Continuity the Key to Color Grading

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Tue, 04/14/2020 - 11:11 -- Nick Dager

The City of Lost Children is one of the first movies color timed by Yvan Lucas.Yvan Lucas is a veteran digital intermediate colorist with a unique international story. His career spans over 30 years, has involved working in 10 different labs, and has included creative collaborations with a long list of iconic cinematographers such as Robert Richardson, Darius Khondji and Rodrigo Prieto. Lucas credits the work he did with Khondji and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet – especially on the films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children – for launching his international career and leading him to Los Angeles. He also credits his experience working in film. In his view, whether the project is in film or digital, continuity is the key to color grading and perfect continuity is what makes a good colorist. Digital Cinema Report recently spoke with Lucas about his long and successful career.

Digital Cinema Report: How did you start in color?

Yvan Lucas: I initially studied electronics, but soon realized it was not my path. When I was eighteen I was looking for a summer job. I had the idea of working as a projectionist, so I contacted theatres around my hometown in France. I received several positive answers and picked our local theatre, Le Rex, which was closest to my house. I ended up staying there for a year and I went from being someone who liked movies to a true cinephile. At the time, the American movies we projected were iconic films such as The Shining, The Elephant Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ordinary People, Kramer vs Kramer. This gave me the ambition to become more involved in the movie business somehow, somewhere.

I decided to move towards editing. I called CNC [Centre National du Cinéma, an agency of the French Ministry of Culture] to ask for their advice. They said I could start to learn editing by doing an internship in a lab. At the time, because film was predominant, this was the way you learned the craft. And that is how I ended up at Laboratoires Éclair, after being interviewed by Olivier Chiavassa, head of production. I was really motivated. I even lied about owning a car and about being fluent in English. Luckily he took me on board! I started there as an intern in 1983.

DCR: So you became a color timer.

Colorist Yvan LucasYL: While today there are colorists all over the world, at the time this was not a profession people knew much about. As a color timer, I was working exclusively on prints; this is how the dailies and final grading were done.

My mentors were Olivier Chiavassa and Pierre Reali, the best French color timer of the day. With Pierre I learned color timing, and with Olivier I learned how to discuss with directors and DPs what they wanted, because color timing is a technique that everybody can learn, but the most important thing is to understand and interpret the artistic thoughts of the director and cinematographer into color.

DCR: Is this when you met Darius Khondji?

YL: Everything started with Darius. I met him back in 1986 when he was a camera assist and we started collaborating on short films together. We would work on special processes such as bleach bypass or ENR, which is how we did Delicatessen and The City of the Lost Children.

[Editor’s Note: ENR is a propietary Technicolor process originally developed for Vittorio Storaro in Technicolor Rome by three employees with the initials E, N & R. It is one of the many bleach retention processes. After the bleach bath in the post process, the film is passed through a black and white developer, which reconverts the bleached silver ions to silver, which is not removed in the fixer. The result is a very contrasty and desaturated image.]

After a while, [Darius] asked me to come to LA and work with him – he was shooting Seven for David Fincher at the time. And that is how I decided to become a freelancer, which was not an easy choice as each laboratory over the world usually had its own resident color timer. At first, I spent a week on set in downtown LA; I met David Fincher there for the first time. I was really young and very much impressed. Six months later, I started to color the movie at Deluxe Lab. After gaining valuable experience on such a classic film, I managed to work independently for over fifteen years.

Lucas color timed David Fincher's film Seven at Deluxe Lab in Los Angeles.DCR: How do movies come to you?

YL: The DPs or the directors often contact me directly.  In 2005, I remember someone calling me, asking to speak to the color timer of The City of The Lost Children. He knew my work with Darius, loved it, and asked me to do the dailies for Steven Spielberg’s new project. It was Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer, and the movie was Munich.

DCR: Tell us about working with the French director Luc Besson.

YL: Luc Besson was only 29 years old when he directed The Big Blue. He came to Éclair to see the print that had been done by the senior color timer and approved by the DP (I was still an intern at the time). In the room, as they started the movie – and I still remember this vividly – Luc Besson asked around, “Remind me of the title of my movie.” Ironically, the water shot on the screen was green, cyan. After this, the DP and the color timer had to stop working on it. Luc asked Olivier Chiavassa and I to work all night to get a print that was much more blue, so that Besson could go to Cannes Festival a couple of days later. This is how I met Luc Besson and then became his color timer.

DCR: How did you start working with Bob Richardson?

YL: I met Bob in Paris. We had breakfast and discussed the making of The Double, directed by Roman Polanski. He thought I was young and maybe not as experienced as the color timers he was used to working with in the US, so he decided to test me. He shot random shots in Paris: macros of flowers, statues, windows etc. I made two prints, the first on regular print stock and the second with an ENR process. The movie never happened but Bob watched the test and loved it. He asked if I would be interested to work for him in Hollywood. At that time I was not ready to move to Los Angeles but I did a few films with him, like The Horse Whisperer and The Four Feathers.

DCR: When did you move to digital grading?

His first experience using digital tools was on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in 2001.YL: My first experience using digital tools was on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in 2001. It was the very start of the digital intermediate era; 3D lookup tables (LUTs), for instance, did not exist yet. I didn’t know video grading at the time so Jean-Pierre suggested that I work with Didier Le Fouest, a video timer who specialized in commercials. He was using the Pandora Pogle color corrector. Due to the lack of lookup tables that would typically be used to match digital to print, I would have to predict the color of the film by relying on my color timing skills and memory. At that time nobody really knew how complex the process was, and Didier and I formed a strong team.

We invested in a Colossus [which became Autodesk Lustre]. Eventually we were able to grade movies in a log mode, and this is how I did Jean-Pierre’s A Very Long Engagement (for which Bruno Delbonnel won the ASC best cinematography award), and Alexander for Oliver Stone, with DP Rodrigo Prieto. Rodrigo then brought me in to grade Babel at Laser Pacific in Los Angeles. By then I had so many opportunities to work in the US that I decided to reside in LA permanently and work at Efilm.

DCR: How did you eventually get into Baselight?

YL: My first movie on Baselight was To the Wonder, directed by Terrence Malick, with cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. I almost looked like a junior because my hands were not familiar with the system yet. Baselight was a re-discovery and I came to realize how great the system was, and just how powerful it could be.

DCR: Is there a tool that you prefer?

YL: I enjoy using Base Grade, especially to touch highlights or if I have to do something in the shadows. It was instrumental on The Irishman as I just don’t have to use as many windows or keyers. Base Grade is particularly key for HDR theatrical releases, and I’ve also come to use the Boost Color and Boost Contrast tools more and more. Base Grade, in particular, has really revolutionized the way colorists grade as it works the same way in every working color space. I’m not sure that everybody has yet realized its potential and its power. FilmLight is probably one of the companies that follow and help their clients the most, and they have a very important support system. They don’t abandon their clients once the system has been bought. Baselight is my Rolls Royce.

His first movie on Baselight was To the Wonder, directed by Terrence Malick, with cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.DCR: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is your third movie with the director. What is it like to work with him?

YL: Working with Scorsese, Rodrigo [Prieto], and Thelma [Schoonmaker], it’s very relaxed. We ate a lot of popcorn. More seriously, with Scorsese, coloring becomes a tool to serve the narrative, guiding the eyes of the viewer.

DCR: How was the look developed by the filmmaker and the director?

YL: Rodrigo and Martin wanted LUTs for the early and late ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s to help the cut. Color scientist Matt Tomlinson and I developed LUTs based on Ektachrome, Kodachrome and bleach.

Élodie Ichter, who has worked with me since 2008, had handled all the dailies already with these LUTs at Harbor New York while they were shooting. She used FilmLight’s dailies platform, Daylight, and that gave me the foundation for the final grade.

DCR: If there was one movie that you wish you could have graded, which one would that be?

YL: Dracula. I just love this movie and I always dreamed to work with Francis Ford Coppola. Talking about dreams. I’d love one day to work with Christopher Nolan too.

DCR: What would you say to someone who wants to start in color?

YL: I was lucky because I learned in a photochemical lab. When you are making color on the print, you don’t see what you are doing directly. This is why and how I’ve acquired my color memory. If I see a shot in a movie that I am color timing, then see the same scene 20 minutes later I know exactly what to do without even looking.

Think about continuity as the basis of color grading. Perfect continuity is what makes a good colorist. For example, Tarantino’s The Hateful 8 is one single scene from the beginning to the end. It’s all shot on 70mm film; 80 percent from a four-month location shoot in a cabin in Colorado; the pickups on a sound stage in Hollywood. You have to match everything together – that’s the most difficult thing to do.

Then comes your personal touch and talent –they differentiate you. So watch movies, go to painting and photography exhibitions. Listen to what the director and the cinematographer are asking for, and imagine how to translate those feelings to the screen.