Three Rising Artists Share Their Secrets, Starts and Successes
Stefan Sonnenfeld, Company 3
Stefan Sonnenfeld is founder, president and managing director of Ascent Media’s Company 3, which operates digital post-production facilities in New York City and Santa Monica, California. He was born and spent his childhood in Los Angeles, attended high school at a boarding school in Greece, and majored in business at Boston University. Midway through college, Sonnenfeld got a summer job delivering dailies for Miami Vice. Call it fate or serendipity. It sparked his interest in the post-production sector of the film industry. Sonnenfeld apprenticed and became an assistant colorist at Image Transform, which was among the first telecine houses in Los Angeles. He stepped up to colorist at The Post Group and moved to Pacific Ocean Post during the early 1990s. The firm pioneered the use of the Kodak Cineon digital film system, mainly for visual effects.
Sonnenfeld founded Company 3 eight years ago. He initially focused on music videos and commercials, working with such cutting-edge directors and cinematographers as Tony Scott, Gore Verbinski, Brett Ratner, Michael Bay, Samuel Bayer and Paul Cameron. Around four years ago, there was a natural, gradual progression into feature-film DIs, including The Cell, Gone in 60 Seconds, Man on Fire, Collateral and Bad Boys II.
"I believe [DI] will become standard for most narrative films," he says. "I’m not knocking traditional timing. Some of the most beautiful movies were and are made that way, but DI is a powerful tool that can give you enormous creative flexibility and amazing image quality. On movies with visual effects, it’s almost an imperative."
Sonnenfeld notes that many contemporary films have 30 to 40 set ups a day with exterior scenes frequently produced in unpredictable weather with hundreds of visual effects shots. He says those are main factors driving the DI revolution.
"They can push their lighting closer to the edge, knowing that, if necessary, we can crush it down or boost it up in DI," Sonnenfeld says. "They can also move faster. We can flag a light off a wall in a fraction of the time it takes on the set. The biggest thing is that we can work with them to create looks that set the tone of stories. We have been doing it on music videos and commercials for years. This is a natural progression."
Sonnenfeld says that his first job is getting inside the minds of the directors and cinematographers he works with and discerning a sense of how they think and what they like. Many of them are the same people he has collaborated with on commercials.
"I encourage them to experiment with creating looks," he says. "You can talk, but until you see it, there is no way of knowing whether a look is going to work."
Sonnenfeld says that technology is evolving, but there is no one-size-fits-all formula. Company 3 scanned and manipulated HD and film footage for Collateral at 1K resolution because it was the right aesthetic. Man on Fire and most other narrative films were 2K projects. Ultimately, he believes 3K to 4K resolution will be the norm, though Sonnenfeld adds that it depends on the visual grammar of the movie.
"The ultimate goal is to manipulate images in their purest form and downres them to whatever deliverables you need for the cinema, and for standard and HD resolution videos in 4à—3 and 16à—9 aspect ratios," Sonnenfeld says.
He estimates that some 75 percent of the facility’s capacity is still dedicated to commercials. Sonnenfeld notes that the commercial industry is in transition.
"Satellite TV is delivering HD content to large and increasing numbers of homes," Sonnenfeld says. "It’s beginning to happen in the commercial world. Half the Super Bowl spots were finished in HD this year. We are now scanning many TV commercials at 2K resolution and color correcting in that format. The DI movies will fall naturally into that workflow when they’re released to DVD and other video markets."
Jill Bogdanowicz, Technicolor Digital
Jill Bogdanowicz was born and raised in Rochester, New York, where her father was a color scientist for Kodak. She traces her passion for painting and photography to her pre-teens, and recalls many conversations with her father about photography and color science. He took her to an Association of Cinema and Video Laboratories (ACVL) conference as an 18th birthday present. When Bogdanowicz told people she met at the conference that she loved art and photography, and was studying physics, one of them suggested that she become a colorist- and explained what that was.
She served a two-year internship in the telecine department of a research-and-development group at Kodak. Bogdanowicz observed tests comparing HD and film and learned about film and color science. She majored in art and minored in physics at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Her education included a semester in Siena, Italy, were she studied art and art history.
Bogdanowicz was hired by Cinesite in Hollywood after her graduation in 1999, when the facility was scanning and converting film images to digital files for Pleasantville. That film was written and directed by Gary Ross and photographed by John Lindley, ASC. Ross desaturated the color film to emulate the look of a 1950s black-and-white TV show with a few splashes of colors. The following year, she was an assistant colorist on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the first complete DI project in the U.S.
"I had an opportunity to do preliminary testing with Roger Deakins [ASC, BSC]," Bogdanowicz says. "He had a specific palette in mind and was patient and articulate."
It was like going through basic training for digital colorists. One lesson Bogdanowicz learned was the importance of earning the trust of the cinematographers she works with based on previous collaborations and also by establishing rapport during preproduction.
"I try to get involved as early as possible," she says. "I encourage cinematographers to make time to develop a relationship, so I can get as close as possible to what they’re thinking. Every one of them is different. Some cinematographers really love the detail work, and they want to be there when we’re doing the DI. I welcome that, but if a cinematographer is busy working on their next film, if you have communications and have earned their trust, you can help them execute to their vision."
Bogdanowicz has worked with both Gabriel Beristain, ASC, and Matty Libatique, ASC, on several films, and also with Pawel Edelman, PSC, on Ray.
"I think the whole community is becoming more comfortable with DI," she says. " The Shaggy Dog is my fourth film with Gabriel. I was on the set with him and also supervised dailies. That was important because the more information I have the smoother the process goes down the line. The Kodak Look Manager System is also a step in the right direction because it enables cinematographers to communicate their intentions with images rather than words. If someone tells you they want a bleach-bypass look, that can mean different things to different people."
Bogdanowicz is optimistic and enthusiastic about the future because scanners, recorders and computers are getting faster, and color correction software is more robust.
"We can do a 2K DI today, including scanning, color correction and film recording in a few weeks," she says. "That’s progress."
Bob Johanson, NFL Films
Bob Johanson attended technical school at RCA Institute in New York City, which led to a summer job at NBC Television in New York. The network had several color video trucks that drove to locations to cover Saturday college football games. Johanson was hired to pull cables and do other utility jobs. Fate intervened when he was assigned to help staff the RCA exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, where the network’s parent company was demonstrating color video cameras. Johanson worked from 7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. filling in for people who were taking breaks. He also watched what was happening and asked questions. It was 1964 and he was 19 years old.
"It has my good fortune to have good people mentor me throughout my career," he says. "I try to repay them by giving a little bit of myself to younger people today."
After the fair, he was hired as a permanent employee working weekends and odd shifts on film chains run by the network. That led him to a job at Reeve Sound Studios in New York, which pioneered techniques for color correcting commercials and using magnetic rather than optical sound tracks. Prior to this, most local commercials were released on 16mm release prints with composite audio tracks. With this method, positive 35mm prints were transferred to two inch quad tape. The sound source was from 35mm magnetic track. Therefore, the advertiser could run their spots using a high quality 35mm color corrected print with a higher quality audio sound track.
Johanson subsequently joined EUE, a major TV commercial production and postproduction studio in New York. In 1976, he was a partner in organizing JSL Video Services.
"We realized that the Rank-Cintel flying-spot scanner telecine was gentle enough to transfer negative film rather than positive," he says. "That made a tremendous difference in the image quality of commercials. We also pioneered early CCD telecine technology developed by Bosch Frenesh [which became BTS, a joint partnership between Bosch, Thomson Broadcast, and Philips ]."
Johanson was the go-to colorist for Revlon perfume and cosmetics and also for car commercials and many national advertisers. During the mid-1990s, he did a stint in commercial TV in Washington D.C., Johanson joined NFL Films in 1999 as colorist at the Mt. Laurel facility.
"When I specialized in commercials, if you did a 16mm spot, you weren’t quite there," he says. "When I came to NFL Films, they were handling some five million feet of film a year, predominantly 16mm, and it was great looking. I’ve done a number of projects with the National Park Service, where they go out into the hinterlands and shoot beautiful 16mm film. I’ve recently timed a natural history film [ Remembered Earth ] with John Grabowska, where he captured the organic beauty of the land on film. We did a lot of secondary and primary color correction and manipulation to try to enhance the scenes as they dovetailed. Films like this are a real art form."
One example is footage of the on-camera narrator, Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday. "The natural backlight was much stronger than the light on his face," Johanson says. "We suppressed the background light to draw attention to his face."
Johanson’s other recent projects include a movie produced for cable with a film-out for a local cinema, a documentary by a filmmaker who has been shooting interviews with fishermen in Bar Harbor, Massachusetts, for some 20 years, and regional and national commercial spots for the NFL and other sponsors.