Making the Grade: Son Of Saul's invisible colourist
On Hungary's Oscar-nominated Holocaust film, digital colourist László Kovács worked hard to make his work difficult to see
Son of Saul, or Saul Fia in its original Hungarian, is a raw story, set in the horrors of Auschwitz in 1944. Already the film has won the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Golden Globe for best foreign language feature and is also nominated for an Oscar.
To capture the raw emotions that underpin the story, director László Nemes set about what seems today like a revolutionary analogue to digital workflow: he not only shot the movie on film (using Kodak stocks in ARRI 235 and LT cameras), he finished and reviewed the feature on film, too. That is not to say that the colourist László Kovács and the Baselight grading system 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. Principal photography was done in 28 days and around 90 minutes of dailies were printed on 35mm altogether. This was scanned to 4K for security using the FilmLight Northlight scanner, and a rough grade was performed for editorial.
A traditional colour-timed print
From the EDL the negative was processed and cut for a traditional, manual colour-timed print. Filmlab had the facilities to process, time and print the film, so digital colourist László Kovács and colour 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 sessions were tasked with creating a digital replication of the timed film.
“The first images we saw with the director were the printed dailies,” said Erdély. “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 movie – and the production design ensured that the stark settings were captured in camera. The film demanded no visual effects.
On this film we did not want audiences to even realise it had been graded
“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, colourist László Kovács set to recreating this in Baselight. “Even in the DI we tried to keep it so we mainly used primary colour 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 Kovács 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. This is very much thanks to the team at Filmlab.”
Paying tribute to his colourist, 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 realise it had been graded, which required a really subtle approach from László. There was a lot of creativity and talent involved – but the outcome looks like there wasn’t!”
The DoP was delighted, too, that the Baselight system simply allowed the colourist to achieve the results everyone wanted. Colourist 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 colour 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.
“I just want to emphasise that what this facility has is unique,” said Mátyás Erdély. “This is a relationship that I, as a cinematographer, always hope to have. Theyare here for the film-makers, and they support our choices no matter 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 for them right now. It’s had a big influence.”
Update: Son Of Saul won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
(images courtesy of Laokoon Filmgroup)