Improving on Natural Documentary Photography in A River Changes Course

The waterway referred to in the title of A River Changes Course is the Tonle Sap in Cambodia whose pattern of altering its course twice each year has shaped the lives of local people for centuries. In producer-director Kalyanee Mam’s powerful documentary, which won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in its debut at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the river’s ebb and flow also serves as a metaphor for changes happening to three Cambodian families whose way of life is threatened by globalization and environmental degradation.

Final color-grading and editorial finishing for the film was completed at Colorflow, whose new Bay Area post-production facility was designed specifically to meet the needs of independent films like A River Changes Course. The company pairs state-of-the-art post technology, including a 20-seat DI theater with an Autodesk Lustre grading system, with a relaxed, boutique environment.

That combination provides filmmakers like Mam with the tools to give their films a professional finish in a setting that is free from the time and cost pressures that often go hand-in-hand with finishing films in New York and Los Angeles. “The people at Colorflow were very supportive of my film,” Mam says. “It’s wonderful to work with people who are passionate about what they are doing.”

The film's official trailer.

Colorflow Senior Colorist David Lortsher applied the final grade to the film in the Colorflow DI theatre with Lustre and conformed using Assimilate Scratch. For Lortsher, whose credits include the animated blockbusters Toy Story 3 and Up, A River Changes Course was a sharp departure both in terms of style and emotional content. “This film offers a privileged view of the lives of people in rural Cambodia—and they are very generous in sharing details of their lives,” he explains. “Even working on it shot by shot, I found it very emotionally powerful. In fact, it was one of the most affecting projects of my career. I was very moved by it.”

Mam, who served as cinematographer on the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, spent two years in her native country living with and shooting her subjects. Employing a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR, she captured intimate, vérité-style images of local people going about their lives in urban, rural and jungle environments that are beautiful but under imminent threat by deforestation, overfishing and economic hardship. “The film examines the ideas of family and love, and the concept of changes that are not only evident in Cambodia, but are happening all over the world,” Mam says.

“The small camera allowed Kalyanee to capture footage in an intimate and non-invasive way,” Lortsher says. “That results in a candid and uninhibited look at the way these people live. She avoided inserting herself into the process—there is no voiceover—so, as a viewer, you are never shaken out of the moment but are rather drawn in and absorb the experience.”

The primary objective, during final color grading, was to render Mam’s imagery in a pure and unadulterated manner. Initially, Lortsher assumed that would be a straightforward task. “When I first watched the screener, I thought, ‘This is perfect. How can I improve on it?’ It was so beautiful,” he recalls, “but then Kalyanee and I sat down and together and she began going through her wish list.

“There were global color balance issues that she wanted to dial out. There was so much foliage in some scenes that it caused a problem with light bouncing around. We had to neutralize that. There were also a number of shots with special challenges—scenes that were shot with fading light and pick up shots that needed to be made to match.”

All of the processing was done with considerable restraint. “It was important to me to represent the families and their lives as authentically as possible,” adds Mam. “The film is subtle in its presentation, and the images needed to be subtle as well. Our goal was to get the balance correct and keep it looking natural.”

As Lortsher worked through the film with Mam, applying adjustments to light and shadow, scenes took on added clarity. “When we neutralized the light bounce, the environment acquired a glistening quality,” he says. “Details appeared more polished. Everything had a clean, crisp look. In one scene, where people are bathing in the river, we began to see highlights reflected in the water. That told me we were on the right path. It looked so glassy, so perfectly smooth and clear. That’s the kind of thing we looked for throughout as we aimed for the right balance.”

Lortsher applied special treatment to individual people to make their features stand out and to give them a consistent look, but again those adjustments had to be done with care to avoid artificiality. “Characters appeared in different lighting situations throughout the film,” he explains. “They are seen in sunshine, indoor lighting and artificial lighting. It was a challenge to get them to match in a natural way.”

Ultimately, Lortsher worked through several late-night grading sessions to address all of the image-related issues. The extra effort, he says, was worthwhile. “The film is so compelling and Kalyanee is so inspirational that it was hard not to get swept along,” he says. “Our work on the grade was meant to enhance her already powerful narrative.”

“David was like an extension of me,” says Mam. “I was the eye and he was the hand, and we worked together in concert. It’s amazing to work with someone who feels what you are feeling without having to say anything.”

Lortsher adds that he is gratified but not surprised by the reception the film is getting from critics and audiences. After all, he says, it has an important message. “We are presented with people who have very little, but seem quite content,” he observes. “They have struggles, but they have their families and their community and so live in a state of peace and contentment. I was touched by how connected they were. I found it very comforting.”