Colour Matters: behind Hollywood Hues [The Graphic Masters Series]
10 March 2016
Every creative decision on a feature film counts and colour is one of the most engaging aspects of a production. It’s also one of the trickiest aspects to get right.
Here are three feature films that succeed. The first is Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel's so-called ‘unfilmable book’. The second is Oblivion, which makes Earth itself one of the main characters. And Pacific Rim is the third, arguably achieving more with its visuals than its script.
Life of Pi
Ang Lee’s 2012 Life of Pi is a real technical achievement bringing together CG animals, CG sky, CG ocean and real actors.
But it’s the colours that stay with you– colours that tread a fine line between magic and reality. “In a different type of film a dark sea would have raged against a grey sky and all would have been misery,” says Sophie Monks Kaufman, Staff Writer at Little White Lies.
“Yet Ang Lee’s vision sometimes instils peace in a small boat via the azure blue of the lapping sea, swarms of tropical fish and a merciful gold sun that lights up the world. The contrast between the facts of the matter and the feeling created by this colour palette is a cinematic way of expressing emotional transcendence from a desperate situation. It’s also a technique for staying loyal to the magical realism of Yann Martel’s book.”
Lee and his director of photography Claudio Miranda had plenty of visual cues to work with from the source material. Martel had hoped a film would one day capture the cinematic aspect of his book. “The novel is full of contrast colours,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
“The blue ocean, the white lifeboat, the brown boy, the orange and black tiger. And India is very visual. In some ways, it was a very visual novel.” Ang Lee
Colour infuses the action with a sense of nostalgia in the scenes set in Pondicherry, India, where Pi grows up. Later, it’s used to enhance the magical realism of a fantastical, yet believable, account of surviving a shipwreck with only a tiger, zebra and chimpanzee for company. The colour palette is rich, saturated and accentuated for the majority of the movie – the two relatively desaturated storms being the lowest points in Pi’s journey.
“You want to have ebbs and flows in terms of colour contrast to follow the story,” Dave Cole – Modern Video Film
Dave Cole, lead digital colourist on the film said the director had a clear vision of the look of the film “The big thing that Ang wanted was for Pondicherry and India to be almost hyper-real. To be believable but through the mind’s eye – a fond memory of a childhood. So you have that rose tinted glasses view of what that world was like. We wanted to express that through the colour.”
Light and magic
For many, the most mesmerising and memorable sequences in the film are when Pi is stranded in a calm ocean. VFX from Rhythm & Hues give the scene the look of a painting as the water becomes a mirror for sunlight and clouds. Underpinning all the VFX and colour work was Miranda’s spectacular lighting. Lee himself grounded the action in reality by pinpointing a time of day reference with different levels of cloud cover and weather for every scene: say, 4:20pm rather than late afternoon. This combination of creativity and discipline was key to adapting an “unfilmable” book into a visually stunning movie.
The virtual absence of colour is a notable aspect of Oblivion’s post-apocalyptic world.
Joseph Kosinski’s 2013 post-apocalyptic film Oblivion uses the near absence of bold colour to produce a believable sense of reality. It shows the versatility of Claudio Miranda, the DP on both this project and the “hyper-real” Life of Pi. The action of Oblivion takes place in four main environments: exteriors on Earth, the clean and clinical Sky Tower, the underground Raven Rock and protagonist Jack Harper’s hideout.
Oblivion’s Earth in 2077 has been ravaged by nuclear war, earthquakes and tsunamis. The director’s choice to shoot in Iceland, in order to keep as much of the look of the film natural, lent itself well to a story set in desolate, snow covered and volcanic landscapes. The film was shot in Sony’s 4K RAW format with an F65 camera. “There’s a very desaturated, black and white kind of feel. But when there was blue sky, it really stood out as a pure blue,” says Mike Sowa, digital intermediate colourist at Technicolor who worked on Oblivion. The Raven Rock mountain complex, an underground rebel HQ, is similarly desaturated. In fact, the only punch of relative vibrancy is the cabin hideaway, a retro oasis of record players, soft furnishings and basketball hoops, in an area of rare vegetation and ‘life’. It’s a simple juxtaposition but it works. “That’s really the only place you get green, lush trees,” says Sowa. “Even though that itself is a slightly desaturated world, it still comes across as a beautiful landscape that’s his favourite spot.”
“I’m used to being told ‘Pop the colours or the contrast. ’Oblivion was the opposite. Just enough contrast to get things to pop off the screen but not unbelievable” Mike Sowa - Technicolour
The Sky Tower is the most traditionally ‘sci-fi’ set on Oblivion in visual terms. Home and workplace for Jack Harper and Vika Olsen, it’s a clean and clinical all-glass apartment in the sky with white, shiny surfaces and minimalist designs. The Sky Tower scenes were lit by projection. A 500-foot wide by 42-foot tall painted white muslin wrapped around 270 degrees was used with 21 projectors for real-time front projection. It played 15K images of sunrises, cloud formations and night skies, captured by three cameras over a volcano in Hawaii.
“For me, that was a first in a 30-year career” Mike Sowa - Technicolour
“Claudio and Joe pulled it off beautifully”, says Sowa. “It didn’t feel like the scenes were lit. Again, it’s supposed to be very natural. It’s influenced by sunlight or moonlight. When the sun is setting, you have a beautiful orange sunset while there is a confrontation between the two characters. Then a night time scene with the dinner and the swim is a very cool blue. Because the whole movie is so desaturated, those two scenes come across as very saturated.”
Pacific RimIt took two years to bring the Jaeger robots to life for Pacific Rim
A giant monster movie from Guillermo Del Toro is the simplest way to sum up the intriguing visual beast that is Pacific Rim. The end credits dedicate the film to Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda but Del Toro, together with his Director of Photography Guillermo Navarro, creates a unique, new world for Kaiju creatures and mecha Jaegers to fight over.
The aesthetic of Pacific Rim clashes big, bold colours against dark, stylised environments without straying too far into the comic book style favoured by most summer blockbusters. Del Toro’s aim was a graphic feel, close to painterly, to enhance the ILM effects throughout.
Take the Hong Kong scene, where scientist Newton Geiszler hits the streets before a Kaiju attack: deep blacks, neon lighting and torrential rain fill the screen. ILM VFX artists were told to find their “inner Mexican” by the director who wasn’t satisfied with the city as photographed.
It’s a very specific look for the near future, in Del Toro’s words, “romantic, crazy atmospherics”. Motion Picture Imaging graded Pacific Rim in Baselight.
In anticipation of the work to be done in post-production, Navarro shot in wide dynamic range in ISO 800. “Colour is very much used to tell the story,” she told the FilmLight blog.
“There are a lot of saturated colours in some of the scenes. It is great to be that saturated but still maintain good skin tones. The look was set in a digital setup and needed to be translated into film with the same bold statement.” Guillermo Navarro - Director of Photography
With dialogue often giving way to fight scenes, Del Toro uses colour to provide visual cues for characters. The film has been criticised for being a dumb action movie, but the director has said he doesn’t “do eye candy” – he does “eye protein”.
Mori’s female fighter is clad in grey for the majority of the film, but the tips of her black hair have been dyed blue. Later, we see a flashback scene in which Mori is orphaned in a Kaiju attack on Tokyo while wearing a blue coat. This connection to her memory explains the revenge she seeks without the need for conversations to slow down the action. Mori’s guardian, Stacker Pentecost, is similarly bathed in a heroic golden light in the flashback. Pacific Rim is rich in colour connotations.
Read more in the Graphic Master Series.