There are certainly challenges involved in color grading the most popular show on television.
It's been a long road for colorist Shane Harris. From a cold-calling marketing gig straight out of college to being a Color Assist and "graduating" to Encore Hollywood's Senior Colorist, Harris has now landed a gig on one of television's most coveted projects: being the colorist on HBO’s highly acclaimed Westworld.
Whether you’re an aspiring colorist or an emerging cinematographer (or simply curious about the visually stunning, cinematic look of Westworld's second season), you will find nuggets of insight in our brief chat with Harris, which took place at Encore’s flagship post-production facility in Hollywood, where Harris spends his days (and frequently nights) color grading.
No Film School: How did you first get into color grading?
Shane Harris: I had a degree in marketing out of college and tried that for four or five months. I was cold-calling people trying to sell stuff. It wasn’t for me. I just happened to have a buddy who worked at a post-production facility. I’d go there sometimes to meet him for lunch. One time he showed me around the place and I thought it looked awesome. I got into the vault there. Working in the vault is like starting in the mailroom at a talent agency. I learned pretty quickly. Color seemed like the most interesting thing to me, so I got to go into color as a Color Assist. You learn everything as you go. We all start somewhere, and on your way up, it ’s important to treat everybody the way you want to be treated.
NFS: What’s the difference between a Color Assist and a Colorist?
Harris: A Color Assist doesn’t usually engage with the cinematographer. They help with renders. They help with anything the colorist needs. They can do drop-ins, which is when the color grade is already set by the colorist but you drop-in a shot and make it match with what has already been colored. As an Assist, who you come up under is very important. Because what you’re used to seeing has a big impact on you; being able to differentiate between what you think looks good and what doesn’t. A colorist actually grades shows (or features) and works with the cinematographer, director, post supervisor, etc.
"As an Assist, who you come up under is very important."
NFS: How do you work with cinematographers?
Harris: It’s all about relationships. It’s very important to be able to talk and be sociable. It’s seriously a big part of it. You can have the skill and have a good eye, but a lot of it is just being personable. All of the cinematographers that I work with, whether it’s Paul Cameron (one of the cinematographers on Westworld) or whoever, we check in from time to time (“how’s the family?”) and that kind of thing. You build loyalty and stick with those people.
As a cinematographer, I imagine you want to find someone who you feel you can work with and who understands your look. The colorist is there to protect the cinematographer’s look. It’s a balance between protecting the cinematographer’s look and giving the producers and the network the image that they want.
NFS: Any advice to an emerging cinematographer on how to work with a colorist?
Harris: If it’s the first time a cinematographer is working with a colorist, I would say the best thing they could do is grab ideas or stills from stuff they like and want their project to look like. If you say, “Oh, I think Sicario is really awesome,” bring in a few stills from Sicario. It’s really important to have a lookbook that you can go over with the colorist. I can’t tell a cinematographer how to shoot and I can’t tell them how to achieve what they want in principal photography, but if they come in with something like a lookbook, it gives me a good starting point on knowing where they want to get to. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t like something!
NFS: You most recently provided the color grade on the second season of Westworld. Could you tell us about your work?
Harris: The cinematographers turned to Encore for the 4K film scanning requirement for the show. They shot on film (averaging around 20,000 feet of film per day) and Encore scanned the dailies to HD DPX in Log Color Space, which enabled me to have the full range of the negative in final color.
The look has evolved since season one. There are instances where we carried [things] over, as it's a continuation of the entire story, but once the show gets into other worlds, like Shogun World, we created different looks.
In my Resolve color grade, I emulated a process called a “bleach-bypass” for Shogun World. “Bleach-bypass” is a process where the silver is retained in the emulsion. What results is reduced saturation and exposure latitude, like a black-and-white image over the original color image. You can only really get that kind of look with the “bleach-bypass” process. It gives Shogun World a totally distinct look that’s different than anything else you’ve seen in Westworld. There’s also The Raj that’s very warm and golden. These worlds have their own unique looks, and for some of the battle scenes, there’s a cool desaturated feel to the soldiers’ uniforms that make them look grey and silvery. So even certain types of sequences, like the battle sequences, have their own unique look and feel.
NFS: Anything else about the show you’d like to add?
Harris: Sometimes there are two or more cinematographers on a show. For the second season of Westworld, I worked with John Grillo and Darran Tiernan. I colored each of the episodes and, with whoever was responsible, I collaborated with that cinematographer and went over the notes. The cinematographer will send me stills of what they have in mind to reference for looks. Part of the job as a colorist is helping to make it look seamless even though different cinematographers shot various episodes. It’s an incredible experience to work with these extremely talented cinematographers.
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