In 2020, director Emerald Fennell made quite a critical splash with her complex first feature, Promising Young Woman. Her follow-up, Saltburn, takes a similar approach to the storytelling, says colorist Matt Wallach, who handled the grade for this unusual film, Wallach’s fourth collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren. “It starts out as one genre, and then a switch flips, and it’s a different type of film,” says Wallach, adding of Fennell, “She has a unique voice as a filmmaker.”
The film is set at Oxford University in 2006; a scholarship student, Oliver (Barry Keoghan), becomes entangled with a charismatic young man, Felix (Jacob Elordi), who comes from a world of old money totally foreign to Oliver. The two become close after a chance meeting, leading to Oliver spending his post-freshman-year holiday at Felix’s family estate, where the story soon transforms from a light and romantic style to a thriller steeped in class differences, decadence and obsession. Similar to Fennell’s first feature, the film also plays cleverly with audience expectations about who it is that has the upper hand.
The production was shot in an English country estate with high ceilings and cavernous rooms. Sandgren, who shot on film as his general preference, decided to shoot in the classical 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “Anything else would do an injustice to the beautiful locations,” says Wallach. “You’d lose so much headroom, which is also an important aspect of how daunting the location is supposed to feel. There are a lot of themes at play, and the square image helps make the main character seem even more out of place in the space.”
In the final grade, says Wallach, “Linus really likes us to go in and affect the different regions of the curve separately. So, we would do things like warm the highlights slightly while keeping the shadows cool, rather than making an adjustment that changes the entire image. That’s where we got into using tools in the Resolve, like the Custom Curves and the Color Warper, to subtly bring out, say, the red lights in a party scene or the steely blue moonlit tones and a night exterior while always keeping the skin tones where they should be. With Linus, skin tone always has priority.
“There are definitely scenes in this film that challenge the audience with the subject matter, and there are some disturbing things happening on screen,” Wallach notes. “We really wanted to find ways, especially in those moments, to make the image so beautiful that you don’t want to look away.”
Saltburn, from Amazon MGM Studios, is now playing in theaters.