From the first frame and song of Pressure-Man (writer/director Kai Kuei-Chieh Hsu’s musical comedy) you instantly recognize the color of John Potter’s suit and tie as prominently as his singing. This is by design. The theatrical, somewhat fanciful approach is designed to place the viewer into accepting the “sleepwalking” lifestyle that the main character John is immersed in. The colors are over the top on purpose. The color makes a subliminal impact, it’s the reason that the filmmakers approached colorist Hugo Shih to use his expertise on Pressure-Man. Even the scene over the closing credits shows the wild color schemes Shih can use to great effect. The heart of the film is intact regardless of the color, but it is the talent which Hugo brings that truly gives this film the character to make it stand out as unique. Among its many recognitions were: 2016 American Movie Award (Best Production / Art Direction (Winner), 2016 Praxis Film Festival (Audience Awards), & Official Selection of the 2015 Los Angeles International Film Festival Awards (Winner – Best Comedy/Dramedy). In hopes of understanding why Kai Hsu and this production were so intent on having Shih work on Pressure-Man as the colorist, we spoke with him in order to understand his role and the essential parts of his vocation. Because the film is so stylized in terms of its use of color, it is a perfect example of what a colorist is capable of doing in modern cinema.
In current American society, Pressure-Man is the norm. This film is about an accountant who is so tied to his job that he doesn’t take the time to participate in actual life with his family. The idea of living to work rather than working to live is ingrained into the life of many in the US. Pressure-Man is as subtle as a sledgehammer, which is exactly what is needed to wake the main character John (and many of us) from this enslavement. In pursuing the dream, we forget to live the dream, which is exactly what Hsu is saying in this film…about everyone, not simply those in the film. To create such an altered state, Hsu worked closely with Hugo in creating the approach he wanted for a color scheme.
From the opening scene, Shih’s handy work is evident. As Pressure-Man introduces himself and the film in song, his brightly colored suit and bow tie grab the viewer’s attention as a spotlight illuminates him. The director wanted everything but the Pressure-Man hidden so Hugo added a lot of mask, covering everything else and tracked the actor, so that the mask would follow with him. It’s a technique which the viewer doesn’t notice but focuses the attention right where the filmmaker desires it to be. Even the transition from the opening song into the action of the film required Hugo’s expertise. Shih explains, “There was one shot we worked on very long time, which is the shot when Pressure-man stops dancing and starts to introduce us to the main character and the idea of the story. The Director wanted the lighting to look like he was using dimmer. It was difficult because it wasn’t shot this way. I needed to add the dimmer effect myself. In order to achieve this, I brought down everything at the background but the Pressure-man. Secondly, I key framed the background to gradually light it up, but without effect on the Pressure-man. Sometimes the director wanted it as dark as possible, but without losing any of the detail. Thus, the director and I were looking for a balanced light that we could both be happy about. I like working with directors that have specific ideas and requirements. Even though their requests might be difficult, we can build a style of communication. I know how to achieve many things as a colorist but if I learn how to communicate better and more easily with the directors and cinematographers I work with, I will work more and we will all enjoy the process.” Describing another shot in the film, Shih states, “There is a shot in which the Pressure-man is in the bathtub with father. When I graded this scene, the director asked me to make it look like the actors were in their own little world. I made the spotlight stronger, and used two shapes to mask out the sides to be dark. Then I added overall blur to simulate the steam because I want to make more feeling of taking shower. There was also a scene in which the father has a nightmare. He dreams that every member of his family has become a ‘Pressure- Man’. This was composed of multiple green screen shots. Because we have a rushing to meet our deadline, I decided to do compositing in a color grading software. Before I was able to do that, I had to do a perfect color balancing so that I could get a clean key and make a proper composition. It isn’t exciting to hear about but the finished product really made the director excited.”
A common misconception about the colorist job on a film is that they only deal with grades and tones of color. Because of the work they do and its effect on the action taking place in the frame, they often control how the lighting feels on film as well as the color. Because the colorist almost always performs their work after the filming has taken place, it is important that they work closely with the director and have a strong sense of why the lighting was established on set during filming. Just as with the actors, the environment in which the colorist performs his/her work is crucial to achieving the proper effect. The working environment of a colorist is very different from other positions on a production. During a color session, the room must be totally dark. There only light which can be turned on is a 6500 daylight lamp because it will adjust to the colorist’s eyes once they go out of the room and come back in. Also, the room must be 18% Gray (which is a neutral color and won’t reflect any colors to influence the eyes of the colorist towards the image). A colorists’ room also requires specialized equipment to aid in the color grade process, making things efficient and accurate. Hugo Shih’s work in Pressure-Man highlights the impact of the role of a colorist in modern film. While many audiences may not understand the substantial amount of time required and the valuable expertise that Hugo possesses; the look of the film stands as proof that his contributions create a unique and artistic experience.