Master Colorist - Ken Metzker

All about colors – Master Colorist, Ken Metzker

[dropcap]”T[/dropcap]he most challenging part of the job is to make something look different yet natural,” says master colorist Ken Metzker. He is known for his artistic finesse and expert vision that can alter and enhance the entire look of a film, bringing it to life. Be it Rang De Basanti, Barfi!, Talaash or Commando, his filmography stands testimony to his abundant talent and praiseworthy work. Ken was also honored with the Pandolin Technical Award for Best Colorist for his outstanding work in Barfi!

In a candid chat with Pandolin, he gives us a glimpse into the world of a colorist, taking us through the process and evolution of the DI, the equipment and techniques involved, the thought behind grading films of various genres and of course the hard work and time that goes into this crucial step of filmmaking.

How did your journey to Post happen?

It actually happened by accident, I was going to be a cinematographer but ran out of resources. That is when I tried my hand at Post and realized what a colorist was. At that point, I knew I had to become one. The only formal training I received was from photography/film school.

How familiar should a colorist be with the narrative of the film they are working on before grading?

I think it is very important because the color and the narrative have to work together to further the story. For example, if a director comes and tells me that he has made an excellent thriller and wants a standard thriller look, it is still important for me to know the narrative because you need to go through the highs and the lows, the emotional ride it takes you on as the colors can help you out that way. But it is even more important for stories like Ghanchakkar, I haven’t done the film but I’ve supervised it. It was done by an excellent Colorist, Makarand Surte along with Cinematographer Satyajit Pande. If the colors were not right for the scene to match the emotional highs and lows, the drama and the comedy and the story itself would be less emotional.

Can you take us through the color correction and DI work flow?

Basically around ten years ago all versions of the movie had to be timed individually. That is, the film print would often look dramatically different than the video transfer as it was often done by a different person, often without the key creatives such as the director and cinematographer. With the DI workflow the colorist and key creatives work together in a calibrated environment to finalize the colour, VFX, and overall flow of the film. Once this is done, then all the deliverables of the movie, such as the DCP for digital cinema, the film negative and resulting print, the HD video copy, etc. are all made from this master and all look the same. This, along with more detailed color and contrast control is the key benefit to the DI workflow.  In practice the colorist sees the film with the creative that he is going to work with – be it the cinematographer or the director or both and discusses the look, the story and makes sure that everyone understands the emotional ride and the overall avenues the film is going to be seen like.

For example, for Barfi!, I had a free hand in some way as the Cinematographer, Ravi Varman, wanted it to look different and he had very set ideas of what different was. So we just played in with that. The delivery schedules are very tight, so if we had gone down a wrong road it would have been very hard to recover. If you head down the right path, everyone is happy at the end of it. But if the cinematographer works with you for a month and then the director has a totally different idea about what the story should look like then that is a bad scene. But that rarely happens, because the director and cinematographer are normally on the same page.

Your visual communication with key creatives has to be very good. You have to sit with an image that you know and that they know and then understand what they mean when they say a particular tone or grade and so on. You have to hear people out and arrive at something that everyone likes and that works best for the story. Everyone knows what a good image is, either you like it or you don’t.

[pullquote_right]I love film and I know it very well – what I can and can’t do with it. I prefer the organic feel of film captured stuff. But the digital cameras are becoming so much better that they exceed film in some areas, like they can shoot in very low light and you don’t get heavy grains etc.[/pullquote_right]

I also need to stress that the DI process is not just a colorist. It involves a big team that is rarely seen or appreciated. The colorist is only as good as the weakest player in his team. I am lucky at Reliance MediaWorks as I have been able to create and have been blessed with a great team, from my co-colorists, to the line producers, to the conformists, to the dust busters, to VFX,  to digital cinema mastering. They are great and I am thankful for them everyday.

What are the main tools and techniques that you work with?

I moved to Reliance MediaWorks when Adlabs opened the DI department. We were sent to pick up the equipment and did a lot of research on it. We picked Filmlight. Filmlight combined an excellent color corrector with the best color management systems and at that point was the best system to work on. Nowadays there is a lot of new software that is coming up which is very economical to do a DI and you can do a good DI on that. But at the same time because the level of entry is low, many facilities are not spending on the proper monitoring. We use a proper three chip dlp Christie projector. It is very stable and is the same technology that is used in high end digital cinemas. If we were to use other cheaper monitors we would have problems as many have colour drift, even the best ones like LCDs and LEDs have problems in black and the viewing angle, Plasmas too have problems in black. The biggest issue that these smaller DI houses have is in managing colour. They often do not have the technical staff and tools to ensure the color and contrast is consistent on different medias.

How is it to work with digital v/s film footage?

It’s a very interesting time to be a colorist because there are a lot of new tools that are coming in. Often I get asked which digital camera should one use and I always ask them what type of movie it is. In the old days, the cameraman would go to the lab timer and ask him what kind of stock should he use as he could be shooting this really dark, horror film and they would talk and figure which stock suits best. It’s the same with digital cameras; some digital cameras are better suited for a more talkative comedy while others are more suited for a horror film. That’s not saying that you can’t shoot with one and make it into a comedy. With stock you can change things around in the lab to make it work better. 

I love film and I know it very well – what I can and can’t do with it. I prefer the organic feel of film captured stuff. But the digital cameras are becoming so much better that they exceed film in some areas, like they can shoot in very low light and you don’t get heavy grains etc. Each has its own advantages and advantages.

At work

At work

Can you tell us about your approach towards working on Barfi where the tones keep changing with the back and forth in narrative?

The approach to the film was to make it as interesting as possible and the keep visual clues with the looks to the timelines and the places. For example, when Ranbir and Priyanka are hanging out and starting to like each other, their skin tones are standing out, a cyan kind of world, but when the other girl, Ileana, comes into the pictures, she comes from more of a warm place, so the skin tone and all needs to go together. It all varies with the location and the time, so we took that as a starting point and went from there. It was a lot of fun. If we didn’t have that distinct look to separate the timelines, people would easily get lost due to the back and forth in narrative. And we were very lucky as the Cinematographer, Ravi Varman had a very strong idea of how he wanted the film to look like. We fine-tuned that look for the various parts, we got the Director, Anurag Basu, to come in, the director loved it, and then we just started combining it all. The director just made slight changes here and there, so it went very well, there was no major change.

Post a romantic, soft story like Barfi, you lent your expertise to Talaash. How have you treated this subtle murder mystery?

Generally we are lucky because we are not working on our own, we have the cinematographer who has shot the entire thing and helps the colorist working on fine-tuning the look. The look and feel of the film is rarely created in post. On the best shows it is already there as it is a collaboration between all major departments of the film particularly art, costume, location and of course the cinematographer. When it comes to us, we are looking at fine-tuning it. With Talaash, it was shot absolutely beautiful and the Cinematographer, K U Mohanan came everyday and sat with me and we went through it. For this film it was very simple because the look and feel was very realistic. We kept Mumbai as a character in the movie as it is all shot very carefully on location. So it was just a question about making sure that Mumbai was a part of the character and that all the people and the locations look real, you’re not popping a color unlike when you do a romantic film. For example, for a film like Tanu weds Manu, you have more leeway. You have a wedding song where everyone is colorful and you have all the costumes etc. So you concentrate more on the costumes looking nice, people looking warm, the colors are popping and so on.

[pullquote_left]To grade a movie in color, you can go warm and make it colorful or you have color cues like the costumes that are all different colors and you can follow them and so on. With black and white, all the color cues are gone and it is all very stark.[/pullquote_left]

In a film like David which deals with three different stories and settings, what was your thought process while grading each part? How was the experience of grading the black and white section?

The Director, Bejoy Nambiar wanted three different looks but each section was shot by a different cinematographer. So the director had a clear idea of what he wanted and these cinematographers too had their own ideas. Then you get into a place, where it is good, because you are able to enhance things. But the only challenge with this project was that you had to use three distinct looks that are coming back and forth all the time so you can’t have something that’s really soft and something that’s contrasty because then it is not going to work as even at the end it sort of intermingles. Finally we came to a point where the director was happy with how it was coming back and forth and the cinematographers were happy with how their parts were looking visually.

Color makes things much easier. To grade a movie in color, you can go warm and make it colorful or you have color cues like the costumes that are all different colors and you can follow them and so on. With black and white, all the color cues are gone and it is all very stark. The only thing you can play with is contrast. So then it becomes very important to mould the image. Something that is unimportant shouldn’t be in focus. For example, in the scene when they are walking down the hallway before they get shot, they are having a talk, luckily the cinematographer shot it very nicely, but there were some elements, something in the corner that we were not being able to match it out. It was very bright so your eyes totally go there and hence you have to bring it down so it is not distracting and the viewer follows the characters. You need to direct the eye completely in black and white.

But the process is also very interesting because they shoot it in color and when converting from color to black and white, you can just suck out all the saturation or you can actually enhance the red and when you suck out the color, the red becomes brighter, or enhance the blue and when you suck out the color the blue becomes brighter. It is a very subtle thing but with skin tone it becomes very important because when you enhance the red and yellow, the skin tone pops. So each element is important in black and white.

You’ve done films across various genres. How was it grading an out and out action film like Commando? What are the elements that you need to keep in mind while grading an action film vis a vis a romantic film?

[pullquote_right]Another important part of my job is to say no. If I believe that something will not look good I say no unless the look is explained and makes sense.[/pullquote_right]

The Cinematographer, Sejal Shah, is a genius. Here you have an action film, which is mostly shot outside; you have lot of people and a lot of action. The action sequence happens in various ways, they shoot with multiple cameras and there are several takes for one shot. Since it is all being done outside you have no control over the light, the shots could start in the morning and end in the evening and many such things. So Sejal was very smart. Since he couldn’t bring any lights into the jungle, set them up and have them consistent, he worked with smoke. He spent so much time and energy in getting the smoke happen. Because that lowers the contrast and you see more detail. Doing the DI for action is very time consuming because there are several shots and matching them takes time but it is not really complex because once you decide on the direction that it is going, it all falls into place. Also this film was shot on Alexa and Red, both the cameras are very different, so getting them to match is very difficult. Luckily because of the cinematographer we managed.

But doing a romance is also very difficult because you have characters and they are real people and they have to fit into this mould of say a perfect couple who is supposed to get married, have a great romance, a beautiful song is happening and so on. So then it becomes important as to how you make it work and everyone on the film’s set come together to make it happen. At the end of the day the characters have to look good.

Ken Metzker

Ken Metzker

You’ve also worked on several films down south. What is the key difference in the DI process between Hindi and South Indian films?

They are totally different. Even the way how a film is finished is different. Here (Hindi films) there is the cinematographer who keeps coming in and the director will come in as you finish each reel and the producer might come in one time and make sure everything is ok. Down South it is very cinematographer-centric and the cinematographer will do everything and only when he is totally okay will the director come in. It is normally all worked out and very rarely does the director change anything. Tone wise they definitely want more color, contrast and everything. Initially when I worked in the South I couldn’t figure things because everything was more contrasty and more colorful even before you add that. I was lucky to do films like Robot and Sivaji which are different but they are still colorful. But it’s very nice to work there because technicians are treated so well. And of course the colorful south Indian film is a somewhat stereotype. There is a lot of scope for small and unusual films in the south and I often think they are at the forefront of new wave cinema in India.

As a colorist how do you integrate the director and cinematographer’s vision with your own to create the final output?  

The vision of the cinematographer and the director are already quite close. They usually have references that they know and they understand the visual angles because they have been following it months before the production started. But if there is a question as to what is going to make the scene look better it is a collective call. There are times when we come somewhere in between two different views and I become a facilitator between the cinematographer and the director. Another important part of my job is to say no. If I believe that something will not look good I say no unless the look is explained and makes sense. Once we have the look, it’s a question of just putting it all together. Often this facilitation makes for interesting looks as when a director and cinematographer can’t agree on a look, the colorist has to sometimes do something completely different that works within the film and is something that the director and cinematographer can agree on.

What is the most challenging aspect while color correcting a film?

Generally the most challenging part of the job is to make something look different yet natural and consistent. And to please the cinematographer and the director and make the actors look good.

What advice would you like to give youngsters aspiring to get into this field?

They should just do it. They should color and keep experimenting, even if it’s Photoshop and do it. To become a colorist you need to have talent and dedication and be willing to put in more long hours.  It’s not an easy road but you need to keep at it. The only way you can get jobs is if you’re doing it and somebody can see that you’re doing it and trust you with their images. In the end it is all about this trust and it often takes years until creatives and producers are willing to put that trust in you and your facility.