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Features

37 Seconds

In the context of time, 37 seconds isn’t much, but for Yuma Takada, it’s the difference between living a normal life, versus the one she leads as a person suffering from cerebral palsy. This coming of age movie tells the story of an aspiring, disabled manga artist as she struggles to overcome an overbearing mother, a devious and capricious friend, and the sad memories of a childhood without a father, on her way to achieving her artistic dream and finding her freedom.

69_IFB_Panorama_red

The eponymous movie is director Hikari’s first feature film, and packs considerable emotional punch. A little background; Hikari and I have worked together for the better part of a decade. Back in 2012 I graded Tsuyako, her award-winning short film, and in 2013 A Better Tomorrow, which premiered at Cannes later that year. I’ve always loved Hikari’s passion and her desire to tell difficult, gut-wrenching stories. With 37 Seconds beautifully photographed on location in Japan and Thailand, I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the visuals, but first I needed to understand Hikari’s vision and the motivations of Yuma as she navigates a world of adult comics, drag queens and a raging intergalactic war!

From script to casting and back again

Hikari’s bold decision to cast Mei Kayama, a young actress with cerebral palsy, in the lead role is perhaps serendipitous in hindsight, as she adds a dimension to Yuma that perhaps is only possible with an actress who struggles with each movement, every take. Mei rides an electronic wheelchair, which makes blocking quite challenging. Since she was a first-time actress, we planned for 45 shooting days which was 10 days more than what we would normally schedule”, Hikari recalls.

What is even bolder is her decision to change course as a result of casting Mei: The script was originally about a young woman who was paralyzed but once I auditioned Mei – who has cerebral palsy but not paralyzed (as the script called for) – I changed the story to fit her physicality.” It’s this appetite for risk-taking, as well as a willingness to adjust to new opportunities as they present themselves, that is a hallmark of a successful Indie filmmaker.

Moving with the flow

37 Seconds was produced in association with NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster. In a world where 4K TV inches closer to becoming the norm, and with NHK historically being a technology trailblazer, certain requests were made to the filmmakers. Stephen Blahut, the cinematographer, explains how this affected his choice of camera: The film had certain obligations that meant we had to plan for a 16:9 aspect ratio and 4K deliverable.” Thankfully the movie was shot in 2018, where you could have had your pick of any number of 4K+ cameras. For his A Camera, Stephen went with the Red Dragon, a 6K camera, and a set of Cooke S4 lenses, as well as 100mm Zeiss macro lens for detail shots.

It’s primarily with this setup that the filmmakers achieved one of the most standout features of 37 Seconds, the striking photography. It is both static and dynamic, dramatic yet sensitive. Stephen elaborates: “Hikari and I discussed this early on. At the start we wanted to distance the audience from Yuma, establishing them as sort of voyeurs. (We) kept the camera back and chose to have longer takes with locked off frames. I find this method encourages the audience to actively engage and think about what is going on in the frame, rather than swiftly moving past the image. It’s strenuous and rewarding at the same”.

The infamous Kabukichō district where inhabitants require privacy

“As the film progresses we desired to push into Yuma’s interior space and introduced dynamic elements to the shot structure. As far as striking a balance is concerned, this came through in-depth conversation between Hikari, who is also a cinematographer, and myself.  We spoke at length about the relationship from scene to scene and what we were building to.”

The primary setup worked great for the majority of the movie, but there were certain scenes were the camera and the crew needed to be inconspicuous. Stephen explains: “One particular series of shots chronicles Yuma moving through the infamous Kabukichō red-light district in Tokyo. Given the nature of the environment it was essential to air on the side of caution. With a background in street photography, I traveled to the district to get a sense of the space. Hikari and I scouted the location, establishing both angles and a path for the lead actress to travel so we could be as efficient as possible on the day of the shoot. We paired down the personnel to a skeleton crew of myself, the director, and a few other team members that would hold at a distance. We opted for a Sony AS7ii paired with a DJI Ronin S Gimbal. The small package made us look like a documentary or maybe even made me look like a tourist. We were in and out in under an hour!”

A Look For All Seasons

Part of securing financing for any movie is the ‘package’ put together for potential investors. This typically includes the logline and memorable sound bites, as well as brief biographies of key cast and crew. What always stand out though are the glitzy pictures used to convey the overall ‘feel’ of the movie. In the case of 37 Seconds, both Hikari and Stephen collaborated on these pictures, their efforts culminating in a Look Book. “It was a great project for me to work on because I became acquainted with (Hikari’s) intentions, and an invaluable document in my opinion for the director, the colourist, and cinematographer. It can really establish a clear touch point for the film”, Stephen reasons.

Early on, Hikari envisioned her movie going through three different Looks, or phases: cold Tokyo, representing Yuma’s stagnant situation; passion scenes, which included Yuma discovering Tokyo’s night scene and her experience at the Love Hotel, and earthy tones, as Yuma grows as a person through knowledge and experience. Each look would reinforce Yuma’s journey and state of mind.

Cold Tokyo
Passion Moments
Earthly Knowledge

Before a single frame was shot, Hikari, Stephen and myself brainstormed these ideas over a Skype call between Tokyo and LA. There were the different sections of the movie, which needed to flow in and out of each other organically, as well as specific scenes such as the Love Hotel, which would be bathed in a strong magenta light. That intensity would be pushing up against the primary camera’s colour gamut, I observed at the time.

With these ideas in mind, I was sent some early test footage to create various Looks. These included interiors under both daylight and night time conditions (tungsten and fluorescent), as well as a few shots lit to simulate the aforementioned love hotel setup. I banked these Looks and refined them over time leading up to the DI of the movie.

From Look Book to Reality

From a colourist’s perspective, a Look Book provides some guidelines. While few movies fit into neat, pre-defined sections like this, it does inform you as to how to treat certain scenes, certain situations. At the same time, the movie and the protagonist are complex. Their emotions go on a roller coaster ride and take us, the audience, with them. Stephen agrees: “We wanted to keep the look book in mind when shooting the film but felt no obligation to adhere to the system we created.  It really became more of guideline in the end”.

A bias approach keeps natural colour in the skin tones.

With ideas swirling, I thought about the stylized look of manga characters, with accentuated, inky lines and strong contrast, not dissimilar to a Japanese person’s slick black hair against skin that is typically paler. Getting that contrast right is tricky; traditional ‘linear’ controls such as lift, gamma and gain can easily lob off shadows and dock highlights on their way to adding contrast, and an S-Curve can stretch out the mid tone, leaving it ‘thin’. Therefore, I turned to Soft Light. This blend mode is based on the relationship of shadows and highlights to 50% grey; anything lighter than mid grey gets brighter and anything darker gets heavier. By starting off with ‘gentle contrast’ in each scene, I could use a Soft Light and opacity to control the ‘inkiness’ of the shadows, giving me progressive contrast and snappier highlights. Then if I needed a shot to be brighter or darker, I simply used overall gamma to bounce the mid tone up or down, without affecting the black/white anchor points or relative contrast. This proved crucial as we continued to refine the tone of the film; Mei had much more of an innocent look than I anticipated, and her disability was very different than what it was in the original script, so we went more towards a brighter tone”, Hikari recalls.

To complement my blending mode approach, I decided on a ‘bias-based’ technique for the colour treatment. This forgoes the ‘typical’ clean whites/blacks approach, which all too often can suck the life out of a picture, stepping over the subtle differences of shadows tinting one way while the highlights sway in another direction. By choosing to bias the colour of the image, you respect the original photography, yet augment it with the style that is required.

For this I turned to Curves. For the majority of Tokyo scenes, I used the Blue/Cyan curves, particularly the -> Saturation and -> Density curves to gives those colours extra depth. These adjustments bend the image towards colder tones, without the coolness riding roughshod over the warmer colours, which is so important for healthy looking skin tones. Similarly, for Thailand, I used the Green/Yellow curves to capture the beauty of the jungle and the stickiness of the humidity, again keeping the other warm colours at a baseline that made sense.

By using this bias based approach to grading the movie, we were able to control how much ‘Thailand’ we wanted, or how much ‘Tokyo’. For example, when Yuma returns home in the end, Stephen wanted her to bring back a bit of Thailand with her, to signify the warmth she was bringing back to her mother. I simply used my Thailand grade and picked 50% opacity, and now we had a subdued warmth as we combined the original Tokyo look with some ‘heat’ from Thailand.

Challenging conventions

Forcing a scene that is warm earlier in a movie to a colder tone later on is something we see repeatedly, and many times it looks fake and forced. This technique is often used to enforce the emotional state of the characters, or to express the overall mood of the scene. However, in the scene where the mother confronts Yuma after going through her possessions, the tsuchikabe walls in Yuma’s house can’t suddenly turn blue because she’s having a confrontation with her mother. Did someone swap out the light bulbs?!

Yuma’s mother confronts her daughter

So I went with the photography of the scene, which was more naturally lit but also had a strong key light. I increased the gain significantly, while dropping the mid tones deeper, which has the effect of thrusting the characters into the limelight. Then I pushed some very strong vignettes, rotating them from shot to shot to make sure they weren’t hiding any faces. The vignettes serve to separate the characters from the background, and to heighten the conflict between them.

For the Love Hotel, we can see a clear thread between the Look Book, the early tests we did, and the final result we ended up with. The strong magenta is a bold choice, and a welcome one. The colour has become anathema in grading circles, and in my mind that is a problem, as this gorgeous colour can represent passion just like the colour red, but at the same time adds overtones of sleaze and ambiguity. The magenta that bathes the Love Hotel is a culmination of the use of that colour, as we build up to it from the point where Yuma begins to discover the Tokyo night life. From the scene where Yuma encounters the drag queens, to her detour into the famous Kabukichō red-light district, Hikari and I had a few arm wrestles over how much magenta we should ‘creep in’, but in the end we both felt that its use made the picture richer and more layered.

In a final ‘twist’ to our magenta journey, we swing wildly to a sea of cyan as Yuma washes her shame in the bathroom. The saturation of the cyan against the Soft Light, dense black deliver the punch and conclusion to this episode of Yuma’s self-discovery.

Distance? What distance!

With the movie having such an unconventional plot, it should come as no surprise that the DI was anything but conventional. With the director, DP and colourist all located in different parts of the world, we needed a way to communicate our ideas and address notes over a robust feedback channel, regardless of time zone. Enter Frame.io, a leader in the world of cloud-based video review and collaboration.

From the very first Skype call I had with both the director and DP, to the remote review sessions, to the exchange of media through Frame.io, this is a project that could not have been executed using the ‘traditional’ way. As a big fan of the service, I’d used Frame.io on countless smaller projects (shorts, music videos), but never on a feature. A 4K feature, and one that would require regular uploads, deliveries to and from multiple vendors, and a paper trail for every step of the way. So we rolled up our sleeves and took the plunge.

Frame.io makes remote video collaboration a breeze.

On studio pictures, remote services between your creative team members is not a big deal, and that’s because the client pays a pretty penny to have those services available to them. But what about the independent filmmaker, who often has similar demands, but pockets that are more holey than deep? That’s where services like Frame.io enter the picture. Hikari recalls the transition to working this way: At first it was challenging because of the time difference. But then it became so much easier because of the ease-of-use of Frame.io; I was able to review all the reels as they progressed through colour, share my thoughts down to the specific section of the image, and receive feedback from Milton, our colourist. Being able to work interactively this way meant that I could still work closely with Milton, even though I was in Japan, which was wonderful!”

Our utilization of Frame.io didn’t end with remote reviews. After delivering VFX pulls to multiple vendors through Frame.io, and realizing that it made the process so much more efficient, we moved more and more of our day-to-day activities to Frame.io; VFX deliveries back to us (versus hard drives), reel turnovers, complete with Avid Bins, media and offlines, and communication between team members all benefitted from the process. We reviewed entire reels. Created manifests out of CSV exports. We came 90% close to approving the final movie, all while achieving phenomenal transfer speeds. We became so comfortable with the process that uploading hundreds of gigabytes of data a day became common practice.

The strength of a service like Frame.io is not merely the wonderfully thought out and crafted tools that the company offers, or even the open Application Programming Interface (API) that allows you to customize the service to your heart’s content. The opportunity comes in the risk that it encourages the filmmaker to take, to replace ‘traditional’ processes with disruptive ones, which streamline the moviemaking process as a whole. For that we thank the hard working NY-based team at Frame.io.

Remember to smile!

Just like Hikari’s decision to take a gamble on Mei, and change the script to reflect her reality, Hikari’s message is bold yet nuanced: “Don’t hold back. Allow experiences to happen, because you never know what doors they may open. And remember to have fun with it all”. I don’t know any filmmaker worth their salt who would disagree with that statement!

37 Seconds Premiered at the 69th Berlin Film Festival to critical acclaim. It won both the Audience Award as well as the CICAE Art Cinema Award under the prestigious Panorama section. It is also an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019. The movie was produced by knockonwood, Inc. Films Boutique has picked up sales and Netflix is the worldwide distributor.

You can check out the trailer on YouTube, as well as follow the journey on Instagram. For more stills from the movie, make your way over to the 37 Seconds Gallery.

All images courtesy of Knockonwood Inc.


Never Hike Alone

In Never Hike Alone, director Vincent DiSanti dances on the fringes of the biggest horror franchise of all time, Friday the 13th. In this fan movie, we follow Kyle McLeod (Andrew Leighty), an adventure blogger on a mission to find the infamous camping grounds of Crystal Lake. Throughout the movie he documents his progress with his action camera, the entries of which become progressively grimmer, as his survival skills are put to the extreme test in a game of cat and mouse with the camp’s resident serial killer, Jason Voorhees.

The video diary style plays well to a younger audience brought up on Facebook Live and a ‘found footage’ approach to filmmaking popularized by another long running franchise, Paranormal Activity. At the same time there is plenty of meat for lifelong fans to sink their teeth into. Pun not intended!

From the sweeping camera angles to the locations to the design – Never Hike Alone screams of production values typically associated with a studio picture, not an Indie crafted together using blood, sweat and little help from Kickstarter. The result is a movie that adds to the horror lore of Friday the 13th, albeit in an ‘unofficial’ capacity.

The Hidden Location

Like any independent filmmaker knows, one of the hardest things to cheat on a project like this is the design. For a major studio picture, you have the funds and the means to build almost anything you can imagine, either practically or virtually. With Indies, you’re down to whatever you can put together on a shoestring budget, or, for the more resourceful filmmaker, what you can find.

Through a passing conversation with a couple Vince had been working with during the original trailer, they casually mentioned an abandoned camp up the road, College Camp, and whether he’d be shooting there. What followed was something akin to a real-life sleuth investigation that had Vince superimposing a phone image over a paper map, in search of the location equivalent to the holy grail. “I began zooming in and scanning a satellite view of the forest where I eventually found one of the buildings tucked between a grouping of trees. From there I traced a path that seemed like a road leading all the way back to the highway.”

All images courtesy of Womp Stomp Films, LLC

That path led him to College Camp; “from that moment, we knew we had struck gold”. The abandoned camp – with its cavernous main cabin hall, creepy attic and countless rooms and buildings – would fatefully become Camp Crystal Lake in Never Hike Alone, allowing Vince to expand the scope of the story he wanted to tell.

Toys of the Trade

As someone who’s graded a fair share of Indies, I’m used to dealing with cameras of all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s due to budgetary constraints, coverage needs over a compressed timescale, or just the desire to eek the best picture possible out of the most unlikely of cameras, Indie filmmakers have always pushed the boundaries in this area.

At the start of Never Hike Alone, the primary narrative camera was the Sony A7sii. This seemed like the best DSLR choice at the time, producing the most filmic images, but production is rarely just about the final result: “Its major downfall was that it was a difficult camera to rig as it required several accessories that never seemed to work together simultaneously. On top of that, the rig had trouble keeping up with the physical demands of the fight scenes and slowed us down a ton on set”, DiSanti recalls.

CAMERAS USED:

  • Red Epic 8K
  • Varicam 35
  • Sony FS7
  • Sony A7sii
  • DJI Phantom 3 Professional
  • (x2) Go Pro Hero 4 Blacks

ZEISS ZF LENSES:

  • 25mm f/2.0
  • 35mm f/1.4
  • 50mm f/1.4
  • 85mm f/1.4

But as luck would have it, cameraman Evan Butka, who’d been renting Vince his beautiful Zeiss lenses for the movie, became enamored with the project. He soon jumped onboard, bringing along his Red Epic 8K camera. “Shooting with the Red made life so much easier from a technical standpoint and of course gave us beautiful 8K images that would give us much more leeway in post.”

In another twist of kindness, Evan introduced Vince to Ben Meredith, another cameraman who would step in when Evan wasn’t available. And what do cameramen have? Cameras – this time a Varicam 35, ideal for low light situations; “We relied on the Varicam to capture a lot of our night and early morning scenes. Overall that camera is a workhorse that never let us down or gave us any issues.”

Finally, to round things off, Co-DP JD Martz brought with him his personal Sony FS7, which ended up becoming the B camera for the majority of the production. “It was great for guerrilla shooting when the main production cameras were not available. Most of the scene of Kyle running from camp with Jason giving chase was shot with that camera.”

Of Lin & Log

Working with many different cameras doesn’t have to be a nightmare; if all the material has a video gamma-style transfer curve (like Rec709), you can create a base by dialing out any differences using a primary grade, upon which you apply your Looks and other tweaks such as sharpness. This was my approach when matching the DJI Phantom shots with the Sony cameras throughout the extreme hiking scenes, as well as the night showdown between Kyle and Jason. For the ‘video diary’ footage though, the intention was to retain a visual difference between the punchy, ultra-sharp Go Pro material, and the more filmic narrative pictures from the Red Epic. As such, I kept the former bright and vivid and let any corrections ride in most instances, even if it meant blowing out highlights. However, for the latter I kept the contrast in check more than I normally would to create a softer look.

A Softer, filmic look from the Red Epic
The same shot through the eye of the GoPro

The real challenge arose when Log and Lin material were intercut. This happens throughout the movie, especially during the fight and chase scenes. In these instances it is important to consider the final deliverable. “Our original goal was to release the film for free on YouTube, however, we found ourselves with a unique opportunity to premiere at the Telluride Horror Show”, DiSanti informed us when we started testing the pipeline. With that information, I could make some decisions.

This setup for me meant a 709 world (sRGB on most computer screens), and thus I chose to convert my log images to video gamma using a base correction (versus using an output LUT). Since the conversion was ‘live’, I could always dig beneath it to retrieve any blown or crushed details, while reaping the benefits of a ‘homogenised’ timeline, allowing me to easily apply Looks between the Lin and Log material. Since the pictures were pretty much bang on in terms of exposure, we had minimal problems.

For the Red material specifically, the manufacturer gives you a plethora of choices for just about any occasion. Unlike other jobs where I typically choose to work in RedLogFilm space, for Never Hike Alone I chose RedColor2 / RedGamma2 for my colourspace and transfer curve. This gave me rich images with a slightly flatter look, perfect to use as a starting point.

Lake Gloom

Out of the can, the images looked beautiful, but lacked uniformity. This was purely down to the varying capabilities of the cameras, as well as the intercutting style between the video diary shots and the narrative footage. Before considering any specific Look treatments, it was essential to balance everything out.

From a colour perspective, I wanted to create a distinction between the time when Kyle is looking for Camp Crystal Lake, when he actually finds it, when Jason finds him, to the time the terror unfolds in and around the camp and beyond.

For the exteriors near the camp, there was a lot of warmth in the environment; this is Southern California in mid Spring, where any green ground cover can quickly dry out under the bright sun, casting russets and golden hues across the underbrush. Those colours impart a warm and inviting feel, the opposite of the foreboding Look I was aiming for.

Lake Gloom – a new take on my old June Gloom Look

To set that tone, I modified a Look I’d used for a past job – June Gloom. Basically, you start by selecting three colours – yellow, red and magenta – from the black point all the way up to the mid tone, with a good deal of feathering into the highlights. Those ranges are then desaturated, leaving behind the cooler colours, but also some life in the skin tones. On first glance the image appears to cool, but it’s misleading: the absence of warmth is what tricks your eye into thinking the image is much bluer. The modification I made to this Look was to further saturate the greens and blues left behind, as well as any warm colours left behind that were key story points.

The result is a creepy, ominous look that repels any inherent warmth in the image (like the fried underbrush). It’s especially effective on cloudier days, which are devoid of brighter highlights.

It’s in the Sky!

Nothing makes a picture look like a million dollars more than well timed aerial footage, and this movie has plenty of it. I purchased a [DJI Phantom 3 Professional] and learned to fly it on my own for the production.” DiSanti states. And watching the movie – from the breathtaking reveal over the lake to the epic crane as the ambulance races off leaving Jason in its wake – I would say he didn’t do a half bad job: “The hardest shot in the entire film was definitely the shot where Kyle runs across the log while the camera dollies forward over a large creek.” So if the director thing doesn’t work out Vince, then he can always be a drone operator!

Never Hike Alone premiered at Telluride Horror Show to glowing reviews as well as  simultaneously launching online on YouTube. The movie continues to rein in hundreds of thousands of horror fans from around the world, and has ticked up to an astonishing 900K+ views on YouTube. Lifelong fans of the Friday the 13th series haven’t felt this good about a Friday film since the 80s. “What seemed like a pipe dream early on in the process ended up being an experience I will certainly never forget”, DiSanti concludes.

The scope of the project is probably captured best by Greg Emerson, the online editor for the project: “Never Hike Alone was a full throttle 4K DI editorial job: six different camera types with variations in resolution, aspect ratio and bit depth. Digital FX, paint outs, variable re-speeds, reticule overlays…the show had everything that a $100M, big studio film would.”

You can check out the movie on YouTube, as well as more stills by going to the Never Hike Alone Gallery.

For my full interview with director Vincent DiSanti, check out The Search for Camp Crystal Lake.


DGK: Parental Advisory

Randal Kirk skates down familiar territory in his debut feature “DGK: Parental Advisory” – a ghetto fairytale that takes place inside the mind of DGK rider Baby Scumbag, aka Steven Fernandez. The movie combines music video-type narratives with some of the most amazing tricks performed by DGK riders. “The individual stories are abstract, much like a music video, but as a whole they tell a story”. Randal’s idea of combining these two normally different elements was ambitious, and I had the pleasure of helping him craft those images into a finished piece.

DGK: Parental Advisory by DIRTY GHETTO KIDS © 2012

“DGK: Parental Advisory” is different from most skate movies that preceded it, both due to the format as well as the story it tells; DGK is a unique brand in that all its riders have been dealt bad cards in life. Skateboarding became their golden ticket out of that life”, Randal told me when we sat down to discuss the look of the movie. “I wanted to tell a story that captured the heart and soul of the team’s riders.”

The cinematographer that stepped up to the task was none other than Salvador “Vallo” Lleo, someone I have collaborated with many a time before. True to his reputation, Vallo gave us some beautiful, cinematic sequences: “I knew my pictures were going to be intercut with cool-looking fisheye skate board sequences…so to create contrast I steered towards conservative framing and story telling”. But that didn’t mean that Vallo had it easy. “For the exteriors we had no permits and there was a lot of guerrilla-style shooting with the camera on the shoulder, the lens wide open and praying for an image…it brought back memories of my early days as a young film-maker.”

Tools of the Trade

Three Red Epics were used on this movie for the tons of coverage that Randal insisted on. “His energy and passion kept everyone going in the hardest of times”, recalls Vallo. His lenses of choice were the Cooke S4s and for his lighting style, Vallo didn’t have to look far beyond the brand’s name: “Dirty Ghetto Kids is the name of the company. The texture had to be gritty and rough. High contrast situations, mixing vibrant temperatures and super-stylized lighting design”.

Baby Scumbag’s Dream

Vallo has long left his trusty tripod behind and replaced it with his new Technocrane. It’s ultralight, super fast to move compared to the standard Supertechno and great in tight spaces and remote locations. “This crane is so great and easy to work with that there will be days where the camera would not come off!”

As practical as a crane is, it’s the sweeping shots that it helps capture which make it an amazing storytelling tool. In the last shot of the movie,  a wounded Stevie Williams steps out of an ambulance and skates away into the distance. As the crane goes up, dozens of kids skate after him with a gorgeous Downtown LA in the background. “It was a one take shot. Magical! Then Randal next to me shouted ‘OK kids…it’s a wrap!!’ Man, people went nuts! All these kids were hugging me and thanking me for the best experience of their lives. At that moment, it all made sense…and for me, that very moment was the coolest thing I have ever experienced. All the pain and suffering melted away. It reminded me of all the reasons why I came into this business. Not for the money, not the glamour or the fame but for these amazing happy moments that brings people together.”

Glossy with a Twist of Primaries

My approach to colour timing DGK was developed with Randal on previous collaborations, but this time with a twist. Randal explains that “over the years I’ve developed a glossy look for all of my videos that glamorizes the moment…This approach was appropriate for this piece since as a brand DGK has lots of bright and glossy colours in their designs, mixed with edgy/controversial images, much like the art I have made in the past.” The way I translated Randal’s vision to the screen was by giving the music videos a polished, poppy look with deep saturated colours and snappy blacks. However, this time I explored washing entire sequences with primary colours that existed in the pictures, giving them a certain vibrancy and unique signature look. The four images below show this approach.

Ocean Spray
Golden Morning

Graffiti Green
Operation Purple

There are many ways to achieve this effect, and the most basic one involves ramping up the lift/gain for the colour that you want to add, or even using printer lights (actually *subtracting* the colours that you want since you are theoretically working on the negative). This is certainly an option, but for me leaves you with an image which lacks color depth. Adding a wash doesn’t mean that every other color should be suppressed.

Instead, my approach was to use both blending modes and curves. After balancing the image, I threw on a Hard Light, which instantly added contrast, bloomed the highlights and dug into the blacks. Since we were going for drama in this piece, this single action helped get there fast. From here on you are sculpting, and curves gives you pinpoint precision. I increased saturation in my Yellow curve, but then to kill off the orange that was creeping in, I also increased the saturation along the Cyan curve. This is because Cyan sits across from Red, so any movement in either direction is going to affect the opposing colour. If too much Yellow/Cyan crept into parts of the image that I didn’t want it to, with curves its just a matter of adding a break point to contain its effect. I did this in the Cyan curve, because I wanted to retain the warmth in the blacks instead of cooling them off.

Not all images lend themselves to the same approach. For example, the picture above of Stevie Williams from his piece shows an exterior setup, with lots of colourless things in the scene (concrete, chain fence). Throwing on a Hard Light completely blasts the image with too much light, and his face disappears into the shadows. It’s the wrong approach. So for this, I made sure that I kept any gain adjustments in check, while using curves to seep in both colour and gain where I wanted it. The surrounding forest was perked up by adding green saturation, while his cap was brought out by adding saturation in the Red curve. For both primaries I brought down the gamma curve too, deepening the colors and giving them added richness.

Lost Ghetto Kids

“DGK: Parental Advisory” was a dream project for me, a collaboration with two artists I admire, who are always looking at breaking new ground with every shot, every scene, every motif. In the final act, as the skateboarders navigate past the frozen antagonists to overcome the conflict in their lives, Randal sits back and reflects on the project: “I’m visually communicating how skateboarding is these kids’ ticket out of a life of crime, drugs and death. Skateboarding has saved the team riders from all the harsh realities they could have potentially faced in their lives. Through skateboarding they are now living their dreams and the dream of all the lost ghetto kids on the street.”

In a first for this blog I interview Randal Kirk, the director of the movie in Lost Ghetto Kids. Here you can get the scoop on the story development, Randal’s ideas on creating memorable images and how it was to work with the army of kids in “DGK: Parental Advisory”.

For a ton of before and after stills, visit the gallery. Finally, for more work from the creative team, please visit their respective websites: Randal Kirk and Salvador Lleo.


The Smell Of Success

It’s hard to believe that the sweeping fields in The Smell Of Success are nothing more than soundstages at Melody Ranch Studios in Santa Clarita! Expertly lensed by David Mullen, ASC, the story is about a manure salesman in 1960s heartland America, and even though the gags are overdone at times, the images ooze quality. Pun intended ;)

The Smell of Success by INITIATE PRODUCTIONS © 2009

Timing this movie was challenging, especially because the DP was not available during the DI. As a starting point David had sent me a handful of stills, which evoked the overall ‘feel’ of the picture. A further challenge was the fact that the movie had already gone through a lengthy preview process, which left it with a lifeless sepia look and little colour separation. This was far from the painterly look both the DP and the Production Design department had planned for.

After untangling what had already been done, I started with a clean slate. This movie was shot on the Red One camera long before the upgraded MX sensor became available, and as such before Red’s FLUT colour science offerings. I picked RedLog for my gamma curve, giving me maximum detail in the highlights. The Zeiss Ultra Primes and Angenieux zooms David used gave me crisp images with excellent definition – a good starting point.

I started by discovering what was in the image, playing mostly with contrast and density and pulling out all the nuances that I knew existed in the ‘negative’; I was right – David had captured some remarkable, ‘filmic’ images, tempering the sharpness of digital cinematography with Classic Soft Blacks and Smoque filters. Through his lighting he created a soft overhead skylight for the outdoor farm scenes, using a combination of daylight Kinos, HMI lighting balloons or Lumapanels, the effects of which can be seen in the ‘Midday’ and ‘Afternoon’ images below.

Even though the gorgeous images had a well designed earthen palette, I still felt that some subtle accents could be used to signify the different times of day.

Early Morning
Midday
Afternoon
Golden Hour

Seeing the same colour tint over the course of an entire movie soon nulls the effect, and so to keep the eye ‘entertained’ I experimented by adding graduated pinks into the dramatic skies earlier on in the day. This combined well with the hard sunlight being simulated by the 18K HMI. I qualified the clouds and pulled back on the luminance so that I wouldn’t tint the brightest parts. I then brought the gamma down to expose a little more detail in the clouds, and offset the colour by adding a hint of orange. This created a nice transition between the horizon and the clouds.

For later on in the day, I followed the same technique but used less pink. I also wanted to make the clouds feel heavy, almost like they’re engulfing the foreground. I turned to S-curves for this, giving me contrast in the ‘body’ of the clouds while snapping the highlights and deepening the blacks. At times the clouds almost look like they’re touching the ground!

For the afternoon I replaced the pink with orange, especially in the mids and the blacks, giving the ground a sweltering and humid feel. This worked well with David’s afternoon setup – a tungsten 12-light HPL MaxiBrute to simulate the warmer sunlight late in the day. By the time we reach ‘golden hour’, the sky is on fire, with the dipping sun blasting through the trees. For this I actually composited two identical layers over each other, blew out the base layer and blurred the whites. I then used a Soft Light blending mode on the top layer, which I also keyed through to reveal the base. The blending mode provides a nice transition between the two layers.

The whole treatment is in keeping with the whimsical nature of the story, and despite the added ‘texture’, I feel remains true to the cinematography.

High On Mushrooms

I also had a little fun with the ‘high-on-mushrooms’ night scene, where I played with a stylized violet-blue wash and stark contrast. I also kept the blacks a little cooler than I normally would. This is one example of where you can use saturation to really fill in an image in the absence of mid tones. Overall, the movie has a very painterly quality.

For more stills from The Smell Of Success, click here.

To see more of David Mullen’s work, check out his website.


S. Darko

S. Darko was photographed by Marvin V. Rush, ASC, and takes place 7 years after the tragic death of Donnie Darko. The story follows his youngest sister, Samantha, who has run away from home, unable to deal with the loss of her brother. The old adage of “cameras don’t shoot movies, DPs do” certainly rings true with this movie. Shot with an early build of the Red One camera, Marvin’s masterful cinematography adds credibility to this bizarre ‘sequel’ of a cult classic.

S. Darko by SILVER NITRATE © 2009

For S. Darko, Marvin was working with a constrained budget. This meant that in order to be able to afford such goodies as a techno crane, he needed to make compromises, and this came in the selection of older and cheaper Zeiss Super Speed lenses. Despite having less sophisticated coatings and not being as sharp compared to modern ones, older lenses are finding a new lease of life being paired with new digital cameras. “Resolution is only one aspect of production. If you a photographing a woman then you don’t necessarily want more resolution”, he quips.

Knowing Your Tools

The majority of filming occurred 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah in the late spring of 2008. This is evident in the dramatic mountain ranges and brilliant clouds floating overhead. “Clouds contain a tremendous range of exposure. If you want to capture all of that detail, you have to bring your exposure down and expose for the brightest part of the cloud”, and thus knowing the ‘native’ ASA of the camera is essential. For the Red One Mysterium sensor, almost all DPs I’ve worked with agree on an ASA of 320 for daylight and 200 for tungsten. Understanding the limits of the capture device is essential. “Doing an accurate latitude test is imperative. What are the blackest blacks and the whitest whites”, Marvin asks rhetorically.

This is a cinematographer who knows his tools. When the gorgeous images rolled into the DI suite, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much detail there was in the clouds, but not at the expense of the faces. I felt that Marvin had captured the maximum amount of latitude the camera was capable of. This allowed me to to really isolate and saturate the sky while bringing out the clouds at the same time. A separate qualification on the faces was used to lift them out the shadows.

Americana

Just as you’d expect with a name like S. Darko, this movie has an oxymoron or two: looming mountain ranges frame rusty graveyards and rinky dinky motels in the middle of nowhere. The Production Design team must have had a hell of a time filling every nook and cranny with the million and one chachkas hanging from the walls. When appropriate, I pushed the colours a little further, made the landscapes a little bolder, and turned those cheap motels a little rustier. There’s a fair amount of folklore strewn throughout this tale, and each scene required a slightly different ‘treatment’ in order to bring out the photography.

The three images below show such a treatment. In the first picture, the RedLog file has the usual low contrast and desaturated look, but the colour separation and strong shadows are still evident. The second picture shows the effects of the LUT and a base grade. Note that the overall temperature of the scene feels cool, and in this instance the RAW file was debayered using 5600K (daylight) and 320ASA. This is how the camera was rated for this scene, and provides a good starting point: the colours feel ‘natural’, with clean blacks/whites and good colour separation. However, this scene takes place much later on in the day, and so I wanted to add a ‘rustier’ tint to it. I did this by adding a good amount of mid brown to the blacks and red to the highlights, but left the mid tones alone; this was to preserve all the subtle blues in the jeans and pamphlets, as well as the greens in the book keeper’s shirt. I finally brought down the shadows and removed some of the red tint from the blacks.

RedLog file
Base Grade + LUT
Final Grade

Day-for-Night

In addition to the Red One camera, Marvin used his own Sony EX1 for a very specific reason: time-lapse. The camera’s built-in intervalometer makes up for the fact that it’s a fixed lens camera, producing ‘spectacular’ HD images that cut well with the Red One footage. Marvin shot a time-lapse sequence of a motel in the middle of nowhere during the day with the intention of transitioning the shot into a Day-for-Night during the DI.

The blazing sun…
…turns to soft moonlight

Achieving a good Day-for-Night effect is all about good planning. There are certain steps you need to follow in order to get a convincing result.

Usually I start off by bringing down the overall gain and saturation. You can also bring down the lift as well, as long as the blacks don’t get too ‘blocky’. Even though we’re trying to create a night look, we still want to retain the integrity of the image. If you can’t bring down the gain without turning the image into mush then you can pull a luminance key and bring the highlights down by themselves. If I use this approach, I always make sure to use a good amount of softness in the key to avoid any banding.

The next step is to start identifying problematic areas: long shadows indicating a setting sun, bright roads, distracting backgrounds (in this case the rock formations) – all of those need to be treated separately, either by qualifying them or by using custom shapes. Many times I tend to actually bring up the gain on foreground objects, while bringing down the lift and overall density to simulate reflecting moonlight. Sometimes, it also helps to use soft grads to effectively ‘burn off’ distracting areas. In the example above, I have a separate correction on the road, the motel, the cars, the sign and the rocks, as well as a grad on the top part of the frame.

Now with all that sorted, you can finally go in and tint the overall image blue, while further reducing both saturation and gamma. This global adjustment has a unifying effect on all the corrections below it, and is one of the reasons why I wait until this point to tint the image. The other reason is because I want to retain my colour separation as late as possible, retaining the green in the trees, the reds in the sign and the earthen colours of the rocks.

For more S. Darko stills, click here.


Super Hybrid

Hybrid was my first opportunity to collaborate with John Leonetti, ASC, a great cinematographer and good friend! Looking at the images you’d never guess that half of this feature was shot in almost complete darkness, and with an early build of the Red One camera. John nailed the exposure, and gave us some great images to work with.

Super Hybrid by STALLION MEDIA © 2010

Hybrid was shot in the days before the MX upgrade to the Red One camera, a time when every DP was trying to get the most light onto the sensor. The lenses John picked for Hybrid were the Cooke S4s as well as the Angenieux Optimo zooms, both great lenses with very high optical qualities. The camera was rated at ISO 320.

Emergency Lighting

Most of Hybrid takes place in a five-story car park. In the first half of the movie we cut between the various levels, including the office, the mechanics’ workshop and the ramps connecting each level. For these setups John combined different types of lighting: “I mixed kelvins in the practical lighting intentionally to give color separation. We mixed 3200k, incandescent with 5600, daylight and fluorescents which were cool white, blue and green.”

In the second part of the movie, a car crash that takes out the building transformer, emergency lights are triggered, and hence we called this setup ’emergency mode’. John and I decided that as we descended through the levels, the picture would get darker. This required planning, for example knowing how dark we could go on level 2 so that we still had a picture by the time we reached level 5! “You always need somewhere to go,” John would often tell me if he felt we were going too dark.

This setup meant that we ended up grading ‘hero’ shots when John was available, establishing a look for key moments in the story, and then filling in the shots around them when John had left for the day. Using this approach, we knew how dark we should be in each section before committing to grading the entire scene. You always want to use the time with the DP wisely, which is why this technique is quite common with DPs who have a busy schedule.

Debayered Image
Industrial Look

John is one of those DPs who really gets stuck into a project, colouring his own stills and laying them out to a Pink Floyd soundtrack! The stills were pulls from the original R3D files and coloured onset. He went further than most DPs in that he gave the stills a real punchy, saturated look. After talking about the movie, we definitely felt that we wanted to go for a strong ‘industrial’, gritty look, with rich cyans and blues creeping into the blacks, but not at the expense of the actors’ skin tones. We also wanted to bring out the ‘distressed’ look in the walls, the furniture and the cement floors.

Colour Curves

A strong look doesn’t have to mean an overpowering look devoid of detail; I like to retain the subtleties from the original ‘negative’, and for this type of job I opted to use curves to establish a new ‘base’ instead of using the joyballs. Curves are a very powerful tool but can also be tricky, because unlike the joyballs that are compensating all three primaries at the same time (add red and you take away green/blue at the same time), curves are additive unless you manually compensate. However, this also makes them ideal for making sweeping changes to an image. For example, take the Blue → Blue curve, crash down the black point and you end up with golden blacks, just like that!

Emergency Mode: Level 3

In the case of Hybrid, I played mostly with the Red → Red channel, bringing down the black point and then balancing that with the Green → Green channel to push my blacks and mids more towards blue. This is where it pays to know your colour wheel and your additive vs. subtractive way of colouring.

Now with a strongly biased base, anything you build on top will inherit those characteristics. This is when I will switch to the joyballs and master controls and add density and contrast, as well as push the mid tones to a warmer place. This teases apart the picture, giving you that colour separation that keeps the image interesting and ‘real’. I used this approach on most of the movie, except for the darkest scenes where I was trying to conserve as much of the picture as possible!

Dealing with Black

The Darkest moment in the movie

When the majority of your frame is made up of black, there is a tendency to really pull up the gain in an image to bring out anything that constitutes a picture. There are two problems with this: firstly, by pulling the highlights away from the blacks, you are exacerbating the noise level in the blacks, and that’s not a good thing. Secondly, if you push the gain hard enough your skin tones will start to ‘posterize’. Both of these are not good scenarios. What’s else can you do then?

The approach I use is a tiered one. I use the gamma to bring up whatever is visible in the picture up to a comfortable point, ie. before the noise becomes excessive. It’s important to set your pivot points so that the gamma has a minimal effect on your blacks, otherwise you’ll be lifting the noise! Then I’ll use a luminance map to select the brightest areas, and use the gain to pull out any remaining highlights.

It’s important to remember that the goal with these kinds of shots is not to create a perfectly distributed bell-shaped histogram, with lots of body and good highlights. We are merely trying to get a pleasant picture, and as long as the eye catches those highlights and a little bit of mid tone, you should be fine.

You can find more stills of Hybrid here.


2:13

2:13 is one of those movies that can be hard to watch at times. The easiest way to describe it is Se7en meets Saw, with a visual style to match. It’s no coincidence that the Cinematographer is none other than David Armstrong, ASC, creator of the Saw look and one of the most successful franchises in recent years.

2:13 by ANTHEM PICTURES © 2009

The Film Director, Charles Adelman, was the client for this job. Charles was clear about his intentions: he wanted Hicon, ‘gutsy’ images for all of the violent scenes to contrast with the more toned down investigation parts. Then there were the scenes that needed special attention: flashbacks feature regularly in this movie, and he wanted those to feel dreamy yet ‘creepy’. There was a day for night motel shot in broad daylight that was a challenge, and the final interrogation scene had to feel cold and ominous.

Creepy Flashbacks

I’m not a colour purist in the sense that I’ll use whatever tool is right for the look that I’m trying to achieve. For the dream sequences I wanted something special. One of my favorite FX plugins is called Tinderbox DiffusionFilter, and I’ve often used it to soften the harsh lines you sometimes get when CG is composited over live action.
However, you can also use the numerous plugin controls to define edge thresholds, and subsequently ‘bloom’ those edges to create some very interesting glow effects. This technique creates a different look to the usual approach of blurring the highlights and raising the gain, and pushes the effect into the entire image versus just the highlights. It also doesn’t blow out the highlights.

Interrogation Scene

For the final interrogation scene, Charles wanted a very cool, steely look reminiscent of T2. There wasn’t a hint of coolness in the negative as can be seen from the image below, so I had to push the image quite hard to get it where it needed to be. I started off by adjusting the contrast through my print emulation LUT and working with some HSL curves to move the tones towards a cooler palette. Curves allow you to use a broader brush and thus work more organically, avoiding edge issues that can be a problem when using keys to qualify regions of colour. Then I moved onto finessing; inky blacks, silvery highlights with a cool tint, strong vignetting to make Spivey look like he’s emerging from the blackness of the interrogation room. One thing you want to be careful of when creating a cool look is that your skin tones don’t go completely blue, unless you’re working on the sequel to Avatar! Instead, I brought back some of the original skin tones and blended it with the underlying cool image. I snapped the contrast and let some highlights burn off to simulate the harsh lighting of the room and was finally done!

before…
…And after 8 layers of colour!

As much as I love the immediacy of digital acquired images, there is still a lot to be said about the texture of film and its enormous latitude. You can push the negative in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways and it will always perform: the blacks wont block up and the highlights will rolloff nicely instead of clipping hard. That’s film. This is clearly evident in the day for night image below.

Day-for-Night

When faced with a Day-for-Night scenario, one of the things a colourist needs to determine is whether he can pull it off with just colour, or whether it becomes a VFX shot. To answer this question, you need to know what time of day the cinematographer is aiming for. Anything around midnight is going to need incandescent light sources in windows and other small details, and therefore could be cheaper to do in VFX. However, late afternoon or early morning shots can be pulled off with the clever use of colour and some good old-fashioned layering. I call it ‘compositing with colour’.

The images below show the transformation from a mid afternoon shot to a 4am setup. First, we start off with the Raw Log image. After the print emulation LUT is applied, I do an overall treatment: I bring down the blacks a little, the gamma more and the highlights more still. This is to reduce the overall brightness and contrast of the shot. I then bring the saturation down and add blue to the entire image using printer lights. On a log image, this amounts to an equal distribution of blue across the image. The second image shows us where we are at this point. Even though there is a big difference, the image is flat and not very convincing.

Log + LUT
Intermediate
Final Image

Then I move into specifics. I usually qualify the highlights, bring down the gamma a little but pull up the gain. This helps retain contrast in the bright areas as you bring them down, otherwise the image can start to get muddy. The background buildings are isolated from the rest of the image using carefully placed roto-splines, while the actual motel is given a contrast treatment to separate it from the buildings behind it. Graduated masks are used to pull down the road and the buildings on the right, and then the left side of the sky is brought up a little bit to simulate fading moonlight. Finally, the windows are brought up a little bit and tinted blue to accentuate the moonlight spill.

So far so good, but to really sell the shot, I composited the processed image over the raw image, keyed through the highlights using an HSL keyer to expose the original sign, applied a Sapphire Glow to it and then pulled out a bit of blue while saturating the reds in the neon sign. Done!

For a broader selection of stills from this film, click here.

2:13 was colour timed at Steele VFX in Santa Monica.