The colour artist describes collaborating with the director and his DPs to define the look of “Atlanta,” and “This Is America”
Across the board, production values are on the rise. Everything from TV series to music videos to commercials – even documentaries – are looking better than ever.
In an age when screen resolution is sharper than ever before, the depth and subtlety of what we’re watching on them can only be described as cinematic.
Playing a key, mostly behind the scenes role in helping them find this look has been the colour artist, who, working in close collaboration with directors and DPs, helps set the look and tone of these influential bits of content that’s designed to support the narrative and resonate on an emotional level with viewers.
An example would be the relationship between MPC colourist Ricky Gausis and director Hiro Murai. Working with DPs Christian Sprenger and Larkin Seiple, Gausis has partnered with the director on projects as diverse as the first and second seasons of “Atlanta” as well as the powerful Childish Gambino music video, “This Is America.” The pair also teamed up on the recent Nike spot “The Tattoo,” featuring a young LeBron James as he seeks out an artist to brand him, literally, as the “Chosen 1”.
Murai and Gausis’ creative partnership began in the music video space, so it’s no surprise they worked together on the “This Is America” video, which was shot by Seiple. It was Murai’s history directing music videos for the artist – a.k.a. Donald Glover – that helped land him the assignment to direct “Atlanta”, and as he describes it, he wanted Gausis to be part of his team in helping define the show’s look.
“Ricky has had a hand in pretty much everything I’ve made in the past five years,” Murai says, “so I consider him an essential collaborator. When ‘Atlanta’ came about, I wanted to make sure we carried over certain aesthetics we developed in music videos into the TV medium, and Ricky is a big part of that aesthetic. He has a real knack for pulling out textures in an image – not just grain, but subtle colour contrast in skin tones and environments. And texture is everything in this show.”
Murai says that overall, the thematic approach to the second season of “Atlanta” was darker than the debut season, “so the way we approached the lighting and colouring was significantly moodier than before. We also diverged from our ‘Atlanta look’ a lot, since there were a lot of self-contained side stories this season. We got to play around with different styles, while trying to maintain the core identity of the show.”
“Hiro and Christian explained to me at the beginning of ‘Atlanta: Robbin’ Season’ that the feel should be colder and starker than Season 1 as its underlying colour theme, and it’s something we embraced wherever appropriate,” Gausis says.
“The way we work is very collaborative,” the colourist adds. “There are many instances where a director will not be committed to the final look of his or her piece when they enter my suite, and they’ll ask me what I think is the best direction in which to head. When working with Hiro, I feel like our creative process hasn’t changed one bit since our very first session a few years ago, all the way up to ‘Robbin’ Season.’ He’ll let me take the footage and show him a grade I think complements the imagery and the narrative. We’ll have a chat about it once I think it’s something worth sharing with him, and then hone the look for the rest of the scene. In this instance, our vision for the grade is very similar, as we’re both big advocates of moody and slightly stylised imagery.”
Gausis also works closely with Murai’s DP Sprenger when it comes to the grade on “Atlanta.” “Both are incredible talents and work in a very similar fashion in the colour session,” he comments. “Hiro and Christian both know exactly what they want, but always give me the freedom to bring something to the table.”
One of the most demanding elements of the craft, Gausis notes, lies in defining the emotional response the director and DP were aiming for when shooting a scene, and in turn letting that influence how they approach the footage. “When choosing the look, I have to consider where the footage ‘wants to go,’” he explains. “This is a term often used by colourists to describe how much range is in the raw/ungraded image and the attainable colour palette that is in a specific location”.
“The most important part of my job is to understand what look will best compliment the image and not be counter-intuitive and destructive to the integrity of the picture,” he continues. “For example, my style of grading often includes some distinct colour manipulation to create an interesting contrast and another layer of texture and depth in the image. However, this has to be done with an understanding of the limits of what’s been captured in-camera and not trying to push a specific tone to deviate too far from its natural hue that it looks overly affected and too forced.”
Summing up the “Atlanta” experience, Gausis says it’s been one of the more gratifying assignments of his career. “It’s a dream project,” he points out. “Not only have I been associated with an incredible TV show, but because, as always, Hiro encourages all the people around him to use their specialty and offer their own creativity.”