Interviews

True Colours

Daniele Siragusano, Image Engineer at FilmLight, tells Satyam Nagwekar how the right colour management can change the perception of an entire movie

A few minutes into a conversation with Daniele Siragusano and one can see the passion he has for the world of cinema and, more importantly, how images play a key role in conveying a director’s vision to the audience. Growing up, he knew this was the world he wanted to be a part of. Hence, he armed himself with a bachelor’s degree in media technology and later went on to get a master’s degree in electronic media that exposed him to the post-production environment.

Daniele worked as an image engineer at a post-production facility in Germany and subsequently rose through the ranks to become the head of technology. It was there that he started working with colour management, on movies like Tarzan, The Darkest Hour and Buddy. He came to work for FilmLight in 2014 as an image engineer, looking after workflows and colour. We learn from Siragusano what makes colour grading and colour management an essential part of production, especially in the contemporary world where content has to be delivered for different platforms.

How different is it to grade films, commercials, and TV programmes in Baselight?

Well, the difference nowadays, where everything is digital, is that there is no longer really a reason for doing a workflow differently for feature films, television or commercials. Historically, there were some routines that were empirically developed for each of those different areas and could not be easily adapted to others. But now, technically, you can have
one unified process for all of them, so you can easily use a feature film workflow in a commercial and vice versa. I believe that, in the future, colour grading workflows will become
unified even more.

Does Baselight help with the productivity and creativity of the content?
Well, Baselight is built on two principles. One principle is to be as efficient as possible in the whole workflow aspect – the colour management is a vital part of that. And the other equally important part is ‘creativity’. What we want to do with our tools is to give colourists and artists the ability to create any picture they have in their mind.
So, for us, creativity is very important. All of the tools we produce are developed strongly with an artistic approach. The tools themselves may sound very technical and the science behind them is also very technical. But when you are in a creative session, as a colourist, you will appreciate that the whole system is ‘artist-driven’. The user interface, the control surface, the way things work together, are all artist-driven.

In what ways has colour grading evolved over the last 10 years?
I think colour grading – or colour timing as it was called in the past – is a well-established process. In traditional broadcast workflows, however, it was not necessary. All the colour science and colour management was built into the camera.
Basically, it was economically feasible to put all of the difficult electronics into the camera because there were only a few cameras but a lot of television sets. That is why, in the classical REC709 driven, legacy workflows, there was no colour grading because all the colour management happened in the camera and was broadcast to everybody.
In films, however, colour timing was a fundamental part of the whole process for several decades.
In the last 10 years, the awareness about colour grading has increased since more people – whether working on film, broadcast or commercials – have access to the same technology. And the need for all of these people to deliver content to different platforms is what makes colour grading and colour management an essential part of production.

Do you think big-budget Hollywood productions have had a role in the wider adoption of colour grading?

Well, the amount of money and energy that is put in a feature film is related to the overall budget. If you have an overall high-budget movie, you have more days for grading. If you have a low-budget movie, you don’t spend as much time on the grading. It is not untypical for a very high budget movie to have a really long colour grading process, which shapes the final product and shapes the look of the movie.

You have been associated with FilmLight for two years. What is the company’s approach to work and building products?
It is a really good team. FilmLight is a mixture of talented and highly skilled people. It is a room full of experts! We are working hard and putting a lot of energy into our products. Quality is key for us.

Although you are not a colourist, you seem very passionate about the subject.
I have been working in the field of colour grading and post-production for six and a half years now in a professional environment, and I supervised a team of seven colourists. I am also passionate about the subject and about colour management and images in general. Because I know if you do it right, it can change the perception of the whole movie.

What differentiates Baselight from the competition?
In my opinion, it is the creative aspect and the efficiency aspect of the workflow. With regards to efficiency, we strongly believe that high-end content is the teamwork of different people working in their professional environments.

A VFX artist will work in a VFX-friendly environment and a colourist will work in the best environment for evaluating the colour or the quality of the image, and both of them have very different needs. Every aspect of the craft of creating movies is a designed environment so we don’t believe in the one-box-fits-all approach. Rather than including everything in our system, we collaborate with camera vendors, with VFX software vendors like The Foundry, with editing vendors like Avid, to integrate and make the transition and communication between different departments as smooth as possible. So, collaboration and interoperability is a strong aspect. I don’t think other vendors are trying to do that as hard as we do. We create Baselight plugins for Avid and for NUKE so we try to bring our expertise to their products.
So, we rely on their help to integrate into their products. We are writing our BLG files, which are our metadata files, into the Arri Alexa camera, for instance. Therefore, the interoperability for the production is high. You don’t lose any information or creative decisions made on set or during production.

We see in a lot of situations that people are redoing tasks they have already done on other software at another time in the production. When you are grading on-set and you cannot use this colour information easily in the post-production and the final grade, it’s an issue. We hope that with our systems and our approach, you can keep improving the image without losing any of this work.

From a creative standpoint, we keep on rethinking some of the aspects of the product. We really try to focus on the colourist’s work and listen to colourists to try to solve real-world problems they are having. With every release we deploy, we try to improve their working lives.

Your blog on stereoscopic volume perception seemed very detailed and technical.
Well, I have a lot of background in stereoscopic feature film – 10 years of stereo post-production. Stereo, however, isn’t a big deal nowadays, unfortunately

What do you reckon will be the next big thing?
I don’t feel the complexity of colour grading is addressed in general. Our to-do lists are getting longer and longer.
However, from the engineering side of things, HDR will undoubtedly come and, in a lot of areas, it is already rolling on and will probably hit the Indian market as well in the near future. I believe that increasing the fidelity of the image reproduction system will always continue. That is what will give us plenty of things to do.
In fact, HDR is already solved for us because we came from the film background. With our Truelight system, we dealt for years with high-dynamic film scans, log material, and preview lookup tables. The only thing that has changed is that the output is HDR as well. Internally, Baselight was always an HDR system.
The next big thing is higher frame rates. I truly believe in the advantage of capturing with a higher frame rate as we have seen in the recent Ang Lee movie Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. This film was shot at 120 frames-per-second (fps), with high dynamic range and extended colour gamut, and in 3D – and was graded on our Baselight X system.

You were in India recently to conduct workshops. How do industry professionals benefit from these initiatives, especially if they are not colourists themselves?
I think it is really important to understand that we put colour grading tools in the hands of people who are not only colourists, people with different professional backgrounds, such as DOPs, editors, and VFX artists.
We believe it is crucial for everybody in the pipeline to understand the principles of colour management and colour grading…with the flexibility also comes the responsibility. So, setting a look on set, you need to know the fundamentals of colour grading, that there are different grading styles and approaches. The more you know, the more you appreciate the product and the more you can achieve.

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