The conventional wisdom has it that Scandinavians have a certain visual sensibility that’s hard to match. Maybe it’s just one of those things that people say, but colourist extraordinaire Daniel De Vue definitely backs up that theory.
Having built a name for himself as a remarkable grading talent in his native Copenhagen, he moved to London in 2016 to become Head of Colour at Glassworks London. Since joining the team at Glassworks, he’s won Best Colourist awards and worked on huge global campaigns including Nike, McLaren, Budweiser, H&M and Toyota.
LBB’s Alex Reeves has a bit of a thing for the wizardry colourists practice, so was eager to meet him…
LBB> A lot of people in the industry are a bit obsessed with what colourists do and talk about it in hushed tones. Why do you think that’s the case?
Daniel> I think it’s the coolest thing. There’s so much magic that gets done in grading. You can completely change the mood or the expression. It’s one of those things where you can have an instant comparison. With editing or something it comes together more gradually. But it’s slightly more obvious to see the difference between something ungraded and then graded. The changes are sometimes subtle and sometimes not, but it’s right there in front of you, and you can easily see where you came from.
LBB> Colour grading isn’t the most accessible career. How did you come to it?
Daniel> I used to work at [Lars von Trier’s film company] Zentropa in Denmark. At the time, At that time they did the coolest stuff with the Dogme 95
wave [the filmmaking movement surrounding von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg] being at its highest, so had a desire to move in their direction.
I started in the offline editing department. Assisting editors on Feature films with tech as well as keeping the recorded footage organised etc. An avid assistant. I quickly became good at that, and realised this would be my ticket in to the industry.
They had one grading suite at Zentropa and that was off limits. That was like rocket science compared to anything else. Avid, tape recorders, raids, even cameras were easy to get your head around, but the grading suite was totally off limits. Its was expensive, everything was carefully calibrated, you know, and it just had an atmos that it was only the clever grown-ups who were allowed to enter.
It was dark. It was cool. The DOP, colourist, director and maybe producer would go in and disappear for a few hours, come out and talk about what they’ve done and you could hear the excitement. It was a bit magical.
Slowly, I would sneak in after a session to check settings and see how they would build a grade and try to get my head around what they were doing. Eventually I would feel more and more confident in the software and the principals of grading and then one day decided to let people know: “Here’s Daniel. And Daniel wants to become a colourist.” Then it was grading short films and music videos, just to get lots of practice. Slowly I got more confident and experienced.
LBB> Did you have a mentor to guide you on that path?
Daniel> After I did a few music videos and short films at Zentropa I got a job at BaconCPH to help build their post department. Coming from feature films, [I thought] advertising was the antichrist. But Bacon had some cool stuff going on having the coolest directors like Martin de Thurah, Jeppe Ronde and Martin Werner to name a few that all inspired me and all did cutting edge work. That worked well with my dream of becoming a colourist because they as well as the directors had two really good VFX supervisors Jonas Drehn and Jan Tvilling, that had amazing taste and a good eye for grading. I asked a lot of questions and got as much feedback from them as possible. I knew I wanted what they had, and they have been great inspirations on my way up the latter.
LBB> Did you have an interest in colour from a young age?
Daniel> When I was a kid I would see people in colours, or attach colours to emotions. I remember when I got annoyed at someone I’d think they were yellow. It doesn’t make sense when you’re a kid.
You can express basic emotions through colours and light. And it’s so primitive sometimes. Imagine the scene on the beach and a young couple are falling in love it’s warm and bright and later in the same film they are outside in the rain braking up and its blue and dark, you know? I’m fascinated by creating moods like that and telling stories through colours and light. It’s such an abstract thing, but we instantly react to it. I think every film is about expressing emotions and you want to do it in a way that people understand. Colours help translate that.
LBB> People often say a grading suite is like a sanctuary. How would you describe the atmosphere when you’re grading?
Daniel> Sometimes I’m a bit blind to it because this is where I live and work. But I do remember when I started hearing it described as a sacred place.Like back at Zentropa. It’s the low light, big panels with glowing buttons, people being focused and special measured light temperatures behind a giant monitor. To create a good atmosphere I think music is the key as well. I think it’s one of the best parts of grading - that we have the privilege to play music while we work.
I play stuff that I like, and I love it when clients discover new music they take home with them. It can affect the way I grade. I recently had a really nice session were we played classical music. It had a great effect. What I like about classical music is it doesn't tell you what to think. It just lets you do it. We were just jamming a few looks and seeing what we wanted to do. It was very relaxed and focused - a really good atmosphere.
LBB> The grading suite can sometimes be full of people with different opinions. Do you have any diplomatic tricks to balance those?
Daniel> That’s an interesting question. It’s about visualising what the director and client have in mind, along with them expecting input from me. But of course often you have differences of opinion. This is part of the creative process. They often have a particular film in mind. It’s about satisfying everyone and that is a discipline in itself - to make sure that you feel what they feel. I’m not the type of colourist that has my way of doing it. I’m open to ideas. I’m ready to pursue input. If there are ten different bits of input then we have to discuss and find some compromise between them all. Directors and DOPs believe in their vision and often lead the discussion. They’re good at communicating what they believe is right, expressing how they think it should look. My job is to bring that vison to the screen.
LBB> It seems like the colourist is the Director of Photograpy’s counterpart in the post-production process. Both set the mood of a film. How do you view your relationship to DOPs?
Daniel> The DOP has a vision when he or she lights it and it’s very much about respecting that vision when it comes to light. I love working with DOPs who know what you can do in post and are into grading. It’s like candy for me when they’re talking about highlights or roll-off. Those become interesting sessions. When I’m with a DOP who speaks my language I learn a lot. They’re amazing to work with. You can really pick their brains on stuff.
I love light. Lack of light or too much light can make it hard for me to work. If everything is visible it gets complicated. You can see actors faces and how they’re reacting but you can also see everything around them. It needs to be like a dream. You can feel the emotions and stuff, but you can’t remember detail a few hours later. Good films are like dreams. If everything is visible you tell too much and the your brain filters it out as something that's no big deal. Lars von Trier's editor once told me a good feature film is 10% on the screen and 90% in your mind. You only want to give small bites.
LBB> Language isn’t always good at describing colour and texture. How do you translate the things people say?
Daniel> I have a pretty strange mind so I’m not too judgemental when people talk abstractly. You definitely get some abstract talk.
References are a really powerful tool. The key is to understand what people get from a particular reference. It can be a totally bright, almost desaturated picture but it’s actually the tone of the blue that they like and not necessarily the other stuff. It’s important to try to understand out of the thousand things going on in the picture, which bit they like.
Then it’s trying to implement their vision into the grade. Communication is a difficult thing when you’re talking about colours because it’s very personal. It’s about trying stuff out and seeing what works.
Sometimes pushing the mid tones can create an interesting mood. And you can feel if they’re into that through reading body language and stuff like that.
LBB> People love to talk about colour grading as Instagram for film. Do you spend much time on Instagram?
Daniel> I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on colourists who have Instagram [he laughs]. Their posts have to have the coolest looks you’ve ever seen. And the reality is it’s just an iPhone camera and chucking some filters on. It’s just a bit of software. Every time I upload a picture I think people are judging the look. I see it more as a fun thing. Sometimes you get a nice vibe. Sometimes it doesn’t need a nice vibe, so it can be more trashy. I work with an American director who was asking me how I lived - like if all my furniture is perfectly colour co-ordinated. I do spend a lot of time creating this mood with the 'production design' of your living room, but people expect a lot from colourists, visually.
One thing that’s annoying with Instagram is that you’re limited. It’d be super easy to include a hue slider so you could shift the hue of yellows and the blues, for example.
LBB> About 18 months ago you moved from Bacon x in Copenhagen to London to work at Glassworks. What was the biggest change to adjust to?
Daniel> The size of the city. My spontaneity was kind of removed. In Copenhagen you cycle everywhere so you can be very spontaneous and make decisions really quickly. Here, I need to plan my travel on the Tube. It might take an hour to visit someone. In Copenhagen you could swing by in ten minutes. Spontaneity gives you a sense of freedom, right?
Now I have a motorbike that gets me around. You can taste the spontaneity with a motorbike, which is beautiful.
I used to skateboard and surf a lot and this bike really reminds me of surfing. The streets are the waves. You ride the traffic. There’s a ritual - with surfing you wax your board and put on your wetsuit and here you put on your helmet and take off the chain-locks etc. You’re preparing yourself for freedom. Then there’s that moment where everything’s OK. It’s just you and the road.
LBB> Glassworks has just moved into a stylish new office. How was the opportunity to build yourself a brand new suite?
Daniel> Yeah, it’s a really cool new space. I really like production design. That’s like real-life grading, isn’t it? You create with objects and change the light with physical objects. You can really create a mood from that. I’m super happy about this place. I wanted the suite to be as dark as possible and not to have too many reflective surfaces but also to create a cosy atmosphere.
I think the light is super important, talking about atmosphere. The suite has windows, which means in a session when we break for lunch, we can pop the blinds and get some daylight and then when we’re done we can block the light completely and get back to grading.