Last year we had the opportunity of having colorist Andrea Chlebak (Mandy, Elysium and Chappie) speak at LAPPG about “Color in Narrative” where she discussed working with directors and finding language about color for collaboration as well as how colors and their opposites affect viewers’ emotions. We were so enthralled with her presentation that we wanted to speak to her further about her journey to becoming a colorist, the skills she thinks are important for a colorist to have, and the differences between coloring documentary vs. narrative films. So please join us as we introduce you to Andrea Chlebak.
Los Angeles Post Production Group: Congratulations, Andrea on the recent announcement that you are joining the team at Harbor! That is wonderful news. So what are you most excited for with this transition?
Andrea Chlebak: Thank you, I’m so thrilled to be joining this talented group! Harbor is all about elevating the art, science and creative experience of filmmaking – their values resonate so perfectly with what I have worked hard to cultivate in my career thus far. This is also going to be my first time working at a facility with sound and color under one roof; the opportunity to work alongside the artists I have admired for many years is also very exciting to me.
LAPPG: So now that we know where you currently are, let’s talk about where you started. It sounds like you started as a still photographer and an editor out of college. What was it that turned you towards working in the color field?
AC: I studied film and video in college, but when I ventured into the real world, I had no clue what role I was best suited for. Working as a stills photographer and editor helped me to get into the industry a bit and learn what fit …and what didn’t. After spending many hours on set as a stills photographer, I became disheartened by the local union culture and my initial dream to work in cinematography faded. I took some time to regroup, brushed up on Avid and After Effects and then veered towards post production. I started applying at VFX houses all around Vancouver and during one interview, the VFX producer asked me if I had thought about becoming a colorist – she thought my work appeared “too polished” given my level of experience. That internship was cancelled for the year, so I took an I/O job working in animation, and then after a few months, found another opportunity at a small post production company. At the time they were focusing on digital to film transfer, so I took the opportunity to learn as much as possible about that process, which involved spending a lot of time at the film lab reviewing prints with the color timers. Fairly soon after, that company expanded into a full DI offering and when they were exploring grading platforms, I was given the job of evaluating and comparing each one. At that point, I realized, “this is my chance to make this happen“ and fully committed to going after the role. I was lucky to have management and a team that supported me in my development and getting to grade my first feature film gave me a real-world, on the job experience that crystalized how perfect the fit was for me.
LAPPG: What was the transition like going from Vancouver to LA? We’re there any big surprises?
AC: I had spent so much time in LA in the years leading up to moving that it was a fairly natural progression for me – and luckily I knew a lot of people in the industry that helped me to feel welcome. While the move itself was stressful, I absolutely love LA and I felt the rewards so quickly career-wise. It came as a surprise to me however, how much more open and social LA is compared to the somewhat ‘cool’ personality of Vancouver. The ease at which conversations and connections happen in LA comparatively was almost shocking to me. From a work culture perspective, it was just like changing companies really – although it did take a bit of getting used to being a part of a team that included over 40 colorists!
LAPPG: What are your best practices for remote color sessions? Any advice you would give to those trying to do this?
AC: Remote sessions have obviously been going on for many years, but the pandemic has definitely pushed me to adjust my approach more than before. In general, I have always found it a good practice ahead of remote sessions, to take the time to connect with the cinematographer and director beforehand to understand the vision, the inspiration and the challenges. My most successful remote collaborations prior to the pandemic, have been ones where I’ve been well integrated with the creative team for many months, have had many conversations about the intent and then most importantly, have had time to develop a language with the filmmakers by sharing and discussing our views and exchanging visual references.
Remote sessions are also most successful when you have a rapport and are able to provide the same kind of collaborative experience as you would if you were in the room. Since nearly all of the process needs to be remote during a pandemic, I have been adjusting the type of work I do supervised and have gotten a bit creative with the schedule by identifying more specific goals for each remote session that keeps our time together fully engaged. For example, I block out more unsupervised time ahead of my sessions and then space out the remote sessions in order to focus them in review and experimentation. I also think, especially now, that full day sessions remotely are exhausting and not as productive, so booking shorter time periods and then also allowing more breaks to connect and discuss has been helpful. I personally appreciate having a few cameras in my space, to give the filmmaker a bit of that in the room experience. Although I have still done many sessions using only audio, I have found having video available to turn on here and there to connect throughout the session, or in some cases have lunch together and talk as you would if you were together, is a small way to keep the original vibe of a grading session. With Covid, people are more used to using video calls, but it’s also very important in my work to be able to keep communication open and create that relaxed atmosphere that enables the best work.
LAPPG: You worked on a lot of interesting projects this year including A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting (Netflix), Bad Hair (Hulu) and An American Pickle (HBO Max). Can you tell us about your experience like of doing color on An American Pickle?
AC: An American Pickle starts in the early 1900s with Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a struggling but upbeat laborer who immigrates to America to build a brighter future for his beloved, growing family. One day, while working at his factory job, Herschel falls into a vat of pickles…where he is preserved perfectly for 100 years. When he emerges in present-day Brooklyn, he connects with his only surviving relative, his great-grandson Ben (also played by Rogen), an easygoing app developer. The story is about the pair’s attempt to bridge their 100-year gap and reconsider the true meaning of family.
An American Pickle ended up being graded over about a 6 month time period. For the grade, I was lucky enough to work with both DP, John Guleserian (Like Crazy, About Time) and Director, Brandon Trost, who is also an extremely talented DP (This is the End, The Disaster Artist). Since the film takes place in the past and also in “current” day, we first focused on the initial visual inspiration for the film in establishing those 2 major looks – one for the early 1900s and one for present day. The 1900s story was shot in 4:3 frame and with a vintage lens (Petzval) that really gave a distinct look, and when it came to color, John gave me a number of references from the early color film days and also a hand-colored film look he thought would be most fitting – we experimented with a few different palettes and eventually narrowed in on a softer filmic look we all liked. We then spent a bit of time with the current day story, which was much more subtle in terms of grade, but it also needed to have a style and palette that would connect back to the 1900s look in some way. Having Brandon and John both involved at that point was a treat, as it was like having two DPs at all times! It sounds possibly challenging, but I loved working with both of them and hearing their stories from set as well as their different viewpoints. We were able to try a variety of looks bouncing different scenes off each other, and then, again narrowed the modern day look. Once we had the major direction in place for both time periods, our DP left the process to shoot another film, and the director, Brandon and I spent the remaining weeks refining the palette and style– we ended up reaching what we called a modern storybook look. Because the pandemic lockdown hit right in the midst of the film, we did bridge our process over a hiatus – that hiatus allowed for a bit of a recut as the film was picked up by HBOMax and we had the opportunity to revisit the film and comb through to refine for the subtle changes that were made between the first and second final cuts.
LAPPG: How much of your job is creative vs. technical?
AC: I like to think that color grading happens at the crossroads of art and technology – but I do think my work is mostly creative. That said, getting to this place has involved a lot of technical training and a firm understanding of the technology involved at every step of the process. I also am constantly keeping myself up to speed with what is new in technology – but I admit it is always in service of the creative, if a new process or innovation has the potential to improve or deepen the creative experience, then I am all in – but I really try to break out the overly technical or tasks in my work, giving dedicated time to both critical thinking and intuitive artistic flow.
LAPPG: What are the most important skills for a colorist to have?
AC: While the eye for color is obviously important, I would also say people skills are an extreme asset. I think it’s important to be able to communicate and read the room so that you can keep everyone engaged and on track. Being in tune with the energy in the room, knowing when to take breaks or change up the focus can absolutely elevate the work and bring forth new, more refined ideas.
LAPPG: What are some of the challenges of working with a huge budget and what are some of the challenges of working with a smaller budget?
AC: I think when you are working with a large budget, the expectations on speed and quality of work are very high, which is a challenging contrast. Bigger budget projects sometimes have more creatives on board, so there are more reviews, and that comes with more last-minute changes. I often aim to lay a strong foundation of the look and main creative direction upfront so that I know what to do when new scenes or shots are dropped in late in the game. Small budgets have similar challenges but, time for grade is often a lot shorter on smaller budgets – either there are less grading hours in total, or less lead up time – so the creative work is often compressed leaving less time for any experimentation or contemplation.
LAPPG: How much of your work is done with the DP?
AC: It really depends on the project. Some teams designate the DP as the main supervisor for color, and others it is the all the director – I find that I typically get the combination of the two, where we work all together and then individually – I find it really fruitful when there is a solid foundation of trust between DP and Director, so they can seamlessly hand the baton throughout the process and we can work in both mindsets. In most projects I have had the chance to be a part of, the DP is there for about 75%-100% of the grade.
LAPPG: Who usually gets the final say in color decisions?
AC: Another situation that is very specific to the project or team dynamic, but I rarely have seen a film signoff without the director. Even when the DP is there the whole time, there is always a director signoff – and if there is ever a conflict in ideas, it is the director who typically makes the final decision (even if it is to agree with the DP).
LAPPG: What tools do you prefer to use?
AC: I learned to grade on Baselight and I built my layering style and approach using that platform, so I am very much aligned with that grading tool. In the last few years, I have also used Resolve for a variety of reasons, from colorist collaboration to specific client workflow requirements. I also grew up on the Adobe suite, so I will still use Photoshop, After Effects and Lightroom on stills if I am working offline to collaborate virtually or experiment with crazy ideas.
LAPPG: What do you recommend to someone just starting out in the field?
AC: I always tell those asking for early guidance, to study, study, study images. When I say that I mean, to truly learn about photography, sculpture, lighting, painting and cinema. Even playing with photography as a means to understand how you see the world can really help you define your unique offering. I push this idea first vs learning how to use Resolve or grade and then copying some look you really like. I’ve seen a lot of younger colorists do wonderful imitations, but I think going outside the medium for inspiration actually tunes your eye to color much faster – and gives you a much bigger sandbox to play in later on. Along with that, I think it is really important to learn how the peripheral processes work – conform, VFX, color science and editing. When I started as a colorist, I conformed my own projects and also mastered them to their final formats, I have worked in VFX compositing and lighting as well as even titling and layout– I have so much respect for my colleagues, and my knowledge of their role (ie where we overlap and where we do not) allows me to build on my collaboration style, and in turn, be a better colorist.
LAPPG: What types of projects stretch you creatively?
AC: I would say that documentaries really push me to find meaningful uses of color. As docs usually film over months or years, footage can be quite varied in format, style and content. I’ve always been so honored to work on documentaries, but I usually get very emotionally invested in them – which makes for a lot more tears in my grading suite than usual.
LAPPG: How is your approach to coloring a documentary different from the way you would color a narrative?
AC: In some ways the approach is similar, but the timing or pacing is just a bit different. With a documentary I find that I spend more time with the overarching meaning and message, trying to really refine that for myself and then addressing any challenges the filmmaker has in communicating ideas – establishing that upfront helps me intuitively work through the film and grade for emotional impact. With narrative film, we spend more time upfront exchanging and aligning on inspiration, and then working that into the film in an organic way. With narrative palette and thematic use of color is often solidified right at the beginning, if not before the grade. I think with documentary, color themes reveal themselves more towards the end, after the more challenging work of matching or integrating is done.
LAPPG: If you weren’t coloring film what do you think you’d be doing?
AC: That is such a funny question to me, as there have been so many things that have led me to where I am that I sometimes cannot find the spot where a different road would have split off. I would say that if an AI program took over the color grading process tomorrow, I would probably take a leap into neuroscience and meditation. During this pandemic, I completed a training in meditation instruction, and while I mostly did that out of curiosity for how mindfulness can impact the brain and the creative process, I have found it to have profound impact on many facets of my life and would love to dive more into that someday.
LAPPG: What are the three most important things someone should think about/know when coming into a DI suite to work with a colorist?
AC: -Know that each colorist brings their own unique offering and approach, so to get a sense of what that may look like beforehand can be helpful.
-Understanding what a colorist can and cannot do is also helpful – understanding while color is in fact a visual effect, that compositing or painting tasks can be laborious and distracting to a color grade (i.e. break that time out in a different session).
-Be open to things changing or discovering a new look or palette, while coming in with inspiration, sometimes the material naturally goes in a different direction and it works better for the story.
LAPPG: What is a look development colorist?
AC: Look development is a process of exploring, creating and/or defining a look for a project. In some cases, it helps refine a look and in other cases it helps to produce a variety of directions that later become the obvious choice. A look development session can be either grading a selection from every scene of the film with the DP and Director, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, it can be just spending a few hours with camera tests to set up a look that can translate into a selection of LUTs for use on -set and in dailies. I build time for look development with all of my films, but in some cases I have been credited with that title, as for some reason or another, I was not able to finish the film as the final colorist. Most recently I was look development colorist on Watchmen series, collaborating with DP Gregory Middleton to set distinct looks as part of his process for setting up the visual language for the series.
LAPPG: How do you balance the stress of long hours in the DI suite?
AC: I don’t find my job very stressful weirdly – but the long hours can weigh on my personal life. I make sure to create mental separation when I put down my work each day so that I dedicate my downtime to family and catching up with friends. Meditation, yoga and spending time in the outdoors are all also restorative for me.
LAPPG: Has being a woman hurt or helped you in any way in the color world?
AC: This has become such a huge question for me, and I don’t know if I can answer it eloquently. In simple terms, I would say, both. In more recent years I’ve had the experience of being rewarded a film based on my gender – this coming from studios, productions and/or filmmakers themselves, becoming conscious of the inherent bias in our industry with the awarding of major creative roles, and therefore, making a point of choosing a woman to be the colorist even though we, when stacked up against our male colleagues, may not have perfectly comparable experience. I’ve heard many complaints about this, but to be honest, it is still far from actually tipping the scale for me. The legacy of the “who you know” and “how much have you done” is still very much alive – and because that is driven from an evolving, but originally a male dominated place, it has been sometimes difficult to prove hiring a woman is not a “risk”.
As a woman, I think there is a lot more proving of oneself whether technically or creatively or personally. I am more often invited to panels about women in film vs anything else I am qualified to speak or share about. While some may think it is a slight advantage these days with diversity and inclusion efforts being at the forefront of studios minds, I still don’t think women, Black, Indigenous or People of Color in this role has been at all normalized, and that reality makes it a disadvantage.
It is not that I feel directly victimized every day, but what a lot of people do not realize is, that for women who choose this profession, there is a lot of additional emotional labor involved -this all means less time for the actual job – or in most cases, more time working, which makes the cycle continue.
LAPPG: Do you see more opportunities for women in the world of color than when you started?
AC: I only directly experienced a lack of opportunity in the camera or VFX departments when I started – post production was really the most welcome entry point. But I do think that things have changed on all fronts for sure, and yes, I see a lot more women starting on this path that I did 15 years ago when I started – but I am looking forward to the next 15, and doing everything I can to normalize the inclusion of all marginalized groups in our industry.