Colorist Asa Shoul on Creating Eras Through Tone Shifts in ‘Last Night in Soho’

·4-min read

With a reputation for nuanced color tones and tweaks that may evoke a suffocating Buckingham Palace in “The Crown” or a ghostly time shift in “Last Night in Soho,” Asa Shoul, senior colorist at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea in London, is increasingly tough to book.

A veteran of post production on some 50 feature films, Shoul began at Framestore in 1994 as a telecine colorist before going on to score a BAFTA TV craft award for Netflix hit series “The Crown,” and has worked on Emmy-winning history miniseries “Shackleton” and “Generation Kill” for HBO.

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With a body of work also including “The Constant Gardener,” “United 93,” “Ex Machina” and “Baby Driver,” it’s no surprise Shoul is one of the 14 nominees for a new EnergaCamerimage Film Festival prize, the FilmLight color awards, an honor the U.K. post company launched to highlight the critical work of the industry’s top colorists.

While acknowledging that color grading can take a film or series in a host of directions, Shoul says it’s not essential for directors and DPs to know exactly what color tones their work will have before beginning production.

“The grading software we use is so powerful that the look of a film can be greatly changed after shooting,” he says. “Ideally the lighting, set design, costume and makeup will go some way in defining the cinematographers’ vision for the film, but many would like to retain the ability to change this during the grade.”

If the cinematographer does have a strong look in mind, Shoul adds, they may want this applied during the dailies process to ensure the studio or streaming executives understand their intent and are in agreement before the final grade takes place.

At the same time, says Shoul, there are still some limits to the magic of post work, and he cautions against embracing the old saw “we’ll fix it in post” as a solution to every unexpected problem arising during a shoot.

Even a master colorist may not be able to correct under-exposing after daylight has diminished and footage won’t match shots filmed earlier, Shoul says.

Another hazard best fixed on location is overexposing details in highlights, often through a window or in the sky. But of course, he adds, “I do composite new skies or curtain detail from other takes or stock images if possible.”

Planning and coordination from the earliest stage is the optimum strategy for heading off surprises, Shoul says.

“If possible I like to have read the script before testing begins and discuss the shooting schedule with the DP, so we can find solutions for any scenes that might prove difficult.” Common challenges shooting day for night, filming in locations where the crew can’t add atmosphere or having certain colors the filmmakers want to change for story purposes or complex VFX sequences.

“Then we’ll test cameras, lenses, costumes, fabric and wall colors, hair and makeup,” Shoul says. “We try to get the whole production team in for these tests so that the art department, costume and makeup can see how the lighting and intended grade affect them. It’s far quicker for them to change a lipstick color before filming than me for a 10-part TV series or film.”

Shoul recalls a vivid object lesson when working on “Isle of Dogs,” he says. “Wes Anderson asked me to change the color of a dog’s nose for the entire film from brown to pink and it took many hours of frame-by-frame work.”

“Last Night in Soho” - Credit: Courtesy of Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features
“Last Night in Soho” - Credit: Courtesy of Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features

Courtesy of Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features

Great colorists are happy to work with any lighting approach, Shoul adds, though he cautions that some have hazards of their own.

“When discussing the dos and don’ts of HDR,” he says, “I would advise not placing actors in front of windows as the extra brightness that can be seen in the sky might make the actor appear less visible.”

But the technology and software currently used for grading helps filmmakers pull off impressive effects through color, Shoul adds. When starting “Last Night in Soho,” he explains, Shoul wanted to know two things: How the two worlds of the film – modern-day and dream 60s Soho – worked together and whether filmmakers wanted them to flow seamlessly together or have distinct looks.

“And when they might cross over and how we could achieve this.”

And, Shoul says, he asked director Edgar Wright to share any reference images and he researched images from 1960s horror and thriller films on his own, then discussed these with the director and DP Chung-hoon Chung.

“I showed what parts of those films we could emulate in the grade – diffusion and lens halation for example – so that they were confident that they could shoot a particular scene ‘clean’ if there was to be VFX involved and I could apply these later.”

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