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Mark Horrobin Reveres Working with Film, and Favours Restraint in the Craft of Grading



LBB speaks with Tag’s head of colour about the changing industry, the resurgence of working with film, and the career-defining projects that have taught him the most

Mark Horrobin Reveres Working with Film, and Favours Restraint in the Craft of Grading

Tag’s head of colour, Mark Horrobin, says that nature is his great inspiration, speaking with reverence about the changing light, the texture of landscapes, and the way the human eye is primed to perceive it all in its perfect imperfection. He credits his birth country, Australia, with his love of nature and today he lives in “the mountains, surrounded by woods”, taking in the subtly changing vistas to rest and recharge. 

Becoming a colourist was never Mark’s plan; in fact, he had no plan. There was a desire to become a journalist (he realised it wasn’t for him after a taster for the craft at university), followed by work in the mines, in the middle of the desert, to earn enough to set off on his travels. A chance to join MPC opened the door to the industry where he was quickly drawn to the technical side of things; once he saw Jean-Clément Soret’s reel and realised the possibilities, his path forward became apparent. He became Jean-Clément’s assistant, learning from him along the way, and crediting his “savant-like” abilities with grading as an enduring source of professional guidance. 

Mark’s career spans 24 years and during this time he’s become one of the most in-demand, respected colourists in the industry. He’s known for a delicate, less-is-more approach to grading that looks to enhance the shot without overwhelming one’s eye, though he admits that 'going to town' on a grade can certainly be a lot of fun. A long-life fan of working with film, Mark sees the turn to digital as necessary in the landscape of shrinking budgets while noting that most digital aspires to recreate the “soft roll-off, that logarithmic curve” that only film is capable of. 

Today, Mark spoke to LBB’s Zhenya Tsenzharyk about his career journey, what a good brief looks like, and his stylistic approach to grading. We also delve into why TV is the best example of grading today and how technology is affecting the industry. 

LBB > What were you like growing up? What was your plan before you knew that you wanted to get into the advertising industry?

Mark > I had no plan. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, in Australia, and I wanted to be a journalist. So I studied journalism at university, realised early on that it wasn’t for me, I had a little crisis of confidence and didn’t really know what to do but I finished the degree anyway. Then I worked in a mine in the middle of a desert to earn some quick money and get to travel. This led to me ending up in London and sort of fell into the industry by accident.

LBB > And how did you start your journey towards becoming a colourist specifically?

Mark > When I arrived in London, I had no idea this world existed, but a friend of mine who worked in the dispatch department at MPC got me an in. I turned up to the job interview as a runner, in a suit and tie - that’s how much I knew about the industry. Fortunately, someone had just resigned a few days before, so I got the job. It was a pretty steep learning curve but it opened up a whole world to me that I didn’t know existed, and it was exciting. 

LBB > How did you make the transition from runner into colour?

Mark > Whilst mining, I was fast tracked into the control room of the plant so I had gotten quite good with technology in that sense. Industry-wise, it was all linear editing at that point, and grading off film, so I was drawn to the technical side of things. I remember, I was asked to do a viewing of this reel, and I played it in the little finishing suite. This guy’s reel blew my mind because I didn’t realise you could do things like that with pictures. It was Jean-Clément Soret and his work was astonishing. I immediately thought “I want to learn from this guy, I want to be able to do that with pictures.” So I worked really hard to become his assistant, and then I worked incredibly hard as his assistant - it was pretty unforgiving - and I learnt so much along the way. 

LBB > How/where did you hone your craft? Did you have any particular mentors?

Mark> Jean-Clément Soret was the guy that I learned from the most, creatively, especially in terms of approach, image and work ethic. To this day, I still rate him as arguably the best in the world, he’s an extraordinary talent. We can all get to a grade, we can all work to a brief, but he always brought a little bit of himself to the work, in the most simple way. The way he sees images is slightly savant-like, in my opinion, and he could arrive at something incredibly beautiful, in three layers, in the most simplistic way possible. I would often find myself able to emulate what he’d done but it would be a hugely complicated process with 20 layers. He has an intuition and a creative instinct that I haven’t seen in another colourist before or since. 

There was another chap that started at MPC not long after him, Frank Voiturier. He was a different kettle of fish, very rock and roll, a lot more precocious than Jean-Clément. He taught me a lot about how to manage a room and the philosophical side of the industry. 

LBB> What are a few of the projects you feel best showcase your skills? 

Mark> I grew up amongst nature, so I have to say my preference is a vast landscape. I love to get hold of an epic shot of nature, and really drag out all of the textures and the beauty. 

I’m still incredibly proud of one job very early on - a Guinness commercial for Anthony Minghella - in the early 2000s. The film’s called Mustang and it was set in this horse corral in Arizona or somewhere, and the light was beautiful and it was really an opportunity to play with landscapes. It was led by Janusz Kamiński, one of the top DOPs on the planet, which meant it was one of the first jobs that gave me a real sense of knowing that if the DOP gets it right then our job as colourists is not to reinvent the wheel, but to simply work with the light and massage the beauty out of that. That project, for me, was a seminal job.

Another one that comes to mind is a music video I did with Jon Glazer, for The Dead Weather, filmed in this flat, desert-kind of wasteland; I really do like my landscapes. It was an extraordinarily difficult project, he’s a really difficult director to grade for in the sense he often doesn’t know what he wants till he sees it, and he’d tell you that himself. It was a five grade marathon - it took five goes over a 24 hour session - so John would say “yes, yes, yes” but then go upstairs to the VFX guys and come back down to tell me to start again. By 5am when I was starting the last run, I really didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t.

We finished it up by 11am having started at 9am the day before, went home and came back to it with fresh eyes - it was clear we had got there, and it’s a really great spot, something I’m really proud of. In the end it was the most simple grade, no bells and whistles, that we ended up with, in order to get to the honesty of the piece. So it was a really interesting process to go through, albeit quite torturous at the time. 

I don’t think the colourist’s job is to beat people over the head with their craft, it shouldn’t be “hey look at me, look at how clever I am” - though that can be fun. I grew up when grading tools were being revolutionised and there were a lot of powerful grading tools that were dropped in our laps but over time people have settled into the idea that fundamentally grading should be about helping to tell the story, realising the vision of the director and cinematographer. No one thing should be shouting louder than the other.

One job I did towards the end of 2021 - a beautiful job for jewellery brand Vashi - was a global cinema and TV spot. The director had written the ad as well, which gave us free reign, and we were able to collaborate, unimpeded by corporate concerns. We played around with a lot of stuff, there was an idea that we would shoot it back to film so we did a little bit of testing on that and played around with film emulation. It looked good, however in the end we went back to digital, but we had time to explore what would be best, which is a luxury we don’t often get these days. The result speaks for itself, I’m very proud of it and think it looks beautiful. 

LBB> Tell us a little about your creative process - what’s the first thing you do when a brief comes in?

Mark> Do your homework as soon as you get the brief. It’s about listening to what the director is trying to achieve, take it all in and once you have done that, you can discuss where your head is at and how that dovetails with the directors’ visual concept. That puts you in the best position to collaborate and you start bouncing ideas around and trying things out. Finding that common starting point so you are both speaking the same language, to ensure what you’re doing isn’t a surprise, saves a lot of time. 

LBB> Do you prefer detailed or open-ended briefs? Why?

Mark> Somewhere in between, ideally. To slavishly follow a very detailed brief can get in the way of exploring the best thing for the spot. Briefs move, they are an organic thing, there are so many variables along the way between the brief being signed off and actually getting into the dark room with me. Whether it be weather, light, time constraints; there are many compromises that may be made along the way. For that reason, dogmatically sticking to a brief can be counterproductive sometimes. At the same time, there is nothing worse than having nothing. Especially now, living in a digital world with so much firepower in the equipment that we use, there’s so much you can do and you need a little bit of direction. If someone comes into the room without any kind of direction it suggests to me they don’t know what they want. I feel most comfortable being given a brief with flexibility. 

LBB> Have you ever had a job where your vision and a directors’ vision were at odds?

Mark> There have been jobs where I’ve finished and thought, “You know what, I think we missed an opportunity here,” but part of that is knowing how far to push and what battles to fight. What happens more often is a director and colourist will be in sync but corporate input gets in the way and dilutes the process. At the end of the day, I’m there to give the director what he wants to the best of my ability. 

LBB> When you’re out of the studio, where do you turn for inspiration?

Mark> I like to be outdoors; I look at the mountains every morning and it's a different painting. The clouds, the mist, the dew on the leaves; the light works differently everyday. That’s what I’m trying to recreate when I get into a grading suite, the magic of light that nature gives us. 

LBB> What are some of the best examples of colour grading in film or advertising and why?

Mark> TV these days is the apex of good grading. There was a time when advertising and commercials were considered the creative cutting edge, and that’s been flipped on its head in the last 10 years, since HBO revolutionised the TV industry. As budgets have gone down and content platforms have increased, everyone is trying to squeeze more content out of the same budgets, things are more driven by clicks and marketing datasets. As a result, the creative edge that advertising had has died down somewhat. 

A show like Mindhunter, is an extraordinary example of colour grading, and it's because of the storytelling and David Fincher’s skill. The grade works perfectly with the content, it’s got that gritty feel. The palette is very defined, lots of dusty greens and heavy contrast, slight desaturation. It works perfectly with the subject material and really stands out to me.

Similarly, His Dark Materials on BBC, the grading contributes to the storytelling. The exciting fantasy aspect of the story is pushed that little bit further by the grade, and it's really quite beautiful. 

Commercials-wise, the Green & Blacks spot, is fabulous grading. Again it tells the story; that rich feeling of opulence and luxury is what Green & Blacks is trying to achieve as an identifier for their brand. 

LBB> Colour grading is largely a digital affair, but there’s also been a resurgence of film over the past few years in commercials and music videos. What are your thoughts about working on film versus digital formats like 4K? 

Mark> Well, I grew up with film and it's a different beast. Digital is technically more forgiving whereas film is an analogue process, and the way it sees the world is how we see the world. It’s a chemical reaction to light, it’s naturally pleasing to us, but it’s one of those things that no-one ever articulates very well. It has a beautiful, very specific texture which speaks a language I grew up with. 

Digitally, we strive to emulate film’s feeling and look, whether it’s explicit or not. Digital is an attempt to recreate that soft roll-off, that logarithmic curve, and we’ve gotten good at it. Digital cameras now are fantastic, they are high resolution, the sensors are super sensitive, so you have a lot more wiggle room with digital.

From a technical point of view, if you’re doing a VFX-heavy piece, digital is much more forgiving. It’s sharper, it’s cleaner; digital has opened up a whole load of possibilities that we weren’t able to explore before. But from a purely visual aesthetic, I think nothing can replace well-managed film. There has been a resurgence in people wanting to shoot using film in the last five years and sadly it is a bit of a dark art. The people that worked in labs for 20/30 years, they all retired when the digital revolution happened, which has left a real hole in the knowledge of how you work with film and we’re having to play catch up a little bit. I think film will always be around even if it is a bit niche, but when you get a nice piece of film to grade, it’s a real pleasure. 

LBB> What are your favourite techniques for capturing a vintage or tactile feel?

Mark> The differences are mainly textural. I tend to work with Resolve, but we’ve just taken delivery of Baselight too. I play with texturing tools to make the film a little softer. I try to emulate the gamma curve that you would have on film - that lovely ‘S’ curve - play with curves, get your contrast where you’ve got soft roll-offs and slightly creamy highlights. The thing about film in a cinema, back when it was projected through print, there was no white. Pure white doesn’t exist in a cinema, it would always be a tungsten light shining through, so the whites would be a slightly yellow, creamy colour. Our eyes would white balance immediately once we were in the cinema and we’d read the colour as white, but that’s just another way to take you a step closer to classic film. 

Film is a process of RGB dyeing and if you’re looking for something more vintage or retro, you’d look at the ways the dyes bleed over time. You’d start to try and understand the characteristics of the period of film. 

LBB> In your opinion, what's the difference between a good grade and a great grade?

Mark> It is fundamentally about storytelling. At a base level, every grade should be good, there’s no excuse for a bad grade. If you know what you’re doing and you’re a professional, there are certain technical bars that you should always stay above. For a great grade, a number of stars need to align, for it to be elevated work. Not all materials or ideas lend themselves to a great grade, and in some instances you want to lo-fi it a little bit. Working with a cool product certainly helps in advertising.

You also need to have the trust of your client to allow the creative process to breathe and grow. A lot of things need to fall into line to get the opportunity to do a great grade. 

LBB> How is the craft and trade of colour grading changing?

Mark> It’s changed enormously over the time that I’ve been involved, the biggest thing is the accessibility to grading tools is so much higher. When I started, a grading suite cost £1.5 million, and now, I have a grading suite at home and the whole set up cost £30,000. The pricing has come down and become very democratised. The tool sets have become more sophisticated too. As soon as it became software-driven, not hardware, the sky became the limit in terms of what clever tools you can incorporate into the software. 

Technology has been advancing at an incredibly fast rate. Things like HDR offers up a whole other set of creative possibilities. We use the extra dynamic range to create a mood, build up to a particularly important moment, and then bring it back down. 

There used to be a lot of brave advertising, there was a time when clients would trust the agency, but a lot of trust has now gone. I think that’s part of the digital revolution, it’s demystified the process somewhat, and made things cheaper. Last minute changes can be made without a massive cost implication. Everyone is an armchair filmmaker now, which can present its own sets of challenges.

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Tag, Wed, 18 May 2022 14:20:07 GMT