November 8, 2013

Everything You Need to Know About Color in the Digital Age

Color is one of the most important and powerful visual tools through which filmmakers can convey ideas and emotion. Choices in the color palette begin with the production designer and the art department, continue through the work of the cinematographer, and end with the colorist. Through gaining an in-depth and holistic understanding of the process through which color is embedded in the films that we watch, we can begin to make the same informed color choices in our own films. Even though learning the ins and outs of color can be a life-long process, it doesn't have to be intimidating. John Hess of Filmmaker IQ has put together yet another excellent lesson, this time explaining the intricacies of color in the digital age.

There are so many different facets of color that often go unnoticed by first-time filmmakers, especially in terms of the pre-production and pre-visualization processes that experienced filmmakers use on every single project. Those types of choices are an in-depth world all their own. Then you start adding the technological aspects of how color is processed by modern digital cameras, and how those color processes affect the post production coloration of a film. When you start considering all of these different aspects, the process of making informed color choices on your film can seem quite a bit daunting.

Luckily for us, John Hess breaks down the process of creating a holistic approach to color in the digital age. Here's the video:

In the past several years, many filmmakers have become enamored with shooting their images with logarithmic curves -- or shooting them as flat as humanly possible -- so as to leave a good portion of the creative color work for the colorist. One of the great things about Hess's video is that he eschews that idea in favor of the traditional approach of using art direction and cinematography to convey the color palette.

This "traditional" approach to color has the potential to be so much more powerful than anything even the best of colorists could dream up because it allows conscious color choices, and the subtextual meanings that they represent, to be embedded into the images themselves in the most naturalistic way possible. Here are just a few examples from one of my favorite films of all time, Wim Wenders' immaculate American masterpiece, Paris, Texas.

The images above are a perfect example of how art direction/costume color choices, when combined with skillful cinematography and meaningful color grading, can take a film's color palette and turn it into a powerful statement about the characters and their emotional state. In the case of these images from Paris, Texas, the color red is used to stunning effect as a deeply and painfully nostalgic reminder of everything that Travis, the main character (in the top picture) has lost. It also suggests an "American Dream" that has gone terribly, terribly awry.

To his credit, this is how John Hess is trying to teach us to use color in our own productions, in spite of the fact that it can be so tempting and ludicrously easy to shoot with a flat log profile and make the majority of those decisions in post. As Hess suggests, however, the process of heavily incorporating color theory and a strong color palette into your art direction, when mixed with a camera that can shoot at higher color depth or even in RAW, will give you the best possible results and will make the color of your film as powerful and it can possibly be.

Be sure to read through the entirety of Hess's color lesson over at Filmmaker IQ, and be sure to check out all of their other great lessons while you're there. There's a lot to learn, and they hit it out of the park with each and every lesson.

What do you guys think? What are your individual approaches to color when it comes to digital filmmaking? Let us know in the comments!

Link: Introduction to Color in Digital Filmmaking -- Filmmaker IQ

Your Comment

26 Comments

Such a new concept for me because I tend to shoot fairly flat too and hope for the best in post. LOL The term "baked in" has become a negative thing wrt DSLR shooting so I tried to leave myself as many creative options to be done in editing as possible. This is a fresh look at giving me more options.

November 8, 2013 at 10:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dude, old school- red Dragon Epic is WORD!!!!

November 8, 2013 at 11:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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LOL

November 8, 2013 at 11:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Great article! Give us more stuff like this!!!

November 9, 2013 at 12:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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+1!

November 9, 2013 at 5:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gene

Everybody's different. I've found that I actually know what I'm going to like on set. If you're a one man band at the helm of your own show, log does not have to be the only solution all the time. This is why I hate the fact that 90 percent of everything sub $5k is 8-bit. If I can get it close on set, I still like to have more than 255 lame ass options in post per channel. I cannot WAIT until they wake up and just move on to 10-bit but manufacturers seem to be so stuck to the johnson of the 4k trend that they've overlooked the fact that unless they up the ante on color depth, it's just a really pristine high resolution image full of banding. Canon 1D-C anyone? ... Blows my mind.

November 9, 2013 at 1:58AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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xml

Have you actually shot/processed 1DC footage at all in your life? Try it and you'll think differently. Numbers are for scientists, we filmmaker deal with what our eyes see.

November 9, 2013 at 3:53AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anh Dang

Yes....yes I have. I shot a wide angle landscape with a sky in it. Guess what happened. I had a huge 4k image full of stairsteps in the gradients when brought it back. You filmmakers? (pretty condescending way of excluding somebody fella) I don't worry about numbers, until they pose an issue. Then it's hard to deny the benefit 1024 options has over 255 in post. I've been there since the 5D2 in 08 and I think 5 years later it's still a hinderance, so if a pocket cam for $1000 can put a 10 bit image on an sd card, let's just move on already.

November 9, 2013 at 9:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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XML

Yup.

The D-SLR was the gateway drug "we filmamkers" (to borrow that passive-agressively dismissive term Ahn Dang used) had to get into large sensor video/digital filmmaking... But I got out. RED and RAW now all the way. Goodbye stair steps. You aren't missed.

You're right..this is so much more important than resolution.

November 18, 2013 at 7:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Daniel Mimura

Among the great articles I see here regarding lighting and colour, one mystery to me where information seems very scarce is how make-up relates to colour and resolution. Perhaps make-up doesn't have the kudos of cinematography or grading but I understand it's quite vital. When HD came along I remember hearing that there would be all sorts of cost implications for TV due to make-up considerations. And is it different again for 4K ?

November 9, 2013 at 2:10AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Saied

That's a really good question. I'll do some digging into that and see what I can find.

November 9, 2013 at 2:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom
4507

I forgot where I read this (either Shane Hurlbut or David Mullen, most likely) but it's been said that doing a closeup of an older star - male or female - is a risky proposition because, once they see their own wrinkles in a shot, they won't be pleased. Thus the need for the various filters (or worse, Vaseline smears if you're pointing your camera at someone way older than 60).

November 10, 2013 at 11:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

With HD and even more with 4K, I saw cinematographers I worked with, use diffusion filters in front of the lens (Tiffen, Schneider... filters) more than they did on film, to break and soften the "digital look", especially on skin tones. But I think when there is a good dialogue between cinematographer and make-up department, there is no need for these diffusion filters. I read somewhere Roger Deakins never use diffusion in front of the lens, but prefers to diffuse his light and work with the make-up department for skin tones (and also a bit of grading in post I think).
In some ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lenses brochure, a french cinematographer (I'm not sure but I think it was Michel Abramowicz, AFC) said something like : "for beautiful skin tones the most important thing is the lens, then the camera, then the lighting and finally the make-up girl". I think this is too much importance given to cinematography because what I saw on set with my little experience of Camera assistant and DP on shorts, is that a bad make-up (or no make-up at all) can ruin your skin tones, whatever lens or camera you use.

November 9, 2013 at 5:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom

Probably best to have all four things working for you.

November 9, 2013 at 12:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Exactly. We must not forget cinema is a teamwork :-)

November 9, 2013 at 6:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom

Well Said!
I love using Glass in front of the lens and experimenting in camera as much as possible. But nothing beats a good make up team! Especially one trained in Film. I work too often with Photography Make up artists, who don't realize how hot, Continuous Lighting Sources can change make up over a few takes and not a few hours as with flash sources.
When a make up artist arrives on set and asks me what type of light sources I am using and their colour balance, I know I am in for a good day!

November 10, 2013 at 7:12AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Thanks Tom, and Robert. If I were making, say, a low budget spaghetti Western, my make-up would consist of "Hey guys, don't bother shaving for a few days" but I guessed there is more to it than that. An interesting area, thanks again.

November 9, 2013 at 1:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Saied

They used Hollywood Blackmagic filters to back off sharpness of F65 on After Earth for the whole movie. Say what you want about the movie, but at least it looks dope.

November 12, 2013 at 11:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Natt

At this level of resolution it's critical that the makeup AND the lighting is good. As the ability of our cameras to resolve images increases then we'll be needing to use our eyes (and not the monitors) more. That takes a very basic understanding of how color in light and color in pigment interact. All that we talk about here is very sexy to us; the gear and techniques to make great images happen with our tools. But it is the very fundamental interaction of light, pigment, and value (as painters and sculptors would say) that is the foundation that your high tech camera, massive bandwidth pipeline, and master color grading skills will take to new visual heights!

These mysteries may be uncovered from years of study in art school. Or you could take your theatrical lighting designer friend out for some beers to discuss...

November 14, 2013 at 11:33PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Barry Steele

Thanks!

November 9, 2013 at 4:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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nate

I think John oversaturated the red on/in his flowers. The hat and the model's lips look fine.

November 9, 2013 at 4:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

This has made me even more curious to see footage from the BM 4K. I am sure BM is doing the best they can to get it done.

November 9, 2013 at 5:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gene

Lots of first time filmmakers do tend to look over Production Design, Art Design, and Costume Colours and textures to fit into the color combinations of their palette and what it should represent in their image/tone/feel. I just shot a music video for the first time with a Zeiss Master Prime and the control over color was remarkable vs. using normal photo lenses. The shoot was the best thing I have ever shot but mostly because I prepped every colour palette with the environment, wardrobe, lighting, and the colour schemes I wanted which really saves me a lot of time in Post and even completing grading in RedCine if I choose. I also used a 5D Mark II for the shoot and honestly it is some of the cleanest 5D footage I have seen in quite some time, but it definitely has to do with the preconceived colour palettes that I put together for the scene that really made it stand out vs. trying to make something look cool in post.

November 9, 2013 at 6:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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That video was sponsored by Blackmagic and Ikan? You don't say...

November 11, 2013 at 3:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Nick

One problem that I have with manufacturers is that they never really tell you how their sensors resolution is in terms of color.

If you have a sensor that has 1920x1080 pixels with some being red some being blue and some being green, you don't get a true 1920x1080 resolution image. What you get is interpolated and there is an overall loss in spacial resolution. However, if it has much more than 1920x1080 and it sub-samples it to produce the final image, then resolution is preserved.

With most DSLR's, are they using the whole chip's resolution and then downsampling? If so, they would be giving a true 1920x1080 resolution. If they are only using some of the pixels and have less than that total of red, green and blue, then they are not.

It's hard to get a solid answer on this.

For this reason, I still only really trust 3 ccd camcorders. Which, unfortunately, is limiting.

November 13, 2013 at 1:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I think far too much time and money can be wasted on the so called fine art of 'colour grading'.....please bear in mind that 8.5% of the intended audience [595 million people worldwide] have colour vision deficiency, who simply will not see what the colourist intended; in fact it may have made matters worse for them by the introduction of subtle tones etc. which simply degrades the image and perceived contrast.....and of course subjectively, it may be disliked by those having good colour vision........so I can understand the enduring charm and beauty of well shot black & white film, which is viewed nearly equally by all, and as the cinematographer intended.

November 16, 2013 at 8:18AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Sonic Fields