A Conversation With Alex Bickel (HAMMER TO NAIL’S SUNDANCE 2014 MVP)

Though we’ve never handed out a “Sundance MVP” award here at Hammer to Nail, this year, one individual’s fingerprints were felt over so many films that there was no other option than to honor his remarkable achievement. That would be colorist Alex Bickel (Color Collective), who was responsible for coloring six narrative features that are all quite different in their own ways yet nonetheless share one vital trait: they all look incredible. In alphabetical order, they are: Blue Ruin, Camp X-Ray, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, Land Ho!, The One I Love, and Ping Pong Summer (NOTE: While I understand the lameness in mentioning my own movie on this site, in this case I feel confident that readers will forgive this ethical breach; that said, I did make sure to ask that it not be brought up in the ensuing conversation).

So much press—or should I say all of the press?—that comes out of Park City focuses on “hot new directors” and “breakout stars.” Nobody ever seems to acknowledge or understand that filmmaking is a supremely collaborative endeavor realized by many, many individuals. We’re not trying to be overly nerdy here, but when it comes to the artful technique of color correcting, the difference between a good color correction and a bad color correction can dramatically impact a viewer’s appreciation of a movie (and, as pointed out below, it can also impact a film’s sale price).

Who knows if we’ll continue to present a “Sundance MVP” award in the future, but based on his efforts this year alone—not to mention his past several years of service—it would be silly for us not to acknowledge the phenomenal contributions of Alex Bickel.

Finally, I’d like to thank filmmaker Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner) for suggesting the idea of this conversation—which was going to happen in a few months but the timing seemed too ripe to not do it now—and for rallying to pull it off in a timely manner. It’s the type of support and enthusiasm that makes me proud to be the editor of this website. — Michael Tully

Hammer to Nail: I’ve known you for a long time. We went to school together and you were studying screenwriting at that time, so how did you first get involved in coloring?

Alex Bickel: Actually my interest in coloring stems from the first time I attended the Sundance Film Festival. After I graduated from the [North Carolina] School of the Arts, I was really into screenwriting and I became a writer’s assistant on Stella, the TV show with David Wain. The producer of that show, Jerry Kupfer, took me on to his next job because I was good with computers and good with post-production stuff and his next job happened to be Sundance’s Film Festival Dailies, which no longer exists but I miss dearly because it was a really cool show. Every single day of the festival they produced a half hour show and it went out over the Sundance Channel covering news of the festival, so I was basically the producer’s right hand man on that show and my job was to set up an entire post-production facility for seventeen editors in just a matter of a couple days. Like wire up all the Final Cuts and build a stand and all this stuff and it was really fun. It was on that job that I first learned how to read a waveform monitor. It kind of blew my mind that you could represent a visual image mathematically, so I got really curious about the science of that and I started to study it myself after that.

H2N: But you did say also, and I remember this from school, that you were one of the first people to know how to use Photoshop. You just always seemed to know the programs before anyone else. Have you always been interested in tech?

AB: Yeah, growing up I had good access to computers. My dad was a professor so I had Final Cut version 1. And I had Premiere. So I was into non-linear editing well before film school. And I think my interest in computers, my interest in filmmaking as a storytelling tool only grew as I got older. I was always into experimenting with computers, finding out what I could do with the software I could get my hands on. So as coloring became interesting to me, I started to seek out the best tools that I could lay my hands on. Obviously I started my coloring career using Apple Color, which is a now defunct product but was interesting at the time because it brought some of the tools of Resolve, which is what I use now, to the masses. It was free; it came with Final Cut. And it used to be that that cost $600,000. There was no access to people that wanted to learn the craft, so you really had to go wait your turn, sit in the shop for ten years before you got to teach yourself or make any mistakes. When Apple Color came around, that changed that paradigm and obviously that’s gone, but Resolve has kind of filled that gap and then some. Now there’s a free version of Resolve that anyone who wants to learn can download. And it’s not that as soon as you download it you’re a colorist but it’s sure a fun way to learn.

H2N: So how would you say that you became a colorist? Were you born with an artistic eye for it or did the the process of doing it a lot help you to develop those skills?

Cold Weather

AB: I think it’s a little of both. The first time I got paid to color something was a Jaguar commercial. It was a national television campaign, the launch of the Gorgeous campaign. I became a colorist then because someone called me and said they needed a colorist and they told me it paid pretty well and I said I could do that, not knowing whether or not I could and figuring the worst thing that could happen was they’d see right through me and fire me, and the best thing that could happen is I get a fancy dinner and get a commercial on TV. But all along, ever since high school, I’ve been studying photography and all throughout college I was planning for the cinematography program as well. So yeah, I think being a student of photography, being a student of filmmaking, all that leads to being a better colorist. I mean, I really still think of myself as a partner to the DP. Most of the time, when I’m brought onto a project it’s either through the director, the producer or the DP, but nine times out of ten it’s probably the DP because I work really hard to help them achieve what they were going for on a day.

Some of my most rewarding experiences have come from my visiting set, like on Aaron Katz’s movie Cold Weather, I was out there the first couple days working with [Andrew] Reed and that was a really awesome learning experience for, I hope, both of us. I was able to help him, I think, change a little bit on the day about his lighting knowing what I was seeing in the waveforms and what I would see in post and I certainly saw how a DP’s job, or just how they light, makes you think differently as a colorist about the process and became a lot more forgiving.

H2N: Well that leads into what I wanted to ask about, which is the relationship with the DP. I assume that, ideally, it begins before the shoot, but how often is that actually the case?

AB: Now it’s much more often than not. In the beginning, I was always an afterthought and I think there’s risk of that pattern continuing. There’s risk of when you’re budgeting a film, you want to put all your money up on the screen, and some people forget that post-production is the last thing that goes up on the screen. They throw everything they can at the art department and cinematography and locations and everything else and then they kind of shortchange themselves in post, which can really lead to undercutting the value or final sale of a movie. Because I think a good grade can make a movie seem like it had a higher budget and in the independent film world, the perception of how much money you put up there on screen can really affect the lives of everyone involved.

H2N: I think that was definitely the case with my film (This Is Martin Bonner). We got a lot of credit for the look of the film, which makes it look like it cost a lot more than it really did.

This Is Martin Bonner

AB: I appreciate you saying that. I try really hard to help my filmmakers add value to their projects because almost all my films have been independent and that sale to a distributor at a festival is the linchpin to them being able to make their next project and come back and work with me again. So we really try to put our heart into every project and make sure that we can not only tell the story through the visuals but help it look—unless the intent is to look really grimy or something—help it look as polished and expensive as possible.

H2N: And then also with the relationship to a director, I can only speak in my experience with you, because it’s such a new medium or at least the technology is so new, I don’t really have the vocabulary to communicate with you in terms of what exactly I wanted other than the very basic “darker,” “lighter,” or whatever. Do you find that a lot of directors just don’t really have the capacity to verbalize what they’re trying to accomplish?

AB: I think that the easiest way to communicate with people who haven’t yet found the way to speak about color is to speak through images. So I ask all my directors to pull images from films or photography or paintings and not just randomly like, “Hey, these are images that I like,” but think about the scenes in their movie and the locations in their movie and find images they had imagined it would look like. Obviously, ideally this is done in pre-production with the DP as well and that look book is executed. Sometimes you get a look book up front that is designed and then in execution and practice it looks nothing like that. I got a commercial once, which will remain nameless, but they shot in a white room with white walls and people in gray suits and they came in and they gave me a visual reference of Moulin Rouge! (H2N laughs) Really, the other thing is, as much as the DP is my partner, the art department is my partner. We’re just putting light and color on the stuff that exists so that’s a really big, important part of what makes good color correction: a great art department.

H2N: Yeah.

AB: I know you asked about the director and I led back into art department. The director is obviously an instrumental part of the process and I think the stills are how most directors communicate with me. And then it just becomes marrying the tendency of DPs to want things super dark and the directors to want to see the light in the eyes of their actors. Our job as a counselor is to meet somewhere in between and still keep it looking pretty.

H2N: So, in general, are both the director and the DP present at all times together?

AB: That really depends on availability, schedule. Their time is valuable. DPs are almost always working on the next job and directors have to split their time between the mix by the time they get to me so they’re often not available the entire time. My dream is when a DP and I get to sit together for the first couple days and get a pass on it and get it leveled out and then the director comes in and puts their stamp on it. That’s been the plan that’s worked out the best for me. But on certain films like when I worked with Tim [Orr] and David [Gordon Green] on Joe, I never got them in the same room together. I got two days with Tim and I got two days with David, but not the same two days and that was it.

H2N: But I imagine that they’ve worked together so much that they’re basically the same brain when it comes to the look of the movie, right?

AB: They are. They disagreed on very little.

H2N: I have a question about what dictates the look of a movie. The example I was gonna pull out is something like Land Ho! Where in my mind I would think that Iceland itself and the location has to dictate at least to some degree what that movie looks like. Is that true or could it really still be anything when it gets to you?

Land Ho!

AB: There’s only so much timing can do. Again, if you’re in a room with white walls or beige walls, I can’t go as hard on a grade on that because it’s just gonna look really forced. With Land Ho!, Iceland certainly brought its own quality of light and its own weather and it’s not that that limited our ranges, but that certainly influenced the decisions we made. And I should say that Land Ho! was colored by Mike Howell and myself. I supervised but Mike did most of the work, really. But as we were both developing the look, yeah, the location plays a part. It’s really about what the director and the DP are trying to tell through the quality of the light, it’s trying to create emotion that supports the story they’re trying to tell.

H2N: Yeah.

Camp X-Ray

AB: There’s another good example, actually, Camp X-Ray, where the location had its own challenges because so much of that movie takes place in one hallway and the DP, James Laxton, and the director, Pete Sattler, they did a really good job of coming up with a formal way to evolve the shot selection over the course of that film so it didn’t become too repetitive. A lot of that movie takes place in a prison and a hallway with the characters on opposite sides of a prison door so that was a really big challenge, I’m sure from a shot selection standpoint but also from a color perspective. We don’t want to just have a whole movie—I mean, I shouldn’t say never, sometimes the point of a movie is to all look exactly the same—but certainly in that film we wanted there to be an evolution of your emotional connection to these characters and so there’s an arc to the color just as there’s an arc to the shot selection and an arc to the characters.

That’s also true of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, another film we had at Sundance. Half of it takes place in Japan and half of it takes place in Fargo and it was really important for us to accentuate the difference in the quality of light in both those places and just her experience as she goes on this adventure. The way she experiences her homeland in Japan is very different from the how she experiences the adventure she’s on in Fargo and we definitely took drastically different approaches to the grade in each of those locations. So I think you’re right, actually, you touched on something I hadn’t really thought about—that location can play a part in it but it’s always in relation to the story.

H2N: So the other significance of this article is that Hammer to Nail is going to award you Sundance MVP. How many movies did you have there exactly?

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

AB: That’s very sweet. We had six movies there this year, which is our personal record. And six great movies.

H2N: I just wanted to ask if, and you already touched on it in the beginning, if Sundance itself has been an invaluable part of building your career—just going there and meeting filmmakers is what’s kept the business so strong?

AB: You know, my clients become friends after each project, pretty much. I’m lucky enough to have an ever-growing group of collaborators that keep coming back and working with me time and time again and that’s really rewarding. I love Sundance. My first year taking a film that I colored to Sundance—I should disclose actually—was Michael Tully’s Septien and Sound of My Voice by Zal Batmanjali. That year we had two and every year since then we’ve had at least four that I’ve colored. It is a community. You go back to Park City every year and you see people sometimes that you haven’t seen since last year in Park City and you get to find out what they’re working on and you get to make plans to work together and it’s really a very rewarding creative space that I look forward to every year.

H2N: I felt that too. That’s not the impression that I had of Sundance before I went but after I did it really felt very small and familial and supportive.

AB: That’s one of the best things about getting to go in the way that I do is I get to go as a cheerleader for my friends who have made projects there and help them feel pumped about their prospects selling it and getting the next one off the ground. I know as a director you probably feel a great deal of stress, but for us it’s just fun to be a cheerleader and get to see all the great work up on the screen.

H2N: So my last official question is will you ever still try to be a screenwriter or are you a colorist?

AB: That’s a good question. I began doing color as a way to support my screenwriting love and in the beginning I still took three months off a year to write screenplays. The reason I stopped taking time off to write screenplays is because I fell in love with what I was doing as a colorist and I felt like I was getting my storytelling creative outlet and getting paid for it, which was always the hope with screenwriting. Yeah man, I don’t know if I’ll ever write another screenplay. I’m not sure. Maybe when I retire, but not before then. I love what I do.

— Chad Hartigan

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