The colour experts at FilmLight have worked at the sharp edge of digital tech for the past two decades, manufacturing unique image-processing applications and workflow tools, and working at the forefront of an ongoing digital media revolution.
FilmLight grew out of the research and development lab at Computer Film Company, a VFX facility in London. Early versions of what would become the Northlight film scanner, the Truelight colour management system, and the Baselight grading and finishing system, were all built and tested there on actual film productions. FilmLight was then formed to bring these innovations to the larger industry, an effort that had been recognised with many awards and accolades, including four Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards.
Next in Colour
For FilmLight’s director Wolfgang Lempp, who co-founded the company in 2002 with Peter Stothart and Steve Chapman, the company’s mission remains steadfast – to provide the best creative tools and technologies to deliver great-looking content for clients ranging from major studios and broadcasters to production and post companies large and small.
“As an equipment manufacturer and software developer, we try very hard to make our own tech innovations meaningful and economically productive for our users,” says Lempp. He points to FilmLight innovations such as its grading tool Base Grade. “But in turn,” he adds, “we rely on the latest developments in GPU power, network and storage technology to deliver this functionality on an ever-wider range of platforms.” Which may soon include moving digital post to the cloud. “Because in most post facilities, in-house expertise is concentrated on the creative side rather than engineering,” he says, “and remote working has become a fact of life. Whether it is economically viable remains an open question. The soaring electricity bills have to be paid regardless.”
As post-production technology grows ever more powerful, FilmLight’s job is to hold a steady course between changing tech and changing trends. “A colourist needs to tread a fine line between making images look attractive and making them look new and interesting,” says Lempp. “Despite all the new digital possibilities, it’s difficult to stray too far from a variation of the ‘film look’ without losing the attractiveness. Having spent years trying to understand the underlying mechanisms in colour perception, we’re now introducing a new-look development tool-set that offers a way to create a vast range of genuine new looks without sacrificing their attractiveness.”
While AI technology is the new horizon line when it comes to digital evolution in the 2020s, Lempp is eyeing up the potential of machine learning. “More and more synthetic imagery goes into content of any kind, whether realistic or imaginary,” he says, “and our expectation regarding the quality and attractiveness of the images will continue to grow. To create these images, machine learning will become an essential component – there is not enough time to do it all in the conventional way. But we’re a long way away from harnessing any ‘artificial intelligence’ on the creative side.”
Jean-Clément Soret, senior colourist at Company 3 London and a long-time collaborator with Danny Boyle, has been grading on Baselight for 12 years. He was presented with the British Arrows Craft Fellowship Award by Danny Boyle in 2013 and is a six-time recipient of the Best Colourist award at the British Arrow Craft Awards. He agrees that AI could help to cut workload for colourists and allow them to refocus on the grade. “There are a lot of new features, such as facial/object recognition, that have been available in a basic form and are about to become part of the colourist's tools,” he says. “I feel I spend a bit too much time finessing spatial parameters at the expense of pure colour grading,” he adds. “I’m looking forward to the next step of technology, to be able to go back to what I love most.”
The new talents in post
FilmLight relies not only on digital tools to keep pace with the rate of change, but on its employees too. “The success of FilmLight is built on the exceptional talent of its employees,” affirms Lempp. “It’s more important than ever for us to be able to draw on the worldwide talent pool of software engineers, product experts and support engineers that have set us apart so far. Ours is a worldwide perspective, and it needs people who understand both the commonalities and the differences of the media industries, its preferences, obsessions and constraints.”
For Soret, to become a colourist requires “amazing interpersonal skills, lots of patience, a solid cultural, artistic, and technical background in image making – and an eye.” At Company 3, new talent tends to come from the ranks of the company and are mentored by its senior team. “They can bring a fresh approach to ways of working and grade,” he says. “I like being questioned why I do things this way rather than another way.”
Nurturing new talent is as crucial as installing the latest hardware or software upgrade for FilmLight. “It is the privilege of the young to put into question the perceived ideas of what is attractive, what works and how things are done,” says Lempp. “Our industry needs creative innovation as much as it has technical innovation thrust upon it. The older generation – not just colourists growing up in an era of telecine suites, but software engineers and product managers at technology companies such as FilmLight – is unlikely to take the risks involved without the push from the talented young.”
However, there has been a barrier to new talent entering the post world that Lempp and FilmLight are dedicated to breaking down. “The commoditisation of the post industry has made it harder, not easier, for young people to build a career in post,” believes Lempp, “so we see it as our role to nurture the talent that continues to try, and in a wider sense to highlight the increasingly important role of the colourist.
“With the FilmLight Colour Awards [announced in November at the Camerimage Festival in Poland] we aim to do this on a worldwide level. And as a sponsor of the Young Arrows Colourist Award, we hope to promote the unique worldwide contribution the British post industry is still managing to make.”