The CHEAT colourist ponders his Romanian roots, background as a stills retoucher and the atmosphere he tries to create in the grading suite
If only colourist Vlad Barin had heard what a grader did early in his life. If he had, we may have already seen even more of his stellar work by now. Sadly he had no idea the job existed until he was already studying film. But in just the two years he’s been at London grading studio CHEAT he’s worked on dozens of films including music videos for the likes of Giggs and Clean Bandit, commercials for Nike, BMW and Dior, not to mention heaps of beautiful short films.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Vlad.
LBB> You're originally from Romania – one of the most creative countries in Europe, we often find! What was it like growing up there, and how did creativity impact your younger years?
Vlad> That is a very interesting observation. I guess I’ve never looked at Romania that way, but I couldn't agree more. Historically, oppression and constraint always had a very strong impact on how artists express themselves during and after the end of it. Maybe it is the Latin roots but Romanians are beautiful souls living in even more beautiful landscapes. I remember my grandmother's garden with grapes and fruit trees and loads of massive bushes to hide in around all the streets.
The town was just a lot wilder when I grew up. Unfortunately now it's mostly dominated by parking lots instead of nature but it remains surrounded by hills and fascinating landscapes. Thinking about it, I don't think I was expressing myself creatively while growing up. I come from a family of engineers so can't say I was exposed to too much to art. I started getting into photography after I left Romania in my 11th grade to go to Raleigh, NC as an exchange student. Before that it was maths, basketball and ugly graffiti.
LBB> How did you first get interested in filmmaking? And how did you find out about colour grading? It's not usually a career people know about.
Vlad> It certainly is hard to come across, and I do wish someone showed me this earlier. A uni friend called Ross was making a documentary at the time and told me he knew this guy who was a colourist and then I looked it up. I found it fascinating as it was a lot more challenging than doing stills. At that time, I noticed that all images were becoming moving images, so I've seen it as the way forwards for my career too. Two very intense years at NFTS followed where I went straight into the film world – where I laid my basis as a colourist.
LBB> You first started your career as a stills retoucher. What drew you to that and what was it like?
Vlad> I started with analogue photography in high school after I moved to the US, but I think I was more fascinated by the process and print aspects of it. Then in London I finished a BSc. in Digital Imaging and when I graduated, I was a bit lost, not having a clue what I wanted to do. I got a job in one of the biggest photo studios in London where, after studio assisting, I started doing retouching and digi-oping later. I’m not sure what drew me to that, the combination of technical skills and working on images I would say. I was also quite fast in Photoshop. I didn’t think I enjoyed retouching too much, just like I didn't enjoy comp/CG while I was at the film school. I found it too meticulous and generally boring – no offense to my colleagues of course!
LBB> You joined CHEAT a couple of years back. What attracted you to the company and what has your time there been like?
Vlad> Remember the colourist which my friend knew in university? That was Toby Tomkins, and I had a meeting with him as he was looking for his first assistant. At the time I really knew nothing about colour so our meeting was not too successful for me. Then, almost three years later in the week of the graduation from NFTS, I get a message from Toby saying he liked my work on the grad films and wants to meet up. I remember being very happy seeing that message as I knew of CHEAT. I am still not sure when and if Toby realised that we'd met before. After a few months, as I was continuously looking for jobs, Toby called me in for a trial and I haven't left since (just mostly every evening).
I will always feel so grateful for being able to get in a suite so early. I had the training and a good base of contacts from film school (big ups all the cine crew), but in many other places I would have been kept in the MCR for months if not years. I still worked 10+ hrs a day and weekends to be able to assist and grade, in case I've made it sound like I had it too easy! CHEAT grew so quickly and that group of people who were there at the start were so much fun and felt like it never has to change, but you know we all grow up and I'm proud of growing up with CHEAT.
LBB> How would you describe your style as a colourist?
Vlad> I am not sure I could describe that to be honest, I think style is an evolution to the artist’s maturity that has nothing to do with what I want to do to an image but what I subconsciously see as the fit way for that image to look. I think a style is dictated so much by the photography and production design, as well as the vision of the director, that it would be pretty difficult to have the same style on every job as a colourist. But I guess you do tend to do similar things on different films which have similar photography characteristics and when you have the freedom to do that.
LBB> What recent projects that you've worked on are you most proud of?
Vlad> I’ve done quite a few shorts this year and I certainly prefer working on these kind of jobs. I’ve worked on Let’s Roll by Chris Thomas, shot by Lee Thomas. My collaboration with them started very early in my career and every project has always been remarkable.
Last week I completed another short called Something in the Closet, by Nosa Eke, shot by Anna Macdonald.I enjoyed working with Nosa for the first time, and I know Anna from film school and she is an amazing cinematographer and a pleasure to work with (sorry for being grumpy sometimes, Anna!). Both these shorts are playing at LFF in November.
I also did a little film called Plateau, by Victor Bastidas, shot on 16mm by Julien Andreetti. I’ve always like dance video and this one is something special, I think. Another visually stunning short called Aquanaut by Lubo Slezler, shot by Thomas Kotas also on 16mm certainly needs mentioning as well. Do I love film? YES.
Also, all the projects that Stefan Yap brought me are sick and he is a very talented cinematographer and so much fun to have in the suite!
LBB> Where do you draw your inspiration from? Are there any films or even photographers whose use of colour and texture influence the way you work?
Vlad> Visual inspiration is very hard to pinpoint nowadays as we see an abundance of images surrounding us. I like absorbing landscapes in nature, the lights falling on leaves or the foggy landscapes of snow sitting on pine trees. There are too many exceptionally stunning films but, to name a few, I like the grey monotone feel of The Conformist, the dreamlike milkiness of Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the vibrant landscapes of At Eternity's Gate. I recently picked up a photo book called Remembering the Future by Anna Cabrera and Angel Albarran and I found that the tones and textures are absolutely stunning. I would love to get a project where I can do that look inspired by that.
LBB> You recently worked on the short film ‘Toni with an I’ with Marco Alessi. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Vlad> I remember I was very happy to work on such a beautiful and colourful film. I have worked with Dave Pimm once before on one of my first jobs at CHEAT and we knew of each other through NFTS. Him and Marco where a pleasure to work with and there were a lot of laughs every time we played the performance scene. I also remember telling Marco I wasn't sure about the ending, it seemed a bit too vague. Then I realised I was missing all the twitter comments graphics on the last shot so that is why it didn't really make sense for me. I am super happy that the film was received so well as it is a very sweet story and hits to spot to show the struggle which teenagers go through these days thanks to social media.
LBB> When you're grading, what sort of atmosphere do you like to create in the suite?
Vlad> Well you know, I dim the lights, I play some tunes… But seriously I keep it chill and do my best to make everyone feel comfortable and enjoy their film taking flight.
LBB> What do you do outside of work to cool off and get inspired?
Vlad> I like taking photos, playing frisbee and table tennis, cooking, going to techno parties, playing cards with my friends and going to museums. And in the past six months I started painting, I always wanted to do it but I never really tried to be honest. I found that I can relate to it a lot from work, as it helped me better understand the way light interacts with landscapes to be able to achieve a realistic painting.
LBB> What tips would you give to somebody hoping to break into the world of colour grading?
Vlad> This is a big discussion. I think there are certainly many ways, but I guess first you need to know which colour grading industry you want to break into. Stay focused, talk to your peers and do the best (and fastest) job you can do while you are running and assisting, that way you will get noticed. Also try and learn the tools as much as possible as that will give you more time to concentrate on the actual work.