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” 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”.
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.
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”.
Noel Gallagher steps right into a domestic argument as the referee in “Dream On”, the fourth music video from Noel’s debut album “High Flying Birds”, directed by Mike Bruce. The noir-themed boxing match features some well-known faces, including stunt actress Zoe Bell (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) running husband Troy Mittleider ragged around the ring, with Omar Doom (Inglourious Basterds) and Brent De Boer (Dandy Warhols) among the spectators.
“Dream On” is my fourth collaboration with Mike Bruce, Salvador Lleo and the rest of this talented crew. Both the black & white look and camera motivation for this music video were clearly inspired by Scorsese’s classic “Raging Bull”, but it was “The Hurricane”, shot by cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins ASC, that Salvador referenced most for examples of fighting styles. As the colourist, my challenge was to capture that dynamism in the grade but at the same time retain the elegance and subtlety in the images that Salvador had captured.
Lights, Camera & Scissor Lifts
“Dream On” was shot at the Hollywood Rentals stage up in Sylmar, a place where Cinemtographer Salvador Lleo tries to take his projects to whenever possible: “They have a huge array of grip and lighting gear, and the head manager Luis Barroso always treats us really well and is very accommodating with budgets”. Amongst his lighting package were nine 6K Space Lights, rigged 20′ above the ring with full silk. These lights were then wrapped with duvetyne to create a massive soft box, with the boxing ring acting as a kind of bounce light for the actors. “There aren’t many ways to light a ring other than from above since the camera is moving all around the set”. Rounding up the lighting setup were multiple old school 1K photo floods in the background to create depth, as well as four 5Ks on the floor with large chimeras for fill.
In terms of cameras, Salvador used the Red Epic paired with Cooke S4i lenses for nearly all setups, except for the slow motion shot right at the end of the video that was captured using the Diablo CAM at 800fps. “Shooting high speed is a painfully slow process. You need a ton of light and it takes a long time to play back the results”. Both cameras were rated at 3200 Kelvin, with the Red’s ISO set to a low 320 while the Diablo was set to 500.
Along with his super mobile telescopic 9-28′ Technocrane that has replaced his regular tripod, Salvador employed a scissor lift to create an in-camera effect of the boxer floating above the ring. Initially, this was intended to be a green screen setup but instead Salvador and the crew had the boxer lean back on the edge of the lift to create the effect. Being the last shot of the day, Troy was completely exhausted. “Troy was in real pain trying to stay parallel to the lift. I don’t think he needed to do much acting…he was really suffering!” quips Salvador. Another small victory for in-camera FX!
Grading with Zones
Another technique I often use to manipulate black and white images is based around the concept of an ‘adaptive’ zone system, or breaking up an image into a number of gradations that represent exposure values. My approach is to define separate low/mid/high sections using whatever tool is available on the colour corrector of choice (I use Ranges on the Pablo). The sum of all the ‘zones’ adds up to the total exposure of the image, from the blackest to the brightest pixel. These ‘zones’ are defined according to the level of control you need in a specific area of the image, which in turn is based on the type of look you are trying to recreate. For example, if you were to create a noir-type grade, you may decide to ‘weight’ your selections 40/40/20 (lows/mids/highs), which would give you more control in the low to mid range of the image, versus a skip bleach selection (20/40/40), which would give you finer control of the highlights. This may all sound very technical, but it’s actually very intuitive, in a large part because I use a ‘hicon’ key mode to define each separate zone, as I’m doing for my noir-look in the images below. The white/grey area defines the zone, with very little range being allotted to the Highlights region.
Each zone can be manipulated using master lift, gamma and gain. In addition to the nine control points spread across the three zones (lows/lift, lows/mids, mids/gain, etc.), I also use overall lift, gamma and gain to adjust the picture as a whole, giving me a total of twelve control points for the entire image. All of this can be achieved on a single layer of colour, giving me incredible control over the image. I also find this zone process beneficial because there is a natural ‘balance’ built into the qualification process since the zones are interdependent of each other.
The before and after images above show how I used the zones to sculpt the images in Dream On. For the crowd shots, I created a feeling of the spectators emerging from the shadows, suppressing the lows, mids and highlights separately without relying on keys of any kind. For the actual boxing shots, I made sure that I allotted most of the zone to the mid to highlight region, which gave me finer control over the skin tones. By then pulling the gain away from the gamma I was able to get some striking contrast in the skin tones without losing all of my detail in the shadows. The overall result of using this technique is a more organic look that doesn’t feel like all that you’ve done is to desaturate the image and crank the contrast!
You can watch the entire music video on my Vimeo here, as well as more stills in the gallery. Also, there is a great behind the scenes little video shot by Brent De Boer himself using his Flip camera! It can be found here.
Justin Bieber gets into the festive spirit with this theatrically released music video, timed to coincide with the animated feature “Arthur Christmas”. Directed by Charles Oliver and shot in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, the music video meshes a Steampunk version of Santa’s Grotto complete with wind-up dolls reminiscent of the classic birthday party scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This was my first time working with this creative team, and an ideal opportunity to combine my skills as both a colourist and stereo specialist.
“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was shot and released theatrically in stereoscopic 3D. This was Charles’ second project shot in this medium: “I was very pleased to work in 3D again. The first project I did in 3D was a year earlier – a piece for The League of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD) called MATCHED“. No doubt Charles’ work on “The LXD” and his own dance background was the reason why Scooter Braun, Justin’s manager, approached Charles with the project. “As a young kid, I was in musical theater and toured various countries as part of a performing group. From there, I started teaching dance for a few summers as a way to not have to work for my father’s construction company. I don’t think there is film musical made that I haven’t seen, especially the old ones.”
Camera, Lights & Stereo Rigs
Cinematographer Alice Brooks was the eye behind the lens, continuing her collaboration with Charles Oliver, which started with The LXD series. The cameras used were Red Epics paired with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses, ranging from 20mm to 85mm. To a large extent the selection of camera came down to choice of stereo rig, which in this case was the Helios Rig provided by ParadiseFX. “It’s a great rig, very reliable. We only had it go down once on a two-day shoot, which is rare for 3D”, Alice recalls. The Red Epic’s small form factor also makes it the perfect choice for smaller, more lightweight stereo rigs, which is a good thing since 99% of the music video was shot on steadicam, with Nick Franco operating. Supervising the stereo onset was veteran stereographer Max Penner.
The camera was rated at 800 ISO and 5000 Kelvin, yielding an overall rusty warm palette in the original photography. “We were going for a desaturated, industrial feel, while intending to make the color red pop.” The warehouse itself was dressed in a very monochromatic way, with cold concrete floors and cinder blocks, but there was enough red in the costumes that I was able to isolate and create good colour contrast. However, the surrounding brick walls were also red, which I wanted to treat in order to bring the focus to the dancers. The lighting Alice designed helped hugely in this respect, giving the dancers good separation from the background: “We used lots of large backlights that were rigged in the ceiling and we skip-bounced all of our front light into the concrete floor. The floor was very dirty and the concrete was grey. It gave this really beautiful cool glow. We brought in smaller sources to cross-light and edge-light from time to time too.”
From RAW to Real
When it comes to ‘transferring’ RAW images into something that will give you flexibility in the timing suite, there are literally thousands of permutations. Answering some basic questions allows you to make the right choices at this critical stage. The most important variable for me is what the final deliverable will be, followed by the nature of the material itself. Regardless of whether you are going out to film or not, I always like to start with a Log-like image. In cases where the primary deliverable is a DCP vs. film (more and more these days), I rely on a small number of density curves I have built that emulate an Input LUT. The nature of the material dictates which curve I use to get the image to a good starting point.
For this music video, I used a REDlogFilm gamma curve and picked REDcolor over REDcolor2 as my colour space. REDcolor gives me a little more saturation in the ‘negative’, which is better than adding it later on with the potential of introducing noise. As usual, from here I established my base contrast and density level. Again, the choices here are endless, but generally at this stage I try to confine myself to using density and gain controls: limiting my options helps me get to where I am going faster.
The Steampunk Look
We tried various grades with Alice that we would present to Charles the next day. We generally pushed towards a much cooler palette, with varying degrees of blue. After experimenting with half a dozen looks, we settled on what we referred to as our ‘Steampunk Look’ – a cool, shadowy image with glowing highlights and red costumes bleeding through. Our coolness didn’t come in the form of a blue tint though, we simply added ‘white’ to the scene. Care was taken to ensure that the image didn’t feel ‘monochromatic’ by retaining enough colour in the image.
Neutralising the colours involved adding a ton of blue gain, as well as taking out blue points using printer lights (printer lights work in reverse as you are theoretically working on the negative). This got rid of the rusty tint, but left us with a desaturated image. From there I began sculpting, using a luminance key to select and suppress the shadows and low mid tones, which was also where the background fell. On the other end of the scale, I used a hicon key to pick off the highlights and really bloom them, adding both gain and defocus. For the red costumes and skin tones, I selected the upper range of reds (leaving out the darker red bricks) and slowly eased them back into the picture, pushing the saturation a little further. A final S-curve pulled it all together and gave the image more ‘snap’.
Every music video has challenges, especially when you add the element of stereo into the mix. However, not having the talent available until the day before the shoot presented a unique challenge, especially for a dance-based video. Charles approached the problem from a different angle: “we knew we would not be able to teach Justin any choreography before the day of the shoot. Alice and I worked with Tom (Production Designer) to create a space that could be broken up and shot in sections, each covering different parts of the song. Then I worked with Galen (Choreographer) to create both freestyle and tightly choreographed sections that would work in that space. The result gave us plenty of options when it came time to cutting the video. It’s actually not my preferred method of working – I would much rather create a fluid piece with contiguous choreography and have our lead in the center of that dance the whole time. But frankly, I was surprised to see how pleased I was with the result of this different approach.”
Noel Gallagher finds himself surrounded by an eclectic cast in his debut solo single “The Death Of You And Me” from the album “High Flying Birds”. Directed by Mike Bruce and lensed by cinematographer Salvador Lleo, this music video was shot out in the desert at Club Ed, Lancaster, CA. Famous for movies like Rob Zombie’s recent “The Devil’s Rejects”, the Last Chance Cafe serves as the perfect setting for a stuck-in-a-rut waitress longing for something better than her pitiful existence serving the local bizarre folk.
Salvador used the Red Epic with Zeiss T2.1 lenses for this shoot. The 5K camera is capable of capturing some striking images, and the compact size makes it ideal for use with Salvador’s latest toy – a 28 foot telescopic Technochrane. “This is the perfect tool for a new generation of lightweight cameras. It is light, steady, fast and programmable, and can be operated by a single person.”
For all the exteriors, Salvador fought hard to keep the exposure from running away under a beating sun. For the diner scenes, he resorted to a technique he refers to as ‘invisible lighting’, using soft fill light to keep the shadows from falling off too much. Since he was dealing with daylight for both locations, Salvador rated the camera at 5600K. He used an ISO of 500 for both setups.
Last Chance Cafe
For this music video I created two distinct looks: a sombre grade for the diner interior with its scary characters, versus a Van Dyke-inspired look for the exteriors as the travelling troupe passes through. In both instances I added some Grain to soften some of the sharpness you sometimes get from digital cinematography.
The diner itself had some great key light streaming through the shutters, but because these scenes were shot during midday, the overall images were very hot – the direct opposite of what I was trying to achieve! The ‘fix’ was to bring down the gain and reduce the overall contrast, while raising the gamma a little to compensate. Crashing down the pedestal by 20% kept the right amount of snap in the image. I also added some blue in the highlights to help pull back some of the red in the booths.
Another thing I used to accentuate the mood was heavy off-centre vignettes. These are great for burning off frame edges or for spotlighting people. Usually I’ll bring down the gamma but raise the gain in order to keep some highlights poking through. Varying their position and keeping the edges soft keeps them hidden and unobtrusive.
The one character I wanted to stand out from this moody backdrop was the brooding waitress. Her longing for a better life separates her from the rest of the diner’s denizens, and so I wanted to make this distinction by separating her from the background. This is where good casting and wardrobe are so important in the storytelling process, and ultimately makes the colourist’s life so much easier.
The two areas I focused on were her skin tones and her blue dress. The skin tones I kept bright and healthy by keying back to the ‘richer’ base layer, which didn’t have the low contrast treatment. This was a little tricky since there was so much red in the diner, so muting the red walls and the booths in advance helped. I also had to rely on some loose roto-splines to further qualify her face.
The blue dress was relatively easy to separate. However, instead of just applying saturation – which often knocks the selected area out of balance and introduces noise – I cranked up the contrast using an S-curve and then brought down the density a little. This approach worked particularly well once the waitress emerges from the pool all wet. The intense blue ties up with one of the Gypsies’ blue shoes, creating colour continuity between the two scenes.
Van Dyke Processing
The outside world brings with it the promise of something better in the form of a travelling gypsy troupe. For these exteriors, Mike wanted a very stylised, almost sepia feel. I liked the idea, and thought it could work well with the earthen tones in the caravan and the mules, as well as the gypsies’ clothes. I decided to try out a technique I had toyed with to replicate the rich browns found in an early printing process known as Van Dyke. This would create an almost ‘rusty’ feel with deep browns and red-tinted skies.
For this special treatment I turned to Curves. Combined with saturation, there is very little that can’t be achieved using these controls. After balancing the image with a base grade and bringing down the saturation, I started adjusting the individual RGB curves to get my Van Dyke look. To create the deep browns, I brought down the black points for both the green and blue curves, using the latter to control how much brown I wanted to mix into the shadows. For the red curve I ended up creating five points: points two and four were brought down while point three was brought up. In the end the red curve looked like a Double-S. This alternating approach keeps the reds in check, and ultimately creates a more interesting image. The blue and green curves were used to control the overall contrast.
Finally, to give the troupe an extra whimsical dimension, I qualified the red shirts, instruments and the blue shoes and ramped up the saturation. As the gypsies move closer towards us, our eye catches more and more flashes of colour, hinting at the life and excitement they bring to this otherwise dull world.
Salvador Lleo’s personal website can be found here.
Stay tuned for the next installment. Coming soon…