Felipe Szulc: "Music videos give you the freedom to explore and learn."
David Knight - 14th Dec 2023
Nomad London's resident colourist won Best Colour Grading in a Video at the UK Music Video Awards this year for his work on Katie Melua’s Love And Money. So Promonews visited Nomad to meet Felipe Szulc, the man who claimed this coveted prize.
It is fair to say that Felipe Szulc was not expecting to win Best Colour Grading at this year’s UK Music Video Awards last month. Nominated for his work on the Katie Melua video for Love And Money, he says: “When the awards began, and winners started to come up and make acceptance speeches, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t prepared anything to say if I won.”
We are talking in his grading suite at the London HQ of Nomad Editing, in their premises near London Bridge. It’s a couple of weeks after the ceremony, with a very grey, wet London in the grip of Storm Babet... or was it Ciaran?
In fact, the video for which he won the award radiates a similar autumnal feel – minus the driving wind and rain - as it tells the story of a migrant worker, a cleaning woman, working in an affluent home, after she talks to her child back in her home country, and then lost in thoughts, her cleaning transforming into a dance. Szulc’s grade succeeded in giving the video a naturalistic cinematic feel. But it also glows with colour without being overly saturated.
The theme of this and its companion video, for Melua's Quiet Moves – both directed by Katie Lambert at MrMr – is the everyday immigrant experience: people who have come to the UK to work, taking menial jobs, whatever their innate abilities, in order to start a new life.
Coincidentally, Felipe Szulc is similar to the characters in that he too has moved to the UK to work. Born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil (his surname comes from his Polish émigré grandparents) he has been living in London for nearly a decade – his career in London includes being an assistant colourist at Rushes and a junior colourist at Absolute Post before joining Nomad in 2019.
So by now he is completely familiar with a grey, rainy English autumn, and its occasional bursts of colour. Not surprisingly the conversation began with us talking about his award-winning work on Love And Money.
On Kate Melua's Love And Money video
[DoP] Ailsa Aikoa sent me some really precise instructions and references.
The project was actually super-quick because, honestly, Ailsa [Aikoa], the DoP, did such a great job on this. Everything was so well balanced that once I set the look for a few shots, it was easy to replicate.
The curious thing is that they, Katie [Lambert] and Ailsa, didn’t actually come for the session. I think they were busy shooting other stuff. And it was the fourth promo I had graded for Katie. She said: “I’m happy with whatever Ailsa says. I trust you both.”
Ailsa’s clear vision was a great starting point. She was inspired by the beautiful Kodak colour print film, 2383 [as it was shot on digital]. Ailsa wanted very deep, punchy blacks and very rich reds and oranges; we developed the greens and cyans as well to give it the depth and richness.
The first shot I graded was one of the hero shots – the one of the cleaner dancing outside the sitting room window, under the tree. All the elements came together perfectly in this scene - the warmth from the light and the red from the fallen leaves. I wanted to capture every bit of colour here and bring it to life. For me it’s the hero shot - the best shot of the film.
Above: Still from Katie Melua's Love And Money, directed by Katie Lambert, graded by Felipe Szulc
When our actress is dancing in the sitting room at the end of the day, I thought it would be nice to introduce more cyan to the window light. This helped create a really nice contrast with the warm yellow/orange hues of the lamp – the kind of “comforting” look that makes you feel good and warm inside!
Still in the living room, the scenes shot during the day, isolating the greens in the trees outside the window to add vibrancy gave it the lift it needed to really come together.
Above: Katie Melua's Love And Money, directed by Katie Lambert, graded by Felipe Szulc
I also brought in a separate layer of halation – that sort of halo that you have around bright light sources, which added a level of glow and softness to the highlights. Finally, I applied a layer of grain – from an actual 250 D film scan. Ailsa was keen to have a grainy feel and we applied it on top of everything. It was a great part of the finesse.
The final promo is as much a testament to Ailsa’s camera work as my grade. It was so beautifully shot - the contrast and the light were already so perfectly captured in camera, so for me it was just a case of enhancing what was already there.
Above: Katie Melua's Love And Money, directed by Katie Lambert, graded by Felipe Szulc
Ailsa’s brief for the other Katie Melua video, ‘Quiet Moves’, was very similar with a focus on bold, punchy colours whilst retaining a grounded and natural aesthetic. I introduced cooler tones with blues and cyans to create this colour contrast with the warmer highlights as well.
The most challenging part was differentiating between the orange tones in his outfit and the set in the chip shop when he starts dancing. I spent some time isolating skin tones too - I pushed the oranges quite a lot and it naturally affected his skin tone, so I spent some time tweaking it to keep the skin looking as natural as possible.
Above: Katie Melua's Quiet Moves, directed by Katie Lambert, graded by Felipe Szulc
On the visual influences upon Felipe’s work
Growing up in Brazil, there was colour everywhere, because nature is everywhere. And then even here in London, when you're walking back home on a sunny day or something, I catch myself looking at the skies, looking at how clouds play with the light.
But I think I’m influenced by a little bit of everything: photography, graphic design, paintings, nature, real life. And when you're grading something, often images naturally come to mind.
Above: Still from Ortolan, directed by Tracy Matthewson, graded by Felipe Szulc
For example, I have recently graded a short film, Ortolan, for the director Tracy Mathewson. When Tracy showed me the footage, the first thing I thought about was a Caravaggio painting, because the way they lit the scene was so similar to the chiaroscuro style that he used. So these are the things that pop into my mind when I'm grading something.
I've always loved photography in general. But if I had to choose one photographer it would be the Brazilian photographer Sebastian Salgado. He is a massive inspiration. And even though it's black and white, I think his work is fantastic.
The texture and the depth is just so striking, and framing and the way he captures images is almost unbelievable. I watched an interview with him recently and he said that sometimes he stays put for hours, just waiting for that moment. Nowadays, people are walking around with phones and taking 200 pictures of everything. But he is just there waiting for hours to get that one shot.
Above: Sebastiao Salgado: Colony of Chinstrap and Macaroni Penguins, Mount Michael Volcano, Saunders Island, South Sandwich Island, 2009
In terms of artists, I love American painter Mark Maggiori, who creates these paintings of the American West in a classic style, but the way he uses colour is amazing. His work is a big source of inspiration for me these days. And obviously, great cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki (who works with Alejandro González Iñárritu).
On getting started in post production – and gravitating towards grading
I grew up in São Paulo, went to São Paulo University, and I graduated in digital design. I started working as assistant art director in an agency - retouching pictures in Photoshop and created layouts for web design, things like that.
Slowly I moved towards motion graphics and comping, mainly using After Effects. And I started learning about colour grading. It’s an important part of comping because you need to match plates and things like that or match CG elements with live action stuff.
I went freelance, and was just doing a little bit of everything people would hire me to do. But then I decided if I want to really get good in one thing, maybe I should just focus in one thing. And I decided that grading was the thing I liked the most, and could see myself doing for a long time.
I was grading for four years before I came to London. There was a short film in Brazil that I graded that was a really big step for me. And after that I moved to London in 2014.
On arriving in the UK and working at Rushes
It was tough to get any work at first, especially not having a portfolio that was from here, just work from Brazil. I eventually got some freelance work at Unit and Freefolk as a colour assist. But my first full time job as a grading assistant was at Rushes.
I assisted several colourists at Rushes, including Simona Cristea. It was really good working with Simona. She used to do a lot of beauty stuff, for the likes of Rankin, and I learned a lot from that. Nowadays, when I'm grading beauty work, I always remember how Simona used to do it. I think she's been a big influence on me.
It was at Rushes that I got my first proper grade and that was for an earlier short film by Tracy Mathewson, called Appellation, which I’m still very proud to have been a part of. That went well, and I’ve graded several of her films since, including her latest Ortolan. Tracy is great, a very talented director. And she also teaches screenwriting and directing.
From here I moved on to working at Absolute Post where I worked closely with Matt Turner, collaborating on a number of projects – I learned a lot from working with Matt and carry this with me still today.
On joining Nomad - and going straight into working on a Coldplay video...
They built this massive rotating set... but ended up using very few shots from that.
I had just joined Nomad as colourist, and my first or second project was this big promo for Coldplay, directed by Mat Whitecross, for Orphans. They were making a comeback after a long hiatus, so this was a really big deal. The creative direction of the video had quite a substantial reimagining, and the first version I graded was very different to the one we finished up with.
For the shoot, they had built this massive rotating set, using projections and everything. It had a lot of elaborate choreography. But then Chris Martin decided to shoot the first half of the video again – which is literally phone footage of him playing the song on the streets in Italy and New York - and it changes to the rotating studio sets later on in the video.
It was fun to grade this one – and as the whole team were in LA, I did the grade unattended. This was pre-pandemic, but we were already working remotely, back then in 2019. And it got a lot of attention, with something like 500,000 views within a few hours of release.
On pushing the limits with Orbital and Sleaford Mods:
With this one, I remember doing two or three versions. For the first one I did a more neutral look. But the director Luke Losey said he wanted it much darker. He said: "I almost want to damage the picture."
So we lifted the blacks quite far up. I set a different black level for everything because we wanted the image to look almost quite rugged, grungy and raw. I spent a fair amount of time working on the sky, and also exploring the textures of the wood, grass and other natural features.
I think this is a good example of when you do something and say, okay, I'm not going to risk too much because I don't know what the director will think. And then the director comes to the session and they just push you really far. And that's when you learn – that’s when you have that freedom to actually explore.
On winning at the UKMVAs - and working on more videos:
Above: Felipe on stage at the UKMVAs 2023, receiving the award for Best Colour Grade in a Video
I was humbled to receive so many congratulatory messages from other colourists, DoPs, directors and people I’ve worked with and really respect. Grading for Katie is always such a pleasure, so it’s really gratifying for the work to be recognised in this way.
And hopefully winning the Best Colour Grading award will open new doors - not just for me but for the company as a whole because everyone that's here is so talented.
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David Knight - 14th Dec 2023