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A Life in the Dark: A Conversation with Dirk Meier

The name may sound obscure to many, but not the films: "Russian Ark", "Antichrist", "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence".
Colorist Dirk Meier (left) in the classroom. Photo by Edmond Laccon.
Attending some of the events of the Berlinale Talents program "2015: A Space Discovery" during the 65th Berlin International Film Festival reinforced my conviction that in the art/industry of filmmaking there is much more to explore than actors and directors. The main lesson to be learned from Berlinale Talents' masterclasses and panels featuring all kinds of cinema professionals (directors, actors, cinematographers, film editors, screenwriters, set designers, sound designers, composers...) is that making a film simply is too much work for one single person, and, consequently, the existence of "total filmmakers" might just be a romantic exaggeration. As the guest lecturers in Berlin seemed to agree, filmmaking is all about coordinate cooperation and division of labor under the guidance of the film director.
For me, the more lucid expression of this concept came from colorist Dirk Meier. The name may sound obscure to most people (it certainly was unknown to me, before Berlinale 2015), but the films to which he contributed are not. Just to name a few: Russian Ark (2002), Antichrist (2009), Dredd (2012), The Police Officer's Wife (2013), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), Court (2014).
In the conversation that follows, Meier talks about his profession and discusses his contribution to some of the most daring and ground-breaking films from the past fifteen years. As the interviewer, I must say that there is no easier task than talking about work with a person who loves his job.

NOTEBOOK: Your card says: "Dirk Meier. Colorist." What does a colorist do, exactly?
DIRK MEIER: Do you know Photoshop or any other image-processing software that allows you to retouch still images on a computer? I do something similar with movie images: I change the appearance of movie images after they have been recorded on set.
For example, one of my tasks is to ensure consistency during the viewing experience. This is a very important task in fiction films. Imagine a scene in which two characters do something in an interior: they have a talk in the living room, then they go to the kitchen and have dinner. Most of the times, filmmakers don't shoot everything on the same day and/or in the same location, so when the film editor assembles various shots into a single scene, the differences between a shot and the following one may be dramatic, mainly because of light and color variations. As a colorist, I am asked to smooth light and color variations between shots, because these differences disturb the viewers and break their immersion into the story. I have to make sure that, color-wise, each scene has a homogeneous look, so that the film flows "naturally" from one shot to the next. It is the same sustained continuity that film editors try to achieve by cutting on action or doing eyeline matches—the principle of the "invisible cut." This work of "color matching" is a big part of what color grading or color correction is about. But of course, just like in film editing a cut can be used to disrupt the continuity between two shots, a colorist can also enhance light or color differences. I can do many things: it all depends on the visual signature that the director wants for his or her movie.
NOTEBOOK: Attending your masterclass during Berlinale Talents 2015, I had the feeling that your work implies a good deal of mathematics. Did your training as a colorist include theoretical studies?
MEIER: I have never really "studied" to become a colorist. I took some very technical/theoretical courses in photo engineering, but after a year I decided that this kind of approach was too far away from any creative work... so I skipped the theoretical part and went with learning by doing, working as an apprentice in a post-production company. So far that's how it has been for colorists, because there really is no study course for that. Well, until now actually, because – together with the DFFB [German Film and Television Academy] in Berlin – I have just launched the first full-time, long-term training program dedicated to color grading. The program is called "UP.GRADE - Colouring Tomorrow," it started on June 8th 2015 and it will run for a total of 165 days of training. For our first year, we have 10 participants from 8 different countries, 6 men and 4 women, between 24 and 46 years of age. We’ll have many frontal, theoretical lectures by engineers, film and art historians, filmmakers, artists and of course other colorists, but we’ll also go outside to shoot stills and videos for specific exercises. We'll see what will happen.
Russian Ark
NOTEBOOK: One of the first jobs listed in your CV sounds very technical: you were "hard disk operator" in Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark. Tell me about your experience working on that film.
MEIER: For me, just being there in Saint Petersburg's Hermitage Museum was amazing: imagine wandering around one of the biggest art museums in the world, seven days a week, preparing to shoot a film next to all these incredible works of art. It was a fantastic atmosphere, and Russian Ark was indeed a fantastic project in many aspects at that time, 2001, when it was shot.
In 2001, together with another person, I was running a company that built hard disk recorders for digital cameras. At that time, the only way to record a 90-minute Steadicam walk through the Hermitage without a cut was to record it to our computer, because the tape in the camera would run for 45 minutes only and there was no other portable VTR [video tape recorder] able to record a high-definition signal. So I came on board the Russian Ark production, which I consider a pretty unique achievement in film history because we really succeeded in doing an entire feature film without a single cut, in cinema quality (by which I mean "in uncompressed high-definition").
Moreover, during the production of this film, I met some people that helped me a lot later in my career—people like Stefan Ciupek, who was then a digital image technician and also a colorist (Russian Ark was actually his first color grading job). After I had to shut down the hard disk company for not really having a sustainable business, it was Stefan who helped me to start working as a colorist.
NOTEBOOK: Were you on set during the shooting of Russian Ark?
MEIER: Yes, the camera was connected to our hard disk recorder, which was carried in a big backpack by a person from the post-production company. I was on set together with a technician from our company: I was there to maintain the system and check it. I was the one to press RECORD actually, when the people in charge said: "Roll camera!" I clicked RECORD with a mouse on a small portable screen that was immediately disconnected from the hard disk recorder when the shooting started.
NOTEBOOK: How many takes were there?
MEIER: There was only one complete take. From the production side, it was impossible to do a full second take. One take is 90 minutes, and we were shooting during the shortest day of the year, the 23rd of December 2001, so light-wise our working day was very limited, because there were exterior passages during the Steadicam walk through the Hermitage. Plus, the Steadicam operator simply wouldn't have been able to physically endure the whole 90-minute shot twice. There were three incomplete shots that were cut after 10 or 15 minutes. The take that now constitutes the whole movie is the fourth, the last one.
NOTEBOOK: Was the director the one who stopped the takes?
MEIER: Yes, it was the director. I wouldn't know why, because I wasn't within the group running around the Hermitage shooting. I was in a separate room with the production assistants and one of the producers. Through a walkie-talkie, we got the calls from the assistant director saying: "It's a cut, we have to start again!"
NOTEBOOK: Throughout your career, you have worked on both commercial movies and on art house films. As far as your work is concerned, is there a difference between the two?
MEIER: I would say that in art house projects, the director is the boss and you have more possibilities in exploring the image manipulation or the image creation, whereas in commercial-oriented works the producers have a saying in the film as well, and want to make sure that the main talent looks nice on screen and that things don't become too dark, too moody: "The audience must not have difficulties to see, to understand," and so on. That's maybe the only difference. But in commercial movies you sometimes have great possibilities, too... By which I mean: more time, more support, more money to actually achieve your goals.
NOTEBOOK: Beside fiction films, you also work on documentaries. Tell me about coloring the so-called "non-fiction"...
MEIER: From the technical point of view, in documentaries you have to work on a wider variety of material than in fiction films. In documentaries you often have to deal with archive material, and with footage from a production that usually spans multiple years and employs different types of cameras. So, in documentaries, there's much more color matching to be done than in fiction films, if a homogeneous look between shots is required.
As a general rule, in documentaries you have to be careful not to give things a look that is too obviously manipulated. I would say that in documentaries the look must not overrule the content. In drama you can go a little bit further in doing that, because people don't expect reality: they want to be taken somewhere else, in a new world, so you can play with the extreme kinds of image manipulation. In documentaries—at least when you want to make the audience feel that "this is real" or "this has really happened"—it is a kind of natural restriction not to go overboard with what you can do with the images.
In both fiction films and documentaries, hardly anything is untouched. This applies to broadcast, too. These days I do not work for TV anymore (I mainly work on theatrically-released feature films – documentaries and fiction), but TV is where I started and learned the basics of the job. At some point in the early 2000s, the demands from our own in-house producers for applying some color correction to the material to be aired was growing and growing, until one day the broadcast station just couldn't sustain the workload with its own employees anymore and had to hire external freelancers doing night and day shifts. Today color correction is common in TV, even in news reports: sometimes it is only a matter of fixing little things, but sometimes colorists are asked to go a bit further and make things look nicer, more appealing to the eye.
NOTEBOOK: How come?
MEIER: From a technical point of view, it is a matter of managing the colors as they pass from the real world to the camera, and from the camera to this or that particular screen device. Now we use all these cameras capturing so much dynamic range, for instance. This means that cameras are able to record a very wide range of brightness levels: they see nuances in the white clouds and can still capture different shades in the dark shadows under trees – all in the same shot. However, we still have screens that can only deal with a certain limited amount of contrast, which is far below what today's cameras can capture. Thus, a colorist has to adapt footage rich in image information to the limited range afforded by today's screens, then work on it in order to get a pleasing image on screen devices that are far from being able to represent what the camera was able to capture on set.
There are new display technologies coming out now, giving you more colors, brighter images and so on. It will be a big topic in the next years, for sure.
NOTEBOOK: Tell me about something a colorist cannot fix in post-production.
MEIER: Bad acting? [laughs] The main thing is that I am not creating new things out of nowhere. I am working on what is there already in the image, and I can enhance it, I can polish it, I can reduce certain aspects like noise, which is often an unwanted effect if the camera exposure was too low during the shooting. But if you give me an image that is black and white, I can only tint it, I can only shift it in a certain direction. I can't separate the colors anymore. Otherwise, I have to start painting and that's not an aspect of color grading: that becomes more like visual effects work, where you create shapes for every single object, paint this one here or there, put in the image new virtual objects, and so on.
Of course, there's a growing cross-over segment between what you can do in visual effects and what you can do in color grading, since color grading today is being mostly done with software tools that have some visual effects capabilities (and vice versa). But, in general, I would say that color grading polishes or enhances the images, it doesn't create anything new. I can only work on what is there already: if you shoot an exterior and you overexpose the shot (on purpose, or not knowing better, or for whatever reason...), the sky looks completely white, and I can't really fix that. I can tint it blue to give you a fake idea of the sky, but this never looks really good. Or I have to cut out the overexposed sky and insert a sky-replacement, merging in an extra shot where you have beautiful white clouds, which some years ago would have been strictly a VFX job.
NOTEBOOK: Did you ever work with the film medium?
MEIER: I have worked on many movies that were shot on film, but I have never personally done the color timing process in the film lab. I know how it works (color timing is the process applied in a film lab when you copy from the negative to the positive, and you have very simple tools to adjust brightness and color): I have sat there with a lab technician, the color timer, watching him work and discussing the color timing process. This is because, until very recent times, it was still necessary to do a film print. For our film Life, which premiered at Berlinale 2015, we also did a film print. The movie was shown digitally at Berlinale, but at the beginning of the year I was in a film lab in Vienna to check out the print for this film. But, generally, there are less and less movies shot on film and/or printed on film these days.
Some of the characteristics that film has as a capture medium are just very beautiful. For instance, most filmmakers like how the film medium allows them to differentiate between skin tones. I mean, the film medium gives you more nuances than digital—this is inescapable. And a lot of people also like film grain, if it's not too strong, as an additional image information that makes you feel that the image is sharper. These are the characteristics of the film medium that we still try to emulate when we shoot digitally, since more or less everything is digital now. In all the fiction feature films I worked on, at one point we discussed whether we should apply some artificial film grain on the images. About six years ago, my answer would have been: "If you really want 'the film look,' then go and shoot film," but that's not really an option for most people anymore. You know, all the closing film labs, and so on... It's going to be gone soon, unfortunately. But I think it is always best to discuss what is better for each particular film, for the storytelling. The main question for me is: "How can the visuals support the story?" There are no fixed rules about using film or digital, or about applying digital film grain, shifting colors and so on: it all depends on what the director and the cinematographer want for their project.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
NOTEBOOK: Judging from your previous answers, to you filmmaking is a pyramidal structure: the director is at the top and the people in the various departments "below" help the director to fulfill his or her vision. Can you give me some examples of your working with film directors?
MEIER: Most of the times, I have a close work relationship with the cinematographer rather than with the director, but I have worked in close contact with directors too, sometimes. For example, last year I worked with Roy Andersson on A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. For this particular project, it was the first time that Mr. Andersson and his team shot in digital and had a digital post-production workflow. Their previous films were completely done—shot and finished—in the analog way. So it was a very steep learning curve for them, I guess: to see what is possible in grading and how this computer thing works. I think that, when you are doing color grading, the most difficult thing is to understand your own perception. For instance, when we left the post-house for lunch and looked at the movie images again after the break, Mr. Andersson would say: "That looks really green!" It was the same as before, of course, but we had been sitting outside in the sun having lunch, and that certainly affects your perception of the colors.
All in all, working on A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence was a fantastic experience. It rarely happens to work on such a project, where many people are so emotionally involved with the film during the whole production. I was also invited on set to help with the post-production workflow, so I had a closer relationship to this production than I had to other movies where I would just come to the post-house on the first day of grading.
NOTEBOOK: So, in the post-house, you sit in front of a computer and the director or the cinematographer say: "I want this and that," right?
MEIER: Basically, yeah. We watch the images on a projector or on a monitor, and we discuss how the film should look. Normally, I kind of start with something that I think that would work and, from that point on, we try to develop the movie image by going to different directions, trying things, looking at the whole scene, doing multiple scenes... This is how we end up finding the general look and feeling that we want to achieve for the film.
NOTEBOOK: I find it interesting that your work implies both a high degree of top-down, rather strict organization (the workflow) and trial-and-error processes such as the one you have just described. Can you give me a concrete example of the interaction between these two aspects?
MEIER: Sure. I think Lars von Trier's Antichrist could be a good example. The visual concept was laid out already from the very beginning, since the cinematographer, the director and the VFX supervisor worked together very closely before actually starting the shooting. It was always in their minds that the prologue and the epilogue had to be in black and white as if they were "brackets" for the whole movie, and that the prologue had to be in super-slow-motion. They also wanted some super-slow-motion "visualization shots" in the middle of the movie...
Antichrist
NOTEBOOK: Visualization shots?
MEIER: Yes, when Charlotte Gainsbourg is hypnotized by Willem Dafoe on the train and, in her mind, she travels to the cabin in the woods. She is being encouraged by him to imagine how it is to approach the cabin, because she is anxious of that, she really fears that moment. He tells her: "If you can do it in your mind, you can do it in the real world." Then, what we see on the screen are slow-motion shots of Charlotte Gainsbourg crossing a bridge, a path in the woods, and so on: very particular, strong images like paintings, where you hardly see something move. It is just her, slowly passing through the landscape. For the filmmakers, these shots were a very important part of the film, of the whole story. They didn't want to achieve a technically "clean" image. On the contrary, one of the visual ideas was to introduce noise in the image in order to make it disturbing to watch. After all, the story deals with what happens in the mind of a frightened woman. Stefan Ciupek and I achieved this unsettling feeling by adding several layers of color effects one on the top of the other, without worrying to undo a layer when we made a mistake. So we ended up with something like 30 layers and the computer couldn’t take it anymore, like the Charlotte Gainsbourg character.
In the post-production phase, Stefan and I had so many possibilities to take the images to so many levels precisely because all the shots were planned so well before the shooting. And talking about planning, Antichrist was one of the few films where I also graded the dailies, in order to give the filmmakers an immediate feedback, and a reference for the direction where the film was going.
NOTEBOOK: Antichrist seems to be one of your favorite work experiences...
MEIER: It was a great experience, indeed. I like the film, I like Lars von Trier, I think he's a great filmmaker. On this particular project, Stefan and I worked together with him, and he always was very distinct on what he likes, and on what he wants to achieve. For Antichrist, my closest work relationship was with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, a fantastic cinematographer and a man with a great personality. I really consider Antichrist a milestone in my career. It was one of those projects where I could push the aspects of color grading to the limits: as I told you, during the grading sessions the computer was going so slow that we couldn't use it anymore. With the computers of today, this would never happen, but at that time we really pushed the boundaries of what computing technology could do. And we did that because we were given the freedom to do so, to do crazy things like spending almost one entire day on one or two shots. That was a pretty unique experience, from my point of view.
Antichrist
NOTEBOOK: As you mentioned earlier, one of the latest films you worked on is Life (2015) by Anton Corbjin. It is the story of the photographer who helped creating James Dean's legend. I think that, under certain aspects, the photographer played by Robert Pattinson could be a metaphor for all the people like you, i.e. those who work more or less in the shadow to create the "movie magic." Are you happy to remain unknown to the great public?
MEIER: I do not feel the need to stroll the red carpet. I am content with supporting the filmmakers' vision. But I wouldn’t mind more consciousness from film professionals, and especially from the producers. I’m very glad to have met and collaborated with producers that really trusted me and even struggled for having me on board. But on many productions, from the producers' side, I don’t feel the awareness and the understanding of the grading process and the possibilities it offers. For example, producers should involve at least the cinematographer in making decisions on how many days of grading will be suitable for the project—which happens very, very rarely.
NOTEBOOK: Are awareness and understanding what you miss most?
MEIER: Yes, awareness, understanding and... daylight. You know, it can be quite hard to sit in a dark room for 8 to 10 (sometimes even more) hours a day. That’s also a reason why I really enjoy doing workshops in normal seminar rooms, and especially at Berlinale Talents, where we usually have a practical part of shooting on location and then take the footage into the grading suite to work on it.

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