one week. There’s a lot of interlocking pieces, but I’m a puzzle guy. I love crossword puzzles, all that stuff, and I knew exactly what I wanted. So we had our first cut in a week, then you show it and make changes. But they were all minor. We didn’t do any reshoots. Sometimes we’d add CGI and some archival footage. There was a whole section with civil rights protests on TV, and we also added a scene at a lunch counter, to add some flavor.

Period films always have a lot of VFX. Can you talk about them?
We built a certain amount, like the whole White House interior set, and then one of my favorite VFX shots is the whole motorcade coming out of the White House at the end. We shot that on a parking lot in New Orleans, and Pixel Magic composited in all the background, the White House, the gates and so on. Then the opening shot of Air Force One was a composite — we had nothing there. Same with the big scene at the Lockheed plant. Most of the planes there were VFX, and they also extended the hangar where we shot.There’s a lot of clean-up, changing store fronts, and we added crowd people to the extras in various scenes.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
I’ve done nearly every film with composer Marc Shaiman, who’s brilliant and so versatile. He wrote a great score, and then (supervising sound editor) Lon Bender has worked with me for a very long time. They’d build more tracks than I need, and then I would start weeding stuff out because I don’t want it too busy. My big thing is get the birds out of there. Too many birds!

What’s next?
I’ve got this idea for a 12-part streaming historical drama series, but it’s still a secret.


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.