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  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz
Sunday
Mar232008

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.

Reader Comments (21)

Great Post Stu.

I think it's also a function of pro color correction software. Meaning, as a colorist, it's something that I used not do so often back when I was just working with FCP. But as I soon as I had Final Touch to play with, I started doing that.

The hue Nudge is key when you have an actor with olive skin next to an actor with pinkish skin, and you are going for a high sat look.

March 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

Wow. I will have to read that four more time before I begin to understand everything.

Before I digest the meat, though, I ask about this:

"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."

Now, since we are making films, right now, in the late 2000s, I dont think it is detestable that our films look it, but dont we risk DATING our films by following this? One week, eggs are good for you, the next week bad. This color scheme will pass. Isnt it best to give our films the best chance at lasting? (In 2008, Ladyhawk is destroyed by an 80s soundtrack. Shouldnt we avoid the 2008 CC version of a bad soundtrack?)

March 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Great post Stu!

March 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGautch

You know, I like the look of the overall blue cast in your last example vs. the secondary-corrected one.

Maybe it's because I know what's going on, but every time I see a shot like that Ed Norton exterior, it smacks of obvious recoloring.

March 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKT

Your starting image is good. The way it shots take into account how well you can push it in post. Depending on race, this technique is a good one. Thanks

March 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRivai Chen

Hey Stu

How far do you think this kind of correction is possible on highly compressed footage like dv and hdv?

Cheers

March 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersam

As with anything, the answer re: HDV and DV is "Yeah, but it's going to look worse." With these "lesser" formats, you simply have less visual information to work with -- nothing like the richness and tonality of a DPX filmscan or even higher-quality HD video.

And with formats like HDV and DV, things like artifacting and noise rear their ugly heads much sooner, and it's notably more difficult to accomplish a clean secondary.

So obviously the lesson is to shoot on beautiful 35mm stock, and do all your post at 2K. :)

March 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKT

I've never really been a fan of heavy color correction. I mean, I want my colors to look natural, not have a blue tone on everything. I can understand it when you are trying to convey that a scene is cold.

Some color correction is nice, but others just take it too far.

March 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Broadway

izzColorists are slaves to fashion same as everyone else...

March 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCiaran

God I hate blogger. Ignore the garbage that was my last comment. What I was trying to say was:

Colorists are slaves to fashion same as everyone else...

March 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCiaran

Isn't this similar to the "purple house" scenario in the Guide, though?

At the very least, I'm glad you've explained what it is that makes big budget movies feel TOO "polished" to me. Now when I someday get to sit in that big DI suite, I'll know that I might want to tell the colorist to maybe let the scene affect the skin tones a bit more.

March 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDorkman

Well spotted Dorkman! In a way it's exactly that, which is why some find the effect conspicuous.

March 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

I just wrote http://eugenia.gnomefiles.org/2008/03/27/skin-color-in-a-blue-world/" REL="nofollow">a tutorial on how to do a similar thing to what Stu suggests, but by using Sony Vegas instead.

March 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEugenia

Hey Stu, seeing as you are a proponent of Magic Bullet Looks (as am I) it would be great if you could go over briefly how to isolate the skin tones using Looks, similar to how you did with the Hue/Sat Filter in After Effects. Maybe discussing using the "Slice" waveform view to find the skin tone ranges....

April 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

Well I for one don't think it's all that bad :)

In your examples all I saw was basic color theory. Working with complementary colors to guide the viewer's eye has a century long tradition in graphic design.

So by opposing blue tones or blue-ish tones like the cyan to green ranges in the background with the skin tones of the opposite range or near it, you can make a strong separation. Especially useful on small screens to tell the action apart.

Why is this happening now? I think it's just the technology being more accessible now and virtually no movie goes without a DI anymore.

Saying you're dating yourself ,(is dating someone you really like - sorry, heh) by using this exact look shown here is like mimicking any look. History action movie = 300's crushed contrast look.

Another view could be, what does the contract say about how the actor is "preserved in appearance" throughout a shot? I've seen these clauses for make-up directions and it would be an obvious transition to DI work.

Look back to the first colored b&w movies. The colorists made heavy use of complementary colors there. So this isn't an entirely new thing. It's just digital now.

April 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFrank

This is great stuff, Stu. I REALLY love this post. Very useful. Some (like me) may have tried this, but forgot the order of operations thing and ended up with a blue image that couldn't be adjusted... but by simply changing the order and pumping up the skin tones FIRST, problem solved. Makes sense... you need the values there in order to pump them up...

It's one of those things that makes a ton of sense once you know how it's done but before knowing, it's a little tricky to figure out.

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterpdelvecchio

Cool,

I just have to disagree with the secondaries in AE. In order to get a good qualify for secondary you need more then just Hue control that's found in AE Hue/Saturation or the Hue tolerance & softness in "Change Color".
The minimum is HSL ranges & a blur is also needed in 99% of the time(especially when working with a rebel footage).

The color range key + alpha blur or better even - a primatte key is great to qualify, but I still didn't find a simple way to use a key for secondary.

Any ideas ?

Eran

July 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commentereran

Wow.. that's great info.
i was newbie on video editing.
i don't eventhing, there's a lot of treasure trick for video editing :)

i'll learn more and more..

thx a lot for the info :)

July 10, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterparoel

Although I wouldn't necessarily point to the Bruce Willis sample as the worst offender of this emerging trend, I do completely agree with you on this topic. It is especially prominent in HD television shows like the CSI's that practically slap you in the face with it. I think the average viewer is much more forgiving with off target skin tones in heavily colored scenes than most colorists give them credit for. Is Color your primary weapon over there at Orphange?

October 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

"Contrast" modern approaches to those of a half century ago when electronic media began to gain its traction:
A SMPTE committee headed by Wilton R. Holm stipulated (not "recommended") that colour should be subordinate to the narrative and, in no circumstances, constitute 'a separate entity to compete with or detract from the dramatic content of the picture' (SMPTE 1957: 41).
Renditions were intended to be as "natural" as possible. This makes no sense to me as recorded entertainment is by its very nature, "mediated", and therefore completely unnatural to start with. To try to suggest otherwise is a vanity. But interestingly, this attitude carried through at least into the '70s, trying to keep the treatment of colour "invisible".

Or maybe they were really trying to avoid having to create a new awards category... which has been successful so far.

Guess somebody musta forgot to read all those SMPTE Recommended Practices. Its now very much like Disney's "pirate code"... more like... guidelines, really... LOL

jPo

November 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjpo

As a music video guy I have to say I don't mind and actually love the CC on everything modern...We spent years trying to mimic that look in FCP and so I guess it depends on where you're coming from as to whether you view the looks with admiration or disgust. I first remember Hype Williams playing with the "Blue" black and white and then Bucky Chrome did some great stuff with it, but yeah videos have kinda been there and done that since like '92-93. I'm looking forward to using Color instead of AE now that I have a machine that can run it, tho I think AE rocks in this department, so I'm hoping that Color is insanely good. I'll have to get your book too.

March 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSTONEY XL
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