For “Short Term 12,” Ian Vertovec wanted to craft an image that you could hold in your hands.
“I describe the look of the film as almost like printed on paper,” says Vertovec, a colorist at Light Iron, the post-production company he co-founded with Michael Cioni. “Because you don’t really get stark, rich blacks when you print something from an inkjet printer. You have this texture to it. When you have black blacks, the frame falls away.”
To wit, Vertovec describes one of the film’s many nighttime scenes in which Brie Larson’s Grace can be seen biking through Los Angeles, only slightly more pronounced than the backdrop of the Los Angeles dusk behind her, a crucial element for a character who can’t escape her past entirely as a foster child who now helps troubled youths much as she pushes ahead.
“A lot of times in the night scenes when Brie is riding around on her bicycle, the black doesn’t drop off into darkness behind her,” says Vertovec. “We kept the frame forward by keeping the blacks light and papery and soft. The image has this kind of completeness across the frame. Then we wanted to use color to actually help with the narrative and the story arc of the characters.”
In recent years, one of more interesting story arcs of movies in general has been that of the digital intermediate colorist. For years, filmmakers have had the ability to play with the look of their movie well after they’ve left the set with color timing leveraging the photochemical elements of film, but computers have given more control over the image and with it, a larger degree of creative power to colorists, who can change the mood of a scene with keystrokes and the tenor of an entire film, whether nostalgic, cutting edge, warm or cool. It’s also a position that requires a degree of anonymity.
“I don’t really want to have a style,” says Vertovec. “Some people would say that I do but I just want to always be doing something new and interesting, and what’s best for that film.”
The ability to be a chameleon has served Vertovec well. Since attending Southern Illinois University for still photography and finding himself gravitating towards the computer lab, he has become a great equalizer for productions large and small as the go-to guy for David Fincher and “Short Term” director Destin Daniel Cretton. This month alone, he has been the one who has tanned the toned biceps of the Greek warriors in the high-contrast, hyper-stylized “The Legend of Hercules” and the coruscation of club lights for the bachelors of the romcom “That Awkward Moment.”
Recently, I was invited to tour Light Iron’s Los Angeles headquarters where I got a glimpse of the amount of care that goes into every frame of film that passes through them, from a suitcase that allows for near-instantaneous color correction on the set to a Quality Assessments room where filmmakers can look at their work on any type of monitor to see how it fares on all screens, and to speak to Vertovec, who reflected on a very busy past year, beginning with the Spirit Award-nominated “Short Term 12.”
“Short Term 12” is actually your second film with Destin Daniel Cretton, following “I Am Not a Hipster.” How did that relationship get started?
I actually knew Ron Najor, the producer of “Hipster” and “Short Term 12” for many, many years, and when Ron contacted us about finishing “Hipster,” we really wanted to make it work. That’s really when I met Destin, and Brett [Pawlak], the cinematographer on both “Hipster” and “Short Term.”
I remember the first day that we started working on the [digital intermediate] for “Hipster,” I came to the table with some ideas because I didn’t know that much about the film. We were rushing because we had a deadline and I hadn’t actually seen the whole film when we started working on it. But I had some ideas of what I thought I could contribute to it. I was going for an old-fashioned indie rock [vibe], a lot of contrast, and some browns and some warm colors, and Brett was like, “That’s good, but let’s do the opposite.” [And I thought] “Okay, I can do that too,” so when we developed the look for ‘Hipster,’ it is a lot of blues and yellows.
That movie did very well, and was a great film. Very similarly with [“Short Term 12”], we just sat down and Brett and Destin both really wanted a real soft look to it. When we were playing around with different looks, we showed something to Destin, and he said, “It looks like I could rub it on my face” because the image had this softness to it, and the accessibility that we wanted to go for for the look of the film. It’s really like a lifted black level, but not flat and not milky. A lot of times if you go too milky, you lose a sense of touchability and it just becomes flat.
It may vary from movie to movie, but how early do you get involved in a production?
When you have filmmakers like Brett and Destin and Ron that have a really good grasp on the way the cameras work and digital technology, it is a little bit more collaborative. A guy like Brett will mock up looks on his own and you can just say, “here’s what I did on my iPhone, with whatever iPhone photography apps [are available]” and he’ll just color them and show me, “oh, this is the kind of the thing.” There’s just such a variety of creative tools that are all just free apps on the phone, and you’re not doing it on the movie, but you’re creating a palette — a napkin sketch to communicate an idea.
Do you think apps like Instagram have changed what audiences or the filmmakers you work with want?
I definitely think that those kind of social media elements have influenced what people consider “natural-looking photography,” and people are much more tolerant to fancy color correction. It washes over them more because you see fancy color correction on the Internet every day, in your social media, so when you’ve got a movie with a highly-stylized look, which “Short Term 12” does, it doesn’t draw attention to itself.
It is interesting because sometimes when you do a look like an Instagram look, people are like, oh, that’s a nostalgic look, it has this old photograph look. But is it really? Instagram is so modern and so contemporary. It’s almost like Instamatic [the old Kodak cameras], with all these consumer filters that are really high quality. They have a basis in a vintage style, but now it’s kind of become so widespread and popular on Tumblr and Flickr, It’s almost taken over, and it’s not nostalgic anymore. Now it’s hip.
It’s interesting to hear you say “Short Term 12” is highly-stylized when you’re also working on a film like “The Legend of Hercules,” which I imagine is highly-stylized, but in a completely different way. Then there’s “That Awkward Moment,” which seems like it should have a relaxed vibe. How do the demands of those films contrast each other?
It’s definitely a spectrum. “Short Term 12” is all about the characters, and one might say the story. But beyond the story, “Short Term 12” is about hitting those empathy moments. That’s why I like having that softness of the image, which was so important for Destin, because that gets you in touch with the character at that level. “Hercules” is very different. There are definitely action moments that we want to sell, and when there’s a big sword fight scene, you need it to feel strong and very masculine, and you just have a very hard image rather than a very soft image. “That Awkward Moment” is more about the comedy and the characters and also there’s romanticism in that film, so it is more about getting in touch with the character. There’s some empathy there, but also warmth and levity that we want to kind of communicate with the way the image is crafted.
It’s just part of the color process that you do have all of these moments. Then a horror film might be a completely fourth dimension, where you really need to hide certain details from the audience to build suspense. You don’t necessarily know what you’re seeing for a moment, and then in those big scare moments, you need to really ramp up the energy and create a very hard effect at a certain moment. I did “Texas Chainsaw 3D” about a year ago, which definitely had those moments where you’re trying to confuse the audience a little bit, then Leatherface appears and you need to hit them really hard with a very striking image, and a very high-relief image. It’s almost like music at that point, where you’re really going for a tempo, and then you’re changing it. It’s definitely a lot of fun, all those areas of the craft where you need to occupy different spaces.
Do you appreciate a good challenge? You mentioned 3D and also, I noticed on you worked on the David Fincher-directed video for Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s “Suit and Tie,” which is in black and white.
Absolutely. Monochrome is incredibly challenging because when you look at an image, you can use color and saturation to basically dictate to your audience, look at this, look at that, but with mono, you don’t have that. Naturally, our eyes go to colorful objects and because it’s a human Darwinian thing, I think our eyes will look at a skin tone and we will recognize a face, [among other] things. In black and white, it’s very hard to find the character sometimes. All you really have is contrast and brightness.
So you have far fewer tools to accomplish the same tasks, but it can be very striking and very beautiful when it’s done really well. “Suit & Tie” was a really good example of a nice piece that we worked extra hard to always have your eye be moving in the right place. There’s a moment in that video where Jay-Z comes forward, and you go from looking at Timberlake to Jay-Z and the song does that for you, but you want to do that visually. If you can turn the music off and just follow it without sound, you know you’re doing a good job.
Is the footage you receive now on any given film perhaps more raw than it used to be since filmmakers may assume they can fix it in post?
It is more common now. On “Ender’s Game,” [cinematographer] Don McAlpine and [director] Gavin Hood told me, “We’re going to shoot it pretty flat,” which was because of practical reasons with visual effects and just making their schedule. The way that they constructed the space station in “Ender’s Game,” they didn’t have a lot of opportunity to create dramatic lighting because of the concept of it being a completely artificial environment. They didn’t really have a lot of windows in the space station, so there was very much a flat fluorescence and they were like, “we need to build contrast and style and do these things more in the DI than we would on the film that took place more in practical locations.” So we built a look in the DI and that film has a special texture to it, a very soft, almost glowy diffusion to it that we built a lot of contrast into.
How did you actually get into this line of work?
I went to school for still photography, but I started getting into visual effects later in college. I shot some things, and edited for a while, and I moved around a lot of different departments, but then Michael Cioni and I started doing post-production. We weren’t offering color correction as a service because we didn’t have anyone to do it, so I just figured that I’d do it, because of my photography background and because you do do a lot of color correction in visual effects, taking separate photographic elements and you’re matching them all together in a place. That was 2005. And I’ve done over 80 features at this point. And it’s great. It’s such a fun, creative kind of adventuresome craft. Every film has totally a different chemistry, it’s got different creative personalities, and it has completely different aesthetic. I really enjoy the challenge of keeping everything fresh and new, and having a different look.
Since you got in at the ground floor, has it been interesting to evolve along with the filmmakers as this type of color correction has become more of an option?
Definitely the path of my career was a product of timing, just because when I got out of film school, this whole digital transition was happening right then. All throughout history, features were timed photochemically, and then right around 2000, [digital intermediates] started becoming a thing. In the ’80s and ’90s, commercials and music videos were getting telecined, so that was almost the original version of DI. That’s why a lot of the best commercials and music videos of the late ’90s look better than the features, because they were getting that telecined digital process with tremendous efforts being put into every single frame of those pieces, whereas features were just getting a very broad photochemical treatment, so they didn’t have that type of frame-by-frame TLC that some of the higher-level commercials and music videos were getting. When I got into the industry, that’s when DI was really making a transition, and HD. People were daring to shoot films digitally.
You’re also a smaller company and yet you’ve obviously worked on some bigger films such as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Ender’s Game.” Has that meant being scrappier or is this a field where you can do the work regardless of size?
I think a lot of things that sometimes are perceived as disadvantages are actually advantages and vice versa. One of the interesting things about digital technology is that it’s really consolidating a lot of technology. We don’t need to have a huge lab with a huge chemical bath that needs to be running 24/7 to be able to create a feature film. It’s all done with computers and some of the most powerful computers are consumer computers. Some of the best stuff is also the most accessible stuff. Having said that, we have very, very expensive color corrections that we use, and the fact that we’re a middle-sized company is a tremendous advantage for us, because we can really commit resources in a way that a very large company can’t because they’re tied down too much in being an efficient system, where we can specialize in being a high-quality system.
And really, we’re just a really solid team. You don’t need to have 350 people in different departments in order to have a solid team. You can have a solid 40 or 50-person team and be more agile. We’re pretty fast, we’re pretty mobile, and we’re able to jump on [new] technology more because we don’t have quite the investment in the legacy that a lot of the bigger companies do, so if a better solution comes forward, we can afford to throw out the whole plan and dive onto that new thing, if that’s what we needed to do to get a job done.
Do filmmakers ever ask with a digitally-made movie to have it look more like film or is that even an issue anymore?
I don’t really get requests anymore, to make something look like film, because in large part, people have bought in on digital and the things that it can do. Having said that, there are certain characteristics of film that are desirable, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to achieve all of the desirable characteristics that we possibly can.
One of the things that I do is I have a bunch of different film [lookup tables] that I keep in my toolbox – I don’t use them directly on the film, but sometimes I’ll reference them, thinking, if this was printed out, how would that film behave? And I have a little button that would show me what that would look like. While you’re developing a look for something, you also want to throw in different wild cards for yourself, so that maybe something will click because [if you think], oh, I’m doing such a great job, then you never really explored this whole territory over here.
This may show a complete misunderstanding of what you do, but have you ever run an entire film through with a certain color treatment and discover it has a meaning you never expected to have?
Yeah, absolutely. I want that because some things you have to discover, you can’t just invent. You have to find it. A lot of times, I’ll have a grade for one scene, and then when I start a new scene, I’ll [wonder], well, what is that grade for that last scene? Then I’ll go back three scenes or I’ll grab a grade from another movie, just to see if you do all these different things that are designed for something else, and you apply it to this footage, what happens to it? Is there some sort of happy accident that we can discover? Is it cool? Is it terrible?
I’ll do that with filmmakers just so I can start talking to them because maybe they don’t necessarily know what they want or they don’t have the words to describe it, but when they see it, they know they like it or not. That’s why it’s always great to really just play and explore to find the look that you want. Sometimes you think you want the scene to be warm, but then later you’re like, well actually, if we color the scene cool, the skin tones come out better, and it ends up feeling warm, even though it’s actually cool. If you go all warm, it’s all kind of monochrome, and you lose the characters. Sometimes the opposite of what you think you want to do is going to get you what you want to accomplish.