An interview with the colourist Peter Bernaers

The colourist Peter Bernaers, best known for his work on the action film What Happened to Monday, the thriller The Devil's Double and most recently the horror Mandy, talks to Mandy News about what the job of a colourist entails and how to break into the industry.

19th December 2018
/ By James Collins

Tell us how you got involved with the film industry?
I'm a film colourist - I do mainly feature films, documentary films and I do some TV series. How I got into working in film is a funny one. Like a lot of people in the cinema business, I did a lot of things. I did a lot of different studies and, when I was a teenager, visited a lot of museums.

I looked at a lot of stuff (I steal from everything), and soaked everything up like a sponge by doing that. After doing some different studies, I wound up in a lab where I started as a telecine assistant. This was around the year 2000 and that was also the age when a lot of things were happening.

Initially, all the telecine stuff was mainly commercials, but then all of a sudden you could do feature films. I actually jumped onto that, I've been doing feature films since 2002.

Could you explain exactly what a colourist does?
I always say it's like Photoshop but for moving images – I basically just tweak the colour and the contrast. This is a quick explanation but I guess my job is working the colours and contrasts in such a way that you enhance the storytelling of a feature film. That is the essence of what I do.

I'm not the kind of colourist who is into creating beautiful images but instead create the best possible images for the story I am working on, even if that means that I need to make them ugly, or if I need to trash them. It actually means that you can take a lot of choices that maybe in commercials would not be taken.

You worked on a movie called Mandy, how did that come about?
In the case of Mandy, Sebastian and the director Panos Cosmatos ended up shooting in Belgium and, at a certain moment, it was introduced to them that they were also going to do the grading in Belgium.

I had a chat with Sebastian and Panos when they were already shooting. They were really beat but we clicked instantly. I understood where they were going. I think based on my resume they chose me, but it's a little bit of a strange way of getting introduced because typically, in an ideal world, you are involved from pre-production and you are also involved in things like dailies. This was a little bit more, let's say, confused – you could say chaotic but it was also organic, in some way.

I think both Panos and Sebastian had a very strong vision on what they wanted to do. Sebastian made some quite strong choices with his exposure and use of colours. When we had the conversation about what kind of film it was, it led to a moment where we all felt the same vibe.

I don't believe as a colourist, you invent the look – a look comes from a discussion the DOP has with the director and I kind of mix myself in that. I want to be part of that discussion and I want to possibly add a new point of view in that discussion, which might also lead to new things. That's kind of where I come in - with Mandy it was like that.

I got to look into their minds and from there, developed or, let's say fine-tuned, a look. First of all just by myself and then Sebastian came in for two days. We worked together extensively and graded the entire film in those two days but you could say it's more like a couple of shots in every scene to create a good mood, continuing our communication with Panos.

From there on, I was basically on my own for a good week. Once I had a first pass of the film (or you could say a pass and a half), Panos came in and I confronted him with the work Sebastian and I had done.

What happened with Mandy is, you've got the strong vision of Panos and of Sebastian - which definitely tickles you as a colourist. They had this little session in Vancouver and then once we got it to Belgium, we started pushing the look more and more.

When Panos came in it became very interesting because he saw what he expected, but also we kind of surprised him. That is where I think it becomes interesting, because then (I mean this is definitely what I like with grading), you get to a point where a director says “Wow! I actually did not expect that” and your first reaction is “OK, might we have gone too far?” and his reaction is, “Nah, let's keep it because it's really f****** good!”.

In some ways, it was a little bit of a twisted process but at the same time, it was very organic fine-tuning of the very strong visions of the director and DOP.

The look of the film is quite out there - it looks incredible but it's very much in its own league. Where does that original vision come from?
I remember when we had our initial talk, we were talking about ’80s genre films. At a certain point, Panos came up with this metal music reference and I said “We should see it like this ‘80s metal band record sleeve” and he was like “Yeah yeah. That's it!”

In the end, Sebastian and I we did that thing. We showed it to Panos, who comes in and says “Wow, that's slightly over the top! I don't really want it, but it does kind of tickle my taste buds, so let's see where we can push this, although I’m a little afraid that people are going to translate my references in the wrong way”.

It's a very organic process, where you start with very strong viewpoints and in the end, maybe at times weaken them, because they're not helping the story. Other times you make them even stronger because in certain scenes it does need to be stronger. You could say it's like a rough block of marble and in some ways, Sebastian already chops a rough statue out of it. Then all of us together fine tune it and get this beautiful statue out there which everybody says “Wow, that's kind of f***** up, but it does look great!”

It sounds fantastic that you've been able to work on a project like this, that was shot, edited and worked on in different parts.
Definitely. Every year you should be grateful for this type of project. As a film colourist, I do about 15 to 20 films a year. I think every film is a gem, but if you can do one project like this a year, you can be happy.

What advice would you give to anybody wanting to become a colourist, or to existing colourists who want to get involved in more diverse projects and become more successful?
That's a very tricky question. I can't give a one-liner on that but make sure you have patience. If I compare myself right now to where I was in 2002 when I did my first film, I think I’m a completely different person.

Patience is important but also make sure you speak the language of DOP and the language of the director because you are basically there for both of them and you need to understand what they're talking about. You need to understand photography, but you also need to understand why a director makes certain choices. I would say patience and empathy are crucial things in our jobs. They might be the two most important things.

Second of all, just do a lot of stuff. I started out in rushes, for instance. The good thing about that is, very simply, as an assistant I would get three hours of rushes a day. I'd get them in and needed to do a basic colour correction on them, depending on what the DOP wanted. I would communicate with these DOPs every day and with the sheer volume of that, after a while you understand what it is that you can do, how you can enhance visions of people etc.

So just have patience, at all times try to analyse what people want and make sure you give them a bloody hell of a lot more.