Color Correction on Sundance Film Native Son
When colorist Tim Stipan of Company 3 heard from a frequent collaborator, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC, about the indie feature Native Son he’d just shot, Stipan was excited to get to work coloring it for its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Stipan, who has colored an impressive number of major features -- including Deadpool, Creed, Moonrise Kingdom and The Greatest Showman (nominated for Outstanding Color Grading HPA Award) – has spent many hours in the grading theater with Libatique; Stipan graded some of the DP’s most high-profile films, including Darren Aronofsky collaborations such as mother!, Noah and multiple-award winner Black Swan.
Libatique has been very busy this year with the enormous popular success, A Star is Born and sleeper hit, Venom. Native Son, which represents Libatique’s desire to keep a hand in the world of indie cinema, stars Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) as Bigger Thomas in an updated adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel from 1940. The film is the directorial debut of established creative artist and photographer Rashid Johnson, whose work has been exhibited by major museums and galleries. Coincidentally, Johnson graduated from Chicago’s Columbia College in Photography the same time Stipan got his degree from that school in Cinema Studies.
“Hiring Matty was one of the smartest things he could have done,” Stipan says. “The movie looks absolutely gorgeous. Whenever I color grade with Matty, the work is about taking very well- thought out and executed cinematography and really helping fine-tune small details. It’s never about ‘fixing’ things. I call what I do with him color enhancement rather than color correction.”
In this updated take on Native Son Bigger Thomas (Sanders), in serious need of a job, becomes the driver for the daughter (Margeret Qualley) of a very wealthy member of Chicago’s elite (Bill Camp). The situation starts out seeming to be the answer to Bigger’s problems but things soon take a dark turn.
Shooting primarily in Ohio, standing in for Chicago, Libatique worked with ARRI Alexa cameras. At Company 3’s Santa Monica, CA facility Stipan worked in DaVinci Resolve. The overarching filmic look was achieved in part by grading through a film-style LUT custom-designed at Company 3, which helped bring the digitally-shot imagery more of the photochemical feel that the director and cinematographer preferred for Native Son.
While feature films often go through a preliminary process called a “pre-grade”, in which some early shot matching and evening out is performed, Stipan and Libatique sat together and just dove right in, shot by shot. Starting with pre-graded material, Stipan explains, is often a very effective and efficient method of performing DI work, but since he and Libatique are so in sync from so much previous work together, they were able to skip the step in this case and hit the ground running.
“Matty is very collaborative and we’ve known each other so long,” Stipan says, “that we can get where we’re going very efficiently. He likes making adjustments in the grade but never to the point of pushing things too far. It’s always about small moves. Maybe bring down a slight blue cast here or build a power window and bring up a face there. Matty might say, ‘What if we try adding a tiny bit more cyan in the blacks?’ and we’ll try it, maybe discuss it a bit and then he likes it or he doesn’t.”
Resolve, as with similar programs, offers many different paths to affect an image – curves that can stretch the image characteristics an enormous number of ways, tools that mimic photochemical printer lights and offer virtually no control over contrast – but the most commonly used toolset in digital color grading is the lift, gamma gain trackballs, which primarily alter the shadow, mid-tones and highlights respectively.
But among colorists who use those trackballs there are still some significant differences that each develops through years of experience. Stipan’s go-to method is to adjust an image by augmenting lift and gain only. “Never gamma,” he says. “I feel that once you start messing with the gamma, you’re really changing contrast and the essence of the photography to a point where it can start to look wonky and inconsistent.” He acknowledges that a significant amount of important picture information sits in the middle are of the image, “but if you get the top and bottom right, the middle is going to fall nicely into place. If you want to make it darker, bring the blacks down. If you want to make it brighter, bring the whites up. But leave the gamma alone.”
Libatique’s taste leans towards color contrast and finding ways on set to juxtapose warm and cold colors in a striking but natural-feeling way. “That’s something we might enhance a bit in the grading theater,” Stipan explains. “We might key the warm colors or the cool colors and bring them out just a bit more to enhance the color contrast. We’ll go just far enough to help the feel, never to the point where it looks manipulated or forced.”
Stipan thoroughly enjoyed working on Native Son. “Matty always makes it fun,” he says. “I love to bounce ideas off him. He knows everything that’s going in the world of film, fashion, music – he’s fascinating to talk to. And the director is also very talented and very clear on what he wanted from the visuals. This is a very strong first feature and I’m glad I had the opportunity to be a part of it.”
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.