Often the work of a colorist — like that of an editor, a composer or a sound designer — is most profound when it is invisible to the common viewer.
Yet for that reason, color grading and digital intermediate are often overlooked, though they can be essential for storytelling.
Technicolor’s VP of imaging research and development, Josh Pines, points to Patti Bellantoni’s 2005 book “If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die” as a vital study of the ways tiny variations on color can play with audience expectations, functioning either as foreshadowing or misdirection.
“I don’t believe in numerology, but we are wired to have certain associations and find certain symbolism in things like numbers,” says Pines.
“It has an impact on the subconscious. It’s the same thing with color. I don’t sit down and say, ‘Oh, this color represents death, and this color represents…,’ but being aware that these choices will have an emotional impact is important.”
Rob Legato, an Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor, says color-correction and grading “means a ton to the quality of the movie.”
“You look at ‘The Godfather,’ and if you were to make it brighter so you could see the actors’ faces better, it would take you out of that mood. The same piece of footage, you can make it be brilliant or you can make it be mundane.”
With digital intermediate (which applies Photoshop-like tools to moving pictures) filmmakers have the abilities to go beyond simple color and brightness tweaks.
For example, both Legato and Pines pulled off a rather high-level experiment with Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” using DI to mimic a progression from the pastel tones of the two-strip Technicolor process for Jazz Age scenes to the saturated look of three-strip Technicolor for 1930s scenes and finally to a more “modern” color palette as the film moved forward in time. On Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” Pines says, DI was used to give the movie a look reminiscent of the Hammer horror films of the 1960s.
Pines isn’t convinced that most filmmakers have exploited the storytelling capabilities of DI.
“I have to say, (after ‘The Aviator’) I was thinking ‘every project’s going to be like this’ I’m a little disappointed.”