How Smart Use of the DaVinci Resolve Helps Him Get the Look and Feel of Comedy

It's been a busy past few months for Aidan Stanford, a former color timer who is now a digital colorist at Modern VideoFilm in Burbank. The primary colorist on ABC's Modern Family, which just wrapped Season 5, he recently also wrapped three other concurrent shows for another client. Stanford grades all his work on Blackmagic's DaVinci Resolve and first trained on a DaVinci 2K system in 2005.

Modern Family's online editorial is also handled at Modern VideoFilm, making Stanford's color work on the sitcom an easy, conform-less part of the typical 10-day turnaround from production to air time. Shot primarily with the ARRI Alexa with a smattering of dash-cam footage captured on the Sony EX3, the show, says Stanford, is led by a talented and award-winning creative team with exceptional credentials. "My job is made easier because of the way they run things," he says. "If the producers decide to replace a couple of shots for technical tweaks, we've obviously got to squeak them out, but we've never gotten so close that we almost didn't make air. They're really a well-oiled machine over there, and I think that's a big part of why it's been so successful."

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet and their cast family in the Season 5 Finale "Wedding" episode (ABC/Matt Klitscher)

When asked if comedy has a different palette than other genres, Stanford says it does. "For me, at least, the comedies I've worked on do tend to be a little brighter and more colorful, and the dramas I've worked on are all a little more down and thick and desatted."

Beyond that, says Stanford, Modern Family's creators worked through the first few seasons to further define the show's filmic, documentary-style look. Grading the show, he admits, is an exercise in uniformity, the foil to an award-winning ensemble cast and so many scene-stealing moving parts. "As a colorist, you don't want to crush the scenes or make them look too video-y and affected. It's about staying out of your own way and not getting too fancy with looks but instead creating an even balance. Jim Bagdonas, the show's DP, shoots really gorgeous stuff, so it's often just a matter of laying it down and making sure things match."

Bagdonas and producer Chris Smirnoff attend most of his grades, he says. "They usually have very specific ideas about times of day and indoor and outdoor looks. They like to go warmer in the interiors at night and aim a bit more contrasty and bright outside. Keeping those looks simple, clean and consistent, and the skin tones warm without being overly warm, is the best backdrop for the comedy to play out." 

Modern Family's past season, which is typically shot locally in Los Angeles but had more unique locales this season, was trickier to grade than most. "We had so many exteriors in those last few episodes and I was able to use a bunch of tricks I've perfected in Resolve on them," Stanford says. "Jim Bagdonas usually has everything so controlled and tight for the shoot but he had to fight some sunset issues, so there was a lot of tricky tracking of skylines and horizons and trying to isolate actors from the foreground and background. Resolve's interactive tracker is unbelievable. Without that thing I'd be in big trouble."

In contrast, he says very little is done to the dash-cam footage, seen when the show's characters are driving in a car, beyond making sure it looks "less polished" than the normally graded Alexa footage.

Sofia Vergara, Ed O'Neill, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen in a scene from Season 5's "Australia" episode (ABC/Matt Klitscher)

This season, the entire production decamped to Australia for one episode, giving Stanford a number of uniquely lit exterior scenes to contend with and also a bounty of visual treats in the grading suite. "I really loved working on the Australia episode," he says. "It was really funny, but it was also interesting to grade because it was just so pretty. There were so many terrific locations."

Although he used Resolve 9 to grade Modern Family's Season 5 and his other recent work, Stanford says he hasn't felt the need or had the time to upgrade and has been more than happy with the already existing feature set. The comfort factor and tight deadlines, he says, just weren't worth challenging. "I guess I've been fighting changing to version 10. But I haven't had any down time in a while, so I'm just now getting caught up to where the rest of the world is. I also knew that whatever came next would be really intuitive and I could start using it right away. I've worked with a lot of other systems over the years, and Resolve was always the most color-intuitive to my eye. The layout, being able to work in multiple nodes, has always made perfect sense to me."

The entire cast on location in Australia

Stanford says he relies heavily on Resolve's custom curve feature, especially when working on comedies. He is also is a big proponent of Track Grade. "I know that a lot of other colorists don't use it all the time," he admits. "But I like it because it sits behind everything, and you can turn things, like LUTs or a look, on or off. You can set keyframes and it doesn't affect the timeline or the clip mode. If Chris Smirnoff is behind me and he says, 'That entire dinner scene looks a little too heavy. Let's bring that up a bit in the shadows,' I can queue that entire scene and just lift the shadows a little bit. You can turn that on and off. I have some LUTs that limit reds, which I use a lot, and I will drop them in the track, just in case, because they are so easy to turn on and off. You can do this node-based or with keyframes, and it's just there in the background, not clip-to-clip. I like having the freedom to be able to show those changes lumped together across a scene."

When we spoke, Stanford expected to be up and running on Resolve 10 in time to begin grading his next project, which began shooting in early June. "We're pretty spoiled as colorists here at Modern VideoFilm, and we're all pretty tight, so we get together and talk about  things we've noticed, tricks we've either heard about or figured out on our own," he says. "The integration of newer version software usually comes along pretty quickly, at least in the television area, especially with Resolve. Even if you haven't read anything about it and you don't know what's coming, Blackmagic always makes really smart upgrades to Resolve that make complete sense to the user. They give colorists what they want."