Grading Anthony Bourdain’s Culinary Travels to Parts Unknown
Colorist Steve Beganyi on Matching Looks as Uniquely Positioned as the Show's Compass
CNN's Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown takes the chef and restaurateur's prickly blend of cultural and culinary commentary to the extreme. Although some episodes may begin in a recognizable place, like the Tokyo bar made famous by Sofia Coppola's film Lost in Translation (top), Bourdain quickly guides the viewer off the grid—or just under it, in the case of the Tokyo episode.
Colorist Steve Beganyi has graded Bourdain's award-winning shows from the start. He may not travel with Bourdain and the crew to South Africa, Libya, Tokyo or Detroit, as they did for the show's second season that concluded this month, but his sense of where the show's look has been and is headed is based on seven years' worth of experience with the same team, beginning with No Reservations. The first season of Parts Unknown won Emmys for best informational series and for cinematography, and a third season, shooting now, is scheduled to air next spring.
Beganyi says Bourdain is very much a driving force in the look and feel of the show, from each episode's stylized palette to the handheld, indie film aesthetic. He is also quite clear that each new episode be a departure of its own, and no past look or style should insinuate itself onto an episode. Instead, he wants it to come organically from the location and story itself. Working primarily with DP Zach Zamboni to interpret the visions of Bourdain, Zamboni and the producers, Beganyi typically will set some looks on various camera tests shot on location. "This is also very much an editorial show, and the editor and I worked together to get the look of those Tokyo sequences just right," says Beganyi.
Bourdain samples a local drink in a remote part of New Mexico.
Beganyi now works exclusively in Blackmagic Design's DaVinci Resolve, running off a Mac Pro, coloring this past season in version 9. To grade a show that Zamboni has called "constantly shape-shifting," Beganyi says Resolve's multiple nodes and versions in real time give him a distinct advantage. "We're going in different directions all the time, and our schedules are pretty tight because we turn around a lot of shows. They come pretty much week-to-week when they're shooting. I probably have about two or three days to color-time the locked cut before we ship it to network." The show is cut offline on Avid, which Beganyi brings into Resolve. Titles are handled back in Avid.
Even with all the diversions along the way, the food is the main reason Bourdain books his passage to these various parts of the world. And that can present a problem when the look of the show is constantly evolving. "Treating the shots with the food in them can still get difficult, especially when the scenes are overstylized, because you still want the food to look good," says Beganyi. "That mostly means isolating the food and finessing it until it looks right." He says Resolve's tracking tool also helps him navigate through a handheld scene to make sure the focus remains on the meal. "It's really amazing to be able to track through the scenes, especially when you're trying to pull out the flattened details in the S-log footage and just protect the skin tones or just project the sky. The qualifiers and tracking tools together are so helpful. When you're trying to break down an image, the more subtle control you have over it, the more unique look you can give to it."
Although most of the show's footage is shot on Sony F-series cameras, different formats are often tossed into the mix. The Libya episode, for example, includes footage shot with camera phones. "I think this is my favorite episode," says Beganyi. "The phone footage gave the whole show a desaturated look and those sections were overstylized, which we pulled through the whole show. The people that he talked to just made that show so memorable. He's basically hanging out with rebels who overthrew the government!"
Bourdain and a former freedom fighter on location in Libya inspect some handmade artillery.
Is there ever a worry that a show might become overstylized, with too many novel elements? "Sure. You sometimes think, 'Did we go too far this time?" says Beganyi. "But when you step back and see the shows consecutively, it always works. It can also be a challenge to make the different scenes in one show come together as a piece, especially when we're adding a look to one scene. But Bourdain is always writing as they are cutting, to make those things flow."
Beganyi was involved in testing the Sony F3s and F5s to make sure the footage gave him the details he needed during the grade. "We shoot a lot of S-log to preserve the highlights and shadows," he says. "We did a ton of tests before the first season started, just to know where our skin tones would land when we pull the S-log waveform back. When it comes in, it looks just like a pancake and the information is just squeezed. I think we pretty much nailed it. But we're constantly testing, pretty much every time S-log comes out to make sure it looks the way we want."
He says he loves working with the format. "There's so much information that you can pull out of it. They've usually got a really small crew to make his subjects more comfortable around the camera and around him, so it's shot flat S-log run-and-gun. We do what we can back in post, but with camera technology like this, it makes our jobs much easier so we can concentrate on the creative elements."
Even for Beganyi, a self-professed "cheeseburger-and-fries" guy, the show is more than just another delicious meal. "For me, personally grading the Detroit episode was the most meaningful. I'm from Cleveland, and this was a very powerful show about the Midwest's most infamous city trying to pretty much come back from nothing. It was really uplifting."
Bourdain and journalist Charlie LeDuff stand in a field within the Detroit city limits.