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HomeCraftsPostproductionColorist Steve Scott & DP Steve Goldblatt on Rent

Colorist Steve Scott & DP Steve Goldblatt on Rent

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There are supervisors in visual effects, sound and other post disciplines, but what about the newest craft, the digital intermediate? While the colorist is the hands-on artisan for DI work, it is the cinematographer—as the main person responsible for the look of a film—who supervises the DI process as an extension of the image acquisition process.
Here Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC discusses his work on the motion picture version of the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical Rent. It is the first teaming between the DP and director Chris Columbus, helmer of two of the Harry Potter films as well as Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone.
For Goldblatt, it’s his third consecutive lensing of a stage property. He did HBO’s six-hour miniseries Angels in America and the film of London hit Closer, both with director Mike Nichols. Below The Line talked with Goldblatt at EFilm where he was working with colorist Steve Scott to do the digital intermediate on Rent before 3,000 pristine prints are struck and head for theaters for a November 23 release.

Below the Line: Rent originated as a stage musical. What was the balance between how theatrical you and director Chris Columbus wanted to make it look as a film and how naturalistic?
Stephen Goldblatt: It’s a musical, and the vast majority of the script is sung, which isn’t natural. But like opera, it gains its own world within songs. We were concerned that we keep things natural, that there wasn’t heavy makeup, that behavior seemed normal. If people were singing, they nevertheless were in very real situations.
The film of Rent doesn’t look like a musical, and it doesn’t look like the stage production. It’s been taken off the stage and put into an historical period that we researched very thoroughly. It’s a New York that doesn’t exist any longer. There was a lot of emphasis on aging of the loft set in Alphabet City in the East Village in the 1980s, so it looked poor, it looked cold and uncomfortable. I really wanted it to be dark.
Howard Cummings, our designer, lived in New York City at that time. Chris went to NYU. I had a lot of background, having done Angels in America, which was set in New York in the early 1980s. There was a lot from me in how things should look. I think we were very successful.
BTL: You don’t stick with gritty realism throughout.
Goldblatt: Totally realistic is not going to give people joy. Often the film looks very beautiful—I hope it doesn’t look pretty. It’s a difficult trick to make a story about people’s struggles, and it was a struggle for these young people to be HIV positive, to be discriminated against, to be black, to be gay, and still have a musical that’s joyful. What happens is that because of the desperate states they’re in, when joy breaks out it’s all the more extreme. There’s quite an impact. All audiences that see this film weep. I don’t think people expect it. They expect a musical to be a light diversion.
My contribution in the storytelling was to let that beauty burst out when it was called for. I was very anxious that the camera moved, not arbitrarily, but not just based on the actors’ movements as you would do in a more narrative piece. The music could inspire camera moves.
BTL: How so?
Goldblatt: Sometimes I wanted the camera to start pushing in. You could do that on a 50-foot Technocrane. We used a wonderful Steadicam rig, an AR-2, that hadn’t been used before on features. It lets you start at foot level and in one shot go two feet above the operator’s head. There’s no low-level or high-level rig. The rig can be moved out of the way, and it’s also computer-balanced. The operator doesn’t have to concern himself with horizon, he can concern himself entirely with composition.
There’s a scene in the film, La Vie de Bohème, where the camera has to be an active participant. Unlike some other musical numbers, there are many, many cuts, but there are still some radical long shots. We could do it quite quickly. Where in other circumstances we’d be doing it in five or six days, we accomplished it in four.
BTL: So you ended up shooting more productively with this new piece of gear?
Goldblatt: The struggle in production is that there’s a finite amount of money. Revolution Pictures thought it was already taking a risk making a musical about HIV-positive young people in the ’80s, for which there’s no guaranteed audience. Then you suddenly have the director of photography saying, “I’ve got to have a 50-foot Technocrane,” and, “I‘ve got to have this exotic rig for the Steadicam, which doesn’t use our normal packet.” Because it was new, they were nervous, fearing we might get bogged down in an equipment nightmare. But eventually everyone came aboard.
BTL: How much time did you save?
Goldblatt: Thank goodness I have such a wonderful crew both in New York and here. We were consistently doing 13 hours work in 12, every day. Over 10 days, we saved a day. Over a 50-day shoot, the projection was we’d be saving a week, and we did it. At the same time, we had every reason to go for these grander ideas by having available this equipment.
At the end we were two days ahead of the schedule. That freed up enough money to have Industrial Light and Magic do breath enhancements for winter scenes. And we’ve been able to polish the film by having a digital intermediate, which I’m finishing up here at EFilm with colorist Steve Scott.
BTL: The actors did the singing. What was your strategy for close-ups, which can sometimes seem artificial?
Goldblatt: There was no strategy. We did a lot of rehearsals and I really got to know the music. But the actors don’t go all out during rehearsals. When they’re on the set and the stakes are higher it really begins to happen. Frequently the ideas that Chris and I had discussed at rehearsal weren’t strong enough for their actual performance, so we modified things quickly.
BTL: How many cameras did you use?
Goldblatt: Most of the time I used one camera at a time. We had one camera operator, Ray de la Motte, who was so expert at all the Technocrane work, all the dolly work. He would do the most exquisite moves just to sweeten things. Meanwhile Will Arnot was on the Steadicam. They both are so wonderful.
I love to be concentrated on what one camera can do, provided you put it in the right place. Now and then on certain sequences we used two or three cameras. We were able to move just as fast, we got all the work done and I think it looked better that way.
BTL: On some of the bigger ensemble shots, what did you go for?
Goldblatt: There’s a little fantasy tango sequence that starts in normal light and transforms from there. We had a very beautiful camera move on the crane, up and down, to a very wide vista. Then we were on the Steadicam with Will himself virtually doing a tango between the dancers, He was moving from one person to another and really going with the music.
For the opening “Rent” number, I had read the script and saw how the hundreds of eviction notices were being put on all the doors and shoved in all the apartments. I suggested to Chris that the tenants should all come out and burn these eviction notices, throwing them into the night sky and onto the street. He wrote it immediately into the film. And it looks fantastic. People are really angry, so you’ve got that bit of anarchism, just on the edge of losing control. It’s a good way to start.
BTL: You like your deep blacks. You get a lot richness throughout from using them.
Goldblatt: I do like blacks. What Steve [Scott] is doing at EFilm is applying a curve in the software to the images, to keep the black levels very rich. We have to be careful it doesn’t get crunched. But so far we’ve had wonderful results.
BTL: What else are you trying to do in the DI?
Goldblatt: It certainly hasn’t been a rescue effort. I was never guaranteed a DI. I always knew that Chris wanted me to have it, but they didn’t guarantee it for a long time. Only after everything went very well did we earn it. That’s an advantage—to shoot the film as if you’re not going to have a DI. When you get in to do the DI, you’re not eating your time fixing things. What you’re doing is what’s most important, using your DI as an expressive tool.
BTL: Have you used the DI for visual effects?
Goldblatt: When I did the DI for Angels with Steve, we took the green out to get autumnal colors, and we’ve done the same here in an autumn scene. We’re getting fall colors, although we shot in spring.
Because of the DI you can make your color transitions more fluid. Take the case where one of our characters is dancing a tango with a girl, and he slips and falls, As he bangs his head and is knocked out briefly, we go into fantasy. We are able to just fade from one color to another, from cool to amber, over two shots. We can do this with the director right here. We can do the length of the fade, the degree of saturation or desaturation—that’s beautiful.
We also did some vignetting. I now know why many night scenes in old black and white films are so wonderful. They had these lenses that were only really good in the middle and vignetted in the corners. Sometimes when you want that concentration in the middle, in a heartbeat you put in a little vignetting. It’s unnoticeable, but it just brings in the center.
BTL: You and Steve worked together on the two parts of Angels. Tell me how you both interact during the DI process?
Goldblatt: It’s very helpful that Steve is trained as an artist, not as a colorist. There’s obviously a lot of technique involved in what he does, but his interest is in the creative art of all of this. I too am a very instinctual person, I may not be able to say why I’ve done something, but I have very strong ideas, I have an emotional connection to my material, and I can convey that to Steve, or to my director.
On Closer we had no DI, so I had to do it the traditional way. I’m glad I can bring the ability to do it the old fashioned way into the new process. Then we aren’t fixing things. We can be expressive, and the DI can be a very expressive tool.

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