Moonlighting with (Colorist) Alex Bickel
Alex Bickel is our go-to master colorist. (If you’ve seen the film “Moonlight,” you’re already familiar with his work.) We sat down with Alex to get an insider’s perspective on the art of color correction, the unsung hero of film and video production.
Has film always been color corrected?
There’s always been color correction, but before digital color grading, filmmakers used a photochemical process called “color timing”. DPs would work with the lab to choose the color balance and density of the shot as a complete image. Color grading today is much more precise and the toolset is much deeper, allowing manipulation of specific regions of an image, or isolating specific colors.
When did directors start color-correcting film?
The Coen Brothers’ film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was one of the first movies to do full-on DI [digital intermediate color correction]. That movie was heavily manipulated using color correction to desaturate and enhance color. It was a very strong example of what the tool set could do, even in its infancy. As one of the earliest examples of full-on DI, it was kind of shocking to people. That was the first instance when it started to be used for cinema.
Was it already in use elsewhere?
Advertising was doing it already with a tool called the Telecine. You’d shoot your commercial on film, then take the film to a post-production house and put it up on a device called the Spirit, like a little video camera filming the actual film negative and turning it into video that could be manipulated electronically.
Black and white movies probably didn't need color correction, did they?
They’d still be photochemically timed (color “timing” and “color-correcting” refer to the same post process, in modern nomenclature. The “timing” is a term left over from photochemical color process with the negative was exposed to red, green and blue lights for different lengths of time. Varying the length of each color exposure was how color grade was manipulated.) Certainly you’d need to balance shot to shot, because not every shot is perfectly exposed to match one another in terms of continuity. Contrast and density are just as important as warm and cool.
How did you become a colorist?
I was always interested in the visual side of filmmaking. When I got to New York, I got swept up in post-production and advertising. I love variety, bouncing around between long-form feature-film work and advertising. Working at big corporate entities, I didn't have the freedom to move between all the different realms I do now with my own studio. Any given week, I’ll work on an independent feature film, a commercial for a car, and some kind of art project, all in one five-day stretch. I find that kind of variety very rewarding. That's what we try to foster here for all of our artists.
I can see how switching between different kinds of project keeps it fresh, but are the aims different?
Oh yeah! Totally different. I think coloring a feature film is a different type of challenge artistically than commercial work. For one thing, in an average feature film, we might spend 80 hours in the DI for a 2 hour feature film. On a commercial, we might spend 5 hours on 60 seconds. In commercials, there is time to get really detailed in your decision making and push the image further.
Do you think there’s a particular palette that’s unique to movies or commercials?
I don't think so. Maybe there's a textural difference. We tend to add some sort of textural element to feature films by inserting some organic film grain to make the image breathe and feel a little bit more alive, especially when it's projected. On advertising, more often than not, I would say we're asked to be a little bit cleaner. We don't add grain to it, and we tend to be a little bit more polished in our work. Not always. One of the great collaborations we did with Chandelier was for Old Navy. Each round of the campaign emulated a different genre of feature film, so the color went along with that. There was the action caper where the contrast was really high and exaggerated, or the comedy where it was more subdued and desaturated. That was a fun year-long experiment, matching the color to the genre of film they were mimicking in their ads.
What makes color correction so important today?
Often times, independent films may only have a one to five-million-dollar budget, but they are still competing at the box office with much larger films. Great cinematography is crucial, but great color correction is equally as important. Bad color grading can make good cinematography look cheap. Good color correction can make bad cinematography look expensive. Everyone's dream is of course, good cinematography and good color correction for maximum impact.
“Good color correction can make bad cinematography look expensive.”
And in advertising? Where do you see it having an impact?
With so much content flooding every possible channel, the visuals are often a spot’s best opportunity to grab people’s attention and draw them in to your story. If an image doesn’t grab you, people just tune out and ignore the message.
Are there other ways color correction can influence viewers?
Of course. The challenge is always, what do we want the viewer to feel, and why? How can manipulating the visuals help them feel that? If it's a comedy spot, often times the color takes second fiddle to the jokes. We want something that's kind of naturalistic and a little bit softer, so the jokes to take the forefront. Certainly in movies the visuals need to step forward. We have a film out right now called, Moonlight. It's a heartbreaking movie, and an intense emotional journey for this character. The visuals needed to match that intensity. It's an example of where we really went quite strong on the grade in order to draw people into the dramatic evolution of the character.
How do directors translate their ideas in terms of color?
Here’s a funny story: many years ago, when I was just starting out, I was given a job with a bunch of interview footage. The characters were standing in front of a white wall. They all had on charcoal suits and white shirts, and the client came in and said the reference for color was Moulin Rouge. It was absurd! You can't make Moulin Rouge out of a white wall and black suits! Moulin Rouge is colorful because every inch of that frame is bursting with color. So it really starts with designing a palette on set, with art direction and costumes. It’s a conversation that should start during pre-production. You need to be pulling images and references, and talking with your various department heads, to make sure you're crafting a negative that gives us a good starting place. Our job in post-production is to tease that out and enhance it.
“If a movie is good, I'm not thinking about color.”
Would you say there are any trends or schools in color correction?
In the ’90s when Telecine was really taking off, I would say everything was very punchy, very high contrast, clipped whites, heavy blacks, and very rich saturation. Then in the 2000s, especially once the Alexa (Alexa is a camera, made by ARRI and is the most widely used digital film camera in modern cinematography) came out, things got very flat, low contrast, and desaturated. We’ve gone from two polar opposites to a healthy middle, at least in my own work.
As someone obsessed with color on film, do you think about all the tricks and flaws every time you see a commercial or a movie?
I'm still a fan of movies first. When I was a kid I saw Jurassic Park in theaters 13 times because I was just in love and in awe of what it's like to be transported to this world. If a movie is good, I'm not thinking about color. If a story is bad, if the characters aren't drawing me in, then I start to pick it apart. By and large I'm still going into the movie theater to be swept away. Thankfully, at least, I haven't got to the point where I only see work.
Words by The Editors.