09 Sep 2017

The truth about colour. This is stuff every film-maker should know about.

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RedShark Replay: Guest author John Clark of Berlin Picture Company explores why there's so little consistency of colour across broadcast platforms and what the industry may need to remedy the problem.

Filmmakers seem to have greater potential to control colour than at any time since the early development of colour photography, yet more and more productions are being made in a kind of semi-monochrome style with a general colour cast per scene and occasional patches of distinctive hues. Of course, there are exceptions, but Daniel Craig's Bond is a man in a grey suit and thrillers inhabit a muted universe of beigey greys and gloomy beige.

Is this a matter of fashion and taste, or a defensive, even perhaps unconscious reaction to the 'honky tonk' of colour reproduction across the hundreds of different kinds of screens and monitors where movies are eventually seen? Would audio be tolerated pitched-changed unpredictably by half a tone here and a quarter tone there? Squeezing colour data to the point of no return has become a primary tool in compression which maybe needs questioning as 4K becomes a de facto standard in production. Are we throwing out the baby of creative colour with the bathwater of technology?

A Matter of Perception

Deep in the early history of electronic imaging, documentation defining the NTSC system used an unfortunate phrase, which persists in technical literature today. It reappeared in Apple's April 2014 White Paper on ProRes, "Because the eye is less sensitive to fine chroma detail, it is possible to average together and encode fewer CB and CR samples (than Luminance) with little visible quality loss for casual viewing." They might have encouraged different technical outcomes by rephrasing it "Because human perception is extraordinarily flexible in its tolerance of colour aberrations, it is possible...etc."

We are all so familiar with the notion of cameras loosely approximating the structure of the human eye (a focusing lens, luminance response and colour sampling mimicking the distinction between rod and cone cells in the retina) that it is easy to lose sight of the enormous differences between human perception and movies as a visioning system. No one really has a clue how information about colour is transmitted from the eye to the rest of the brain or how colour impressions arise as conscious perception. This might be reason for technologies to exploit our knowledge of the physics of light, but instead, they have been framed within the trivariant notion of colour vision first articulated by Thomas Young in the eighteenth century, which has been extremely successful for many purposes.

People are able to identify objects by colour under enormously different lighting conditions and this rich environment of colour distinctions and associations is complex, subtle and difficult to categorise. However, the quality of research into culturally defined colour systems is disappointing, especially when recognising that almost all the objects around us are coloured by carefully defined paints or dyes, while artificial lighting is everywhere. We no longer inhabit a natural landscape, if indeed that has ever really been the case since the evolution of modern humans.



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