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Filmmaking industry embraces new digital coloring technique

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2003

HOLLYWOOD -- Scene: A king laments his dead son to a friendly wizard amid a mountainous landscape. The editing, the acting, the photography were fine as far as they went, thought the filmmakers who scrutinized "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" on a computer monitor in a darkened post-production house. But the director and the cinematographer wanted more -- more despair, more hope, more Middle-earth otherworldliness.

Almost instantly, digital colorist Peter Doyle provided more. By playing with knobs and a mouse, he turned the foreground figures dark green-blue, the background a warm gold, and the flowers -- mythical blooms that grow for the first time on graves of the king's family -- a bright, sparkling white. In fact, almost every color in every frame of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was manipulated to lead the eye, enhance the story or create moods in much the same way that soundtracks do. "We thought we could take it further than what art direction and sets could do," Doyle says.

Using color to help tell a story is nothing new, but this tool, called digital intermediate, a process that converts film to digital and back again, is. "Only in the last year or two have we been able to sit down and say, 'That green, please make it more gold,'" Doyle says. "Those shadows, let's lift them up. Let's put a glow on her face. The sky, it's too glary; let's make it more blue."

In 2001, three films used the process. In 2003 there will be about 40, among them Warner Bros.' "Gods and Generals," Disney's "Open Range," Sony's "S.W.A.T." and Miramax's "Hero."

New technologies have a powerful influence on the artistic process in film, perhaps more than on most other creative endeavors. "Not only does technology drive the movies, in the last 10 years as the computer has come alive, it's taken over," says Bruce Block, author of "The Visual Story," a book describing visual components in movies and television. "You could not have a movie like 'The Matrix' 30 years ago. In computer animation, the changes have been huge. Technology has changed the way we use color, no doubt."

As feature film's newest tool, digital color is turning directors and cinematographers into enthusiastic painters eager to explain their personal philosophies about, say, green as a thief, red as a spice, blue-green as the nature of loneliness in inner-city Detroit.

Christopher Doyle, an Australian cinematographer who has worked in Hong Kong for 20 years, says his most recent film, "Hero," a "Rashomon"-type story directed by Zhang Yimou, is told from different viewpoints with corresponding colors. "Blue in the movie is poetry, space and the fidelity of a man for his love. Red is intrigue and salacious."

Chinese culture has its own meaning for various colors, Doyle says. But locations also inspired the filmmakers' choices. "That's very Asian to my mind: to find the essence of a space or color or scene, rather than impose in the Western way," he says.

Color has been "dumbed down in contemporary America," says Todd Haynes, writer and director of "Far From Heaven." "Sometimes an entire period film will be all golden honey-colored, as if it's the only way we can conceive of looking into the past. Suspense thrillers are all steely blue."

Richard Crudo, president of the American Cinematographers Society, says the new technology, like any new toy, is in danger of overkill. "The rise of digital intermediate makes it easier to do exactly what you see in your head," he says. "For a time, we'll see radical extremes. If too much is not enough, they will go further than that."

But cinematographers say photochemical processing has run its course and that they need new digital tools to communicate with a visually sophisticated audience raised on computers and MTV. "They've been educated far beyond the constraints of traditional color theory and film 101," says "Hero's" Doyle. "They raised our bar. We have to raise the bar stool."

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel says digital intermediate provided "a more complicated attack of color for emotional storytelling" when he and director George Clooney colored "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" completely through the process. The film uses a different color palette for each life phase of game-show host and self-described CIA assassin Chuck Barris.

"In the early parts of his life, we wanted to create a feeling -- not what color was in the 1940s and '50s, but what the memories are of it. Faded, pastel or hand-tinted. In his time with the CIA, we wanted to do an homage to film noir, but with a kind of modern '70s twist. We drained out a lot of the color, leaving certain vibrant reds and flesh tones.

"All of Chuck's life on one level or another deals with fantasy and illusion. Every aspect of his life, from our filmmaking point of view, was depicted visually with a certain element of fancy."

Some directors prefer a monochromatic look as more elegant (Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"). Some shoot in color and transfer to black and white for the subtle changes in tone (the Coens' "The Man Who Wasn't There"). Most mainstream filmmakers, however, don't even bother with palettes and production plans for color, Crudo says. But director Haynes, who studied fine arts at Brown University, spent weeks in pre-production with production designer Mark Friedman, a fellow Brown art student, looking at stills from Douglas Sirk movies, selecting color swatches for each scene. "We were color-mad," Haynes says.

"This was a movie about tension," Friedman says, "what's not said, what can't be expressed in a contained, controlled world." Blended or contrasting warm and cool colors were used to create visual tension and thus symbolize the emotional complexity of the characters.

The brilliant oranges, reds and yellows of a deliberately Hollywoodized version of fall were meant to scream out the feelings the characters couldn't express; contrasting lavenders and neon greens inside a gay bar were intended to describe the customers' inner tensions. "Even when the mood is generally sad, there's always ambivalence and complexity to those feelings," Haynes says.

While Anderson's and Haynes' colors grab you by the throat, writer-director Rebecca Miller aimed for subtlety in "Personal Velocity," a small triptych of three women's stories, shot in digital. Also a painter, Miller calls color "one of the great joys of communication. It's a very important part of the way I communicate as a filmmaker. It irritates me when those choices are too on the surface."

The segment about Delia, a spunky waitress who leaves her abusive husband, is earth-colored to suggest timelessness, Miller says. Greta, a New York intellectual, lives in an apartment of blue walls with fabrics of blue color blocks to show how cool and compartmentalized her feelings are. The intense and unmoored Paula looks like a color photocopy with dark, rich blacks.

Digital technology has "liberated" color as a creative tool for production designers and photographers, says one of the youngest new cinematographers, Rodrigo Prieto ("Frida," "8 Mile," "25th Hour"). "You can now play with color saturation, contrast and secondary colors as well as selecting a specific color within the frame," he says. "On 'Frida,' we divided the color treatment according to what was linear reality and Frida's subjective world as well as her trips outside Mexico. Colors in Mexico are very vibrant and bold. We contrasted this with Frida's trips to the U.S. and Paris. New York was represented in cooler, more metallic tones, and Paris in sepia, emulating the postcards that Frida sends Diego from that city.

"On '8 Mile,' I was trying for the loneliness and desperation I felt in much of the youth in downtown Detroit. We felt a blue-green hue would represent this. We wanted to be grounded in reality but make the audience feel uneasy for most of the film."

For "25th Hour," set in post-Sept. 11 New York, he drained out the colors to make it feel as though the city were still covered in ashes.

Filmmakers feel sure that color has a powerful effect on an audience, but each seems to have a different idea of what, if anything, colors actually mean.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ("Apocalypse Now," "Dick Tracy") has been teased by colleagues for his complicated theory in which colors have literal meanings. Although audiences noticed the vibrant colors in "Dick Tracy," few were aware of their purpose. "Each color has a specific wavelength of energy, which we perceive the same way that we feel vibrations," Storaro told American Cinematographer in 1998. "Even if they aren't consciously aware of it, the audience can feel a difference between high and low wavelengths of energy. They are reacting to that feeling in addition to what they see on the screen."

Author Block says colors have no inherent meaning. They can mean whatever a director says they mean. If, for instance, a murder is always shot in blue light, the audience will subconsciously expect a murder whenever the same blue light is shown.

Color psychology in films is still an inexact science, says cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"). "To say that warm colors are comfortable and cold colors are depressing is a very primitive way to do it. The difference between blue and green, I don't think anyone could tell."

As filmmakers push the uses of color, Block says, they needn't worry about alienating audiences. "They can go a long way with color before an audience will find it intrusive," he says. Francis Ford Coppola's "Rumble Fish" was filmed in black and white with about 15 shots at the end in color. Engrossed in the story, many people, he says, were unaware the movie had switched to color.

Still, "Lord of the Rings" digital colorist Doyle says most colorists are struggling to find the balance between helping the story and getting in its way. The main issue, he says, is knowing how far to take the creative process. In his case, he says it was difficult to stop. "You're with the film until the very last print gets pushed out of the door of the film lab. It's hard to let go."

Shading the story: how it's done


Digital intermediate is a computer process, first used by filmmakers in 1998's "Pleasantville," that combines the benefits of shooting on film with the creative control of a color-manipulating program.

  • The process: Basically, the 35-mm film is converted to digital files through a scanning box, manipulated through the computer, then recorded back to film. Filmmakers can digitize and recolor certain takes or entire films just weeks before a movie's release.

  • The colorist: A "digital colorist" has the full range of primary and secondary colors to change, say, the mood of the sky or the color of a character's lipstick. The colorist can also control contrast, sharpness and grain.

  • The effects: The colorist can affect an actor's performance by deepening or lightening the shadows on, or adding sparkle to, his eyes. Colors on an actor's face can lead the viewer's eye to or away from the speaker.

  • The costs: Digitally mastering an entire film can add as much as $500,000 to the cost of a movie. It also takes more time than traditional means. Both cost and time are projected to become less burdensome in the future, making the process more popular.

  • The business: Los Angeles is the U.S. hub of an evolving industry with three major post-production facilities that do digital intermediate: Cinesite, Efilm and Technique.

  • The future: As quality, cost and time issues are resolved in the next few years, digital intermediate will "just be the default way we do things," says Richard Crudo, president of the American Cinematographers Society. "It will lead to richer, more personally customized images."

    -- Los Angeles Times

    Where the technique has been used


    The first film to use digital intermediate was Gary Ross' 1998 "Pleasantville," in which color slowly was introduced into a black-and-white scheme to show how the cardboard characters in a television show changed when they began to have feelings. The first major studio release to be 100 percent colored through digital intermediate was the Coen brothers' 2000 film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Its dusty yellow tones set the stage for the 1930s story of dim-bulb convicts on the lam.

    Whereas color often has been a quiet guest in movies, it now announces itself with a grand entrance. In recent films such as "Far From Heaven" or "Catch Me If You Can" -- films that were finished traditionally without using digital intermediate -- color is a major player, loud, self-conscious and nervy. In movies such as "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Auto Focus," colors are muted, drained or pumped up to drive home themes. In films including "Frida" and "Punch-Drunk Love," they are vibrant and expressive.

    -- Los Angeles Times

    Advancing the story


    Cinematographers are well aware that color alone won't sell movies. Their primary role is to help the director tell a story. While script and story remain the most powerful elements in a film, sound and color provide the major supports, says Bruce Block, author of "The Visual Story." "Color brings it home," he says. "It's there to support the story. When it does that, it can knock the ball out of the park."

    In "Punch-Drunk Love," director Paul Thomas Anderson borrowed the startling blue suit (worn by Adam Sandler) and a monochromatic background from French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's movie "A Woman Is a Woman." Sandler and Emily Watson stand out in their blue and red outfits, respectively, against L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, depicted in grays and whites. The narrative was interrupted three times for digital displays of colorful stripes, created by artist Jeremy Blake.

    The abstract patterns are meant to track Sandler's state of mind as social misfit Barry Egan, film editor Leslie Jones says. "It starts out with his discovery of something new in his life that will change his life. The second one reflects the challenge he's got to face to protect that love. The third is a triumph of keeping what he's found." If there is a meaning to Sandler's royal blue coat, she said she doesn't know it. "It doesn't always go that deep. It was funny. He wore it throughout the whole movie."

    -- Los Angeles Times

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