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‘Wonderstruck’ Colorist Joe Gawler on How Film’s Multi-Period Look Was Created

Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” which screened in the main competition at Camerimage, tells the complicated story of two children, both deaf, growing up in New York during different historical periods, whose paths strangely and magically converge.

To tell this multi-layered story, DP Edward Lachman, a Camerimage regular and frequent Haynes collaborator (“Far From Heaven,” “I’m Not There,” “Carol”) shot the film on black and white and color film, as well as on digital. Joe Gawler, partner and senior colorist at New York post-production studio Harbor Picture, who has also worked with the two men, tells how he graded the widely varying footage to give the film a seamless look.

How did you happen to get the “Wonderstruck” assignment?
I’ve had a relationship with Ed Lachman for a number of years. I’ve remastered maybe 100 titles for the Criterion Collection, and they brought on Ed to consult on the color. Ed is a real encyclopedia of filmmaking. I’ve also worked separately with Todd Haynes on Criterion, and I have a relationship with his editor, Affonso Gonçalves. So when “Wonderstruck” came together they were all already familiar with Harbor, and they ended up living there many months doing post on the film.

Had Todd and Ed always intended to shoot on film?
Yes. Unfortunately at the time there was no film processing lab in New York so they came up with a workflow plan to process the film with Fotokem on the West Coast.

The movie has black and white and color scenes in approximately equal measure.
Yes. All the film footage – black and white as well as color – was shot on Kodak 35mm stock. But a good portion of the film was shot digitally – namely all the scenes that take place inside New York’s Museum of Natural History. The museum has limitations on how much you can light the interiors, so for that extra speed and exposure they needed they decided to go digital. Everything inside the museum was shot on ARRI Alexa.

You had to deal with footage that included both film and digital elements. How did you approach each medium?
There’s something special in the film image. You can’t quite put your finger on it, and you don’t necessarily miss it if you’re just working on a digitally acquired show, but when your eyes see it in the film scan, you’re able to apply it to the digital footage. With film, the look finds itself more easily for you. There’s something inherent in the film, but it’s hard to put your finger on it. Film takes you to a place that looks great.

And digital?
Digital looks great as well, but there’s something about the photochemical process, a nuance. I’ve had the experience on a couple of shows where you start color grading digital footage and everyone is happy, they think it looks great. And then when we start working on the film footage, it’s like, oh, wow, this is really nice, and once we have those references in the film we’re able to then go further in the digital – it’s just a subtle nudge. There’s something clean and linear about the digital image that you just need to dirty up a little bit, give it some kind of warmth.

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