Supervising Digital Colourist

Shorts

“Tsuyako”

My collaboration with Cinematographer Salvador Lleo continues with Tsuyako, a story set in postwar Japan, where a factory worker and mother must decide between duty and love, her family and freedom. The short was directed by Mitsuyo Miyazaki in her home town back in Japan.

Tsuyako by Mitsuyo Miyazaki © 2011

The five and a half day shoot was a gruelling one, with 14 hours of footage for a running time of 27 minutes. Capturing that amount of footage in that short amount of time also meant that compromises had to be made, specifically with the lighting setups of each scene. Welcome to the world of Indy filmmaking!

The images that Salvador has captured for Tsuyako do justice to the textures and the nuances that come from hundreds of years of aging. This is the kind of stuff that is hard to reproduce on a soundstage, and from the images below you can see why. The weathered wood, the scratched steel, the dirt and grime and hard graft are all on display. For Tsuyako, Salvador used a set of standard speed Zeiss lenses T2.1, along with his Red One camera. He felt that “the low contrast and soft quality of the glass helps to round off the ‘digital edge’ of a super high resolution digital camera such as the Red One”. And he’s right, because in the absence of film stocks, you need to make the glass work harder in order to create the images that you want. Salvador’s philosophy is that “the pairing of old and new was optimal for creating a more organic and filmic image that is in tune with the period piece”.

First Meeting

Forbidden Lovers

The factory scenes were a lot of fun to colour time, specifically because of the way that Salvador used fluorescent lighting: as a fill light to his warmer tungsten key light. The secret to working with any fluorescent source from a colour timing perspective is avoiding clipping. Although this may sound like common sense, it is even more profound when using this kind of light source, because fluorescents tend to leave a horrible green ‘residue’ around the clipped areas vs. daylight or tungsten. Keep the whites legal though and you will get some strong yellow/green seeping through the image that will add body to any industrial-type setting.

Mixing Tungsten and Fluorescent Lighting

Tsuyako recently won the Future Filmmaker Award at the 2011 Palm Spring International Shortfest. You can read about the awards in the festival press release here, as well as in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

For more stills from the movie, visit the Gallery.

You can reach Salvador Lleo’s personal website here.


Do It

Do It is a short directed by Steve Petersen, Co-founder and Creative Director at Big Machine Design. This was Steve’s first foray into the medium of filmmaking, and an attempt to prove that he could tell a story in a format longer than the 30 second TV spots he has mastered over the years.

The story is about Bernie, a tormented pharmacy clerk who has delusions of putting society right by killing the current ineffective mayor and replacing him with another. Tormented by his demons and his inability to act, Bernie’s’ vivid fantasies get him into trouble more than once, and prove to him that ultimately the only way to fix the problem is to come up with a plan and just Do It!

Do It by BIG MACHINE DESIGN © 2009

Contrasting Looks

Coming from the graphic design world, Steve is a very visual director, and for Do It he incorporated many graphic elements into his movie: graffiti splattering across the walls as Bernie wanders the streets at night, depicting his inner thoughts, as well as hand drawn title cards that break up each act. Steve also wanted this ‘superhero comic style’ to be present in all the live action sequences. For example, Bernie tries to overcome his loneliness and low self-esteem by fantasizing about being superhuman. In this altered state he becomes the hero, beating up the bad guys and saving the day. When he comes down from his ‘high’, we are back in his dreary world. Steve wanted to match the framing and the pace of each scene with recognisable colour cues to signify the state Bernie was in, augmenting the intense graphical style.

The challenge was to balance the intense look Steve wanted with some ‘breather’ scenes that would give the audience time to reset their eyes! If everything is super intense all the time, the effect quickly wears off. Luckily, the story provided opportunities for a more mellow palette in some scenes, particularly the ones where Bernie is going about his drab and mediocre life.

Bernie’s Dreary Existence

For all the pharmacy scenes, I decided to use a muted and cooler palette. I started off by balancing out the blacks and highlights, and then dialing down the saturation by 20%, which is a substantial amount on a well exposed image. I also added a slight blue tint to the mid tones. This gave me a good base and starting point.

All the bottles on the shelves and Bernie’s blue uniform still felt very vivid, so I qualified both the blues and greens and brought those down separately. I left the reds where they were because I didn’t want to desaturate the skin tones further.

To give the image a little bit of ‘snap’, I used a luminance key to select the highlights and then brought up the gain, which added contrast to Bernie’s face. I also let the highlights burn off a little, pulling the eye further away from Bernie’s blue uniform that still felt a little pronounced. Bringing the saturation down further would have made it look monochromatic.

Heightened Reality

For the images below, which I fondly referred to as the ‘Abbey Road’ setup, I started off by stretching the image to the point where my brightest areas (car on the right) were clipping. When I’m going for a high contrast look, I usually try to either crush the blacks or blow out the highlights, rarely doing both. This avoids the much dreaded ‘video look’. I then warmed up the highlights, knowing that I’d get red ‘contamination’ in the sky, but I would take care of that later on. For my blacks I went more towards green; the combination of red highlights and green blacks pushes orange into the mid tones, picking up the warmth in the buildings and the tarmac.

Then I treated all the primaries separately, blasting saturation in the blues and to a lesser extent the greens, while reducing the saturation in a narrow band of reds. This gave me rich red highlights from my base correction, without the excessive tint in the skin tones. I then burned off the corners with a strong vignette, while qualifying the sky inside of the shape and boosting the gain a little. This created a halo effect coming from behind the skyscrapers in the background. I also then took out the red I had introduced in my base correction.

Finally I did an overall grade, pulling the highlights and mid tones towards a cooler palette, and again boosting overall saturation. I almost always do a grade on top of all my other corrections, largely because this has the effect of rolling all the colours into one unified look.

RedLog + LUT
Heightened Reality

You can visit the Do It gallery by using the following link.

You can watch the short by visiting Steve Petersen’s site at stevep.tv/do-it.


La Nostalgia del Sr. Alambre

This is one of the prettiest pieces that I’ve ever worked on! Animator extraordinaire Jonathan Ostos Yaber combines stop motion animation with CG and matte paintings to bring to life the story of a Puppet Artist who chases his dream all the way to the big city, leaving behind what he loves for what he desires most.

Sr. Alambre by Jonathan Ostos Yaber © 2009

There is a specific discipline when working with images that are already both vibrant and exceptional, quite often the case with stop motion and CG. The very richness of the images can also be the problem, and focussing the attention of the audience becomes the main task. For Sr. Alambre, I used many soft vignettes to create some ‘spot lighting’, and also blurs the foreground and the edges in some shots to simulate shallower depth of field.

Mixed Lighting
Surreal Moment
Tragic End

As beautiful as these three images were to begin with, they all had their challenges. The first one felt flat and looked like a night scene lit up by a tungsten moon! I simulated some mixed lighting by pushing some blue in the shadows around the characters, but kept their skin tones warm to indicate the light reflecting off the canvas. Some soft vignetting also helps focus the eye. The second image is much more surreal, and therefore I augmented much of the pastel colours with some saturation in the mid tones while retaining cleaner highlights. The third image is all about drama, and shows an example of selective blurring to simulate a shallower depth of field. I also isolated Sr. Alambre using some qualifiers to lift him from the background, and snapped the contrast to create an almost Hi Con look.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a short that has been accepted in as many festivals as Sr. Alambre has, and when you watch it, you’ll see why.

You can see more stills of Sr. Alambre here.
Please visit the official website for more details, including all the festivals it was shown at.


Dada

By nature, shorts are made to attract an audience, either for festivals by first time directors launching their careers, or many times because a financier/studio wants to see what the filmmakers are capable of on a smaller scale. This makes shorts the perfect vehicles for experimentation, and this was certainly true for Dada, an absurd story of two brothers obsessed with stealing Marcel Duchamp’s shovel back from their arch nemesis: a greedy, drunken, perverted aristocrat. The story is set in the roaring twenties, with the kind of production design and wardrobe that entails.

Dada © 2008

Director of Photography Fransisco Bulgarelli wanted something special, almost fantastical to support the story. The film he kept referencing was Delicatessen, Jean-Pierre Jeanet’s masterpiece with its intense visual style. In light of this, I decided to give this period piece a kind of painterly, tinted look, with a twist: I wanted the pictures to look like those old photographs from the turn of the 20th century that we’re all used to seeing. They always seem so dark, probably because of the slow lenses of the day and the lack of interior light. I wanted the characters to feel like they were being engulfed by darkness!

Solid Base
Tinted Look

In the chess scene, I started off with a base grade, playing with contrast and density and making sure that I had good colour separation. Even though sometimes my intentions are to really push an image, I always want to start off from a neutral point as a reference. The next step was creating a luminance key starting with the blacks and going into the mid tones. I really crashed down the saturation and the gamma here, and this is the single most important step for creating that painterly effect. It’s a very different effect to hitting the blacks with the lift and black saturation, and depending on the application, I sometimes use it when creating sepia or tinted looks.

Then I pushed in the tint, in this case desaturated red in the gain, while using my gamma to counter the mid tones. This helped to keep the blacks clean further down, and has a gentler effect than shifting the pedestal. Finally, I used a custom spline in the shape of a bell to create a vignette, and then finished it off by slightly glowing the highlights to simulate the light coming through the top right window. Voila!

In the above setup, I kept the tinted look but took advantage of the direct lighting to flush the skin tones with gold tones. The red curtain in the background was also punctuated but at the same time left to recede in the vignette I created in the top corners. The contrast between the red and the gold is a classic combination, and when I added the deep shadows, the whole picture sprung to life!

Dada was a fun little short to colour time, and a great opportunity to try out some new ideas. You can catch more stills here.