Bringing Homeland Home: Color Grading Season 8
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Karen Moltenbrey : Bringing Homeland Home: Color Grading Season 8
The popular Showtime series Homeland takes viewers across the globe ¬– from Tel Aviv to Islamabad to Kabul and beyond – as CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) struggles with her bipolar disorder while trying to root out deception and traitors in this American spy drama.
Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) swings into action to protect an asset (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)
Developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, Homeland is in its eighth and final season.
While the edgy, espionage-filled story lines have taken Mathison around the world, a good deal of the filming has taken place in the U.S., specifically in New York, Virginia, and North Carolina, the latter a stand-in for Washington. Nevertheless, shooting also has occurred out of the country for various seasons, including in Israel (substituting for Beirut), Puerto Rico (for Caracas, Venezuela), Cape Town (for Pakistan), Morocco, Berlin, and more.
Despite these widely varying backdrops, the overall look and feel of the show had to remain consistent – not always an easy task for the cinematographers and, in turn, Keep Me Posted colorist Keith Shaw.
“Homeland is an interesting show in that it does not have any extreme looks, but the look is central to the story line,” says Shaw. “Despite the variation in the locations, the differences between them are subtle. The action has occurred all over the world throughout the series, and I can be cutting back and forth between the States, the Middle East, Germany, and elsewhere, depending on the season.”
Keep Me Posted colorist Keith Shaw has worked on every episode of Showtime's Homeland since the pilot in 2011
To help him achieve the required consistency in his work, Shaw calls on his vast experience as a colorist and his lengthy experience on the show, including his close relationship with Homeland’s longtime producer, Katie O’Hara. Shaw has been the colorist on the series since it debuted in December 2011, and without question that has given him an extraordinary advantage while performing the work.
David Klein, ASC has been the DP on the series since season 3, and shared seasons 6 through 8 with Giorgio Scali, ASC. Typically, Klein would shoot the first two episodes and set up the new location (crew, etc.). Then the pair would alternate episodes starting with season 6, with Klein taking on the season finales. For season 8, though, Scali shot episodes 5, 6, 9, and 11, along with various scenes in other episodes. Peter Levy, ASC filled in on episode 3.
“Having the same DPs with the same idea of what this show is and how it should look helps maintain the consistency of the show,” says Scali. “Keith has been working on the show for a while and understands what we are trying to do. He can always tie it together.”
This longstanding working relationship between DP and colorist is especially important for this project, as Klein is rarely in the country when Shaw is doing his final color grade, leaving the pair to communicate remotely. “But we’ve got the process dialed in, and it works,” Klein adds.
David Klein, ASC (behind camera) lines up a shot for a scene in the White House on Homeland season 8. (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)
Realism defines the style of Homeland. “From day one, everything about our show had to have a real-world look; it must live in the world that we all live in. When we do our video tech and our color, the audience needs to feel as if [the story line] is happening in real life,” O’Hara explains. “So, when we’re on the battlefield, it has to feel like a battlefield and not some super-stylized Saving Private Ryan.”
As Scali points out, having the show look as honest and real as possible adds considerably to the dramatic tension. While the DPs may stylize and take liberties in some scenes, in general, heightened realism prevails.
The show has to look as dirty as it is, Klein maintains, and it needs to feel as dark and dangerous as it should be. “The dark and dimly lit streets of Kabul at night are a scary place to be for a blonde, female CIA agent, and within a few moments of a scene, the audience needs to inherently know that by what we’re showing them without any dialogue,” he explains. “We try to move the story along by what we’re lighting and what we choose not to light. What the audience sees and what we prevent them from seeing both are equally important.”
Telling the same story in the same world, photographically speaking, in different parts of the globe presents a unique challenge. “It always has to feel like the same Homeland, and we tried to give each season a different look to a certain extent, but there always had to be the same creative vibe to the storytelling.”
Max (Maury Sterling) gathers important intelligence at the Steedley Outpost. (Warrick Page/SHOWTIME)
One of the biggest challenges for the DPs was having to set up a new show every season – “always different locations, and often in a different country,” says Klein. As a result, they had to establish a workflow from wherever they were shooting to LA, sourcing a local crew or importing from another country, sourcing gear, and putting it all together. He likens the process to doing the first season of a series, albeit every year.
Despite this, the primary post workflow for the show has remained constant, according to Andrew Hanges, co-founder of Keep Me Posted, a FotoKem company. Homeland continues to be conformed on an Avid before Shaw begins the color process, working in Digital Vision’s Nucoda for the grade. “That overall workflow has not changed for the series in eight seasons,” he points out.
Shaw had been familiar with Nucoda prior to joining Keep Me Posted, impressed with its then unique ability to play back uncompressed and mixed files directly out of the Avid. “I felt it was extremely important to get a 100 percent conform, rather than using some of the other methods that facilities were using, such as going to Flame and doing some eye-matching,” he explains. “While that’s not the case today, back then it was a major concern because it would add a lot more time between the online and the color process.”
The Homeland production team reviews a shot. (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)
There’s no on-set color management for Homeland. “David works with the dailies colorist at the beginning of each season to make sure things are looking the way he’d like. The CDL values from the dailies are passed on to me in the color room, and then I just do my thing,” Shaw says. Typically, it takes Shaw two days to get through his first pass of an episode of Homeland – which is approximately an hour in runtime – with another intermittent eight hours or so spent on the VFX shots, depending on how many are in the episode.
O’Hara notes, “There are so many times when I’ll get my VFX in and I go look at them with Keith because we essentially finish them there. I can take 10 minutes with Keith, and just that subtle little tweak is all I need. And Keith pulls that off. I’ve never had a colorist able to do that for me before.” That’s just one example of how Shaw and the team at Keep Me Posted continually supports Homeland’s vision.
“We take the footage from the various cameras that the DPs use and go through a color managed pipeline so that when it gets to the color stage, the colorist can focus on the color work instead of worrying about the different cameras and all the little attributes they may have,” says Hanges. “This process allows Keith a little more latitude to be more creative.”
Homeland had been shot on ARRI Alexa cameras until mid-season 5, when they switched over to Alexa Minis. As for lenses, Cooke S4 primes and Canon zooms had been used on season 5; seasons 4 through 8 used Canon Cine primes, Canon zooms, ARRI/Zeiss Master primes and Angenieux zooms, and this season added Zeiss Supreme primes to the lineup.
While every location has its own subtle aesthetic, the first episode of season 8 contains what Shaw believes is the most extreme feel of the entire series. “Usually it’s ‘make it even, make it match, help bring out the faces,’” he says. “But this had a more extreme look comparatively.”
The location Shaw is referring to, featuring over five episodes, is Combat Outpost Steedley and the surrounding area in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. “It’s very desaturated, really high contrast – blue blacks, warm highlights,” explains Shaw of the outpost, which is fashioned after an actual location that was featured in the documentary Restrepo. Shaw viewed the documentary to familiarize himself with the area, and he and O’Hara used that as a visual reference, modifying it and placing their own spin on it for Homeland.
Georgio Scali, ASC (holding viewfinder) on location. (Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME)
“When we cut to that location, you know you’re there,” Shaw says. “It was not an easy look to keep consistent from shot to shot.” Additionally, the footage was shot in Santa Clarita, not Afghanistan, and needed a Middle Eastern feel, with sunlight that is much warmer.
Scali agrees that this current season has been especially challenging for the DPs. “Shooting in Morocco was difficult, to say the least. From crew to equipment to locations to hot weather, we were always up against something,” he explains. He points to episode 5 as being technically and physically challenging, and was satisfied with the tension they were able to create.
Other color challenges Shaw has faced on Homeland have resulted from long shoot times, where the action is supposed to occur over the span of 30 minutes, while it was actually shot over days and where it could be sunny one day and cloudy and rainy the next. “But that’s normal. Welcome to the world of a colorist!” adds Shaw, who admits that the series is shot “so incredibly well that I have all the latitude I need to push the image around. I am going to miss [Homeland], that’s for sure.”
He will also miss the showrunners, cinematographers Klein and Scalia, and, of course, O’Hara. “They are all really collaborative and open-minded,” says Shaw. “It’s been a real pleasure and an exciting collaboration.”
The appreciation runs both ways. “Keep Me Posted, Keith, and Katie always have our backs. They are always there if we need them and have solutions to anything that might be causing problems,” says Scali. “Keith sees the big picture and can make anything we send him shine. He has a great eye, and after his first pass, we are 95 percent of the way there.”
O’Hara adds, “It’s hard to quantify. Keith just has something special. He puts the paintbrush to the canvas, and when he’s done, you’re like, ‘OK, that’s what I wanted.’ He makes my job easier.”
Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Carrie (Claire Daines) receive bad news.
Shaw and O’Hara have developed a shorthand method of communicating over the years. Simply saying, “I need you to do that thing you did with such-and-such,” and Shaw knows exactly what to do, O’Hara points out. “When it comes to Keith, I don’t have to worry. There are times when the VFX come in and I am in the ADR and will ask him if I need to come in and look at things, and if he says no, I trust him. Other times he will make sure I look at something because he knows I will have notes.”
O’Hara adds, “I get a lot of credit for doing a good job, and that’s because Keith Shaw and Keep Me Posted are so good at what they do.”