Bringing colour to Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
Directed by five-time Academy Award winner, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the 2023 Oscar-nominated movie, Bardo, tells the story of an acclaimed journalist-turned-documentarian, Silverio, as he goes on a journey to reconcile with the past, the present and his Mexican identity.
Silverio faces questions about identity, success, mortality, the history of Mexico and the deeply emotional familial bonds he shares with his wife and children.
A proven partnership
The immersive film was graded on Baselight at Harbor in Los Angeles, by colourist Damien Vandercruyssen. He worked closely with award-winning cinematographer, Darius Khondji, to achieve the desired look.
Khondji has been nominated for a Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar for his work on the movie, as well as an ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Feature.
The pair have worked together on many occasions - including Uncut Gems (2019), Lisey’s Story (2021) and most recently Armageddon Time (2022) - and have developed a strong creative bond. They like to treat every project as a blank canvas.
“Something I really admire about Darius’s work is that every job requires its own approach, feel, and look,” comments Vandercruyssen. “Bardo and Armageddon Time were shot by the same DP, on the same camera, and in the same year, yet they are refreshingly nothing alike. We of course have a common sense and culture that we lean towards naturally, but we want every project to be unique. So, it also serves as a red flag to stop us from falling into automatism too easily.”
“Natural oneirism,” is how Vandercruyssen describes the desired look of the movie. “We wanted a clean palette with a very slight touch of film patina,” he adds. “The colour work of Vivian Maier was one of the references during pre-production that we continued studying during the DI. It’s slightly faded yet has colour accents. It was a unique look that carries some nostalgia.”
Bardo is a Tibetan word that refers to the Buddhist concept of a transitional floating state between death and rebirth, which in the movie translates between surreal dreamlike sequences and reality scenes.
“For the filmmakers, it was important that the grade feel natural, even in the dream states,” explains Vandercruyssen. “We finessed the transitions between scenes through subtle variations, breathing of the grade, and shifting the mood from reality into dream state.
“Like a dream, the look often starts realistic but shifts naturally, instinctually, almost imperceptibly. All in all, the grade always had to feel as natural as possible for Alejandro and Darius.”
For Bardo, Khondji and Damien began building look up tables (LUTs) during pre-production.The production took place in Mexico, but because of COVID-19 restrictions at the time, Vandercruyssen was in New York and the pair worked remotely when required.
“It is always a special moment when the cinematographer is searching for the perfect ingredients for their desired look,” explains Vandercruyssen. “Between camera, lens, lighting, and colour, all connected with the costume and production design, this testing phase is essential. It makes everything seamless down the line”.
After building the LUTs for Gabriel Kolodny (DIT and on-set colourist), Vandercruyssen kept an eye on the dailies and supported the development of new LUTs and adjustments.
Bardo was shot on the ALEXA 65. “The quality of this camera image is highly impressive,” comments Vandercruyssen. “The only challenge was handling the colossal amount of data that this requires and reaching the limit of real-time playback.”
The team used ARRI LogCv3 Wide Gamut as their working colour space. All VFX shots were delivered in ARRI Linear EXR with embedded mattes.
“We started with plates only then implemented and reviewed the VFX shots as they came in,” recalls Vandercruyssen. “The main grade was done in P3 D65, until the festival premiere. I then started working on the other deliveries HDR/SDR for Netflix, film-out, and Dolby Cinema.”
Vandercruyssen and Khondji began working on the main grade in the spring for seven weeks, stopping before receiving all the final VFX shots. They then carried on for another four weeks with the director, Alejandro, in August, and did another two weeks in between for the HDR Dolby Vision pass and final reviews.
“We always take the offline as our starting point and the look develops as we play out the scenes and discuss,” explains Vandercruyssen. “Darius drives if we need a new direction, pointing out things that he likes and doesn’t like. If there’s something that I don’t think is working, I’ll suggest alternatives.
“Then, it’s a matter of liking that new direction or not. I’ve found that colour is a very subjective and personal taste. We tend to prefer the same looks, which makes the renewal process a little more difficult. But on Armageddon Time, for example, we were able to play with a softer palette in a way we hadn’t before. For Bardo, we played with this softer palette as well.”
“The grade for Bardo was all about subtlety, through minute adjustments and refinements,” explains Vandercruyssen. “We were able to achieve this in a large part due to Baselight. I used keyframes for shapes, keys, or grade and opacity blends as there is a lot of shifting grades throughout the shots. The storm scene in the kitchen, for example, was all shot intentionally, but we helped the transitions by darkening the frame as the storm grew.”
Blending and balancing
One of the most challenging aspects of the grade for Vandercruyssen was managing long takes with multiple looks.
“I had to build and blend multiple stacks to get those desired smooth transitions,” he explains. “There was a lot of long takes with a small window request. I had a ton of backup behind the curtains from Robert Crosby, associate colourist, and Weiyi Ang, colour assist, who did a phenomenal job tracking and keyframing a lot of windows.“
One of the trickiest shots that Vandercruyssen tackled was the entrance into the TV studio that journeyed all the way back to the dressing room. “This is a very long shot made up of six different grades/locations,” he explains. “So, we had to break the shot into sections, one per location, and then blend them in the transitions, windowing and keyframing again each location.”
Another challenging scene was the downtown Mexico City scene, which goes into a time-lapse, from day to night in the streets, then pre-dawn at the Zocalo.
“This scene was very VFX-heavy, but the whole reel was a challenge,” he explains. “Getting the right amount of darkness, as the night fades out into dawn, was a real challenge. I felt like a tightrope walker. Every move had a domino effect. It was a very difficult balance to find and coordinate with the VFX team as well.”
Bardo has already taken home various awards at multiple 2022 film festivals, including Camerimage (Poland), Capri (Hollywood), and Venice (Italy).
The film is also in the running, among many others, for a 2023 Oscar for Best Achievement in Cinematography (12 March 2023) and an ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Feature (5 March 2023).
“The grade for ‘Bardo’ was all about subtlety, through minute adjustments and refinements. We were able to achieve this in a large part due to Baselight.”