Archive for the 'filmmaking' Category


Reaching Creative Flow

Many people are aware of the briliant TED (Technology, Education and Design) community at
Some time ago I stumbled across a fascinating talk on this site about the route to happiness from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  It appeared to be routed in the perfect combination of personal challenges meeting perfectly matched personal skills.  We are at our most creative when our own personal skills are challenged at a level that stretches them, creating an equilibrium and harmony. When challenged too little we become bored and depressed, when the challenge is too great and our skills lacking, frustration and self doubt kick in.

The talk focused on how anyone can meet this personal equilibrium in their daily work or interests. For those of us working in the arts, and in the case of myself and others dedicated to the enhancement of storytelling and emotional engagement through the powerful use of images and in my case specifically colour, these two opposing forces meet when faced with the desire of the filmmakers to transcend that what has been achieved before or that will engage people with its beauty or savageness. My biggest creative challenge of recent months was working with the much acclaimed artist Isaac Julien, whose infamous work in the field of video art has challenged the genre of traditional filmmaking. With his work ‘Playtime‘, which debuted in Times Square in New York, the challenges before me were staggered. The first was to deliver to Isaac a standard of creative colour grading and picture enhancement that would satisfy him and to help to take the work to the next level of aesthetic appreciation for the viewer, this in itself is just the first big step to achieve. Once the road to this goal is set, as the colourist working with an artist of Isaac’s expertise, it requires the ability to move in to the aforementioned ‘flow’. As stated at the top of this article, when an artist’s skills are tested to their extreme, then at that moment you can reach this evasive ‘flow’ sweetspot.  The success of any artistic work in my opinion starts with solid building blocks, the belief in the initial direction, the confidence that this direction is the correct one for the work, and that it is the only direction.  When that is locked in then the challenge moves to delivering that execution across the whole work, to create a cohesion to the work, that compliments the director’s artistic vision, the performance, the composition of framing, the editing and the sound design. When the challenge of cohesion is complete then the final step to ‘flow’ is the hardest, the final grasp to perfection. Where every frame of the work is perfect, where minute details are agonised over. At that point the artist, when free from outside pressures, can hit the sweetspot of ‘flow’, and at that moment aspire to create the perfect work.

Artists have various reasons for creating work.  Some do it for themselves, to satisfy their own need for self belief, a competitive nature with themselves as the ultimate critic. Some do it for the audience, to take the audience themselves to a moment of ‘flow’. When art of any kind can challenge its audience’s concentration skills, artistic perception and thus create total immersion in the work, then the artist has given back to the audience the greatest gift.  As artists we have been successful when all those that have been able to engage in the work have moved to ‘flow’ and for that moment taken them from the trappings of day to day life.
To really achieve peacefulness at the end of our day we need to embrace the challenges to our own skills, push them, and give back to our audiences, whomever they may be.

Thomas Urbye | MD & Senior Colourist, The Look, London


I am a colourist working across all genres. From feature films, television drama, documentary, commercial content and video art.

Isaac Julien’s ‘Playtime’ is a seven screen work currently exhibiting around the world. It is 70 minutes in duration and was mastered in ultra high definition at The Look.
For more information you can read more at The Look’s site or at Isaac Julien‘s site.

You can see a short trailer for the work here

The inspiring TED talk referenced in this article can be found here:
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness

The Flow diagram is copyright of Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi 


Why is mediocrity such a powerful force?

Ive hit the decade mark!

Yes, Im now in to my second ten years working in Soho’s post production world.  Not only that, I’m ten years working with some great Directors, DoPs, Producers and Exec Producers (not to mention the great people that are hired by these people).

In that time I’ve met all sorts of characters – some geniuses, some nutcases (music promos!), some incompetent, some living on a different planet, and quite a lot of the in-betweeners, a sort of mediocre, they are just, well, getting on with it – making a living.

What’s rather more concerning is I’m still deciding if my work is mediocre.  One thing that has struck me in recent years is that a lot of the people I count as talented (certainly more than me) also aren’t sure if they are mediocre too.  What is surprising is how desperate the really good people are not to be mediocre.  Its almost an obsession, you see it painted on the faces of great creatives, and also, though not as often, on the faces of producers that hire them.

I’ve found myself during the last couple of years sat in meetings, or in the grading suite, or chatting outside a pub with a DP / Director / Producer just saying “we’ve got to be bold with this – punchy”, with Directors and DPs drumming in to me that “we’ve got to push this look, this scene is all about the starkness, it cant look like everything else out there” etc etc.  Yet, by the time shooting starts, and certain execs wade in, the whole project is diluted, re-scripted, and everything that the Director had in their mind is gone.

Then on the flip side, I’ve sat with very gifted DPs and Directors who say very little, but know exactly what they want, its a subtlety to the image, the delicate film-making process, that takes it from mediocrity to that next level.  The directing, lighting, editing, score and the grade can be delicate, slow-burning tension – but the result, anything but mediocre – in its own way very bold.

Interestingly, its this passion that I’ve witnessed over the last few years, and particularly with the shows I’ve worked on this year where the whole team on these projects have tried to be bold, which has propelled these gifted few to such great heights, in a tough market of lowering budgets and mediocre commissions.  Its tough for these more bold creatives and producers to get a job, yet the jobs that could be on offer aren’t the ones they even want to do.  On occasions they have to take them to cover their own personal costs, even though of course the personal cost could be quite great – you are, as they say, only as good as your last job.

Its a stark fact that more than half of producers and exec producers are at odds with these people because what they want is actually mediocrity, an easy life, to get that perfect TV show that gets the ratings and challenges nothing, engages enough, and passes the time and gets a repeat series – hey presto you’ve secured a second home in Devon or even France.  Hopefully it will allow them to make a more dynamic project later for their portfolio, if they have the will to be bold.

For a century of film-making, gifted and bold creatives have pushed back on what is the safe route, and time and again the result has been a more successful final piece.  Mediocrity has seen millions of films, commercials and TV shows end up on the scrap heap, yet when we look at just The Top 10 IMDB Movies (as voted by the users of the site), we see a list of strange choices:

1) Shawshank Redemption: A film set in a prison – Exec Producer “Sounds a bit down – really, another prison break film?”.  Did nothing at the box office, had little P&A budget backing it – then, when people started to see it, well, the rest is history.

2) Godfather: Mob picture, set around a family – 3 hours long, and it was the Exec Producer Robert Evans that made it this length!  It is sloooooow.  But its certainly bold.  Violent, slow burning, an epic movie.

3) Godfather 2: A great follow up to the first, Coppola delivers a tense story of the next generation of the Corleone family.

4) Pulp Fiction: A masterclass in disjointed storytelling, casting and post production – Exec “Why Travolta!?!? All these storylines?” – thankfully the Weinsteins were involved and they have a track record of spotting bold talent

5) The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: not much dialogue, whole lot of on screen tension – then there is the bolder than bold score from the genius of Ennio Morricone (N.b. my fav, Once Upon a Time in the West, which is for me the greatest direction, score, editing and photography I’ve ever seen – shots held for literally eternity – now, editors and execs love a cut).

6) The Dark Knight – A director that uses (mostly) one camera, 70mm, and lets it run well over 2hours – and Hollywood hates that.  He manages to spend millions, which you actually see on screen, as well as being one of the very few films of the comic genre that succeeds as a great movie.  With Inception as well, he shows that a Director’s bold vision is enough to take over a $1billion.

7) 12 Angry Men – Now this is my favourite in this list because its set for nearly the entire movie in a single room.  Its also in black and white, but its a masterclass in acting, scriptwriting and direction.  You can imagine the screams “this picture is all set in one room, the audience will get bored after fifteen minutes”.  Most execs freak out at a one minute courtroom scene. “Quick more cutting, we need to speed it all up, people will turn off!”

8) Schindler’s List: A true story, adapted very well to the big screen.  I can imagine a few squeaky shoes at that first production meeting.

9) Lord of the Rings: Fair play to Peter Jackson, he managed to get a studio to let him spend millions on adapting a book no one had ever risked to take to the big screen on anything like this scale.  And at 9, he clearly succeeded.

10) Fight Club: a film about people who like to beat each other up for fun.  The oddest premise, with Meat Loaf in a supporting role, and with super bold direction – again, can you imagine the elevator pitch?!

So, despite the fact that so many of us try to be bold, we do lose out to the mediocre.  We for instance are always dealing with producers that just want the cheapest deal, do everything in one big post house, usually with a safe pair of hands / an old drinking mate / or that’s near their office.  Yet, the fact remains, for really great work to be made you have to be bold and pick the team that has the utmost ability to deliver the best.  It doesn’t matter if its TV, commercials, or features or docs, its got to be bold, for me, its like Top Boy, The Wire, to Breaking Bad, to The Fades and on – do not give in to mediocrity, and strive to produce films, whether 5 seconds or 13 hours, that take the audience on a new and exciting journey.

During the next ten years, my motto is “Push it”, and thankfully I’m now working with clients that feel the same – and its fantastic!

If you’re a young filmmaker, whatever your discipline, be bold, be bold, BE BOLD.

Thomas Urbye


The Look