Colorist Bryan McMahan on Knight of Cups, Working with Terrence Malick and the HDR Future
The Horatio Alger myth for the Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system involved a bright, ambitious lad working his way up from the mailroom or his post as a clapper boy. By the time Bryan McMahan entered the movie business in the late ’70s, that studio system had long crumbled, but his beginnings were every bit as humble. McMahan’s first gig was as a film lab janitor. Thirty-odd years later he’s Terrence Malick’s colorist of choice, having worked as either the digital intermediate colorist or the mastering colorist on The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, and Malick’s latest Knight of Cups.
Taking its title from the tarot card character, Knight of Cups stars Christian Bale as a foundering Los Angeles screenwriter who crosses paths with a half-dozen disparate women as he meanders through LA and Las Vegas. The sprawling cast features Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and a host of my favorite character actors including Brian Dennehy, Kevin Corrigan, and Clifton Collins Jr.
With Cups now out on home viewing platforms, McMahan spoke to Filmmaker about his start in the industry, creating Malick’s “no look” look, and why he thinks High Dynamic Range display technology is the next big thing.
Filmmaker: It’s hard to sort out the timeline of your career with all the re-mastering work you’ve done because IMDB lists things by their original theatrical release date. What was actually your first feature as a colorist?
McMahan: Oh god. (laughs) I don’t even remember. It was back in the early ’80s. The first main TV show I worked on was Quantum Leap, but I’m not good at remembering those kinds of things.
Filmmaker: What was your route into the industry?
McMahan: I went to UCLA extension classes for film and video back in the ’80s, if not even a little before then. Then I ended up getting my foot in the door at a film lab, United Color Lab, which has been gone for many years now. I worked as a janitor just to get in.
Filmmaker: How did you go from working as a janitor to doing actual post-production work?
McMahan: I went in on the weekends and washed the walls — if you’ve ever been to a film lab, I don’t think that anybody has ever washed the walls. (laughs) So I did some ridiculous stuff like that so they couldn’t just ignore me, and they finally offered me to get into the film side or the video side and I went with the video side. At the time the film lab was downstairs and the video was upstairs. So I went upstairs and got into shipping. Then I started doing their VHS duplication and then I was a tape operator. The only people who did color back then were film timers, so I later went down and started timing film for a little while just to learn color from those guys. When I finally got into the [colorist] chair — honestly, a lot of that stuff back then was adult material, but you did whatever you could do just to get in the chair. We were using a joystick system. I think the earliest system I was on was called a TOPSY and in the early days you just did on-the-fly (corrections). I’d have somebody out in the tape room and I’d say “3-2-1…Go!” and they’d hit record and I’d start color correcting on-the-fly as the film was rolling.
Filmmaker: Do you recall which film was the first Digital Intermediate you worked on?
McMahan: There was one that we kicked around and were going to do — and this was before DI was even a term people used — when I worked at a place called Sunset Post. We were doing a movie for William Friedkin called 12 Angry Men (1997) and we did the transfer from the negative and they were also making prints. So Billy brought the [film] lab guys in. We showed them what we were doing in the color correction bay and he said, “That’s what I want my film print to look like.” I knew that there was no way for them to do that. It was just impossible because we were doing things [in the correction bay] that you just couldn’t do [photochemically] in the lab. It was just too early back then.
I think the first real DI that I worked on was Walking Tall (2004). Back then with DVD mastering we were so booked up that when DI started up I was already booked six months in advance (to do mastering) and it was all big directors and DPs. No one was sure how DIs were going to work yet, so I didn’t jump into it right away.
Filmmaker: On Knight of Cups — and on Malick’s Weightless, which was shot back-to-back with Cups — I read that you colored the dailies as well.
McMahan: That’s right. I hadn’t done dailies in probably 25 or 30 years. I used [a software] called Colorfront for them. I got a call from Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] and Terry. They wanted me to do the dailies, because they wanted one person to set the color from day one all the way through to the end. And the reason for that is Terry sometimes goes and edits for a year and he’s going to get used to looking at whatever the dailies are. I’ve run into this problem before, where the director will get used to looking at the dailies and the dailies are usually just a down and dirty [look] that you try to get in the ballpark. Chivo really wanted the dailies to be closer to the final color, so that Terry was editing with something closer to what the shot should actually look like rather than what was done in a fast dailies session.
Filmmaker: I’ve heard of the idea of “temp love” where a director or editor falls in love with a temp score or soundtrack, but I’ve never heard of it in relation to color. But it makes sense.
McMahan: Terry sometimes cuts the movie to the look of things — or even to the exposure — rather than directly to the story, because he’s looking for more of a feeling. With me doing the dailies, Terry could go in and start editing according to how things flow color-wise. So we were very conscious about it during production and Chivo and I talked daily. We would send stills back and forth every day just to make sure we were all on the same page.
Filmmaker: When you were crafting the dailies for Knight of Cups, were you doing secondary corrections?
McMahan: Yeah, a little. I try to stay away from secondaries as much as I can in dailies, but we did do some just because we wanted to make it as close to final as we could.
Filmmaker: My assumption is that Malick likes to shoot a lot of footage. Was it difficult to keep up with the dailies when you are doing detailed color grading on them rather than just a one-light look?
McMahan: We usually had somewhere between three to six hours of runtime a day. Terry tends to shoot long, long takes, which makes the dailies go faster with the exception of scenes that start with an interior, then go outside, and then come back inside all in one take with two or three stops difference [in exposure]. Those [shots] take a little while. The hard thing was that they shot with so many formats – 35mm, Arri, GoPro, a little bit of Red, a little bit of 65mm.
Filmmaker: Your Arri footage was shot in ArriRaw. How does that affect your job compared to ProRes?
McMahan: ProRes is much easier as far as a facility handling it, because Raw takes a lot more horsepower to work with in real-time. But with ProRes you can’t really change the exposure. You get what you get, which 99 percent of the time is fine, but if I need to get into that exposure, I can with the Raw. So I much prefer Raw.
Filmmaker: When 35mm is scanned in for the digital intermediate, what sort of digital files does that footage become?
McMahan: They were 16-bit DPX 4K files.
Filmmaker: You used DaVinci Resolve for the DI. Seems like colorists on decent sized features are using that software more and more now.
McMahan: I’ve been on Resolve for about four years. I was on Baselight before that. I like both systems. When it comes to color systems it’s really a Ford vs. Chevy thing — it’s whatever you prefer, whatever you’re used to. Most of the systems will give you what you want out of them. You just have to figure out how to get that system to do what you want it to do.
Filmmaker: You’ve often described what Malick likes as a “no look” look. What exactly is he trying to get from you?
McMahan: Terry wants something as natural as it can possibly be. Every film and every scene can be different, but he typically isn’t looking for it to be warm or saturated or desaturated or dark or contrasty. He wants it to look as if you (were looking) out the window. It sounds easy, but it’s actually a lot harder than giving it a look.
Filmmaker: What’s the normal workflow when you work with Malick? Is he in the color bay with you as you’re working through the film or do you finish a pass and then he takes a look and gives notes?
McMahan: Normally, because we’ve done a lot together over the years, I’ll go through it and once I’ve done a pass Terry or Chivo or both will come in and we’ll run through it and make adjustments and whatever tweaks they want. I’ll take their notes and I’ll go through for another pass. We’ll do that a couple of times.
I’ve got to tell you it’s just an honor to be able to work on these pictures with the combination of Terry and Chivo or Terry and (The Thin Red Line cinematographer) John Toll. The images are just gorgeous. The last time John and I re-did The Thin Red Line for a 4K DCP from the original scope negative, I was amazed at how beautiful the pictures are.
Filmmaker: Is it fun to revisit films for new formats as the technology and tools progress? To be able to do things that you weren’t able to do the last time around?
McMahan: It is. We just did an HDR version on Braveheart with John and that’s the sixth time I’ve done that movie. I saw things in doing the HDR that I’ve never seen before. In the main titles of Braveheart, the title comes through a fog and the title is actually a key of the water behind it, which I had never seen. So every time we do it, it’s a little clearer and that’s fun.
Filmmaker: Explain what an HDR version is. When I think of HDR, I think more of still photography where you take multiple exposures for the highlights, midtones, and shadows.
McMahan: For films it’s mostly for display devices. If you’re looking at an HD monitor, if it’s set correctly it’s set to 100 nits of output. HDR TVs that are out right now are about 1,000 nits in the highlights, so that’s 10 times brighter. It’s an amazing image and it’s where we’re all going to be very soon.
Filmmaker: So it’s an expansion of display technology that tries to bridge the gap between the dynamic range that a camera can record and the range that a monitor or TV can currently display?
McMahan: That’s exactly it. The brightest HDR monitor you can see right now is a 4,000 nit, and believe me it’s amazing looking. So we’re starting to make HDR versions [for those new screens] and we did that on Braveheart. The movie still needs to look exactly the way the movie should, but you have these highlights that make it look so much sharper because of the contrast ratio.
Filmmaker: Do many people have a way to watch that version now?
McMahan: Dolby has a projection system — there’s one in Burbank at the AMC 16, there’s one I believe in Century City. There’s only a few of them out there right now. As far as home viewing, you can buy HDR TVs today. Netflix, Amazon, everybody is pushing to get [HDR content] streaming. And there’s a new Blu-ray coming out that will also support it. So it’s just a matter of time.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.