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"I Can See Apple, Amazon and Netflix Execs Preferring to Review Content Remotely Far More Than Previously"
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Sohonet sits down with leading colourist and partner at REDLAB Walt Biljan – and attempted to fit everything from working on Schitt’s Creek to dealing with Covid and performing colour grades and VFX finishing reviews remotely using ClearView Flex

One of the great pleasures of working at REDLAB is hosting creative talent like Eugene Levy, Catherine Reitman and her father, the acclaimed filmmaker Ivan Reitman. Producers, directors and showrunners like them choose to post at Toronto’s foremost high-end boutique in part because the facility’s owners are also its senior artists.

“There’s a beautiful vibe to the building when we have filmmakers of this calibre in our corridors and suites,” says Walt Biljan, colourist and partner at the Toronto shop. “It has been tremendously sad this past year not to have had that opportunity – but hopefully things are turning a corner now.” 

Formed in 2008 and still privately owned by a group of Canadian filmmakers and friends, REDLAB offers three elite grading studios, full audio post and VFX packaging for film, TV and commercials.

In Toronto, it competes directly with Deluxe and Technicolor and has posted multiple seasons of Emmy-winning comedy Schitt’s Creek, CBC crime drama Coroner, popular CBC comedy Workin’ Moms (created by and starring Catherine Reitman) as well as feature films like Wander, Resident Evil: Retribution and Lucky Day. REDLAB’s thriving commercials division works for clients including Gatorade, Google and Starbucks.

CBS crime drama Coroner

Covid-19 response

When the pandemic hit the majority of its 40-strong staff including all technicians were asked to work from home. For a while, Walt and his fellow partner-artists worked isolated in their suites, receiving and sending out media on drives.

“That was unsustainable until we found ClearView Flex,” Walt says. “To be honest, we’d trialled remote solutions over the last decade without any real success. Everything we tried struggled with latency and communication or poor-quality images and bad compression.”

They first came across ClearView Flex at NAB in 2019 and tried it for the first time last April. 

“It was a revelation not least because our clients were surprised and happy about how good the remote experience was. We had some DPs who were sceptical about any kind of remote review but there were no doubts once we’d set them up with ClearView.”

He explains: “While I’m colour correcting, they are seeing changes on their screen in real-time and we are having an open dialogue on Zoom. They see the output on their monitor. It’s a really efficient workflow.”

Calibration checks

To ensure the sessions run smoothly, Biljan arranges a short call with the client ahead of time to calibrate the remote monitor. He sends the remote monitor a signal that returns a report of what the client is seeing at the other end and he uses calibration charts for fine tuning.

“I’m ascertaining that they can see differences in the blacks or that they can see whites,” he says. “I don’t mind if they see the whites slightly warmer or cooler – our visual perception is after all subjective – but I do care that they are seeing the right contrast levels.

Walt Biljan, Colourist & Partner at REDLAB

“I am very familiar with what the correct calibration should be on a Mac so if they are using an Apple device such as putting the ClearView signal through their home TV display via Apple TV, we can be confident in what we are both seeing. Alternatively, I’d recommend they use one of the latest LG smart TVs such as the LG C8 or C9 series which is what we use as client monitors in our suite. If they have a different model TV, that’s okay since I can still talk them through calibration. 

“If they want more solid science then we can courier out an iPad Pro which we have precisely calibrated and checked at REDLAB.”

During lockdown, REDLAB performed colour grading sessions and VFX finishing on the latest season of Workin’ Moms and Coroner, as well as the indie feature Wander starring Tommy Lee Jones and directed by April Mullen.

Walt also graded a season of programming for YesChef, an online channel which delivers cookery masterclasses from culinary experts like Nancy Silverton and Francis Mallmann. With the director and producers of the show located in Israel, in all probability the grading sessions would have been remote even without Covid travel restrictions.

Remote is here to stay

“I think the world was changing before Covid and that the crisis has sped it up,” Walt says. “As we look to the future, I can see Apple, Amazon and Netflix execs preferring to review content remotely far more than previously. They don’t have the time to travel, and nor do they need to when the remote experience is so good. 

“A lot of commercials sessions were already becoming remote and I think ad agencies will want to remain remote or working from home. Feature film creatives are always squeezed for time. DPs and producers are travelling a lot or overseas and often the only chance they have to watch the project is as a posting but now they have the ability to get involved with a live stream.”

Adapting to remote life is generally easier when there’s already a good relationship between client and artist. It’s not so much the session itself but the interpersonal touches that create a strong working partnership which can go missing in enforced lockdowns.

Studio space at REDLAB

“With new clients working remotely is more challenging but I can’t say we’ve had any problems,” Walt says. “It’s just harder to try to get to know each other on the phone. I can’t take them to dinner afterwards or hang out and talk film which are the type of things I love to do when meeting new people.

“I think everyone is stir crazy working from home and as things open up there will be a big bounce back to suites. It is slightly more effective to have people in the room but not everyone can get to the room. There will be a lot more emphasis put on work from home now that technologies like ClearView Flex are so strong.”

“It’s a great product, a staple here at REDLAB and one we will use long after the pandemic.”

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