The (In)visible Spectrum: An Interview with Colorist Matt Wallach

A revealing conversation about the role of the colorist, a key member of the production who helps determine the final look of a film.
Alex Broadwell

In Hollywood cinema, the colorist is one of many crew positions whose work, if done “well,” might go completely unnoticed, invisible in the mind of the viewer. It’s something of a contradiction, as it’s the position tasked with dealing most hands-on with the essential features of the moving image: adjusting the shades, hues, and tones that actually carve out the image to be physically projected or screened. It’s the post-production position ultimately in charge of assuring a visual consistency across shots and scenes that allows the viewer to stay with the film, as well as implementing stylistic enhancement that allows them to be transported.

Since the mid-2010s, colorist Matt Wallach has worked with a number of prominent cinematographers, carving a unique path for himself which came to a head recently in his doing both dailies color and finishing color on Cary Fukunaga’s No Time to Die. The dailies colorist typically deals with footage right out of the camera early on, for the purposes of giving the director, director of photography (DP), and editor something to work with close to their intended look rather than something flat and raw, while the finishing colorist works on the picture-locked edit, soon to be seen by audiences. These are typically two different positions, but on No Time to Die, cinematographer Linus Sandgren pushed to get Wallach doing both. This allowed Wallach a greater familiarity with the footage going into the finish, whereas a new person coming in who had not seen any of the footage might have taken some time to acclimate, and also just allowed Sandgren and Wallach to work more closely together throughout the project.

I spoke with Wallach about the rarely-discussed colorist profession, his experience with No Time to Die, and the rest of his career, including working on Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ad Astra (2019).

NOTEBOOK: Can we start with your career trajectory, from Assistant Camera (AC) to Digital Imaging Technician (DIT) to Colorist. I’m sure it wasn’t so linear.

MATT WALLACH: Yeah, it really was not linear. I got into all of this because I grew up around the industry. My mother’s a commercial line producer, so I was visiting sets a lot as a kid. I got really into photography in high school, and then made the connection in my head and went to film school at the University of Miami, wanting to be a cinematographer originally. The film program there made you double major, so, instead of doing the sensible thing and double majoring in business or something, I doubled in photography. And really foundationally for me—that’s where I learned most of what I know about color and image processing.

Getting out of school, I started pushing my way into AC’ing and then really recognizing and observing the role of the DIT, and that felt like a more natural progression to me, so that’s what I started pushing towards, being a computer geek and a photography nerd. As live color became a thing happening on set more and more frequently, I got more and more taken by it, and it got to the point where I wanted to explore color more seriously, and be able to do color in an environment that wasn’t in a tent in the middle of a field, when there’s a 38-degree hailstorm or those kinds of on-set working conditions, and not have to wear all the hats that a DIT wears.

Around that time I was luckily reconnected with a friend who at the time was the colorist at Company3 Chicago, and they were looking for someone to assist their dailies colorist on a local show, so I figured why not go home for a few months, work on that show, and see if this seems like the thing for me or not—and almost nine years later here I am. I was smitten by it and just decided to double down and go for it.

NOTEBOOK: Was there a particular film where you thought, “Okay, now I’m really doing this: I’m a colorist”?

WALLACH: There was, yes, and I was the most scared I’ve ever been going into a job. I assisted on one feature at Company3 and they booked me immediately on Fast & Furious 7 (2015). I was doing the dailies operator assist work on that as well, and they were shooting so much footage that I also ended up doing color for a large portion of second unit’s dailies, because our colorist was just so swamped with main unit dailies, especially after Paul Walker’s death, and all of the additional VFX reference stuff that was captured. It became a huge undertaking for us, and there just weren’t enough hours in the day for even three people to just get through all of the footage.

So I really got to dive into feature color on the dailies side of things on Fast 7, and then out of the blue I got a call where the head of the department said, “Hey, we’re gonna pull you off Fast 7 a little early, and we’re gonna send you to this show in Albuquerque, because we need someone who knows how to do color, but they don’t have the budget to also send an assistant. They’re not gonna shoot a lot of footage, because it’s Roger Deakins.” And the film was Sicario (2015). So they’re like, “You can go out there, it’s gonna be fine, don’t worry, we’ve talked to Roger and James, Deakins’s wife, who oversees everything technical, and everyone’s super on-board to have you out,” and I’m just like, “Excuse me?”

I’ve always loved Roger’s work and it was just an absolute dream come true. The stars aligned and we were off to the races, and that was just the big jumping off point for me because after that as far as submitting a reel to another show it’s, “Oh, well if you did dailies for Roger, then, sure.” Working with Roger Deakins really trained my eye, because he’s so keen-eyed, and so precise, and he knows exactly where his image needs to go to just make it perfect. Roger’s used to the older days of telecine or printer lights, so he’ll be like, “Two points of yellow,” or, “Density needs to come up or come down,” and it’s so precise, and then I go and I do it and yeah—it’s perfect.

NOTEBOOK: Is a lot of the colorist’s job with Deakins trying to match whatever he created in front of the camera?

WALLACH: Yeah, I think it comes from him shooting on film for the longest time, even though he has this power with the digital camera to process things however you want and push and pull and do whatever you need to after the fact, it’s very precise and it’s all very much in-camera, as-is. I think the best example I can give is on Blade Runner 2049. All of the Vegas sequence with all of that orange, even though it was all shot on Alexa, and we said, “Hey, we can do this in color, just capture a neutral image,” and he said, “Nope, we’re gonna throw this custom coral filter in front of the lens, and that’s how it’s gonna capture.”

NOTEBOOK: I was actually gonna ask about that film, because it seems like the colors are super expressionistic.

WALLACH: That was all practical, a lot of LEDs. And the exterior stuff that they shot, when Kay first gets to Vegas and gets out of the Spinner and is approaching the hotel where he finds Deckard—spoiler alert—that was all filter in front. And then after we got the idea that the exterior was gonna be the most extreme—it’s irradiated, there was a nuclear blast—once we got inside they moved from a filter in front of the glass to just gels over all the lights, of that same color, so it was less intense. But that was the idea for that scene, “We’re locking this in, this is all in-camera, this is how this is gonna look.” All of the Blade Runner stuff was like that, even the records room was all bathed in yellow light, all of Kay’s apartment with that tealish glow, everything was in-camera.

NOTEBOOK: Jumping back a bit, as a colorist what are you looking for in an image or adjusting in a first pass and so on?

WALLACH: It’s a mix, there’s a technician side and an artist side of it. The technical side of it is objectively knowing that this is exposed in the way it’s intended, and that within a scene you’re matching all of your shots. A day exterior, for example: a film shoots an outdoor scene over the course of an entire day, maybe several days, maybe several weeks if it’s a big scene, could be several months. In No Time to Die, the Italy sequence at the beginning was multiple units shooting over the course of several months. Light shifts and weather shifts, so it’s then the colorist’s duty to make something that was shot over whatever period of time feel compressed and naturally flowing and make it feel believably like it’s whatever the length of the scene is. So that’s making sure the exposure and the color balance is correct from the wide to the coverage, and that one angle is not more green or more magenta, and that skin tones are looking healthy, balanced, normal.

NOTEBOOK: Once everything’s matched, then it’s more about enhancing things creatively?

WALLACH: Exactly. Things like, how saturated do we want this to be? And if we do that, this looks good, but maybe the reds are too saturated, are we gonna isolate the reds and take that saturation down? Is the sky blue enough? Is the sky too blue? Looking at different actors, everyone’s skin is a different tone, so if we’ve balanced it for one actor, is another starting to feel too magenta or too green, do we have to isolate that?

That’s still pretty technical, but then we get into: okay, we’ve gone to Norway and we’re coming back to Norway later, once was in the winter and once was in the summer, and what are we going to do here to differentiate these? We wanted it to be rich and full of life, because something terrible happened here but now there’s some happiness, and the characters have found peace with that, and so this place should be full of life. Linus had the idea of the midnight sun phenomenon that happens in the upper end of the northern hemisphere in the summer months where days are long and there’s almost no night for a bit of time. So we took that and we ran with it and said we’re gonna amplify this, and we’re gonna make things really warm and really rich. But one thing that we’d done throughout the whole movie is all of our shadows are always a little tilted toward cyan and a little cool. That’s partially from how Linus likes to light with a cooler fill, but also because we kind of like to embrace that feel of film and have not a perfectly clean shadow and have things feel a little more organic and a little dirty.

Coming up with the look in the film for Italy was similar.  We wanted it to feel really romantic but there’s also this danger that becomes apparent very quickly. We came up with a look that was great. The romantic, warmish, borderline pinkish highlights and this dusky and dawny feel translated really well to the mid-day stuff, and it helped give a little life into all of the white stone in the Matera location. So we decided to treat this with a split-toning approach, and we really pushed that highlight-shadow hue discrepancy to a point where everything in that scene may be set five years before the rest of the movie but it still feels like the same world. We wondered how far we could push this to make it feel super romantic, and we had this beautiful orangish pinkish warmth in the highlights and our shadows that are really towards the more cyan-bluish hues—it’s such an idyllic place. The sequence starts as Bond’s life outside of spycraft and he’s retired and he’s happy and in love, and it feels that way, but it literally blows up in his face.

When we had balanced it all out and had it more neutral, and the stones were white and the sky was blue, it felt like it was missing something, it felt real but something didn’t feel right for the story, and that’s kind of what we settled on, after a lot of experimenting with that scene, to push it that way. And we still get this beautiful silver in the Aston Martin, like that’s still true, and the skin tones are still true, but it added this kind of sheen and gloss that framed the whole vignette of Matera without removing it from the universe.

NOTEBOOK: I was reading about Linus’s preference for shooting on film.  Do you find that it’s significantly different working on film projects?

WALLACH: Yeah, I think it is, I never thought that I was going to have much of an opportunity to do that coming into the industry, until film kind of had its resurgence maybe six years ago, and Kodak came back swinging, and all those directors got behind the studios and they guaranteed however much a year for production of film stocks. I always assumed I’d be working in digital formats, so to be able to work with Linus, someone who’s such a champion of that format, has been really a treat. He really understands how to maximize the medium with the quality of what the Kodak stocks now capture, and between that and digital finishing and scanning and just the power that’s available to it: what film can do now is just absolutely outstanding. I do think it makes a difference in the image quality because there’s a richness to it. It’s one of those intangible things but when you see it you go, “Okay, yeah.”

It was great to be able to do a Bond movie on film, moreover on IMAX. Skyfall (2012) notwithstanding, which was absolutely stunning and proved that Bond movies didn’t have to be shot on film, I do think it is a film franchise, and that helped us find a look for the movie where we could do something unique but still have it feel distinctly true to its roots because it was shot on film.

NOTEBOOK: It feels like there’s a very organic richness running throughout the film. Can you talk about sort of the trajectory of the color through No Time to Die’s narrative?

WALLACH: I think the fact that we were shooting on film was important to everybody, so we didn’t want it to have that clean, processed, modern look to it. Something that Linus and I talked about a lot in the way things were looking was that in being this franchise, there’s a romance to it, and that’s a word he said a lot, it’s just very romanticized. It takes place in some form of the real world, not necessarily the world that you and I live in, but it’s the real world, so there’s something romantic, which is why we wanted to keep a richness there.

In the opening sequence at the house in Norway with the frozen lake, it’s very isolated and cold, it almost feels like a horror short, but visually it’s not all scary. It’s darker in the house but there’s still something beautiful about this lake and this big frozen landscape and these [wide shots] that we open on. In Italy, I think Matera is the oldest town that’s been consistently standing, and just having this really idyllic, quaint mountain village where we have this bright sunshine, it really clashes with what we just saw at the frozen lake, with this hard sunlight and these yellowish whitish rocks and blue skies. Something Linus also talked about was how everything’s just a rock-face, like the insides of buildings, there’s a brutality to that. To be able to bring out this vibrance in that world, where you have these white rocks and then Bond’s corduroy suit with that light blue shirt, and Primo, the villain, with this colorful jacket—there were these pops of vibrance and romantic feelings even through this brutal hand-to-hand combat, or car and motorcycle chases. And obviously Jamaica’s going to be very lush, but even M’s office with these mahogany walls and mahogany desk, there’s just this richness that was kind of pervasive throughout the entire film, and the idea was just maintaining that, and having that sort of vibrance through everything—that’s what’s going to tie it all together.

NOTEBOOK:  Are there any other scenes from No Time to Die that you recall particularly fondly?

WALLACH: The whole production was a pinch-me moment, and this is silly to say, but one of the big things was shooting the gun barrel at the beginning in IMAX, because they had never shot it in IMAX, and the movie starts in IMAX so they wanted it to be in IMAX. So, the day we got that film from the lab. It was Daniel Craig walking across a white cyc stage, but it was still just such a special thing to see, and that really drove it home.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a bit about working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema on Ad Astra?

WALLACH: Hoyte just blew my mind on that movie. Also someone who just lights it and knows, and it was all film, but he just knew, this was how we were gonna do it. He would send me notes and say, “all the stuff on Mars is gonna come in super warm, don’t cool it down or balance it, it should be really warm. It’s gonna be red, it’s gotta be uncomfortable, these people need to look like they’ve just been living in a cave, it needs to look like they’re not having a great time, and just very claustrophobic.”

The moon stuff was some of the most interesting stuff that I’ve seen. They took a 3D rig, and I sat with Greg Fisher, the finishing colorist, when he was doing these tests. They took a 3D mirror rig, which has one camera shooting up into a tilted mirror and one camera shooting straight through. One camera was a film camera, and the other was an infrared converted Alexa, and they went out in the desert, and the film camera captured a normal daylight image, nothing special, and with the infrared Alexa. And they did a comp of the two camera bodies, so they shot the desert in eastern California for the moon, and that was it. With the infrared camera the sky was black, ground was white—boom, you’re on the moon—and the film camera they did specifically for the astronauts and the rovers, because their space suits aren’t black and white, they’ve got the visors, the rovers have copper bits on them and the gold foil and things like that, the solar panels. Then they comped it together, layered these two images. Greg did a proof of concept in the grading room, tweaking the geometry to show that it would work, it went off to VFX. They comped the film on the digital. It was one of those things where we obviously can’t shoot on the moon and didn’t want to shoot on a soundstage if we don’t have to—how can we do this practically? That was just some of the most ingenious thinking that I’ve ever seen behind a camera, it was really pretty incredible to see the result.

NOTEBOOK: Do cinematographers like Hoyte, Roger, and Linus work super differently from each other with regard to the colorist in your experience?

WALLACH: It’s definitely a different process from DP to DP. Some DP’s are more collaborative and they shoot something and they go, “Show me where you think you go with this,” and that’s the jumping-off point, because they want to see some ideas. Some DP’s are more precise and say, “This is how this should look,” and it’s more of a technical exercise as a colorist, so it really is great being able to work with a bunch of different incredibly talented cinematographers and adapting to their workflows and styles. I’ve only done that one picture with Hoyte, and even in that instance, being science fiction, you can do wildly different things with your lighting, you can get away with different things. Roger, on Blade Runner, just threw the kitchen sink at it, because you make the rules at that point.

The approach is always different for all of them and they all see light very differently, and interpret exposure very differently. It’s really amazing to see that process. What I appreciated most about doing dailies was being able to go to set and see them work and see them light and understand how they all interpret light, because that’s their paintbrush essentially. Watching them work is the most telling and the most helpful thing for me, because it makes me understand how to achieve what they're trying to achieve.

All artists have periods and phases and go through various styles of working but you have to be so adaptable as a cinematographer, and that’s what I’ve found I love so much about this business. You’re not working for yourself, you’re creating collaboratively, and everything you do is collaborative. So the idea of finding ways to constantly be adapting the way you see the world to tell this story, and the way the director is envisioning it—that’s the most impressive thing I see any DP do.

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InterviewsMatt WallachRoger DeakinsHoyte van HoytemaCinematography
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