When I learned that my film “Charlie Victor Romeo” had gotten into Sundance, my first reaction was: Panic! We hadn’t even finished editing, and then we had to “online” our film–rebuild the edit with high-resolution files, fix any problems, and color grade the film. We only had about eight weeks to do everything. Katie Hinsen came to our rescue. She was the finishing artist who crafted color and light to transform our film into something haunting and beautiful.
Part I: Understanding the Job
KM: Can you just introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
KH: My name is Katie Hinsen. I am a finishing artist at Light Iron in New York. I take on the final part of post production for a movie, tv show or commercial. When motion pictures are shot with digital cameras, there are two sets of files that go into post production. One set are the raw files which are enormous and you can’t just play with them on your regular computer. A low res version that is more manageable is given to the editorial team. They take all of that footage and turn it into a story. Then they give it to me and I rebuild, or “conform”, their entire film using the raw footage.
I put it together with all the same cut points and rebuild any effects they might have because I have the tools and ability to really polish those to enhance the creative intention. They may have done a split screen or a sky replacement. Sometimes there might be two performances from different actors combined with a split screen and I will make it look seamless. I also take care of a lot of the beauty work, especially in commercials: smoothing skin textures, brightening faces, and other contouring. I basically make movie stars look like movie stars.
KH: Yes, clients request that a lot.
KM: We think about Photoshop for stills but not for moving images.
KH: Exactly! Basically, In a nutshell, I do Photoshop for moving images.
SM: What about color grading? Are you responsible for that, too?
KH: There’s a huge difference between a finishing artist and a colorist. A colorist deals with the creative and technical aspects of color grading, whereas a finishing artist pairs the creative processes of beauty and paint with the workflow processes of conform and delivery. In some productions, I’ll do both roles, but for major films, Finishing and Color are two specialist roles. So as a finishing artist I like to say I can do color, but I’m not a colorist.
KM: Doing Photoshop on moving images is pretty time intensive, right?
KH: It is very different working in moving images than in stills. Sometimes we work with still photographers who are moving into video, and they show us something they’ve done on Photoshop. They say “I’ve whipped this up, here’s what we want to do, here’s all the beauty work we want”. And I’m like, “Okay, that will take me three days”. And they’re like, “But I just did it at home last night”.
But that’s on one frame. I have to do it on five thousand frames. Because if I’m working with people who are talking and moving, or the light is changing, I have to work with shapes and movement. I also have to add life to it, or else you end up with a plastic, unrealistic look on screen.
There are a lot of lighting and compositing tricks that I use. For example, in a cell phone commercial, I will composite what is supposed to be on the phone screen so that it looks realistic even if a character is waving the phone all over the place, through different light, reflections and shadows. And it does take some time, it’s not that simple.
KM: Right, because you’re tracking something that’s moving and it has to look like it’s really on the phone and hasn’t been pasted on separately.
KH: And again it’s really not unlike Photoshop except that everything is moving. So I have to account for that. And it can’t be done a frame at a time; I have to use other tricks to make sure that things have life. Normal, natural looking life. If I did that on a frame-by-frame basis, you would see the minute differences between the frames. So it’s really important to focus on things looking natural.
Then the project goes into the color session. The colorist, the DP, and the director work together to not only enhance the color, but also to bring a mood to it. A real feeling and emotion to draw the eye to a certain part of the image. And again that’s exactly what you would do in Photoshop but we’re doing it on movement, in a scene that has a person walking from one side of the room to another. The lighting may change so we create lighting, we create mood, we create all those things. But we also do it in a way that matches, so that if one shot is from one day and the next is from another day, they look as if they were shot on the same day. That’s the first part of what we do in color.
KM: You know, that’s something that photographers generally don’t have to think about as much–the idea of not just making it beautiful but also this idea of matching shots within a scene.
KH: And even scene by scene. Even if one scene is really different to another scene it’s important to keep the flow for the audience. You have to be really subtle about it. The first part of what we do is make sure everything is correct and matches and sits in the same environment. Even if you shot one person talking on one day and another person talking on another and then you had to go back three months later because you forgot to do a wide shot of the room, all of those shots need to look like they were recorded at the exact same moment. Once we’ve got that, then we have a really good discussion with the DP and director about their intention. About the story. About the mood. The DP will talk a lot about the lighting set ups and what their artistic vision was for that moment. We talk to the director a lot about the story and how the characters are feeling in that moment and where the story is going. Then we work to further develop the art, beauty and powerful impact of the images, by manipulating color and light.
KM: It’s like so much of the color grading and artistic vision has to do with the emotional content that you’re working with and I think that’s something of a leap. Its not just what’s going to look really good, it’s rather how are people feeling, and what feeling you want to evoke from the audience and how the application of color and light works with the emotions that you want to create.
KH: Of course there are trendy looks and color, as there are trendy looks in everything else. And this year it might be a certain look. Last year everything was really desaturated, this year people are going more for color. We know how to evoke a certain emotion regardless of your color palette. So you might have an entirely blue color palette, really cold and really dark, we can still bring love, fear, warmth, happiness, sadness, whatever into it and that’s a big part of what we do. We’re painting with light just like you are with the camera. The colorist and the DP really work as a team making beautiful images together. As a photographer, you capture them and I’m helping you to portray them within a sequence and hold on to the same vision.