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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.