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Colouring it right: How Red Chillies is setting the tones for the film industry visits the Red Chillies Color lab in Mumbai to learn about the workings of a colour-grading facility.

Colorist Mahesh Deshpande on the Baselight system (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

Sonal Pandya

Much has been written about Red Chillies VFX, the visual effects arm of Red Chillies Entertainment, the production house founded by film star Shah Rukh Khan and his wife Gauri in 2003.

Since 2017, the entertainment company has expanded to include Red Chillies Color in a sprawling 20,000 square foot facility at Goregaon (West) in Mumbai, which also hosts Red Chillies VFX. visited the facility, which celebrated its first anniversary in January, to learn more about the process of colour grading and how Red Chillies Color operates.

The vast office, coloured in bold reds and whites, is designed symmetrically with a large IT area in the centre, which handles its processing power. There are two wings, east and west, flanked by dual centres for visual effects which can each seat a hundred technicians, with an attached production area to brainstorm and organize.

A cheery cafeteria outside in a shaded, terraced area allows for some sunshine and fresh air. A display booth in a corridor resembling a British telephone booth holds a few relics (analog cameras and old Apple computers) in the corridor.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Nishit Shetty, chief business development officer, explained their place of honour on our tour. They were the first few machines that Red Chillies Entertainment bought when it started out. Another large display cabinet has the numerous trophies the company has won for its work so far.

Besides, there are two grading theatres along with corresponding conform stations to complete the mastering of a film. All these are enclosed so that those working have complete privacy. This is to ensure top security for the keenly awaited films that are in the pipeline; no entry is allowed in the working areas without clearance. Thankfully, I am with the right people.

Before the tour began, Shetty laid out the facility’s undertaking, saying, “We provide colour-grading services and end-to-end production and post-production for all feature films across the Indian film industry and even internationally.”

Nishit Shetty and Salil Deshpande (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

A feature film’s colour grading is done with the film’s cinematographer and creative team, according to look and feel, while the on-set colour-grading services — on-set data management, colour management — are based on the cinematographer’s requirements. The film is also mastered right at their facility.

In its first year of production, Red Chillies Color has worked on films in a host of Indian languages from Hindi (Jagga Jasoos, 2017) to Marathi (Hrudyantar, 2017) to Tamil (Kaatru Veliyidai, 2017) and Telugu (Agnyaathavaasi, 2017). A Marathi short film, Adnyat (2016), that the Red Chillies team colour-graded won the National award for Best Cinematography for a Non-Feature Film in 2017.

“We have almost finished about 30 films in the first year itself, which is a very good number for a setup which had no background in digital colour grading," Shetty said. "Red Chillies Visual Effects was always a visual effects post-production setup. We were never known for digital post-production.”

SRK in his favourite pose at the facility
(Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

Red Chillies VFX was set up in 2006 and completed a decade two years ago. Salil Deshpande, head of production, explained that the colour-grading team, however, began in a small way.

“It was the initial phase for Red Chillies to get into colour grading, so they also wanted to test how it works. [We had] a small team of just 16 of us, now it has just touched 20. We have got the latest equipment in the industry and the world, which is Baselight.”

Inside the grading theatre (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

In the grading theatre, the whole setup is illustrated. The colorists use the uncompressed footage from the camera in the Baselight system when they are grading. There is no conversion.

“Once the grading is done, you are able to sit in this very room to approve your Digital Cinema Package (DCP). It is exactly the same projection as a cinema, with Dolby 5.1 enabled sound,” Shetty said.

Head colorist Ken Metzer told that colour grading “is the process of making a film consistent and furthering the storytelling process by ensuring every scene reflects the 'feeling' intended.”

Consistency means there should be no colour or contrast jumps between shots. All shots within a single scene are not necessarily shot at the same time. “The colorist has to make colour and contrast adjustments to take into account all the lighting changes that have occurred,” he explained.

Further, they have to “maintain or enhance the feeling that the director and director of photography had envisioned. Take a horror film. If the image is bright, happy and our ghost can be clearly seen, then perhaps the director and DP’s vision is not being met and perhaps the film will not be as scary.”

The colour-grading team (Photo: Red Chillies Color)

Both Shetty and Metzer reiterated that colour grading involves an entire team of people. Shetty said the entire production from the team working at the producer’s office to the director and the assistants, the cinematographer and the assistants, and the film’s marketing and distribution teams are occupied. “The digital lab is one place where each of these various stakeholders in making a film gets involved,” he said.

Metzer added, “Contrary to popular belief, the look of the film is not made in the colour timing suite. In the best situation it is an enhanced version of what the director/cinematographer/production designer/set designer/costume designer/makeup artist intended. I’m being tongue-in-cheek about it as it is important to always remember that the look of a film is a group effort that works together to tell a story the best way we can.”

Despite this, there are minor creative differences in production. Metzer gave an example of a recent film, currently in theatres, Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety (2018), regarding a disagreement on the look of a song.

“Colour is a funny thing," he said. "An image looks quite different when looking at the same shot for a few minutes as opposed to seeing the image for a few seconds in a sequence of shots.” Also having all members in the same viewing environment with the ability to make minute and major changes in real time helps to eliminate these issues.

"After discussion, we narrowed the issue to the amount of contrast in the song and the saturation of the lead’s red dress. We reduced the contrast and reduced the amount of red in the dress and the director approved the look.”

Metzer also explained that skin tones are a frequent challenge in Indian films. “A brightness/contrast combination that makes one actor's skin nice does not always reflect best on another’s skin tone."

Deshpande recalled their work on Sachin Tendulkar’s docu-drama, Sachin: A Billion Dreams (2017), which tackled many technical challenges. It was director James Erskine's first film in India and under production for two years.

“In cinema, you release a film in 24 fps [frames per second]. With this film, I don’t know what happened, they were editing it at 25 fps,” he remembered. "There was a lot of archival footage which is again in different frame lengths. [The cricket footage] was taken from all over the world, so it was in 29.9, 30 fps and all. We were downloading from YouTube and [there were] personal videos, home videos shot on camera and then VHS tapes. It was a crazy amount of restoration and colour grading.”

Putting all these elements together for a theatrical release was a challenge, but it is something the team worked on overcoming, with help from the film’s editor, Deepa Bhatia. “Together we achieved a lot of restoration work with that. The director [Erskine] was happy with the final product,” Deshpande said.

Besides the creative process of colour grading (the team of colorists often collaborates on projects), there is the back end that has to be managed, which is handled by the production team and the colorists.

“They do the entire delivery, keep in touch with the producers, and ensure that timelines are met. After the DCP is made, keys to all the digital cinemas have to be set up and [sent to] them in time,” Shetty said.

One thing I was surprised to learn is that most colorists are self-trained and usually learn on the job. Metzer’s advice was to find a mentor or begin working on footage shot by oneself or by one's friends, as the software to grade colour is readily available these days.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Asked about the goals the company has set for itself after completing a year, Shetty said, “I think, primarily, the goal is to create an exclusive colour-grading facility. Anyone can buy an off-the-shelf product and there are technicians available outside, but the idea is to create a brand that is synonymous with the gold standard in colour grading. Red Chillies, in terms of its visual effects services and the brand itself with entertainment, stands for that. It is representative of the best. The first goal was to be sure that we replicate that and not let the brand down.”

The past year, they have worked with acclaimed filmmakers like Mani Ratnam and Rajkumar Hirani and cinematographers like Ravi Varman and Anil Mehta. Their upcoming films include Beyond The Clouds (2018), Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s first film shot in digital, Hirani’s untitled Sanjay Dutt biopic, Zero (2018), starring Shah Rukh Khan, John Abraham’s Marathi production, and a Malayalam film, My Story (2018), starring Prithviraj Sukuraman, directed by a first-time female director Roshni Dinaker.

Shetty added that the company wants to be a solution provider for its clients and the goal is to keep increasing the services on offer year by year.

“We are creating a separate pipeline for over-the-top (OTT) video, which will be exclusively catering to that. There are [also] value-added services that we bring to the table. [At] many facilities, you shoot and get your film post-produced. But the difference between doing that in a facility like that and with us is that we are involved at every level,” he said.