The Many Colours of Heartbreak High

Along with your work on the smash hit reboot of Heartbreak High, you’ve also been a colourist on Del Kathryn Barton’s film Blaze. Can you tell us what a colourist does?

“A colourist’s role is to design the look and feel for feature films, television series, commercials, and music videos. You work closely with the director and director of photography to establish a tone that best serves the narrative and/or conveys a particular feeling.

“We have many tools that allow us to not only adjust luminance, saturation and contrast but also shape the light and isolate individual colours, objects, or subjects to craft a shot.

“On top of that, it’s our job to make sure that the mood and look we set is consistent across a film or multiple episodes.

“Another part of the role is interpreting what people are asking for, as grading is a highly subjective medium. Certain words in the colour suite can often have a slightly different meaning to different people as they may perceive colour differently or are more or less familiar with describing what it is they want to achieve, especially in commercials. Over time, this does get easier. As you work with the same creatives, you begin to form your own language of colour and work out one another’s sensitivities.”

You used Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve Studio and the DaVinci Resolve Advanced Panel to grade the Heartbreak High series. Can you tell us a little about the software functionality and how it aided your work?

“DaVinci Resolve Studio is one of the programs I use on a daily basis to colour grade commercials, films and TV.

“Resolve combines editing, VFX and the ability to master a project all within the one platform; this is why we chose it for HBH. The multiuser collaboration mode allowed VFX shots to be updated, online and prep for mastering to happen in the background, allowing the grading session to continue uninterrupted.

“As mentioned, grading software gives colourists the ability to balance shots and create looks, but more than that, we craft and shape light to create depth or draw the viewer’s eye to a specific part of the frame in a shot.

“Some basic examples would be, to lift a character’s face or sharpen their eyes to draw focus. You could change the colour of someone’s shirt or even replace a sky with one that is more desirable.

“Colour grading panels are great for working at pace, it not only saves you time having all the tools you want at a touch of a button, but allows you to complete multiple operations at one time, making it a powerful addition to any grading suite.”

Over the course of your career how has post tech changed?

“The software and tech have changed considerably. One of the bigger transitions would be from film to digital, giving us more dynamic range with footage in post, which allows us to push images further. However, it has been great to see a revival of film in recent years, I do love grading film.

“More recently, the transition to grading and finishing in HDR has probably been the biggest change in post workflows, as streaming platforms now require HDR as a part of the deliverable. This future proofs content, but it is also being viewed more widely as more and more consumers buy HDR compatible TVs and devices. This is less so in commercials, but I imagine it won’t be long before more and more commercial clients start asking for HDR masters.

“The advantage of Resolve for me comes down to muscle memory. If I am honest, that’s why I chose to set up my suite at home with DaVinci. As a freelancer working in Australia, most post-production facilities are set up with Resolve in their grading suites, so it is the platform I am more proficient in.

“In the last few years, Resolve has definitely added and improved a lot of features which make it very easy to contain a job to one program which has been very helpful on certain projects, for example Heartbreak High was conformed, graded and mastered in Resolve.

“The addition of more creative grading tools and plug-ins have been great too, allowing us to push ideas and complete tasks that traditionally would have been done in VFX or online.”

The visual aesthetic of Heartbreak High is extremely arresting. What were the challenges in creating a teen centric series in terms of getting a particular look that will resonate with the audience?

“I suppose the main challenge or goal was to create a nostalgic look with a modern take for the reboot, while still paying homage to the original. We wanted to retain some grit and texture from the original while bringing through some fresh and playful colour for a contemporary edge. This also hopefully allowed the show to appeal to the fans of the original series and the younger generation whose first taste of Heartbreak High was the reboot.

“Simon Ozolins (cinematographer), Gracie Otto (director) and I spent a lot of time before shooting commenced and also once post-production started to find the world that we wanted the show to live in. Early on, there were numerous discussions around the tone and feeling we wanted to achieve. Once grading commenced, it meant trying multiple versions over numerous days to eventually land in a spot we all thought looked great but also complimented the show’s story.”

What do you love most about your job?

“Collaborating with friends and creatives on a daily basis; every day is slightly different in colour grading, whether it be a new commercial each day with a new creative team and new brief or bunkering down for weeks on end with a long form crew and tackling a feature film or eight hours of television, which of course comes with its own challenges but is extremely rewarding.

“I also love the experimentation side of the process early on, establishing a look and building on it to find the world in which that particular job wants to live in.”

What would you say to aspiring Colourists, VFX artists and filmmakers about working in the industry?

“It’s a great industry to get into, especially with the volume of features and TV being filmed in Australia at the moment. Get out there and start hustling, build some solid relationships that will last for years.”

What is your “secret sauce” to grading a great scene?

“I would say grading for the story is a big factor, finding the balance between something that looks great but also serves the narrative is really important.

“It is also important to experiment in the beginning, even if you love a look you have created, there may be an alternate world that is even better… or it could be rubbish, good to find out early on though!

“Good lighting helps too.”

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