EFILM Colorist Mitch Paulson Demystifies the Digital Intermediate Process
- In the age of digital acquisition and projection, the DI is more than an intermediate step—it’s the way to make what you shot look like what you envisioned.
- EFILM senior colorist Mitch Paulson uses Autodesk’s Lustre as his go-to color grading platform. Why?
- Whether you’re shooting on film or digital, an experienced colorist can make the most of your footage.
- What makes Oscar-winning DPs so successful? Preparation.
- If you’re new to DI delivery (or even if you’re not), ensure you get the best results by consulting with your colorist before shooting.
- Do yourself—and your colorist—a favor and pay attention to exposure!
If you were making movies prior to 2000, chances are you were shooting on film. And if you wanted professional results, you made sure to hire the kind of DP who’d get the results you wanted “in camera.”
Fast forward to today, and not only can relative novices capture high-quality images digitally, they can call on an accomplished colorist to help them achieve their vision after shooting is completed.
With color correction systems now sporting the kinds of tools for motion pictures that were once reserved for stills, the DI (digital intermediate) process has become another way to bring striking, unique, and improbable imagery to the big screen.
EFILM, a division of Deluxe and a pioneer in digital film technology, is one of the leaders in the DI process, bringing their expertise to such international blockbusters as Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, and Sicario.
What do all of those films have in common?
They were all graded by the very busy Mitch Paulson, senior colorist at EFILM, who made the time to talk with us about the DI process and some of his more memorable projects.
A brief history of color grading
The term digital intermediate was originally used to describe the process of taking film negatives and scanning them to a digital format for the purpose of incorporating digital visual effects. After that, the digital visual effects shots would be recorded back to film for theatrical distribution and projection. Hence, the intermediate digital step.
As digital projection has taken hold in the 21st century, the term “intermediate” isn’t quite as literal. Currently, a digital intermediate is more likely the final step in the color grading process—whether the footage was originally shot on film or digitally.
The common method of distribution of the DI is the digital cinema package (DCP), which is a digital drive or stream that contains the final color-graded movie in its entirety.
In many cases, the DI facility is responsible for taking the original material, whether it was acquired on film or digitally, and storing the digital information on a SAN of some sort. They will then distribute transcoded proxy files to the cutting room, as well as the predetermined final resolution files to the visual effects house(s). In EFILM’s case, this process is facilitated using Deluxe’s Synapse, a workflow and automation system.
When the editorial process is complete (or nearly so), the cutting room provides the DI facility with an EDL so they can go back to the original high-resolution files for the color grading process. Then, as visual effects are completed, the composited shots are returned to the DI facility for incorporation into the final high-resolution conform, and can be graded in the context of the rest of the non-effects shots.
Technology serves artistry
Mitch attended art school and brings an artist’s eye to his approach. From there, he began his career as a compositor on movie trailers. One day, his boss brought in a color corrector and said, “Here, give this a try.” Right away, Mitch took to it, and that’s what he’s been doing ever since.
It’s also part of why he’s an avowed fan of Autodesk’s Lustre (part of Flame Premium). “Because I worked as a compositor first, I was very familiar with Flame’s features, so this was a natural for me. I’ve been using it since 2003 so I can work very quickly with it, and because it was originally developed for working from film, the controls allow for more filmic nuance, in my opinion.”
Lustre, unlike some dedicated color programs, provides the colorist with real compositing tools. Some films require small fixes, like beauty touch-ups, that haven’t gone through the visual effects pipeline, but Mitch is able to address them as part of the DI process. “It’s easy for me to draw the shapes I need to isolate those areas and track the fixes through the shot.”
One recent release in which Mitch utilized Lustre’s compositing features is The House With A Clock In Its Walls. Director Eli Roth (known as a member of “The Splat Pack” for such gory and graphic horror movies as Hostel and The Green Inferno) and DP Rogier Stoffers worked with Mitch to achieve a richly colorful palette combined with a darkly creepy feel while keeping it PG-appropriate.
For example, in the pumpkin attack sequence, the gore inside the pumpkins looked too much like blood. “We had to go through the whole sequence,” Mitch says, “and isolate the pumpkins’ insides to make it bright orange and kid-friendly.” And that look in the zombies’ eyes? All rotoscoped (i.e. hand-animated) in Lustre, something that would once have had to be handled in a strictly visual effects application.
Setting the look
While his compositing background gives him additional capabilities in the DI theater, Mitch enjoys doing what he does because he’s able to impart his creativity to the entire film and help shape its overall look. He’s also glad that by working at a place like EFILM, he can work on a variety of projects from comedies to period pieces to moody thrillers and action films.
“Every movie presents different challenges,” Mitch says. “I never go in thinking ‘This is how I’m going to do it,’ because there are so many variables. Are they shooting on film or digitally? What kind of look do they want to achieve? Will there be shooting conditions that require significant tweaking in post? I never want to just rely on one look that I apply to every movie.”
Creed 2, directed by Steven Caple Jr. and shot by DP Kramer Morgenthau, provided several unique challenges. Because so many viewers watch professional boxing on television, particularly on pay-per-view, there’s a visual language they’re accustomed to seeing—which wasn’t what the filmmakers were going for at all.
“If you look at a televised match, everything is really well lit, so we had to go in and darken down the backgrounds so the focus was on the fighters,” Mitch explains.
As is the case on many of the projects Mitch grades, he collaborated closely with the director and DP to establish the overall look. From the warm light of the family scenes to the vivid reds and blues throughout the fight sequences, the three went back and forth to create a visual language that would enhance and underscore the drama.
Morgenthau shot the film on Arri Alexas, which meant that the images were very crisp and the blues and reds very saturated. During the DI process, Mitch isolated those areas using Lustre’s Diamond keyer (which he finds faster and easier to use than Resolve’s) so he could bring them down a little without affecting the skin tones of the fighters.
Additionally, shooting digitally meant that the footage was grain-free, so in the Russia sequences Mitch added a little grain to give them a grittier look. When you look at the film as a whole, there are distinct palettes for different situations and sequences, but it all ties together thematically.
Film vs. digital acquisition
In his thirteen years at EFILM, Mitch has worked extensively on both film and digitally acquired movies. Both have advantages, depending on the look the director and DP want to achieve. “It’s not better or worse to shoot one way or another. It’s always just going to be a matter of the nuances of film and digitally acquired material and the looks you’re going for.”
For the 2017 release Battle of the Sexes, based on the 1973 match between tennis stars Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, DP Linus Sandgren actually used vintage 35mm Kodak film stock in order to push the look of the period. During the DI process, Mitch purposely didn’t fix some of the inherent imperfections to help sell the period look.
Similarly, when working on F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (shot on Red Epic Dragons), DP Matthew Libatique shot a montage in a recording studio that he wanted to imbue with a unique feeling from the rest of the movie. In that case, when EFILM debayered the digital files, they lowered the ISO dramatically so the images appeared far darker than how they were originally shot. Mitch then stretched the files, so that in the process of brightening it, he introduced substantial digital noise, akin to adding film grain, but also very different.
“Digital noise looks different from film grain because of the way they’re structured,” Mitch explains.
Learning from the experts
Another perk of working at EFILM is being able to work with—and learn from—some of the best cinematographers on the planet.
Mitch has worked on every one of Roger Deakins’ films since True Grit including the aforementioned Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, and Sicario. An Academy Award-winning master, Deakins’ complete understanding of shooting both on film and digitally is invaluable and inspiring to Mitch.
Shots from a few of Deakins films graded by Paulson, including True Grit, Blade Runner 2049, and Sicario.
Their collaboration on Skyfall, the first Bond film to be shot entirely digitally (on the Arri Alexa studio camera, which Deakins reportedly selected because it has an optical viewfinder), highlighted his absolute attention to detail. Citing the striking rooftop fight scene silhouetted against a swimming jellyfish background, Mitch reveals that Deakins brought in numerous tests that he’d shot with various types of lighting before choosing to light the set with large LED panels in order to replicate the look of neon imagery on the glass.
“There are a few things that make him special,” Mitch says. “He’s always ultra prepared and he always knows what he wants. And because he’s shot on film in the pre-digital days, his films always look amazing before I even start on them. There’s really never anything that needs fixing or requires significant changes.”
Blade Runner 2049, which Deakins also shot digitally (and for which he won his first Oscar after fourteen nominations!), required extensive pre-shoot testing as well. “The look had to be established very early on, because the production design and lighting all had to be worked out prior to going to the visual effects house. By the time we were doing the DI, most of what we were working on was massaging the VFX shots to fine-tune the integration between them and the live action.”
Deakins sits with Mitch throughout the entire grading process, rather than setting the looks of different setups and letting him match-correct the rest. And while you might think that could result in slowing the process down, Mitch reports that they actually work more quickly together. A typical DI might take Mitch approximately three weeks to complete, but Deakins’ films are closer to two weeks, both because the footage is so well shot and because he has such a clear idea of the look he wants going in. And that includes doing the various versions for 2D, 3D, full HDR, and home video.
“We sometimes make adjustments that are so subtle that really only the two of us can see them,” Mitch says. “Because his eye is so good, he pushes me to always be at the top of my game.”
Which brings us to the requisite “advice from the pro” section.
Mitch absolutely advocates getting the colorist involved early in the process. “It’s nice to be able to sit down with the DP ahead of time so we can establish the look, maybe try out some LUTs. That way, when we get to the DI process there are no surprises and we don’t get backed into a corner.” On some projects, Mitch may even do a pre-grading on the offline for presentation or test screening purposes, or as a proof-of-concept that the look they’re going for is achievable.
Of course, it doesn’t always happen that he’s involved that early on, and if that’s not possible, his best bit of advice is centered on exposure. “I always tell newer filmmakers to make sure you have a good exposure. Even with digital images, sometimes there’s only so much you can force the files before you start introducing digital noise. You always want to give the colorist as much as you can to work with.”
Mitch’s advice is clear—today’s digital cameras have amazing latitude, but that’s not an excuse to think you can just fix the exposure in post. A lackadaisical approach to shooting may limit what the colorist can achieve later on.
And, as always, whatever medium you’re shooting on, test it first. Different film stocks will yield different results, just as different digital cameras at different resolutions will.
And what about advice for aspiring colorists?
Learning as much as you can as an assistant is the best way to start. Be well organized, pay close attention to the details, and be on time. Mitch’s assistants are responsible for prepping his sessions by setting up the room, pulling files in from their centralized SANs, dropping updated shots into the conform (such as VFX shots), rendering out final, corrected shots, and more. Basically, their job is to do whatever it takes so that Mitch can maximize his time with his clients and keep his focus on the grading process.
Additionally, his current assistant is getting trained up on Lustre, helping Mitch with time-consuming tasks such as rotoscoping, or even helping to apply Mitch’s color correction settings from key frames across sequences—especially when deadlines are tight. It’s his way of mentoring his assistant, just as he was mentored by Steve Scott (who does many of the Marvel movies) when he was starting out.
And how does he know if an assistant will make a good colorist? Are there any particular skills he looks for?
“It’s always all about their eye,” Mitch says. “You can train someone’s eye through practice, but they have to have a natural ability to see certain colors and their nuances.”
The best thing about being a colorist
If you look at the variety and level of films Mitch has graded, you’ll get a feel for his range and artistry. What you might not know is just how hard he works and how many hours he spends in a dark theater. It’s a job that requires passion on top of artistry, but it’s clear that he loves what he does.
“The best thing about it is that I’m doing something that leaves a mark on the film as a whole, and it’s great to be able to help the filmmakers achieve their vision,” he says.
The good news for filmmakers is that the limits of what’s possible have been pushed to new heights with all the options available in production and in post. And the good news for those of us who love films is that artists like Mitch keep pushing the technology to bring the visions of amazing filmmakers to us, in theaters and at home.
Photography by Irina Logra of Logra Studio.