By Randi Altman
After watching Mr. Robot when it premiered on USA Network last year, I changed all of my computer passwords and added a degree of difficulty that I’m proud of. I’m also not 100 percent convinced that my laptop’s camera isn’t on even when there’s no green light. That’s right, I completely and gleefully bought into the paranoia, and I wasn’t alone. Mr. Robot won Best Television Series Drama at this year’s Golden Globes, and one of the show’s supporting actors, Christian Slater, took home a statue.
The show, about a genius New York-based computer hacker (Rami Maleck) who believes corporations control, well, everything, has been getting its color grade by Laura Jans Fazio, lead colorist at Deluxe’s Encore, since its second episode.
If you watch any TV at all, you’ve very likely seen some of Jans Fazio’s work. Her resume lists House of Cards, Hawaii 5-0, Proof, Empire and The Lottery, and she’s currently gearing up to work on the updated Gilmore Girls and Lady Dynamite.
Jans Fazio was kind enough to take some time out from grading this upcoming season of House of Cards to chat about her work on Mr. Robot.
Were you on Mr. Robot from the very start?
Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, asked me to help out with one of the first scenes in the pilot — the one that took place in Ron’s Coffee Shop. We made some changes, Sam loved it and wanted me to hit the whole show, so I did!
What kind of direction were you given about the look of that scene?
For Ron’s Coffee Shop, the direction was, “just do your thing.” So I was fortunate enough to do my own thing on it, and make it what I felt it should be.
What about when you started the season?
That’s part of what coloring has been — at least in my career — trying to interpret what the client, or the creator, is saying to me, because everybody has a different way of describing things, whether they’re technically savvy or not. I have to take that description and interpret it, and apply that to the image through my tool set on the computer.
That’s the process for this show, like many others I’ve worked on… I’ve been lucky enough to be entrusted to just do what I think feels right, and then I wait for notes. And more often than not, my notes are pretty minimal.
So minimal notes on Mr. Robot?
It was either “go darker” or ” let’s change this room in its entirety — I want it to be colder, and I’m not feeling the emotion of the scene.” In other instances, I’ll take a scene that’s lit completely warm and I’ll go cool with it because I think it looks better. Then I’ll send it out and be happily pleased that it’s liked.
Can you describe a scene and give me an example?
The All Safe office, where Elliot worked, actually stayed similar to the pilot. The only difference was I took a lot of magenta out of it. So it had the feeling of a cold, sterile, distant corporate environment with a “working for the man” kind of feel. It’s not dark. It’s airy and lofty, but not airy in a good way. It basically allows the talent to come through — to see the emotion of what the characters are going through, and what they’re talking about. The rest just seems to melt behind them.
How do you build on what the DP Tod Campbell captures on set?
This is the way I approach all images — I take what I’ve got to work with, play with different styles of contrast, densities and color tones and let the image take me where it wants to be. How it feels in the story and what’s it’s cut against, and where are it’s going.
Usually I’ll tap into it straight away, but it’s always that way on the first episode or two of a new show, because you don’t really know where it needs to be. It’s kind of like the first color of paint that you put on a canvas that has been prepped — that’s not always the color that’s going to come through. It’s going to start out one way, and evolve as you go.
Sometimes colorists talk about being given stills or told to emulate the look of a certain film. It’s pretty amazing that they’re just saying, “Go.”
But that’s not always the case. There are many times where people come in with a photography coffee table book, and say, “I want this, this or that.” Or they will reference a movie from 1972 or say, “Let’s make it look like this Japanese film shot in 1942,” and I reference those clips.
That’s a common practice. In this situation I was approached based on my work on House of Cards and entrusted with Mr. Robot.
How do you prefer to work? Or do you enjoy both?
I enjoy both. It’s always good to get feedback, and I need an idea of what it is. When I saw the pilot for Mr. Robot, I of knew automatically what I would do with it.
Is there anything that stuck out from the season that you are most proud of?
The fact that the show is super dark. Dark is good. People are hesitant to do dark because they need to see what’s going on, but I look at it this way: if you’re in a dark forest and see an opening of light, that’s when you want to see more. And going dark was well received, both by the audience and my peers. That was cool.
Your tool of choice is FilmLight Baselight. Why do you like this particular system?
It’s just makes sense, from the way it allows you to layer colors and grade inside/outside, therefore eliminating keystrokes. It allows me to be really fast, and it deals with different color spaces and gammas. Also, the development always seems to be on the cutting edge of the latest technology coming from the camera manufacturers. They are also great about keeping up with where our business is going, including paying attention to different color spaces and HDR and VR.
Where do you find your inspiration?
It’s everywhere. I notice everything. I notice what somebody is wearing, what the colors are, where the contrasts lie and how the light is hitting them. I notice the paint sheens in a room and where the light that is falling onto objects and creating depth. I get lost online viewing design and color palettes and architecture and photography and gardens. The list goes on.
Growing up in New York, I was walking all the time and was just immersed in visual stimulation — from people, buildings, objects, architecture, art and design. I look to all of the man-made things, but I also look to nature, landscapes and skies… the color contrasts of it all.
What’s next for you, and how many shows do you work on at the same time?
Sometimes I’m on multiple shows within a week, and that overlaps. Right now, I’m doing Hawaii 5-0, House of Cards and Lady Dynamite. House of Cards will end soon, but Hawaii 5-0 will still be going on. Gilmore Girls will start up. Lady Dynamite will still be going, and then Robot will start. Then who knows what else is going to come in between those times.
That’s a lot.
The more the merrier!