In a year of challenging workplace transitions and changing workflows, creative production studio Nice Shoes has been quietly collaborating on a slate of critically acclaimed long-form projects that mark a new direction for the studio. Chris Kahunahana’s debut feature, Waikiki, the first full-length narrative film to be written and directed by a native Hawaiian, takes a breathtaking, dream-like look at the seamy underside of paradise; it continues to wow judges and audiences across the festival circuit. In January, the experimental film All Light, Everywhere, directed by Theo Anthony, won a Documentary Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Two months later, Introducing, Selma Blair, directed by Rachel Fleit, took the Special Jury Award for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling in SXSW’s Documentary Feature Competition. All three were graded by Nice Shoes Colorist Maria Carretero.
It’s a return to form for Carretero and a conscious move by Nice Shoes to collaborate with documentary and narrative filmmakers delivering unique points of view.
“The direction that we’re going as a company is to work on a diverse range of projects with a very diverse range of stories, particularly those that haven’t been told enough,” says the studio’s Executive Producer of DI and Dailies, Katie Hinsen, who has been expanding the digital intermediate team since her arrival at Nice Shoes in 2019. “Films like this keep our creatives challenged. No matter how much we grow, we’re always going to be about bringing in projects our colorists, like Maria, can get as passionate about as the filmmakers.”
Trained as a painter and plastic artist in Spain, Carretero began her digital career as a matte painter, earning credits on celebrated films by Pedro Almadóvar (Bad Education) and Alejandro Amenábar (The Sea Inside). When a friend suggested she try color grading, she soon landed at Deluxe’s Madrid office, becoming the sole female colorist, save for another female assistant, in the entire country. “I didn’t know anything about grading at first, and it was really hard for women to get into the industry,” she says. “I had to grade my first movie in 15 days without any training. It was very stressful, a crazy experience. For three years I was sweating every day—literally I was in a panic! But I knew I could get familiar with the practice.” Luckily, her timing was perfect. Spain’s expanding film industry was creating bigger budgets that brought in well-known DPs and actors from Hollywood and elsewhere. After grading Carlos Saura’s acclaimed documentary, Iberia, which won a Goya, the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar, her career took off. “I started collaborating with really good Spanish DPs who supported my work and saw potential in what I was trying to do at that time,” says Carretero. “I was really lucky to work with names like Paco Femenia, Jose Luis Alcaine and JL Lopez-Linares, who are some of the people behind the biggest projects in Spain.”
A jump in the mid-2000s to commercials, which were just beginning to be graded on emerging higher-res systems like the HD Lustre, took her around the world. “It was thrilling to see the technology develop and discover the new tools that gave us as colorists,” Carretero says. “And I loved the chance to express different visions through other cultures and ideals.” Her credits since joining Nice Shoes in late 2019 include several Super Bowl 2020 spots and brand stories for Disney, Jeep, Porsche and Apple. “Commercials happen so fast,” she says. “It has taught me how to really listen to my clients and execute ideas quickly.”
Carretero brings a painter’s eye for nuanced visuals to all her work, employing not just best-in-class cinematic tools within Baselight and Resolve but methods of composition and process pulled directly from her experience as a fine artist. “There is a point in all these kinds of projects when I think about grading them as a painting,” she says. “That’s not the normal way, when you close each scene and move forward. I always think about how to make all those layers in each scene, the inner stories within the larger story, more expressive through color, texture and volume. I try to execute a color that when you’re watching it, you can feel it.”
Although she also loves to create “super stylized projects, both short and long,” Carretero’s process sets her apart from her peers. “Every colorist brings their background with them,” says Hinsen. “Some come from a very technical background and they’re fast and really great at matching challenging source material. Many come from a photography background and they understand the play of light in the real world in a very particular way. What comes first for Maria is the fact that she’s an artist. She collaborates with the other artists on the team. Even for very challenging technical projects, she still brings that artistic sensibility into it.”
All Light, Everywhere, which takes a kaleidoscopic look at how the reality of what we see is constructed by the tools we use to visualize it, was captured on a wide variety of cameras and devices. It was both a technical and aesthetic challenge to create a unifying look that worked invisibly across so much varied footage. “Ultimately, capturing the idea is what matters most, not whether the filmmakers had the right resources to do it at a certain level,” Carretero says. “In a project like this, you can really see the passion. You can see how deeply involved [the filmmakers] are in the project. I really, truly love that energy. That drives me.”
For Introducing, Selma Blair, a brutally honest portrait of actress Selma Blair’s battle with multiple sclerosis, Carretero, director Rachel Fleit and cinematographer Shane Sigler began by decoding the larger arc of the story to devise a creative plan. “I always like to understand the shared goal we have: what are we really trying to say? It’s the first place I start,” she says. “It sparks my imagination thinking about the kinds of worlds we are going to create.”
“A good colorist never has a single aesthetic,” says Hinsen. “But Maria comes to every image and set of images with certain points of focus and certain ways of making them beautiful. I think where her eyes are drawn is different to where other people’s eyes are drawn.”
That process brought Carretero more than just creative dividends, especially this past year. “It was very healing for me to work on these films during the pandemic,” she says. “They are stories that need to be told and need to be out in the world.”
For more information and additional images contact Paul DeKams at [email protected].