Digital Grading: cinema and the blue rinse brigade

By Dene Kernohan

O Brother Where Art Thou
O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Digital Intermediate process, known as DI, has been around in cinema for over a decade now.  Basically, it is the transfer of filmed material to the digital realm, allowing for total control of the image in post production, especially with regards the colour palette.  Traditionally it is an expensive process (10 years ago, around $200,000 for a feature film) and involved scanning the film in its entirety.  But as film itself has become all but obsolete, this part of the process is unnecessary and digital grading has become more widespread.

One of the first major studio usages was in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). The Coen Brothers and director of photography Roger Deakins used the technology to give the Depression-era pic its distinctive “dustbowl” look by toning down the primary colours – to much acclaim and an Oscar nomination for cinematography.

The first time I became particularly aware of it was in Jodie Foster thriller Panic Room (2002), where DI allowed director David Fincher “an insane amount of control over the imagery” [Peter Mavromates, post-production supervisor, speaking on the 3-disc DVD special features].  Trouble is, in my opinion he turned a 4-star movie into a 3-star one in the process.  As it stands, it’s a rather cold, clinical experience and not just because of the blue-green tint.  It’s as if all the life has been taken out of it.

(Oh, and a dolly shot which goes through the handle of a coffee maker?  Bullshit!  But that’s a slightly different rant.)

Jodie was feeling blue.
Jodie was feeling blue.

Of course, Digital Intermediate is simply progress and, like shooting digitally, it isn’t going to go away.  I have no doubt it is an incredible tool for colour timing a movie, making the matching of shots in a single scene, for instance, far easier to achieve than photochemically; or helping turn an overcast day into a bright one.  And it’s invaluable for CG-heavy movies – giving a piece uniformity and hiding where reality ends and digital effects begin.

But in my opinion it’s frequently taken too far by filmmakers.  Nowadays it seems as though every other film uses DI to make everything blue.  British thrillers seem particularly attracted towards it: Instead of a story, the film immerses itself in a sleek, bluish tint” [review of The Sweeney (2012) by Omer M. Mozaffar].  I have no idea why – presumably somebody, somewhere, decided it looks cool.  I agree it’s distinctive – although less so the more projects to which it’s applied – but it’s completely false.  Nowhere and nothing looks like that.  Isn’t art about truth, however skewed?  The more you manipulate the image afterwards, the less truthful you are being.  And the less seriously I can take the result.

Film isn’t an artist’s medium the way painting, music or even photography is.  It’s too collaborative.  Cinema is a time machine, and by that I mean a product of the time in which it is produced.  Real life, with all its imperfections, should be allowed to seep in at the edges.  Take it out and you’re left with something dead.  DI makes this kind of tinkering all too easy, and given the way movies are financed nowadays I suspect too many opinions are able to be satisfied as well.

I can’t believe production and costume designers are thrilled with it either – isn’t it taking away from their skills if what we see on screen bears little resemblance to their work on set?

Television doesn’t seem to use digital grading as predominantly as film, perhaps for budgetary reasons or tighter schedules.  But it’s not immune.  I noticed in the recent Doctor Who series opener “The Bells of Saint John” that the scenes set in the villains’ headquarters in the Shard were given the blue rinse (see publicity photo of Celia Imrie as Miss Kizlet, left; screenshot from episode, right).  Okay, it makes for a strong contrast with exteriors, but I’d sooner see people’s faces how they are meant to look.

Imrie comparison

Since we’re on the subject of science fiction/fantasy, I do concede that when dealing with other worlds, there may be a stronger licence to use grading.  You’re in a different reality, perhaps different rules apply.  Peter Jackson’s much-loved vision of Middle Earth was achieved with extensive use of DI.  And in the hands of a film historian like Martin Scorsese, you can be guaranteed he will use it to some genuine purpose – such as replicating two-color and three-strip Technicolor in The Aviator (2004).

The Aviator
The Aviator

But sadly nowadays, it’s almost a novelty to find a movie which hasn’t been heavily graded away from its natural colours for no reason.  The last two Die Hards have that familiar blue tint, meaning that they don’t match the first three.  Franchises should match!  The heightening of colours is another overused grading technique – that may work in 30 second adverts, but for an entire movie is tiresome.

Die Hard comparison

There is of course a very strong argument for the continued use of DI: the audience as a whole doesn’t care.  I’ve sat in completely out-of-focus films where no one batted an eyelid: believe me, the audience couldn’t care less how a film is colour graded.  But that works two ways – I am similarly convinced there isn’t a movie out there whose box office or general reaction was affected one iota by all that work in the DI.

I’m pleased to note I’m not alone.  Several high profile filmmakers eschew DI, notably Christopher Nolan: “I’ve never done a digital intermediate.  I’ve just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change.  But I haven’t seen that reason yet.”.  It certainly hasn’t affected his box office.  And here’s Janus Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer, talking about War Horse (2011): “I do not create the look of the movie in the DI.  Steven and I make the movie on the set”.  The results are gorgeous.

So for those of us who care, could I make a plea to filmmakers to just leave the colours alone – unless you have a very strong reason.  Life has a rather pleasing colour palette as it stands – why would you want to change it?  We engage with what we recognise.  And there should be as little as possible between the actors and the audience: messing about with the grading just gets in the way.  It’s the equivalent of a restricted view seat at the theatre.

Dene Kernohan can be found tweeting here.

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4 thoughts on “Digital Grading: cinema and the blue rinse brigade

  1. Agree DI is overused, misused and abused.The problem is viewers are too conditioned to this kind of thing and cinematographers are getting lazy beacuse they can correct everything in post.Saw Oblivion yesterday and felt the same.Our future is very grey indeed.

  2. This is an overused technique that is becoming an annoyance. Fincher’s BFF Soderbergh also seems to ‘degrade’ his films by concentrating too much on this.

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