Technicolor Senior Colorists Doug Delaney (Captain Marvel), Mark Kueper (American Gods), and Alex Gascoigne (Black Mirror) got together to discuss their recent work on three very different projects – and the common ground they found to approaching them – with moderator Kristen Morris.
KM: Welcome to the first edition of Inside the Artists’ Lounge. In this first edition, we're talking to senior colorists from Technicolor’s post-production locations around the globe Let’s start with you Alex, can you tell us a little bit about your journey and how you became a colorist and then a little bit about your latest project.
Alex: Sure, I have a background in photography. In college, we had a dark room and I could develop black and white film, so that's where I learned about contrasts and exposure. Then I did a Masters Degree in Film Production where we made some short films and I learned about lighting and photography and so on. Through that work I discovered color correction for film and TV shows. I took a job as a runner at Pepper where I was able to make myself known to the colorists – and in working with them eventually becoming an assistant colorist and learning the ins and outs of actually being a colorist and working my way up from there.
KM: Can you tell us about working on one of your recent projects, the Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch?
Alex: I've done quite a few projects working with one of our other colorists Jean-Clément Soret and this was a big project for us. We have worked on three seasons of Black Mirror since it became a Netflix original, and Bandersnatch was really interesting because it’s an interactive show. We really had to adapt the way we approached that project – we were working with five and a half hours’ worth of footage across 250 separate timelines. Because of the branching structure, we had to build a workflow which allowed us to grade and review all the timelines effectively – grading in Baselight we made extensive use of the multi-paste tool to sync grades across similar branches of the narrative.
KM: Mark, tell us a little bit about your journey and then one of your recent projects, American Gods.
Mark: I started learning color working in a still photography studio and printing in a lab there. When I got to film school, I was working part time with the camera on feature sets trying to learn as much as I could about lighting from the DPs. I fancied myself a bit of a cinematographer and in film school I would go to the post house and the first time I went to do a 16MM transfer I sat with the colorists there. Seeing the way they manipulate and influence images really inspired me and I decided I wanted to do that.
American Gods is a series based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name; it’s a fantasy drama about the conflict between the old gods versus the new gods living among us. It's got a pretty great visual style and was a pretty creative project because of all the moving parts in terms of the VFX work and how it all maps together.
There’s a carnival aspect to it and the first couple of episodes of the new season are a bit of a departure from the rest of the series. The filmmakers really wanted to push some different looks and make it part of the storytelling. They weren’t afraid to try new things and we had some great creative collaboration with them in getting to the end results.
KM: Doug, let’s hear a little about your journey now, and your work on Captain Marvel.
Doug: It sounds like kind of a combination of Alex and Mark. I started in still photography, mostly of black & white photography. I had a darkroom at home and was largely self-taught. And I had a background in early Photoshop and photo restoration back in college. When I came to L.A. I used that experience to get a job in scanning and recording in the mid-90s. Back then, you really couldn’t buy a scanner. So VFX facilities made them from an optical printer and mounted a digital back on it. We called them Franken-scanners as they looked pretty jury-rigged with filter wheels and liquid coolant tubes. They couldn't really capture the dynamic range of a negative, so you would have to color time on the scanner using a DP approved match clip on a light box. It was kind of an interesting hybrid of film timing and digital capture.
I did that for a number of years and eventually supervised an imaging department here in Hollywood. We used that process for some of the Matrix films in 2002 where entire sequences needed to be color managed. Rather than doing it for the individual shots, we decided to jump into this new thing called DI using a very early version of what would become Lustre and grade the sequences. It was a great fundamental background for me to understand the “under the hood” color science – lab processes, image science, LUT generation. I guess it’s a bit like a musician learning the scales; after a while you kind of forget the technical stuff and you just play the music. But it's all in there, and I'm grateful for that sort of technical background.
I was also a weekend cinematographer, shooting shorts and a few features on a micro budget. But I also realized that it’s a craft and eventually I had to make a choice to really excel at one or the other. It’s experience that I can leverage though. I understand a little bit what it’s like to be on-set, the life of a DP and their challenges throughout the day. And that helps with the awareness of the creative process, the understanding of the technology, and the collaboration in the room.
KM: Absolutely. It sounds like all three of you shared an early love of photography that grew into moving pictures. Can you tell us a little bit about Captain Marvel and the work that you did on that, Doug?
Doug: Well, Technicolor and Marvel have a long history of collaboration. And working on one of their films is a unique experience. You need to be able to manage a team of other colorists in order to deliver the various delivery formats because you can’t do it all on your own – 2D, EDR, HDR, 3D, stereo, IMAX, home video – and all on a very tight deadline. It's a heavy lift but I was able to rely on the vast experience that Technicolor brings, knowing the way that Marvel works, the requirements that they have, the methodology and the collaborative workflow – all that made things a bit easier.
I was working closely with VFX supervisor Chris Townsend and Evan Jacobs on the initial grading passes. As with many big VFX films you really become kind of a steward of the great work from the VFX artists. While the look of the film still needs to fit within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s plenty of opportunity to plus the work, contribute and support the photography and VFX work. Much of the initial look is established in pre-vis and through the VFX pipeline. In addition to Evan and Chris, I was working with the DP Ben Davies, who was in London giving feedback via remote sessions. And, of course, the Marvel executives as well as the directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were weighing in for final approval.
KM: It’s that collaborative spirit that makes the Technicolor family so strong. And in that spirit, I’m going to open this next question up to all three of you. What is it that inspires you and drives you to excel in your art form as a colorist?
Alex: Well I would say it’s the opportunity to work with DPs and directors for whom you have a lot of respect. For me, the best part of the job is getting involved in projects early on in preproduction where I can really delve into the looks that they’re going for, build a workflow, and come up with ideas for achieving a particular look. Then seeing how it all develops over the weeks or months to the final grade. By the time you’re finishing the DI and you’ve all been working to the same final concept – when that all works, it's a really satisfying feeling and that's the biggest joy of the job.
Mark: I'll agree with that and build on it. When you have good photography that you love and it speaks to you and there is that collaboration, that’s when it’s most creatively rewarding.
Doug: I agree too. When it kind of just happens, those instinctive things that come out, that's when the magic happens. When you have great photography, great collaborators, you can really play in the sandbox. And when those ideas creatively converge, again instinctively, almost inexplicably, it's a feeling that's difficult to articulate. But that’s the most interesting and the most integral part of the job.
KM: So into that mix, the magic and the creativity, comes the technology. My next question is specifically about HDR, a really hot topic right now. How do you see it changing the industry or and the way you approach a project?
Alex: I think it depends on whether you are doing the HDR or the SDR first. For example with Netflix originals we do the HDR first and then use the Dolby tools to create the SDR version. That means that the HDR grade defines the look of the show so when it comes to the SDR trim, you are generally trying to get as much out of the image as possible to retain the feel of the HDR. When you do the SDR first – as we did with the Bandersnatch episode – you have to be careful about how far you go with the additional HDR range so that you don’t start stepping all over the original grade intent. There are scenes in Bandersnatch where you have characters with various skin-tones standing in front of very bright windows. If you just make the highlights really bright, particularly with the darker skin tones, you just lose their faces—so you have to start asking yourself, do you actually lift the shadows to compensate? There are a lot of questions you need to ask yourself when working in HDR to make sure that you are using it the right way.
Mark: In terms of how we're changing our approach – HDR shows more detail in the shadows and the highlights, but the first thing you notice is how bright the highlights are when you’re looking at the image. And until DPs are monitoring with HDR screens, I'm spending most of my time lowering those highs to give the picture some semblance of what they saw in SDR. Because if the DP hasn't seen it, and it’s not what they’re expecting, they're not prepared for that unless we bring everything down before they come into the room.
Doug: Yes, we are in this sort of hybrid phase right now, like when we as colorists were switching from CRTs to plasmas back in the day and you were grading to a different reference. You could probably go back to then and see the remasters of movies, how the look of them slightly changed at that point, because the technology of the display shifted.
It’s similar with HDR. Until everyone's monitor on set is HDR, and they’re lighting to HDR, editing is cutting in HDR, executives are screening dailies in HDR, and everything is HDR throughout – there's always going to be this half and half hybrid world.
Personally I really like HDR. I think it provides a huge amount of opportunity in terms of color palette and dynamic range; and frankly I feel like HDR has advantages in the low-end as much if not more so than in the high-end, in terms of shadow details, and especially in laser projection. I thought Captain Marvel, the EDR version, looked really amazing, mostly because of the low-end in certain scenes. The volumetrics, the stacking, the dimensionalization of the image as a result of the dynamic range is really cool. But definitely HDR is something the colorist has to manage. Because it is so different, we're all as a community learning what HDR can be and how we can leverage it in the storytelling as we figure it out.
Alex: I think we have to be careful that we don't let HDR define a particular look. In HDR, you can be really bright, really colorful, really contrast-y. But you don't have to be. A number of projects I've worked on, right from the start, I've showed the DP you can make the HDR look exactly the same as the SDR if you want to. It doesn't have to be really bright. It doesn't have to be really colorful. You just have the options there if you want them, as with any other decision when you're grading. It's got to be to the benefit of the show and that's always going to be dependent on the subjects of the story and what it's doing to enhance the cinematography.
But as has been said, we’re currently in a middle ground at the moment where we're having to cater to people who have both HDR and SDR TVs. And also there's so much variation in the output and what they're capable of – we always have that question of, how will this look when I watch it at home – even more so now than when we were just dealing with SDR.
Doug: The analogy I would use is also with sound mixing. You can mix to the reference level dialogue and have standard dialogue at that super loud level. But you don't want to, and it’s similar with the grading. You don't need to leverage all of that dynamic range just because you can. It's all about appropriateness.
KM: Wonderful, it's really educational and interesting to hear about evolving technology from your inside perspective. So last question: looking toward the future, what are you most excited about and what is the one piece of advice you'd give young artists who are looking to begin their own careers in picture post-production?
Alex: What I'm excited about is the scale of the drama shows that we are working on is increasing, to a point where they’re catching up with films in terms of the amount of visual effects work, and the types of directors and actors that shows on Netflix and Amazon and so on are attracting. So it's a really exciting time for drama right now.
For anyone coming up in the industry, I would say to absorb as much creative content as you can, whether that's photography, advertising, classic fine art painting – no matter what the source. Sometimes you can take inspiration from an advert in a newspaper or a piece of graffiti on the wall or something of that nature.
Mark: The quality of productions is getting better, both technically and creatively, so the opportunity to work on good shows like this makes the quality of what we can do better also. The streaming services are raising the bar for content, exponentially, and it's looking like a lot more of that is coming our way.
In terms of advice, to build on what Alex said, learn as much about all the aspects of filmmaking that you can. Whatever discipline you decide to concentrate on, learning the process will make your job easier and you'll be more valuable to the people around you. Look for inspiration and be well read visually, for ideas to widen your repertoire.
Doug: Totally agree. The production values nowadays have gone up so much with the streaming services. Which is great to see because there's a lot of great work out there, a lot of really talented colorists who are doing some really amazing, inspired work. So it's exciting to see that, and though there are a lot of new technology and delivery requirements, I think it's all going in the right direction
For those up and coming, I’d say don't get caught up on specific tools or techniques, or one particular platform. They’re all interesting and good, but don't get stuck on the how to’s, because those kinds of things are very individual and your particular approach will come from learning how to do something and spending a lot of time with other colorists. I would also say stay humble, stay eager, stay curious. Know when there's an opportunity and show up for it; sit with people, dedicate your time, and look for inspiration everywhere – art, music, Alex mentioned graffiti, yes everything.
KM: That's a really great spot to end on and very inspirational – to remember to look at all the amazing things around us. Thank you all very much and for spending time with us today. We look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.