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Film 40, 2013 Back to Reports & survey Listing

Jake Bickerton talks to the UK’s leading feature film colourists about their work on recent features, film grading trends and the difference between working on film and commercials

Asa Shoul, Molinare
What are the current trends in features grading?
I like to try to add a glossy rich feel to the modern British film, which I think makes them look classy and stylish. We first did this with Layer Cake in an attempt to move away from the gritty British drama look and to make it appeal to an international market.
What are the key differences between features and commercials grading?
With a commercial you might have a day to complete a 30 second spot and although I could have three weeks on a feature film it may have up to 5,000 shots. I might add seven grading layers to a shot that’s nine frames long, with shapes to isolate a gun barrel, a vignette to darken the edges, key the saturated colours to alter them, etc. I regularly create day-for-night looks, composite skies from one shot into another, add camera shake to explosions or do a beauty pass for skin. 
In features, I’m also included in pre-production and am often asked to read the script and discuss looks and approaches from the outset, then test different film stocks, lenses and cameras. For example, I’ve recently been working closely with a director and director of photography matching S16mm film with Alexa, adding grain and comparing anamorphic lenses for each 
lighting situation.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
In All Things to All Men, DoP Howard Atherton asked me to make London feel more like Los Angeles and the first shot of the film was transformed from a cool morning shot to a tobacco sunset. There were a number of scenes that were shot during the day but had to be made to work for night. The director was going to drop them from the film as he couldn’t see how they would work, but the editor asked me to do a test and within a few minutes we knew it would work. I used over 30 layers to create the look, darkening the sky and the chimneys, adding red flashing warning lights to the top of the chimneys, lighting up the front of the building, adding lights along the edge of the quay and reflections in the water.

Tom Russell, Prime Focus
Tell us about a production you recently graded
The Wee Man was shot in London and set in Glasgow. The main character is a gangster and the story is set in the 1970s where police corruption, shootings and reprisal shootings were rife. The guy – Paul Ferris – went to prison for murder and the Glasgow police weren’t happy about the film being shot there, as there are still a lot of old wounds. So the decision was made to shoot in London. All the internal shots were filmed in studios and the exteriors were shot in Glasgow. The aim of the grade was to create a 1970s look; the set design and costume design ensured the dressing of the streets and the clothes were already indicative of the 70s and we wanted to heighten this sense and convey the period in the grade. We took reference material and looked at old newsroom footage to help capture the look and feel of the time. We didn’t want it to be strictly accurate; we wanted heightened reality as it’s an idealised version of everything. It took around two to three days to establish the look and apply it across various locations, interiors and exteriors. Next, we accentuated the violence with the grade, emphasising gunshots and blood splatters, focussing attention through the grade – it’s a subtle process and the viewer shouldn’t notice. A great deal of what we do is invisible and just enhances visual quality.

Max Horton, Technicolor
What are the current trends in features grading?
Features grading has become ‘safer’ over the last few years and places greater emphasis on normal to high contrast and colourful palettes. There are of course exceptions, such as the trademark tones of Danny Boyle’s Trance, but stylised grading ‘looks’ that get noticed, such as in Zack Snyder’s 300, seem less common these days. That said, The Artist used monochrome and that went on to win best picture at last year’s Oscars.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
Last year I worked on Aardman’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. The grade was fairly straightforward; the DoP Frank Passingham had been meticulous in shooting the stop frame animation so scenes and shots matched each other very closely in colour. In common with other feature length animations I’ve worked on, the director very much left the grade up to the DoP, only reviewing and giving notes towards the end of the grade. As the film was also to be presented in 3D we expected to perform at least two technical passes; the first to match the colour between the two eyes and the second to adjust the ‘depth’ of the stereo effect on a shot by shot basis. Amazingly though both passes were unnecessary in this case, as all the 3D adjustments had been pre-planned before the shoot and executed in camera. In addition, just using one camera for both ‘eyes’, moving it to the left and right to give the stereo separation, meant the colour matched.

Jean-Clement Soret, MPC
What are the current trends in features grading?
If there are any trends as such, it’s a trend to use the tools you have to the max. Grading has become like embroidery; you’re doing all the fine details.
What are the key differences between features and commercials grading?
There’s less and less difference between the two now. Nowadays DoPs don’t hesitate to experiment. They know how much you can do in DI grading and it’s becoming like commercials and promos grading with lots of experimentation going on. They want to use every tool in the box.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
On Danny Boyle’s Trance, Danny came in for an hour at the beginning of each day and an hour at the end, to review and instruct. The DoP Anthony Dod Mantle was there all the way through the grade, and is very passionate about his stuff. Trance is quite pushed in colour and contrast. The approach was, ‘Add another 200% and then we can talk about it.’ It’s a good approach as sometimes when you work by slow increments you can miss something. Once we’d completed the work on Trance we had a big session in the grading suite as a final check through with the editor, vfx supervisor, DOP and director to make the final decisions and tweaks. This included reframing, unexpected last minute vfx work, tweaking the edit, filling dead pixels and tweaks to the final grade.

Gareth Spensley, Molinare
What are the key differences between features and commercials grading?

I haven’t really graded a great number of commercials but the differences in my opinion are still relative to budget level. A generous grade time allocation can significantly help the look and feel of a low budget feature and seems to be something producers and financiers agree with.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
I’ve just finished grading Not Another Happy Ending, a rom-com set in the unlikely location of Glasgow. It was an interesting challenge to impart the production’s desire of the genre-defining gloss audiences have come to expect. The individual challenges were unsurprisingly weather related – we had to use a combination of sky replacements and rain removals as well as adding other weather elements.

Peter Doyle, Technicolor
What are the current trends in features grading?
The move from film to digital origination has unleashed a Pandora’s box of workflow and colour pipelines, putting increased pressure on colourists to either define what they need, or assume responsibility for colour at the point of origination. And then there’s sharpness – a digital shoot with a 4K DCP can give you an image with sharpness never before seen in a theatrical environment. A current trend is to embrace this new aesthetic rather than attempting to emulate a film look or soften the image with digital filters. A side effect of this has been for cosmetic work to become far more sophisticated, typically performed outside the grading environment but managed by the grading team.
What are the key differences between features and commercials grading?
A typical film will have several vfx houses with several hundred people working on shots, that all need to match in seamlessly. Typically, 40 per cent of the film doesn’t actually exist when one starts grading, as vfx are still being completed. A feature grade is also viewed on a very large screen for two hours, while a commercial grade is viewed for 60 seconds on a smaller screen – there are grades that may look great on TV but simply won’t work on the big screen; conversely decisions that can impact the image on the big screen, such as sharpness and noise, are not visible on the TV screen.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
A recent film I feel emotionally invested in was Faust by Alexander Sokurov, with cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. His visual direction for the colour design ranged from “plumes of coloured sensations” to “I need to smell a rotting cadaver during this scene”. On occasion, our translator was simply unable to convey the density and poetry of Alexander’s Russian language direction. Alexander created a series of watercolour studies and painted in the grading theatre as reference for Bruno and me. He hoped we could manipulate the film into the same colours and texture. We composed colour washes, then faded between these based on Alexander’s music score rather than cinematic editorial cues. Ultimately, I think we created something that an audience was able to emotionally respond to.

Lee Clappison, Lipsync Post
What are the current trends in features grading?
More and more DoPs are aware of the DI process now and are shooting things knowing what tools we have in the grade. Characters and objects are tracked and lifted up and skies and highlights are keyed and treated separately allowing us to experiment with different ideas instead of burning it into the image on the day. More often than not, DoPs have some sort of colour management software at home too, and have played about with various ideas before the final grade, and are using the grade as a collaborative process and really an extension of their shoot.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
The Look of Love (pictured above), which was shot on the Alexa by Hubert Taczanowski, covers Soho from the 1950s to the 1990s, so each era had to feel different yet linked. The material in the 1950s was black and white, and black and white isn’t as easy to emulate as you may think – the shadows and highlights were independently keyed to allow greater control and feel like black and white stock. And it was very important to Michael Winterbottom, the director, that this felt right. The 1960s had its own tone, putting blues and turquoises into shadows and really making the highlights sing and feel alive with the energy and excitement of the area at that time. The 1970s continued this feel, but acted as a bit of a segue into the seedier feel of the 1980s. The 1990s felt a lot more contemporary in its look, and if it wasn’t for the costumes and set design, it could have been yesterday.

Andrew, Daniel Molinare
What are the current trends in features grading?
The big thing at the moment is entertainment, certainly in UK films where the tendency has been to keep things muted in the past. There is a lot more call for high contrast, saturated looks, very reminiscent of many popular late 80s and 90s efforts.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
On St George’s Day, I had the pleasure of working closely alongside the DoP Mike Sothon. We fell into a rhythm very early on and shared many of the same references. We wanted to give the film all of the Hollywood sensibilities that one would expect from a current multiplex movie whilst still translating some old school techniques into the DI process. We did a lot of work in the shadows to give extra depth to the images and defused highlights to cut through the sharpness that is introduced through data-based images. We kept the saturation high along with the contrast but were very keen to give each location (London, Berlin, Amsterdam) its own colour identity. Mike was also keen to give the dissolve sequences a more classic film feel as they do tend to feel a bit sharp and clinical. The key reference for this was Citizen Kane, so it was no small task to create the effect he wanted.

Stuart Fyvie, LipSync Post
What are the current trends in features grading?
There is an overall change in the manner in which films are acquired and distributed. The photo chemical process is fast disappearing and the technology from end-to-end is now increasingly digital, with of course some honourable exceptions. This has opened up new possibilities as the ‘colour space’ is different and you are no longer held to the constraints of film. The contrast is arguably not always as strong but the colour saturation appears more vibrant. We can push the images in a direction that we haven’t got away with in the past.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
The Neil Jordan helmed Byzantium with DoP Sean Bobbit was one of Sean’s first Alexa features with a very gothic look. One of the greatest challenges on this grade was creating a waterfall of blood that needed to look natural. Working with the practical on-set effects and enhancing colours we were able to create an image that is both impressive and visually disturbing, whilst never allowing the audience to doubt what they are seeing.

Paul Ensby, Technicolor
What are the key differences between features and commercials grading?
It’s important when grading a feature to schedule in the time to review the film in real-time to get a sense of how it plays as a piece. Personally I like to grade film in a series of passes; the first pass is to match up shot for shot and get a general feel for each section or scene without getting bogged down in too much detail; the second pass is to go into a bit more detail in terms of shapes, tones etc. Pass three is then the opportunity to make the final small adjustments. With commercials, each shot is treated in much more detail and several different looks are attempted before ‘the one’ is approved.
Tell us about a production you recently graded
I do a lot of grading with old school directors of photography like Chris Menges and John Mathieson and have worked on features including Great Expectations, Brighton Rock, Hummingbird and Kingdom of Heaven. John is a film man, and due to my photochemical timing roots, we work on the image by staying true to the photographic image as much as possible in every film we work on. Although we of course iron out mismatches and generally enhance the image across the board, the little nuances and imperfections that particularly come up with 35mm and old lenses combined are embraced and, in some cases, even highlighted.

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