Coloring Machete Kills: Natasha Leonnet
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Natasha Leonnet, colorist for Machete Kills
Natasha Leonnet
Modern Videofilm Senior Colorist Natasha Leonnet most recently worked on Machete Kills, her sixth collaboration with director Robert Rodriguez. Leonnet learned to color correct in Germany and Denmark and, in the U.S., has worked at ILM and E-FILM prior to moving to Modern Videofilm in January 2013. Among the movies she's color-corrected that she's particularly proud of -- in addition to Machete Kills, of course -- are all of Rodriguez's other films she's worked on, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Arbitrage, Love and Other Drugs and the upcoming Labor Day.

How did you become a colorist?

My most profound influence early in life was the photographer William Clift who works with an 8x10 camera and is famous for his printing. I was interested in photographic printing and he mentored me. He had gotten two Guggenheims and NEA grants, and I was lucky enough to watch him work in the dark room. Every time I'd visit, he'd pull down photography books and talk about framing, shading and what he and other photographers were doing in printing to frame the eye. This was incredibly helpful later for color correction. He lent me my first 2.25x2.25 camera. I'd bring the contact sheets to him and he'd show me how I had succeeded and failed.

Then I went to Brown University where I had my own dark room and worked as a printer for the Archaeology Department. Being at Brown also allowed me to take classes at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Originally I was hoping to become a professor of semiotics and film theory but instead of going on for my Ph.D., I decided to travel and live in the Czech Republic. I had studied Czech in school and my thesis film was a non-narrative look at Western conceptions of the former East as the walls were coming down. In the Czech Republic, I became a post production supervisor at Stillking Films, and learned a lot. One of my jobs was to research colorists throughout Europe.

I was doing a two-week internship with Biggi Klier, a colorist at ARRI's TV post production facility. One day, she was working on a film for TV about a boxer and I was watching her work and I thought, there is nothing I'd rather be doing than what she's doing now: she was translating emotion into color and contrast and working hand-in-hand with a cinematographer, creating images that were exactly what was in his mind and sometimes taking it a step farther to make it more beautiful than he could have imagined.

I became an assistant for Biggi in Munich for two years. Working with Biggi was one of the ways I learned to do commercials and music videos. She was extremely generous with her knowledge.

I also started teaching the system we were on, the Pogle, to different companies. That was a wonderful advantage because when you teach a system, you learn it like the back of your hand. It's one of the best ways to learn your craft.

Inevitably, as you're teaching systems, you end up teaching a certain amount of color theory, and I had learned color theory in college.

Then I moved to Denmark where I worked for Digital Film Lab. At the time, they had one of the best digital-to-film LUTs in the world.

They had started doing DIs in 1998. They hired me and told me they'd teach me their system -- they scanned on a Spirit and color corrected with the Pogle -- for doing DIs, and I jumped at the chance.

Because we were working in Rec. 709 -- this was in 2000/2001 -- they had a mandate that, to keep things looking as filmic as possible, one should never crush a black or clip a highlight.

In fact, a VFX operator and engineer measured every single shot you'd color, and they would reject a shot if you didn't adhere to that. The idea being that you weren't working off the monitor but off the scopes to make sure it was the most filmic image you could put through the pipeline. It was quite successful.

We did the entire DI off the cut negative; you were just making sure the Spirit was meticulously clean. At the time, it was very helpful to Scandinavian filmmakers, many of whom were working 16mm and they wanted to finish in Scope; they got better resolution than working from an optical printer.

How did you get back to the U.S.? And when did you first meet Robert Rodriguez?

ILM had bought a Pogle and the company sent me there to train them. Then ILM asked me if I would come back and color Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Of course, I said yes. When I was working for ILM, George Lucas did a symposium for ten filmmakers to show the digital capture and Robert Rodriguez was one. He showed a little piece of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and I asked if we could please work on that, and ILM said, okay, no worries; we'll get you the film. The palette was so rich and so beautiful and the hues were slightly different than I was used to for film, which I found interesting. And Robert was so passionate about digital capture, how he could show takes to his actors and experiment. I was intrigued. His excitement was contagious. So I wanted to work on his film.

After training DI artists at ILM, Natasha was invited to color grade Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones. George Lucas hosted a symposium for ten filmmakers to show the potential of digital capture, and Robert Rodriguez was one of them. This is when he and Natasha first met, beginning a collaboration that has extended to the present day.

Robert did a lot of experimentation with the capture. In one scene, I remember, they'd tried different settings. In the color correction, he wanted me to make it all look the same, and I was able to do that. It was one of those wonderful experiences where the director describes what he wants, you do it, and he says that's exactly what I wanted.

Bill Murray from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Bill Murray from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Natasha Leonnet's color grading on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is one of her favorite projects.

I've heard some people describe you as Rodriguez' go-to colorist.

I never think of it that way; I never take it for granted that I'm his colorist. After Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the next film I worked on with him was Sin City and he had a couple of films in between that I didn't work on. With Sin City, the DI was getting the little bits of color that were there exactly correct. Also, B&W can be interpreted a thousand ways: Is it cold? Does it have a bit of warmth in it? On the days we were working on the film release, the color stock and lab chemistry added a certain hue to the black and white material to it so we had to ask ourselves how to counteract that. 

With Sin City, a lot of telling the story was through the gray tones or lack thereof. Robert has so much fun doing what he's doing that it never feels like there's any pressure. He looks at each film as a chance to experiment and hence it is only fun.

After Sin City, the next film was Planet Terror, a double feature he did with Quentin Tarantino, the Grindhouse films. That was beautifully shot and Robert basically allowed me to do what I wanted. I based that off the color photography of Cindy Sherman. I felt that he and she were doing the same thing, in different ways obviously. I was able to take his cinematography and at times do a two-tone with the colors amber and cyan, which I based off of one of her color prints. And again, this speaks to the fact that it doesn't feel like work. He's experimenting and I feel there was a trickle-down effect of that; he allows his colorists to do the same.

Next we worked together on Machete, then Spy Kids: All the Time in the World 4D (it was also in Smell-o-vision), and then we just finished Machete Kills, which was very different than the palette of the original Machete.

Tell us about your work on Machete Kills.

First, you don't have to have seen the first Machete to enjoy Machete Kills. The two movies have very different color palettes, however. In the first one, the palette was golds, yellows and reds. Robert was going for a richness. With Machete Kills, he wanted to create a more varied palette, a broader sense of place and mood. He did his own experimentation when he was doing the edit, using the Magic Bullet system, and then he brought in references and asked me if I thought we could incorporate the look into specific scenes. That was the basis.

Some of these initial palettes weren't the ones we ended up with, however, because he's so collaborative. For example, one scene takes place in a gas station with all these vintage cars.

A scene from Machete Kills: before color correction.
A scene from Machete Kills: before color correction.
Photo Credits: Robert Rodriguez / Distributor: Open Road Films (for both sets of before and after photos).

A scene from Machete Kills: after color correction.
and post.

We'd color corrected it very cold, but I thought that if we warmed it up there would be a stronger differentiation in skins tones and the cars and the earthen ground, and hence that we could create a stronger image than our first draft, if you will. Robert said, fine, do whatever you want. And I think it turned out beautifully.

A scene from Machete Kills: before color correction.
Vintage VW Vanagon at a gas station in Machete Kills, before...

A scene from Machete Kills: after color correction.
and after.

In Machete Kills, with each scene break, we got into a different color palette. The challenge was in creating a different sense of place with every single scene. There's one particular scene that first introduces Lady Gaga where we go from warm to cooler in the course of a few seconds. I wanted to highlight her red clothing by creating a contrast with cooler tones. I also wanted to capitalize on the red, yellow and blue combination of the hair, costume and set design and hence suddenly introduce a more primary color palette. When she appears, we go from warm to cool in order to create more of a color difference between those colors and it happens within two shots. It's pretty subtle. I don't think everyone will feel it, but someone who is very attuned to color probably will.

The beauty of Machete Kills for me was interpreting some of the looks Robert created with the Magic Bullet software in edit bay and using palettes I hadn't used in his films in the past. In one scene where the character of Machete emerges into a new world, Robert allowed me to use a look I'd been saving for years. The reference was an old cover from W Magazine with highly blue-colored blacks juxtaposed against brighter, very yellow objects. I used this aesthetic when the character Machete enters a new world to subtly suggest a change in environment. Someone highly attuned to color might notice this too.

Normally, people hate magenta, but we used it for a flashback sequence. Magenta is considered a color contaminant but we were in a specific area in the reel that was all about experimentation, and I suggested we use magenta to contrast against the warmer and very saturated yellow scene that is the contemporary one. The color contrast between the sequences goes with the playfulness of the story.

Ordinarily, my goal with color correction is to create a DI with no color signatures, something that could have just as easily gone through the lab and look just as seamless and natural. In this film, Robert wanted such a stylized look that it was an opportunity to use the tools to create images that were clearly affected by color correction. I won't say that never happens but it's more unusual than usual. That was exactly what he wanted. Color correction for every movie is always a collaboration. But Robert takes that to a different level.

Machete Kills Trailer