Monday, April 29, 2013

Anatomy of a Grade - Episode 10 - Gettin' that "Cyan Swing"

Well spring is here with summer soon around the corner and although business has been bristling as of late, I've finally found a bit of time to add the latest edition of "Anatomy of a Grade". Its hard to believe this series has been 2 years in the making and at 10 episodes is still going strong on both youtube and vimeo. Thank you to everyone who's subscribed via those services and via the blog as well. You have my promise that there are many more in the making!

For this episode I finally decided to tackle the rather popular topic of the "cyan/orange" look, which I like to refer to as the "Cyan Swing" (just sounds classier doesn't it?). This look has been made popular by numerous hollywood films such as Michael Bay's "Transformers", and this year's  action/crime thriller "Gangster Squad", amongst many others. This is definitely a look that is "in vogue" in the world of color correction nowadays, and I have to say, I get asked to do this one quite a bit in the color suite. My usual tendency is to try steer clients towards a more customized version of the look that is inspired by the visual design and aesthetic that they hopefully started in the initial photography and production design of the film. The "Cyan Swing" works best when a shot has been conceived or photographed in such a way to take advantage of the use of complimentary cool shadows and warmer highlights and/or skin tones. The look works great, when you're enhancing a basic palette of colors that's already there inherently in the image, or in an image that might be more tonally neutral that could be "nudged" into this world from a more muted palette. Where it doesn't work so well... when slapping on an aggressive color preset or "look" with no regard for customization to the actual footage in front of you; and with no clear choice for visual interpretation and aesthetic by the filmmakers.

I truly believe that a colorist's job is to enhance and further refine the visual aesthetic set by the director and cinematographer during principle photography and NOT to completely rebuild the ship so to speak from the ground up (although it seems now more than ever we're being asked to do this more and more). Great looks in the color suite BEGIN IN PRINCIPLE PHOTOGRAPHY, period. Every element of the picture from costumes, to lighting, to makeup, to filtration, to production design, to shot composition establishes a "look" from the very moment the camera rolls. If forethought hasn't gone into these elements, then cohesiveness in the color suite can become a bit underwhelming as the "look" of a movie is unfortunately simply "stumbled upon" during the grade. Usually this process happens more by happy accident than by intentional choice. Although we must always leave room for "happy accidents and discoveries" at every stage of a film's development; depending upon them can often times lead to lackluster results when the creative sparks aren't igniting, so to speak. A look like the "Cyan Swing" works best when its implanted in the minds of every department from the beginning of production.

This particular example from a commercial spot that I did for company Metis Creative, demonstrates how simply this look can be achieved when the elements are there in the beginning thanks to a well conceived plan from production. Take a look at the finished piece here as well and you'll see how multiple locations utilize the key colors in the look in different ways (its not always cool shadows and warm highlights, but its always blue and orange in some combo!). You can see how customizing this look to bring out specific element of the principle photography that was already there (ie the blue of the "Giant" logos, and warm skintones) made the grading process very clear and allowed us to get REALLY specific on the day instead of spending time trying to impose a look on the piece.

Giant Propel Advanced SL from Metis Creative on Vimeo.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Grading "Anita" - Sundance 2013

Earlier this year, I got the chance to work with the team at Bandito Brothers and Oscar winning documentary director Freida Lee Mock on her latest documentary entitled "Anita" destined for its Sundance 2013 premiere! The film takes a retrospective look at the story of Anita Hill more than 12 years after her testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, regarding the sexual harassment allegations aimed at the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice during her years working under him. This is Freida's 12th film, and her strength and passion for the subject is as strong as ever (Freida won the Oscar for her 1995 documentary "Maya Lin: A strong Clear Vision").

From a color grading perspective, the film offered some unique challenges as it combined recent interview footage of Anita and other subjects shot on Panasonic cameras, as well as numerous amounts of archival material pulled from every imaginable analog format from the early 90's. The footage ranged from Betacam SP broadcast tapes to master-less VHS grabs from the time. From a visual continuity standpoint there was a lack of cohesion in the original un-color corrected cut. Working with Freida, we decided to bring the dull and colorless archival footage too life, by giving it a gamma curve and color palette that more matched the feel of the modern interview footage. While each and every format took a different technique to get there, we were able to greatly enhance the older news footage to give it a "more filmic" contrast along with "punchier," "more saturated", colors that brought it more to life. What we found that there was actually an incredible amount of information available in these old analog formats and we were really able to make shots that had seemed so lifeless on C-SPAN and other news outlets, really come to life with a vibrancy that I think surprised me more than anyone else!

For the interviews we employed a number of techniques to enhance the interview lighting to really flatter the subjects even more. Using power windows, highlight retention techniques, and even a subtle "post pro-mist" filter or two, we were really able to give all the interviews a much softer feel than was achievable on set at the time of production. Overall, I have to say this project was one of my favorite projects of 2012/2013. Working with Freida the post team at Bandito was an absolute joy, and being able to work on a film that I believe contains major relevance to our cultural and social perceptions today was truly a gratifying experience.