Company 3’s Rob Pizzey talks to ScreenTech about his work on Tim Burton’s latest film.

Tim Burton’s latest film Frankenweenie is based on a black and white short the director made in 1984 for Disney to be put on the front of their Christmas Pinocchio re-release. Disney fired Burton for delivering something too dark and quirky – “Burtonesque” – and shelved the film. Now almost 30 years later, Burton has returned to his roots.

The resurrected Frankenweenie contains more than a few homages to the past. It is a 3D film shot using traditional stop motion and is in black and white.  ScreenTech talked to digital colourist Rob Pizzey of Company 3 about using Da Vinci Resolve to revive a classic, old-fashioned movie aesthetic.

ScreenTech:  So how does a colourist approach a black and white film?

Well, originally the footage was shot in colour and then we desaturated the picture in Da Vinci Resolve. The toughest thing on this film was getting the contrast right because there’s not the usual colour separation and we’re dealing only with different shades of grey on the characters and the costumes. Tim likes pictures to pop out. We tried to use strong contrast, but not let it get too dark, so it was a bit of a juggling act really. It would have been easy to make the film darker, but then you’re losing information about the characters.

ST: Was the black and white process substantially different from things you’ve worked on before?

It’s always about just getting the best out of the image, getting it to be strong and bold and to stand out. It did feel quite funny sitting in a dark room for weeks looking at a black and white image - I started to go a bit crazy. There was a bit more work than on a normal show in drawing quite complex shapes around characters, and their costumes, and the characters’ faces to make them stand out, and tracking them across the screen.

ST: This was the first 3D feature you’ve done. Did grading in 3D present any different issues?

It was pretty straightforward. We did the grade in 2D, with the left eye image, but then when you convert it to 3D, it of course comes out a lot darker. So we had to run through again and tweak the grade to get the contrast back.  

ST: Were you given a lot of leeway in the approach to the look of the film?

With Tim, you know exactly what he wants. You experiment with him in the room and you show him different things, then once he sees something he likes, that is it, so you just stick to that and don’t deviate. We started off about two years ago and shot a couple tests and the cinematographer, Peter Sorg, came in and we graded the shots how we thought Tim might like them. He came in and approved it and I used that as a base. When we started the actual DI, I was left alone for the first couple of weeks. I went through the whole film in 2D and graded it, and then Tim’s editor, Chris Lebenzon, came in. Chris and Tim work very closely together so Chris knows what Tim likes. We sat down for about half a day and did a quick pass and tweaked a few scenes. Then Tim came in and literally spent two days running through the film and loved it with just a few minimal tweaks. The whole sign off process with the grade went remarkably well. So we nailed it really early on. And Company 3 was involved in the production from an early stage and so we’re helping define the look of the film from a very early stage. We never used to get involved in projects quite as early as we now do, but with digital workflows, now our Company 3 guys are onset and on location and doing the lookup tables well in advance of the DI process, which allows the DI to be much smoother.

ST: What kinds of things in a production make for a challenging grade?

Well, when directors don’t attend the grade. It’s a problem when a director comes in only for a couple of minutes and says “No, it’s not right” then leaves without giving you any clear direction. Then you’re stuck there in limbo with the cinematographer trying to find a way to get the director back in. I think it happens because some directors are so horrendously busy. Some are in the middle of prepping their next film or they’re working on sound. They’re very busy.