Making Films & Videos/More questions
QUESTION: Hey, it's Simon, the anti-colour grading crusader. Hope you don't mind me contacting you again. I received an email regarding my last question, about the IMAX format, which said that you were unable to provide an answer, but in that same email was attached a reply from you, which supplied the information I wanted to know. So thank you for that.
I have some more questions regarding colour in film, but focusing on the pre-colour grading era. My understanding of how films are coloured is limited, so bear with me. Is it correct that when a film is colour processed, the result is always identical to the colours the human eye would have seen on set/location that day? Of course I'm talking about films that have NOT been tampered with in terms of colour grading in the modern (mid 2000s to present) sense, with this nauseating teal/yellow/orange filter. So, in the absence of abnormal digital or photochemical grading, the colour of film is identical to what the human eye sees, correct? I ask this question because I refer to films that have not been colour graded as "normal looking" films, and I want to know if such a description is accurate. By "normal" I of course mean "corresponding to reality."
It aggravates me to no end when some people claim that movies have always been colour graded. This simply cannot be true, because movies of only a few decades ago looked, well, normal. They looked like what my eyes would see. I realise that many films from the late 30s to the late 60s had a very vibrant and sumptuous colour palette, being very rich and saturated (the Wizard of Oz, for instance), but this was photochemical grading and, while obviously not "normal" looking, was not offensive to the senses, whereas this contemporary teal/yellow/orange trend is. So, aside from that overtly sumptuous era, am I right that colour grading as we know it today was never a plague on the film industry?
ANSWER: Hi Simon,
I must have clicked the wrong response button on the last email saying I couldn't answer it. Sorry about that.
Color grading has always happened for color films. Real film captures images in a chemical medium that technicians have always looked over to help it look a certain way, whether that way is a "natural" or a color changed/enhanced one. It is a very complicated process with many people involved and various types of film stock. You would be shocked to see what developed, non-color corrected movie film actually looks like. Coloring film negative is actually considered a very crucial job in filmmaking and often the people who do it are considered artists.
With the advent of video, the look is supposed to be realistic to the human eye (depending on the camera settings, the sensor and of course the limitations of video). Color changes are made either in the camera while shooting or in editing.
To be a technical jerk, though, our eyes have such a wide range of colors that it can see, the truth is that film and video could never replicate what we see perfectly because of it's current limitations. But our minds are great at assuming things, including the "trueness" of a color. So to answer your question - yes, film have always gone through a color correcting type of process.
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QUESTION: Thanks for your reply. So it's a much more complex process than I originally thought. What I find interesting is the fact that my eyes have never been able to differentiate between "normal looking" films and what I see in real life, and yet you say the human eye can see a range of colours so wide that it can never be replicated 100% accurately in film. But I'm sure it can't be that important, as like I said, I never picked up on the difference. I certainly pick up on the difference with these awfully graded contemporary pictures. I know "Saving Private Ryan" from 1998 is one of the earliest examples of colour grading, but whether it was photochemical or digital, in-camera or in editing, I don't know. But that subdued palette used in the wartime flashbacks was used effectively to help tell the story, unlike movies today. From that same year we have "The Thin Red Line" and "The X Files Movie", two films with what I call "true to life" colour schemes. I was wondering, is there any way I could take my complaint higher? Perhaps by contacting the American Society of Cinematographers? I assume they're the ones I'd need to appeal to.
One other thing that I'd like to know about. I've heard that, when striking a print from a negative, and also when scanning a film for a digital intermediate, the original quality of the negative is always degraded to some extent. Is this true? And is it the negative itself that is degraded, or is it the print/intermediate that bears the degradation?
Thanks for your patience!
If you wanted to complain, I suppose the ASC would be fine, but remember that you are upset about an artistic choice by either Cinematographer or Director. It is similar to complaining that people use gift bags as opposed to wrapping paper. So feel free to share your thoughts with them, but don't expect to much to happen.
About film degradation, I am not perfectly sure, but a intermediate of film copy does loose quality because it is not an original but a copy. Copies are always a lesser version of the original. The original film can degrade because the physical process of copying film adds wear and tear to the negative. A digital intermediate will have a lover quality because it is a scan (for lack of a better word) of film and thus missing a certain level of detail and color. So for actual film, the the original negative can degrade due to physical abuse, the transfer film is a slight degradation because it is a copy, and a digital intermediate is a lesser version of the film original. Even shooting digital can degrade further down the line because of file conversions and file outputs.