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Bringing some warmth to Tender Hearts

Jul 6, 2023

Tender Hearts is a series from Sky Deutschland and Odeon Film that looks at love, life, and our ever-increasing reliance on tech to fill our needs and desires. 

Directed by Pola Beck and set in the year 2036, it’s a sensitive, humorous affair that follows Mila (Friederike Kempter) who, frustrated with her love life, orders a humanoid love robot from the advanced tech firm, Tender Hearts. Mila’s relationship with the model she chooses, Friendly Bo (Madieu Ulbrich), becomes “a pleasant and approachable love story”, according to Martin Szafranek, the colourist and DI supervisor on Tender Hearts, who graded on DaVinci Resolve Studio. 

Szafranek recalls that during his initial meeting with the cinematographer Johannes Louis, he thought the mood board created by Beck and Louis suggested a sense of good feeling and summery tones.

“We had a very involved discussion, but it quickly became clear to me that we wanted to convey a warm atmosphere,” says. “The story also offered the potential to work with contrasting moods.” 

The 8×30-minute Sky Original series also drew references from films with a similar theme, such as Spike Jonze’s Her.

Her has warm touches in places, but it varies throughout the movie, depending on the mood,” Szafranek notes. “That film has a very soft and subtle look, but we wanted our look to be a little bit more obvious, so I pushed the warmth a little bit more.”

Building the look

During pre-production, Szafranek worked on test footage to create a LUT (look-up table) to apply for the desired look. 

“I build my looks from scratch,” he explains. “The test shoot was almost plain white, and the only thing to add some structure was a window. We also had some actors on the shoot, to help get the skin tones right. After a couple of days, we had a LUT we could work with.” 

From the corrected footage in DaVinci Resolve Studio, Szafranek exported a version of the LUT for the cinematographer to work with in-camera on set, and a version for dailies colourist Daniel May. 

“Daniel May is a very good colourist, I’ve worked with him on other projects,” Szafranek continues. “He knows exactly how I grade, how I want things to be done, and he sets it all up in the dailies grade. So, when I sit down for the final grade, I have a perfectly prepared setup and timeline, with a grade that already works quite well.

Dialling up the dynamic range

The dailies, captured in SDR, were used as a basis for the main grade, but Sky Deutschland’s requirements called for deliverables in HDR, namely Dolby Vision IMF. During the grade, Szafranek explained each step and process in depth to Louis, discussing with him how best to proceed to preserve his shooting intention in HDR.

“Generally, I try to keep the depths and mids in HDR within a similar range as I would when working in SDR, and only extend the highlights within HDR,” he adds. “You get more flexibility in the highlights with your saturation levels. There is considerably less scope for that in SDR.” 

Szafranek found Resolve’s new HDR Wheels extremely useful when it came to making quick changes to gradations in a range of brightness. 

“They’ve now become a part of my process,” he adds. “They offer such fine separation. With six wheels for the whole range, it’s amazing what you can do, especially when doing warm highlights. You can go into the HDR wheels and do colour separations on a certain part of the image. You can push the warmth a little, or you can correct something in a certain area without affecting the whole image.

“What I loved on this project was Resolve’s Remote Clip function,” he adds. “The clips are connected, so when one take appears at various times in the edited scene, they’re all linked throughout. When you grade one clip from the same shot, you also grade all the others. It saves a lot of time.”

The colourist’s 10-year expertise in Resolve was put to the test in Episode Four when the couple goes to a club to celebrate. It’s a very long scene, with the rapid light changes you might expect in a club. 

“It’s difficult to find a good look and keep it throughout,” says Szafranek. “You need to balance every shot to a point where they fit together, and if you have constant light changes like this, it’s always more complex. Depending on how heavily processed the colours are, unsightly transitions and artefacts can quickly arise. You need to find the right frames to work with, where you have more or less the same lighting for you to match them together.”

Another Resolve tool that impressed Szafranek was Denoise. 

“When we had dark scenes, you could denoise easily without appearing to lose much detail [in the shadows],” he explains. “It’s difficult to recognise that noise reduction has been applied at all.

“In one club scene there was a person of colour who appeared really dark in the low lighting,” he adds. “Responding to a request from the director and DoP, I brought them up using a adjustment mask. Without Denoise, I couldn’t have done it. The masking would be too obvious.”

Skin and screens

VFX was used to augment the android with various ports and mechanical parts, including a scene where the actor wishes to remove his link to the company and cuts open his leg to access the connection. There are also many screens created using CGI, leading to lots of balancing and masking work for the colourist.

“The VFX worked pretty well, it was all very well-prepared,” says Szafranek. “They had a studio set for where Mila lives, with a huge screen on the wall and many other screens around the home. Mila also has AR glasses that throw up an ‘invisible’ screen on which she moves things around and watches content.

I had to do some corrections when she puts on the glasses and I had to correct the screens a little in the grade, to make them fit in the scene, and. It was important to the director that they had a certain brightness, but not too bright as to be irritating. We still wanted to preserve a soft look.”

The actor playing the android, Madieu Ulbrich, had his skin touched up in the grade to look a bit more synthetic, but only for certain shots. “The actor already has a very distinctive, smooth look to his skin,” reveals Szafranek. “When we had close-ups, we applied a little denoise to the skin, so that it appeared even cleaner and a little more unreal. But not too much, because he’s still meant to ‘appear’ as a real human and not something artificial.

“During shooting, I was regularly in contact with Johannes. We talked about what he could try on set to make images more interesting, or add variety,” adds Szafranek. “He’s very open to exchanging ideas. He was also present during a lot of the grade.”

Wrapping up

After finishing the HDR master grade of Tender Hearts, Szafranek returned to DaVinci Resolve Studio and made a trim pass to export an SDR version.

“From pre-production to post-production you can pipe everything through Resolve easily and keep everything open for changes at any time,” says the colourist. “You don’t have to switch the system.”

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