Sydney-based colourist Olivier Fontenay outlines how he approached colour sensitively to create a natural look that supported the narrative of the critically acclaimed movie, Lion
By Vinita Bhatia
The sight of a frail, five-year old boy standing desolately on a crowded Khandwa railway platform seeking out his older brother from who he is separated can pull the heartstrings of even the hardened cinegoer. As the camera pans onto a tired Saroo Brierley (played brilliantly by Sunny Pawar) hopping on an empty train, it captures the fear in his eyes mingled with a glimmer of hope. This is portrayed interestingly by the contrasting hues of brown in the air interspersed by the bright red of the train compartments.
Later adopted by an Australian couple, the adult Saroo (played by Dev Patel) traces his roots and his biological family using technology. Lion is an adaption of this true-life story and director Garth Davis traces this two-decade journey, spanning the Indian and Australian continents. Since he wanted the movie to look as realistic as possible, it fell upon Olivier Fontenay, the film’s colourist, to ensure that some parts of Lion had a grainy feel with the chaos that is usually associated with India.
Fontenay, an experienced Baselight digital intermediate (DI) technician, tells Vinita Bhatia how he managed to give the impression of noise by giving the images a special texture and feeling. He also talks about replicating this differently for the video release, by ensuring that the grade was right for the different video deliverables.
How did you get involved in with the DI project of Lion?
I had worked with Davis on Jane Campion’s series Top of The Lake and I was impressed by his passion and how he believed in getting the details right. I also completed three features before with Greig Fraser, the DP – Killing them Softly, Last Ride and Bright Star – so I knew them both. I put my hand up saying, “I want to work with you guys” and they said, “Sure” and that is how it all began.
How did you decide on the look for this movie?
There is a big time difference in the movie between what happens in India and what happens in Australia and also, of course, the locations are different. That affected the visual style but the aim was to make it look very natural while supporting the narrative. The idea was that the look had to support the emotion, and the less you sense that you are seeing a specific ‘look’, the better it is.
What were the main challenges in grading this film?
It was how caring we had to be all the time for the characters, starting with what was happening in India. And a lot of the footage was on the edge of exposure and felt very soft in contrast – but it wasn’t actually too soft or too underexposed. So, it was a very sensitive area to be in and a very thin line to walk – we were really working in the danger zone.
That’s where I believe Fraser deserved the Oscar nomination and the Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS) Award because he was taking a risk – exposing down but not too much, almost to the point where you could see the noise when you were raising the brightness of the image. This meant I could pull the blacks down and really work on them. Because you can’t actually see the noise but you can feel there is something there, you have the impression that you are seeing film grain. It doesn’t look noisy, but it gives the image a special texture and feeling.
Then we had to replicate that for the video release, which is in a different colour space that goes against that look, so we spent a fair amount of time making sure that the grade was also right for the different video deliverables. But everything I’ve seen on TV or in print in magazines has been incredibly faithful to what we did, so from a colourist’s point of view it did translate very well.
What part of the grading process do you normally spend most of your time on?
It would be setting the initial grade and letting my grade evolve with the story as it is told. I am not massive on secondaries, they come when they are needed. I always try to work with what I have got in front of me because I trust that what the DP shot is good enough to translate to emotion.
Were there any specific tools in Baselight that you found particularly beneficial when grading Lion?
Because I come from the photochemical world I started grading on digital systems using colour, density, contrast and then saturation – I could do a lot with that.
In Baselight, I can work the same way with the film grade to give the base. Additionally, I can use the video grade tools – lift, gamma, gain – to get to all the little nuances. The video grade is the only way I can lift the blacks a tiny bit without lifting the whole image or losing contrast because I like my highlights. So being able to separate my blacks, mids and highlights changes everything for me.
And being able to use the film and video grades in separate layers, and very quickly go from one to the other, means that I can work with my style of grading and really free myself from the machine. I can be quite intuitive with what I do and achieve a lot with very little – but when I need to go a bit further I’ve got all the other tools at hand.
I used softened shapes to separate one part of the image from another in a very ‘loose’ way, which you cannot really see, to give something subtle to the image. They are incredibly quick – Baselight can do what I want without me really having to think about it and that was very important for me grading Lion, as I didn’t want a machine getting in front of my emotions.
What cameras were used to shoot the film?
The main camera was the ARRI Alexa – we used the ARRIRAW files, plus they had some other cameras on the drones, and VFX as well, so there was a mix-and-match of different resolutions and file formats.
Can you tell me a little more about your collaborative work with VFX and editorial?
The visual effects were done at the studio Iloura, which I was able to work pretty closely with. They took the same RAW files that I had and worked with a graded reference, but then gave me back ungraded DPX files. It was a very transparent process.
We set up the Baselight job with one reel per scene and I basically just graded the film the way the story is told. I started at the beginning and finished at the end. The edit didn’t change much during the DI because the cut was very close by the time I started grading. After that, the cut changes were mostly tweaks.
Could you say more about how you dealt with delivering for multiple formats?
The main deliverable was the P3 grade for cinema. For the HD version we spent a fair bit of time and found that we couldn’t quite get it right in the blacks on certain shots. So we went back to the P3 and adjusted it in the film grade in order to be able to work accurately in HD, which actually benefited not only the HD version but also the film grade.
Was there a specific scene or sequence you found particularly enjoyable or challenging?
There isn’t really any scene in the movie that was not either enjoyable or challenging but there is a scene between Saroo and his adoptive mother, Sue, (played by Nicole Kidman) where he gives her a cuddle – with that scene it was very difficult to get the right amount of what you could read on his face. I also had to adjust Nicole’s hair to make sure that the red was not overpowering.
When we first see Australia there is a different feel to the image compared to the contemporary Australia and this is basically in-between. It’s got some of the softness and gentleness of the harsh Indian world but set in Australia, so you have stronger colours. When you move ahead to the contemporary Australia, it’s more muted and normal so you can relate to it.
For me, grading Lion was very enjoyable as it was really about letting the images be the support for my emotions, and this is one of the reasons why I love my job.
What’s next for you?
Soon I should be starting the grade on the Picnic At Hanging Rock TV series, made from the classic Peter Weir film. I very much look forward to being part of that project.