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Colouring in Lockdown

03 Jun 2020 2:24 PM | Amber Wakefield (Administrator)

David Paul was planning on a session with colourist, Paul Lear, at Images and Sound, on Friday 27th March 2020 to check out his tweaks on Episode 1 of “The Sounds” a new 8-episode drama co-production with South Pacific Pictures and Shaftesbury. Then.. level 4 Lockdown arrived virtually overnight.

Suddenly no more grading. I know there were also several other jobs being graded throughout Aotearoa that now have come to a halt. This surely is a spanner in the works for producers and any hopes of delivering.

But then to my surprise and delight, into our first week of lockdown an email arrives saying Ep2 has been uploaded to view and so we’re back on. Images have set Paul up in his home bubble to continue grading the series.

So this became our ‘Level 4 / 3 normal’ for grading. Off-line was uploaded. I’d watch it a few times. Paul and I would then talk on the phone going through shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene discussing how we felt each needed treating. Lots of timecode checking with each other, so we know we’re talking about the same shot. The LUT’s I’d had built for our on-set monitoring were applied to the off-line, so I was able to see the show quite well in the zone of how we wanted it to look, as a base. Paul of course was grading from original master log footage. He’s graded a lot of my work and he knows my approach, so we have a head start. We’d talk through the episode, the feeling and mood of scenes, the characters, the why’s and when’s during our 90+ min phone chats.

As we are familiar with each other’s approach and tastes, we’d often subconsciously have a sort of shorthand dialogue about some scenes/shots and I’d know we were talking about the same thing. Having that pre-existing relationship with the colourist was important. During these phone sessions I’d double check - are we seeing the same thing regarding shadow or highlights detail or colour etc? Paul reassuring me the detail is there in the shadows, or the highlights are ok, the colour not too intense, as he is the only one actually seeing the real image on a correct monitor. 

From this I came to realise what I'm seeing in the Moxion viewing platform was very close to what Paul was seeing. I was also pleased to see us being able to watch 1080p on Moxion. Previously I’d only used it for rushes at 720p. Through this regular checking with Paul as to what we each were seeing I was able to calibrate myself, my mind and eyes in a sense, to what I’m watching - otherwise myself and the Post Production Producer could be giving incorrect or uneducated notes leaving Paul scratching his head thinking we’ve gone a bit AWOL.

Paul would then do a first pass after our phone chats. Images and Sound DMC would remotely upload the graded episode. Executive Producer / Post Production Producer, Chris Bailey, and myself, would watch it in our respective bubbles and comment. Being so used to being in the suite with the colourist, but now not being able to point at the screen and interact, I started to do frame grabs and draw, and add text with arrows all over them. Sometimes I’d do basic grade ideas myself on the occasional frame grab to try to illustrate my thoughts. I found that much easier to communicate ideas or thoughts than writing them in an e-mail.

David Paul NZCS in his home office (aka bubble)

I’m viewing the grades on my 15” MacBookPro. It’s a long way from lovely, expensive calibrated monitors in a grading suite. I’d also watch it on my 24” iMac just to double-check. I found with screen brightness set to about 70% it sat in the zone, plus I did the Mac calibration of my screens - it’s under Displays in System Preferences. I found after calibrating though, it was near the same as my preferred Mac preset screen setting anyway. If you’re monitoring your blue light exposure don't forget to check if you have Night Mode On or Off, otherwise you may watch a very cool or very warm version of your film which could cause confusion and tears.

As part of my own curiosity I did test/compare our footage in Moxion with a well-known publicly available on-line video platform, both at 1080p. My conclusion was, if looking at any technical aspects of your film for grading, do not use any such consumer video platforms. They do not represent the grade correctly at all. Colours and levels are skewed too much for you to make any educated or correct judgement calls. 

Here’s a few options:

Moxion (pronounced “motion”) is a secure intermediates/rushes viewing platform designed for the film/tv industry…plus there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

Other popular industry specific platforms for the same purpose are the fully-featured which I’ve experienced on other projects and works very well, and you can add notes to the videos, draw on a frame with arrows etc. Digital Pigeon is another platform.

I asked Hugh Calveley, CEO of Moxion why Moxion works for image accuracy. 

"The key to maintaining colour accuracy is not to lose control of your render pipeline by outsourcing it. Keeping as much in house as possible, means that we can maintain QC and identify exactly where issues are arising.We make sure that all the source file information is translated accurately  ,  your images , colour space or  contrast  for example ,  and  carried through the entire process , using our own dedicated code to  manage this transcoding and /or re wrapping of your files. It also helps that many of us are from the industry (ex DIT's, Editors etc) and have an obsession with image and colour. Hugh also mentioned they have 4k and HDR available."

After talking to Hugh, I realise the rushes/ intermediates story is bigger than a few lines as there is so much more to it and reasons why you should only be using industry dedicated platforms. That’s an article in itself for another day. 

I touched base with Grant Baker, Head of Images / Managing Partner at Images and Sound, as I was curious and impressed by how they responded so quickly, keeping the show’s post schedule moving forward.

Paul's home bubble set-up

Grant Baker, Head of Images / Managing Partner at Images and Sound 

"As an accredited member of the Trusted Partner Network (TPN) we need to have an approved pandemic plan in place - which at the time seemed like complete overkill and was something that we would just file away and never need, but 2 weeks prior to New Zealand going into lockdown (and before Covid was even a “thing" in NZ) we were advised to activate our pandemic plan - which even then seemed like a complete over reaction - but we started quietly preparing things in the background “just in case” they would be needed.

Baselight is our main colour grading tool, and they offer a “scaled back” version which is perfect for a work from home scenario. Once the Covid threat started ramping up we scrambled to get a couple of portable solutions ready to go so we could carry on grading from home.

Our Digital Media Centre was able to work remotely to access servers and securely pass files back and forth to artists and clients and plus deliver broadcast files to networks and distributors once grades had been signed off

And of course working from home does also present some challenges for getting the lighting levels correct with some novel solutions needed to be “engineered” under the lockdown situation where nothing was available and you had to use whatever you had on hand. 

Having worked with various Cinematographers remotely and having good relationships with them we were confident the grades that we were applying would translate to their laptops or viewing monitors at home - a lot of the grading work on The Luminaries was done this way."

Good to see a recyclable approach to Paul's black out technique. Also, looks like he has used all the spare blankets in the house. I guess there were no forts being built in the living room then. 

Paul Lear, Baselight Colourist

"During lockdown, time seemed to stop, or it continued without my knowledge. Did anyone know what day it was? During the first week, we had to come up with a new improvised schedule. At least there was a goal of when I would have a first pass graded and the clients would expect an online version for review. Thankfully, we had already set the look and the first episode grade was approved. 

Once my graded pass was complete, it was then sent out for review. Even though this was called the first pass, it was my second pass through the episode. One thing I learned during this process was patience. It would take overnight or a day to get the episode online for review. Then it would take a day or two (or a few) to get the first email with grading notes. It was amazing how busy we all were during lockdown with nothing to do. Patience were also required when I wanted to call or text David a question. Not because of David’s availability , but the availability of my phone as my son was using it for voice chat with his friends as he was incredibly busy playing Mario Cart on our Nintendo Switch. 

I wanted to start making the grading tweaks right away, but I held out for a second or third email before changing the grade. While David and Chris’s emails would rarely contradict each other there were subtle changes to the grade that would have been missed if I didn’t wait for the next emails. Then the process started over again. The graded version with notes was sent out for approval as I continued my work on the following episode and waited for more emails. 

Since we had worked together for many years, there was a trust between us. His notes asked for changes, but he also prefaced it with the trust he had of me and wanted to be sure that I agreed with the changes because we were seeing things on different monitors, in different locations."

With the arrival L2 we all re-convened in Baselight 2 at Images and Sound to view our successful Lock Down Grades of several episodes. We got through four episodes in lockdown but it was reassuring to do a sign off of our most recent ‘Lock Down grade’ in person .

This was a welcome and fun distraction during L4/3 and kept the creative juices flowing, but I am very happy to be back in the suite with Paul for the remaining episodes. Even though we managed to carry on , it doesn’t compare to being in the same space as the colourist, looking at the same image on the same monitor where we can bounce ideas around and discuss in real time. 

~ David Paul NZCS

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