F&V: Do you consider yourself a a pioneering DI artist?

There were definitely people before me. We all need to acknowledge the work of [VFX supervisor] Chris Watts on Pleasantville. When I saw it, I thought, What maniac would take that one on? But it got people thinking about taking on an entire film. And don’t forget Framestore CFC’s work on Chicken Run.

F&V: What’s the difference between a telecine colorist and a DI artist? Is it all technology or do aesthetics play a role?

You can grade for commercials, which is one skill set, or longform TV, which is another mindset and style. Grading for features tends to look more to the longform style of grading, where the DI colorist’s challenge is to strike the balance between a great looking image and serving the narrative. It’s great to come up with a fantastic look. But can you sustain it for 10 minutes without it getting in the way of the narrative? That’s the skill.

You read the script, watch a rough cut and without having a film school-style semiotic discussion of the underlying subtext of the scene, you try to design a look that enhances where the DP has been going and help support the story without getting in the way or stomping all over it. Respecting the lighting but enhancing it in a way that evokes the underlying emotion or mood that the director is trying to present. That, to me, is the joy of grading.
F&V: How much creative input does the DI artist have?
For the films I’ve been booked on, it does seem to be quite a big input. It’s taking everyone’s creative intent and then offering my best literal interpretation of what should be- and typically presenting a couple of ideas to try to evolve it even more.
I think in principle that if a director and cinematographer are going to take money and book a DI, they’ll want some input. They’ll want someone who will interpret what they want without getting in the way. It can be a very positive experience if the creative team is given what they requested and presented with evolutions of what it could be. As a DI colorist, you should have a good handle on the medium because that’s something you’re doing every day. I like to think I have some ideas of what’s possible from that medium, some ideas they might not have thought of or been aware were possible.
F&V: What’s the relationship like between a DI artist and the cinematographer? The director?
I always approach it that my job is to take notes from the DP and get the film looking the way he wants and collectively present that to the director. It’s up to the relationship between the director and DP as to how that goes. On Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the director [ Alfonso Cuaron] deferred to the cinematographer [ Michael Seresin ], who drove the look. On Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Tim Burton, it was very much “let Tim drive the look and develop it” – but I’d ring [cinematographer] Philippe [Rousselot] and tell him where it was going and ask what he thought.
F&V: Some cinematographers would like the DI artist to be the same person who does the dailies. What do you think?
Certainly that’s the ideal. But it depends on what kind of a grade you’re doing. Do you want your dailies to reflect the final look of the film? That’s the key question. The second one is, Do you even know what the final look is while you’re shooting the film? For some directors and DPs, the answer is absolutely yes. For others, the look evolves. Peter Jackson seems pretty relaxed to let that look evolve after the shoot. A great DP like Tom Sigel [Three Kings, X-Men] wants to be able to present the director and editing room what the film would look like. It depends on how people want to make the film.
F&V: Will the role of the DI artist evolve over time?
Yes, definitely. I’m finding myself much more involved with production design and art direction in the beginning, which has always been my personal push. It would be pure arrogance to assume that I could do production design – they’re completely different skills. I’m just bringing a tool that a production designer could turn to. Let’s say they’re shooting a period film and want to evoke a deep red velvet curtain through the whole thing. That could be very expensive and tricky to light. There might be a digital solution. Like the old classic B&W days, you could use make-up to get the gray scale just right. It’s working in tandem.
For Charlie and the Choclate Factory, we created a color design lab, which allowed the director to have a great dialogue with the cinematographer before he finished the film. They can set the color bible by going through the entire film. My role becomes more like color management at that point, almost a kind of art directing.