Time Based Arts’ Simone Grattarola and Tom Johnson on Shoreditch, film projection grading and working on War & Peace
Following the launch of their new premises adjoining the much-loved Time Based Arts ‘Cottage’, and after a year at the independent post production house, celebrated Colourist Simone Grattarola and Head of Production Tom Johnson discuss designing their new department, plans for feature film projection grading, and the colour-work behind the BBC’s War & Peace and Peaky Blinders.
Q > What brought about your move to Time Based Arts last year?
Simone Grattarola > I was at a point in my career where I’d built up quite a big roster of clients, specifically directors who would come to work with me directly. You always want to challenge yourself away from the desk, but I had a view of creating something more lasting for the future. I’d been looking into starting my own thing. At the same time through mutual director friends, I got introduced to Mike and Jim (Mike Skgartic and James Allen). Their ambition matched mine and I came on as a partner for the grading side here.
Tom Johnson > As soon as I met Jim, Mike and Simone to discuss the role and Time Based Arts, I was sold. Their vision and enthusiasm for doing great, creative work in a fun and friendly environment was infectious. It was something I wanted to be a part of. It’s been an incredible 6 months.
Q > What prompted the addition of grading to the business?
SG > Until last year Time Based Arts were doing very large-scale VFX jobs and having to outsource the grade.
The ambition was always to create a company where every aspect of the creative process could be catered for. Equally, grading in-house was a request that the company was hearing frequently from directors and clients. After taking care in establishing the VFX and CGI departments, that meant grading was the natural next step.
I think from Mike and Jim’s point of view it was an inevitable transition but the emphasis was all about finding the right partner. It came about as a result of being put together by directors that we had both worked with. It was very much approached as a ‘you’ll get on’ sort of introduction, versus more of a formal business approach. And they were right, we did get on well and it quickly grew from there.
Q > When you joined there were also plans in place for a large extension of the building to accommodate two new grading suites and two additional VFX suites, as well as a new 3D/Nuke studio. How much of this were you involved in?
SG > When we first started to talk about Time Based Arts grading, we were talking about using existing space in the Town Hall basement or using another property down the road as a separate workspace, but neither option really matched the ambition we had. It just so happened that we got talking to the landlord of the adjoining warehouse building and he told us they had some space becoming available. After some negotiation this then became two whole floors, quickly trebling our floor space! We worked out where the buildings backed onto each other so we could knock through the wall and create one larger entity whilst retaining the Cottage. We worked really hard on making it feel connected and effortless for clients and we’re delighted with the results.
TJ > It’s been such a great opportunity. Not many people in their careers have the chance to design suites from ground floor up. It’s normally a case of being shoehorned in to an existing space and trying to make the best use of it. By gutting both floors of the warehouse building we had the opportunity to create something from scratch. This allowed us to build very specifically what we wanted from a grade suite; what size room, what equipment and tech, the lighting, all the details. You don’t get these opportunities very often and a lot of consideration has gone into these rooms.
Q > You’re one of the only commercial grading facilities in East London with a projection grading suite. Do you feel that more post houses and creatives will follow your lead and move east? What are the benefits of being here as opposed to Soho/ West London?
SG > When I started meeting up with Mike and James and saw what was happening over here, it made total sense to have a business in Shoreditch. What you need to remember is when they set it up seven years ago, no one was over here really. So they took a bold decision on what they were doing and it turned out to be a great one because there’s now a multitude of fantastic creative companies working here shaping a new collective community.
TJ > We are also finding more and more companies are moving out here as well. I think it’s inevitable. Soho is a great example: it used to have a creativity and edge about it. However, slowly but surely that’s becoming lost, as it becomes an area dominated by flats, coffee shops and restaurant chains. It’s undergone a myriad of character changes down the years and it probably needs to re-invent itself again. Inevitably, smaller creative companies and start ups have fresh ideas and can be bolder over location. It’s reassuring to think that Jim and Mike made the right decision all those years ago, when the area was less developed. The movement east of like-minded companies reaffirms their instincts.
SG > We have a lot of contact with the companies nearby. They’re always popping in. In Soho you’re always bumping into someone you know, everyone is friendly but there’s an amount of rivalry. I never seem to feel that here. Instead of rivalry people work more as a creative community, trying to produce the best work possible. It’s a subtle difference.
TJ > Of course it helps that we both live east, so it’s a massive plus in terms of commuting time!
Q > The expansion will obviously allow you to take on bigger more challenging projects. One of your suites is a full film projection-grading suite. What are your plans for long form grading at Time Based Arts?
SG > When we were setting up the two suites we agreed that we didn’t just want two commercial suites, we wanted to offer our directors and the agencies something different and something bigger, because of the great space we have over here. So actually putting in a high-end 2k projector with Dolby 5.1 surround sound gives our clients the best environment to see their work whether that’s long form or short form. Essentially, we’ve still got two commercial grading suites with Dolby Grade 1 monitors but one of them will offer projection grading as well. It’s like a beautiful little cinema and there’s a romance to that. We are still a commercial facility at heart, but now offer film-grading too. Many of the directors we work with are shooting features or have aspirations to, so we wanted to offer them film grading and to continue those relationships. We’re just completing our first feature with a director we’ve worked with on commercials for a few years.
TJ > It’s a great space to present projects and allows us to create DCPs of the commercials we work on for cinema, which gives us a complete finishing package. We have a bar here as well which we’ll be using for some evening screenings we’re planning in the projection suite and to present featured work to agencies and production companies.
Q > Simone, you were involved in the pre-production stages of Peaky Blinders. How does this early consultation benefit your approach to the grade? Is this something you look to do on all long form work or does it depend, project by project?
SG > I guess, throughout the whole company we get involved in pre-production. I’ll always offer time to sit down with the DOP. Usually they’ll go away and shoot tests with different cameras and lenses that we can both review. Specifically on Peaky Blinders, that’s what we did. We started creating a look before it was shot, then during the offline stage we got selects in and started refining the look. So when we started the job grading on day one, we already had looks and ideas in place, which allowed us to be a bit freer and to work with a narrative to the piece. It’s always the best way of working. It’s a lot of preparation but it always elevates the standard of the work and it’s something the whole team do here. I’ve never worked with anyone like the guys at Time Based Arts. The amount of pre-production that goes in, the amount of ideas for every job, it really is phenomenal. It’s an infectious and inspiring place.
TJ > Our creative collaboration is something we pride ourselves on and it’s why we build such good relationships with our clients. We have found they really value our opinion and not just with post related matters.
Q> You most recently graded the BBC series War & Peace. Was there anything that particularly influenced you? Watching the series there seems to be a clear nod to Russian folk art with the bright primary colours and the delicate washes of the Russian masters.
SG > It was actually the same DOP I worked with on Peaky Blinders, George Steel. As soon as he was awarded the job we started discussing the project and sharing references of photographers we liked and the paintings of that period. The difficulty with War & Peace, in comparison to Peaky Blinders, was that Peaky Blinders was a whole new narrative; it could look like anything so we had a much freer hand at working the canvas. War & Peace has a long established history and people had very strong ideas of how things should look or how they would want it to look.
SG> War & Peace was a very different grade but again, there was a lot of preparation. We were actually sharing ideas as George was shooting in Russia. He was able to send me shots and ideas after a day’s shooting, so I’d have a look at them, play around and send ideas back. It was really good to be able to share ideas and have that back and forth with the film that he’d just shot.
A lot of classic Russian paintings were used as references before we looked to some modern motivation, and Tarkovsky’s Polaroid’s that he’d taken on set inspired some of the grade. There was something about the wateriness of the colours, which became a spur to us. The whole grade was so layered. We just had so many influences and we put them all together and it became its own thing - it was an amazing creative experience.
Q > You have a huge amount of shots and frames to work through on a series. War & Peace is the equivalent of six feature films. How time intensive was the project?
TJ> The actual project itself was very time intensive. We didn’t really see Simone for about four weeks; he was working 14-15 hour days. However, the great thing about having the 2nd suite and a very talented 2nd colourist, Jack McGinity, meant we could still service our commercial clients.
SG> Yes it was. If you think about it, a high-end commercial (60 or 90 seconds on average) will often allow two days for grading. We had the same amount of time to grade a full hour episode of War & Peace – well, six of those – so it was a lot of work. But we viewed it as a once-in-a-generation project. It’s a timeless story that required us to go that one step further. After a couple of extra days on the first episode, Tom (Harper – the director) George and myself presented the grade to the producers, and once they saw how it looked they understood that we would need more time on the rest of project. That’s what we’re about: the quality and level of work we will put in. Because we put that prep in beforehand, they see the attention to detail that goes in and the passion we have for the projects. We are then allowed to have a say in the fact that we might need more time to contribute to making it great.
Q > Since you opened the new building in November you’ve really expanded your teams. What are your plans going forward?
TJ> That’s something that we’re trying to build on now. The extra space is allowing us to take on more and more projects, so one of our big aims for 2016 is getting the right staff to accommodate these jobs. One of the biggest considerations when taking people on is: are they a good fit for Time Based Arts? Do they have the creativity that we have come to expect and that everyone else in the building has got?
Being multi-faceted is something we place a lot of emphasis on as well. For example, our Flame artists are incredible matte painters, they’re great with references, they’ve got a real spectrum of talent and that filters through the whole building, even production.
SG> Everyone’s included in that. Quite often, we’ll sit down and talk about references and things together, it’s not one person doing one thing. There’s inclusivity to it.
TJ> It’s definitely an open door policy here, more so than I’ve seen anywhere else. Often, I’ve seen people coming out of suites, people from 3D being involved in grade, Flame artists having an opinion on CG, grading artists having an opinion on the comps. Everyone’s free to walk around and chat about projects, which leads to great work.