The Refinery colourist Kyle Stroebel talks working on Universal’s Bulletproof 2

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Kyle Stroebel

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Cape Town-based post-production and visual effects house The Refinery recently completed the conform and grading work on Universal’s upcoming Bulletproof 2. Directed by Don Michael Paul and starring Faizon Love, Kirk Fox, Tony Todd and Cassie Clare, the film is due for theatrical release in January 2020.

We caught up with Kyle Stroebel, colourist at The Refinery, to find out what his process was like working on Bulletproof 2.

“I’ve been a colourist for more than 13 years now,” comments Stroebel. “That term has taken on many forms over the years, from the telecine days of film negative to the more modern digital intermediate suites.

“I made my way through the early days of grading rushes and handling dailies to now finishing commercials, long form feature and series work. Refinery has a great relationship with Universal, and we have finished a lot of their movies shot locally in the last few years. When the opportunity came to be a part of Bulletproof 2, it was very exciting.”

What was your brief when it came to the final grade of the film?

My brief was to “make it pop.” Think Michael Bay, think Tony Scott, think strong colours, punchy contrast and a luxurious Miami setting. This kind of grade means adjusting for blue skies and warm skin tones, and makes the final result look like one audiences would expect from a big budget blockbuster.

What was it like to work with director Don Michael Paul and DoP Michael Swan?

Don is a great character in as much as he’s incredibly expressive. He uses emotional gestures and adjectives to give you a sense of what he’s looking for. He always wants to go extreme and further, which I love.

After we completed the DI (Digital Intermediate), Don had two days with Roundabout Post LA to finesse what I had finished, so if he needed to push it even further, then he could. Michael’s images were beautiful from the get go. I could tell Don had had that very same brief with him, and I was just continuing that vision.

Do you have any favourite scenes or sequences from a grading perspective? Why is this?

There’s a gunfight in a strip club lit with neon blues and purples. Local DoPs may go quite conservative in their approach, or overly embrace the neon and lose a bit of sense of reality. Michael Swan got this balance just so right. It’s dingy but beautiful. It’s colourful, so the cool blues and purples just contrast the flames and gunfire so magically.

What hardware did you use to complete your work on the film?

We finished on a custom Linux box running DaVinci Resolve. This is a bit of a change-up for me, as I almost work exclusively on Baselight nowadays.

This was fitted with 2 x Nvidia GTX 2080Ti graphics cards and a ton of RAM. We used my Sony PVM OLED monitor and because this station was working literally next to my Baselight Panel, we opted for the Blackmagic Mini panel on the desk for space purposes.

What formats and codecs were you working with?

The shoot was very action-driven, which means there were terabytes of footage from I think around 15 different cameras sitting on multiple raids – everything from Alexa Mini shooting Pro Res, to crash cam H264 and a bunch of S-Log Sony stuff thrown in. For this reason, we actually conformed everything and then managed it out as 12 bit DPXs. This made the most sense as it was what the VFX vendor was finishing in anyway.

What were your biggest challenges working on the film?

Continuity. The shooting schedule was really quick and the weather often didn’t play ball. There’s a scene on a dock where it cuts from a midday shot where it’s pouring with rain, almost immediately to a shot in late afternoon sunset.

The joy of modern filmmaking is that this can’t interrupt shooting, so the colourist has to sort it out as best as possible through the process. It’s such a fine balance.

Refinery used DaVinci Resolve throughout the conform and grade – can you tell us why, and whether you found any specific tools helpful throughout your work?

This was actually a request from the studio. Like I said earlier, Don had a couple of days to finesse with a colourist in LA at Roundabout Post, which is a Resolve-based facility. I found the whole process very easy and intuitive.

There’s such an advanced toolset within Resolve that is really easily implemented. The individual channel mixer is something that I use a lot, and with so much of the film being shot later in the day and needing to match the material shot earlier on, the noise reduction on the fly helps a ton. Plus the keyer is incredibly quick to refine, so those blue skies can happen with little effort.

What is your take on the current state of the industry in South Africa, and what trends are you watching closely?

I’ve been doing this long enough now to know there will always be stages of flux and movement. The bedrock of commercial content being produced five to seven years ago doesn’t have the budget in our contemporary era.

There’s been a move to digital online content in a deteriorating economy which has forced agencies and content producers to be clever. I think commercials now are as strong as they have ever been, they just may be slightly fewer and further between.

However, I think the long form industry is in a very good place. Slowly locals are beginning to consume more local content. And there is a drive for local narrative entertainment. Netflix has commissioned two Original series (one of which I am currently finishing) and the feature department is in a very buoyant position. Much of that is foreign investment in local talent, seeing the skills and creativity that our industry offers. This is helped by a government rebate program which also directly affects post-production.

One way or another, Refinery is busier than we have ever been, and I work seven days a week trying to accommodate all our clients’ needs.

What advice would you give to aspiring colourists hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Get your hands on anything you can. Start grading material that’s shot on anything. Learn what the balls on your panels do. How they react under different settings. A large part of our job is problem solving, and the only way you’re going to learn how to solve those problems is to be presented with them. And then be prepared to start at the bottom. I guess like any key crew you don’t just start as a director or editor or colourist. You work your way there.

It took me five years before I finished my first commercial. If you aren’t prepared to work crazy hours doing the less glamorous stuff, then this probably isn’t for you. I’m lucky that I love what I do. If you don’t truly love this and don’t want to dedicate a large portion of your life to it (mixed with all kinds of sacrifices), then walk away now. But if you do love it, I think it will drive you. It’s certainly driven me.