Coloring MAKE - Musicbed Doc - with John Carrington

Coloring MAKE - Musicbed Doc - with John Carrington

Today I get to share with you guys an interview that I am incredibly excited about. As many of you already know, Musicbed recently blew up the internet with the release of their new documentary MAKE, and if you haven't seen it yet you definitely should. 

John Carrington and I have been internet friends for quite some time it seems, and within the last couple weeks he seemed to pop up EVERYWHERE as a colorist on some cool projects - Five Star by Ryan Booth, Onward by Cale Glendening, and MAKE by Musicbed. John was kind enough to take the time to share some insights into working as a Colorist and specifically some insight into the process of grading MAKE. We've periodically added before/after sliders so you can see the frames from the film in their original state and after he did his magic!

Who are you?
I’m John Carrington and I am a Cinematographer & Colorist based out of Greenville, SC. 

How did you get into the production world?
My background is that I was a musician and was playing in bands all through high school and college. When I was younger I was really into audio engineering and actually went to college for it for a while. I started working for a church doing all sorts of live production from audio to lighting and camera systems. One day they said they wanted to do a produced video and I asked “who’s going to do it?” and their response was that I was haha. So that was my introduction into video and film. I had always really loved movies, and had the passing thought “I would really love to work on films someday.” But I figured it was pretty inaccessible for me because I’m from the MidWest and didn’t know where to even begin. But I really loved getting to work on videos and eventually got better. I was really really bad in the beginning. I’ve always been pretty good at teaching myself things, I taught myself how to play the guitar and piano, I taught myself how to record music, and then I taught myself how to do videos and film. When I really enjoy something I tend to just throw myself into it and really learn as much about it as possible.

What led you to working as a Colorist?
In the early days, I kind of stumbled upon some blog posts about color grading and it was also around the time that Apple had released Color with their FCP Suite. In all honestly, I realized that playing with the color of my footage made it look like I was way better than I was haha. I just really fell in love with being able to manipulate footage and make it look as good as possible.

My first actual job as a colorist was for my good friend and (now) longtime collaborator Cale Glendening. I had helped him shoot a big music video project in Oklahoma and the person that was going to do the color ended up having to back out. Cale knew that I had been doing some grading so he came to me and asked if I’d be interested in doing the film. I was actually pretty nervous because it was a big project, I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it well, and it was 10 music videos with about 45 min of content. Cale was really encouraging and said “I really think you will do great, you have my full confidence” and so I just jumped in. That was really the first job I didn't shoot that I did color on. Cale and I still work together pretty closely and he is one of my favorite people. That led to me shooting more and grading my own stuff and more people saw some of the work and started asking me to grade their stuff. I’ve been really lucky to be able to work with so many really great Directors and DPs as their colorist. I really enjoy helping to bring someones vision to life and also learn from them how they see things.

How did you get connected to do Make?
I had been friends with the guys at Musicbed for a while - I knew Ezra Cohen & Ben Joyner before they had ever worked there - but I’d never worked on anything with Musicbed before. Then one day last September I was on a set and Ezra sent me a text asking if I was interested in doing the grade for a feature doc they were working on. I asked a few quick questions about it and it seemed like something I’d be really into. I had a look at the rough cut they had at the time and after I watched it I knew I just had to be a part of what they were doing. I jumped on a phone call with Christian Schultz (Director) and Ezra (Producer) to talk a little about my thoughts on the film and where I felt like the color should go and I was able to ask them what they were feeling. We seemed like we were on the same page so we set up a timeline to work on it and I got connected with the awesome Lucas J. Harger (Editor). Then we got to work.

What was the relationship like between you, Christian, and Ryan(DP)? Was anyone else heavily involved?
Christian and I had a few conversations at the beginning of the project to make sure we were on the same page. On my first pass he really had one small note overall. For the most part I communicated with Ezra Cohen as we went back and forth on stuff. I actually didn’t talk to Ryan at all on this project haha. But everything was smooth sailing because of the discussions we had at the beginning so I feel like we really just talked about little things as we went forward. Plus, talking to one person instead of 5-6 makes communication really easy and clear. Hats off to Ezra, he was juggling a lot of different things during post but I always felt like I was getting good info on how things were looking and feeling and even though it took a while to finish, I think that the team did a good job managing everything.

What were the inspirations and references for the grade on Make?
So this is the rare project where I didn’t have any reference images. When Christian and I spoke we talked about how we wanted it to feel and what the overall aesthetic would be. After watching the doc before starting on the color I really had a strong feeling as to what the tone should be and how to get there. I pitched it to Christian and he was on board. So I just jumped in and started grading without really looking at other images. My favorite director is David Fincher and I just love the looks of his films. Even though I didn’t directly use any images from his films i think thats something that really informs my sensibilities and how I personally like images to feel. But it was a conscious decision to make the film feel like its own instead of point directly to any actual reference.

What was your Data workflow? Everything was pretty much Dragon right? Did they ship you drives and then XMLs etc?They shot 90% of the film on the Red Epic Dragon with RedGamma2/DragonColor. There are probably 3-4 shots that are a Canon C500 and then another 4-5 shots that are a Canon 5DkIII. Those shots weren’t the easiest to match, hopefully no one notices which is which haha. But having a consistent camera for the vast majority of it definitely helps things to feel the same. I actually just finished working on another project with Ryan Booth - a doc called ‘Five Star’ - which was shot on 6-7 different camera systems. It was pretty difficult to make all of them feel the same. 

So I got 2x 8TB drives sent to me from Lucas and started combing through footage before the edit was 100% locked, just to get a feel for everything and try and pinpoint some of the more challenging shots and sequences. Lucas and I then talked about how best to conform the footage. Since the film is broken down into chapters we decided to break each section into a reel for the XMLs, so I had 5 XML’s sent to me from Lucas. There were 5 sections, The opening scene/intro was Reel 1, Section 1 was Reel 2, Section 2 was reel 3….ect.

I imported each one into Davinci Resolve and checked it with the master edit that Lucas provided me. This really helped to make sure everything was conformed right and I could easily see what clips might not be correct and fix them. Conforming projects almost always takes more time than you think it will, especially on big projects, but this one went pretty smoothly. Another thing we had to do was deal with a number of shots that are from our character’s projects. In order to make sure that everything was perfect, Lucas provided me a flat ProRes HQ file that I imported and cut up myself instead of trying to relink to the source files for that, we were just having a little trouble getting them to conform perfectly and decided to work smarter and not harder to make sure everything was perfect from Lucas’s edit. There are actually 6-7 VFX shots in the film and so I also had to get those clips to the VFX artist and make sure that everything matched when we brought the clips back in.

Then I just got to grading and we we eventually got it finished! We used Frame.IO for the project management and notes, which was really really great. In the end, I exported a ProRes 4444 Master and also a version with handles just in case there were some really small tweaks that needed to happen. I sent the drives back to Lucas and he took my grades and synced them with the audio provided by DeFacto and also all the graphics and titles in the film.

What was your process like for the actual grade?
When I first watched Make the world ‘tone' kept coming to mind for the color. I wanted the film to have a lot of tone, not in a saturated way, but just have a feel to it that gave the characters a certain richness. Christian said specifically they like dark, dirty, and gritty and I really took that to heart when approaching the look. These characters are talking about why they do what they do and how they see things. Sometimes thats not perfect and clear so I thought the grade should reflect that theme. I also wasn’t so concerned with having everything look exactly the same, I felt each character could kind of have their own space and feel to it, because each of these people have their own experiences and opinions. So I just really wanted the grade to reflect each person’s personality and feel. Obviously you don’t want that to be jarring, the scenes live together so you do have to try and keep it in the same look family. Ryan did a great job shooting so there weren't a ton of things that had to be ‘fixed’. It was more about just finding the right tone. First I switched the clips from RedGamma2 to RedLogFilm to give me the most flexibility. I then applied a custom LUT that I developed myself to use for this project. I have a node pre-LUT for the general matching of clips and any other Pre-LUT adjustments I needed to make, this makes it easy to keep things feeling the same throughout the film while also giving you a lot of flexibility to match shots when needed. Then post-LUT I brought the saturation up and tried to make sure my black levels were consistent and for the last LUT I had FilmConvert that was really for grain when needed. They shot the film at 2000 ISO with the FLUT adjustment down 2 stops, this allows for great highlight retention in the Dragon. There were times that I would bring the FLUT back to 0 to get a little more exposure and since we weren’t afraid of grain I could just let it play.

I didn’t use a lot of power windows and qualifiers. I find that when you do a lot of detail work like that it can come across too slick which I definitely wanted to stay away from. I did what was necessary to fix problems like bad color casts, making sure skin tones looked good, and every once in a  while bring up a part of a scene. It was pretty straight forward and there really weren’t many notes. Overall everyone was pretty happy and would just point out really small things here and there. On a big project like this you just have to take it a bit at a time until you get to the end. Breaking the film into Reels really helped me to take it a section at a time and then bring the reels together to get a good overall sense of how things were feeling. The whole process was really quite smooth and I am really happy with how it turned out.

Did you have to re-grade any existing footage like the sessions or music videos to match the feel of everything else?
We did some really small things, definitely nothing major because those projects already look so great. Some of the BTS stuff got a little bit of work done on them but we wanted all the existing footage to stay true to what it is.

What were the biggest struggles with the process?
Honestly, this project went pretty smooth from a color standpoint, and once again I think thats because we were on the same page at the beginning. I think one struggle was how long it took to finish. I got the drives in December 2015 and I think I sent them back to Lucas around April 2016. Obviously I didn’t work on it for 4 months straight but I think Musicbed were really trying to decided where the doc would play and in what capacity so there were times I would wait a decent while on feedback - which isn’t a big deal - but we were definitely excited to see it finished and share it with people so having it take a while to finish up was kind of difficult. But again, Kudos to Ezra for running the ship and making sure everything got done and we hit the deadlines we set, even if those deadlines would move around from time to time.

What’s your favorite shot?
I think its funny that its my favorite shot, but I really have always loved the interview shot with Drake Margolnick in the car. This is a great example of what i love about Ryan’s cinematography. Its a bold choice to have him so dark but I feel like it lends itself perfectly to what he is saying and the mood of the film.
I totally agree - That scene was one of the scenes that really stuck out to me.

What are three practical things for people to keep in mind with their grades?
1. Have a strong idea of what you want. I get clients sometimes that want me to grade for them and they don’t have a clear idea of what they want. I tend to have a tougher time getting something they are happy with than people who have a strong visual sense of what they are looking for. It also just makes the project stronger to have that strong vision. If you don’t know what you want then just put a little time to really think about how you see the finished product, then write it down to keep yourself accountable to the vision you have.

2. Don’t be afraid to push an image farther than you think it can go. Especially with todays cameras, you can do so many things with your image. I think people will be surprised to know how far I go with things sometimes, specifically I’m thinking of things like grain, darkness, contrast. But if you nail the aesthetic of the piece, your audience will never know that its a pushed image because they are engaged with the content and it won’t feel out of place.

3. Be open to ideas that aren’t yours. On this project I got to do pretty much what I wanted and had a lot of support from the production to take things in the direction I felt it needed to go, which was awesome. Thats not always the case. A lot of times what you would naturally do with an image is at odds with what the client wants. But you will often see that see the ideas they have really are best for the project. We all see things differently and a Colorist’s job is to make the director's or DP’s vision come to life. Be open handed with what you think is best and I think you’ll be surprised how you are pushed to try new things and discover new and better ways to approach projects.

I think that's a good note to end on. Thanks for taking the time to share John! Where can people find you on the internet?
Twitter: @JCarrington3
Insta: @JCarrington3

Thanks for visiting - if you want more info on the business of production you can also visit my Patreon and Youtube Channels!

Seriously. If you haven't seen Make yet, do it. Now.

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