Colorist Arnold Ramm at Encore Hollywood just did the tape-to-tape color correction for Kassim the Dream, an indiekassim011 documentary by director Kief Davidson (who previously directed The Devil’s Miner, about child labor in the mines of South America). With Kassim the Dream, Davidson revisits the topic of children in peril in the developing world, this time in Uganda with child soldiers. Kassim Ouma, nicknamed “The Dream,” was kidnapped by Ugandan rebels when he was six and forced to spend 12 years fighting in the country’s brutal civil war. He later defected to the United States and began a rise to glory in the boxing ring. But his choices have had heavy penalties for the family he left behind, and the film climaxes with Kassim traveling home to Uganda to confront the demons of his past.

Director Davidson worked with cinematographer Tony Molina to capture the story, much of it under difficult and dangerous conditions in Uganda. According to Molina, most of the film was shot with a Canon XL-H1, a small camera that permitted the run-and-gun style of a documentary. But the HDV output of the Canon XL-H1 was supplemented by other formats: HD beauty vignettes and landscapes–some of it slo-mo–shot with a Panasonic VariCam and Super 16mm used for a handful of introspective moments in the boxing ring. There was also a small amount of archival footage, in both SD and HD formats.

At Encore, after the online edit, the material was output to HDCAM SR tape. That was no small task. “Our guys in I/O had to

Image by Tony Molina

Image by Tony Molina

make sure the field sequencing and pull-down rate was right,” said Ramm. “They had to find the spot between images that were sharp but jittered and images that averaged together but blurred a little bit.” Then, Ramm got the footage and, with the da Vinci 2K suite, was faced with the huge task of creating the look that Davidson and Molina wanted for all the different portions of the film, which included some re-enactments from his childhood as well as contemporary footage shot in Africa.

“In a classic sense this was a documentary that observed ,and there wasn’t a lot of manipulation in the field,” said Ramm. “We provided the dimension. For example, in one shot, we’re with Kassim, his manager and some other people while he’s preparing for a fight. The nature of the light created a very flat and standard looking image. We were able to drop off a little on the edge, dialing down unnecessary colors, to bring Kassim into focus.” In another scene, Kassim is sitting alone in the dark, sweating. “It’s a medium closeup, and we gave that incredible dimension,” said Ramm. “It was shot intentionally with a low-contrast range so we could manipulate it later in post. Tony [Molina] didn’t crush the blacks. He gave us the option to put in an atmosphere, to hit Kassim witha a spotlight.” Ramm did add that spotlight, a shaft of light coming from the direction of the key light to emphasize Molina’s existing composition.

They also emphasized or de-emphasized colors. In Uganda, people wear brightly colored clothing and Davidson wanted to emphasize that. “He wanted a bold, real look so we emphasized those colors in the clothing,” said Ramm. The childhood re-enactments had their own look. “We gave it a surreal, hyper-dreamlike look to make those scenes feel like memories,” explained Molina. “They have a kind of haunting edge to them that serves as a reminder of the hardships Kassim endured. The colors and contrast levels are pushed to extremes and, I think, very successfully.”

They also quickly turned any potential problem into an advantage. “In another sequence where they were re-enacting his childhood story the camera had a malfunction,” said Ramm. “We played back and forth on Photoshop where we decided to embrace the malfunction. The blacks were so crushed that we couldn’t bring them up, so we embraced this high-contrast look and took it to another level that made it even more bold than that.”For the small amount of file footage, said Ramm, the decision was to de-emphasize the color to make it look more like a newsreel.

For the filmmaking team, color values were imbued with a feeling that was assigned to the different times and places, from Kassim’s childhood to the the revisit to Uganda, his visit to the US. “We were dialing in a lot of power windows, brightening and darkening,” he continued. “We’d track as many as four or five windows per scene to get the look we wanted. We were adding an artistic flare. We worked together for a solid week. We had a brain trust.”

What made the job easier was the fact that Ramm and Molina have worked together many times over the years, on a variety of different projects. “If Tony and I didn’t know each other, it would have been a more painful experience,” said Ramm. “But based on our history, we have the same language. He can say, remember what we did on that commercial, let’s try that. He and I have a lot of shortcuts.”

“Ultimately, the DI goal was to make all formats work and fit a continuity in the context of an overall film,” said Molina. “Arnold did that beautifully. He made the film feel like a consistent 35mm project.”

Kassim the Dream has won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at AFI Fest, the AFM Silverdocs Award at the SilverDocs Festival and the Doc U Award at the IDFA Amsterdam Film Festival. The movie is also nominated for the International Documentary Association’s Best Documentary award.