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Colour wasn’t a topic Wade Odlum, senior colourist and partner at alter ego, knew a lot about when he first started in post production, but he had always been interested in cinematography and the techniques of storytelling through images. From there, as he said, he just “sort of fell into colour”.

“When I was at high school and university, I interned at a post facility and I knew I had to learn what it was all about,” he said. “When I got a job, I spent many long days and nights in the colour suite, learning everything I could from the colourists around me. Then any spare time I had outside of that training was spent on the machine, honing my skills. Starting with film and then moving into digital gave me a great understanding of the process, how images work and where they could be pushed to.”

Wade was working in the UK when the opportunity to work at alter ego in Toronto came up in 2008, not long after the studio first opened. He had worked alongside Eric Whipp, one of the founders, while in Australia. After a few years at the facility, Wade was given the opportunity to become a partner in the company.

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Pushing Ahead at alter ego

Alter ego had opened in 2007 as a boutique colour and VFX house. “We were the first non-linear commercial colour facility in Canada, and since then we have always aimed to stay ahead, both creatively and technically. This aim has meant continuously looking for new ways to push our work beyond what’s expected of us, and taking pride in our ability to create images in the colour suite that are as close to finished as possible,” Wade said.

“Our work may involve picture clean-up, skies, flares, grain and compositing of various other elements to bring the creator’s vision to the screen. We have been using the FilmLight Baselight grading system from the very beginning and have built a huge library of skies and FX that we have shot ourselves so that we have the right elements for every job.”

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Wade Odlum, senior colourist and partner, alter ego

Wade has worked internationally in Australia, UK and Canada, and finds many similarities between the markets in the commercial world. However in Canada, the feature that stands out the most compared to other places he has worked in, is that the director is less involved in the post process. “This isn’t true of all directors on all jobs, but often they are not around by the time the project gets to us. We decided to combat the situation by building our own streaming service about 13 years ago, so that we could keep the director and DoP more involved.

Hardworking Colour

“I love to work with directors and DoPs on all projects, as they are the ones responsible for the images I get to work with. I want to know what their intention was and how I can help them to enhance what was shot. Whenever I get the opportunity, we are able to talk before the shoot about how colour can work for them and amplify their work. Sometimes it involves creating a unique LUT that works for a specific look or suggesting a few tricks that can help them save time on set because of the tools we have in colour.”

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Most of Wade’s day to day work is commercials for the North American market, but he frequently has chances to work on music videos, short films, documentaries and features from around the world. Part art and part science is how he likes to describe colour grading. “Like in science, certain rules and values apply. But, like in art, it can also be about moods, emotions and experimentation,” he said.

“A good colour grade works with the cinematography, edit and sound to enhance the direction of a scene. In the case of a dramatic scene, it might be about shaping the light more, to enhance the look in the actor’s eyes, or minimising the distraction so as to draw the viewer to the correct part of the frame. On the artistic side, the process becomes very subjective. If a look is forced onto an image that distracts from the story, then I think it fails. It could be a great look, but if it doesn’t drive the story forward then maybe it’s not a good colour grade for the piece.

Driving the Story

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“A great colour grade can either stand out or be almost invisible to the viewer. It can also be a powerful tool in the art of filmmaking, but ultimately depends on what is required for the story. Sometimes the colour will need to drive the story, but at other times its role may have to be quite simple to prevent distracting the viewer out of the moment.”

It has now been 15 years since Wade started on Baselight and he is still finding new ways to use the tools. He especially appreciates that Baselight is designed above all with the colourist in mind. He commented, “When we ask for new tools or have any feedback, it’s quickly addressed,” he said. “It allows me to work quickly and efficiently by concentrating on the creative and I don’t have to worry about whether I can achieve the look due to lack of tools.”

He feels fortunate to have been part of some stand-out projects over the years – from award-winning commercials to a short that turned into a feature and then into a sequel. When it comes to choosing a career highlight to date, it would probably have to be a commercial made in 2022 for the Royal Ontario Museum’s ‘Immortal’.

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Directed by Mark Zibert, ‘Immortal’ is a six-minute underwater film that was shot in slow motion. In post, the colour and VFX teams were responsible for creating the dreamy but dangerous, surreal look that the director wanted to achieve.

Wade said, “I’ve worked with Mark many times before and he’s very aware of what we can do in the colour suite. He asked me to experiment with ways to compliment the underwater look that would be captured in the photography. We developed our look first by setting the overall colour tone for the underwater world. We didn’t just want everything to be washed blue, but at the same time it couldn’t have too much colour or skin tone, as red is the first colour to disappear under water.

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“Since the piece was almost entirely shot in a large studio, dry for wet, we then started adding in layer upon layer of FX to really bring the look to life and add that watery feeling. There are multiple layers of dust particles, bubbles, caustics, heat haze and flares. On some of the shots we also added additional elements such as sparks and lightning.” For Wade, the biggest challenge was in finding the right balance between pushing the look far enough to help with the story and the underwater feel, and making sure that his work didn’t take over and distract the viewer from the message.

As a result of so much attention to detail, the project won awards globally for the agency, director and editor. It was also a finalist for colour at awards shows in Europe and North America. “It won me the FilmLight Colour Award for best commercial grade at EnergaCAMERIMAGE in Poland,” Wade said. “The other spots that were short listed in the commercial category were amazing, so it was a great honour to be recognised among them for such a great project.”

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