Making Films & Videos/Colour grading
QUESTION: Hello there, my name is Simon and I'm from the UK. I wanted to ask some questions about the nauseating trend that has gripped Hollywood by the throat since the mid 2000s. Of course I'm talking about the practice of reducing the colour palette of every movie to the dual tones of teal and orange/yellow. For years I felt that movies had become dull, lifeless and depressing, and yet I couldn't determine the cause. All I knew was that it had something to do with the way the movies looked visually. Now that I've determined the problem, I now wish to understand how the rot set in to begin with. Do you where this awful trend came from, and why it persists so? I know it didn't become an issue until the digital intermediate stage came about. Is there anything we can do to restore normality and sanity to the industry?
Thanks for your help!
ANSWER: Hi Simon,
It has become a function of visual storytelling to use warm, cool or green looks -- and it is everywhere!
A cool look is bluish and used for typically negative feelings as well as nighttime, wetness and cold. Ice is clear, not blue, and moonlight is yellow, not blue, but someone, somewhere started using it in movies, and it stuck. A warm look is yellowish and is used to represent more positive things as well as heat and dryness. This corresponds with the yellow of sun or the red of fire (we feel cozy around a fire, don't we?). Green denotes physical or mental sickness, hospital settings and drug situations. I must apologize for explaining it to you because now you will notice it even more!
The use of color is to create subconscious feelings in the viewer much the way that music does. It can be better to show a little girl being tucked into bed with a warm (yellow) look to show she is safe rather than having the actor say, "I feel safe right now." And then later, when the monster is in the house, having a cool look tends to add to the fear without them saying, "I'm so afraid," but having it be normal color.
Unfortunately for you, it is now a strongly established film convention that shows little sign of fading away. Personally I use and teach students how to use these looks (sorry), but I am not an extremist, I prefer subtle use of color for mood just like subtle music works better for mood, too.
So I hope that helps you understand your pet peeve, my friend. My pet peeve is... the jump scare. Have a good one.
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QUESTION: Thanks for responding. Well, I have to say it all sounds like bad science to me. I have some knowledge of the importance of aesthetic cues. In biology and evolutionary psychology, for instance, we learn that certain facial features evoke tender responses, and harsh features make you feel intimidated. This colour coding practice, however, strikes me as not only grossly incorrect, but downright insulting. It assumes the audience is too stupid to understand when to feel a certain emotion, and is obviously being used by directors to compensate for poor acting and bad scripts. What's more, the intended effect this colour grading is supposed to have backfires; bathing the actors in a sickly yellow/orange glow doesn't make me feel cosy. It makes me feel ill, precisely because it is so unnatural to my senses. And I see teal in EVERY scene where there's shadowing or darkness. It's truly depressing and it obliterates any suspension of disbelief I had. For example, I enjoyed the first two Harry Potter films, but all the subsequent movies felt lacklustre to me. Only years later did I determine the reason: depressing colour grading that sapped all life out of the picture. I look at the vivid and sumptuous natural colour palettes of films of yesteryear, and I feel the loss heavily. And as if that's not bad enough, now they are violating some of our most treasured classics. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Aliens were released on Blu-ray and had been re-graded to match the current nauseating aesthetic. Raiders was a giant yellow mess, and Aliens, being a primarily dark and shadowy film, was nothing but teal. The only thing that disturbs me more than this trend itself is the fact that nobody is protesting against it, or if they are, nobody is doing anything about it. I feel like the last sane person on earth in this regard, and that's an intimidating situation to be in. I have been forced to boycott Hollywood and refuse to see any new productions. I have not been to my local cinema for nearly ten years now.
Bottom line is, it doesn't work. All the films I've had the most emotional response to were not colour graded in any way. So what can be done about this insanity? Is there any way to hold Hollywood and the industry accountable, any way to make them listen and change accordingly?
I do love your passion! I would have to say that the color grading is not a crime (to most) but an overused style that the director, producer or studio executive wants. As a silly example, it would be like complaining that painters stop using cubism or pointillism as a style because it is not natural. There is no recourse except contacting them personally, but I imagine that would be fruitless.
I am truly disturbed to hear that they color graded Indy and Aliens. I can accept the fact if it is a part of the original, but to alter a classic is shameful, especially if you have no other option but to buy the redone version. It is ridiculous and infuriating.
I do remember seeing "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" in the movie theatre and the whole movie was so obscenely deep blue that I almost couldn't watch it. When the DVD came out, I was pleased to see that they greatly reduced the amount of blue that they had used in the theatrical version. That is the only time I have experienced a change in color grading.