The 'Why Do Marvel's Movies Look Kind of Ugly?' Video is Flat Wrong—Here's Why
This video essay makes some controversial claims about the color grading of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we set the record straight.
At the end of Patrick (H) Willems' video below, he invites users to respond if they think he's being too much of a nitpicky nerd. That's not the problem with the video, though; it's that he's not being nerdy enough, completely missing major points about color grading and even contradicting himself in the video.
Before the flaws, though, it is exciting (for nerds like me) to see any discussion of color grading in the larger public conversation, especially one that acknowledges how much subjective decision making comes into play. This video clearly comes from a place of love for the subject matter and a desire to see the execution of a project improved. That's great. Unfortunately, the creator gets basically everything else possible to get wrong about color wrong in this case.
Color is an image isn't just up to the colorist, it's a complex result of decisions made all the way back to the script stage.
First off, one of the huge flaws with this video is the claim that color grading started in the year 2001 with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. While that is a beautifully graded movie that brought a lot of attention to digital color grading, it's by no means the invention of the practice. The Cell (2000) and Pleasantville (1998) both had extensive digital image manipulation that could be considered color grading. Commercials and music videos had been digitally manipulating color for decades. And analogue manipulation of color in cinema goes back to the beginning of the art. The opening sequence of Contempt (1963) shows two lovers in bed, and dramatically changes colors in the middle of the sequence, among countless other examples of manipulating color.
Secondly, Willems misunderstands the power of color grading within the overall image creation chain. For instance, when discussing the still above, the video makers says "it just looks like mushy concrete." Which, well, it is. Concrete. It's an airport. A silver one. The production designer, director, and location scout had as much to do with that image looking the way it does as the colorist. Even if it was a CGI scene, the VFX artist choosing a dull white airport versus a vibrant airport (Denver, against the mountains, or Incheon with its glass reflecting a beautiful blue sky) is as much a part of the image creation as the grade is. There's not a lot of color there to pop, which is why it isn't surprising that later in the video, when doing "test scenes" to show your proposed grade, you don't use this scene. Because popping the saturation and crunching the blacks here won't make nearly the dramatic transition it does to most shots. Color is an image isn't just up to the colorist, it's a complex result of decisions made all the way back to the script stage (choosing to write the scene at an airport, say, and not in the middle of a paint factory).
Additionally, Willems goes back and forth on whether it's the cameras fault. He traces the change to when Marvel went Alexa, and suggests that the Red Helium could be a solution or going back to film might fix it. He also references other Alexa shot productions that look fantastic by his subjective standards, with deep rich blacks. The Alexa is perfectly capable of achieving a solid crunch; for proof, just watch any of the recent films of Nicholas Winding Refn, who uses the Alexa frequently.
Also, even film can be flat and low contrast, as a rewatch of Lost in Translation (2003) clearly display. Cameras are tools for achieving an end, and while they set boundaries on what can be achieved (your iPhone probably can't create footage as beautiful as the Alexa 65 footage of The Revenant), there is still a tremendous amount of room to manipulate an image within that space, and it's your creative goal that matters more than the tool you use to achieve it.
The same way fashion changes with time, image aesthetics have trends and movements in time.
The author seems to have missed the concept of taste changing through time. The same way fashion changes with time, image aesthetics have trends and movements in time. A '70s movie tends to be a little warmer and a little flatter than we would shoot today. Color movies from the '50s tend to be much more saturated than they would be today. '80s movies are a hair pastel. These aesthetic trends are always the collision of many elements, with technology meeting personality (the Techniolor company, and Natalie Kalmus in particular, insisted on saturated colors as marketing for Technicolor, for instance), meeting nostalgia, meeting randomness and the preferences of crowds.
Somewhere around 2010, things started to get "flat." Everywhere. This wasn't happening just in Marvel movies and music videos, but fashion editorial spreads, car ads, almost everywhere that you saw commercial images. Maybe it was driven by Instagram, or maybe Instagram was a response to it, but tastes changed. Marvel's imagery changed along with it. Not everybody goes with the trend (Refn, among many others, has different goals), but it's not surprising to see color grading for a major, mass-appeal movie series to reflect the current taste in grading.
An argument is made that most music videos look the same because the filmmakers don't want to take the time to fix them—to overcome the mental bias of how flat the dailies look—but to say that everyone leaves Alexa "flat" just because it's easier is unreasonable; this video itself proves that literally five seconds of tweaks can add more "crunch" and "pop" to an image. Is every single music video director, DP, and colorist too unsophisticated, or too lazy, to do that? The simpler explanation is that it's just what "now" looks like. It's a look that, when we look back at these movies from 2050 will make it seem very millennial, the same way that when we watch a 70s movie with too much diffusion we can immediately identify when it was made.
Especially disappointing is that this discussion of color specifically mentions that all the Marvel films are graded by the same person, but leaves out anything about who that person is. That colorist is Steven J. Scott, longtime eFilm colorist who made the move to Technicolor in 2012. Mr. Scott worked on Iron Man 1, 2 and 3, handling the digital transition for the franchise, and has a deep handle on navigating complex, VFX-heavy workflows. In the capable hands of that colorist, working with the same Alexa camera platform (though the larger sensor variant), the rich, poppy cinematography of The Revenant was created. If the directors, DPs, and studio big wig Kevin Feige wanted, they could easily have rich blacks. They've chosen not to. You can totally disagree with that choice, but don't put the blame where it doesn't belong—on the cameras, or a lack of technical sophistication on the part of any member of the crew.
You can totally disagree with that choice, but don't put the blame where it doesn't belong.
One interesting trend, that I suspect we'll see more of, is fan grades of movies. If fans are willing to take the time to recut the prequel trilogy of Star Wars, I suspect more and more fans will take the time to regrade their favorite films closer to how they want them to look; in fact, there is already a fan grade of Superman. But having a different decision about what a film should look like than the studio or director doesn't make the studio wrong. Yes, the argument could be made that comic books have inkers, which create rich blacks that should be emulated in the films, but that argument feels weak.
Even if you can point to the source material as a reason for a particularly aesthetic choice, that doesn't immediately say you have to match the source look in an adaptation, since even the most faithful adaptations will inevitably change something to accommodate for the needs of different media. Films are different from comics; if nothing else there is no inker. While some directors will want to mimic that aspect of comics, others will focus on different visual cues, as Ang Lee did with his (wildly unpopular) use of split screens in his version of The Hulk. Mimicking comics in film simply doesn't always work.
Mr. Willems, you seem like a nice guy, and you care about color grading, but we hope you use this as a chance to become an even bigger, nitpickier nerd in the future.