Fran Sokolić: each project is different, presenting a new challenge and distinct approach
02. 03. 2022
Cine Club Split hosted the first ever specialised workshop in colour correction in Croatia, held on 4-7 February 2022 and organised by Croatian Film Association and Cine Club Split. The workshop was led by Fran Sokolić, prominent colourist from the renowned regional postproduction studio Teleking based in Ljubljana. The pilot programme was attended by eight participants, who had the opportunity to hone their skills and advance their knowledge on professional equipment provided by Croatian and foreign sponsor companies (Hipermedia, Tangent) and using specialised colour grading and finishing software Nucoda, developed by Digital Vision. The workshop included theory lectures, practical exercises and mentoring sessions. Eager to learn, participants spent long hours with their workshop leader – up to 12 hours a day, sharing even lunch breaks – and after four days of intensive training, friendships were formed, as well as sound foundations for future editions of the programme.
With over 10 years’ experience in film image postproduction, Fran is one of the most competent colourists in the region. He first became involved in filmmaking as part of film authors’ group in Samobor. After completing specialised postgraduate programme in colour grading at UpGrade in Berlin, he started working on film productions, commercials and TV series, while also being engaged in restoration and digital processing of films originally shot on film stock. As this was more than enough to raise our interest, this interview presented a perfect opportunity to find out more about Fran’s career path, work projects and professional interests. The interviewer is Dragutin Andrić, Cine Club Split programme coordinator and one of workshop participants.
- How did you get into filmmaking?
It all happened by chance, in my home town of Samobor, in 2000. The local Cine Club (interviewer’s note: Film authors’ group “Enthusia Planck” – FAGEP) had a party and needed someone to pour beer. I already knew some of the people there and they asked if I’d join them, and that how I became a member of the Cine Club. I first started with analogue photography, but I believe I only shot two rolls of film, developed one and moved on to video. I was more attracted to moving image than the still image. I realized that out of all the stages in the film production process, I was most drawn to editing, so I focused on editing. Around 2010-2011, again by chance, I moved on from editing to colour grading. I was lucky to enrol to the UpGrade programme in Berlin in 2015. Everything fell into place, I got in and started courses. During my studies I realised that everything I thought I knew about colour grading and what I learned during the 4-5 years since I started was either wrong or just misunderstood. So, I started anew and I’m still learning.
- Which programmes at FAGEP made you stay at the club? Were there any lecturers or people who motivated you and inspired you to keep working in film?
At the time I joined, the beginners’ workshop was just starting. Although planned for only a few lectures, it went on for months. The first lecturer was Tom Gotovac, and his approach to film was so intriguing and captivating that he really caught our interest.
The following lecturer was Damir Čučić, who encouraged us to start making our own films. My generation, some five or six of us, plunged right into experimental film or some hybrid between documentary and experimental film. The initial workshop extended to a period of couple of years, we were active all the time, filming, producing, commenting on each other’s work… this was quite an interesting period of my life and that’s when I decided I’ll stay in film.
What followed were all sorts of projects, in different companies and as freelancing arrangements: media education courses, my own independent projects financed by Croatian Audiovisual Centre, other author’s productions – you could say I’ve done a grab-bag of jobs.
- Where are you now and what are you working on?
While I was studying in Berlin, at the 2-semester post-grad course in colour grading, I got a job with a Slovenian company Teleking in Ljubljana. They are the largest and oldest company in the region doing exclusively colour grading. I’ve worked there for the last five years as senior colourist.
- What are the greatest challenges you take on at work on daily basis? Is there sometimes a conflict between professional standards/feasibility and client’s demands?
I would like to note that no two projects are the same, each project is different, presenting a new challenge and distinct approach. This makes the job very dynamic. We occasionally encounter disagreements between the rules of the profession/feasibility and client’s demands, but you can always achieve compromise. If something is not by the standard or rules, we try to explain to the client why something should be done in a certain way. We must present valid arguments for the client to accept. There is no quarrelling, we calmly discuss, so the client sees we have the best intentions. The greatest challenge is to fulfil the vision of the cinematographer or the director, and at the same time to give my personal touch to the final output, making us all happy. I’d say this is the biggest challenge I take on.
- You gained considerable experience in Berlin and the study visits during studies at the UpGrade programme, and later on Croatian and international projects. Could you compare the working practices in the Balkans and in the Western Europe? What are the differences in budgets and how does this affect film production projects?
As far as deadlines are concerned, the time periods are more or less the same, it takes around fifteen days to complete colour grading for a feature film. The difference in budgets is huge, they are much larger abroad. The second thing which is standard on foreign projects (and is sometimes done here, but not every time), is pre-shooting tests which are test colour graded before shooting, so you can see everything – camera, lenses, lighting, costumes, set – and you can reach an agreement how things are going to look like and make any necessary changes. On foreign projects, it’s actually normal to have the colourist included in the project as early as the pre-production stage, the colourist is part of the creative team since the beginning. It’s not often the case here, while abroad it’s quite normal.
- Unfortunately, the UpGrade programme is now closed for enrolment, as it lost financing. What are your recommendations, how to get into colour grading?
I have to admit this is a difficult question. It’s a specific line of work, which requires professional equipment. If you want job well done, the price of the equipment is not negligible. First, you really need patience for long hours in front of the screen. Secondly, I’d recommend as much practice as possible working on your own material, or someone else’s material, if you can get it. You need to understand the inner workings of the image itself, what can actually be done with the equipment and how the software tools work. These are all theoretical issues and answers can be found online. The major part is the practice. A good colour grader must have at least 10.000 working hours of experience, and that’s a lot. You need plenty of practice and someone to comment on your work, suggest changes and guide you in the right direction.
- Could you explain how the colour grading community works, for those who wish to join?
There are conferences and online get-togethers, especially now during this period (interviewer’s note: coloristmixer.com). Before, we had a lot more in-person meetings at film industry equipment and technology fairs. People who have been in the business for the last 5-10 years have already got to know each other, either online or in-person. Even if you’re new in the field, it’s not a problem to reach out to a more experienced colleague and ask for advice or ask a question. People are very open and informative and want to help, for the very reason there is no formal education where they can learn this. Sometimes, it’s the only way to find information, advice and knowledge, to ask someone who’s been in the profession a while.
- Which film professionals have the potential for becoming excellent colour graders?
People often think that editors evolve into best colour graders, but in my opinion the best colour graders are cinematographers. They are the ones who understand the image, know what the image is, what camera is, what light is. It’s my firm opinion that cinematographers make much better colour graders than the editors. If a cinematographer gets tired of working on sets, they can always switch to colour grading.
- This is the first colour correction workshop organised in Croatia. You explained that the specialised colour grading equipment and software are pricey and not easily accessible. The control surface was provided by Tangent, the reference monitor by Hipermedia and the image processing software by Digital Vision. What’s your take on how the existing equipment at the Cine Club can help beginners in developing their skills? Do you think there is a need to organise similar workshops more often?
This type of workshop can definitely help the beginners if they are interested in the field, so they can build further from the foundations at the Cine Club. I believe it would be beneficial to organise colour grading workshops maybe once a year, in other Croatian towns. I’m sure there are young people who are interested in grading, but are not sure how to start in the field or find more information. Such workshops would help talented and interested people to choose the field of specialisation. I believe that this workshop we had in Split had the purpose to guide, explain and show the ropes.
- The participants in the workshop had some previous experience in working on film productions, but only three of them came with some knowledge of colour correction. Did the varying levels of experience and knowledge present any difficulties in leading the workshop?
We had the same situation in Berlin. In spite of fact that some of us had more knowledge, and some were beginners, even at introductory lectures, we all learned some new stuff or the things we mislearned. The initial lectures reset us, to start from the beginning. Also, participants who have a bit more knowledge can share it during teamwork and help others with advice.
- At the workshop, we colour graded 8-bit image the participants brought with them. Do you think that in the future higher quality images should be used, for better colour grading?
I think this concept works just fine, especially because the cine club environment does not provide high end equipment. The members work on the equipment they have access to, and it’s OK to learn working on the material they have, to see how much they can get out of it. When they start working on better material, things will get much easier, as they will able to get more out of it, having experience with the basic material.
- How would you define your style and influences?
I’m not sure I have my strictly defined style, or influences. I follow the work of other colourists active in other countries. In fact, in my work I tend to listen to input from the cinematographer and based on their ideas I try to add my own vision. I still take great care not to change the cinematographer’s basic idea, only to add my touch – but still every project is different and I always add something new. I don’t have my specific look.
- Are there any differences working on material shot on film stock and digital video?
I worked with both, and there are definitely some differences. The film has a much broader dynamic range and there is no clipping in the whites or blacks, while this occurs in digital video. Clipping means there is no loss of detail in under- or over-exposed parts of the image (signal) and the image looks more natural. The process itself is a bit different, but not much. I’d say for me it’s more natural to work with film stock, it’s easier. Although there are people who prefer digital, I prefer film, but there is not a lot of opportunity to work with it.
- You mentioned that you also work on restoration of archive film. Could you tell us something more about the process?
Film restoration is one of activities done at the company Teleking. Restoring film is quite a lengthy process. First you need to look into all existing copies, screen the best copy on the projector and define it as reference copy. Next, the film is cleaned and washed by hand, scanned and digitally cleaned, and only then you start working. There are always ethical issues as to what should be removed in the cleaning process, what should be stabilised and what should be left as it was, what is the feature of the camera and what is the result of copying. The process can take several months. For example, it takes weeks of sitting in front of the screen, restoring the film frame by frame.
If any of the original team of authors who made the film being restored are available, then they serve as consultants for image and sound. If this is not the case, commissions are formed with members from cinematographers’ associations, editors’ associations, etc. and they give recommendations for restoration. The guidelines given by these commissions are not always the best or in line with the original author’s idea, so it’s a complicated process. We must always take into account the aesthetic style of the period, the material the film was shot on, the specifications of the material. When the author is no longer alive, the process can take much longer.
- As an author, you work with analogue photography and 16mm and 35mm film.
It all started some two years ago, with the pandemic and the lockdown. I was stuck at home and needed a hobby to get through the isolation. So, I remembered my beginnings and the story I told you about the two film rolls I shot and the single one I developed. At home I still had the analogue camera and decided to start using it. I bought some film and started taking photos, but the photo labs were all closed and I had nowhere to develop the photos. So, I came up with the idea to buy the supplies and start developing at home. It’s not a problem to develop black and white photos at home. Then I decided to start with the colour film too, and got the chemicals I needed. I realised that I kept going through a lot of rolls, and the film is not so cheap. Searching online, I found that you can also use old film, and I was lucky to have a producer friend who gave me the remains of film used for commercials some ten years ago, which he kept in the fridge and didn’t use. Thanks to this, I got loads of film which I use both as a hobby and as artistic expression. There was some 16mm film there, and thought it would be interesting to use the format. I got a 16mm camera and started playing around. At the moment, I’m working on an experimental film, after a long break from filming.
- Is there a difference between motion picture 35mm film and still photography 35mm film?
Yes, there is a difference. Motion picture film has additional anti-halation rem-jet layer which prevents scratches and light reflexing back to the anti-halation rem-jet layer. Also, motion picture film comes in daylight and tungsten versions, for natural and artificial light. Still photography film is mostly daylight. The structure is basically the same, apart from the additional layer.
- Do you have any advice for Cine Club junior members? Any final thoughts?
To experiment and have fun, to do what they feel is right and something will come out of it. I’d like to say that the idea for this workshop actually came from Boris Poljak. When I came back from Berlin, Boris called me and asked me if I wanted to do a colour correction workshop. It took some time, but we finally did it. So, the whole idea came from Split.
Translation: Jelena Madunić
Editor: Sunčica Fradelić
Technical support during workshop: Franko Sardelić Kolinac
The workshop was held in cooperation with Teleking, supported by Croatian Film Association and Croatian Audiovisual Centre and sponsored by Hiperprodukcija, Digital Vision and Tangent. The work of Cine Club Split is supported by Croatian Audiovisual Centre, Town of Split, Kultura Nova Foundation and National Foundation for Civil Society Development.