DP Michael Balfry, csc, and Colorist/DIT Lorne Miess check out a shot on-set of “The Haunting Hour”.
R.L. Stine's “The Haunting Hour” is a Canadian/American original anthology horror-fantasy series for The Hub Network. As you can imagine, the look and feel of the show is a special consideration for DP Michael Balfry, csc, and the workflow he and Colorist/DIT Lorne Miess have established allows them to efficiently and effectively create something unique for this award-winning series.
The series began filming in the Vancouver area last month and Lorne chose the SCRATCH set of tools for their flexibility and speed during camera prep. Seeing as how the show has a number of different and interesting looks, he knew he'd need to use specialized tools to bring this to light. Using SCRATCH Lab on a Microsoft Surface, Lorne can show Michael a few different grades for a scene before he commits to them, which allows them to explore what’s going to work best without burning through a whole day of production.
In his 30 years as a Colorist, Lorne’s seen what used to be an entire room of gear now condensed in a small on-set package. We discussed how those changes have affected his career, what it’s like working with Michael and how professionals everywhere can improve their on-set and post-production workflow.
Tell us a little bit about your career. How has it evolved with the changes in tools and technologies?
I’ve been a Colorist for 30 years. That’s a long time, but I like to think of my career more in terms of being reinvented every five years because the technology changes so quickly. You end up having a series of mini-careers as the jobs evolve with the technology.
About five years ago I started to get into the on-set coloring, digital imaging technician career and it’s been really great to be able to bring my skills as a colorist to the set after having previously spent so much time in post. The DPs really like having a Colorist on-set so they can actually know if they need to fine tune a shot on-set or in post. And that's a difference that can save a lot of money. Having that kind of “post-knowledge” at their disposal has been a great tool for them and an amazing new way to work for me. When a DP has a thought along the lines of, “I think I can do this in the grading suite”, I can jump in to let them know whether or not we’ll be able to pull off what they have in their head. And of course, that makes things better for the production and for post.
With the demise of film I’ve moved forward into the digital field, and a lot of it is about climbing up the hill in this field. And I’m focused on that hill in 2014.
What's the biggest difference in the tools you're using now compared to the ones you used when you started your career?
As a Colorist, basically you’re painting an image, and what you see on the screen and what you interpret on the screen and what you want to be on the screen all need to be the same. That’s the case now, and it’s been the case since I started grading. But the way we go about that has changed considerably.
When I started out, grading systems were analogue hardware based, extremely expensive and were always connected to a telecine. Now that film has faded into the sunset, I have a DaVinci in the back of my grading van. Some days I’m just amazed that those systems took up five racks. The advances have certainly miniaturized things and really allow us to be much more flexible. These developments have allowed me to work either in the van or right on set with the DP.
They've also allowed me to work on smaller films when it gets slow, as I use this customized van to do color-grading. It keeps me involved with the community and gives me the opportunity to work on some really interesting projects, and I simply wouldn’t have been able to do stuff like that in the past.
You're currently working on R.L. Stine's “The Haunting Hour” for The Hub Network. What can you tell us about the project?
I’m so honored to be working on this project with DP Michael Balfry, csc. The show is in its fourth season, and the crew they’ve put together for it is top-notch. Michael is a wonderfully creative person to work with, and his eye for detail is incredible. His work on the project had garnered 17 daytime Emmy nominations and it’s just a pleasure to be working on the show.
The show is a horror-teen thriller TV series that features a different cast for every episode. Aliens, ghosts and witches all make appearances throughout but it’s considerably darker than a lot of the other material you might be familiar with from R.L. Stine.
The tone and feel of a show like this is what’s important to establish, especially with a cast that isn’t consistent and subject matter that could be interpreted in a much different way if you’re not careful, so we’re always focused on making sure we’re staying true to the vision.
What's it like working with DP Michael Balfry, csc?
I met Michael when I was grading at Insight Studios, so I got to know him after working on his finished films. To be invited out on-set and work in this environment with him is a very different experience.
When you’re grading a finished film, you’re watching it from a much different perspective because of course the piece has already been shot and assembled for the most part. But it brings up questions. You wonder, “Why did they do it this way?” or “Why isn’t there a light here?” and “Why didn't they put a flag in the shot?” — just to mention a few. When you’re on the other side of that process you see how a DP thinks and constructs his day. You see where he puts the lights and what’s he’s trying to achieve visually. It was certainly an eye-opener to see how people do that, and made me realize those questions that would be in my head when I was grading something had usually been asked and answered by the DP long before I got my hands on footage.
When you’re grading a film you visit with the DP at the beginning and a couple hours at the end when you do a final trim pass, and that’s where you can ask a few questions. It’s somewhat relaxed, and you can really drill into the details. But when you’re out on-set the clock is always ticking with 60-70 people looking for direction and you need to keep things moving. The details are part of that, but the priority is to make this thing happen. When you watch Michael work you can see the wheels are in motion to get the image that he wants, and he knows he needs to get countless things done while being under a huge amount of pressure, so it’s impressive.
Again though, it’s not like you can just push through with everything and not focus on the details. I, of course, can’t speak about being a cinematographer, but there are so many mechanics that have to go into lighting a scene from a dark room into a fully lit scene to make it look believable. Then there’s the placement of the cameras and the lenses that you need to choose to make that happen and get the right look. I have a new appreciation as a Colorist for the amount of work that a DP does on a daily basis.
And this is all on a condensed timeline too. This show shoots for 50 hours a week for a half hour episode. Most of the other shows I work on are 60-65 for a one hour show. In order to grind through a series at this speed it’s all hands on deck, and there’s no way we could pull it off without him.
How has SCRATCH Lab on a Surface Pro tablet affected your workflow?
It’s sped up the workflow quite a bit. What will happen is that when we need to figure out how we’re going to make a shot happen I can load an image from the set onto the Surface, and then create four or five different grades for the master shot. Michael can look through them and make an informed decision around what's going to work best for his vision. Once you pick the grade you export a CDL from the Surface to the van's system and match the rest of the shots in the sequence, whereas before that you used to go and grade the shots and then take them back to set on a tablet. If you didn’t like them, then it’s back to the van to try something else and SCRATCH has obviously completely changed that process.
When I was using other tablets, they were just still images on a non-calibrated screen. Using the Surface you can calibrate the display using Spectracal's Calman Software, and I can bring either a clip to set or a series of stills and I can leave the Surface on-set while I take what I need via the USB stick. Then Michael can review the footage all day long and I don’t need to take it back to the van to reload it with new footage.
What sort of opportunities are you able to take advantage of with the ability to instantly show your DP a few different looks before you have to commit to any of them?
When I used to work in film, you were totally aware that the executives at the network judged the DP’s ability to do their work based on the dailies. If the dailies didn’t look good chances are the DP or Colorist was going to be replaced. There’s always pressure to get dailies done quickly and make them look great, and that can be tough to balance.
Now, having these tools on-set tightens up the entire process. We can deliver best light, very good quality dailies to the production office and they can send them out from there. A lot of productions these days are leaving their images raw or they will have a data manager on-set but that person won’t have the color background. Michael has told me he wants good quality dailies and that’s what he gets with this tablet and two SCRATCH systems.
It allows us to ensure that everyone is able to see the work and the show itself in the best way possible.
How have these tools affected post-production?
When I was working in film, what happened was that we would start with best light dailies. The grade was burned into the images with the DaVinci and it was recorded to tape. As the Colorist you basically interpreted what the DP wanted. Now that we’ve gone to the digital files that are raw, you can change that grade anywhere in the pipeline.
That makes DPs nervous because the second they release the digital file, if it doesn’t have a look file to show people down the pipeline what their intentions are, it can either be changed or misinterpreted or not used at all, and the DP has lost control of their images. The DP is hired because they have a certain vision for the project and if the color part of the story doesn’t go with what the audience is seeing then they’re not getting the total package. Or at least not the one that was intended.
So that’s what we try and do with SCRATCH and the calibrated monitors. We send that digital raw file with the look files down the production line and the editors and director who are looking at these images can easily become acclimatized to the DP’s intentions of how the show will look. Once it gets to the finishing Colorist they’ll remove my look files because they’ll bring their secret sauce for how they interpret the offline image intentions that we’re sending and they’ll recreate that look in a controlled environment up on the big screen and do the final finishing.
This process tightens things up and brings it back to the days of doing best light dailies in film. What post sees are the intentions that come from set, and that eliminates guesswork, confusion, miscommunication and anything else that can get in the way.
With your experience in post you’ve obviously got a great perspective around what goes on in production, so what’s an issue that you see over an over in the on-set environment?
I taught color theory at the Art Institute of Vancouver for seven years and I’ve done a lot of research into display calibration and color science, and that was the one thing I wanted to tighten up on-set. I wanted to make sure all of the displays were calibrated, and that even included the Surface that SCRATCH runs on.
A recent article about tablets used in production didn’t even mention color calibration on them once. As far as I know you can’t calibrate an iPad properly. You can built a LUT for them which makes them more complicated to use on-set, but the Surface is a totally calibrated tool which makes it that much more essential. I’ve gone through and done a full calibration of all the displays on our set. So the monitors at the village have been calibrated and are checked on a regular basis. The monitors in my grading van have been balanced as well both the OLED that I’m watching and my GUI monitor.
If you’re using monitors that haven’t been color calibrated or that calibration isn’t maintained, you’re going to run into issues at almost every turn. It’s something that most productions don’t consider, but I can assure you that it’s not something you can ignore.
What's one way on-set professionals can improve their workflow for the benefit of the entire production?
As an on-set colorist or DIT I’m the eyes and ears of post on-set. When the director yells “action” it’s all eyes on the monitors and watching all that footage, and then again when you download it all to make sure there are no anomalies on the digital files. Those anomalies could be anything from a light flicker to a stuck pixel to a weird light that gives off an odd color balance. Being able to focus on those details and stop issues before they turn into problems is of critical importance.
Lorne is constantly thinking of the future and it’s technologies. In late 2009 he attended Reducation in Los Angles to upgrade his skills with the Red camera. His focus is to offer dailes, colour correction and transcoding services to the independent film community specializing in but not exclusive to the Red workflow. With his networking connection he has cutting edge technologies and workflows. Learn more about him at his website, http://www.lornemiess.com
Michael Balfry, an Emmy and American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Award nominee and Canadian Society of Cinematographers (CSC) Award recipient, brings over 25 years of experience to the motion picture & television industry. Michael's international experience has seen him travel throughout North America, Europe and Asia capturing images with stunning results. Learn more about him at his website, http://www.michaelbalfry.com/