Supervising Digital Colourist

Posts tagged “Zeiss

Justin Bieber – “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”

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” by JUSTIN BIEBER © 2011

“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.

Helios Stereo Rig by PARADISE FX

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.

RAW Image with Density Curve

Steampunk Look

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.”

You can check out the final music video on my Vimeo site by following this link and more stunning visuals by visiting the Gallery.

For more work from the creative team, please visit the respective websites of Charles Oliver and Alice Brooks.


King Fantastic – “On Q”

Hip-Hop Artist King Fantastic spins the loaded gun in this daring music video as seen through the eyes of director Randal Kirk II. On Q is the follow-up to “Why? Where? What?”, a video about a maid who vandalizes the home she is tasked with cleaning while dancing to King Fantastic’s song. That video got over a million hits, so the pressure was on for Randal to deliver another blockbuster. He recalls “when I started coming up with the concept, I was fond of all the gun sounds in the audio production of the track and the sexy female vocals.” Randal eventually decided on using famous alternative pin-up models, engaged in a game of Russian strip roulette. “The song glorifies the gangster lifestyle. My message in the video is that you love the lifestyle so much you that you die for it and enjoy every minute!”

“On Q” by KING FANTASTIC © 2011

On Q was shot on a Red One MX camera using Zeiss Super Speed lenses. It is a pairing that a number of DPs I have worked with prefer, as they combine the softer qualities of these older lenses with the ultra-high resolution of modern cameras. Brett Pawlak elaborates: “These days for me it really comes down to the aesthetic of lenses, how they hold flares and how they shoot wide open. That is where you really see the characteristics of the lens and get interesting looks”. That is perhaps the reason why the raw images already had a natural ‘grit’ to them.

While the Red One has become a staple of music videos and commercials due to its affordability, availability and the great images it can expose, Brett also explains that “it is a camera that I know well, and there is no question as to what it can do when pushed. It’s very good at holding saturation, and since Randal was looking for a pop look, I picked the Red as I knew that it would POP”.

Brett’s lighting package consisted of a couple of 4x Kinos, 2′ Kinos and a handful of Par Cans. “Those lights give me the most variety that I know I can work with, on a budget”. He also had some HMIs and regular tungsten units, but prefers open-faced lights over fresnels: “I’d rather start with more light since I can always diffuse and shape with flags. An open-faced 2K is close to the output of a 4K, so when you need light, on a budget, that means a whole lot!”

The Club Looks

Blood Red Look

For the Club Scene, Randal really wanted something special. He and Brett had spent some time studying a similar scene in the film “Black Swan” and concluded that those colour changes were being achieved in post – “we lit [the scene] with one solid gel colour.  I decided to light the club up blood-red. It wasn’t until we transcoded the footage and Brett played with the colour and achieved a rough black light colour by pulling out the red.” This gave Randal the confidence that the look they wanted could be achieved in post. Despite this, Randal still pushed for some in-camera effects, such as placing a prism over the lens to distort the image. From there the images were treated by Chad Simcox, the editor and motion graphics artist, augmenting the camera effects with a custom filter similar to a kaleidoscope effect.

This became the starting point for the four looks I would go on to create, the most interesting of which was my ‘Neon Look’. As we started to push the colours, this ended up being Randal’s favorite look in the entire video!

I started out by setting my contrast level, with my blacks pretty rich to play against the saturated colours I was planning on creating. The second step was the interesting one, which basically added a ton of blue to the highlights and a good amount to the mid tone. This skewed the already present red towards a magenta tone, creating some interesting interactions between the original red and the added blue.

Raw Image

Neon Look

Now, with a new ‘electric’ base, I picked a broad range of reds/magentas as the inputs colours and boosted the saturation by over 300%. This made the cooler foreground stand out against the much warmer ‘background’. The next step was a technique that I use from time to time: ‘phased vignettes’. This is the name I give to a vignette which has had it’s hue (phase) rotated. I pulled the red background almost back to my manufactured blue and darkened it. An additional layer of colour boosting the saturation really made the colours pop, much to Randal’s satisfaction!

Glamorizing Violence

Randal was clear with his crew from the start: “I wanted the Russian roulette scene to feel like a room that Dexter would make, but with showy lighting to glamorize the violence.” That location ended up being a grimy dark dungeon of a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. The desire to beautify the violence went as far as the instructions he gave to JusticeFX, the guys doing the VFX. Randal jokes “these kids are incredible. I told them I wanted realistic violence while making it sexy. That’s a hard task to do. These guys really nailed it though!”

For me, it was about creating colour tension, which is something I have written about before. I wanted the warehouse to feel cooler, so I pushed a ton of blue across the board while pulling down hard on the blacks. The saturation in the blue created an almost electric look, while the deep blacks gave the feel that the performers were coming out of the shadows.

Colour Tension

From there onwards I treated it like a ‘beauty’ video, focussing on soft, healthy skin tones for the models, creating natural glows around the highlights in their faces and hair, while bringing out the detail in the intricate tattoos they were each adorned with. The juxtaposition between the cool environment and warm and inviting faces creates drama, which is what this music video is all about.

On Q was intended to be a viral video created to promote the brand. Because of the graphic and violent content, it would never air on TV, but Randal is not particularly concerned since he designed it to live on Vimeo. Brett broadly agrees: “If the only version that exists lives on the internet, then that is where it belongs.” This train of thought is not necessarily consigned to just music videos, as our industry shifts from a broadcast-style way of distributing content to niche-casting, delivered either by streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu, or directly from the web itself through sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.

You can check out the final music video on my Vimeo site by following this link and more stunning visuals by visiting the Gallery.

For more work from the creative team, please visit their respective websites: Randal KirkBrett Pawlak and Chad Simcox.


Noel Gallagher – “The Death Of You And Me”

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.

“The Death Of You And Me” by NOEL GALLAGHER © 2011

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.

Diner Denizens

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.

Soaking Wet

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.

Hope in a dreary setting

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.

Original Debayered Image

Van Dyke Shadows

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.

You can check out the final music video on my Vimeo site by following this link. For more stills from “The Death Of You And Me”, visit the Gallery.

Salvador Lleo’s personal website can be found here.

Stay tuned for the next installment. Coming soon…


We The Kings – “Friday Is Forever”

Cruising down the Sunset Strip in a Rock-N-Roll speedboat are punk band We The Kings. This music video was shot by prolific cinematographer Salvador Lleo over the course of two gloomy days in LA.

“Friday Is Forever” by WE THE KINGS © 2011

For this music video, Salvador used no less than three types of cameras – a vanilla Red One, an upgraded Red One and two Canons, a 5D and 7D. In terms of lenses, Salvador shot the band on the boat using anamorphic lenses, before switching to spherical lenses for the night party scene. The Canons were used for pick-ups.

Anamorphic Twist

When you think of anamorphic lenses, Panavision’s Primos or Hawk lenses usually come to mind. How about a set of High Speed 1.4 Lomo Anamorphic lenses, with markings in metres instead of feet? Enough said. “American ACs really love them”, Salvador jokes. He decided to go anamorphic for the exteriors out of practicality – two words you usually don’t find in the same sentence. “They work out great for a small boat crammed full of people!” Indeed.

It figures that in a city known for its perpetual sunlight, both days of the shoot were completely overcast, but then again everyone round here knows that ‘June Gloom’ really starts in May. Nevertheless, the pictures needed to feel sun-drenched and pop!

Base Grade – Overcast Day

Final Look – Sunny Day

For all the ‘speedboat driving’ scenes, I started my base grade by adjusting contrast and density, slightly clipping the boat and keeping it white, then bumping the saturation to see where the colours fell. Saturating an image quickly exposes its temperature, and you can use this information as a guide to achieving your look with the joyballs. In my case I wanted hot and sunny, so I pushed a lot of yellow into the blacks and red into the mid tones, which turned the skin tones golden and gave the trees some life. I then added blue in the gain to counter some of the red contamination I was getting in the road. Because I had clipped the boat with my contrast, I didn’t have to worry about my whites going blue – a risky technique that can work with some careful planning.

To erase any remnants of an overcast day, I qualified the sky and added some blue, and then saturated the greens and the blues to further bring out the trees and the sky. I then qualified the model’s bikini and warmed it up to match her skin tones. Overall, a straight-forward look that instantly transforms the grey raw images into sunny LA, June Gloom or not!

Low-Light Shooting

Salvador chased the speedboat from the streets of Culver City to Downtown LA, up to Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip and all the way to the ocean, then back to Culver City for the Party scene. As he lost light, he switched from the anamorphic Lomos to the spherical Zeiss lenses, shooting wide open while bumping up the ISO from 320 to 800 (Red One MX) and 500 (Red One) to compensate for the critical low light.

For the ocean drive (above), I spent most of my time re-distributing the light. You can see from the Before image in the Gallery that the band are pretty dark, and overall the image lacks contrast. A quick application of an S-curve snaps the blacks and brings out the boat nicely, while a healthy dose of blue printer lights floods the image with ‘twilight’. A soft inside/outside vignette is used to burn off the left edge and bring out the band. Finally, a skin tone qualification brings back some warmth in the band’s faces.

To visit We The Kings official website, click here.

Salvador Lleo’s website can be found here.