Shifting Shades

Dan Cole, senior colorist, Technicolor London, served up a buffet of ingenious hues and shades to paint a vivid image of the future for USS Callister

“Working with 4K files in HDR has taught me that the human eye very quickly adapts to this new aesthetic, and in my experience it doesn’t take long to start to really enjoy the HDR image. Emerging technology trends such as 8K are somewhat inevitable, but that has always been the way.” – Dan Coles

By Pradeep Suvarna

The human mind is a tricky thing – it comes up with complex questions like what will happen in the future when technology becomes all encompassing and falls outside the purview of legalese? Are robots and autobots capable of criminal activity and can they be sued for it?
These are just some of the theories explored in the USS Callister, Charlie Brooker’s anthology series about futuristic technology. This feature-length first episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season melds comedy, drama and bits of horror, tracing how gaming and artificial intelligence have made inroads into every aspect of modern life.
Dan Coles, senior colourist, Technicolor London worked on this feature. He tells us how he employed several different grading styles and looks for the distinctly different setups within the film.

How did you start out in post business and become a colorist? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Like many people in post, I began as a runner and originally wanted to be an offline editor. I started out at SVC, which specialised in commercials, promos and short form – I remember carrying several huge 35mm film cans into the telecine suite for a Spice Girls promo grade, and hanging around to watch some of the session.
So, 1997 was when I first became interested, though it was not until I moved to Telecine that I actually trained as a colorist. One of my first jobs there was assisting in the DVD mastering of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas with Terry Gilliam – at that point I was confident I had found the right job.
It was after Telecine that I became one of the founding members of Pepper, and that was where I started to undertake my own jobs both in long and short-form grading. I spent nine years at Pepper, and have now been a senior colorist at Technicolor for nine years, helping to establish them as one of the top UK drama post houses.

You have worked on a mixture of feature and TV productions. How do they differ and which do you prefer?
I love a variety of work – feature and TV yes, but also a variety of genres within those fields. The features I’ve been involved in (both studio and independents) have traditionally been more ambitious, and allowed more grading time than the TV productions. In recent times, though, it is harder to draw a line between feature and TV, as many of today’s TV productions are incredibly ambitious and bold.

What’s the post community like in London? Is there anywhere else you’d like to work?
I love working in London and feel lucky to be surrounded by so many talented people – both from the post community, and the freelance production community – it is very inspiring! Spending so much of my week in a dark room I like to get outdoors and active at weekends – for that reason if I was to choose to work in a different city it’d have to be somewhere with a great outdoors – Vancouver would tick that box!

Tell us what projects you have been working on recently and what’s next?
Recently I’ve been working on Hatton Garden for ITV, Trauma also for ITV, and Detectorists Series 3 for BBC4. Next, I have Series 2 of Flowers (for Channel 4) and Delicious Series 2 for Sky. I also have a new Netflix/BBC series for 2018 and an Amazon/ITV series. It goes without saying I’d love to do some more Black Mirror too, if possible.

Talking of Black Mirror, how many episodes did you grade?
Just the one episode – USS Callister.

As each episode required a totally different look and feel, did you get a tight brief on these looks or were you able to have some part in creating them?
Both really – we talked about lots of different looks and USS Callister employed several different grading styles and looks for the distinctly different setups within the film. I listened to ideas from the DOP and the director and also went away and came up with some ideas of my own, which I would then present to them. We also had to test these looks in both SDR and HDR to make sure they worked across both formats.

What was the collaboration like between you and the cinematographer, director and DoP?
It was an incredibly collaborative experience for me and I feel we really pushed some boundaries with the time and effort we put in. My favourite projects are invariably the ones where everyone feels able to pitch in and become involved in the grading process.

How did Baselight support your work on this series?
My Baselight TWO (Generation VI) system performed fantastically – not only as the grading system but as an editorial system too. We had raw 4K files in the timeline that were cached and the performance was fantastic to the point where we sometimes forgot we were working in 4K at HDR.

Following the theme of the series, do you think there is a dark side to technology?
I think when you watch USS Callister in 4K HDR you will see there is also a bright side to the technology.

How long have you been using Baselight?
Endeavour Series 1 was my first job on Baselight, back in 2013.

You won your second RTS Craft & Design Award for your work on The Eichmann Show in 2015. What was special about this project?
Working on The Eichmann Show presented a number of grading challenges. Primarily – the issue of continuity due to the number of formats used within the film. Specific formats we encountered included colour 35mm, colour Super 16mm graded as monochrome, archive newsreel footage, monochrome 35mm, colour Super 16mm, monochrome Super 16mm, tele-recording sourced original trial footage, as well as the stunning principal Alexa photography.
After carefully and sensitively matching the contrast levels between the different sources, the images flowed together seamlessly allowing us to feel a part of the trial itself, which, along with so many other aspects of the work in this powerful film, added to the sense of realism.

Do you have an all time favourite project that you have graded on?
The Killer Inside Me – an independent feature directed by Michael Winterbottom. This was one of my favourite projects. The brief was 1950’s American film noir. Beautifully shot by Marcel Zyskind on 35mm – we had a brilliant time grading it. We referenced old print looks and played with magenta and crimson tones throughout.
One of my favourite TV pieces was Cilla where we referenced and created a period look and feel to great success, which was inspired by photographer John Bulmer’s project The North.

If you could start over, would you pursue a career as a colorist once again?
Yes, I probably would – it allows me to work on some fantastic projects with some extremely talented and inspiring people.

Is there a movie or TV show grade that you particularly admire or something that inspires you?
I absolutely loved the look of Fargo Season 2. Currently, Stranger Things Season 2 and Mindhunter look stunning with their respective 80’s vibes. I really enjoyed
Ozark too.

What’s your opinion on HDR, wider colour gamuts, 4K, 8K and other emerging technology trends?
Having the capability of achieving a far greater tonal range in the colour palette, and having a greater degree of range and therefore control in highlight details represents an exciting challenge for colourists. Creatively we can bring more to the table, but it is also a game changer in that different eyes in the room are now more likely to see those wider gamut colours in different ways, so you really have to be at the top of your game.
Working with 4K files in HDR has taught me that the human eye very quickly adapts to this new aesthetic, and in my experience doesn’t take long to start to really enjoy the HDR image. Emerging technology trends such as 8K are somewhat inevitable but that has always been the way. My golden rule is stick to the three ‘Cs’ – collaboration, creativity and continuity.

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