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.
Do you remember the first time you realized the power and magic of lighting?
During my high school period, I started making skate videos, and quickly realized I wanted to get into filmmaking. I took all the TV and film courses my high school offered, to the point where in my senior year I even created my own class about cinematography. I started reading all the textbooks my teacher gave me and quickly realized most off cinematography centered around lighting.
Going into Emerson College I was certain I wanted to be either a cinematographer or editor, as those were essentially the only two things I was doing while making skate videos. The first semester I edited a music video, and hated the process of being stuck alone in a room, so cinematography became my second step. After years of thinking I wanted to be a cinematographer, I felt myself gravitate toward lighting design and working as a gaffer.
What was that gravitational pull towards lighting design?
During the time that I had several small jobs as a cinematographer, I realized I didn’t like dealing with the camera as much as I enjoyed focusing on the lighting. During this time, EDM also started becoming a more popular genre of music, and attending those shows got me hooked on the amazing lighting design. After diving into the world of EDM for a minute, I quickly realized it wasn’t for me – I can barely stay up past 9 pm. So now I’m just starting to carve out this niche of lighting design for commercial, movies and TV – especially focusing on lighting that goes in coordination with the music.
In videos like Aloe Blacc - Love Is The Answer, lighting becomes key in reflecting the emotion of the character. What’s the biggest difficulty in creating multiple atmospheres in one video?
Whilst sometimes it simply means adding more lights, it also means trying to design rigs that allow lights to change from one look to another instead of having one light do one specific thing. For a movie I did last year, we constructed 360 degrees of truss above the heads of the dancer, as we just weren’t sure what the choreography was going to be. Having a centering truss, I can do pretty much anything, and change the look from a day to a night scene with the push of a button.
Is there a specific space you escape to or a specific thing you do which fuels your inspirations? Some creatives talk about the 50/50 rule when taking on projects. Execute 50% of your plan within your comfort zone and include 50% of challenge. How do you keep your work as challenging as possible?
I think with every job I’m always trying something new. Back in 2010, when I first started doing low-budget music videos, the lighting technology was just starting to change. I would always experiment. Whether it was getting different lights, a different media server or just lighting the whole music video with a projector, there was always something new. If I messed up, there was always the leniency to come up with another idea. During that time, I would say it was closer to 90% experimenting and 10% comfort zone. As the jobs get bigger and bigger, the freedom to experiment decreases, as there’s simply less room for failure – the ideas just need to work.
Still in every job I try to do something new. For example, a Disney music video we did in 2010 was based on lighting the whole video with a projector. Since then, I’ve built more and more projects on using projectors as lighting sources, to the point where I’ve done big jobs where we were using video projectors as the light source. The small projects where you’re allowed to challenge yourself with the tools and materials you use kind of work as important experimental basis for the bigger projects.
In a video like, ‘This is America’, what’s your process on controlling natural and artificial light?
Most credits here go to Larkin Seiple, the cinematographer, and Hiro Murai, the director. I’ve been working with them for years now – tracing back to our first music video together in 2011. The two of them really understand cinematography. Larkin and Hiro placed each shot so that it compliments the angle, in correlation to where the sun was for the time of day we were shooting. The schedule was all based around the time of day. For that specific shoot, there was no real controlling of the sun in terms of grip or lighting equipment. It was all about placing the talent in a position that looked good on camera, at the right angle, placed at a certain position for where the sun would be at a specific time in the day. It simply was just perfect planning, perfect shot placement and very, very little lighting.
You have an impressive resume from doing high-profile music videos to ads for big companies. What’s the next step for you?
I’ve have been working more as a lighting designer for jobs that require my specific style of lighting. I did a musical movie in 2017, directed by SIA with Maddie Ziegler and Kate Hudson. I really enjoy the role of working as a lighting designer, working closely with the choreography team. The lighting was very heightened and really expressed the mental state of the characters and the choreography. During my preparation, I constantly visited the choreography rehearsals and filmed them. I then broke down each song in excel to see at what time a dancer would be in a certain position – looking specifically at where I wanted the light to hit them. This year also involved working as the LD for the Transparent Musical, coming in September 2019. This had several dance numbers that I designed the lighting and LED screens. Then I did a movie called Covers, where I did the concert scenes. That comes out in 2020.
Matt ArdineAs the jobs get bigger and bigger, the freedom to experiment decreases, as there’s simply less room for failure – the ideas need to work.
Finally, could you pass some rare gems that you feel would help other lighting designers improve their workflow or skills?
I think when it comes to lighting, a lot of people don’t understand the power and benefit of using drafting software. I use VectorWorks to sketch up the whole set. It’s not only a way for me to communicate to my crew where all the lighting should go, but it’s also a way for me to work out specific challenges. For example, it allows me to know if I’m placing a light in a specific position, lets say 13 feet up in the air, there will be a 45 degree-angle hitting the subject. Drafting software does this whole process for you. I can build the whole set in the 3D drafting software and make sure all the angles will work out. I can rework it several times to come up with the best idea. During your load-in it will make the process of setting up much smoother. Gaffers in filmmaking barely ever use 3D drafting, rather they rely on someone else to do the drafting. By doing it myself, I can see problems before they occur.
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At what time of the day do you long for absolute silence?
Well, absolute silence is pretty terrifying. It’s only achieved in specifically built rooms called anechoic chambers. These rooms primary role is to test speaker components and tiny vibrations. Humans aren’t designed to experience absolute silence because it’s such an unnatural phenomenon. A human alone in an anechoic chamber would hear their internal mechanisms - organ movement, blood pumping, and digestion. None of us really wants to hear that. However, I long for the sound of nature often. It’s in our biology to want that. The sound of wind, birds and water are relaxing.
Can you describe early life experiences where sound played an important role?
I wasn’t all that great in school. I lived in a very poor area with a lot of drug and alcohol abuse around me. My grades were ok, but I didn’t excel at any of the basics like maths, science or reading. Around 6th grade, I joined the band program as a trumpet player. I excelled at it. I don’t know why, but it just clicked for me. The trumpet kept me out of trouble in high school and landed me a full scholarship to college - something I wouldn’t have been able to afford. So, I was really fortunate. Hindsight being 20/20, I now realize how much my teachers throughout my high school and college years went out of their way for my success. I didn’t realize it then, but it’s clear now.
Toward the end of college, I started to struggle with extreme performance anxiety which, unfortunately, ended my trumpet playing. However, in that difficult time, I found out just how much I loved sound.
What was your biggest fear in starting Defacto Sound?
Survival. Even now, 10 years later, it’s a terrifying thought that people could just stop working with me. I left a job at the Discovery Channel that was excellent. I did that to start something that was incredibly risky. However, I have learned over the years that the risk is what’s helped me stay alive and not drone on into monotony. Sure, there are difficult times, but thankfully the highs have outweighed the lows.
How would you describe your personal style of sound designing if we leave out all external influences?
Super crisp and clean. My goal is always clarity and focus, even if it’s taking risks with sound. I want sounds to speak and have a clear purpose. If a sound doesn’t 'speak' in a final mix, I’ll cut it to let other sounds speak. Underdesign is easy. Overdesign is slightly less easy, but overdesigning, then pulling away sounds that down work is the sweet spot of sound design. That and finding the 'right' sounds to begin with.
How does this add up for your everyday lifestyle?
I suppose I like things that are very purposeful. For example, most of the time I just wear a black shirt. I have like 25 solid black shirts. It makes my life easy. I also like food that isn’t underwhelming, but isn't overdone either. For example, for years I thought that more toppings on a pizza makes it better. Come to find out, a cheese pizza is better than any meatso supreme. Raw ingredients and the craft of putting them together matter!
Do you have creative advice for people who are asking for basic sound design principles to follow? Any book recommendations?
My favourite sound designer centric places to look is Designing Sound, Sound works Collection, and forums. Also, getting a rig and just starting to work is a great way to get moving. There’s nothing better than hands-on training when it comes to sound design. Think of it like playing the violin - you can read about the violin all day long, but you don’t get better unless you practice. Same goes for sound design. The computer and applications are your instrument. Practice them.
Finally, could you pass some rare gems that you feel would help other sound designers improve their workflow?
Stop thinking so much about your tools. Yes, they’re super cool and you need to master them, but they’re simply tools. Michelangelo probably didn’t consciously think about his paint brushes when he painted the Sistine Chapel, he just created, and the tools were a way for the ideas to flow. If you practice enough, you’ll be able to stop thinking about the tools. It's when the tools are an after-thought, you can really start crafting and creating.