Mis à jour le 8 June 2022.
You have probably noticed that an increasing number of movies have a dull or desaturated color palette. This is a shame, because every new generation of 4K UHD TVs and 4K projectors covers a wider color space! An article from Vox addressed the matter last January. Its author, Emily St. James, evoked several explanations for this standardization of the colorimetry of Hollywood blockbusters.
Explanation n°1: digital color grading
Movies take multiple weeks or months to film. During the editing stage, the footage that is assembled may have been shot over multiple days. The light might be different, affecting the decor (leaves on the trees, sky…) with hues that don’t match across the various scenes. It is then necessary to synchronize the colors.
Before digital productions, color timing or correction was done using chemicals that were applied to the film negatives in a lab. Filmmakers soon used this technique to give a particular mood to certain scenes in order to heighten the audience’s emotions.
In the late 1990s, the ability to scan film negatives made it even easier to manipulate the characteristics of the image. The first movie to be scanned for this kind of manipulation was Pleasantville (1998). In this movie, two teens from the 90s are sucked into the black and white world of a 50s sitcom. The entire film was shot in color, then digitally converted to black and white, with a handful of elements that remain in color for various effects.
The first film to use digital color manipulation to match a digitally produced color palette was the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The Coen brothers wanted to achieve a sepia yellow palette even though the film was going to be shot in Mississippi during the summer, with lush greenery. Cinematographer Roger Deakins first thought of applying physical filters to the lens. He finally turned to Cinesite, the same company that had just broken new ground with its work on the movie Pleasantville.
In 2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet was the first French director to use digital color grading with the movie Amélie. Didier Le Fouest was responsible for creating the film’s unique atmosphere.
“In the early 2000s, I had already been working on all the commercials that Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed in between his movies for ten years. However, at that time, the color grading of films was still done in a photochemical laboratory: it was the same process, but with very little flexibility.
However, on Amélie, the tools were more or less in place for us to calibrate a movie digitally. Because the movie was shot on 35mm film, we had to scan the film, process the images with our digital tools, and then transfer the result to film.
We were only the third to use this grading method. The Coen brothers had already been through the wringer on O Brother, Where Art Thou?: they had spent months on it and there were still some issues. So it was extremely experimental. And on top of that, it was my first feature film.
When Jean-Pierre invited me to work on this movie, his reference was Alan Parker’s Evita, which was shot by Darius Khondji: he wanted a warm monochrome image with, on top of that, little splashes of very bright colors.”
Today, almost every movie and television show has a dedicated DIT (digital imaging technician) who works with the cinematographer and the director. Together they determine what the image should look like by applying a variety of digital filters. Now, cinematographers and other members of the film production team need to know how to work with these digital processes.
These digital techniques are omnipresent in Hollywood. Many projects are created with something called a LUT or Lookup Table. The latter makes it possible to nearly instantly manipulate the raw footage captured on set and to see what it could look like once the colors have been manipulated digitally. To some extent, the LUT represents the target color palette and is generally a foundation to work from. The colors can then be adjusted scene by scene, although this is very time consuming. But if the director and production team are happy with the LUT, it can be applied very easily to the entire movie.
Digital color grading therefore makes it easy to unify the colorimetry and the tones of several scenes shot at different times, so that they are better integrated during the editing. It is also used to create a specific look for one or more scenes in a film or series. More broadly, it simplifies the implementation of a color chart for an entire project to give it a unique visual identity.
Explanation N°2: the influence of The Matrix
The rise of digital color grading techniques occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A lot of the movies at the time had a dark and slightly grimy look: The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Se7en (1995) had very influential and dark color palettes.
The Matrix (1999) undoubtedly marked a turning point in the use of digital color timing. The green symbols that scroll across the black computer screen permeate the visual atmosphere of the movie. The protagonists are bathed in this digital green light when they are in the fictional world generated by the Matrix.
“The first Matrix was very stylized, and almost every scene was a small vignette on its own in a particular color way. Green was the color of the Matrix, and blue was the color of the real world,” stated Peter Walpole, production designer for The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth movie in the franchise. “It is very specific in that first film, and it works incredibly well. It enhances the overall art and design of the film, whether it’s coming from the Wachowskis or the people who lit and designed it.”
Many movies have been inspired by the color grading work of The Matrix, more or less successfully depending on the subtlety of the digital correction.
“I asked [Lana Wachowski] how much we were going to keep the first movies as a reference, and she said, ‘Our movie is a different movie. Don’t worry about it,’” Resurrections cinematographer Daniele Massaccesi said. He added that the green and gray aesthetic of the original movie made sense in 1999, but not in 2021.
Explanation n°3: a counter-reaction to the vivid colors of digital technology
In the second half of the 2000s, “When digital cameras showed up, they naturally had more saturation and more pop to them. For a while there, everything we saw was super-saturated, and super-poppy” said Christian Sprenger, cinematographer for Station Eleven. “I think a lot of filmmakers almost see that as an antithesis to cinema. If you really look back on a lot of cinema history, a lot of things are not overly colorful and saturated like that. So I think people are pulling that back to try to make digital a little bit more like film.” This idea is reiterated by Station Eleven co-producer Gina Gonzalez, who highlights the fact that hyper-saturated colors are mainly found in commercials, and no movie wants to look like an advertisement.
So if vivid colors are subconsciously associated with advertising, it seems fitting that duller hues are meant for movies.
Explanation n°4: we are fixated on the end of the world
Duller colors are the norm in recent superhero movies, barring a few exceptions. This is rather ironic, as these characters are often depicted using bright, vibrant colors in their respective comic books.
This color desaturation in superhero movies probably has something to do with how often these stories have huge stakes and often address the end of the world. Our vision of the apocalypse is heavily influenced by mid-twentieth century post-nuclear war narratives, which take place in arid, gray landscapes where clouds block out the light of the sun. This vision is so pervasive that virtually every recent post-apocalyptic movie looks like this, although there are a few exceptions (Mad Max: Fury Road, for example). It’s no wonder we’ve come to associate this washed-out aesthetic with end-of-the-world issues. Consequently, if you tell a lot of stories where the end of the world is possible, desaturation will probably be your cinematic tool of choice.
Naturally, there are other ways to tell these stories, as illustrated by the new series Station Eleven (HBO Max). This series depicts a beautiful, lush green post-apocalyptic world. The color palette deliberately uses rich reds, blues and greens and the post-production digital color editing pushed the colors toward richer and more saturated hues.
“In many ways, we were trying to invert the post-apocalyptic genre,” said Station Eleven creator and showrunner Patrick Somerville. “Quiet, big, expansive, beautiful, green. Not destroyed. Just still.”
That said, even if end-of-the-world stories can be more colorful, the tendency to make the post-apocalypse look gray and washed out will probably always be the predominant method by which we present these narratives. The post-apocalypse is not the only reason we associate gray hues with serious times – dark, shadowy atmospheres appear in the visual arts throughout human history. But with the end of the world looming around every corner, it’s not hard to see why the post-apocalypse has become a visual shorthand for serious themes.
All of these explanations help us understand why movies have come to use dull color palettes. But there’s another explanation worth considering: the intersection of these techniques with digital visual effects. In order to explain this, we have to go back 20 years and look at some extremely influential films.
Explanation n°5: to hide digital visual effects
While working on her article, Emily St. James hoped to find the answer to one of her long-standing questions: why do the extended DVD/Blu-ray editions of the Lord of the Rings films have a slightly different color grade than the theatrical versions?
The theatrical version of the first installment was lush and colorful while the extended version, which added new footage to the film, tended to be desaturated. This inconsistency continued, until the release of the new 4K Blu-ray remasters of the films in 2020, which returned to their original colors.
The Lord of the Rings movies are full of computer-generated visual effects that, overall, still look pretty good. But the effects in the theatrical version were given the time and attention that the effects in the feature version did not receive, as they were destined for a direct to DVD fan-only project.
One of the truisms of computer effects is that it is easier to hide their rough edges if they are placed in a dark or rainy environment. The T. rex attack in Jurassic Park is a very good example: it appears when it’s dark and raining.
But if the scene does not take place in the dark or in the rain, is there a way to achieve the same effect without having to create, for example, an artificial night? The answer is yes, if you add a desaturated digital color grade over everything. Such a calibration can help to make the digital special effects less noticeable, to better integrate them.
“If you have a visual effect that is sharp, and you know you’re going to apply a desaturated look to it, you also know that it’s okay that it’s going to be that sharp, coming out of the VFX vendor, because you know, there’s going to be some softness added to it through the color process,” Gonzalez stated.
Looking at the timeline of these movies and the influence they had, it is quite possible that the Lord of the Rings trilogy started this trend of using digital color grading to better integrate digital special effects.
By reading these various explanations, it becomes clear that there is no single answer to the question of why desaturation is so prevalent. But if color can create such strong emotions in viewers, it is legitimate to ask why so many filmmakers do not fully exploit this tool and simply do the same as everyone else.
How to fully enjoy a movie, in accordance with the intentions of the director
To fully enjoy the color calibration chosen by the director, it is essential to have a TV or a projector with well-calibrated image settings. On recent TVs, the cinema picture mode is generally well-calibrated and requires little or no adjustment.
If your TV features the Filmmaker Mode, then you should use it. Developed by leading TV manufacturers in partnership with the UHD Alliance and Hollywood film studios, it is designed to be as faithful as possible to the director’s vision.
Also present on a large number of televisions, the IMAX Enhanced mode is particularly well suited to content created in this format.
Lastly, investing in a Panasonic OLED TV with color calibration carried out by colorists working in Hollywood’s top post-production studios is a guarantee that you’ll be able to enjoy movie and series images that remain true to the intentions of the director and cinematographer.
- Emily St. James – Colors: Where did they go? An investigation – January 10, 2022 – Vox
- Les secrets du cinéma – ÉPISODE 6 – Les couleurs du Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain – //welovecinema.bnpparibas