Although it’s a period piece, Focus Features’ On the Basis of Sex is as timely right now as ever. Directed by Mimi Leder (The Leftovers, Shameless), the film looks at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), from her formative years at Harvard Law School through her many battles as an attorney advocating for justice, particularly as it applies to women’s rights and it also looks at her relationship with husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), who was highly a constant supportive force for Ruth as well as being a highly-accomplished attorney in his own right.
Colorist Siggy Ferstl worked closely with cinematographer Michael Grady, with whom he’s collaborated on a number of films, including The Dead Girl and Hotel for Dogs. For Ferstl, the project offers a powerful and emotional take on important aspects of American history. “The things women weren’t allowed to do, that she had to fight so hard for,” he says, “it just seems crazy now.” But he’s quick to point out that he felt attached to the project on a dramatic level from his first viewing. “The film doesn’t blurt out facts at the audience. Everything is presented in a way that really draws you in.”
This naturally extends to the film’s visual treatment. “It is set in the mid 20th Century and so there are a lot of browns and the blues have a bit more cyan than more contemporary blues,” Ferstl explains. “It’s all subtle. The look is meant to feel ‘real’. Everything from the costume and production design and Michael’s cinematography to the work we did in post was about evoking the period and certainly also about looking interesting. But nobody wanted the look to ever overpowers this true story.”
Much of the work Ferstl did in DaVinci Resolve, he elaborates, “was about directing the viewer’s eye. I love Michael’s work and he’s very big on shaping light to subliminally direct the audience to the main point of a shot. So a lot of what we did in post was to enhance that approach.”
He points to an example of a key scene set inside a large Harvard hall when she is graduating. “Light is streaming in through large stained-glass windows. We were able to further bring out Michael’s lighting by augmenting exposure and saturation on the windows, the banners and faces and then isolating and enhancing her and her colorful clothing in comparison to all the men’s dark suits. It’s not something you’d be aware of but it brings your attention to her and to the fact that she was such an anomaly at the ceremony.”
In order to further evoke the period feeling, Ferstl graded the film through a film emulation LUT he developed with Grady and Company 3 color scientists. “It pushes some colors in certain directions and takes that electric sharpness of the image,” he says. “We developed it before production started so Michael could use it on set as he lit and it was baked into the dailies so the editor and Mimi Leder and everyone involved got used to that basic look before we started working on the final grade.”
He also enhanced the filmic look by dialing in a small amount of grain through Resolve’s Open FX toolset, which currently offers a level of control over grain size and appearance that many such haven’t. “You can control the look separately in the highlights, midtones and shadows,” he notes, “which is really necessary if you don’t want your ‘grain’ to look like random noise slapped on top of the image.”
Though the film is a look back in time, it also offers an immediacy in this fraught political climate. “I had a special feeling working on this,” Ferstl recalls. “It’s about very important subjects and the storytelling and performances really draw you in.”