The sixth and final Emmy award winning series of The Americans, a period spy thriller set in the 1980s during the Cold War, was recently finished in high dynamic range and 4K Ultra HD at Technicolor PostWorks in New York. Since series two, the look of the finished series has been the responsibility of John Crowley, senior digital colorist, working on the Baselight color grading system from FilmLight.
As far back as series two in 2014, when director-producer Dan Sackheim joined The Americans, the goal was to create a more cinematic look. The filmmakers also faced the challenge of hitting the right balance between the look of television in the ‘80s and the modern, glossy look that audiences expect today which, for series six, included 4K Ultra HD and HDR. And all of this had to be achieved on a cable television budget and timescale.
David Woods and Crystal Whelan served as producers of the show, which is produced by Fox 21 Television Studios and FX Productions for the FX Network.
“It’s always been a challenge to realize the ambition of the storytelling and the worlds these characters inhabit on a basic cable budget,” said Woods. “And it seems that every season we were increasing the number of visual effects shots. As well as the ambition of the story, we were doing our best, too, to make 2018 New York look like 1987 Washington and Moscow.”
When making a show set 35 years ago in Washington and Moscow, but shooting on locations in New York City, one of the challenges was to hide the things that would give the setting away. That becomes doubly important in HDR and 4K where the increased resolution and detail make it harder to disguise details, so one of Crowley’s jobs was to use the sophisticated tracking tools in FilmLight’s Baselight to mask and hide objects and flaws.
Each episode was finished in HD and SDR, with Crowley grading on a locked edit. He regularly published updated decision lists in the FilmLight BLG metadata format, allowing the editor and sound supervisor to access the latest grades via Baselight for Avid, the Baselight plugin for Avid Media Composer.
“The Avid to Baselight workflow gave us the flexibility to bring final color and visual effects into the edit room earlier than we had ever done before,” Crowley explained. “We were able to evaluate key sequences where we were pushing some visual boundaries, and could provide the final color-timed picture to the mix stage straight from the edit room, which saved us valuable creative time.”
Once the SDR pass was completed, Crowley then created an HDR version.
“There was a strong desire to maintain the look we’ve already honed over five seasons across HD and UHD, SDR and HDR,” said Woods. “I had concerns going into the season but in the end, it was remarkable how quickly and seemingly effortlessly John Crowley brought the look from SDR into HDR. Baselight is the best tool I’ve seen at converting between the two.”
“The process was extremely efficient,” added Crowley, “and made the entire workflow move along without a hitch.”
“To be part of a show such as this is an extreme privilege,” he concluded. “The eye-catching photography, the highly accurate set design, the terrific acting and the captivating scripts demanded that I was on top of my game for every episode. I feel very fortunate to have played a role in the show’s success.”
The final series of The Americans won the Emmy Award for lead actor in a drama series, which went to Matthew Rhys, as well as an Emmy Award for outstanding writing in a drama series to the series co-creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg.