16 Dec 2018

The art of Colour Rendering

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Making the Grade Making the Grade Keira Knightley graded by Stefan Sonnenfeld


RedShark Replay: Human beings come in a variety of exciting colours. Rendering those colours in a pleasing way has been a goal of photography since before photography actually had colours, but it's always going to be an incredibly subjective issue

Talk to anyone about the performance of a piece of filmmaking technology for long enough and the conversation will inevitably turn to whether it makes person-flesh look nice in the opinion of the commenter. Whether the topic of conversation concerns lighting instruments, lenses, sensor technology, compression codecs or grading, the subject of making humans look like humans is often discussed as if there's some sort of absolute answer, and the achievement of that absolute answer is why we should pay more money to camera manufacturers and colourists.

No Absolute Answer

But there isn't any such answer. Let's consider two different pictures of a girl in an action movie:



Above: Kate Beckinsale in Total Recall, looking as if there's plenty of blood pumping around her veins. Total Recall was graded by Colin Brown.


Above: Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, looking like a thirsty vampire, as graded by digital intermediate colourist Jet Omoshebi.

Now, there's no implication that this variation is in any way unintentional; Underworld was made at a time when a cool, bluish and desaturated look was popular for action movies in general, and works nicely with the grim emotional tone of the piece. It also helps Kate look suitably vampiric, given that the actual on-set look wasn't nearly so pale. The point is, though, that practically anything can be justified in subjective terms, and the endless debate about skin-tone is turning the subject into a tyranny in which authority figures get to tell everyone else what their opinion should be. I mean, seriously: put an eyedropper on Kate in the Underworld shot, and she's practically pale magenta, but it's well known as an example of an extreme choice in colour grading making for a popular and successful movie (it made $96 million on a $22 million budget, which is a success in anyone's terms).

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Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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