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A Tale of Two Films

Daniel Stuyck Grades Both SXSW Grand Jury Prize Winners with DaVinci Resolve
Daniel Stuyck never set out to be a colorist. Having moved to Austin, TX to attend graduate school in film production at the University of Texas, he found himself in a situation not uncommon to most independent filmmakers.

"There were things I wanted to do with the color on my own films, and I had to figure out how to do it myself because I couldn't afford going to a big heavy iron post house," explain Daniel. "I was a broke graduate student and didn't have the money. But I'd always been interested in cinematography and how the look of the film affects the audience, so I had an affinity for the subject matter. I just didn't expect anything more to come of it."

(c) Hoody Boy Productions / A24

Daniel started getting asked by friends and fellow graduate students if he would grade their films. "They would say, 'If you grade my film, I'll help produce yours.' The basic kind of horse trading, which is how stuff always gets made. Once I graduated, I fell into doing assist work in different places around town, and eventually I struck out on my own," said Daniel. "And while I've worked on other systems, the one constant seems to be that I always want to use DaVinci Resolve."

Different Needs, One Tool
Word of mouth is how Daniel came to grade both SXSW Grand Jury Prize winning films: "Krisha," which was in the Narrative Competition and also won the Narrative Audience Award, and "Peace Officer," which was in the Documentary Competition and also won the Documentary Audience Award. "Krisha" later screened at Cannes in Critics' Week. Both films will be released theatrically later this year.

"The producer of 'Krisha' and the director of 'Peace Officer' asked friends for a recommendation on a colorist, my name was suggested and that's how they got in touch," said Daniel. "It's been my experience that in Austin, most of the finish work done on films is done this way. It's a small, close knit community, so people know each other and rely on word of mouth for these kinds of things.

"The two films are complete opposites in that they had very different sets of grading needs. With a narrative film, you're operating within very controlled parameters. They set up lights, frame the shot, rehearse and do multiple takes," said Daniel. "Whereas in documentary, you almost never get a second take, and the films are often shot on multiple types of cameras over an extended period of time, and then there's archival material and other things along those lines to contend with. In both cases, I think the job of the colorist is to join the disparate parts and create unity. Sometimes there's more of an emphasis on one part of the equation than on the other." 

Expressing Narrative Through Color
"Krisha" is a family drama centering on a woman who comes back to visit her family after being away for 10 years. Critics have made favorable comparisons to John Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence" and Robert Altman's "3 Women." 

"'Krisha' has a lot of improvisation in it, though it's extremely precise and mapped out visually," said Daniel. "There was a lot of discussion around specific looks, and the director and cinematographer wanted a filmic quality. Not film emulation or throwing on film grain, but they wanted a filmic density to the image. Specifically, the kind of contrast curve and saturation that come with slower film stocks, like 50 ASA, a very deep type of color.

"We wanted to achieve that type of saturation for the film, which isn't the same as the high saturation you get by cranking up the saturation slider. It's something more analog that manifests itself in a number of specific ways," he continued. "One thing I noticed when looking at reference material was that color didn't just fall off. In the darker areas, there was a surprising amount of color; it didn't just go to heavy shadow then pure black. I used luma curves in Resolve and the source tab, working natively with the source material, editing metadata and manipulating it on a real nuts and bolts level. I started building the grade off of that."

After building the general profile and look of the image, Daniel relied on DaVinci Resolve's tracker to track Power Windows to finesse the lighting.

"Tracking in Resolve is extremely fast and very easy," said Daniel. "Because there was a lot of natural light used, I could hit a hot spot on someone's head very easily, and the track would hold up even as they moved all over the frame.  It also let us bring out or hide details in the frame quickly and easily, and I can't stress enough how important the time factor is. If tracking were slow and tedious, we wouldn't have had enough time to do the detailed work we were able to do."

The film was shot in three different frame sizes: 5K 16 x 9 intended for a 1.85 crop (4800x2700), 4K 2.40 anamorphic (3296x2700) and 4K Academy 1.33 full frame (3840x2160). "While having all of these different frame sizes in the same project could have been a hurdle, Resolve's flexibility allowed me to work through without any issues at all," said Daniel. "Resolve's toolset is great with things like log grading and a node based workflow, but overall what I love about Resolve is its flexibility. It can handle a lot for all types of projects."

Color Unifies a Storyline
For "Peace Officer" the overall look was unity, unity, unity. 

(c) Peace Officer LLC / Submarine Deluxe

"Peace Officer" is a documentary focusing on the growing militarization of the American police force. It follows a former Utah sheriff, William "Dub" Lawrence, whose son in law was killed in a controversial SWAT raid some 20 years after Dub himself founded the department.

"The film was shot on a number of different cameras over the course of a few years and also has a good deal of archival, live TV and Freedom of Information Act material in it," said Daniel. "A stylistic unity to everything was paramount. The directors wanted it to have a cinematic look, which mostly means 'not reality TV,' but the top priority was that it needed to be smooth and consistent, so any seams would be hidden from the audience.

"The MVP for me was Resolve's temporal noise reduction," he continued. "Almost every shot used it, some more heavily than others. It's fantastic at getting rid of low level noise or making actual SWAT raid helmet cam material, which had noise that looked like golf ball sized hail, manageable.

"One thing I love about Resolve is the ability to set nodes to affect only one specific color channel," said Daniel. "We had some extremely important footage that we couldn't get a better copy of, which we agreed looked a little 'funky.' I then realized that the green and blue channels somehow had been switched during the dubbing process. In Resolve, the RGB splitter was able to attach the greens and blue to different sockets to circumnavigate this. Something that we thought was going to be an insurmountable obstacle I could fix in about 10 seconds."

Daniel added: "The general color science of Resolve is great, and I love its look out of the box. Things just look nice. And for 'Peace Officer,' so much was about using the general toolset to make all the disparate parts work. Luckily, Resolve's toolset is incredibly robust and flexible. Watching the film, my hope would be all those elements we struggled with in the color and finish fade into the background and instead you just see the character and his story.

"Every film presents challenges, which are unique to that film," concluded Daniel. "When you get thrown curve balls, because it always happens on films and it's just a question of when, not if, you want reliable tools. And for me, that's DaVinci Resolve."

About Daniel Stuyck
Daniel Stuyck is an independent colorist & title designer based in Austin, TX, whose work has screened at nearly every major film festival worldwide. His critical writings on film have appeared in Film Comment, Cinema Scope and Vertigo, among others. 

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Related Keywords:Blackmagic Designs, DaVinci Resolve, Color Grading, Cinematography

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