Colour grading: Enhance the Image

Few people recognise the part colour grading plays in modern day cinema attributing the cinematic look to other factors however it is undeniably there. In recent years this technique has been perfected and spread across the medium from the more subtle to the extravagant. Ideally the purpose of colour grading is to emphasise what the camera cannot pickup so as to set a mood and indicate a tone either to the characters or the scene as a whole. As the audience is drawn in by the dialogue and acting the undertones of colour indicate clearly the story and character arc. Using simple psychology filmmakers have perceived that a tonal shift in the image can spark the viewer’s subconscious to convey an emotion and make the other elements have a more full effect. Often these shifts in tone and colour seek to instill a sense of awe in the viewer as they step into a new and exciting world different from their own and immerse themselves in a fictional world. While CGI and special effects help to elevate the visuals of a scene it is the often forgotten colour grading that breathes life into the shots we use to construct narrative.

To focus on colour grading properly it is important to use real examples and to examine how they influence the symbolism, characters, mood and general impact of a film – in other words what purpose can it have on a diverse range of motion pictures. Despite the wealth of possibilities available I believe that there are some clear standouts: These include Mad Max: Fury Road, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, John Wick and the TV mini-series Utopia. A film always turns on it’s ability to use colour creatively and intelligently, on it’s ability to choose a moment and know what colours will help to trigger the intended reaction. Perhaps no other examples prove this better than those listed. When done correctly with correct timing and colour changes on the right beat it is a joy to watch the colours of each scene unfold to reveal another layer.

Mad Max: Fury Road has been praised time again for it’s depiction of a dystopian society devoid of resources and ruled over by the tyrannical Immortan Joe. This hellish nightmare has a simple arc, desperate and often incomprehensible dialogue with large action pieces and a level of design creativity unparalleled by the competitors during its 2015 release. In a world starved of nutrition the combination of digitally enhanced bland and vibrant oranges emphasize the harsh environment that drives the story forward. These harsh colours romanticise the struggle of its protagonists while also helping the environment to appear earthy. This use of heavy oppression symbolism underlines the iron grip on power held by Immortan and creates a sense of urgency in the viewer’s mind. The visual appeal helps to instil a sense of claustrophobia and panick as the band of rebels escape the crusade that trails them. Three scenes in particular stand out in their projection of colour grading as an important part of the filmmaking process.

Primarily it is the sandstorm scene that establishes George Miller’s recognition of colour’s value. The oversaturated oranges and neon flashes of of fiery colour create a beautiful display and make a bold statement about the loss of human life in an environment where it is not valued. Bright lightning flashes and deeply contrasting blues elevate the tension and inject a viscerality to the sense of survival as Max scrambles over the car he is strapped to. The use of bright flashes of colour is emphasized time and again throughout the film as the mechanical silver mouth spray silences the voiceless in the seconds before they die. It highlights the underlings desperate reliance to a sense of purpose enclosed in their responsibility as militants and drivers on the Fury Road as the oil and chemicals from the spray reflects the oil that fuels their sense of purpose and the vehicles they drive.  The dry earthiness of the first act of the movie is offset by a sense of clarity in the proceeding scene as Max is set free from his restraints and given water. As the scene calms to a slower pace the pale arid yellows and light blue is set against the dark brutish browns of Max as his scepticism sets him apart from the group. The piercing blue of the eyes appear needy and desperate and underline his cautious willingness to trust in his cohort of survivors.

During the film’s second act Miller makes the bold decision of replacing traditional night lighting to a dark and consistent blue. As Furiosa and Max attempt to escape through a bog they are pursued by ambushers. The dark, deep blue spread across each shot is visually appealing and gives a sense of drowning as the group attempt to escape their pursuers only to be slowed by their surroundings. The blue of the halted truck matches that of the mud it is stuck creating a sense of confusion and distress. This is juxtaposed by a sense of calm which comes into play as Furiosa takes the rifle to pick off the pursuers. The red flare that follows re-emphasizes this quality and uses another primary colour to build on the significance of this small advantage gained. The colours of previous scenes is given new light as the white body paint of Vux emphasizes his role as the saviour of this group. The furrowed brow of Furiosa is emphasized by the oil on her forehead and the flashes of blue light repeats itself like a heartbeat to elevate the tension.

Perhaps my favourite indie-film of recent years is the quirky, charming Grand Budapest Hotel. Over his career, Wes Anderson has developed his own personal visual style made up of several components which can be condensed down to his matter of fact speech. geometric shots and use of colour to create character. The use of colour is carefully chosen to emphasize contrasts. The pink panther pink of the hotel and mendels cake is complimented by baby blues and navy blues to furnish the scenes with a calming sense of unity and character. When Gustave escapes from prison the colour is reduced into a blander more natural palette using lower saturation to emphasize the fracture in his friendship with Zero. The creation of a sense of luxury in the warm palette used for the hotel reveals the luxury that Gustave prides himself while the bold and sumptuous purples of his staffs suits reflect the charisma he prides himself in. This can be contrasted against the stark white black contrast of the chase scene that heightens and narrows the tension of the scene. In the prison the pebble grey and brown of the scene reflects a more humble and less extravagant lifestyle which furthers the comical effect of his outburst later in the film.

Anderson uses doors, windows and objects to frame scenes and this often is complemented by a shift in colour between the foreground and background in a way that creates creative transitions between tone and scene. One shot that furthers the films use of colour in particular is a close up that focuses on Agatha’s face as the colourful lights surround her head projecting changes in tone and mood. The purpose of this shot is to establish the transition from the perspective of Zero in his relationship with Agatha to her becoming the centre of his purpose. Another shot used by Anderson describes Gustave being accused by the national guard of murder. The grey suits of these men are graded to have a quizzical lightness white at the same time assisting quite monotone. Thus represents Gustave’s descent from greatness accurately. It is quirky and unemotional while at the same time appearing eye-catching. The viewer is emotionally stirred by this shot as the combination of anticipation and humorous darkness is triggered by the set of colours.

Many of the individual shots are beautiful and intuitively attractive in and of themselves. They enhance and underline the characteristics of the characters and often display thought in film in a way that is beyond words. The pale skin colour and gold dress of Madam D. underline her wealth, her vulnerability as well as her cautiousness. These characteristics are complemented by the contrast with her surroundings and deep purple lipstick all of which is colour graded to emphasise with light, contrast and saturation a characteristic or flaw. The lipstick’s vibrancy complement Madam Ds outspoken self concern. The eccentric red used in the elevator scenes reflects the dialogue or lack thereof. When there is a long awkward pause the red creates a sense of urgency to underline the sentiment and when Zero learns of his responsibility it underlines his subservience and the dismissive energetic flamboyance of Gustave. Lastly, the deep brown used in shots of Dmitri and Jopling reflect the maliciousness and greed of these characters. Furthermore, this colour scheme emboldens the humour of the will signing scene as well as the satirical brutality of these two figures.

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey lead the way in visuals for films such as Doctor Strange in their mind-bending use of colour and image. Again, like many directors, the importance of colour grading was not left amiss for director Stanley Kubrick. his use of colour is deeply symbolic and can be interpreted as reflecting the main struggles and themes of the film as a whole. One of the central themes of the film is the fragmentation of the human mind which the director plays on by dividing  the suit helmet up into three different colours. The exploration of this theme from a psychological perspective is important as it aides the viewer in empathising with the protagonists and the deterioration of their mental state. The viewer feels that it is dragged down into their confusion in a way that is stressful and experimental. A sense of mockery of the human condition is articulated through the interior of HAL. Its interior has a series of red cells ordered in lines according to function with a series of white lights ordering controlling and overseeing in a visual articulation of human society. This deepens the viewers kaleidecopic journey into the deepening panic of the crew as they read into the utilitarian HAL’s overarching power.

Moreover, the high speed lights of the Stargate which symbolises the draining of colour as the screen fades to black reflect Bowman’s surprise as he is able to process information at speeds only previously thought available to supercomputers such as HAL. As Bowman makes this final journey it raises issues of consciousness and intellect in a way that does not require words but conveys its message with the precision of the colours used. The sense of a dwarfed intellect is seen again in the flashes of red and yellow exploding and expanding in a way that diminishes the size of bowman’s intellectual capacity. This contrasts with a later seen where Bowman wakes up in an earthy brown bed surrounded by green. He is awoken as an illuminated baby free of technological restraints and free to be truly enlightened without it’s aid. The vibrancy of the colour red at several points in the film mean that using a critical eye, whether consciously or subconsciously the audience is able to perceive the clever use of symbolism. The dawn of man sequence uses a series of red hues and several of the ship’s cockpits are lit exclusively by red light. This comes to represent the dawning of a new level of intelligence in man’s history. It is a red button that is used to disable HAL in the end after all.

More symbolism is used in the film to convey its message. When Frank Poole calls his parents at home the wall behind them is split in half between white and red to contrast the light of innocence at home set against the dawn of great knowledge as discussed earlier. The white looks ugly and pure at the same time when contrasted to the hue of the parents faces so as to convey a message that the dialogue ignores. We grow closer  as an audience as the bright and brilliant colour design is presented to us. The stark minimalist contrast of the white on black used in many of the shots give a sense of an individual against the universe alone in space even more. Overall the colour scheme used in this film is expertly crafted to inconspicuously deliver the film’s core messages and themes so as to pull a way from excessive exposition in such a way that builds atmosphere and tone.

Slick action, wide angles, stunning violence and badass one liners come together to embody the latest Keanu Reeves action franchise Joh Wick.  Unlike the previous films this one focuses on action spectacle and the colours rarely seek to function in any other manner. The deep blue used in the car workshop represents John Legiuqimo’s fast talking hispanic aggressiveness as well as the slick cars included in the set design so that the lines appear more punchy. This is carried through with a sadder blue colour scheme in many of the night time driving scenes to elicit sympathy with the main character and again in the final punch out in the rain for the added spectacle and dramatic action. Contrast this against the brown used to paint the image of the sobered and enraged John Wick colour is used to highlight his confrontation with the mourning that drives him.

Undoubtedly the night club gunfight is a central tool in the film’s belt as the bright white nozzle flashes of John Wick’s guns set against the vibrant red and blue shone on his agile form come together to give the scene adrenaline and energy. Made possible by wide shots and fully visible action the viewer feels an attachment to and appreciation if the marksmanship of John Wick as he battles his way through red shirts. The film as a whole has few large action set pieces but none of them revolve on incredible feats of human endurance or massive explosions with buildings collapsing. Instead the director executes expertly a colour palette that sends the film into a craze of beautiful colours and impeccable character colour grading.

As we have seen in most of the examples the colour grading in this film is used to convey strong messages in the film’s story. For example, during Wick’s torture he is seen in a warehouse flooded by sickly yellow light with a strong level of contrast which underlines his rage and disgust at the Russian mob while seamlessly conveying the ruthless arrogance of the head mobster. The fight scene that ensues has an added layer of atmosphere as the contrast comes into play and the silhouettes of the figures was their long shadows through the thick dusty yellow light. Each character seems to have a colour associated with him. The wealthy and bear like mob boss is surrounded by deep oak browns to give him a calculating vibe. His son is surrounded by indulgent and sickly purples to show his ignorance and overindulgence. Adrianne Palicki’s assassin character is depicted as cunning and ruthless with shades and tones of green akin to a snake. Colour builds character in John Wick.

Despite not being a film Utopia is a fantastic depiction of a confident assertion of colour in the visual medium. The bright colours of the scenery, clothes and objects reassert the core message of the TV miniseries in a surprisingly accurate way. The bright and primary colours used in this series appears artificial and appears to lack a depth to in it. This follows the train of thought posited by the series would a controlled virus that kills off a controlled selection world’s population be moral. The use of clean characters indicate the logical truth that less humans would result in less overpopulation and damage to the ecosystem as well as resources arguably being more beneficial than passivity. The sickly simplicity of these colours represents the internal struggle with this ideal and seeks to annoy and prod at the viewers brain as they experience the conflict of this dilemma. The enhanced colours used to highlight food, clothing and protagonists feel uncomfortable and unnatural in their place and this emphasises the moral struggle of the core characters.

More than this however, the series highlights the arguments clearly and intelligently so as to create a coherent debate. The white marble of the company seeking to spread the virus appears comforting and well balanced, well prepared and intimidating, imposing and welcoming all at once to support this image. The black and brown with heavy contrasts and low depth in the MPs office reflect the underhand dealings and secrecy of those attempting to undermine the virus organisation. Although this colour grading attempts to improve the message it also appears random and scattered in a way that reflects the hysteria of the show as a reflection of the idea’s taboo nature.

Quirkiness is definitely one of the show’s strongpoints. Emphasis on the backhanded comments of Wilson Wilson and his nervous disposition set against the blokeish Detective the humour shines through with the use of saturate colour and reduced warmth in a way that compliments the scripts use of humour and creepily direct dialogue. The juxtaposition of a dark subject matter with the bright colour scheme highlights the satirical nature of the show as humour is used to elevate what could be a dark subject. Lines such as ‘You’ve got a gun, why have you got a gun?!”It’s to shoot people’ is even funnier when the gun holder is wearing a bright orange leather jacket and the saturation is overhyped.

On a more technical level there are three main colour grading techniques known individually as primary colour grading, masks and motion tracking. The use of primary colour grading spreads across the whole frame controlling the primary colour channels to give the image a complete alteration. Secondary correction isolates part of the image to alter the hue and contrast without affecting the surrounding area. This is commonly used with faces on close ups so as to emphasise their focus and discretely change the aesthetic and where the eye moves. More and more digital enhancements are used for greater accuracy and detail. Unlike in a laboratory in the older days this new software allows colour saturation and hue to be pushed to the extreme. The result of this is a new era of cinematography in which the well respected painting techniques formerly used to bring colour to black and white frames has been outpaced by it’s younger sleeker competitor.

Secondly the use of masks in modern cinema mean that the use of geometric shapes can isolate a colour adjustment to a specific area of the scene as seen ion the flare seen in Mad Max. as seen in La La land the colour of a background wall or set can be altered with a level of precision unseen in the years before it. Increased accuracy can be pinned down to the use of spline based shapes which increase the level of accuracy This new digital filtration system can sharpen, soften or copy then photographic filters we have available to the infinite degree of precision.

Finally, and perhaps most impressively the isolation of colour to a moving object has made a wonderful addition to modern cinema cited in films such as Schindler’s list among others. Unlike the old days when a colourist would have to make alterations frame by frame motion tracking software is able to now automate this time consuming process using an algorithm to observe the movement of individual pixels.This draws several parallels with the technique known as match-moving used in special effects.

Overall colour grading has made an extraordinary difference to the filmmaking industry in a way many appreciate but don’t fully understand.



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