Asa Shoul On Digital Coloring
In 2017, digital colorist Asa Shoul was honored with the HPA Award for Outstanding Color Grading – Television for the 2016 “Smoke and Mirrors” episode of Molinare Studio’s hit The Crown, which streams on Netflix. He spoke to HPA Newsline about his career as a colorist, the evolution of technology and his advice to young people eyeing a career in the digital color suite.
Shoul has graded a long list of high-profile films, from the recent Baby Driver, Isle of Dogs and Annihilation to, early in his career, Love Actually, The Constant Gardener, and United 93. His path to becoming a colorist began before college, when he discovered a passion for photography. “I basically lived in my dark room at home for a year and used to cut shapes from cardstock to hide or reveal areas within a photo when printing,” he says. A few years later, he was working as an assistant editor at Framestore when it bought a Rank Cintel MK-III telecine, “It had some of the first very simple shape tools, and I realized that this was similar to what I’d been doing in the darkroom,” he says. “I switched from editing to telecine and never looked back.”
In those early days, to create “strange and interesting looks,” he introduced items such as candy wrappers, combs, and shards of glass in the film gate. “I also used a video mixer to combine layers of images or key and soften highlights,” he recalls. “Although it’s now all digital, I still love to experiment by finding new ways to play with an image, such as combining different grades through shapes or keys, as you might Photoshop layers.”
At Framestore, Shoul began using the Baselight grader from London-based FilmLight. “I had a hand in its development, mainly through requesting features,” he says. “Because the grading is usually the last thing to be done, and time pressure is enormous, we often receive VFX very late and might not have time for fixes or further revisions. We developed techniques on Baselight to be able to ‘fix’ or ‘help’ the VFX.” Now, says Shoul, the digital colorist often does “the bulk of the smaller VFX work in the grade.” “We might paint out a satellite dish in a period film or do some beauty work on an actor’s tired eyes or blend in smoke or stars in a shot,” he says. “We also work closely with the VFX vendors to see if we can take on some of their work if required.”
Shoul started off grading commercials, pop promos and TV, and then evolved into feature films. In his feature film work, Shoul says he loves sci-fi and period pieces. He is currently working on the Ralph Fiennes-directed “The White Crow,” set in 1970s Paris and Russia and shot on 16mm film. “It just looks wonderful before I do anything to it,” he says. With the rise of high-quality TV series, Shoul also found himself returning to grading TV programs, beginning with HBO’s Generation Kill. “It was the first time we approached a TV program – in fact a series – in the same way that we had a feature film,” he says.
With every project, he likes to be involved from the script stage. “With the filmmakers, we discuss various ideas and approaches and pass references back and forth,” he says. He’s also involved in tests for hair, make-up and costumes. For The Crown, for example, cinematographer Adriano Goldman and Shoul carried out extensive make-up tests. “Adriano and I would grade the tests with our desired look and then make JPEGs for makeup to view,” he explains. “Once approved we’d make LUTs for production to use during filming and for dailies.”
When Shoul starts the final grade, the cinematographer isn’t always available, having moved on to the next project. “We might do a ‘color bible’ day when the production is still editing, or do a remote session where I’m in London and they’re in a grading theater somewhere else in the world watching me work,” he says, noting that he and director Wes Anderson did exactly that for Isle of Dogs. “When you have a good relationship with a cinematographer, after a few collaborations, you get a kind of shorthand of what they want or don’t like, and it feels very natural and easy,” he adds. “With new clients, it can take a day or so for me to see an image through their eyes. I have to learn the way they see or like an image to be.”
For young people with a yen to become a digital colorist, Shoul advises they go to art galleries and photographic bookshops and watch as many films from different eras as possible. “Look at where your eye is drawn to and how the artist/photographer has achieved this,” he says. “Try and emulate this in Photoshop or a grading system. Take an image and try to change it to feel like dawn, then sunset, then happy and of course, romantic. Take an image to the breaking point and then see where you feel the image wants to sit, where it feels natural and unforced.” To get a first job, he recommends grading film school student projects for free, to build a reel.