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Color in Context

Studio Pendleton and Company 3 bring film grading tools on site for MoMA

Calibrating large format displays on site always presents unique challenges, depending on the composition and angles of the installation, the type of displays, the ambient light, and the content. Modern displays and source devices have increasingly sophisticated built-in tools. However the shot-by-shot tools, techniques, and artistry of a film colorist can translate from post-production to site-specific installation for highly nuanced control.

Artist Adam Pendleton’s installation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) “Who Is Queen?” includes an eclectic collection of work in many mediums, including paintings, drawings, textile work, sculptures and a collection of short films, anchored by the biographical short So We Moved: A Portrait of Jack Halberstam, concerning a transgender Columbia professor whose work offers an alternative theory about sexual history. The cinematic works also include some more abstract drawings that show Pendleton’s stark, individualistic visual style. Throughout the exhibit, running through February 21, 2022, these films play continuously inside a theater and are also projected onto a large screen in the vast, five-story-high Marron Family Atrium.

As the complex exhibit was taking shape earlier this year, it quickly became apparent that these films, which make use of strong visual contrast and contain important information deep in the shadow detail, simply didn’t hold up in the Atrium, which is open to a significant amount of ambient light. What are crisp, impactful images projected in the calibrated display environment of the theater, showed up as seriously washed out in the Atrium.

Company 3, a global feature film and television postproduction company, took on an unusual task when its award-wining colorist Tim Masick, with credits including Paul Schrader’s recent feature The Card Counter and an enormous number of major national and international commercial campaigns, was brought into the Atrium with his Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve color grading tools to optimize the films, shot by shot, for projection specifically in that stray-light-infused space.

The unusual approach to optimizing imagery on premises with grading tools designed for for film and TV postproduction work came about after Masick had graded the films initially for viewing in the High Definition rec 709 SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) format that he’s used for TV spots and shows for years. That master would look exactly as the artist, cinematographer Maceo Bishop and Masick intended wherever they were projected to those specifications, including, of course, the theater in MoMA connected to the exhibit.

But when Pendleton, the cinematographer and the exhibit’s curators saw that version of the films projected in the Atrium, with its far-from-perfect viewing conditions, they realized the look of the films, the contrast, the subtlety, and ultimately the intention of the work was seriously compromised. It might never be perfectible in these less-than-perfect conditions, they realized, but surely, they thought, it could be better!

This was when Robert Keske, Company 3’s EVP, Technology, had an idea. Prior to joining the post production company, Keske had overseen the technology involved in an elaborate exhibit involving a number of projections for the National Museum of Qatar in Doha. The films, sponsored by the government to show the history of that region, were projected in galleries under less-than-perfect viewing conditions.

Keske had arranged to have the films color graded on premises — mastered specifically for the that space. “Say you’re projecting onto a beige wall,” Keske posits. “You’re going to have a beige tint in your images. But you can create a custom LUT just for that space and change the white point from D65” — a standard of most color grading environments — “until the beige wall looks almost completely neutral. If you don’t have the contrast range to work with that you’d have under ideal viewing conditions, you can make specific adjustments to the contrast, shot-by-shot if necessary, to compensate.

“It’s about bringing the imagery to that environment and making it sing,” he sums up.

The Pendleton exhibit within the Atrium contains a large structure of three five-stories-tall black scaffold towers conceptualized by the artist and built by Brooklyn-based boutique architecture and design firm Frederick Tang Architecture. The towers are set up to display Pendleton’s drawings and sculptures and other work as well as the projection screen. On the other side of the space there are two Panasonic 4K digital cinema projectors side-by-side. The original 1920×1080 material is up-resed and stitched together into one large output upstream of the projectors resulting in one large image projected into the screen.

In order to grade the pieces for this space, Keske set Masick and an engineer up on the Atrium’s floor with an iMac running Resolve and a set of Blackmagic Design’s Advanced Panels — the same toolset Masick uses in the theaters and bays at New York’s Company 3 locations. (Masick’s Resolve adjustments would naturally occur in the projection chain prior to the splitting and up-resing.)

“I showed them, ‘This is as black as black is ever going to get in this space,’” Masick recalls. “’And then I showed them the whitest white that was physically possible.’ So given that, we’d need to grade for a much more restricted range than I’m used to. Adam’s artwork is very graphic with a lot of contrast, sort of like spray painted graffiti that’s been reprinted several times. There are scenes in the films that are very, very dark. Adam was concerned about how muddy it looked. When he first saw the version mastered for HD and rec 709 projected in the Atrium he’d said, ‘I can’t see anything!’”

Ultimately, a major portion of the work a colorist does, independent of controlling hue and saturation, comes from finding the best way to present each image in the most effective way for the viewing environment. “I knew we’d have to boost the image contrast to punch through all the ambient light and try to preserve the feel the artist intended,” Masick explains.

“At first,” he adds, “I thought I could just build one offset for all the films and we’d be done.” But it was soon apparent that the ambient light didn’t affect each shot the same way. “Sometimes, I had to be extreme with the contrast so there was some kind of detail in the shadows, other times more of the [important image information] was in the midtones and it made more sense not to push the contrast quite so hard. Eventually, I made different contrast adjustments to every single shot. As soon as we started working through the films, Adam was very impressed with how much better the shots could look than they did when we started.”

The extent to which this kind of bespoke premises-based finishing can be beneficial doesn’t end there. The amount and intensity of stray light through windows wasn’t a stagnant, quantifiable phenomenon. It was determined by weather and time of day.

The stray illumination from a cloudless morning compromised the images differently than a cloudy one did; a cool midafternoon light pushed the pictures in a different direction from an orange dusk. “I went back three different times to perfect the films for different times of day,” Masick recalls. “The first time it was towards the end of the day. Then I returned on a really rainy afternoon with very subdued light and finally, I went through them on a bright sunny day at noon.

“We could have created different passes for each of these conditions,” he says. Of course, doing so would have added a level of complexity to the running of the exhibit with someone having to determine which of the versions to run throughout each day. So while such an approach was certainly possible, it was ultimately determined that the colorist and Pendleton could sign off on a single “master” for the Atrium in which all the images would quite well under most weather conditions. “It was about finding a balance to satisfy all those different lighting conditions, where it still retained its integrity,” Masick elaborates.

“The exhibit is running through winter months,” he points out, “so we knew there wouldn’t be many days of extremely bright sun to contend with.”


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