Elysium taps into local talent pool

Digital colourist Andrea Chlebak part of savvy Vancouver team

THE residue of a nightmare chased the child down the halls of her family home.

The alien's circus clown grin revealed razor teeth dripping with acidic drool.

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Andrea Chlebak was seven years old when her brother brought home Alien on VHS. The science-fiction horror movie was so effective it sent the future film colourist looking for the refuge of her parents' bedroom more than once.

"I think there was an endless few months over the summer when there was a knock at my parents' door at night," she recalls, her ever-present laugh accompanying the anecdote. "'I can't sleep!'"

Alien was a childhood terror that transformed into a fond memory, and then into artistic inspiration.

Ridley Scott's 1979 film is one of several stylistic inspirations for the newly-released science-fiction/class warfare movie Elysium.

Chlebak helped paint the subtle tones of the movie's colour palette from the meditative environment of an editing suite in the heart of Vancouver.

"There's 100 or so hours of official colour grading, but I've seen the movie probably over 100 times," she says.

Most of that time was spent with director Neill Blomkamp, best known for combining aliens, action, apartheid and cat food in his debut movie District 9. The two would sit in a room, often trading references to the science fiction movies of their youth like RoboCop and The Terminator as they tweaked the movie's subdued shades.

"His desire was to make everything look real," Chlebak says. "In a film where there's a huge degree of visual effects, making something look real and keeping it honest is actually a tall order."

As important as colour grading can be in evoking a mood from the audience, the work is often crammed into the end of a hectic schedule.

"Usually you get to the end and the visual effects are almost totally done, the cut's definitely locked, and then you condense the colour-grading into the last three weeks or four weeks of the film schedule before it has to be mastered and released," Chlebak explains.

For Elysium, Chlebak and Blomkamp had a few months to find just the right hues to conjure up the wasteland of Earth and the opulence of the Elysium space station, which functions as an outer space enclave that would make Ayn Rand weep with joy.

The duo worked in short bursts, taking frequent days off in order to return with a fresh perspective.

"The colour grading is there to build on subtext or allow the audience to be more immersed in the story," she explains.

Working in shades and shadows, Chlebak tries to veer away from certain aesthetics, such as the "really orange skin tones" of Transformers.

"That serves a purpose for a time but then it starts to become the style that gets overused and then it doesn't have meaning anymore. .. As colourists we have to develop new ways of seeing the world and presenting the world," she says. "It's a constantly evolving process."

While some critics rolled their eyes at Elysium's political elements, the action movie has already found a broad audience, taking in nearly $30 million in its opening weekend.

"Working on a film like Elysium at this level is unique, especially in this particular town," Chlebak notes.

Much like Woody Allen once claimed New York and Peter Jackson operates in New Zealand, Blomkamp has established Vancouver as his base of operations.

While many established directors might shoot a movie in Vancouver, Blomkamp is the rare director who sticks around afterwards, using the city's array of technicians to add texture to his film.

"In District 9 he had a local cinematographer, a local editor, and a local digital effects company, and now with Elysium he added post-production colour grading," Chlebak says.

For the Winnipeg-born artist, working on a summer blockbuster was never something she anticipated.

"I think I have a rare career trajectory," Chlebak says. "I'm not saying I don't have the talent and skill, but sometimes it is being at the right place at the right time and having the right people guide you."

Born into a family of bakers, Chlebak eschewed the smell of warm rolls for a career in photography. She was studying her craft at Emily Carr when she came across a student film that needed a little help.

"I just got inspired to start making my pictures move," she says.

After graduating from Emily Carr in 2002, Chlebak worked with independent filmmakers and paid the bills by shooting portraits.

"Just doing whatever I could get my hands on that was visual," she says.

Chlebak was trying to find a niche in the field of visual effects when a colleague noted her eye for colour.

She kept busy transferring digital movies to film before snagging a job on Alien Trespass, an homage to 1950s science fiction directed by XFiles producer R.W. Goodwin.

"I think the film ended up having a really unique look, simply because I came at it from, not years of experience, but years of looking at images in a slightly different way," she says. "It was just kind of history from there."

She's worked on movies ranging from the boxing documentary Facing Ali to the chaste romance of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

"I can often find something to believe in in the film and get behind it," she says, adding that her job is a little easier if she likes the film.

With the exception of a segment of the movie shot near Mexico City, nearly all of Elysium was made in B.C. "As a city as a whole we need to have a little bit of pride in the fact that we could do something like this, and hopefully do more."

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