England-born Simon Astbury’s path to color grading wasn’t a straight one. He earned a degree in music and had vague ambitions about working in A&R. “I started working in this industry briefly in the early ‘90s and pretty much hated it,” he shares.
One day, Astbury went to sound sync and dialogue edit in a small facility in Twickenham Film Studios where they had two MkIII Rank Cintel telecines. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “The ‘Heath Robinson’ craziness of these systems, with their very limited color tools in those days, PEC master control (operated with a tweaker) and primaries.
“There was no machine control or editing, so no stopping once you’d started. It was a great way to learn the craft, to hone an instinctive reaction to an image that still serves me well today. The green radioactive glow from the tube, the smell of film all went to make grading a much more visceral experience! The early ‘90s was a period of huge change in post. Avid was this new thing that the editors mistrusted, most of them were using Steenbecks at that time.”
Astbury’s path was officially changed and he went on to work on many films, including Shakespeare in Love, Sense and Sensibility and Notting Hill. “I also worked with a bunch of film legends including Roger Pratt, Jack Cardiff, Richard Attenborough, Alan Parker, Franco Zeferelli… and The Spice Girls!”
Astbury has worked in a wide range of genres, from Oscar-winning films to iconic ad campaigns and pop promos. He has collaborated with people like Jack Cardiff, Roger Pratt, Tony Kaye, Paul WS Anderson and many more. Today, he is the head of color at Digital Domain in Shanghai.
Let’s find out more…
You’ve recently moved to Shanghai. Why the move, and are your clients’ requests or expectations there different than in London?
I felt it was time to leave my Soho comfort zone. I’d always intended to travel with the job, but the right opportunity never came up. Then when the offer to relocate came somewhat out of the blue, I consulted my family and we decided to go for it.
Digital Domain has an incredible body of work and a global presence. It was also an opportunity to develop and grow a grading department worldwide in a company that is primarily focused on VFX.
Managing client expectations is always very important, but in China the client really is king or queen. Making sure that the work remains good and not diluted by overthinking and over-tweaking is sometimes a very delicate negotiation.
How have you gone about building or enhancing the grading department at Digital Domain China?
So far I’ve introduced some enhanced workflows and defined training for the juniors and assistants. I’m also attempting to make remote grading available to any of our other offices around the world. Additionally, I’m promoting increased co-operation between our Shanghai and Beijing offices.
You’ve worked on all sorts of projects, from documentaries to features to commercials. Is there a genre you enjoy grading the most?
If it doesn’t sound trite, I would say that good, well-executed work is the most enjoyable to grade. I love commercials because they afford the opportunity to go into detail and occasionally push things creatively.
I love documentaries because the grade can enhance the story in so many different ways. I love dramas because the story arc and mood can be helped immensely by a good grade. I love movies because in my heart I’m a film nut and the opportunity to have your work in a cinema is an incredible buzz that will never ever get old.
What work are you most proud of?
There are a few things that stand out for me, most recently a grade for the wonderful director Nieto at Stink for Wu Fang Zhai. It was great fun to throw away the rulebook and do some crazy stuff.
There are a bunch of things that I’ve done over the years that I remember fondly, a travelogue for BBC4 called Travels With a Tangerine, which was amazingly well shot on SD DVCAM. Also some beautiful films for Volvo directed by Martin Swift, and some epic stuff for Audi directed by Paul WS Anderson. There is also the amazing multi-screen art installation “Mother’s Day” for artist Smadar Dreyfuss about dispossessed stateless children in Israel.
Working with younger directors like Stella Scott has been a great experience for me. Passing on knowledge and at the same time learning new visual languages helps to keep everything fresh. At the other end of the spectrum is The Human Centipede trilogy — it’s not often that you get to be involved in a cultural phenomenon.
Wu Fang Zha
Can you describe a recent project and what tools were particularly beneficial?
The Wu Fang Zhai project was shot on greenscreen with matte-painted backgrounds and sometimes with complicated comps. It was really easy to assemble rough comps in my FilmLight Baselight to ensure the grade looked correct. Layer mode composite settings were particularly useful.
Baselight Editions is also a brilliant tool for VFX-heavy jobs. We have a top-secret project on at the moment and the ability to have a renderless workflow between Baselight and Nuke is invaluable.
As a colorist what are your biggest strengths?
I’ve been doing it for a long time and can come up with creative solutions for most eventualities. Sometimes the client wants you to drive the session and come up with all the ideas, sometimes they want you to do as you are told, and sometimes they want it to be a collaboration. I’m comfortable with any of these scenarios, but the client is paying for my eyes and my interpretation, so sometimes you have to be the guide, even when the client has very definite ideas.
You also have to be the arbiter of taste. So on occasion you have to be firm, particularly when bad decisions are being made. I try to separate my ego from the work and create a calm-but-creative atmosphere in the grade suite. Music is hugely important, as well as a fully stocked drink trolley!
The wonderful colorist Bob Festa has said that he asks people what they want their films to say, rather than how they want them to look, and that’s pretty much my approach. I’ve been compared to an airline pilot or cruise ship captain more than once….I’ll take that (he smiles).
You’ve been a colorist for over 20 years and witnessed the time when color correction was processed in film labs. What are your thoughts today about film versus digital?
I worked exclusively in film for about half my career and I love it. It is tactile, it smells great, it feels good in your hands and, of course, many of the most memorable images in cinema were shot on it. The soft detail, intensity and richness of color, the roll off into the whites and blacks is something that digital still finds hard to replicate.
Also, the recent resurgence in Europe and the USA of film in shorts, commercials and promos is great to see. However, I find myself thinking about all those things I don’t miss about film, such as weave, cell scratches, grain, wet gate TK and that buttock-clenching moment when the lab manager tells you the reel had broken in the bath and 300 feet of neg had been destroyed. X-ray fogging! Oh my goodness, I have so many film horror stories.
Modern cameras produce amazingly clear images with great color and response to light with far less in the way of insurmountable problems, and I don’t see either as particularly better. Actually, I think decent glass and proper lighting are just as important as what camera or format you shoot on.
What are the biggest challenges you face today as a colorist?
There are a few, but I don’t think they’re specific to colorists. Content is becoming continually more disposable. It’s more important than ever that respect for the craft — not only of color grading but the whole production and post process — becomes central to every production. The proliferation of display devices is also a big subject, making sure that the grade looks good on phones, tablets, laptops and TVs is an issue that will only get more challenging.
Do you have a routine when grading?
Yes, definitely. Although color is incredibly subjective, I personally think that your process shouldn’t be. I strongly believe there’s a right and wrong way of going about a grade. Every colorist has a different process but there are definitely ways that work and ways that don’t.
The longer I do the job, the more important the psychological aspect of it becomes — how your choices in the grade affect the thoughts and emotions of the viewer… what really matters and what doesn’t. I’m always on a quest to distil the essence of a grade. A lot of the content I see now, in my opinion, is over-graded. We have such comprehensive tools now, so you don’t have to throw the kitchen sink at every shot. “Keep it simple” is a mantra I try to impress upon my juniors.
Baselight is your main tool?
I’ve been working on Baselight for just shy of a decade. My favorite thing about Baselight is what I call “redundancy of process,” by which I mean there are multiple ways of doing most grading operations — hue angle not working? Then try Dkey. Dkey no good? Then try RGB key or curves, etc, etc.
What advice would you give to a junior colorist starting out today?
Be patient, there are no shortcuts, although I think it takes less time nowadays than it did due to the absence of telecines. Be a geek about your industry, cameras, lighting and lenses. Watch movies, ads and everything that’s good. Study art and artists, if only to have common points of reference. Remember that the grading part is only a portion of what makes a good colorist. You’re the host, therapist, barman and ringmaster.
You have to be someone people don’t mind spending 12 hours in a dark room with or they’ll never use you again. With difficult client requests try to say yes and then work out how you’re going to do it; if you can’t do it, suggest an alternative rather than saying no. Social media, especially Instagram is a brilliant medium for colorists, but be careful not to post things just for the sake of it.
Main Image Caption: Wu Fang Zhai