Introduction to Color in Digital Filmmaking

Today we’ll cover the basics of color in modern digital filmmaking and some things you need to think about as you consider how to color your productions.

Color as an Intrinsic Filmmaking Tool

There is a place in my heart for Black and White photography. But black and white, as beautiful and nuanced as it can be – is a world onto itself. Color, to me, is much more versatile and when used correctly, a much more evocative tool.

Take for instance, the 1999 film, “The Matrix” – directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski.

Notice the subtle use of color as a visual cue for the location. When Neo and Morpheous talk inside the Matrix – there’s a sickly green cast to everything – reminiscent of those old green monochrome computer monitors that folks of a certain age are familiar with. When out of the Matrix, the colors are more natural.

Compare that to this opening scene from Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” also from 1999.

Mendes relies very much on a strong Red White and Blue color palette to underline the idealised facade of Lester Burnham’s suburban family. Even the folders Lester drops in this opening scene are Blue and Red – a deliberate continuation of the chromatic theme.

Compare those bold primary color scheme to the earthy tones of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film Amelie.

Jeunet uses a rich warm palette of Greens, yellows and reds – a signature color palette of his that gives his films a sort of grotesque yet magical warmth to them. Blue is used sparingingly, and when it is it’s a bold contrast to the established earthy tones.

These three films, coming out just a few years apart, represent just a small part of of the creative use of color filmmakers employed coming out of the 1990s and into the new millenium.

How Digital Cameras Capture Color

The movies that we just looked at were all shot on celluoid film. It’s only very recently that digital camera systems have started to reach the level where they can emulate the look of film – though that debate is still open among the purists. But to this filmmaker, digital acquisition represents freedom the likes of which has never been seen before. So let’s start out by asking how do digital camera capture color?

The answer is actually similar to the way that color film captures color – by breaking down and recording the light as three primary colors – red green and blue. But that’s sort of where the similarity ends.

I don’t want to get too technical here so we’ll just cover the essentials. In earlier digital camera systems, professional cameras used a specially designed prism that split light into red green and blue onto 3 different sensors - a digital analog of the technicolor three strip process.

Color_Separation_Prism (1)

But as sensors grew from the 1/3rd or 2/3rd inch chips to 35mm film sized chips and beyond, Manufacturers started using a single chip – using a colored filter array to assign different color channel duties to individual pixels. A common color arrangement is called a Bayer Pattern.

bayer_pattern_sensor

Look closely at the pattern of red green and blue pixels – notice how there are twice as many green photosites as there are red and blue. And even though a sensor advertises a particular resolution, the Bayer pattern means there’s actually half of those pixels dedicated to capturing green and a quarter of those pixels to capturing red and a quarter to blue.

Now before you feel like your eyes are being cheated of color data – relax – these are systems not only designed but modeled after our biological limitations. Our eyes are not as sensitive to changes in color, as they are to changes in brightness – luminosity. Because of this biological quirk, engineers designed digital cameras to deliver more resolution in the black and white luminosity using the green pixels to serve not to serve up the green channel but to help create the luminosity channel.

So as the raw data comes off the sensor, the digital cameras uses mathematical algorithms to interpolate the missing pixels in each of the color channels and the luminance channel and then combines the red green and blue color channels into what’s called a YCbCr colorspace. Then that color can be further compressed for storage in a process called Chroma Subsampling - which is the process of reducing the color resolution while keeping the luminance resolution the same.

For watching back video, compression is not a terrible thing… Perception of resolution is not a simple numbers game – more pixels doesn’t necessarily mean a better image as things like motion dramatically affect our ability to sense fine details.

But, from a production standpoint, compressing color data leads to less flexibility when color correcting and grading in post production.

DSLR

Consumer cameras and DSLRs use what’s called an 8bit 4:2:0 chroma subsampling which can “break” when heavily color graded because there’s not that much color data available. The 8bit part refers to the number of possible levels in each channel – 8 bit is 2 to the eighth power for 256 possible levels of color in each of the color channels. 8 bit is fine for playback, you’re watching this video in 8 bit color.

BMCC

Contrast this to the Blackmagic line of cameras. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera can record a much more robust 4:2:2 10bit compressed file in either ProRes or DNx.HD. 10 bit means 2 to the 10th power 1024 levels of color in each channel – 4 times as many levels. And 4:2:2 has twice the color resolution of 4:2:0 and is considered robust enough to stand up to most professional needs.. Further up the quality line, the Blackmagic Cinema camera is even capable of 12-bit RAW files – 12 bit meaning 2 to the 12th 4096 levels of color in each channel and RAW meaning the data is straight sensor before interpolation or any mathematical mumbo jumbo.. Of course you will start to pay dearly in terms of storage space when you’re shooting in that kind of pristine quality (about 7 gigabytes per minute of footage)

Now before we move on from this technical overview of color and digital cameras, we need to talk a little about colorspace. Digital Video uses a colorspace called REC 709 – an HDTV colorspace standard that was first approved in 1990. REC709 is a linear colorspace and is fine for your final output.

But camera sensors have now exceeded the dynamic range that REC709 can capture. So what’s the solution? Use a flatter logarithmic curve to represent the data – a colorspace commonly called LOG.

There are many flavors of LOG color but they all function essentially the same way – they flatten the curve which information is captured on the camera. This encodes the extra details that would normally fall outside the dynamic range of REC 709. When viewed back on a REC709 monitor, LOG images will look flat and washed out but you gain the flexibility of recovering shadows and highlights details in post.

Rec-709-v-Log

Here we’re comparing the video mode Rec 709 and the LOG like Film mode from the Blackmagic Cinema Camera – when corrected, we can recover much of the detail from the blown out windows.

Basic Color Theory

Technology and filmmaking are intrinsically tied together, but enough is enough. Let’s talk about the aesthetics of color. No understanding of color in film can be complete without a real solid grounding in the basic tenets of color theory.

RGB-Color-Wheel

We’ll start with the RGB Additive color wheel – this color wheel is a little different from the color wheels you can find in art stores but this is the one used in color suites. Our three primary colors are Red Green and Blue – arranged in an equilateral triangle along the edge of the circle. The colors that bridge the arc between the primary colors are made combining the two primary colors together. The area inside the color wheel is made of colors that are created when adding the third primary color into the mix. When all three primary colors are combined equally and fully they create white – this is an additive system.

Right away we can see the most important color relationship – opposite colors called complementary colors. Drawing a line from a primary color through the middle of the circle we find that the opposite of Red is Cyan. The opposite of Green is Magenta and the opposite of Blue is Yellow.

Color-Harmonies

Complementary colors when placed next to each other create strongest of color contrasts. But that’s not the only common color relationship scheme. Triadic colors are three colors that are equally spaced on the color wheel. Triadic color creates the widest sense of color variation. Tetradic uses 4 colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. Similar to Triadic is the split complementary which pulls colors from each side of complementary color but doesn’t give us as wide a sense as Triadic. And the least color contrast most harmonious color combinations are called analogous colors which are colors that lie next to each other along the color wheel.

Color in Production

So many tutorials on the internet regarding color focus primarily on the process of color grading from a post production standpoint perhaps because with things like LOG, technology has been shifting us toward making color decisions later in the filmmaking process. But this misses the point entirely… Having good color in your coloring suite begins at the art direction stage.

Lolita

In preparing a demo for this lesson I wanted to recreate the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, but put my own spin on it by fleshing it out in color. Because I wanted to emphasize the range of color, I went with a Tetradic color scheme using Blue, Green, Red and Yellow as my dominant colors – shooting indoors in the studio to create an artificial yet really bold colored look of Technicolor studio films from the past.

Set

For the set I purchased recycled artificial turf pulled from USC and sold by a dealer – unfortunately it’s chock full of tiny rubber pellets which get all over the place – mountains of them. I flushed out the set with green fake plants from Salvation Army Thrift shop and put hung a blue patterned muslin for a backdrop. To keep my beautiful model Victoria Patton from getting covered in black rubber pellets I bought a blue and white striped beach towel which also serves to adds some blue tones to the bottom of the frame.

IMG_6520

For costume we went with white and red stripes – because I just love stripes – and a three dollar novelty heart shaped glasses purchased on Amazon as a nod to Kubrick’s original.

IDMX1500B

 

IB1000

Lighting wise, I used ikan’s IDMX1500B to light a blue backdrop, two ikan IB1000 LEDs to as fills for my model’s face and body. I placed a single 2K with a Color Temperature Blue Gel to blast my talent with a strong backlight.. Since I knew I was going to be shooting photos as well using strobe lights… I chose to set all these fixtures to 5600K – Being able to dial in the color temperature is a great feature of these ikan LED fixtures.

BMCC

Using Blackmagic Cinema camera, I shot the scene in uncompressed 12-bit Raw Mode using a Sigma 12-24mm and a Nikon 50mm lens.

Coloring in Post

Working with RAW files adds an extra step in the post process but luckily DaVinci Resolve makes the process as painless as possible.

DaVinci Resolve

Resolve is a phenomenal color program used to color lots of well known projects and the free lite version Blackmagic has available is one of the most powerful free programs out there definitely worth checking out. But the folks at Blackmagic have added a lot of workflow tools as well. I used Resolve to open the RAW clips and render them out to lower quality proxies which I can use to edit inside Adobe Premiere Pro CC. When I’m satisfied with my edit, I export an XML and import it into Resolve having the program automatically relink the original RAW clips based on the proxies.

Now I must confess, when I first saw the images coming out of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, I was a little bit stunned. Even shooting in LOG, the images fresh off the drive where beautiful.. I usually shoot studio work under tungsten balanced lighting but Shooting under the ikan daylight balanced LEDs created this extra punch to my images – a fuller and richer palette of colors.

Even though the camera recorded in LOG color, the attention I had paid to color and lighting on set meant that all I had to do in Resolve was just fine tune the image.

I started off with a basic first color correction – bringing up the gamma and gain in the primaries to make my image feel a little lighter. Next I wanted to punch up Red Green and Blue parts of my image. I created a new node and used the Qualifier tab to only select the blue parts of the frame and upping their saturation a bit. Since I only wanted the blue towel to pop and not the backdrop, I added a window mask to isolate just the towel.

Then I did the same thing adding another node this time focusing on the red – especially that red hat which looked a little faded. Using the Qualifier I tried to find just the red hat and darkened and increased it’s saturation. Then it was another corrector node, this time focusing on just the greens by adding green and taking out some of the reds in the green parts of the frame.

Colors-Punch

With the colors punched up, I wanted to add a little softness to the highlights – adding another correcting mode and using qualifiers to find the bright parts of the image. I three on a blur and then pulled back the transparency key to taste.

Finally, I added one last node to do just a little relighting. I created a circular window and placed around her body. Then using the automated tracker… and this part always blows my mind… Resolve actually tracks the camera movement and move the window so it corresponds with the camera movement. How cool is that?

By having made strong color choices ahead of time, using Blackmagic Design’s Cinema Camera and it’s flexible RAW recording format, lighting with ikan’s color temperature adjustable lights set to 5600K and fine tuning with Davinci Resolve I was able to create a bold colorful scene inside my studio that I’m just incredibly proud of.

Victoria-Patton
Color is an extremely important and but extremely nuanced part of modern filmmaking. We’ve only begun to touch on the major topics of how color relates to filmmaking and how to manipulate color both in the art direction and in post production. As you become more skilled in the craft, you will begin to see how every decision in the filmmaking process carries with it it’s own baggage both positives and negatives – every choice has an impact on your final film. Even if you don’t have huge budgets for precise art direction and custom made wardrobe, you should still pay attention to the details of what you’re capturing on set. It can be as simple as choosing the red folder over the blue one.

Just because modern tools give us flexibility in post, it’s not excuse for lazy filmmaking. Think and plan for Color and then let these fantastic tools we have take you the rest of the of the way. Go make something great.


Quizzes

Introduction to Color in Digital Filmmaking Quiz