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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.