Head of colour at The Mill Los Angeles on lessons learned with David Fincher on House of Cards and the importance of “personality, texture and being tight”
Paul Yacono is head of colour at The Mill’s Los Angeles studio. With decades of experience and a diverse portfolio of projects to his name, Paul leads the colour department with a passion for collaboration, growth and establishing an environment of creative excellence. Paul crafted film trailers for Fox Searchlight and Lionsgate, before moving to A52 to build the colour offering from the ground up. He has worked with some of the world’s most influential directors and brands on an international scale, including work for Apple, BMW, Nike, Gucci and Adidas.
Paul has led on multiple high-profile commercial campaigns, in addition to narrative-led mediums such as main title sequences, features, docs-series, episodics, short films and music videos. Highlights include David Fincher’s ‘House of Cards’ and Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated ‘13th’.
LBB> What was your first experience with the world of colour grading – and when did you decide that being a colourist was a role that you wanted to pursue?
Paul> As a young lad in Los Angeles, I was enjoying all aspects of filmmaking. At that time, I was doing editing and assisting editing. I was very fortunate to find a job as an assistant editor to Mitch Paulson (now Co3) at a boutique DI house doing film trailers. It was at the time when DI was just being born. I learnt both aspects of film and digital. I had shot a short film and I had the opportunity to learn and use the Lustre to grade my short. In regards to being a colourist, with my background in photography, it was a natural progression. I had experience with photoshop, After Effects and FCP/Avid which helped enormously as film moved digital.
LBB> What was the project that you felt really changed your career?
Paul> House of Cards.
LBB> How/where did you hone your craft and did you have any particular mentors?
Paul> A52 is where I really got to explore the craft. David Fincher taught me technically how to keep it tight. My black levels and highlights had to always hit a mark, never below or above. Earlier I had learnt from Mitch Paulson and the owner of the DI company Preston Kuntz. He was ahead of his time and knew the direction that film was heading.
LBB> Tell us more about your creative process.
Paul> It all starts with how it is shot and the tone it’s calling out for. I’ll initially do as much research as time permits. Either the director, DP and creatives will have references, or I will find my own. I’ll then go through many different set ups until one works. Then I slowly spend time on several shots to develop the look and find the palette.
LBB> From experience, we’ve found that colourists often love art and photography - when you’re out of the studio, what inspires you?
Paul> Yes, photography is a passion, although this business doesn’t allow much time for that. I collect photography books. Music is a massive inspiration as I was a musician. I enjoy exploring and finding music. I love riding my motorcycles too.
LBB> Colour grading is largely a digital affair, but there’s also been a resurgence of film over the past few years in commercials and music videos. What are your thoughts about working on film versus digital formats like 4K? And what are your favourite techniques for capturing a vintage or tactile feel?
Paul> Film will instantly get to what tickles us. Finding the look is mostly intrinsic in the film. It often can dictate who it wants to be. Digital, depending on how it is shot, has more latitude and the curve is more linear, so there is some more exploration needed to find the right curve and the colour tonality. The curve is the most important aspect, along with shifting some of the colours to mimic what film would do. Grain and other textures such as highlight blooming and chromatic aberrations to help dirty up the clean sharp images that often come with digital and new lenses.
LBB> How do you ensure that each colourist-director partnership is a success?
Paul> Being as involved with them as much as possible. To listen and explore with them.
LBB> What advice would you give to budding colourist?
Paul> Go hard. Have as much fun as possible. Don’t be afraid. Push all the buttons to see what they do and understand how they feel. That way you will know what tool to use to achieve what you are wanting. Keep it simple. Fuck with image. Push yourself. Challenge yourself. Try never to be too safe. Don’t settle. Pursue relationships with DPs, directors and creatives.
LBB> In your opinion, what's the difference between a good grade and a great grade?
Paul> Personality, texture and being tight.
LBB> How is the craft and trade of colour grading changing?
Paul> There are many colourists out there now. So many talented ones. Plus, the technical movements such as ACES, UHD and HDR as the norms.