A Q&A with production designer Michael Kurinsky.
A few years ago I saw production designer Michael Kurinsky give a presentation about his color script for Hotel Transylvania 2. It was a fascinating insight into that part of the design and concept process on an animated feature.
A color script allows the filmmakers to maps out the color, lighting and emotional beats of a film, enabling particular colors to be linked to certain characters and desired moods at certain points in the story. Importantly, colors can make you subconsciously feel certain emotions.
Kurinsky’s color script for Tony Cervone’s Scoob! – and the related mood boards and color keys – served exactly that purpose. In this conversation with befores & afters, the production designer reveals how colors and lighting helped establish the mood for specific characters and sequences in the film, and the technical process he followed in doing it.
b&a: I always remember your talk from a few years ago about color scripts. How did the color script work on Scoob!?
Michael Kurinsky: Well it always starts with the actual script. When I read a script, I start to see the movie in my head. Literally I see scenes in my head and I think about color pallets and the kinds of lighting that I think will work great for what I’m reading.
The way I approached this movie was that everything had to be under the umbrella of the Scooby Doo world. But within that umbrella, there are a couple other worlds in there. There’s the Scooby Doo world, there’s the Blue Falcon world, and there’s the Dick Dastardly world. And then there’s a couple other miscellaneous things like Captain Caveman’s world.
When you’re in the Scooby Doo world there’s a certain kind of light and there’s a certain palette of colors. When you’re in the Blue Falcon world, same thing. I picked colors that associate with those characters and I picked qualities of light that I also wanted to associate with those characters so that when that character is winning in a scene, the lighting is already telling you that.
Dastardly is a really good one to use as an example because I think his colors are the most extreme. First, he wears that purple jacket. So violets came to mind. With his skin as this sickly yellow, pasty color, I also thought of sickly yellows and sickly greens and then rusty reds. Whenever you see oranges and those kinds of colors and those pallets dominant, it’s a Dastardly sequence.
Blue Falcon’s color palette is pretty obvious – it’s blue, it’s white, it’s clean, it’s like a high-tech Apple store. It’s not just the colors, but it’s the quality of light, too.
For the gang, I based everything off of the Mystery Machine colors because those are the colors we think of a lot from Scooby Doo. You’ll see things like teal blue greens and oranges and chartreuse green. Their lighting is more grounded in reality.
That was my equation for creating the color script. Then, whenever I was reading a scene, I’d ask myself, Who’s in charge of this scene? Who’s winning this scene? Who has the upper hand? I organized my thoughts by character. It might be Dastardly. So then that would become a Dastardly palette.
b&a: How early is a color script imagined in your head and how early does it actually get laid out as something. I assume it’s always evolving, of course.
Michael Kurinsky: It’s constantly evolving. As the script is changing, it’s evolving. For this movie, to get people on board quickly, I put together mood boards. These mood boards were done very early on, but I didn’t want to have to spend a ton of time on doing laborious paintings. So they started as photographs that I bashed and manipulated and painted over quickly and said, This is going to be the palette for this particular scene. But it was photographs so it felt finished. When you threw that in front of someone, they could immediately go, Oh, I get that.
Color scripts or mood boards can be really abstract with little color bars. In my mind I might get it, but others might not understand what it all means. So I thought if I applied some color ideas, found some photographs that look kind of like what I’m trying to do, and then work with them in Photoshop and put three or four of them on a page, I could then say, This represents sequence ‘200’, this represents ‘300’. It was an easy early way to get approval, to get people on board with stuff, and to lay it all out without doing a ton of paint work.
For example, take the mood board for the sequence inside the haunted house. We had a couple of development paintings that were done in white light, meaning that they had no lighting on them. I was able to take those and put lighting on them in color. I went online and looked up spooky old houses, and there was this person who did these photo essays with spooky house interiors. I could put color and lighting on those and produce final color keys for that sequence that way. It was much quicker to just be able to take some photographs first and get a general consensus.
That’s how I was able to organize some major chunks of the color script early on with mood boards so that I knew when we finally locked the sequence I could say, OK, pull out that mood board, yep, that still works. That’s where we’re going to go when we actually do the final keys.
b&a: Then when you did paint color keys, how did you approach those? I saw some of them and they seem so 3D and pop out of the screen. What are you actually doing in those paintings to make them feel like that?
Michael Kurinsky: Well, if you look at color keys from a lot of other movies and a lot of other studios sometimes it’s just super-minimal. They might paint their color keys very simple, without a lot of detail. It’s just the key light on the character, the color of the shadow and the color of the bounce or rim light.
Now, I was initially a little worried on this movie because after 14 years of being at Sony and having Imageworks literally 20 steps from my desk where I could go and look at work in progress anytime, but on Scoob! the bulk of the work was going to be done in Montreal. So I wanted to make sure that we were able to give them all the right information so that if I couldn’t be there, the keys were and that they were fairly tight.
That meant what we would do is we’d have Layout scout the location in a rough model. Then we would get a render from that rough model. It’d be very low-res and parts of the character’s arms might even be missing. But then I’d look at my mood board, look at what kind of light that I wanted to add to it and then do a paint-over. We are painting over something that’s 3D and low-res, but it really gives you a much better target than to start from say a line drawing. You can already start seeing dimension and form.
b&a: Is that then used for direction you ultimately give to the lighting team? How might you review a final shot when it goes through lighting, what sort of comments you would be giving back to the lighters?
Michael Kurinsky: Because the keys were so tight and we did so many of them – we did 405 color keys for the entire movie – that’s a record for me. I had two other really great painters helping me do that; my art director Emil Mitev, and a really fabulous painter named Joel Parod. Between the three of us, we were able to tackle that many color keys. I went also went up to Montreal and I really formed a relationship with the team at ReelFX.
When the keys would come in for them, they tried their hardest to hit what they saw in that key. So the first round of notes that I would have is, let’s look at it with the key. Did you hit the major notes that the key provides? I would say to them, let’s always be plussing. The keys are one level, but it’s not 3D, it’s not the final movie. So your job is to plus that key, not go away from the intent of it. What can we do to make it better? And they did such a great job.
b&a: Back to the color script, where does this ‘exist’ as it evolves? Is it on your computer? Is it printed out on a wall? Is it available to artists to look at?
Michael Kurinsky: Because we had three of us doing it, we would just have each sequence on a board. They’d be over black. If there were 12 keys, there’d be maybe six on two different pages. They existed in a folder on our server, in order. But, as sequences got finished, I would drop them into the long color script layout. I would pull the keys off of the page and make a master file just to see how everything was laying out together, partly because I think it’s really cool and I’ve done it on every movie I’ve worked on.
They eventually printed this out for a press junket that we had and it was huge and it went down a major chunk of a hallway. You could basically see the whole movie as you walked by.
b&a: Do you ever look at the whole color script which shows the progression of mood in the film and use that to say, Oh, actually this scene or the way it’s been lit doesn’t fit in correctly here, and then change things that way?
Michael Kurinsky: Yes. Here’s an example. We had all this stuff happening at night and there was a call for, Can we have something during daylight? One of the suggestions was, how about the amusement park in daylight?
I had always seen it in my head as being at night, but there were enough people that wanted it in day. I thought, if we’re doing it in day, it’s a run-down old amusement park and Dastardly has the upper hand through the whole thing.
So I said, we’re going to use a Dastardly palette and if I’m doing day, it’s not going to be bright blue skies because that would be completely the wrong idea. And, that’s more like ‘the gang is winning’ colors. Instead, we went with the Dastardly palette – sickly yellows, rusty reds. Then you get the purples inside the arcade when they do the whole whack-a-mole thing. It ended up being my favorite sequence color-wise in the movie because it was just so different.
All images © 2020 Warner Bros. Pictures.