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Helping color Kurt Cobain’s world for ‘Montage of Heck’

Company 3’s Shane Harris works with director Brett Morgen on this new documentary

Director Brett Morgen spent eight years putting together the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which tells the fascinating and tragic story of the Nirvana front man in a very intimate way via never-before-heard recordings and animations based on his mostly unseen drawings. There are also very personal home movies and interviews Morgen did with the artist’s mother, band mates, friends and wife, Courtney Love. The film played at the Tribeca Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release and is currently on HBO.

For Company 3 (@company3) colorist Shane Harris, who also worked with Morgen on the director’s Rolling Stones doc, Crossfire Hurricane, the sessions were particularly fascinating and rewarding both because of his longtime interest in Nirvana’s music and because of Morgen’s strong appreciation of the role color can play in telling a story, even in a documentary.

Shane and Morgen

L-R: Director Brett Morgen and colorist Shane

There are so many elements to the film — interviews, the animations, Cobain’s personal audio diary. As a fan of the music, what did you think when you first saw the film?
I knew from working with Brett Morgen on Crossfire Hurricane that he wouldn’t approach anything about the film in a standard documentary fashion. When I saw the film, I found it fascinating like so many people who’ve seen it have. It’s very powerful the way he uses the audio and the animations and all the elements to tell the story.

I think it’s fair to say that people generally don’t think about color grading documentaries the way they do about narrative features. In a narrative the director and DP might have developed different looks based on the script but a documentary seems more straightforward. Brett is really into the look and the color of every shot. I can’t speak for every documentary filmmaker but Brett is pretty rare in that way. A lot of times I’ll work with the clients and set looks for different scenes and then match everything to that. We worked very differently.

He’s interested in the flow of music, the cut and color. We played the music much louder than we normally would. He wanted to hear it the way it would be heard in the theater and then we’d try different approaches for every shot, whether it went from old VHS to animation to a recent interview. The idea was to tell the story. It was almost like painting.

Which of the elements was the most challenging to work with?
Probably the new material: the interviews. The story of Kurt Cobain obviously gets darker, in a figurative sense, as it goes into his addiction. He had already shot the interviews, especially with Courtney Love and Kurt’s mother, in a way that they got darker and darker as they talk about more painful aspects of the story. In the grading theater, we tried all kinds of different looks to help this idea. He shot Courtney in a plain white room and let the images go darker and darker. I built a window around her to knock down the walls and make it seem as if her environment was getting darker and darker. He shot the mom in a room with daylight coming through windows.

It looks pretty straightforward. But by the end, Brett referenced the films of Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, and we made the room dark, her face has a saturated orange-y look and it’s really about the only thing in the frame that you can see. We could have brightened it up if Brett wanted to but this is much more effective for telling the story.

Did you take the same approach with the animations?
Yes. You might think that in animation, the way the shots come in is the way they’re going to look. But that wasn’t the case. The animation (by artists Hisko Hulsing and Stefan Nadelman) was beautiful but we still went through and built some windows and made some corrections, primarily to guide the viewer’s attention to a particular portion of the frame.

What did you use for color grading, and how did that help get the looks you were after?
We use DaVinci Resolve for everything at Company 3. This was version 11. It’s not unique to this show by any means but I used a lot of Power Windows throughout the movie to track in changes — bring walls or windows down, drive your eye to one part of the frame, etc. A lot of times we’d track faces or just eyes, even within a lot of the material that wasn’t professionally shot like in home movies. There’s a super 8 movie of young Kurt riding in a little toy car and we wanted to give the whole shot an overall color to help tell the story but then I went back and tracked his face to pull back some of the more natural looking skin tone. These are things we do as colorists a lot but there was definitely quite a bit of it here. And it can be a little more challenging to keep it all organic looking when the original footage is Super 8 or VHS.

Was there one scene more challenging than others, or anything that you are most proud of on the piece?
I’m really very proud of the way we used color in the whole piece and that’s due in great part to Brett’s approach to every facet of the film. From a purely technical standpoint, I’d say the most challenging part was the interview with Krist Novoselic.

He wanted to do it in his house, and there’s glass everywhere. It was impossible to avoid catching a lot of distracting reflections. So I made a huge number of windows to keep it all natural looking while controlling the reflections. It’s not something you’d ever notice, but it was actually the biggest technical issue on the project.

It seems like this was a dream job for a colorist?
I feel very privileged to have worked with Brett on this as he is an amazing talent. It was an incredible opportunity to work on such a powerful film that blended so many different elements together so successfully.


Images Courtesy of HBO

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