As an indie film director, you really do have to know a little of everything. I’m not saying the director needs to know every gritty detail about how to light, edit and score a film, but you do need to know how to talk to an editor, cinematographer, or visual effects artist and speak their language. Talking to a director friend of mine, I realized we had different blind spots – he always felt a bit uncomfortable in directing sound design, and I’ve always felt the same way about color correction.
Most of the articles I could find on the topic were all about the very technical aspects of color – which was helpful, but what I really wanted was the director’s point of view. So I decided to talk to three successful indie directors to get their take on how to direct color correction (or more accurately, color grading, although in my experience people don’t often use that term):
The three directors I spoke to were Josephine Decker, writer/director of “Thou Was Mild and Lovely”; Sarah Adina Smith, writer/director of “The Midnight Swim,” which won the “Breakthrough Audience Award” at AFI Fest last year; and Sundance alumni Ryan Piers Williams, writer/director of “X/Y,” which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
As I spoke with each of them separately, Decker, Smith, and Williams all mentioned one crucial element right away: finding a colorist who would be a strong collaborator.
“The first time I worked with color, the guy was really mean,” said Decker. “There are some people who are control freaks, who just wanna take your film, poop on it, and give it back to you. I didn’t feel like I was collaborating with an artist who was invested in the film like me. With Nat (Nat Jencks, her colorist for “Thou Wast”) I felt like I found that collaborator.”
Williams stressed the importance of color correction. “You’re creating the last version of your film, and it’s so important to find a good colorist and a good facility that is willing to work with you in order to finish the right way,” he said. For Williams that facility was MindSmack, and the colorist was Dario Bigi.
Williams, who is also a painter, thinks about color from the very beginning. “As a director I’m very aware of how color affects the way an audience experiences a character. With my DP, costume and production designers we carefully choose a specific color palette for every character,” he said. In “X/Y” for example, the character of Jen is clothed in lots of pastels and other soft colors. “I wanted her to feel like a beautiful flower travelling through a really grimy city,” said Williams.
“X/Y” is a story about four young interconnected New Yorkers, told in four sections, and each one has its own look. “Sylvia (portrayed by America Ferrera) I wanted to show in deep purples and deep reds, to represent the deeper pain that she was going through. Jake is a little more bluish, because I tend to think of cooler colors as actually cold, showing someone that has a disconnect with society and is trying to connect with other people,” said Williams.
In the color sessions that I’ve sat in on, one thing I’ve always felt self-conscious about is the language of color, and when to say things like “crunch the blacks” and “warm up those highlights.” Decker says she often uses non-color terminology. “Make it scary, make it beautiful,” she said. One of her references for the film was actually Super Mario Kart. “You know that level that is all black where you’re on a rainbow track? Ultimately, we didn’t go with ‘rainbow’, but we did get super saturated,” she said.
“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” a sensual thriller starring “love, death, guns, goats, and a farm in the wilds of Kentucky” had a very vibrant look, one that Decker describes as dark, brooding, with a brilliance. “Almost like beauty is lurking under the surface of the darkness,” she said.
Smith has a really great way of describing how she talks about color. “I speak in a weird language of feeling with everyone when I’m working,” she said. “You’re always trying to get at things you don’t have words for, so you have to often dance around the meaning until it reveals itself.”
For “The Midnight Swim,” Smith worked with Kevin Canon of Prehistoric Digital as her colorist. The film was shot as a found-footage documentary, and had a very interesting color scheme. “It leaned a little cold, especially in skin-tone,” said Smith. “I think we pulled nearly all the magenta out of the skin. And then we were really specific about saturation, keeping it very muted and plain and gradually allowing color to take over as the movie veers from documentary to something more surreal. We tried to make the color shift very, very gradually so that you would never notice.”
The reasoning behind this approach was that “The Midnight Swim” is a story told from one character’s POV, that of June, whose camera the entire movie is ostensibly filmed on. “So in the beginning of the film, I wanted it to feel very real, very much in a documentary style. I wanted to invite the audience into June’s brain. And, once we’re there, madness and magic take over. We suddenly find ourselves on unstable ground, which is a good thing,” she said.
All of the directors I spoke to generally had the same approach, beginning with a spotting session with their colorist where they watched the entire film through and talked about it, making notes, some specific, some general, and putting together a look for each scene. Smith stayed with her colorist throughout the entire process, while Decker and Williams left them on their own to create a pass based on what was established, and then came back to make adjustments over a few more sessions. Generally each director tried to involve their cinematographer in the process, as their schedules permitted. The colorist’s time allotted for these indies was about 1-2 weeks, and cost generally between $10-20,000 (although some deals were made here and there).
“Work with someone you trust!” said Decker. “Not worth it to have the final moments with your film be with someone who is trying to plop it out. You can find people to do your color for good and cheap, but they need time. And you can find people to do it good and fast, but they need money. So seek out someone early, get them on board with your vision and really make the color process a priority and as important as other parts of your world.”
Williams said even now he’s “always learning…especially in the color correction process. It’s so challenging to make a scene look the way you want it to look. It’s hard to make it look well-balanced and still accentuate the colors you want to accentuate. I rely very much on my cinematographer and colorist’s input. I always want it to be a collaboration, in which we all bring our experience to the table to find the right look and feel for the film.”
All three of the directors said they love the color correction process, sitting with someone and working together to put the final touches on their film. “Getting to see the movie on a huge screen in a dark room for the first time was a pretty epic feeling,” said Smith. “And then slowly exhaling clouds of watermelon smoke from your vape pipe like a fucking caterpillar while saying things like ‘Let’s be careful with how we introduce our reds.'”
Josephine Decker’s “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is currently available on iTunes, Fandor, Amazon and Vimeo-on-Demand. Ryan Piers Williams’ “X/Y” is currently on VOD and can be viewed on iTunes. News of the release of Sarah Adina Smith’s “The Midnight Swim” will be announced shortly.
J. Rick Castañeda is a writer/director and co-founder of Psychic Bunny, a production and post house in downtown LA. His feature film “Cement Suitcase” can be seen on iTunes, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
READ MORE: Watch: Before and After Color Correction