Tag Archives: Carol

Colorist John Dowdell talks about the look of ‘Carol’

By Randi Altman

Todd Haynes’ Carol, about two women who fall in love in New York City in the 1950s, received six Oscar noms this year, including one for Best Cinematography. Despite its setting, this beautifully captured film was actually shot in Cincinnati because of its architectural resemblance to 1950’s Manhattan.

But the post was done in New York. One of the movie’s producers, Goldcrest Films, has a post house there, so Carol’s edit team called that location home for about seven months. It was there that editor Affonso Gonçalves and his assistant Perri Pivovar enjoyed a close relationship with Goldcrest’s in-house, veteran colorist John Dowdell, who was also working on the film.

The editors would often call Dowdell into the edit suite to find out what he could accomplish in his color suite. For example, one challenge the edit team had was the film — which takes place during Christmas — went over a little. So some of it was shot at the end of the winter and into the spring. There were some pesky green leaves and grass that needed browning and Dowdell obliged.

John Dowdell

John Dowdell

“With the Quantel Revolver tool I selected a range of green pixels and changed the hue and the saturation towards a winter brownish color,” he explains. “The Revolver output is a LUT offset, which adds no noise and creates a very natural appearance, which is far superior then an HSL key.”

The film features over 100 visual effects shots — VFX supervisor Chris Haney brought on his own company and other New York-based effects houses — including totally convincing CG snow and CG buildings.

Dowdell was able to achieve other simple effects, such as removing signage and things that were distracting. “Quantel Rio 4K has a Paintbox in it, and I removed a lot of that stuff by painting it out,” he says.

Let’s dig in a bit further with Dowdell.

Carol was shot on film. Can you talk about that?
Carol was shot by cinematographer Edward Lachman. It was shot on Kodak Super 16 with an Arriflex 416 camera that is pin-registered, which was needed for all this effects work. I’m so glad they shot it on 16mm film because they were trying to duplicate the way 35mm film looked 60 years ago — and even as good as digital cameras are, it would’ve been very hard to reproduce that classic film look. The randomness of the grain is very beautiful.

That was their choice, and I think it was a brilliant one. Also, film gave us beautiful radiant flesh tones, deep textured blacks, and plenty of detail in even the brightest highlights.

What was the workflow like?
Every day the film would be shipped from Cincinnati to Technicolor in New York for processing — at that time, Technicolor and Deluxe shared the lab at the Deluxe building. The film would get processed to a negative and then picked up by Goldcrest.

The film was scanned at Goldcrest by Boon Shin Ng and Michelle Ambruz on an Arri Scanner. The Arri has a dailies mode where it will scan pin-registered quite fast at 15fps with a single flash. The Arri flashes red, green and blue LEDs onto the monochrome 3K CMOS chip, which is the same chip that’s in the Alexa camera, but without a Bayer filter, so it’s a B&W chip.

CAROL

When the edit is complete, the Arri scans the selects with handles also at 3K. This time the RGB is flashed twice. The second flash is 10 times brighter and merges the two together in an HDR algorithm capturing everything in the negative with great signal-to-noise ratio. In addition, the film gets an infrared flash. The infrared spectrum is not absorbed by the cyan, magenta and yellow dyes of the film. Dirt particulates, however, will block the Infrared creating a dirt map for the Kodak Digital Ice to do its magic. Scanning is about 3fps in this mode.

Who did the dailies?
Boon Shin prepped with Colorfront Express Dailies. MXF files were synced and metadata of scene take numbers were entered during the day, then the Colorfront was handed over to colorist Scott Olive for scene-to-scene color grading in the evening. DP Ed Lachman would call Scott each night and discuss the footage he would be working on and would go over Scott’s work from the day before.

Scott would then send the color corrected H.264 files over the Goldcrest FTP server to Ed. The Avid MXF Files were ready for Affonso and Perri in the morning in their edit room here at Goldcrest. When the film edit was locked, Boon Shin conformed the film in the Quantel Rio 4K with the 2K DPX scans.

What direction were you given from Todd and Ed? Were you given any sort of examples of what they wanted the look to be?
Todd had a thing called a Look Book. It’s a thick scrapbook filled with images he liked. He worked with production designer Judy Becker and with Ed Lachman on it, so this book set the looks. He found images he liked from the ’50s, mostly from print. There were ads and work from photographers like Ruth Hawkin.

I had a color reference light for Todd so he could view the tear sheets. We would look at the shots and Todd would explain the look, the saturation and the muted values — images that referenced the 1950’s era.

Both Todd and Ed liked when colors were muted, a little more green with maybe some warmth — the combination of cold and warm in the same frame — so mixed color temperatures.

It was a great start, but even during the DI color timing Todd would look through his book, turn the reference light on, look at his picture then look at the screen. He would say, “Give that a little tweak, add two points of red, or let’s go a little dark by four points.” Film lab timers have always worked in RGB Film Printer Lights. There are six points to an F-Stop change.

Both Todd and Ed had timed films in the past. In the DI world the points work identically to photochemical printing. It really is a great way of communicating color. Ed could ask me to add two points of green, then Todd might ask to see three points. Technically, it’s the proper way to time in DI.

You worked with Todd and Ed at the same time?
They were always together. We did a lot of experimenting with color, and Todd and Ed sometimes had different opinions of where they wanted to go with it. You have to show the one look, save the metadata of that, do another look and go back and forth. That’s how color correction works. It’s very interactive.

Can you talk about a particular scene from the film?
In the opening scenes of the department store the palette is a muted green. It’s an uncomfortable time for Rooney’s character. Ed works with filters and mixed light sources to produce the desired looks in-camera, but leaves plenty of range for DI visualization.

When things are getting better in their relationship, the colors become gentler and more beautiful with more warmth. Ed would reference the Kodak Film Ektachrome for its bluish greenish values compared to the rich warm saturated colors of Kodachome.

My RIT education in Photographic Arts and Sciences has served me well my entire career. My favorite Ansel Adams quote is, “The negative is the score and the print is the performance.” Ed made a beautiful score and we collectively produced a great performance in my DI suite.

ROONEY MARA stars in CAROL. Did anything surprise you about the color?
A lot of shots are much darker than most directors and DPs ask for. Often they say, “I want to see more, open it up. I want to see brighter, what else can I see in this shot?” It was kind of the reverse on this. They both liked it rather dark. I used the S-curve function for almost every shot in Carol. With it, I can place my black and white points and then pivot all the mid-tone transitions. I can make very dark images without crushing any of the blacks. A great number of the shots have a subtle vignette applied — light fell off at the edges with camera lenses of that era.

Can you give an example?
The scene where Cate Blanchet’s character is in the child custody hearing and makes her heart wrenching speech — I added more S-curve , brought the lift down and increased gamma. Todd said no, no, even darker. Once we got down there, it was like, “Wow, this works.” It’s very effective. It’s more realistic, and adds more drama into a powerful scene.

They used a lot of natural Window light. Kate’s flesh tone and brightness changed a bit. My job was to make sure it was all totally even.

Were there any scenes in particular that stood out as more challenging or something that you’re most proud of?
I love the DI process because it’s so interactive, and I like problem solving. There’s one shot where Cate is touching the telephone hang-up button with her Index finger. She’s listening to Rooney but not responding.

Todd was concerned because the hand was too sharp from one finger to the other, and he wanted less depth of field — Super 16 has a large depth of field. So I put a diagonal window through her Index finger, the one that’s touching the hang-up button. Then I feathered off a Gaussian transfer curve into the background, used a  Gaussian de-focus on the Quantel and put a little defocus on, blending it as the fingers rolled off further back and forward, so that the emphasis was on the index finger. He loved it. That solved the problem.

Anything else stick out in your mind?
The last scene, the beautiful encounter at the Oak Room, I’m really proud of that. That has a great look. It started with gorgeous photography, but I had an idea that Todd and Ed really liked. In the scene, Cate is having dinner with friends surrounded by diners and waiters.

What I did was track a little bit of a window on Kate and feathered it off, and then outside that window desaturated everyone a little bit. I also brought a little bit more highlight detail onto Kate, so the image popped. Just think about how eye contact works — you’re not interested at all in your surroundings or who’s sitting at the back table. It’s just them.

CAROLNow Kate pops out a bit and everything just kind of feathers off a little, and she’s just radiant. I did the same thing to Rooney. It’s very subtle, but it helps tell that story. No dialogue was needed; it was all said in their eyes.

Why is the Pablo Rio the right tool for you?
Ten years ago, we built the DI suite at Goldcrest around the Pablo, which at the time was a brand-new product from Quantel. Quantel’s iQ was a conforming machine, an editing machine, an effects machine, titler and Paintbox — all in one. The only thing it really didn’t do was color… until they came out with the Pablo iQ. They invented an interface box to deal with color!

It was also the only machine at that time that could do different canvas sizes, different speeds and different resolutions, all on the same timeline. With every other system you would have to commit to one resolution. It was important to have everything in its native resolution.

Most recently we replaced those Pablos with the Quantel Rio 4K, which has a much faster processor. I can now play 4K with multi-levels of color correction in realtime without rendering.

What’s next for you?
I recently completed something I’m really proud of. It’s called The New Yorker Presents, and it’s 10 half-hour films from Amazon Studios and Jigsaw Productions. It’s basically a film version of The New Yorker magazine. Each episode is a collection of short docs, interstitials and there celebrated cartoons being crated by the artist at hyper speed.

There are two features coming into Goldcrest now, but I can’t talk about those yet.

The A-List: ‘Carol’ director Todd Haynes

By Iain Blair

With his affection for period pieces and classic melodrama, along with his interest in gay sexuality, writer/director Todd Haynes — who was Oscar-nominated for his Far From Heaven ’50s drama — was probably the perfect choice to tackle the lesbian romance at the heart of his new film, Carol.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, “The Price of Salt,” Carol tells the story of two women from very different backgrounds — Therese, a store clerk (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage — who meet and then find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York.

The film is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz for its actors and for Haynes, whose credits also include the acclaimed Bob Dylan picture I’m Not There, as well as Velvet Goldmine, Safe and the miniseries Mildred Pierce.

Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes

I spoke with Haynes about making the film, from production through post, and the Oscars.

What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of making Carol?
It was all about the genre of the love story, which I felt I’d never tackled before. I saw it as this great opportunity to get into how love stories are these unique experiences — how much of it is about point of view and which party you’re with.

The film was shot by your regular DP Ed Lachman on Super 16mm. What look were you going for?
I looked at a lot of ’50s films, but they didn’t really give me a strong stylistic way into the material. They all felt a bit mannered and stylized for what this was about. So it was really the historical research we did that was so illuminating. The New York images we studied from the early ‘50s really told a different story from the high-gloss Eisenhower-era look, one about the country emerging from the war years and being in transition.

You could still feel that insecurity and shifting power dynamics of global politics, and the city looked dirty and tired. So the color palette of the photos was very beautiful and subdued, and the temperatures were hard to determine, almost a mixture really. Those all went into our look, along with shooting it all in Cincinnati because New York has changed so much since the 1950s.

Do you like the post process?
I love it because after the crazy, frantic Herculean task of production where you constantly feel the ticking clock, you’re back in a dark room, which is where I start as a writer. The shoot was quite stressful as we had a very tight schedule of just 35 days and a low budget for a period piece like this. But then in post, you’re down to the lowest overhead and the fewest number of people, so it feels very intimate, which I love.

Where did you post?
We did it all at Goldcrest Post in New York — the cutting, the sound, the VFX and the DI. They were partners in the film, so they were invested in the project and us being happy there. And we were. I ended up getting an apartment literally five doors down the street so I could be close to the editing room all the time. Post took about seven months, and I didn’t think we’d finish in time, but it went very smoothly.

The film was edited by Affonso Gonçaves (Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild), who you worked with on Mildred Pierce. Tell us about that relationship.
He’s just a great partner and very sensitive, smart and knowledgeable. He was so attentive to temp tracks and finding really useful music to cut to. Music was always going to be a key element in Carol, and he has a great ear for that. I’m very hands-on in the edit, and I can’t really look at cuts I haven’t started making myself. Affonso did do a cut while I shot, but I only looked at it after we had tried my cut first — to see how they had failed (laughs). When I began my career, I cut on film and I loved to edit myself, and Mildred was really the first project I never laid hands on. The Avid is amazing, but cutting on film was an amazing education for me, and I’d never trade it in.

Period films always have a lot of visual effects. Talk about them and working with VFX supervisor Chris Haney.
Yes, there was a lot of removal of contemporary elements, stuff you often don’t even see until you’re in post, plus cosmetic work. We also had about six key shots that needed extensive VFX. We did as much as possible in-camera and practically, but there were plenty of spots where the deep space down a street was filled in to give us New York — in particular the scene where Carol sees Therese crossing the street near the end. That was extremely complicated, like the others, as they were usually moving shots filtered through windows, rain, dust, distortion and so on. So the CGI elements had to fit exactly inROONEY MARA stars in CAROL.to the vernacular itself, with the grain element and level of distress.

You didn’t make it easy for yourself.
No, but Chris did a magnificent job and was so attentive to the film’s tone. Also, Goldcrest, The Mill and Lola did various shots. I actually love working with VFX, as you can add so much with even a handful of frames, and Chris’ work was like a series of paintings.

The score by Carter Burwell is quite haunting. How important is the score and sound in your films?
They’re both so important, it’s hard to overstate. This is the third collaboration with Carter; he was involved before I even began casting, so he’s a key component.  My sound designer, Leslie Shatz, who I met through Gus van Sant, has done something like 200 films now and is so experienced. I’ve worked with him since we did Far From Heaven.

The film has a very realistic look with quite a muted palette. Was that all done in post in the DI, or was it a combination of post and in-camera?
We did a lot of work in the DI with Goldcrest colorist John Dowdell (working on the Quantel Pablo Rio), who is another real artist, to get that very specific, slightly spoiled palette. It’s a very different look from Far From Heaven.

Todd Haynes directing Rooney Mara.

What’s next?
I’m hoping to do Wonderstruck next, based on Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, so another period film but one carried by younger characters, which’ll be new for me.

Your HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce won five Emmys and a Golden Globe. Will you be doing more TV?
Yes, I’m developing a dramatic project with HBO, The Source, about a ‘70s cult in LA.

We’re heading into awards season. You’ve been nominated before for an Oscar. How important are they to you?
They’re in some ways inseparable from the marketing of a film, and for me any opportunity to get people in to see the film on a big screen is important.

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