Grading “Above the Clouds”

Recently work began on colour grading Above the Clouds, a comedy road movie I shot for director Leon Chambers. I’ve covered every day of shooting here on my blog, but the story wouldn’t be complete without an account of this crucial stage of postproduction.

I must confess I didn’t give much thought to the grade during the shoot, monitoring in Rec.709 and not envisaging any particular “look”. So when Leon asked if I had any thoughts or references to pass on to colourist Duncan Russell, I had to put my thinking cap on. I came up with a few different ideas and met with Leon to discuss them. The one that clicked with his own thoughts was a super-saturated vintage postcard (above). He also liked how, in a frame grab I’d been playing about with, I had warmed up the yellow of the car – an important character in the movie!

Leon was keen to position Above the Clouds‘ visual tone somewhere between the grim reality  of a typical British drama and the high-key gloss of Hollywood comedies. Finding exactly the right spot on that wide spectrum was the challenge!

“Real but beautiful” was Duncan’s mantra when Leon and I sat down with him last week for a session in Freefolk’s Baselight One suite. He pointed to the John Lewis “Tiny Dancer” ad as a good touchstone for this approach.

We spent the day looking at the film’s key sequences. There was a shot of Charlie, Oz and the Yellow Peril (the car) outside the garage from week one which Duncan used to establish a look for the three characters. It’s commonplace nowadays to track faces and apply individual grades to them, making it possible to fine-tune skin-tones with digital precision. I’m pleased that Duncan embraced the existing contrast between Charlie’s pale, freckled innocence and Oz’s dirty, craggy world-weariness.

Above the Clouds was mainly shot on an Alexa Mini, in Log C ProRes 4444, so there was plenty of detail captured beyond the Rec.709 image that I was (mostly) monitoring. A simple example of this coming in useful is the torchlight charity shop scene, shot at the end of week two. At one point Leo reaches for something on a shelf and his arm moves right in front of his torch. Power-windowing Leo’s arm, Duncan was able to bring back the highlight detail, because it had all been captured in the Log C.

But just because all the detail is there, it doesn’t mean you can always use it. Take the gallery scenes, also shot in week two, at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. The location has large sea-view windows and white walls. Many of the key shots featured Oz and Charlie with their backs towards the windows. This is a classic contrasty situation, but I knew from checking the false colours in log mode that all the detail was being captured.

Duncan initially tried to retain all the exterior detail in the grade, by separating the highlights from the mid-tones and treating them differently. He succeeded, but it didn’t look real. It looked like Oz and Charlie were green-screened over a separate background. Our subconscious minds know that a daylight exterior cannot be only slightly brighter than an interior, so it appeared artificial. It was necessary to back off on the sky detail to keep it feeling real. (Had we been grading in HDR [High Dynamic Range], which may one day be the norm, we could theoretically have retained all the detail while still keeping it realistic. However, if what I’ve heard of HDR is correct, it may have been unpleasant for audiences to look at Charlie and Oz against the bright light of the window beyond.)

There were other technical challenges to deal with in the film as well. One was the infra-red problem we encountered with our ND filters during last autumn’s pick-ups, which meant that Duncan had to key out Oz’s apparently pink jacket and restore it to blue. Another was the mix of formats employed for the various pick-ups: in addition to the Alexa Mini, there was footage from an Arri Amira, a Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera (BMMCC) and even a Canon 5D Mk III. Although the latter had an intentionally different look, the other three had to match as closely as possible.

A twilight scene set in a rural village contains perhaps the most disparate elements. Many shots were done day-for-dusk on the Alexa Mini in Scotland, at the end of week four. Additional angles were captured on the BMMCC in Kent a few months later, both day-for-dusk and dusk-for-dusk. This outdoor material continues directly into indoor scenes, shot on a set this February on the Amira. Having said all that, they didn’t match too badly at all, but some juggling was required to find a level of darkness that worked for the whole sequence while retaining consistency.

In other sequences, like the ones in Margate near the start of the film, a big continuity issue is the clouds. Given the film’s title, I always tried to frame in plenty of sky and retain detail in it, using graduated ND filters where necessary. Duncan was able to bring out, suppress or manipulate detail as needed, to maintain continuity with adjacent shots.

Consistency is important in a big-picture sense too. One of the last scenes we looked at was the interior of Leo’s house, from weeks two and three, for which Duncan hit upon a nice, painterly grade with a bit of mystery to it. The question is, does that jar with the rest of the movie, which is fairly light overall, and does it give the audience the right clues about the tone of the scene which will unfold? We may not know the answers until we watch the whole film through.

Duncan has plenty more work to do on Above the Clouds, but I’m confident it’s in very good hands. I will probably attend another session when it’s close to completion, so watch this space for that.

See all my Above the Clouds posts here, or visit the official website.

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Grading “Above the Clouds”

12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

I joined this social media platform last summer, after hearing DP Ed Moore say in an interview that his Instagram feed helps him get work. I can’t say that’s happened for me yet, but an attractive Instagram feed can’t do any creative freelancer any harm. And for photographers and cinematographers, it’s a great way to practice our skills.

The tips below are primarily aimed at people who are using a phone camera to take their pictures, but many of them will apply to all types of photography.

The particular challenge with Instagram images is that they’re usually viewed on a phone screen; they’re small, so they have to be easy for the brain to decipher. That means reducing clutter, keeping things bold and simple.

Here are twelve tips for putting this philosophy into practice. The examples are all taken from my own feed, and were taken with an iPhone 5, almost always using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode to get the best tonal range.

 

1. choose your background carefully

The biggest challenge I find in taking snaps with my phone is the huge depth of field. This makes it critical to have a suitable, non-distracting background, because it can’t be thrown out of focus. In the pub photo below, I chose to shoot against the blank pillar rather than against the racks of drinks behind the bar, so that the beer and lens mug would stand out clearly. For the Lego photo, I moved the model away from a messy table covered in multi-coloured blocks to use a red-only tray as a background instead.

 

2. Find Frames within frames

The Instagram filters all have a frame option which can be activated to give your image a white border, or a fake 35mm negative surround, and so on. An improvement on this is to compose your image so that it has a built-in frame. (I discussed frames within frames in a number of my recent posts on composition.)

 

3. try symmetrical composition

To my eye, the square aspect ratio of Instagram is not wide enough for The Rule of Thirds to be useful in most cases. Instead, I find the most arresting compositions are central, symmetrical ones.

 

4. Consider Shooting flat on

In cinematography, an impression of depth is usually desirable, but in a little Instagram image I find that two-dimensionality can sometimes work better. Such photos take on a graphical quality, like icons, which I find really interesting. The key thing is that 2D pictures are easier for your brain to interpret when they’re small, or when they’re flashing past as you scroll.

 

5. Look for shapes

Finding common shapes in a structure or natural environment can be a good way to make your photo catch the eye. In these examples I spotted an ‘S’ shape in the clouds and footpath, and an ‘A’ shape in the architecture.

 

6. Look for textures

Textures can add interest to your image. Remember the golden rule of avoiding clutter though. Often textures will look best if they’re very bold, like the branches of the tree against the misty sky here, or if they’re very close-up, like this cathedral door.

 

7. Shoot into the light

Most of you will not be lighting your Instagram pics artificially, so you need to be aware of the existing light falling on your subject. Often the strongest look is achieved by shooting towards the light. In certain situations this can create interesting silhouettes, but often there are enough reflective surfaces around to fill in the shadows so you can get the beauty of the backlight and still see the detail in your subject. You definitely need to be in HDR mode for this.

 

8. Look for interesting light

It’s also worth looking out for interesting light which may make a dull subject into something worth capturing. Nature provides interesting light every day at sunrise and sunset, so these are good times to keep an eye out for photo ops.

 

9. Use lens flare for interest

Photographers have been using lens flare to add an extra something to their pictures for decades, and certain science fiction movies have also been known to use (ahem) one or two. To avoid a flare being too overpowering, position your camera so as to hide part of the sun behind a foreground object. To get that anamorphic cinema look, wipe your finger vertically across your camera lens. The natural oils on your skin will cause a flare at 90° to the direction you wiped in. (Best not try this with that rented set of Master Primes though.)

 

10. Control your palette

Nothing gives an image a sense of unity and professionalism as quickly as a controlled colour palette. You can do this in-camera, like I did below by choosing the purple cushion to photograph the book on, or by adjusting the saturation and colour cast in the Photos app, as I did with the Canary Wharf image. For another example, see the Lego shot under point 3.

 

11. Wait for the right moment

Any good photographer knows that patience is a virtue. Waiting for pedestrians or vehicles to reach just the right spot in your composition before tapping the shutter can make the difference between a bold, eye-catching photo and a cluttered mess. In the below examples, I waited until the pedestrians (left) and the rowing boat and swans (right) were best placed against the background for contrast and composition before taking the shot.

 

12. Quality control

One final thing to consider: is the photo you’ve just taken worthy of your Instagram profile, or is it going to drag down the quality of your feed? If it’s not good, maybe you should keep it to yourself.

Check out my Instagram feed to see if you think I’ve broken this rule!

12 Tips for Better Instagram Photos

Lighting I Like: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”

The third episode of my YouTube cinematography series Lighting I Like is out now. This time I discuss a scene from the first instalment in the Harry Potter franchise, directed by Chris Columbus and photographed by John Seale, ACS, ASC.

 

You can find out more about the forest scene from Wolfman which I mentioned, either in the February 2010 issue of American Cinematographer if you have a subscription, or towards the bottom of this page on Cine Gleaner.

If you’re a fan of John Seale’s work, you may want to read my post “20 Facts About the Cinematography of Mad Max: Fury Road.

To read about how I’ve tackled nighttime forest scenes myself, check out “Poor Man’s Process II” (Ren: The Girl with the Mark) and Above the Clouds: Week Two”.

I hope you enjoyed the show. Episode four goes out at the same time next week: 8pm GMT on Wednesday, and will cover a scene from episode two of the lavish Netflix series The Crown. Subscribe to my YouTube channel to make sure you never miss an episode.

Lighting I Like: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”

Giving Yourself Somewhere to Go

On the recce for The Second Shepherd's Play. Photo: Douglas Morse
On the recce for The Second Shepherd’s Play. Photo: Douglas Morse

As a cinematographer, it can often be tempting to make your shots look as slick and beautiful as possible. But that’s not always right for the story. And sometimes it can leave you nowhere to go.

Currently I’m shooting The Second Shepherds’ Play, a medieval comedy adaptation, for director Douglas Morse. The story starts in the mud and drizzle of three shepherds’ daily drudge, and in a Python-esque twist ends up in the nativity. The titular trio develop from a base, selfish, almost animalistic state to something much more divine.

So, much as my instincts filming the opening scenes yesterday were to have a shallow depth of field and bounce boards everywhere to put a sparkle in the shepherds’ eyes, this wouldn’t have been right for this stage of the film. We had to have somewhere to go, so I shot at around f9 all day with unmodified natural, overcast light. As we get towards the end of the story – we’re shooting roughly in story order – I’ll start to use eyelight and more sculpted illumination and reduce the depth of field, as well as switching from handheld to sticks.

Grading episode one of Ren
Grading episode one of Ren

Similarly, grading episode one of Ren the other day, it was important to keep things bright and cheerful, so that later episodes could be colder and darker by comparison when things go wrong for our heroes. And playing the long game, I lit Ren herself with soft, shadowless light for most of the first season, so that as she develops from innocence to more of an action heroine in later seasons, her lighting can get harder and moodier.

Like all heads of department on a production, DPs are storytellers, and it all comes down to doing what’s right for the story, and what’s right for that moment in the story.

Giving Yourself Somewhere to Go

Grading Stop/Eject

Grading Stop/Eject at Whitecross Post Production
Grading Stop/Eject at Whitecross Post Production

On Monday, Stop/Eject entered the final phase of postproduction: grading. In the optical days, this process involved adjusting the cocktail of chemicals and the length of time the film would be bathed in those chemicals to make basic adjustments to the amount of red, green and blue in each shot and the brightness.

The reason for this can be most readily appreciated if you imagine a scene shot outdoors, in which one camera angle may have been recorded under warm, direct sunlight, whereas another which is cut to immediately after may have been recorded when the sun was behind a cloud and the light was cooler in colour. But even artificially lit scenes will need a little work to match up each shot to the next; the human eye is quite sensitive to changes in colour and brightness.

With the digital revolution came an exponentially expanded toolset for grading. Individual colours can be isolated and changed, shadows and highlights can be adjusted independently, and feathered masks can be applied to highlight or shade just one part of the frame – with the software even able to track elements if they move around so that the mask always stayed lock to that element. (Watch the Digital Intermediate featurette on the Fellowship of the Ring DVD to get a glimpse into what’s possible.)

Colourist Michael Stirling
Colourist Michael Stirling

Stop/Eject was graded by Michael Stirling at the company he runs in East London, White Cross Post Production. He very kindly put in a lot of hours, including two evenings, to make sure we got the best out of the film’s images. Even at this late stage in the game we were still telling the story: drawing the viewer’s eye to critical elements in the frame, enhancing lighting transitions when time stops and starts, making the happy past sequences warm and inviting, and contrasting those with cooler, darker scenes in the present.

Given that we shot in 16:9 (standard widescreen) but were cropping to 2:35:1 (cinemascope), we had the opportunity to move the images up or down behind the widescreen mask to reframe shots slightly; this is known as re-racking. We also added some subtle 35mm grain to the whole film.

The grade was the first time – and perhaps the last – that I was able to see the film on a really high quality, properly calibrated projector. It really exposed the quality of the camera and glass that were used. And while the Canon 600D and relatively cheap lenses look great on every other screen I’ve watched it on, on Whitecross’ projector I could really see the value of investing in high-end lenses. Even the difference between the Canon 50mm/f1.8 (£60) and the more expensive Sigma 20mm and 105mm lenses was apparent.

But I digress. The important things are: the grade looks great, and Stop/Eject is now finished. Hooray!

Sophie and I are off to Cannes this weekend – subscribe to my YouTube channel to get our daily video blogs. And when we get back it’s film festival submissions, DVD/Blu-ray authoring, and premiere arranging all the way.

Grading Stop/Eject

The Dark Side Guide to Digital Intermediate

Here is the last of the Dark Side Guides: The Dark Side Guide to Digital Intermediate. I really had to muddle my way through post-production on the pilot, wishing there was somewhere I could get all the information I needed, but there wasn’t – until now!

This step-by-step guide takes you through the complex post-production route known as DI, whereby footage shot on film is transferred to the digital domain for editing, FX and colour grading, before being recorded back to film for distribution and exhibition. Invaluable tips on everything from telecine of your rushes to Dolby authorisation for your soundtrack are complemented by a sample budget laying out all the costs.

As always, if you have any questions that the guide doesn’t answer, please feel free to ask me.

The Dark Side Guide to Digital Intermediate