By Randi Altman
Scott Ostrowsky, senior colorist at Deluxe’s Level 3 in Los Angeles has worked on all three seasons of Amazon’s Sneaky Pete, produced by Bryan Cranston and David Shore and starring Giovanni Ribisi. Season 3 is the show’s last.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it follows a con man named Marius (Ribisi), who takes the place of his former cell-mate Pete and endears himself to Pete’s seemingly idyllic family while continuing to con his way through life. Over time he comes to love the family, which is nowhere as innocent as they seem.
We reached out to this veteran colorist to learn more about how the look of the series developed over the seasons and how he worked with the showrunners and DPs.
You’ve been on Sneaky Pete since the start. Can you describe how the look has changed over the years?
I worked on Seasons 1 through Season 3. The DP for Season 1 was Rene Ohashi and it had somewhat of a softer feel. It was shot on a Sony F55. It mostly centered around the relationship of Bryan Cranston’s character and Giovanni Ribisi’s newly adopted fake family and his brother.
Season 2 was shot by DPs Frank DeMarco and William Rexer on a Red Dragon, and it was a more stylized and harsher look in some ways. The looks were different because the storylines and the locations had changed. So, even though we had some beautiful, resplendent looks in Season 2, we also created some harsher environments, and we did that through color correction. Going into Season 2, the storyline changed, and it became more defined in the sense that we used the environments to create an atmosphere that matched the storyline and the performances.
An example of this would be the warehouse where they all came together to create the scam/ heist that they were going to pull off. Another example of this would be the beautiful environment in the casino that was filled with rich lighting and ornate colors. But there are many examples of this through the show — both DPs used shadow and light to create a very emotional mood or a very stark mood and everything in between.
Season 3 shot by Arthur Albert and his son, Nick Albert on a Red Gemini, and it had a beautiful, resplendent, rich look that matched the different environments when it moved from the cooler look of New York to the more warm, colorful look in California.
So you gave different looks based on locale?
Yes, we did. Many times, the looks would depend on time of day and the environment that they were in. An example of this might be the harsh fluorescent green in the gas station bathroom where Giovanni’s character is trying to figure out a way to help his brother and avoid his captures.
How did you work with the Alberts on the most recent season?
I work at Level 3 Post, which is a Deluxe company. I did Season 1 and 2 at the facility on the Sony lot. Season 3 was posted at Level 3. Arthur and Nick Albert came in to my color suite with the camera tests shot on the Red Gemini and also the Helium. We set up a workflow based on the Red cameras and proceeded to grade the various setups.
Once Arthur and Nick decided to use the Gemini, we set up our game plan for the season. When I received my first conform, I proceeded to grade it based on our conversations. I was very sensitive to the way they used their setups, lighting and exposures. Once I finished my first primary grade, Arthur would come in and sit with me to watch the show and make any changes. After Arthur approved the grade, The producers and showrunner would come in for their viewing. They could make any additional changes at that time. (Read our interview with Arthur Albert here.)
How do you prefer to work with directors/DPs?
The first thing is have conversation with them on their approach and how they view color as being part of the story they want to tell. I always like to get a feel for how the cinematographer will shoot the show and what, if any, LUTs they’re using so I can emulate that look as a starting point for my color grading.
It is really important to me to find out how a director envisions the image he or she would like to portray on the screen. An example of this would be facial expressions. Do we want to see everything or do they mind if the shadow side remains dark and the light falls off.
A lot of times, it’s about how the actors emote and how they work in tandem with each other to create tension, comedy or other emotions — and what the director is looking for in these scenes.
Any tips for getting the most out of a project from a color perspective?
Communication. Communication. Communication. Having an open dialogue with the cinematographer, showrunners and directors is extremely important. If the colorist is able to get the first pass very close, you spend more time on the nuisances rather than balancing or trying to find a look. That is why it is so important to have an understanding of the essence of what a director, cinematographer and showrunner is looking for.
How do you prefer the DP or director to describe their desired look?
However they’re comfortable in enlightening me to their styles or needs for the show is fine. Usually, we can discuss this when we have a camera test before principal photography starts. There’s no one way that you can work with everybody — you just adapt to how they work. And as a colorist, it’s your job to make that image sing or shine the way that they intended it to.
You used Resolve on this. Is there a particular tool that came in handy for this show?
All tools on the Resolve are useful for a drama series. You would not buy the large crayon box and throw out colors you didn’t like because, at some point, you might need them. I use all tools — from keys, windows, log corrections and custom curves to create the looks that were needed.
You have been working in TV for many years. How has color grading changed during that time?
Color correction has become way more sophisticated over the years, and is continually growing and expanding into a blend of not only color grading but helping to create environments that are needed to express the look of a show. We no longer just have simple color correctors with simple secondaries; the toolbox continues to grow with added filters, added grain and sometimes even helping to create visual effects, which most color correctors are able to do today.
Where do you find inspiration? Art? Photography?
I’ve always loved photography and B&W movies. There’s a certain charm or subtlety that you find in B&W, whether it’s a film noir, the harshness of film grain, or just the use of shadow and light. I’ve always enjoyed going to museums and looking at different artists and how they view the world and what inspires them.
To me, it’s trying to portray an image and have that image make a statement. In daily life, you can see multiple examples as you go through your day, and I try and keep the most interesting ones that I can remember in my lexicon of images.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.