Deep Fried Interview: Oculus colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz
Armed with an array of video cameras, a pair of siblings spends a night in their childhood home intent on proving an ornate, centuries-old mirror is haunted. That’s the premise of the new horror film Oculus, and it’s a premise fraught with potential pitfalls – all of which the film manages to avoid. Eschewing the opportunities for cheap out-of-frame jump scares inherent in a haunted mirror flick and avoiding the temptation for a “found footage” approach, Oculus favors a slowly-building atmosphere of dread and apprehension.
Oculus’ braided narrative interweaves the siblings’ present-day ghost hunt with flashbacks to a traumatic childhood experience, requiring a high-wire balancing act that makes the two time periods subtly distinguishable yet similar enough to allow the characters – and by extension the audience – to gradually lose the ability to differentiate past and present, reality and hallucination.
Walking along that high wire is Digital Intermediate Colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz. In her decade as a colorist, Bogdanowicz – who works for the post house Light Iron – has lent her talents to every type of film from Hostel II to The Muppets. That includes action (Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire), sports movies (42), buddy comedy (Ride Along), Oscar-nominated dramas (Flight) and whatever the heck the Wicker Man remake is.
Bogdanowicz spoke to Deep Fried Movies about her work on Oculus and growing up in a color-centric family.
(Above) Corinne Bogdanowicz at work.
Your father was a color scientist for Kodak. Your grandfather worked with opticals and lenses and contributed to early 3D technology. And your sister also works as a film colorist. So, the Bogdanowicz’s are basically a color dynasty.
My father was a color scientist for Kodak for a long time – he actually worked on helping to develop some of the film stocks – but I have to say most of the time when I was young I didn’t really know what he did (laughs). He was a chemist, so he did a lot of the science and math that goes into that. It wasn’t until probably 10 or 15 years ago when he started the transition into actually working on movies and the digital conversion with film that I started to realize what he actually did. My father was involved in some of the first (Digital Intermediates), as (was) my sister.
Were you a big movie fan as a kid?
A little bit. I wasn’t like a crazy movie buff or anything, but I definitely had some interest. I was more into art and painting and that type of thing.
You’re nearly 10 years into your career as a colorist. What’s an aspect of your job that used to be an ordeal, but can now be done in a matter of keystrokes?
Everything now is, of course, faster and better. It used to be that tracking with shapes and things was always kind of cumbersome. A lot of times you’d have to do it by hand. Now everything’s pretty much automated and happens right in the room. We used to actually have to have assistants who would stay at night to do some of that work for us just because it was so time consuming.
How has the perception of directors and cinematographers changed towards the DI process?
The collaboration is still pretty similar. Once you’re in the room and you’re creating looks, that hasn’t really changed much over the years. Now there’s more things you can do and I think directors and DPs expect more now. A lot of them are just more educated about the tools you can use, power windows and keys and how much control you have, whereas maybe ten years ago they were just like, ‘Yeah, a little brighter, a little darker.’ (laughs)
You’ve worked in nearly every genre. Do you get much say in which films come your way or do you simply get assigned projects?
As far as genres go, I really like working on a variety of things. You don’t want to get stuck in just one thing, so I like to be able to switch it up sometimes. But most of the projects that we get are either based off of a previous relationship – someone that I’ve already worked with – and if it’s not based on that usually it’s based on our producers here (at Light Iron) trying to team us up with clients that they think we’ll get along with personality-wise or that we might be able to bring something to their project. Sometimes people will look at our credit list and say, ‘Oh, I really liked the look of that movie’ and they might have a preference of a colorist to work with.
Moving on to Oculus, can you talk a bit about your collaboration with director Mike Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari. Was it any different than usual due to the fact that Flanagan also edited the film?
Those guys were great. They both came in initially to set looks. One thing I like to do at the beginning of a movie is to jump through scene-to-scene and set a few looks for each scene to have a comprehensive (idea) of where we’re going. And so they both came in and were very involved with that. With Mike also being the editor, I’m not really sure it was much different, but he definitely knew the movie in and out. They had a very clear vision from when they shot all the way through post for where they wanted to go with it.
(Left) The warmer look of Oculus’ flashback sequences alongside the coolor, more desaturated look of the present day (right).
Oculus unfolds in two time periods – present day and a decade earlier. Both possess distinct looks, but begin to gradually bleed together as the siblings at the center of the story lose their grip on reality. Can you talk about differentiating those two eras?
The (director and cinematographer) didn’t want (the time periods) to be drastically different. They actually made some choices on set that kind of determined how they were going to approach it. A lot of the stuff when the kids were younger in the past has a slightly warmer look with warmer light. And then the modern stuff is a little bit cooler, a little bit desaturated. At the beginning of the movie there’s a little bit more difference between the two time frames and then that (difference) becomes less as (the movie) goes along. You start to get a little confused about which time frame you’re in, because (Flanagan and Fimognari) wanted it to be become disorienting as the film goes on.
(Above) A progression of levels of darkness in Oculus’ final act.
The lighting schemes change in the final act when the house loses power and the characters – both past and present – revert to battery-powered lanterns and flashlights for illumination.
(Flanagan and Fimognari) definitely wanted it to feel really, really dark. We actually played around and spent quite a bit of time determining how dark. There are parts of the movie where you want it to feel like no lights are on, but you still have to see what’s happening. That’s kind of a tricky thing to do. We played around with certain times when, right as the lights go off, it gets really dark initially and then we fake (the light levels) back a little bit brighter, kind of like your eyes are adjusting to the dark. But we had it happen faster than your eyes would actually be adjusting. That’s one of the tricks that we used. (At this point in the movie) the looks aren’t very different between the kids when they’re young and when they’re older. It’s more so the source of their light that’s (different). The kids have more flashlights and then in the modern day stuff they have the lanterns, which had kind of a bluish light. So we just played that up with all of the darkness, making sure you could really only see what was important and letting everything else fall off into the darkness.
Like the other elements in Oculus, the design of the mirror’s ghostly inhabitants veers toward the subtle, with glowing eyes rather than elaborate make-up effects. How did you augment that creature design in post?
The glow was created in effects, so that came to me kind of built, but we definitely played up making the eyes brighter and enhancing the glow a little bit and then really taking down (the levels) of everything else around it so they really stood out. The director wanted things to feel like they were in the pitch black and sometimes all you would see were the eyes.
Oculus was shot on an Alexa in ProRes. What are your thoughts on opting for ProRes rather than Raw?
Color-wise, it really doesn’t make a difference. The curve that’s put on from the camera is the same for us whether it’s ProRes or it’s Raw. Of course, having more resolution is nice. (laughs) I like to work at a higher resolution whenever possible, but obviously for budget reasons or for storage and things sometimes (cinematographers) opt to shoot ProRes and that’s fine too for a lot shows. You can have a really great looking ProRes film.
From a colorist’s point of view, do you prefer working with footage from a camera like the Alexa that might be more filmic or something like a Red Epic that boasts a greater resolution.
I don’t have a preference really, one way or another. I’ve done lots of movies on both. The bigger difference for me is really how the DP handles the camera. If you know the Alexa really well, you can have really amazing Alexa images. Same with Epic. If you know how to shoot it, both are going to be gorgeous. The more latitude and the more correct the exposure (captured) on set, the more information I have to work with when it comes in. That’s really the determining factor (rather than) which camera. They’re both ultimately just tools for the DP.
Before you moved up to colorist, you spent a few years as a digital compositor. Any stories about particularly ridiculous compositing you were asked to do?
Most compositing, especially back when I was doing it, was just kind of technical stuff. It would be greenscreen window replacements or monitor replacements or painting out wires and things. I wasn’t really doing crazy effects or creating worlds or anything like they do now. One of the worst shots I can recall working on was where they had chosen to take a very extreme close-up of a girl’s face and put on a whole lot of makeup to give her cuts and things all over her face. Then they decided to use that shot somewhere else in the movie, but they wanted all of that makeup and scars and things removed. Trying to recreate skin texture (on footage of an actress) talking and moving was a nightmare.
(Above) One of Light Iron’s work suites.
What’s your set-up like at Light Iron and what software do you recommend for beginners interested in your trade?
We use a Quantel Pablo system. We have all of ours connected onto the same system so we can have four or five Pablos together and have editorial being built on it, we can do minor effects in the system, and we can do all of that without having to export files and then go into a main system. It’s all just one system that can share media between all of our computers. For us, it’s a really fast, efficient system.
As far as programs that are good for people starting out, there’s a (DaVinci) Resolve Lite version that’s free that a lot of people are starting to use nowadays which has a lot of really good color correction tools in it. It’s just not as robust for handling a massive amount of data.
It’s crazy to think that something like Resolve Lite is now free, when ten years ago similar software would’ve cost tens of thousands of dollars.
That’s kind of the way things are going. I think it’s great for people who are coming out of school to be able to play around and get an idea of what they want to do, even if they can’t handle a whole movie without investing in the storage, the gear and the graphics cards and everything. It is kind of crazy that (Resolve Lite) is free considering ten years ago everything was half a million dollars (laughs). That’s kind of the way all technology works. It just gets cheaper and cheaper.
Thanks to Corinne for chatting with Deep Fried Movies. Check out the excellent Oculus while it’s still in theaters.