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The art of the drama grade

Drama report: The grade provides a stylish and consistent ‘look’ to a drama, but a great grade can enhance mood, focus and narrative flow. Jon Creamer asks the experts

Simone Grattarola
Time Based Arts
War and Peace, Peaky Blinders, Black Mirror: White Christmas, Marvellous, War Book

Because we’re more of a commercials facility we tend to get involved in TV dramas when they’re being made by a director or director of photography that knows us. So because I have that close relationship with them already I’m often involved quite early in the process at the point of doing camera tests. So we’ll contribute at an early stage with references and creating LUTs [Lookup tables]. The DoP will ask my advice on things like what the resolution is like on a particular camera when you make it more ‘contrasty’? Is it still holding up? is there detail in the highlights? Essentially they are trusting your eyes as well as their own. You become part of their camera department.

We’ll spend a day grading a 60-second commercial and we’ll only get two days to grade a 60-minute programme for broadcast. But I can bring some of the attention to detail that is involved with commercial grading to longer form work. You have to temper it though because the budget isn’t there all the time in the broadcast work and you have to work at a faster pace than in commercials. Also television drama is narrative driven, you’re not crafting a look from every single frame. People appreciate that it’s a moving image. Also, it’s often been crafted more by the lighting cameraman on set. On Peaky Blinders, for instance, it’s beautifully crafted already so you’re standing on the shoulders of giants on a show like that. It is all in the lighting so you’re an enhancer as much as anything. On War and Peace there were a lot more set ups and a lot more exterior daytime shots so I was contributing more on that. I have a relationship with (DoP) George Steel so he would send me stills during shooting. That meant that we had quite a firm idea of what we wanted before we got into the nuts and bolts of the grade.

You have to have a bit more empathy when you approach long form grading. You have to position yourself as an audience member. We have a projection suite as well now and we look at that as well as the monitor. It gives us a different way of looking at the drama on a larger canvas.

What makes a good grade is being prepared and being involved early on in the process. You prepare well so that when you come to the work you bring your ideas but you don’t necessarily run with just one idea, you try things and you experiment. I like to try to build in a day before the actual grade for a playtime grade. For me that prep allows me to be instinctive in the grade itself. In commercials you’re sat down in front of the client and you’ve got to pull something out of the hat in an hour or two. You can’t do that in broadcast work. You have to be well prepared. That building block is essential. From then on you’re using your experience and appreciating the subject matter and appreciating subtlety.

To be a good colourist you have got to be a good listener and a good interpreter of other people’s visions whilst also having one yourself. There’s an art in interpreting other people’s visions. Also, when I’m teaching assistants I always teach them that grading is also about being able to match things, to be able to analyse reference frames and be an amazing mimic. You have to understand what is in that particular frame: What colours are there in the blacks? What colours are there in the highlights? What the skin tone is doing in that shot and how do I match it to the next shot? You need to have the ability to analyse all those things really quickly as well but that takes a lot of experience. The more work you do the better you get.

Paul Staples
Humans, Broadchurch, Ripper Street, Mr Selfridge, Murdered By My Boyfriend, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

I very much enjoy being involved in the creative process from the beginning and generally, being engaged from the pre-production stage onwards is a successful way to work. The DP and/or director will shoot camera tests prior to production filming. Along with this test footage, they will share with me stills from films, fine art, and photographs that act as a mood board. This gives me a sense of what they are aiming for and informs the look I develop as I get to work on the test footage. Sometimes the look will come in our first session together, otherwise the DP and I will continue to work on it as the series moves in to production. Whilst shooting the DP and I will share shots and feedback and continue to develop the look until we reach and hopefully even surpass his vision for the project.

Principally I listen to what the client is trying to achieve and enable it. So much of our job is listening and engaging with a creative dialogue surrounding colour and aesthetics and drawing out the vision of the filmmaker. To do so, I may offer ideas and suggestions but ultimately I do feel strongly that we are here to enable the filmmaker’s vision, not swamp it.

The first stage is establishing a general look that we are happy with. Then we will spot through the episode, getting a better feel for the show. I’ll then go back and start to fine tune. I then tend to work in a linear way, getting each scene and shot as I want it before progressing. However, going back to a shot or scene several times is also common. I wouldn’t suggest that there are too many hard rules in reference to process, I think it’s just that the way you are taught stays with you.

I feel that I work quite instinctively but that has been primed by a lifetime of visual study. I studied photography and just loved being in the darkroom. Moving in to grading was a very natural extension of that training. Of course you continue to absorb and analyse. My clients also keep me primed as to the shows to watch out for.

A key question is if the grade will need to reflect a change of period during the series. Recently I graded Undercover for the BBC. The series included flashbacks, however there was also a whole episode that was in flashback. It was vital that I knew this as it would massively inform the grade. The look of the flashback sequences had to be different enough for the audience to register that they were in different period but as an entire episode would be in flashback, the look also had to be not too distracting resulting in it becoming tiring to watch.

To become a good colourist you need a combination of both hard and soft skills. I’d say a good pair of ears and the ability to pick up on non-verbal communication are essential. You need to have the ability to read between the lines and understand what the client is asking for even if they may not be asking for it in technically literal terms. Also of importance, is the ability to deliver a grade that wouldn’t perhaps adhere to your first instincts but is one that suits the piece.

Gareth Spensley
The Tunnel, The Durrells in Corfu, Doctor Who, London Spy, The A Word

I always try and get involved in a project during prep. At the prep stage we’re often initially talking about base LUTs for a show, general concepts of contrast, saturation, tints and tones. On most of the larger budget projects we’ve had a dailies colourist or an experienced DIT doing a leveling pass through the rushes so they are the ones worrying about any exposure shifts; such as from sunny to overcast takes. 

The real starting point of the final grade for me is when I sit down to watch the offline edit. I generally try to let this be the first time I see the narrative run through in its entirety. I’m looking to see where the rushes are working and where I feel I can help the flow of the story. This is my first view and I try to hold on to any ideas I form about characters and plot points; instances like important lines of dialogue where my eye took a while to find the speaking character in a wide shot. This is my chance to establish when I think background details like windows and lamps are adding depth or becoming distracting. I’ll use these thoughts later when I’m in the grade to shift the emphasis from the backgrounds to the characters.

The brief from the director and DoP can take the form of a purely technical conversation or set of notes, or it may range to detailed creative references and swapping of mood boards. I believe in thorough testing and grade setup time. Creating a ‘look bible’ on selected scenes can be invaluable in focusing the production before we commit our efforts to grading a long running series. Allowing everyone in the process to take a copy of the test scenes away to watch over a few weeks really helps make sure the final grade will go smoothly.

I believe in doing several passes of the grade. I find a brisk first pass based on instincts often yields a great starting point. Then I like to watch this through and decide what’s flowing or what is jumping out, adding layers of secondaries in subsequent passes once I have a solid base grade. At this stage I’ll be looking to get the director and DoPs detailed notes on where we’re at. I often prefer to do this in run time rather than in a stop start manner. For me it’s about assessing the grade as a viewer rather than falling into the trap of over analysing a still frame.
It’s about consistency - anyone with an interest in Photoshop can make a single image look great. The toughest part of the job is taking a “look” and imparting that creative idea to all the locations and setups in a narrative.
For The Tunnel we found a great look for low-light interiors that needed some careful consideration when adapting it to a bright, sunny exteriors. This becomes trickier on multi-part series that may be shooting across seasons and we’re often asked to lock down a look while the series is still being shot.

Great grades come from collaboration. I think the best grades I’ve been involved in come from good production design, good costume choices and great photography. 

Posted 15 December 2016 by Jon Creamer

True colours: delivering in HDR

High Dynamic Range offers incredible creative possibilities for filmmakers but, at this stage, few have delivered an HDR project. Jon Creamer talks to some of those that have about their experiences with the medium so far

High Dynamic Range content allows filmmakers to show the world on the screen almost as the human eye sees it in real life, with vibrant colours, dazzling light  and incredible detail. Right now though, HDR content that the viewing public can tap into is fairly limited. Amazon and Netflix are broadcasting a selection of shows in full HDR glory, Blu-ray is another outlet and the BBC, Sky and BT are all experimenting with HDR. HDR content will ramp up, but at the moment very few producers and post producers have been asked to deliver in HDR. Those that have often become cheerleaders for the medium, describing it as a step change from SDR. We’ve asked a selection of production pros how they’ve approached HDR so far.

Planet Earth 2

Bristol’s Films@59 delivered the SDR version of the BBC’s epic Planet Earth II series and was also asked to deliver an HDR version of the programme. Post producer Miles Hall and inhouse colourist Christian Short explain how they did it

What were you asked for?
MH The decision to deliver in HDR was taken relatively late in the day which meant we had to think carefully about the workflow as the series was predominantly an SDR delivery. We had to adopt the HLG standard which is the BBC and NHK devised Hybrid Log Gamma rather than using a Dolby PQ or Dolby Vision method.

What did the grade have to achieve?
CS The SDR version was graded by Adam Inglis and the key thing was to make sure the original grade translated through into the HDR grade while using as much of the ‘HDR-ness’ of some of the imagery to make those shots pop. Some scenes are shot in flat light and some are in dappled light under forest canopies and so on. We could achieve an overall lifting on the flatter light stuff but the stuff that was shot in HDR-centric environments really did pop and we could play with masking areas to bring certain highlights out. It’s the first HDR experience we’ve had. We’ve done a lot of tests and seen a lot of examples but we were feeling our way on the first programmes. Certain scenes you can do a lot with, others you just lift them and bring them into HDR space

What was different about working in HDR?
CS From my perspective, the environment I’m working in now has to have much brighter ambient lighting than it would do if I was grading in SDR. Frequent eye breaks are needed too because it is super bright and it does fatigue you. You feel smashed at the end of the day compared to grading in SDR though I imagine if I was grading in HDR all the time I’d get used to the muscle strain. Also, when you’re grading an HDR version and then grading something in SDR, as a colourist you need a good clear day to reset your eyes. It’s a good idea not to bolt those sessions back to back.
MH What’s tricky is when you go from the HDR to the SDR version, it’s a bit of a let down. That’s something for producers and post producers to get their heads around because when something looks amazing in HDR, when you come back to it in SDR you might think it’s a bit disappointing.

What needs to be thought about beforehand?
MH You need to plan your workflow carefully and talk to your post house about what the deliverable is because there is more than one flavor of HDR. There might be more than one HDR deliverable so while you might deliver HLG through the BBC, when you go to Blu-ray they might require PQ, so there are additional processes you might have to go through to transform your HDR between standards. You will have to repeat processes. We’re working very hard to try to establish a workflow that will minimise the repeating of vfx work and so on. Noise reduction is very important when delivering in UHD, not just HDR. What you can get away with in SDR HD is a lot more than you can in UHD HDR. There’s definitely an uplift on top of the SDR version, at the bare minimum you have to grade for the HDR. It’s not something you can do as an after thought.

Ex Machina

Molinare colourist Asa Shoul created the original grade for Ex Machina and returned this year to grade the film in HDR

What was the brief?
To recreate the film in 4K and to reflect the original graded look and feel as closely as possible. Creatively we needed to represent the original film but, in 4K, there were several scenes that lost the key characteristics of look and feel when using the original grade settings.  We revisited these, taking advantage of the wider range of colour space and contrast to deliver the original look and feel but taking it to a new level. We were conscious of the danger that all our options might accidentally lead to a completely new look, however to avoid this we constantly referred to the original material.  On a standard Rec709 monitor we had the original grade so that we could use this as reference when doing the HDR.

What was the creative upside of HDR?
HDR offers greater freedom and choice in the creative process.  The opportunity to highlight key sections of the image, bring greater depth of field, underpin the emotion and excitement of sequences is even greater.  We can achieve even more during post production than before.  However, used unwisely, HDR can be unforgiving. Its power needs to be harnessed. There is a danger of overwhelming the viewer, thus losing the creative intent but, with sensitive use and a creatively controlled approach, it offers fantastic new creative choices.

Did any scenes really lend themselves to HDR?
In the scenes where there was a power cut and the red safety lights came on,  when grading in P3 and Rec709, we found that the saturation of the red was never quite as rich as we would like, whereas in HDR it was stunningly rich and vibrant.  Also because of the extended greens in Rec2020 (HDR) exterior forest scenes took on a more realistic quality, transporting you to that environment.

What advice would you give to others working in HDR?
HDR offers real creative opportunities but it can be too powerful. The enhanced colour and contrast offer so much more for storytelling.  However it needs to be used with care. DoPs and colourists need to fully understand what it offers and apply their experience to harness the capabilities in a measured and creative way. With both a creative instinct and a technical understanding these tools offer fantastic freedom in post for filmmakers.

Company 3

Company 3 colourist Greg Fisher on the HDR delivery for DaVinci Code sequel, Inferno

What was your approach to delivering in HDR?
I was actually a little wary of HDR before actually trying to grade it. The first demos I had seen were basically just the same images, but brighter, so I wasn’t too impressed. Today I think it is understood that you are trying to deliver more dynamic range but maintain an image suitable for its display scenario, which is what I found worked well whilst grading Inferno. In terms of my workflow, I would first use DaVinci Resolve to make sure that the HDR frames appeared similar to the SDR version. I then used Resolve’s grading tools, including log grade, highlight and soft clip controls, to carefully control the roll off. Ultimately, this made the images much more lifelike, with a significant improvement in sharpness despite no change in pixel resolution or file size.
Are there any scenes that really lent themselves to HDR?
The first time we meet the lead, he is in hospital,  disorientated, confused and suffering from amnesia. This is emphasised by lights flickering on and off while he’s in his bed. When watching on the 4000 Nit Pulsar monitor, you actually feel the heat of the flashes in your eye and your iris playing catchup. This puts the audience with him in his state of mind to a far greater extent than is normally possible.
What advice would you give other colourists?
Embrace it. Real black in a cinema is a revelation, as is the extra sharpness. It feels like a significant progression.

Various film projects

Technicolor’s senior supervising colourist, Peter Doyle has delivered features in HDR including Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

What do you need to look out for when working in HDR?
Poor image processing techniques and “dirty” LUTs and transforms are exposed to a much greater degree in HDR. Noise and grain take on a less attractive sensibility, it’s not so easy to hide a less than perfect key or colour separation behind grain. LUT and transforms need to be as wide and deep as possible.

What do you have to think about when delivering in HDR?
Does one reproduce the Rec709 grade on a HDR monitor, or do you take advantage of the extended dynamic range and colour gamut? Does the original photography have the dynamic range to justify opening up the contrast ratio? When grading on a 14 F/L xenon what was felt to be a compromise from a dynamic range stance and should HDR be used to put it back?
What are the difficulties you encounter? Locking down display device specifications and coordination between the various studios differing specs and requirements creatively…it’s always about maintaining the patina and look of the 14 F/L xenon grade. This takes more than a LUT and trimming the colour. It’s about reproducing the flare, cross-colour distortions and the very experience of seeing an image reflected on a white screen to an image reproduced by an light emitting device.

What’s the creative upside of HDR?
Greater dynamic range and colour gamut and finally getting away from Rec709. 709 has served us well, but it had its issues, that have become an accepted look. To be able to take your DCI XYZ grade and reproduce in rec 2020 for a video deliverable is almost an epiphany.
HDR is not just a technology, it’s a toolset for the creatives.Skin tones stay intact, specular’s and highlight modeling are reproduced without compromise. Indeed there is a subtlety returned to the reproduction of the lighting that’s fantastic. It gives great access to performance. Delicate reflections and colour hues can be displayed without needing the sledge hammer that’s needed for Rec 709.

The Look

The Look colourist Thomas Urbye graded BBC3 and Amazon sitcom Fleabag which also had to be delivered in HDR

As the vast majority of the audience will be seeing Fleabag in SDR it was important to me and DP Tony Miller that we got sign off in Rec709 on each episode. We then moved on to the HDR version where I was trusted to keep the integrity of the image intact. The whole series was shot on the Arri Alexa in ProRes 444 at 2880x2160 with anamorphic lenses and the entire workflow was maintained at this resolution.
Once the SDR version was signed off our attention moved to the HDR versions.  Amazon had specced Rec2020/2084 (PQ) and we were told to use the Sony BVM X300 monitor in UHD.  Thankfully the Quantel Rio uses transfer curves at 16bit float to move you from the Rec709 colour space in to Rec2020 & PQ and the image and grade is essentially maintained. However, at this stage, any clamping on highlights and colour saturation is released and the image visually comes alive in highlight areas. Detail that was formerly lacking outside windows and in bulbs suddenly takes on real shape and even skin tones seem to have a new sense of life about them. I had a Sony OLED in Rec709 showing me the episode in SDR and then simultaneously on the Sony BVM X300, the HDR grade. It was important to me that I maintained the same feel in HDR and to not fall in to the trap of pushing contrast or over-saturating the image.  Contrast ratios do increase by the nature of the highlights being unclamped in PQ, so care has to be taken that mid tones in the image are lifted slightly to create the same visual intention.

Posted 13 December 2016 by Jon Creamer
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