The Many Colors of A Modern Family
COW Library : DaVinci Resolve : Kylee Peña : The Many Colors of A Modern Family
In the relative history of cinema and television, color grading has come a long way in a short time. From penciled-in RGB values on paper to interactive trackers and power windows, colorist Aidan Stanford has been along for the ride from film to digital. Joining single-camera ABC comedy Modern Family for its fifth season, Aidan has put DaVinci Resolve – and himself – to the test while grading a full episode per working day for air the following week.
Originally taking a negative cutter summer job at a Hollywood film lab called CFI in the mid-1990s, Aidan found he had a good eye for color and jumped into color timing IMAX and restoration films. From there, he moved onto trailers and features for Technicolor, and officially began training for the digital age at DaVinci Academy in 2005.
Being a documentary-style comedy, Aidan's work is usually hidden in the background, trying to enhance the shots without drawing attention to his arsenal of colorist tricks – tricks that span his entire career, not just the digital part. His latest challenge in Modern Family was to work with the look and feel already established by the previous seasons, using his favorite tools on a DaVinci Resolve system – like the luma curves and interactive tracker – and a whole lot of color intuition.
Creative COW: How does film color timing differ from digital color grading as a process?
When I got to Technicolor, everything was done with pencils and erasers. We would erase the old timing light, write in a new one, like 'two more reds', and then that would change the timing within the scene. The next day, you'd see the new print with those changes. You'd call everybody back, sit in a theater, and take notes again. Usually you had three or four attempts at it before it went to theaters.
I would look at it, make my decision, you knew a shot was too red or too bright, change it and leave. And then you would have a day or so to regroup and then when you watched it again, you were fresh. I noticed in the digital world sometimes you can lose your bearings if you're not careful. You can obsess, see the changes going slowly or drift.
When I'm in a session, I've got a handful of professional creative people in there, all with different ideas and they want to see it right now. It's not like this empirical thing – one guy yells out that's too red, another guy yells out that's too magenta. As a film color timer, you could decipher that what you thought it meant, and you could do your own twist on it. You would kind of figure some people out; certain directors of photography, their version of magenta would actually be blue or whatever. That is actually where a lot of the trust and relationships were built. Learning a cinematographer's or Director's style and taste.
They trusted you to make the proper adjustment and knew you'd make it look great for the next screening.
Now you have to be on top of your game, so it's good to work on a professional grading box like Resolve with the panels because you've got to have versions and things right at your fingertips and be able to scroll through before and afters. It's a little more intense, but there are so many tools, so you never feel stuck. It's really amazing what can be done digitally.
What was the transition from film to digital like for you as a colorist?
It was a slow process. I left Technicolor in 2010 and I did a lot of freelance work. I worked a lot with Steve Yedlin, ('Brick,' 'Looper,' 'Carrie') who is an amazing cinematographer. He's a truly brilliant human being and has an incredible understanding of digital and photochemical color science, film stocks, LUTs. He set up a DaVinci Resolve color suite in his apartment and I started doing freelance work. I graded a feature there, a commercial for Coca-Cola, as well as some smaller jobs.
MODERN FAMILY Australia – The entire family tags along as Phil fulfills his mom's wish for him to return to his roots and visit the country where he was conceived, Australia. Unfortunately, Phil's attempts to embrace his native land are met by a lot of rejection, while Jay and Claire let work eat into vacation time, and Mitch and Cam get reacquainted with an old friend (guest star Rhys Darby) they can't stand but is now a big-time celebrity in Australia, on Modern Family, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23 (9:00-9:31 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Matt Klitscher). © 2014 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
That was actually my first real freelance job was working out of Steve's apartment. We had a lot of fun and I learned a lot technically. Those were also weird times because it was really difficult initially. There are very few color timers that made it into the digital world on their own after being a photochemical color timer. Sitting in a movie theater and running film had very little to do with digital processes. It's very technical, and it was very intimidating at first.
What was it like joining a show like Modern Family for its fifth season, where the workflows and style are already established? How do assure your stuff matches previous seasons or other colorists?
It was a little hectic early on because you're cramming a show into one shift and then it airs the following week. Depending on the exteriors, how many cuts, or if there are a lot of gags, it's really kind of a tight turnaround. I have to be careful not to be too tricky or you'll run out of time. Luckily for me, I stepped into it and it was already a well-oiled machine with Chris Smirnoff and Jim Bagdonas [the show's producer and director of photoraphy]. They knew how to explain things, or what things work and what things don't. They were really specific with where the black levels and skin tones needed to be.
I think [coming into an established style] is, in ways, trickier than coming in and having your own thing. They loaded an old episode up for me ungraded, and filled the room with producers, the cinematographer and a couple of our Modern VideoFilm executives and we went through a mock grading session. After that session, a full day, I started to get a grasp on what they were doing: neutral skin tones, really readable blacks, kind of a filmic texture to it.
Jim Bagdonas is a very film-oriented cinematographer, so he is able to speak film terminology too. He used words like "low-con" when he explained it early on. He said 'think of it almost like a low-con print stock.' As soon as he said that, I immediately knew what I needed to do to achieve it.
The show doesn't really have a look, which I think in ways is more difficult. It's like a white piece of paper, you can see every kind of inconsistency. I think on other stuff I've worked on, the heavier the look the more you can get away with. When it's the look we're going for on Modern Family, it's very easy to point out little inconsistent moments where you've got to be tight with what you're doing.
What's your part of the post workflow like?
Modern VideoFilm is a big professional post house, so I don't do any conform or file handling really. I load a project – it's DPX, Alexa ARRIRAW – and it's got an EDL. I load the EDL and in just in a few minutes I'm up and running. We do all the online and everything editorially here. It makes the flow really quick and painless. I really just sit down and only have to focus on the color. I think it's pretty basic. I've been here a year, and it's not like I have a ton of broadcast experience but it kind of flows. It's a quick pace. That was one of the things for me to get used to. Television is like a feature, but you've got to be done today.
Obviously dramas would take more time, but Modern Family is a mockumentary style, so I try not to get too tricky. Most of the things they ask me to do that are technical are not meant to show off. [A lot of the enhancements are] mostly making sure peoples' eyes are readable. [On Modern Family] they'll deliver a joke and often glance at the camera, and so I'll use a dynamic window over the eyes and as they glance, it'll enhance that moment then go away. It's just a really quick window – track it in and track it out, really fast.
MODERN FAMILY – "Australia" – aired WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23 (9:00-9:31 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Matt Klitscher). ©2014 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
They like it to be very realistic and filmy, not too treated. It's stuff you wouldn't notice and I try to hide all the tricks. There's no wow factor. It's all subtlety and hidden in the background so it keeps that reality feel. Like, you're capturing a moment, not creating a moment.
Do you have a specific approach or method when you start a Modern Family episode?
I usually neutralize it because in the end, the show needs to be very neutral. They almost always have something white in the frame somewhere. Then I'll try to clean it up and roll saturation into it until it starts to look what I consider to be realistic. Obviously I don't want it saturated looking. That's my baseline – neutralize, balanced blacks and whites, roll saturation in until it starts to look like normal skin tones, and then from that point on I'll start adding nodes to try to get density or brightness or whatever it needs.
I try to keep it very minimalistic. I kind of have that approach on everything I do. I'll do the most minimalistic version of a grade and at the end, come in if I want to get interesting in the last couple of nodes. Unless I'm doing something stylized where I need a key upstream.
Have you had any particularly challenging episodes to grade?
Yes, the second half of the wedding finale. It was shot over the course of an afternoon. It was supposed to be very time specific and it was mostly exteriors. Jim Bagdonas really wanted it to be representative of going from the middle of the day to afternoon and evening, and ending with a nice colorful sunset.
Beautiful sunset hues and cool, ocean colors align beautifully with Aidan's handiwork. Photo by Peter "Hopper" Stone. © 2014 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. Watch on ABC.Go.com
They shot on a very tight schedule and had a lot of differences in natural light and skylines, like some were really orange and some were blue. I was able to isolate certain actors that were going too warm from the background and did a lot of windows and tracking of skylines with the interactive tracker to basically create a sunset on shots that didn't have it. That was really a challenging episode.
The second half of the wedding finale was challenging to grade with outdoor shots transitioning from mid-day to evening. From MODERN FAMILY – "The Wedding, Part 2" – The wedding day chaos continue as the entire party shifts from one contingency plan to another. Guests start to get testy, Mitchell and Cameron are feeling discouraged and poor Claire shows physical wear and tear, but an unexpected turn of events leads to the ceremony we've all been waiting for, on the season finale of "Modern Family," WEDNESDAY, MAY 21 (9:00-9:31 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Peter "Hopper" Stone) © 2014 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
Also, when they were in Australia they had less setup time and uncooperative weather, and I was really proud of how that one came out. We used a lot of tricks. I used almost everything I know how to do on the Resolve on the Australia episode. They had a little bit of everything: overcast, wet weather, sun mixed with fog, just everything you can have. It was really challenging, but using the custom curves and trackers and all the stuff we have, I was able to come up with something I was really proud of.
Do you get the opportunity to do more stylized treatments on the show too?
A couple times there were some bar scenes where they were in a restaurant and we got to be kind of moody and dark. One of the things I like about the Resolve is using the track grade clip. If you have a whole scene, you can set a keyframe for the beginning and end of the scene and instead of having versions for every shot, or if you have a LUT, you can lay it into just that section or you can have a correction that brings something into the skin tone and then you can turn it on and off. I do a lot of stuff where someone says 'I really wish we had tried something darker in that room' I can say 'well, I'll do it real quick' – it's two clicks and you have the whole scene, not just the shot. I use that function a lot.
Another thing I like about Resolve is you can have a LUT on one shot – just one person really, on just their shots – and you can turn it on and off, node based.. I really like that aspect of it, infinite nodes and not feeling stuck.
I was told that the hardest part of color grading is matching shot to shot and doing it quickly. What is the best way to develop that skill?
I think that's a repetition thing. I'm really lucky that I was able to come out of a film world where that was the one thing I was dialed into already. I see color instantly. Getting from A to B in order to match it early on took a little while because I was actually slower technically than I think a lot of people coming in that started in digital and came up through the video ranks.
But as far as practicing that stuff, use scopes obviously. You can use the scopes to train yourself really well. That's what I did early on, making sure things were matching up scope-wise – sometimes skin tones would look good to my eye but I would realize red levels were high in the whites or whatever. I think every colorist does it differently though.
When I was at Technicolor, we did an integration with our own colorists so I got to sit and watch [seasoned colorists] work. They were all so good, but they all did it very differently. No one had the same style. Colorists are artists. If you trained with twenty different people, I think you'd have twenty different ways of getting to the same answer.
What's next for your future on Resolve?
This season of Modern Family went fast and I learned a lot just on the Resolve. I'm hoping to always keep learning and stay on the front lines, and I expect to get better right to the end of my career. I think you never really settle in and feel like you're done, you just keep getting better as the tools get better. From freelancing to Steve Yedlin's apartment to working at Modern VideoFilm and doing these marquee shows, it's really surreal. It's been a lot of fun. I'm very fortunate and grateful.
Modern Family "Australia" episode: The entire family tags along as Phil fulfills his mom's wish for him to return to his roots and visit the country where he was conceived, Australia. Unfortunately, Phil's attempts to embrace his native land are met by a lot of rejection, while Jay and Claire let work eat into vacation time, and Mitch and Cam get reacquainted with an old friend (guest star Rhys Darby) they can't stand but is now a big-time celebrity in Australia, on "Modern Family."
The Emmy® name is the trademarked property of The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences ("Television Academy") and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences ("National Academy")