Melancholy, Baby: Perfecting the Pace, Tone and Palette of 'Carol'

"We weren’t as concerned with trimming, but rather with getting the story right," says editor Affonso Gonçalves.
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Films tend to push social boundaries. One such film this season is Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler. It’s a love story between two people from different backgrounds set in a society in the midst of a cultural shift. That the two characters who find themselves in an unexpected love affair happen to be women in 1950s New York—one a young woman in her 20s, the other an alluring older woman with a daughter—is almost incidental.

The story is based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, and Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce, Far from Heaven) directed the film adaptation.

Affonso Gonçalves (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mildred Pierce, Winter’s Bone), the editor on Carol, explains, “Carol is a love story about two women coming to terms with the dissatisfaction of their lives. The Carol character (Cate Blanchett) is unhappily married, but loves her child. Carol has had lesbian affairs before, but is intrigued by this new person, Therese (Rooney Mara), whom she encounters in a department store. Therese doesn’t know what she wants, but through the course of the film, she learns who she is.”

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Carol follows the unexpected love affair between two women of different ages and social settings in the transitional period of the 1950s. The emotional turmoil central to the characters is rooted in the conventional worlds both Carol (Cate Blanchett, right) and Therese (Rooney Mara) have built around themselves.

Gonçalves and Haynes worked together on the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, and Gonçalves says, “We got along well, and when he got involved with the production, he passed along the script to me and I loved it.” Carol was shot entirely on Super 16mm film negative, primarily as a single-camera production. Only about 5 percent of the production included A- and B-cameras. Ed Lachman, ASC (Far From Heaven, Erin Brockovich, The Virgin Suicides), served as the cinematographer. The film negative was scanned in log color space, and then a simple log-to-linear LUT (color lookup table) was applied to the Avid DNxHD 36 editorial files for nice-looking working files.

Creating a Timeless New York Story

Cincinnati served as the principal shooting location, designed to double for New York City. The pre-war buildings and apartments in Cincinnati mirrored New York in the 1950s and created a realistic time and place for the story. The surrounding area doubled for Iowa and Pennsylvania during a traveling portion of the film.

Gonçalves discussed how he and Haynes worked during this period, saying, “The production shot in Cincinnati, but I was based at Goldcrest Films in New York. The negative was shipped to New York each day, where it was processed and scanned. Then I would get Avid editorial files. The cutting room was set up with Avid Media Composer and Avid ISIS systems. My first assistant, Perri [Pivovar], had the added responsibilities on this project to check for film defects. Ed would also review footage each day; however, Todd doesn’t like to watch dailies during a production. He would rely on me instead to be his eyes and ears, to make sure that the coverage that he needed was there.”

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Rooney Mara as Therese

He continues, “After the production wrapped, I completed my editor’s cut. Then Todd spent two weeks reviewing all the dailies and making his own detailed notes. When he was ready, he joined me in the cutting room and we built the film according to his cut. Once we had these two versions—his and mine—we compared the two. They were actually very similar because we have a similar taste. Most of the experimenting came with structure and music.”

The main editorial challenges were getting the right structure for the story and tone for the performances. According to Gonçalves, “Cate and Rooney’s performances are very detailed—I felt the need to slow the cutting pace down to let you appreciate that performance. Rooney’s is so delicate. Plus, it’s a love story and we needed to keep the audience engaged. We weren’t as concerned with trimming, but rather with getting the story right. The first cut was two and a half hours and the finished length ended up at 118 minutes. Todd isn’t too precious about losing scenes, which allowed us to keep the story focused on our central characters.”

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Director Todd Haynes and Cate Blanchett on the set of Carol

“The main challenge was the party scene at the end. The story structure is similar to Brief Encounter [a 1945 David Lean classic with the beginning and ending set in the same location]. Initially we had two levels of flashbacks, but there was too much of a shift back and forth. We had a number of ‘friends and family’ screenings and it was during these that we discovered the issues with the flashbacks. Ultimately we decided to rework the ending and simplify the temporal order of the last scene.”

The editing application that an editor uses is an extension of how he works. Some have very elaborate routines for preparing bins and sequences, and others take a simpler approach. Gonçalves fits into the latter group. He says, “For me, Avid is like sitting down and driving a car. It’s all so smooth and so fast. It’s easy to find things and I like the color correction and audio tools. I don’t use any special organizing routines in the bins. I simply highlight the director’s preferred takes; but I do use locators and take a lot of handwritten notes.”

Film Sensibility in a Modern Digital Era

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While Carol breaks free from the confines of marriage, her husband (Kyle Chandler) begins to question her competence as a mother as her involvement with Therese and close relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) come to light.

Carol was literally the last film to be processed at Deluxe New York before the lab was shut down. In addition to a digital release, Technicolor also did a laser “film out” to 35mm for a few release prints. All digital postproduction was handled by Goldcrest Films, which scanned the Super 16mm negative on an ARRISCAN laser scanner at 3K resolution for a 2K digital master. Goldcrest’s Boon Shin Ng handled the scanning and conforming of the film. Creating the evocative look of Carol fell to New York colorist John J. Dowdell III. Trained in photography before becoming a colorist in 1980, Dowdell has credits on more than 200 theatrical and television films.

Unlike his experience on other films, Dowdell was involved earlier in the overall process on Carol. He explains, “Early on, I had a long meeting with Todd and Ed about the look of the film. Todd had put together a book of photographs and tear sheets that helped with the colors and fashions from the 1950s. While doing the color grading job, we’d often refer back to that book to establish the color palette for the film.”

The film’s palette emphasizes, especially in the interiors, the sour greens, yellows and dirty pinks of the era—slightly soiled colors that give viewers the feeling of the post-war city before the brightness of the Eisenhower administration had taken over.

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Cate Blanchett as Carol

Carol has approximately 100 visual effects shots to help make Cincinnati look like New York circa 1952-53. Dowdell continues, “Boon coordinated effects with Chris Haney, the visual effects producer. The ARRI scanner is pin-registered, which is essential for the work of the visual effects artists. We’d send them both log and color-corrected files. They’d use the color-corrected files to create a reference, preview LUT for their own use, but then send us back finished effects in log color space. These were integrated back into the film.”

Dowdell’s tool of choice is Quantel Pablo Rio, which incorporates color grading tools that match his photographic sensibilities. He says, “I tend not to rely as much on the standard lift/gamma/gain color wheels—that’s a video approach. Quantel includes a film curve, which I use a lot. It’s like an S-curve tool but with a pivot point. I also use master density and RGB printer light controls. These are numeric and let you control the color very precisely, but also repeatably. That was important as I was going through options with Todd and Ed. You could get back to an earlier setting. That’s much harder to do precisely with color wheels and trackball controls.”

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The Quantel Pablo Rio is a complete editing and effects system as well, integrating the full power of Quantel’s legendary Paintbox. The system permitted John Dowdell and Boon Shin Ng to handle some effects work within the grading suite. Dowdell continues, “With the paint and tracking functions, I could do a lot of retouching. For example, some modern elements, like newer style parking meters, were tracked, darkened and blurred so they didn’t draw attention. Quantel does beautiful blow-ups, which was perfect for the minor reframing that we did on this film.”

The color grading toolset is often a Swiss Army knife for the filmmaker, but in the end, it’s about the color. Dowdell concludes, “Todd and Ed worked a lot to evoke moods. In the opening department store scene, there’s a definite green cast that was added to let the audience feel that this is an unhappy time. As the story progresses, colors become more intense and alive. We worked very intuitively to achieve the result, and care was applied to each and every shot. We are all very proud of it.”