Before the multiple Academy Award-nominated feature Hidden Figures premiered, few people were aware of the contributions a group of women -- African American math geniuses -- added to the mid-century space race. But once the film, directed by Theodore Melfi and starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janalle Monáe came out, there was no question that audiences wanted to know about this fascinating subject. The film has grossed more than $200 million internationally to date.
For EFILM colorist Natasha Leonnet Hidden Figures was a special project. Shot on 35 and 16mm film by Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker, ASC the filmmakers wanted every scene to bring the story to life with a sense of realism and immediacy while also evoking the early 1960s period the story is set in. "There was a naturalistic feel in that they didn't want the audience to have any sense of the work we did in color," Leonnet recalls.
"We went for a Kodachrome look," Walker adds, noting the distinctive colors of that now-defunct reversal film stock. "We had used many still photographs, stock footage and historical images from the 1950s and '60s as our inspiration. Those colors were in the art direction and costumes too. So as we found our look in the DI, we used Kodachrome as a reference."
The film follows these women at work in the Langley Memorial Research Lab as they apply their brilliance to the task and overcome challenges that their race and gender present working in a male-dominated field in the segregated south. The story also weaves their personal lives and the civil rights struggle (frequently shown via real news footage from the time) to capture the humanity and context of the story.
Walker had worked with Leonnet on two previous features – Beastly and Jane Got a Gun – and sought her out for Hidden Figures, the cinematographer explains, "because she is a great technician, but most importantly a true artist and she has an impeccable eye for detail."
Leonnet notes that despite the overall feeling of naturalism, there is a sense in the imagery of "how these women stand out from their environment. It starts with production design and wardrobe and continues through Mandy Walker's photography and even in post, we worked to subliminally enhance that feeling. Whether they're at their desks or playing cards at home, there's a feeling of three-dimensionality that comes from the imagery."
Another key component of Leonnet's work had to do with making the archival material and scenes shot for the film work together. "We did a significant amount of work finding the precise look that made that old footage blend in," she notes. "That meant working with the footage but it also affected where we took the look of the new material too. It was fascinating working with the director and DP to find what became the final look."
Aside from the color grading aspect, Hidden Figures has a special meaning for Leonnet. "Just looking at these amazing women and seeing their story was inspiring," she says. I certainly don't have their mathematical brilliance, but there is a lot that's technical about the work I do and the film spoke to me in that sense. The director and DP, the actors and everyone involved had burden on their shoulders to be as true to these women every step of the way and I certainly felt that way too."