Magazine article American Cinematographer

Embracing the Concept of Color Correction

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Embracing the Concept of Color Correction

Article excerpt

It was almost 20 years ago, during a film-to-tape transfer. The colorist was scrolling through a list of previous corrections, and I saw one of my pictures transformed: a bright, almost shadowless scene became dark and moody, with a golden glow I could have achieved only after hours of meticulous lighting. That scene was only on the screen a couple of seconds, but I never forgot it.

A few years later, I was the director of photography on a low-budget drama. We were moving too fast, and a confused young assistant loaded the wrong stock. You can guess the rest: the roll was overexposed several stops, and with the wrong filter. I arrived late for the film-to-tape session and the colorist had already gone to work. He'd fixed the exposure and filter mistakes, but he'd taken the scene in a totally different direction than I'd intended. He'd actually re-lit the set, changed the mood, and given it a different look.

What really burned me was that I liked his version better than my original idea. I wasn't happy about it. So what if he had stumbled on to something better - who was this mousy little guy to be screwing around with my lighting? More than that, I was disturbed at how much power he had in that color correction box. From then on, I went into film transfer sessions with a distinct queasiness, a feeling that my creative control was being threatened.

Every time I entered the domain of a colorist, it was like stepping into the land of Oz. Wide-eyed, I pumped the colorists for their secrets. And I started asking myself, is the colorist holding back? Playing politics? Could the picture be made even better? More to the point, could it be made to look totally different? I suspected the answer was yes, which made me wonder: Would I ever have the guts to invite the colorist to go full-bore and experiment with my work? Was I willing to share control?

As time went by, I persuaded the colorists to show me what they could do. It was more than I'd imagined. They could create day-for-night with the turn of a few knobs. They could alter the gamma electronically, softening contrast or deepening shadows, and they could program their corrections to change during a scene, so smoothly that no one would ever guess it was being manipulated.

Most of the colorists I met were flattered by my attentions. A few of them were willing to talk about their craft. I discovered they had an unwritten rule: "Never tread into uncharted waters unless the client demands it." In other words, stick to color correction - it's a safe place to be. You'll avoid controversy.

To someone like me, a cameraman who spent years learning how to manipulate light, the "color correction" idea is insulting. It may be a safe place for the colorist to hide, but it implies that there's some established standard. The only standard that matters is the "look" I'm trying to get. Good colorists know this, too. Everything is subjective. What counts is giving it a look that supports the overall concept. And that's why there's such a powerful mystique associated with the colorist's art.

One day, an especially talented colorist admitted that his craft was rarely being used to it fullest. Yes, he was hemmed in by the unspoken laws of creative control, but there was more. He was working with uncut footage, most of it destined to be outtakes. He couldn't spend hours fine-tuning shots that would never be used. Furthermore, he'd never be able to match cuts - that could only be done "in context," after editing, long after the film-to-tape transfer. I was crushed. Here was a terrific creative tool whose power had been bottled up - made inaccessible. However, I did suspect that this barrier might someday disappear. Clearly, the power to manipulate images was entirely on the electronic side of the film-to-tape fence. That being true, tape-to-tape correction shouldn't be that difficult. I knew nothing of the engineering required to achieve my fantasy, but I knew I was on to something that would transform the whole postproduction ballgame. …

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