Making movies is like running an Olympic marathon. There are many hurdles to cross until the finish line, and one of the final ones is mastering the color. Today I’m at the post house color correcting (or color grading, as some call it) a feature I’d edited. As with everything else in the film industry…and the world in general… the digital revolution has greatly altered this stage of the process. It is further influenced by the fact that this is a documentary rather than narrative fiction. Consequently, the film is comprised of multiple formats, from 8mm to 35mm motion picture film to HDCAM and Pro Res 422 high def footage to still photographs, both digital and film.
In the case of narrative fiction the film is usually shot on one format – though in these days of highly available high definition cameras cinematographers sometimes mix Red camera footage with Canon 5D with Sony Cine Alta cameras and so on. Currently, when color correcting it is essential that all the picture elements are of the same format. But how can this be achieved. All the shots must be media managed which means recreating them to form new media, usually in the Pro Res 422 (HQ) format. Where in other times, those old school olden days, one would appear at an online session with a box of tapes, today much of the process can be handled from home or wherever the editing room resides. In previous years the operator would load the tapes, one at a time, into a deck and the machine would slowly re-compile the sequence by selecting the necessary shots from each tape. After the whole movie was relaid it was then color corrected, transferring the images onto a fresh tape.
Today the images reside on hard drives, so they’re instantly available, but they often need to go through the media managing process. Rather than taking the film to a post house and paying the expensive hourly rates, the editor can perform this function him- or herself. That’s what’s been keeping me up late and away from writing this past week. In this way the process involves more give and take on the part of the post house and the filmmakers. The film’s editor compiles the movie through media managing the footage, as well asbaking in various shots that can’t be media managed such as certain effects like reverse action. The baking-in sounds tasty but it really only means that the editor must select out individual shots for special treatment, process them and cut them back in with the rest of the material. This can be a really time consuming process but it’s worth it.
This morning the colorist arrived with his stash of black, caffeine rich tea and his vitamin D pills – “too much time in the dark,” he explains. He’s used to working for long hours in completely dark rooms in front of multiple computer and TV monitors. Shots which might originally appear milky or too dark suddenly sparkle in the hands of this skilled colorist. Flesh tones come to life. And colors seem to glow. All this technology is designed to help reinforce the most important thing, creating character and tone. The quality of light and color has an impressive effect on how an audience feels about the movie they’re seeing. Imagine a bland sunset in a romance or a brightly lit alley in a horror film. “Should I leave this a little blue?” asks the colorist as he observes a crowd scene where everyone is dressed in heavy coats with steam escaping from their lips. Yes, it’s not just a technical job but one that, like most professions in the film business, connects to the story that is told. Onward toward the finish line.