“What is the future of mobility?”
That is the question BMW poses in its four-part webisode series entitled “Wherever You Want To Go: Four Films About the Future of Mobility”. Influential academics, pioneers, and entrepreneurs stir the imagination with their unique visions of the past, present and future of technology, cities and transportation.
The four webisodes are directed by Kurt Mattila. Each episode has a running time of almost 6 mins, and focuses on a particular subject.
Activate The Future was shot on the Canon 5D, a regular in many of todays documentaries. As I have stated before, this lightweight camera offers compelling HD images at an unbeatable price. As the post production tools have improved over the past two years, we have seen the images coming out of this game-changing camera gradually improve. Practically, this means that the bottom end has improved to the point were we are able to capture subtle details without having to expose for the darker areas. You can see this in the image above, where Buzz Aldrin’s suit jacket still has a lot fine detail in the shadows.
Blending Film, VHS & HD
Many times with documentaries, the basic role of the colourist is to ‘even things out’. This is because the material can come from so many different sources: film archives, old TV VHS recordings, and then modern HD video and graphics. Making all of this feel cohesive relies on picking the right approach.
For all the 1970s flying car infomercials, I was dealing with badly deteriorated VHS tapes, with severe white balance problems, interlacing and sharpness issues. Colour balancing and then sharpening the shots made a dramatic difference. At the same time, I applied subtle blurs to the backgrounds in the graphics and models (above) to blend the surrounding shots better with the stock footage. Most times matching saturation and contrast is enough to bring the images closer.
Each other scene had its own treatment depending on the subject matter, and generally I tried to retain a lot of the mid tone in the image and keep the saturation up. With the right lenses, the Canon 5D already produces some very photographic images, so it was just a matter of giving each scene that little bit extra. For example, in the image below of Mike Musto, Editor-In-Chief of ridelust.com, I decided on a cooler look, a nod towards the steely blue BMW commercials we have all seen over the years. I used printer lights to add an overall blue tint, and then desaturated my blacks a touch. I then qualified the skin tones separately to bring back some of the warmth that I had lost. I finally saturated the blue jeans and the red brakes to give a little extra punch.
Working on mixed format jobs is always a challenge, especially documentaries. Filmmaker’s expectations of what a documentary should look like have changed, and with a job as high a profile as this, the clients were every bit as interested in ‘the look’ as they were in the narrative. As cameras continue to improve, those expectations slowly begin to align with what is possible under a constrained budget, and that’s where the colourist can really make a difference.
The award-winning ‘Dragonslayer’ tells the story of ‘Screech’, a lost kid falling in love in the suburbs of Fullerton, California. “[Dragonslayer] is a portrait of a new generation of kids from the rotting suburbs of inland California, and a celebration of what makes them so unique” comments Tristan Patterson, the director of the documentary.
Dragonslayer was lensed by Eric Koretz, and was my second collaboration with this Cinematographer. The documentary was filmed off and on over the course of a year and a half.
Most times documentaries can pose a challenge for a colourist; the very nature of these narratives usually leads to compromised images, hastily filmed in order to ‘capture the moment’. However, I found that with Dragonslayer, this wasn’t your typical documentary!
Eric used the Canon 5D Mk2 as his primary camera outfitted with a variety of lenses: the Canon L series 24-70 and 70-200 zoom lenses, a must in the run and gun world of docs, as well as an 85 T1.2 for all the low light night stuff. When time permitted, a set of Zeiss ZF 21, 35, 50 and 100 lenses were used. The superior sharpness and optical quality offset the inconvenience of using the primes.
Dragonslayer differs from many other skateboarder movies I’ve seen in that it is shot with a more filmic aesthetic, both in terms of the framing and the pace; crazy wide-angle lenses and crash zooms are out, replaced with a more sensitive approach that feels fresh and less pretentious. The colour choices reflect this, and I worked hard to bring out what was already there, striking a balance between the rawness of the ‘negative’ whilst striving for cohesiveness and uniformity. For a colourist there is something very satisfying about the fact that the audience will never see what the ‘befores and afters’ looked like!
The filmmakers also gave Screech a Kodak Zi8 to record his own stunts with. The camera is capable of capturing HD @ 720p, but in one of the those ‘fortunate’ accident moments, Screech flipped the switch to record standard definition!
Instead of fighting the ‘compromised’ images or trying to find a way to ‘fix’ them, I accentuated them further by pumping a lot of saturation in the blues and greens while keeping the skin tones ‘healthy’. One thing I didn’t want to do was stretch the contrast like crazy in order to bury the noise. Instead, I floated the blacks a little and pushed in some grain to hide some of the more offensive noise. The vibrant look goes with Screech’s ‘elevated’ state as he skateboards his way through life. And let’s just say that the use of recreational drugs are rampant in this movie!
Another scene we had a little fun with was the Tattoo Parlour. We really wanted to accentuate the intricate tattoos on display, as well as the vibrant colours bouncing off the walls and the posters. Compared with the natural and softer palette of the rest of the documentary, we wanted this to feel more grungy, more raw. I achieved this by pushing a good amount of cyan in the blacks, and offsetting the coolness with yellow in the mid tones. I then punched the oranges and the reds but protected the skin tones so that they wouldn’t go nuclear! Saturation can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but you need to know where to use it; without being selective you can end up with an image that looks like it’s made of candy!
‘Dragonslayer’ has been an award magnet ever since it hit the festival scene. It recently won the Best International Documentary at the hotDOCS Canadian International Documentary Festival. That’s in addition to the two awards it won at SXSW – Grand Jury Prize For Documentary Feature and Best Cinematography.
To stay up to date with Eric Koretz’s latest work, visit his website.