Save Our Skins

I’ve mentioned before that the current trend in film color correction is the relentless preservations of “correct” skin tones. I saw an interesting example of this recently that I thought I’d share.

But first a little background. There’s no question that skin tones are important. Movies are about people and for people. Pleasing skin tones means pleasing-looking people, a cornerstone of the film industry to be sure. But as filmmaking sensibilities grew more and more informed by the capabilities of the DI, an evolution that got real traction, by my estimation, around 2002-2003 with films like Bad Boys II (Stefan Sonnenfeld, colorist) and Underworld (Jet Omoshebi, colorist), more “pushed” looks became commonplace. An aggressive color correction is more likely to render skin tones in an unflattering way, so a colorist’s capability was judged in part by his ability to hold pleasing skin tones through severe corrections.

This had been true for commercials and music videos for years, and now it is true for movies. It took a few years, but the color correction we see in big movies is now every bit as aggressive as we’ve seen in spots and videos for a decade or more.

The newly-released trailer for The Incredible Hulk caught my eye with a side-by-side example of the lengths to which a colorist will go to not only preserve a pleasing skin tone, but to force it to subscribe to the video-borne notion of occupying a very specific hue on a vectorscope, one conveniently marked with a nice little line.

Well, all but one of the characters anyway!

One shot features Edward Norton on a bridge at night in the rain. A predominantly blue scene:

Immediately following is a shot of Norton meditating in some sort of cabin. Warm lighting pervades:

Sure enough, if you place these shots side-by-side, Norton’s face is almost exactly the same color in both shots:

Color’s vectorscope confirms this. The tall blob winging Northwest on the scope represents Norton’s face.

It’s a more little biased toward yellow in the cabin image, but just barely.

Norton’s orangish visage in a field of blue is quite literally the face of modern film color correction. Once you notice it, you start seeing it everywhere. Here are some examples from Live Free or Die Hard (Siggy Firstl, colorist):

This look will be the hallmark of films of the late 2000’s. Whether you like it or not, films of only a few years ago do look less polished by comparison with their blue tints, gasp, actually having an effect on human beings. So maybe you should learn how to create it.

I describe in The Guide a technique for holding skin tones by pivoting the tonal range about them. If you push shadows blue and highlights warm, skin tones remain largely unchanged in between. But with uniformly blue or desaturated looks, you need to resort to secondary color correction.

The reason that Colorista does not have a secondary color correction feature is that every host application that supports Colorista has a pretty decent one. Final Cut Pro has the 3-Way Color Corrector, which I would never use to do actual color correction, but as a secondary it’s quite a good companion to Colorista. After Effects has the Hue/Saturation effect as well as Change Color. And just to show you that I know there’s a world outside of Colorista, I’ll show you the effect in Apple Color as well, where secondaries comprise the bulk of the power.

Here’s our starting image:

Photo by Boni Idem

Pushing it to a pervasively blue look yields this result:

As you can see, the skin tones are completely clobbered by the effect.

In Apple Color, I created this blue look in Primary Out. Any secondaries I do will actually happen before the look, but that’s the way I like it. This is another aspect of color correction that I detail in The Guide; order of operations. I used one secondary with a vignette to brighten her face, and another to recover her skin tones. Rather than perform a key, I used the Hue and Saturation curves to isolate the skin tones and adjust them. It required a substantial boost in Saturation and a little nudge in Hue:

And here’s the result:

In After Effects, I used Colorista to create the blue look. After Effects has no hue curves, but it has the Hue/Saturation effect, which provides similar control:

I took the Yellow range and pushed it left to make it into an orange Hue/Sat control. People, it turns out, are orange!

And lastly in FInal Cut Pro, here’s the setup using Colorista and FCP’s 3-Way on drums:

The uncorrected image is available here as a JPG and here as a DPX. Try it out and, if you like, post the results on this thread on the Rebel Café!

EDIT: That thread is already rockin’, less than 12 hours after this posted! Rebel Café r00lz.

Want to learn more? Check out the color correction books at the ProLost store.