Merging Past & Present for Gripping Documentary ‘The Lionheart’

March 18, 2024 Mar. 18, 2024

Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon, who was known as the “fastest man in the world” and “Lionheart,” enjoyed an unprecedented run in the racing world until his untimely death in a horrific crash on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The HBO sports documentary, The Lionheart, from director Laura Brownson, brings viewers into the world of enormous highs and terrible lows of Indycar racing presented through a combination of footage of Wheldon as he built his legendary career and contemporary material — interviews and observational footage — of his widow and their two sons, both of whom have embraced their father’s career path, joining the Junior Circuit as pre-teens.

Company 3 Senior Colorist Sean Coleman had previously collaborated with the same production team when he handled color Netflix’s thrilling sports-themed Untold series, which approaches sports-related stories in a similar way (Lionheart director Laura Brownson also directed episodes of that series). As Coleman points out, color for this type of documentary presents a set of unique challenges that have always intrigued him. There are two distinct types of imagery: Material shot specifically for the doc using high-end cinema cameras in widescreen format under professional lighting conditions and archival footage captured on a wide array of old and discontinued video formats. Coleman strives to give everything an “untouched” look (no extensive restoration on the archival material) while ensuring overall visual cohesion.

“The recent interviews were shot in a very cinematic way,” he notes, “along with the lifestyle footage of the boys in their cars and interacting with their mother. And it’s mixed with thousands of archival shots. It’s my job to have the archival shots look and feel like they did originally, without a whole lot of clean-up and restoration. I’m very strict about that. I’m a big sports guy, and I want to keep it legitimate without doing a lot to make it look ‘better.'”

However, the material, mostly 4:3 480i (interlaced), will take a visual hit when brought into the 1920×1080 HDR (High Dynamic Range) world. “You take something that [topped out at] 100 nits or less,” he says, “and put it into an envelope that’s more like 600 nits. You have to make sure the whites don’t clip. You have to be meticulous with the material.”

A key aspect of this starts with a custom LUT that he built to essentially remap the lower-end video into the newer, high-end format. Then, he makes fine grading adjustments from there, so his shot-by-shot corrections look “correct” on today’s HDR displays, which have very different attributes than displays of the time.

“Sometimes, colorists will add obvious vignettes in this kind of material to direct the eye,” Coleman says, noting that there is considerably less picture information to start with than there is with imagery shot to current standards, so it can be impossible to make the fine, almost imperceptible adjustments he likes to make. “So, the windows appear very pronounced. It’s dim everywhere except inside this awful circle. That’s something we really made sure to avoid.”

He also points out that most of the videotape of televised sporting events from that bygone era of the late 1990s and early 2000s was already a bit diminished in quality over the crisp live feed that went out at the time, so he doesn’t have qualms about using some of the tools in his DaVinci Resolve color corrector to add a little extra zip to the video to make it look more like it would have for someone watching it live. “It’s not like restoration; it’s just doing our best to recreate what it felt like to see the video when it first aired.”

Coleman says of the massive amount of archival footage he started with, “Some of it looked too dark, some of it seems too bright. So, we’d get it all in a good place first, and then finally, the last step was balancing everything to match the previous shot, so it all flows together.

“There’s actually a lot of work that goes into it,” he sums up, “but the audience isn’t supposed to see any of it.”

The Lionheart debuted on Tuesday, March 12th, on HBO and is now available to stream on MAX.