House of Cards: Coloring the Game-Changing Netflix Series
CreativeCOW presents House of Cards: Coloring the Game-Changing Netflix Series -- Art of the Edit Editorial
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House of Cards has been a game changer for Netflix.

The political drama based on a UK mini-series (and novel) of the same name was Netflix's first foray into original programming -- and Executive Producer David Fincher is definitely an original. Also original: Netflix's decision to release all 13 of a season's episodes at once, ideal for the binge-viewing habits of Netflix subscribers.

Season One, released in early 2013, was a major critical success. Nine Emmy nominations followed, including craft nominations for cinematography and editing, with Fincher winning the first Emmy for web-only episode of television, as the director of the episode "Chapter 1."

Season Two was released in early 2014, and brought some changes. Igor Martinovic was brought on as the director of photography, and for the first time, 4K and Ultra HD were among the deliverables from post-production and VFX company Encore, a Deluxe Entertainment Services company.

Kevin Spacey in Season 2 of Netflix's House of Cards. Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.
Kevin Spacey, who is also an Executive Producer on House of Cards, in Season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix. ©2014

Another change was new Lead Colorist Laura Jans-Fazio, who worked on a Baselight TWO system at Encore's Hollywood location. The series was shot in 5K on RED EPIC and Dragon cameras, and in some cases, in RED's high dynamic range (HDR) mode. Native camera RAW files came to Encore for the edit and grade.

Workflow management was paramount; there was the massive amount of data from thirteen episodes worth of 5K footage.

We spoke to Laura about all of this and more, including her start as a colorist, and where she sees things going from here.

This is your first season working on House of Cards. What were some of the other jobs that you were doing before then?

I've always been a colorist, it seems. More recently, as a freelance colorist, working around LA and around the country, doing commercials, TV work and independents. I also worked with FilmLight, training colorists new to the Baselight software. The opportunity came up to do this, so I jumped on board.

Laura Jans-Fazio, lead colourist at Encore
Laura Jans-Fazio, lead colourist at Encore

How long did it take to finish this season?

We spent two and a half months working on the show. Delivering thirteen episodes isn't much different than delivering one episode at a time, since the timeline is adjusted accordingly. A few months to deliver many episodes is pretty comparable to delivering one episode every week or so.

David Fincher is such a visually distinctive director. How did that work for you as somebody who's translating his visual style into looks?

It worked really well. David is amazing because he is spot on in what he sees and wants.

I was new to the show and didn't grade Season One. Collaborating with David was really quite easy because his communication is so concise, which is part of what makes him a great director, for sure. We communicated via PIX System for remote collaboration, and with Igor Martinovic, the Director of Photography, who was also new to the show for Season Two.

Were you working with Igor directly, or was he also on another project?

All three of us were communicating on the project remotely through PIX.

What was the workflow for that?

We started with a locked cut. We would bring in the media and I would conform it in Baselight, which is the color correction kit that we used. Then I would grade the first 20 or 30 minutes of an episode, upload it to PIX, and while I was waiting for notes on that first 20 or 30 minutes, I would grade the other half of the show and then upload that.

Then I would get notes back on everything, and do a run through pass with those notes. Those comments came from the XML out of PIX. We merged these into the original XML from editorial. Baselight allows me to display these comments right on screen while I'm working. It's just like a timecode burn-in on my display. Very nice.

And then the only time we really needed to go to the PIX project itself is when we needed to look at markups, or 'places' on the image where they would circle certain areas of the picture and say, "I need this," or "I need that."

Tell me more about working with Baselight.

Well, it's great. Just something as simple as being able to see comments on-screen when I work that's already integrated into the system that I didn't even have to ask for, was phenomenal in making our time constraints productive.

Laura Jans-Fazio of Encore on Baselight TWO system with Blackboard control surface from FilmLight.
Laura Jans-Fazio of Encore on the Baselight TWO system with Blackboard control surface from FilmLight.

In addition, I had real-time 4K-playback performance on Baselight. I could work off of the RAW files and/or DPX. It allows for multi-resolution media within one timeline.

And so, in many cases, since they were shooting 5K RED Epic, where they had utilized HDRX in camera, I was able to composite those in the Baselight, and get the detail that I needed without having to do a key in different areas that would lose detail after layers of grades.

What's nice about Baselight is that not only can I assemble the conform and composite, it has four different types of keyers. Also, I never have to grab a new still for color reference if I don't want to. These thumbnail stills are linked to the files so I can scrub through them for reference -- where some grading systems don't have these features in their toolset. This allows me to grade faster with fewer keystrokes.

Are there other things you've enjoyed with Baselight?

The Blackboard control surface is very ergonomic but intuitively designed. It was interesting when I was first learning, I'd ask, "Okay, where's the button that does x?" And it was exactly where my hand or brain wanted it to be. That sounds kinda silly, but it was really laid out very intelligently, and it's pretty amazing.

The developers aren't colorists but they understand the process well. They work with the colorists, engineers and the like. I know that that's one of the reasons I'm able to put up the comments on the display.

We used multiple shapes in a single shot, and being able to do that in one layer with inside and outside grades in Baselight was a real time-saver.

There's also a proper 3D keyer in Baselight, which is really nice. It allows you pick pixels of multiple vectors from with a single frame or shot, adding as you like. Otherwise you might have an HSL key -- Hue, Saturation and Luminance -- and it's based on those only those parameters, and then a separate RGB keyer based only on red, green, or blue for instance. With a 3D keyer, I can work with those all at the same time, or alter them independently without having to do multiple keys. It makes my job faster.

Robin Wright in Season 2 of Netflix's House of Cards. Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.
Robin Wright in Season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix. ©2014

We've talked a little about your process and toolset. Can you talk more broadly about the approach that David, Igor and you wanted to take for the visuals of the show?

We started with what existed in Season One: a very dark, political world, so a lot of it had to do with production design and lighting. The existing sets were all rigged and ready to go.

I took what the production design and lighting gave me, and tried to give the same feel that the creators intended from Season 1, creating a dark and moody soft cast to the show, yet still letting the colors come through. The colors aren't necessarily strong but are defined -- a port wine tie, a pale blue shirt, putty-colored walls or sea foam undertones -- but I still wanted to make them pop, without going into a world of over-saturated TV, if you will.

That brings up the issue of the different ways that people might be watching a Netflix show. Did you, say, monitor on a phone or a tablet at any point in the process, or was that kind of calibration handled downstream from you?

There's no way we can account for everybody's device and where they're watching, nor the lighting conditions when viewed. It's always been that way in post, regardless of time allotted. Really, the only thing that we can do is to have the best viewing option that we can, and calibrated monitors are key. Standards have been set up over the decades have certainly helped the process, otherwise nothing would look good. I regularly view my work being broadcast or streamed just to breathe a sigh of relief. I drive my husband nuts when I make him replay something I've graded, such as a commercial.

Although it wasn't a designed test, in a way, we were forced to work through those issues ourselves. David, Igor and I were all on the same type of monitor, with the same calibration, and with test charts at the head of each upload, so we could make sure that we were in line every time. And we were.

The fact that we were all seeing the same thing gave me a lot of confidence that we could communicate to that degree.

I've looked at Season Two on Netflix, though. It didn't look different than what we were seeing, but my monitor at home is calibrated. Seeing it streamed on my laptop was pretty darn good, so I was pleased, I have to say.

Can you give me some idea of how you came up in the business?

I pretty much fell into being a colorist. I began in New York City where I was raised. I really didn't even know at the time that Communications was a major in college. I was investigating going to Parsons School of Design in New York to study fashion when I was 17, and I got an internship at a WNYC public broadcast station. I learned satellite uplink/downlink, master control, balancing cameras -- all of it. And from there, I got a job at a post facility as an assistant online editor. I still attended Parsons, but dropped out early to pursue the biz, as they say.

I thought I was going to be an editor -- and then I found The Color Room! That got me really excited.

Okay, so you were an assistant in a post house, and you found the color room. How did you get from there to freelancing for David Fincher?

Well, the long story, I feel I was really lucky. I filled in vacation relief for an assistant colorist, and it went really well. A year later, the colorist whose assistant I filled in for was leaving to another company, and he asked me to go along with him. I went, and within a year, I was coloring.

And being the little Curious George that I was, and some time in the trenches, I was given a shot as a colorist. So many people to be grateful to for their support and knowledge, still to this day.

I'd been on staff for years, and it was only when we switched over to non-linear that that being a freelance colorist even became a possibility. I had an opportunity as a freelancer here in LA to learn a new system, and that system happened to be Baselight. I learned it in three days and did a supervised session the fourth day. I sort of became 'the puppy dog at the door' at FilmLight's local office in LA, and either I wouldn't go away, or they liked me, [laughs] and I learned more about the system.

And so to answer your question in short: working with David Fincher and his team was just being prepared for the timing of the opportunity. Isn't that what they call luck? The rest is history, really.

Kevin Spacey in Season 2 of Netflix's House of Cards. Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.
Robin Wright (as Claire Underwood) and Kevin Spacey (as Francis Underwood) in Season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix. ©2014

So, what are you thinking about technology and art as you move forward?

I think it's going to be exciting, and to see how the two are going to keep merging.

It's tricky, because we're capturing 6K, grading in 4K, without a 4K monitor with proper calibration tools for color and gamma. That said, you have to be working off of a 4K projector. Hopefully, a manufacturer will create a suitable 4K monitoring solution before we jump to 6K or above, so we're sort of in waiting.

But where do I see it going overall? I see it going into a world where we can do more, faster, creatively.

Talking about monitoring, one of the things that strikes me is that there will be a limit to the number of pixels that we can see, but there's a richness in color that I think has yet to be passed along to the home viewer. I think that's one of the next horizons.

Well, it is going to be very interesting. Dolby has come up with something called Dolby Vision, a set of technologies for mastering and displays where we grade and view an extended dynamic range of 4,000 nits, as opposed to 100 that's on a normal display. You can see specular highlights in the same way that we see them through our eyes in nature.

The chip will be in three different manufacturers TV sets this October, I'm told. That chip will allow the home viewer to then access the metadata that gets translated in that Extended Dynamic Range signal, so that they can see it the way that we see it in the studio... much like Dolby 5.1 Surround, but for the picture.

And that's tricky, right? Because it's something we're not used to at all. We went from cathode ray tubes to flat screens of three different flavors of plasma, and LED, sRGB multiple mobile viewing devices and now we're going to have the opportunity to see this dramatically extended dynamic range with Dolby Vision that your mom and dad can access.

How that's going to translate to a portable device like a phone or a tablet? I'm not sure yet. But multiple streaming contents providers and possibly cable channels are said to be on board with delivering Dolby Vision, so we should be seeing it later soon. We could even be re-mastering things that way.

The team output the final graded versions of all 13 episodes in uncompressed 4K, which went to Netflix's own compression engines. Season 2 of House of Cards is in fact available for 4K UltraHD streaming on Amazon, as well as HD and SD streaming, and Blu-ray and DVD.

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