On-Set Color Correction, Designing the GUI, and the Red Sweater Factor

Director Marc Forster became a household name – in Hollywood households, anyway – with the 2001 release of Monster’s Ball, which earned film festival plaudits and an Oscar win for Halle Berry. He followed that up with Finding Neverland, which scored seven Oscar nominations, including one win for best original score, and found himself on the A list. His newest picture is the meta-comedy Stranger Than Fiction, which sports a more-poignant-than-usual performance by Will Ferrell alongside Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman.

In a quick conversation with Film & Video, Forster talked about visualizing the film’s off-center sensibility – watch the video, below, to see the impressive graphic design work that illustrates protagonist Harold Crick’s state of mind.

FILM & VIDEO: In the film, Harold is an obsessive tax auditor who slowly becomes more of a sensualist. How did you develop the VFX “GUI” that illustrates Harold’s mental process early on?

MARC FORSTER: It was a way to show that he had a calculating, mathematical mind. We did tests with a couple of vendors, but I wasn’t happy with any of the designs. I decided that I’d rather go with no graphics at all than with graphics I didn’t like. We eventually found this company called MK12 in Kansas City. They were graphic artists who had done commercials and short films. We liked them so much they also did the end credits for the film. We found a common language, and they were very patient with us – my editor [Matt Chesse] and myself. They’re gifted people.

The film is an unusual kind of comedy. Was it a challenge finding, visually, exactly the right tone for it?

Well, I’ve always wanted to do a comedy, and I suppose my inspirations for Stranger Than Fiction were Jacques Tati and Peter Sellers. It’s all about timing and balance, especially in a film like this. I wouldn’t be the right director for a broad comedy. And the setting was important. We needed an urban-anarchist bakery type of neighborhood, and you could believe an anarchist’s bakery in Chicago. And then there was the office world, which is a more detached environment, behind glass and steel. Late in the film, I had Harold wearing a red sweater, and we had to make sure he was the only one wearing a color. Compared to everyone else who is at work in suits, and he’s the only one who has started living.

Did you set a look for the film on set?

Roberto [Schaefer, the cinematographer on all Forster’s films] did, to make it easier for the DI later on. The colorist colored some still frames as we were shooting [using Gamma & Density’s 3cp color-correction system], which saved time on Roberto’s end in post.

Were you active in the DI process, too?

Yes. I’m a bit of a control freak.

Would you say that Stranger Than Fiction is advocacy for happy endings?

Well, it’s life-affirming to me. And there is so much tragedy and shit happening all over the world that I think it’s important to have something life-affirming. It’s a modern-day fairy tale, and I like the ones that have a happy ending.