Tag Archives: John Dowdell

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.