Making The Grade: Interview with Peaky Blinders colourist Simone Grattarola

Peaky Blinders screenshot
Neal Romanek
Post Production
May 4th 2016 at 9:44AM : By Neal Romanek

Simone Grattarola discovered colour grading by accident. Now he’s the colourist of Peaky Blinders and the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. He talks with TVTE about the evolution of the craft and how doing the job takes more than technological skill

How did you begin your career as a colourist?

It was a classic case of starting as a runner and working my way up through the machine room. I wanted to be an editor, but that wasn’t really happening for me. So I went travelling, and I got a call from a friend of mine who was an assistant colourist at a company called Rushes. He said he’d been made a full colourist, and because I knew him and the head of the department, they asked if I wanted take a role as an assistant colourist. At that time I didn’t know anything about colour grading – or telecine, as it was known back then. It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do, but from the moment I put up a roll of film in the telecine gate I was hooked.

I worked my way up, then went to a company called Red Post Production. I helped set up a new grading division there with an old Spirit telecine and we started developing a bigger client base. From there I went to One Post and then finally came back to Rushes, where I was for the past seven years, and became head of colour grading there. Then last year I left to set up the grading team at Time Based Arts.

What is your set up at Time Based Arts?

We have two Da Vinci Resolve grading suites with Dolby monitors. They’re both commercial grading suites, but the second suite doubles as a film grading suite. We have a 2K Christie projector and projection screen, and we can swap over in the room, so we can do both commercial grading and long-form grading in that suite.

What are the differences between using that Spirit telecine that you first trained on and the digital tools available now? It’s obviously a very different process.

It’s a totally different process. It was a more - for lack of a better word - organic process. You would put the film on the gate and you wouldn’t have available all the tools you have now. With the old telecines and the panel that came with them, you had maybe four or five windows, and none of them would track. You didn’t have the infinite amount of colour corrections you can do now. There was only so much you could do. In a way you became more creative working with those limitations. The classic example is you would use Vaseline, or put a ruler in the gate, to create a lighting effect.

But since the advent of digital intermediate, you can track windows which isolate various parts of the screen. And these shapes will track through the shot, so if you have someone moving through frame and you want to change the colour of their face or make it brighter, you can track that through a shot. Before, you had to incrementally go through and create an event on each frame. Then every time you put the film up, the film would be in a slightly different place, so that window would have to be moved. It was a bit of a nightmare. That one small change, being able to use a trackable window, has saved so much time.

But there was something quite magical about working with those limitations and working directly on film. Sometimes you kind of miss that. It’s interesting that some people now are starting to shoot film again.

Simone Grattarola at work

When did you start using digital tools and how was that transition for you?

I was at Rushes at the time. We had two telecine machines there - a C-Reality, made by Rank Cintel, and a Spirit telecine, made by Philips Thomson. The C-Reality went, and we bought this new product, made by Da Vinci, called Resolve. We saw the benefits immediately in terms of how much more colour correction you could do, the tracking tools, and editing tools as well. It became a complete tool. And within a matter of months, we phased out the Spirit too and got another Resolve.

What kind of work did you do in those days before you moved on to long-form television?

Rushes was mainly a commercials grading facility, as we are now at Time Based Arts. But when you’re starting out as a junior colourist you tend to work on prop promos and short films. You cut your teeth doing those with directors that you end up working with on commercials. A lot of the people I started working with years ago are now doing long-form TV or features or high-end commercials. That was part of the reason why we wanted to put a projector in at Time Based Arts – a lot of our directors are now doing feature films. We wanted to give them that option to work with people they know and enjoy working with.

There was something quite magical about working with those limitations and working directly on film. Sometimes you kind of miss that

Is doing long-form drama a very different approach from doing commercials? Do you enter the process in a more creative way?

It becomes a lot more about storytelling. Everything tends to be subtler. In a commercial or music video, you have less time to create an emotion or a feeling. It’s one feeling that runs through it.

Doing a TV series involves a lot of preparation – talking to the director, and editor and the DOP beforehand. We use a lot of references. On commercials you don’t always get that opportunity. You might only get to grade for a day – or a half a day - then you’re on to the next job. But working on longer form, you can prepare and bring in a lot of references.

What I enjoy is that it is a different skillset. You keep watching things back and keep changing them. Even physically when you step back from a monitor, things can change. In Walter Murch’s classic book In The Blink Of An Eye, he talks about how he stands up when he’s editing. and I think when you’re grading trying things like that helps and longer form projects allow you to do that.

You’ve recently done Peaky Blinders and the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. What was the process on those?

Peaky Blinders was an interesting project because the DOP, George Steel, was someone I knew from grading commercials. When he landed the job, he wanted to bring in someone with more a commercial background to create a commercial look for that project. He didn’t necessarily want it to have the “long form look”. He wanted a fresh approach.

We worked on some tests before he went to shoot, so we had quite a good idea of the look. And after the project started, that look continued. It got adapted as the series went on, but it was a case where we hit on something early on and it carried through.

War and Peace was a lot more involved - partly because there’s a classic nature to it, whereas in Peaky Blinders we had a blank canvas. At the same time we wanted to do something that was modern. It was a difficult balance. We did a lot of tests and went through a lot of references.

But when we looked at it, it was too extreme. It was too ‘printerly’, and like a painting. As it progressed, it didn’t feel quite right. So we pared it back and there was a lot of reworking and finessing. The producers might not agree with me, because obviously we spent more time doing it, but it was creatively a really good thing to do to step back and re-look at the work.

War and Peace screenshot

Colourists are now a high-profile part of the process. Kids entering the industry now want to be colourists rather than cinematographers or editors. What advice do you have for people getting started?

When I first started out, it was like a dark art. No one who came into post production understood it or knew what it was. Even myself, I sort of stumbled into it. But now, a company like Blackmagic has free versions of Da Vinci Resolve that you can download, so a lot more people understand the toolset.

I’m constantly getting people contacting me, saying “This is my reel. I’m a colorist.” My thing with that is a lot of people can use the tools and create something, which is great. If you have Final Cut at home and can edit you might call yourself an editor. But in our small community, in the commercials or film world, you’re not.

Anyone who has these tools should try and experiment with them, and you should contact people like myself. We’re always looking at people’s work and seeing who’s coming up. But you still haven’t worked at a company and understood what is expected in terms of sitting down in front of clients and delivering the best quality service. It’s very different doing it at home than actually being in a company with clients paying a money for what is perceived as the best quality work they can get.

When I have people coming through, I do a lot more schooling of them in terms of they’re approach to work, how they deal with people, how they manage their room and their session. A lot of people have good eyes, but it’s about understanding what a multitude of people want, interpreting that and delivering it to them, and then giving them something more as well. That becomes an art form in itself. With the people that I’ve trained over the years, that’s always the last piece of the jigsaw.

Emotional intelligence ends up being one of the most important things.

Yes. What I find with grading, is there’s a hell of a lot of preparation, especially on the long-form work – looking at references, working with the DOP on tests, creating look up tables. But when you come to work on it, you have to free yourself a little bit. You don’t want to constrain yourself to what you’ve done before. Because you’re emotionally engaged and you’ve done so much preparation, it becomes intuitive. By the fourth episode of War and Peace, we were in that mode of working, but it took a long time to get there.