There is a myriad of roles involved in film production. Each of these play an important role in enabling the story to be told with the vision that the writer and director share. Hundreds of years ago, thespians performed the works of playwrights, before that…orators weaved tales over the communal fire; both of these relied on the imagination of the audience to conjure up mental images which were hopefully as grand as the teller intended. Modern films have grown to such a high level of production that they can manifest creatures never before imagined in such a way that they seem as real as the people and surroundings among us. One of the most difficult things to communicate to an audience is the emotional intent that motivates a specific character. While an actor’s performance, camera angles, music, and other factors bear the brunt of this transference, one of the least obvious factors is coloring. As the title states, a colorist allows the Director to shade the emotions of the characters by shading the action on screen. As film audiences have become more astute and aware of the use of a colorist’s work in film, these professionals have become increasingly clever and decreasingly obvious in their application. Colorist Hugo Shih is a highly respected and valued colorist in today’s film industry. A conversation with him reveals the fine points of what a modern colorist does to help shape a film’s emotional intent as well as how it is achieved through the use of color. What might seem to be superficial to the uninformed movie goer, has a profound impact on the subconscious and heartfelt emotive catharsis which an audience experiences.
The 2016 film A Gift is a redemptive drama. It is the story of Jack, a young thief who breaks into the home of Margaret. Margaret is a blind elderly woman who mistakes Jack for her son. Although Margaret comes to realize that Jack is not her son, she still covers for him, protecting him from being discovered when police and neighbors come looking for Jack. The young thief comes to realize the error of his ways and is moved by Margaret’s gift of understanding, forgiveness, and non-judgement. A story such as this contains many intense emotions; fear, desperation, gratitude, and others. With such a small cast (consisting of Kaiso Hill as Jack and Sally Hogarty as Margaret) the actors are required to portray a diverse emotional palette. Hugo’s job as the colorist for A Gift meant that he needed to assist the character’s in hitting the “bullseye” which the film’s director intended. Yiqong Li is the director of A Gift (in addition to being one of the writers of this film). Li approached Hugo due to her familiarity with his work on many films. Li remarks, “Hugo has a reputation for being able to make just about anything happen for a director. Even if I didn’t plan on making use of all his abilities, it was nice to have in case I needed them…which it turns out I did. He did an amazing job on the color. Due to scheduling, there was one establishing shot that we just couldn’t get. Hugo worked his magic and literally created the shot we needed when it didn’t exist; I thought it was impossible to do it but he made it happen. We would never have been able to achieve this without the expertise of a master like Hugo.” Considering this all important shot, Shih explains, “We usually cut an establishing shot at the beginning to introduce the environment. A Gift started at night as the main character broke into the house. We knew that we should be looking for a night shot of the house. However, the production couldn’t get the shot at night, so they shot it during the day. It was the only establishing shot I could use. Normally, the editor would say ‘Let’s go buy some stock footage.’ In this case, I knew that ‘Day to Night’ was something I could create for the film. I said to director that I could make it work and there was no need to worry. To achieve this, I desaturated the shot and lowered the highlight, but brought up a little bit of gamma to make sure the details were all there. Following this, I did some secondary to pull out the sky and other details. In the end, I made a light at the front door because I knew that there was a light in the next shot. After I finished the color and cut into the timeline; when I showed it to the director, she was surprised and remarked that she had no idea this would even be possible. It’s a feeling of great achievement when you hear a director say this about your work.”
One of the unique parts about Shih’s work on A Gift is the fact that the film’s director asked him to serve as both a colorist and an editor on the film. Director Yiqiong Li had been working with major Chinese production companies and TV stations. Being involved in her film meant that Hugo would work with highly talented professionals as well as being a part of productions that would reach a massive viewing audience. Hugo recalls, “She came to me and asked if I could do editing and color grading together. After I read the script and talked with her, I decided to take these two roles in post-production. There are some benefits of being editor and colorist at the same time. I always see the color as my creative tool for editing. It’s like assembling the puzzle pieces to the story while rebuilding the lighting. To illustrate how these roles worked in tandem to the benefit of A Gift, consider the following. In the film, there is a very long shot of Jack following Margaret to the kitchen. Usually it would be hard for an editor to keep this kind of shot because their job is to keep the story intense. However, Hugo was thinking ahead and was able to retain this shot by key framing the lighting when the main actor changed his location; using the key frame tool to adjust the lighting in the same way the aperture is adjusted on a camera. This can invisibly add the tension without the audience’s knowledge that it was made in post-production.
A Gift has been highly recognized in 2016 with win’s for best film at: Hollywood Independent Moving Picture Film Festival and the 2016 StoneFair International Film Festival, as well as being an Official Selection at: the Berlin International Cinefest, the Roma Cinema Doc, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards, and the California Women’s Film Festival. As a member of the cast and crew of A Gift, Hugo Shih and his exemplary work are proof that a film about the change possible in each of us can move many people.