Dirty Looks: From Brick Lane to James Bond, This Grading Space Is England
Founder of Dirty Looks, Tom Balkwill chats Shane Meadows, ‘The Virtues’, London 2012 and bad jokes (Article by Little Black Books)
Having worked on countless high-profile feature films, documentaries, TV series, and the London 2012 Olympic ceremony, Tom Balkwill is a veteran in explosive long format post-production. Most recently he is overseeing the grade on Shane Meadows’ (This Is England, Dead Man’s Shoes) highly-anticipated new series ‘Virtues’. He sits down to chat about the unique grading process for the show and what it was like to set up and work in a grading suite for Danny Boyle in the Olympic stadium…
Q> What is your background?
Tom Balkwill > I was always passionate about film and broadcast, a hobby that started from taking apart radios and tape players as a small child – despite a genuine risk of electrocution! Involvement in live TV and radio broadcast in my teenage years cemented a keen interest in the technologies of acquisition, transmission, and the thrill of the flashing red light as we went out live to the world.
Q> How did you get into grading?
TB> I started in the film industry 15 years ago in Brick Lane as an assistant editor and gravitated towards the technical side of editing. That then led to online editing, which led to digital intermediate grading in Soho. Being able to see live colour changes to 35mm film scans on a 2K projector, in a private cinema, was mind-bending. As soon as I was sent – clueless – into a DI theatre to conform a film on an early Baselight 8, I knew this was the area that I wanted to specialise in.
Q> When did you start Dirty Looks and what’s behind the name?
TB> I started the company eight years ago from a basement suite by Soho Square. Back then we started on low budget features, commercials and promos before moving into TV shows for the BBC and Channel4. I learned a lot about grading under pressure! I wanted the name to be fun. Those who know me, acknowledge my leanings towards the occasional bad joke, but I took inspiration from two great things, film and music: Stephen Frears’ film ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ and Roni Size’s drum&bass track ‘Dirty Breaks’.
Today, we are based on the corner of Rathbone Place and Oxford St. We also have a second suite on Wardour Street and last year we opened a third in Brussels. We completed the upcoming film by Sebastián Lelio ‘Disobedience’ in our newest space.
Q> Your latest project is Shane Meadows’ (This Is England, Dead Man’s Shoes) new series for Channel 4 ‘The Virtues’. What was it like working with Shane?
TB> Shane is a force of nature. He gets very excited when describing his vision and has an infectious enthusiasm surrounding his work. It’s an honour to be collaborating with such a fantastic director, whose work I have loved for years.
Q> Can you tell us a bit about the style of the grade (or is that still confidential)?
TB> I can’t tell you about the show, but I can say that Shane loves the process of grading. He has a fantastic eye; very sensitive to the subtleties of colour and it’s importance within his narrative. On a technical level he likes to get personally involved. More so than any other director we have worked with. In fact, he was grading The Virtues rushes himself for the offline edit. The grading style undertaken by our Senior Colourist, John Claude, is always based heavily on Shane’s starting point.
Q> I hear you graded the project remotely. How did you achieve this and what were the results?
TB> I’ve been experimenting with remote grading for years. So long as you can control the environment at the other end, it’s a fantastic way to collaborate and enhance the creative process. On ‘The Virtues’, we started the grade together with Shane in our Baselight suite on Wardour St. I feel it’s important to get everyone in the same room for the beginning, at least. Then we moved onto remote, employing Sohonet’s new service ClearView Flex, which doesn’t require bespoke hardware and massive bandwidth at each end. The destination device is any web browser or tablet. This has enabled us to stream our work to the director in Nottingham despite his connection being consumer broadband, in a private house that they are using as an edit base. I carefully calibrated a bespoke monitor and installed it there myself, so I knew that we could trust what he was looking at. And more importantly he trusts it too, as a colour match to our Grade1 Dolby monitor in Wardour St. He absolutely loves this workflow.
Q> What key processes ensure the smooth running of Dirty Looks? (any specific tech / bespoke tech used?
TB> First and foremost, our aim is for clients to leave completely satisfied with our work. It’s the most important thing. We are a small team but each of us know the ins-and-outs across all our projects. We need a lot of tech too, of course, which I’ve continued to invest in over the years. Two FilmLight Baselight systems, 4K Christie projection, Dolby HD monitoring, 150TB SAN, 100 GbE Mellanox networking, LTO archiving, 200mbit Sohonet SMN line, assist workstations and a really good coffee machine (arguably the most important part!). Software-wise we use the usual array, along with a bespoke shot management database that tracks progress across every shot of every film that we are working on. Also, Sohonet’s File Runner for digital delivery has become a core part of our daily work.
Q> You’ve worked on a huge amount of different series, features and commercials. What has been your personal highlight?
TB> Can I pick two? Even that is tricky! Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under The Skin’ was an incredible film project, shot by Daniel Landin. Their VFX team developed their own tiny 2K camera to covertly record nine angles inside a transit van, as Scarlett Johansson drove around Scotland picking up strangers. Grading this footage in with Alexa and 35mm was really fun. John’s approach to his work is fascinating. The final film really is something unique.
The most fun project? The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, working for 6 weeks on location with Danny Boyle and his production team to grade and deliver the film elements of this truly epic show. (Remember James Bond at Buckingham Palace, the Queen jumping out of the helicopter and Mr Bean inside the shots from Chariots of Fire?!). We setup a boutique finishing space for him in the bowels of the main stadium, complete with grading suite, online, QC and HDCam SR. We had to install ourselves there, for the fear of any material being leaked in advance and spoiling the surprise. As London 2012 approached, the passion, thrill, vibrancy, commitment and general bonkers-ness of that huge space (alongside 10,000 devoted volunteers!!) is something that I will never forget. On the night the show went out live around the world to a billion people.
Q> TV series, feature films and commercial formats all operate very differently as a process, but do you feel the skills used in one area are beneficial for another? i.e. Do commercials lend skills to the long format work and vice versa?
TB> We specialise in longer form work, having completed over 80 feature films, so this is the area that I know the best. The demands of dealing with such a volume of material makes for a ruthless workflow but creatively speaking, once you know how to make a feature look beautiful and consistent, the same core skills apply across the board. Short form commercials and promo work can lend more time to explore smaller details, like the beauty elements of tracking of faces and eyes, softening and sharpening and the ability to enhance small elements of lighting etc. Feature films can be on our system for many months, even years. It’s fun to work on something that can be in and out much quicker, especially if it is due imminently for broadcast or on a cinema’s big screen.