How important is it to connect the narrative of a story to the color of the film? Colorist Arianna Shining Star Pane explained us how her background in psychology helped her answer this question. For future colorists, she explains the importance of self-marketing and gives an insight on how she managed to change the color grading workflow at Netflix with the film Ibiza.
How did you find your passion as a colorist after you graduated in psychology?
Most people who aren’t in the film industry have no idea that color grading even exists, which is why most colorists come from another part of the industry. I have had a unique path learning about color grading because I was studying criminal psychology and planning on pursuing my PhD in neuroscience when I first learned what color grading was. A friend of mine was interning at a post-production facility and happened to shadow a colorist one day. She explained color grading to me and although I still really had no idea what it was, it peaked my interest and I knew I had to learn more. I shadowed a color session and immediately fell in love with how it is the perfect blend of art, science and storytelling. I was studying at USC so from there, I picked up a film minor and started coloring and never looked back.
Did you have a certain plan you came up with to fulfill the desire of color grading? What did the plan look like?
A good friend of mine once told me: “Planning is everything. The plan is nothing.” I try to remember that throughout my life. You can plan all you want, as long as you are also open to changing the plan. I’m generally a big planner in life, but the more time goes by the more I learn that you need keep your plan flexible and be comfortable adjusting to unexpected twists and turns. This helped me a lot when I was going from psychology to coloring. Everyone has a different path so there’s no real “plan” that you can stick to. I think that’s true for most careers, not just in film. Just believe in yourself and put one foot in front of the other.
At that time, did you have external or internal struggles when starting off a career as a colorist?
When you first start out, nobody knows that you are a colorist (or a DP, Director or any role for that matter), so you have to try and market yourself without having done much work. When I started color grading, I told all of my Director and DP friends from film school that I wanted to color their films, and before I knew it, I found myself busy grading their films from class as well as their passion projects. I kind of had a motto of saying yes to anything I could get my hands on mostly because I just loved coloring, but I also knew that I’d get better with more practice. From there, word spreads fast.
How do you connect the narrative to the color choices – Is there a ‘universal dictionary’ of meanings to color choices to show your mood and emotions or do you have your own dictionary?
Coloring narrative projects such as feature films means you get to think of how the color can elevate the storytelling. Every aspect of filmmaking leads back to the story and how you want subconsciously impact how the viewer feels. Color grading has the power to do this with incredible subtlety. With color, we start the process by talking about how we want the viewer to feel in each of the scenes, in the movie as a whole, etc. We’re not just making pretty pictures, but we’re thinking critically about what the characters motivations are in each scene, and how we can use color to subconsciously drive the narrative and steer the emotions of the viewer.
What makes a scene challenging to color grade? Has there been a scene that was challenging for you?
I’m a big fan of doing as much practically as possible. So, the closer you can get to the image you are looking for on set, the more you are able to elevate it in color. I think it’s great that in color you can fix a lot of things, but not everything. So, I think the most challenging job is when the image doesn’t look anything like the look they were going for. It’s challenging when people come into the room looking at the footage, trying to take the color from where it is to a whole different place aesthetically. I do transform a lot of projects but there is a point where you’re limited as to how much you are able to completely change an image. I always want the color to elevate the photography instead of fighting the photography.
Did you ever feel creatively drained? What did you do to go back?
Creatively drained but in a positive way for sure. There is one director that I work with that sometimes asks to see something that no one has seen before. It’s definitely a challenge to consistently look at each shot and ask yourself how you can make it even weirder or stranger or more unique. Although creatively it is draining, it’s also a really fun challenge because it pushes me to think outside of the box and be inventive.
Could you walk me through the process of your favorite creative projects?
With the Netflix film Ibiza, our plan from the start was to do something different with comedy. From the start, the director Alex Richanbach and the cinematographer Danny Modor and I sought out to break out of the traditional comedy color grade of keeping things balanced and clean and saturated. Instead, we chose to color outside the lines, make the color and their environment become essentially its own character in the story that reflected the characters feelings throughout the narrative. Another project that comes to mind is Rihanna/DJ Khaled’s Wild Thoughts music video. The director, Colin Tilley, is super talented and a terrific collaborator. He surrounds himself with a talented team that he really trusts, allows each person to contribute their craft and is genuinely interested in the creative insights each person offers. He trusted my creativity and that afforded me the freedom I needed to do something unique. He also embraces the opportunity to take risks and that enabled us to push and pull the footage in a really interesting way and really color outside the lines and give the video a bold grade.
Arianna Shining Star Pane Every aspect of filmmaking leads back to the story and how you want subconsciously impact how the viewer feels. Color grading has the power to do this with incredible subtlety.
The creative industry is developing in quite a fast pace with many technological innovations. How do you keep developing yourself?
I think with the technology constantly changing, I’m inspired to keep learning. For example, with Ibiza, we colored that in HDR and completely changed the feature film workflow in a way that had never been done before. After piloting that workflow, Netflix made it the standard for all of their films. I think it’s important to regularly rethink the way things are done and challenge ourselves to come up with a better way.
Could you give an advice to other creatives who wonder which basic color grading principles to take on?
I’m still very close to my art teacher from high school. She recently asked me if there were any principles that she taught in her art classes that I use when coloring. At first, I thought: “No not really”, but then I realized that there are principles about image making that she taught me when I learned to paint. I use these all the time when coloring. Concepts like maintaining color contrast, or that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the brightest point in the frame, are principles which help to create an interesting and dynamic image. That said, it’s not enough to just have a beautiful image. There’s a lot of ways to make each image beautiful, but not as many ways to make it beautiful and elevate the narrative.