Colour grading of Son of Saul: the ’invisible colourist’
Son of Saul and the technical background of the production has been one of the main talking points of the following articles published in the past few days. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and colorist László Kovács talked about the details of the post-production of the Oscar nominee.
Son of Saul – Saul Fia in its original Hungarian – is the feature debut of director László Nemes. It is a raw story, set in the horrors of Auschwitz in 1944. Already the filmhas won the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Golden Globe and the Oscar for best foreign language feature.
To capture the raw emotions that underpin the story, Nemes set about what seems today like an analogue to digital workflow: he not only shot the movie on film (using Kodak stocks in Arri 235 and LT cameras), he also finished and reviewed the feature on film. That is not to say that the colorist László Kovács and the grading system (Baselight) at Magyar Filmlabor in Budapest (Hungarian Filmlab) did not have work to do.
Despite its accolades, Son of Saul was made on a tight budget of around 1.5 million US dollars. Principal photog- raphy was done in 28 days and around 90 minutes of dai- lies were printed on 35 mm altogether. This was scanned to 4K for security using the Northlight scanner (FilmLight), and a rough grade was performed for editorial.
From the EDL the negative was processed and cut for a traditional, manual color-timed print. Filmlab had the facil- ities to process, time and print the film, so digital colorist László Kovács and color timer Viola Regeczy could sit in the review sessions with the director and DoP, Mátyás Erdély. In an unusual inversion of the usual practice, the DI ses- sions were tasked with creating a digital replication of the timed film.
Erdély said that the first images they had seen with the director were the printed dailies. “László [Kovács] was always there and followed the entire process, so by the time he got to the DI, he already understood the film and our goals. It was great that he was involved so early on.”
The shocking nature of the film dictated the way that Nemes shot it – there are only 85 shots in the 107 minute
Son of Saul – The Complex Art of a Seemingly Simplistic Grade movie – and the production design ensured that the stark settings were captured in camera. The film demanded no visual effects.
“We were aiming to do something that was very raw and very simple. We wanted to carry through the concept of everything looking neutral,” Erdély explained. “We never wanted to make a ’pretty’ film. In fact, I would not even call it a ‘look’. It was treated with the utmost care by László and I was very impressed by what we were able to accomplish.” Having achieved the visual style they wanted in the film print, Kovács and Regeczy set to recreating this in Baselight. “Even in the DI we tried to keep it so we mainly used primary color correction,” said Erdély, emphasising the raw nature of the film. “We wanted to limit ourselves to the most essential tools.”
During a week of sessions Hungarian Filmlab created a 4K digital master of the film and a 2K DCP deliverable, which even the film-loving Nemes and Erdély had to admit were a strikingly close match. “Although I’m not a fan of the format, I’m very happy with the DCP we created at the end,” Erdély said. “It’s amazing that we had the time, the resources and the know-how to get the best out of both digital and film prints.”
Paying tribute to his colorist, Erdély added, “The look itself may be very simple but the way this was achieved is very sophisticated. On this film we did not want audiences to even realize it had been graded, which required a really subtle approach from László. There was a lot of creativ- ity and talent involved – but the outcome looks like there wasn’t!”
The DoP was delighted, too, that the system sim- ply allowed the colorist to achieve the results everyone wanted. Colorist Kovács added, “It is very fast, and it brings out the creative elements in me. I never had to waste time waiting for the system to catch up or preparing to render or anything like that.”
Founded in 1964, Magyar Filmlabor has always been a pioneer in modern technology. It was an early adopter of FilmLight color tools: its Baselight One system bears the serial number 4. Since then the company has invested in a Baselight Four for major projects such as Son of Saul. The facility also has a Northlight scanner and Flip for on-set services and recently added FLUX Store to help cater for growing data demands.
Szabolcs Barta, senior colorist and marketing director at Hungarian Filmlab, commented: “I believe the real strength of this project was the complexity of our facility. We are proud to still be running our 35mm pipeline, which helps the creatives – such as the crew of Son of Saul - to do everything in one place. We are always looking for ways to improve our facilities and educate our staff in order to be able to serve every production. We have used Baselight since 2004 and with it we have worked on several festival winner.”
“I just want to emphasize that what this facility has is unique,” said Mátyás Erdély. “This is a relationship that I, as a cinematographer, always hope to have. They are here for the film-makers, and they support our choices no mat- ter how crazy we are.
“They say to us ‘well yeah, if you want to cut your negative you can cut your negative, but we are going to scan everything in 4K for you just to be on the safe side’. As a filmmaker, this is what I truly respect.
“And one last thing to add,” he concluded. “What was really amazing was that, when Son of Saul went through the lab processing, there were at least three Hungarian movies that decided to follow us, shooting on film and finishing digital.
“There is also a very big French production that saw our film in Cannes. They knew they were going to be shooting in Hungary, and because of our movie they decided to shoot on film and process at Filmlab – who are creating the dailies the dailies for them right now. It’s had a big influence.”
"My color timer was Viola Regéczy and my colorist was László Kovács," says Erdély. "It was truly amazing to be such a small-budget Hungarian first-feature film and still go to the lab every other day and watch our printed dailies. We were blown away by the power of the projected images."