Case Studies

The Zone of Interest – crafting authenticity through a naturalistic grade

Directed by Jonathan Glazer, The Zone of Interest recently took home the best international film and best sound award at the 2024 Oscars. It also won the Grand Prize at Cannes and two BAFTAs, and has received over 150 additional nominations.

The film explores the comfortable family life of Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss in a chilling domestic drama set to a backdrop of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The colour grading, overseen by Gareth Bishop at Dirty Looks, plays a pivotal role in conveying the mood and atmosphere of the story.

A close collaboration

Having worked with Glazer a number of times in the past, Bishop's journey with The Zone of Interest started early, in pre-production, assisting Glazer and cinematographer Lukasz Zal with technical camera tests and helping to analyse available light, before the shooting began.

“I have worked with Jonathan several times as a grade assistant and we have a good relationship and understanding of one another,” explains Bishop. “We have worked on a handful of adverts together as well as some short films. Our first collaboration was on Under the Skin (2013), where I was lucky enough to assist the late – and very talented – John Claude on the grade.”

For The Zone of Interest, Bishop and Glazer worked very closely to create a naturalistic grade.

“Jon had a very strong vision of how the film was going to look and what he wanted the end result to be,” recalls Bishop. “He would provide guidance and ideas of what he was looking for and then leave me to work while he focused on other important areas, like sound design.”

“Jonathan is very involved,” adds Bishop. “We always collaborate closely, as colourist and director. He’s clear about what he wants and takes time to get the shoot right on-set, so the images look great when they reach me. He’s got an incredible eye.”

A naturalistic grade

The primary objective of the grade was to maintain a naturalistic aesthetic. Bishop aimed to capture the essence of each scene – from the opulence of a party sequence, with its high ceilings and strong reds and golds, to the closed-in and sombre tones of Auschwitz.

“We didn’t want it to look vintage,” explains Bishop. “The production design, costume and the content of the film place the viewer in the 1940s – not the look of the film. We wanted it to feel natural and contemporary, so the viewer felt like they could be standing there in that garden.”

Using Baselight, Bishop used a combination of techniques to achieve the desired look. From adjusting exposure and saturation levels to delicately balancing contrasts, every decision was guided by a commitment to authenticity.

“Glazer doesn’t use visual references, it’s more about how the film should feel,” explains Bishop. “We didn’t want anything to feel faded, so it was all about getting that separation.”

“Establishing a contrast between the locations was vital,” adds Bishop. “It took a long time to get this right and we were constantly reviewing scenes in context with the rest of the film, to make sure we stayed loyal to the authenticity, and that it all worked together – adjusting the saturation and exposure until we felt we had a good balance.” 

The film was shot on modern cameras and lenses, so one of Bishop’s tasks was to take away any colour shift that the camera added or anything unnatural, to maintain the feeling of realism.

“The DoP shot with only available and practical lighting and we followed this style through into the grade,” adds Bishop. “We never shaped the images and we didn’t use any keyframes, apart from in one scene. But for most of the film there’s no shaping, vignettes, no brightening faces – it’s all as it was shot.”

In contrast to a lot of modern films, Bishop steered away from creating a filmic look and instead set to create a pin-sharp image.

“We used a lot of sharpening tools in Baselight, to help to create this pin-sharp look to film,” says Bishop. “I actually over-sharpened it and then we went through it and took the sharpening off anything that broke – using Baselight to draw shapes and carefully remove what we needed to.”

Matching camera footage

The majority of the film was shot simultaneously through up to 10 cameras, which posed some challenges for Bishop.

“In some ways, it made it easier,” says Bishop. “But in other ways, it made it harder – as I was having to do a lot of matching. In some scenes, the light was changing so much, which would ordinarily be a nightmare – but as we wanted it to feel real and authentic, we were able to just let that run, which was nice.”

One especially challenging scene was where Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) walks her mother on a tour of the garden, as the sunlight was constantly changing.  

“The scene is probably a few minutes long, but by the time they get to the end of the garden the sun is gone and it gets quite dark,” says Bishop. “But because we were not using any keyframes and trying to keep everything consistent, we had to expose the beginning of the scene for the end of the scene.”

“We got right to the end and Jonathan suggested maybe we should try using a keyframe, to pull it up or down half a stop. But we couldn’t do it – it just felt wrong.”

Flare footage

One of the most challenging aspects of the grade for Bishop was a scene shot entirely in night vision, which follows a Polish girl as she hides food for the people inside Auschwitz.

“The cameras it was shot on are not designed to shoot cinematic images and they came in less than HD,” recalls Bishop. “The challenge was to set these quite low-res images up against the 4K images shot 6K on Sony Venice.”

To overcome this, Dirty Looks looked to VFX company, One of Us, to complete some tests and apply AI upscaling algorithms to sharpen the images.

“We had multichannel EXRs in Baselight and I used different versions of those to blend together,” says Bishop. “I massively over-sharpened and broke a version of the images and then used the paint tool to paint back in some details into the final shots.”

Bishop's determination and attention to detail shone through as he enhanced the footage, ensuring seamless integration with the rest of the film.

“It was quite a challenge to get them to stand up against the 4K images and we spent weeks trying to get it into shape,” concludes Bishop.

Corridor scene

Another challenging scene for Bishop was at the end of the movie, where a man walks through corridors that lead out into total darkness.

“The corridor walls had a yellow hue to them, which we had to take out,” explains Bishop. “And as the corridors go off into darkness, they roll off into black. It was challenging to get that fall off right, without affecting the character in the scene. We didn’t use any shapes to pull up his face or anything like that, so getting the balance right on this scene took a long time. We knew what we wanted to do, but it was very hard to get it right.”

“As soon as I got it, we knew straight away,” he says. “I watched it and showed Jonathan and he was like, ‘yes, that’s it’. This is one of my favourite scenes in the movie now.”

No stone left unturned

Bishop spent around eight and a half weeks on the aesthetic grade.

“The highlight for me was getting through the film and finishing it,” comments Bishop. “It was tough, but we were lucky to have a lot of time and didn’t have the pressure of a tight deadline to work against, like colourists often do.

“A lot of our time was spent on the flare and night footage and then obsessively watching the film over and over again,” says Bishop. “There was no stone left unturned in terms of what we could do.”

Through a combination of technical expertise and a delicate and strict creative vision, Bishop helped to create a natural and authentic film which has resonated with global audiences on multiple levels.

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“The production design, costume and the content place the viewer in the 1940s – not the look of the film. We wanted it to feel natural and contemporary, so the viewer felt like they could be standing there in that garden.”


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