Colorist Tashi Trieu Uses DaVinci Resolve Studio to Bring Avatar: The Way of Water to Life

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In our recent interview, we spoke with colorist Tashi Trieu regarding his work on “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which was graded in DaVinci Resolve Studio. Trieu has worked with James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment for a number of years as a DI editor, including the remaster of “Terminator 2” as well as “Alita: Battle Angel.” For “Avatar: The Way of Water,” Trieu moved up to colorist, working closely with Director Cameron. 

PH: Hi there Tashi! Can you share a bit of your professional background? What led to you becoming a colorist?

Tashi Trieu: I learned basic compositing techniques from my father at an early age. I learned Flame back when it was on the SGI platform and After Effects was still pretty nascent. It was rare to do desktop compositing and most advanced paint and DVE work was done in very rare, high-end turn-key systems. That early interest in compositing led me to experimenting with video cameras in high school and choosing to pursue a career in film. I went to Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts in Orange, CA and studied cinematography. I loved a lot of aspects of cinematography, but I didn’t see myself working on set. I also loved a lot of aspects of visual effects, but didn’t have the patience to be a full-time compositor or lighter. Color grading is a wonderful merger of the two. You get to think like a cinematographer, working on the macro-level, considering story motifs and styles, all while using technology that’s effectively descendent from digital compositing.

PH: Can you talk about some of the projects you've worked on and how they've shaped you professionally?

Tashi Trieu: I’ve worked almost equally on low-budget indie features and blockbuster studio features. I’ve learned from the best, working in various editorial and assist capacities to some great colorists over the years: Mike Sowa, Steve Scott, and Skip Kimball. I’ve seen big teams and small teams. Experiencing both the micro-budget indie and big-budget VFX worlds gave me a really balanced perspective. I’ve written at length about studio production practices that can be adapted to indie projects to strengthen their organization and execution of visual effects projects, and I’ve adapted a lot of the self-reliance necessary on indie projects to the big-budget DI. I believe in working on small and nimble teams where everyone involved has agency over their work. Micro-management never helps anybody.

PH: How did you become involved with Avatar: The Way of Water?

Tashi Trieu: I had worked on a few projects with Lightstorm previously at Technicolor and then at EFILM as a DI Editor, on the remastering of Terminator 2 and the DI for Alita: Battle Angel. That’s where I met Jon Landau and Geoff Burdick.

PH: In your role, how does pre-production look? Where does collaboration and sharing your ideas and process come into play?

Tashi Trieu: I was only loosely involved in pre-production on this film. After we finished Alita in early 2019, which I was the DI Editor on, I looked at early stereo tests with the director of photography, Russell Carpenter.

I try to be involved as early as possible on films I work on. I think it’s really important to develop the visual language of the film with the cinematographer and director during pre-production. It can be as simple as some basic look setting tests and developing a show LUT, or as involved as multiple camera tests and camera and lens selection. On films that shoot with extremely challenging lighting conditions, like low-light or narrow spectrum lighting (think LEDs or lasers), it’s really important to test how a camera registers that light. It’s really easy to shoot a camera test in daylight between a few high-end cameras and get almost indiscernible results. But those challenging lighting conditions will often demonstrate significant differences and be a critical factor in camera selection.

PH: What were some of the challenges of maintaining photorealism through huge volumes of water? How did you navigate that? 

Tashi Trieu: The underwater scenes are really great examples of interactive grading in the DI. It was really important to Jim that we sell the underwater environment as a volume. If it’s too clear it starts to look unrealistic, like the characters are swimming in space. 

PH: Can you describe some of the techniques you applied (like grading volume density to convey scale)? 

Tashi Trieu: To help sell that sense of depth and distance underwater, I would often add lift and gamma to milk out the image a little. At shallow depths, the color is a little more neutral or green/yellow biased from sunlight with minimal filtration. At deeper depths, I’d add more blue to really sell the spectral filtration that happens through water. It was fun to lean on my experience as a recreational scuba diver.

PH: Can you talk about using DaVinci Resolve Studio and what you were able to achieve through that program? 

Tashi Trieu: We did the entire conform, color grading, and picture mastering deliverable process through DaVinci Resolve Studio, so it really was our one-stop-shop for finishing. I graded all of our trailers and marketing assets in DaVinci Resolve Studio too, which made it easy to trace the latest approved feature grades and get those into marketing materials without redundant work.

PH: You've worked with James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment for a number of years as a DI editor. What has that experience been like? How did it help with this project? 

Tashi Trieu: It’s been a great experience. The team at Lightstorm is top-notch. It can be daunting embarking on a massive film like this, but their technical team and creative and support team at Park Road Post Production made my job easy. James Cameron is an incredible director to observe and to work with. No matter who you are and how much you know, he has more to teach you and those lessons make us all better artists and storytellers.

PH: Do you have a favorite shot or sequence in the film? If so, what is it and can you give background into how you achieved the color of that scene?

Tashi Trieu: There’s a “town hall” scene between the Sully family and the Metkayina clan that takes place during a rainstorm. It’s an absolutely gorgeous scene that evokes Rembrandt. The cold, overcast skies wrap around the characters and a subtle warm accent light gives the scene a really nice dynamic. It’s insane how absolutely real everyone looks. You have to actively remind yourself, “everything in this shot is artist-generated, none of this beyond the performance is ‘real’ per se.” It’s truly a generational leap in visual effects artistry and technology. It’s absolutely extraordinary.

PH: What advice would you give to others who are interested in this profession? Is there a lesson you've learned that you would go back and tell your younger self? 

Tashi Trieu: It’s important to understand that there is no one right path to follow in your pursuit of a career. There is a lot of advice out there and you really have to forge a path on your own. What worked for others is circumstantial and may not work for you. Hollywood is a business of attrition. Success and opportunities don’t materialize overnight and are the product of a lot of persistence, stubbornness, and a little bit of skill.

I think I would probably tell my younger self that it’s going to be okay and to not worry about comparing yourself to others, even your contemporaries. This isn’t a zero-sum game and someone else’s success does not negate your own. Celebrate the successes of your competition just as you would your friends.

PH: Are there any upcoming projects you'd like to share? 

Tashi Trieu: I’m very much looking forward to the next Avatar film and whatever exciting opportunities come before and after!

Tashi Trieu is a film and television colorist and finishing artist with over 10 years of  experience in post-production. He’s worked on everything from indie features to tentpole studio films like Jungle Book and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He’s taught color grading and color science at film schools around the world and co-authored Modern Post, a handbook on post-production finishing. In his spare time he’s an avid bicyclist.

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. 

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