Where should a look begin?

Editor's note: this was initially published in June 2015 but all my blog postings from my old site were deleted when I migrated it to Squarespace, this has been recreated from cache'd versions and the images replaced as closely as I remembered. 

I sometimes hear certain cinematographers or colour timers explain that you can really create the film’s “look” using digital colour timing. That doesn’t make any sense to me. The visual identity of a film is created when it is shot, period.

Roger Deakins talking about his latest film Sicairo in an interview with the AFC you can read here.

As a colorist my challenge is always to work with filmmakers to develop enhancements to the images that subtly help refine their vision, rather than creating some kind of look that draws attention to itself at the expense of the story.

Tom Poole, a senior colorist at Company 3 New York, talking to Shoot Online about his work on 12 Years a Slave in an interview with Shoot Online that can be read in full here.

When it comes to filmmaking there aren’t many rules (taking the lens cap off aside); rather a set of guidelines that if followed can be a good way to put your film on the right track.

In today’s age of CGI, VFX and digital colour correction, one of the guidelines that’s starting to be ignored more and more is to do things in camera whenever possible.

How many times have you heard words to the effect of this?

Nah don’t worry about that; we’ll do it in post.

And it’s true; a lot can and is done in post. In pretty much every Mad Max: Fury Road interview I’ve read there’s been a moment where somebody from production recollects asking director George Miller about a potential continuity issue. His response would always be not to worry; from his experience in making the Happy Feet films he knew what could be done within a computer.


Skies were replaced, eyeballs were tracked and in total the grade took eight months. Not eight full-time months, colorist Eric Whipp estimated it was cumulatively around five weeks over that time period but still; eight months. And remember; time is money.

Fury Road had a budget of around $150m and if you’ve seen the film you’ll know it looks every penny of it. But this means its allocation for VFX will have likely been larger than most films’ overall budgets.

So if you haven’t got hundreds of millions of dollars to spend how else can you go about crafting and creating a cohesive look for your project?

Go back and read the two quotes from the beginning of the article, because the answer is to start thinking about all this long before it ever reaches someone like me in a colour suite.

Using the Colour Wheel

Look at another three frames from the films previously mentioned and try and spot the common theme.

If you need a little more help then have a look at the vectorscope readouts.

The blue/orange look has got a lot of hate recently, mostly from people who I don’t think understand its origins.

Everybody’s skin tone is a shade of orange. Everybody’s. The more melanin a person’s skin has; the darker the shade of orange and vica versa. Some people will lean a little more towards red; some a little more towards yellow; but all fall around the same general orange-y tone.

Similarly, the sky is always blue. Always.

Applying this to filmmaking; in 95% of your shots you’re either going to have skin tones or the sky, if not both. Therefore 95% of your shots are going to feature either the colour orange or the colour blue right off the bat, if not both.

Luckily enough these two colours are opposites on the colour wheel and therefore complement each other perfectly (you could go as far as to call them complementary colours). Why does everyone look good in jeans? Because they complement everybody’s skin tone.

Colour theory’s nothing new, nor are complementary colours limited to blue and orange. Other combinations can be played off one another, like how Scorcese used greens and reds in Taxi Driver.

Look back at all the frames in this post so far and ask yourself where you think these colour schemes have come from; do they look like something that have been created in the DI, or mostly put in place before the cameras ever started rolling?

Hint: Taxi Driver was shot in 1976. The first film do undergo a DI was Pleasantville…22 years later.

Start Grading in Production Design

The trick is to embrace these colours, and use them to your advantage.

Look at what happens to the image if the machinery in that warehouse had been green, or that dress had been pink; all of a sudden things start feeling a lot less cinematic. All the hard work that’d gone into lighting and blocking these scenes is undone by elements of the frame that very obviously stand out and draw the viewer’s attention away from the narrative.

From my experience a lot of discussion goes on during pre-production about contrast and lighting ratios, which are often reflected very well in the final product. However when it comes to colour schemes it’s often just something like cool or warm, with the intention being to create this aspect of the film’s look in the grade.

If you want to set your projects apart, start thinking carefully about the colours of what you’re putting in front of the camera. It’s no mistake everybody in the campaign office in Taxi Driver is wearing shades of red, the pillars and floor are red, but the seats are green and the fluorescent lighting’s giving off a green accent.

With this in mind take a look at the colour scheme of the sets and wardrobe in these frames from Foxcatcher and Drive.

The blues and yellows complement each other and produce a clean, cohesive image.

You can also use mixed lighting to add colour contrast into a shot like in these two scenes from The Lives of Others and Magnolia (also note more subtle elements that contribute to the look like the navy tie).

For a more extreme example look at Only God Forgives, in the frame on the right we have red, cyan, blue and yellow light all complementing each other resulting in a very striking, yet not-unnatural image (apart from the blur on the guy in the background).

Or in Birdman, shot by the Oscar-winning Emmanuel Lubezki. The shot on the right is one of my favourite in recent memory and what colours are the fairy lights? Red, green, blue and yellow.

You can combine both of these techniques and place elements in the frame that complement a light source, like how this dress plays off the moonlight in Inherent Vice.

Using complementary colours as a base for a look also gives you the ability to break away from them for dramatic effect. Again using Drive as an example, the absence of red before this moment in the film makes the blood all that more striking.

Looking again at Birdman, by mixing blue and red lighting Lubezki was able to create a very uneasy, unnatural feel to the image in-camera.

For a more in depth look at the DI process for Birdman you can watch a short Variety interview with the great Steve Scott here. An incredible amount of work was done in the grade but again; is he the one creating the look? Nope, he’s refining what’s already there.

Maintaining Natural Skin Tones

As in filmmaking there aren’t rules as such when it comes to grading; keeping your signal legal being about the only one I can think of. Again though there are guidelines and two of the most important ones to help an image stay believable are to keep your blacks neutral and skin tones natural.

Therefore another advantage of creating the base of your looks in camera is that the less you have to manipulate the colours of an image in the grade, the less time you’ll have to spend tinkering with skin tones.

Say you’re after a very warm look but you’ve shot a scene without any warm elements. To create the look you’re having to push a lot of yellow into the mids, which carries over to the skin tones of all the characters in the image. So now you have to qualify the skin and try and strike a balance where skin still feels warm in keeping with the rest of the scene, but not too warm that it looks unnatural.

This then has to be done for every shot, a time and labour intensive process.

There’s a time and a place for qualifying skin tones, and if done well you can create some really interesting and creative effects, like how Juan Melara demonstrates in a couple of excellent grade breakdowns here and here.

No doubt it can look fantastic, however the more adjustments you make to skin tones in one shot, the more of them you have to balance and match in the next.

If your look is already built into your footage, the more your skin tones will naturally fall into line with the rest of the image.

Adding Luma Contrast

You aren’t limited to introducing contrast to your image through colour; simply by adding different elements into the frame in terms of black and white you can create interest within a shot.

I remember watching this Kit Kat commercial and wondering how I’d been able to locate the focal point of the shot immediately, despite it only being on screen for a second or so.

So I went back and watched it again and although it looks like there’s some vignetting and secondaries that have been added in the grade to help guide your eyes (along with placing him at a compositional point of interest at the base of the U in the table), simply by dressing the subject in white and everybody else in darker shades of grey or black our eye’s drawn to the brightest part of the frame straight away.

Guidelines, Not Rules

Once you start to further your understanding of how colours can work together within a scene, you can then start to push things away from these guidelines and create more unconventional looks.

One of my favourite films from recent years is Her, directed by Spike Jonze and shot by Hoyte van Hoytema.

This is an excerpt from an interview with colorist Jack Lewars in Post Magazine which can be read in full here.

The aesthetic look conceived by Jonze and van Hoytema is distinctive but subtle and brilliantly reinforces the film’s time period and mood, says Lewars. “The color palette is very warm,” he notes. “We drained a lot of the blue out. There are some flashback scenes that we treated slightly differently, but even they are very warm.”

All the colours are pastel shades, very muted and matte that along with the soft lighting lend to the overall dreamy feel. Bolder elements, like the red jacket in the top left frame, can be used to quickly identify the point of interest in a busy wide shot.

So whilst there’s still a lot being done in the grade the look of the film is already built into the footage; they’re just making things a tad warmer and refining the overall aesthetic.

Lewars points to a scene where Theodore (Phoenix) takes his anthropomorphized digital date for a stroll along a beach. “The way Hoyte captured that scene is incredible as is the way color is used to further bring out the feeling of romance,” he says. “There’s not a lot of contrast. Everything is lifted. The blacks are lifted. Nothing too stark or crushed, or too bright. It feels like you could lay your head on it. It feels like love.”

Here you can see where they’ve digitally removed a lot of the blue from the image; the sea and sky are beautifully soft and creamy. But also note how there aren’t many blue elements in the frame to begin with, and where there are they’re offset by other orange elements as well as the overall warm tone.

Her is as good an example as I can think of where you have a director, production design team, wardrobe department, cinematographer and colourist clearly all working together towards the same, unified goal, resulting in a cohesive, distinctive look that works throughout the film in its entirety.

Wrapping Up

Let’s revisit the two quotes from the start of the post.

Roger Deakins

I sometimes hear certain cinematographers or colour timers explain that you can really create the film’s “look” using digital colour timing. That doesn’t make any sense to me. The visual identity of a film is created when it is shot, period.

Tom Poole

As a colorist my challenge is always to work with filmmakers to develop enhancements to the images that subtly help refine their vision, rather than creating some kind of look that draws attention to itself at the expense of the story.

It’s not to say there isn’t a time when creating the look of the film in post is the right thing to do, for example when going after very stylised looks.

However the reason Roger Deakins is one of the best DPs working today (how he’s not won multiple Oscars is beyond me) is that he understands what can/should be done in camera and can’t/shouldn’t be in post. He creates his looks in camera; working with the director and production design team to craft the film’s locations and his lighting crew to capture them.

Much was made of him recently revealing he’s used a single LUT for the five films he’s shot digitally (In Time, Skyfall, Prisoners, Unbroken and Sicario); i.e. these five films essentially have the same look in terms of how the Alexa image is being transformed. But hopefully now you understand it’s because almost everything he wants to do with the image has already been done by the time it hits the sensor, which is why he only spends five days in the DI.

At which point a colourist goes through and as Tom Poole says; subtly refines his vision; not create something that detracts from the story.


  • Talk to your production design team. Five minutes spent with them deciding how to dress a set can save hours in a grade trying to do it after-the-fact.
  • Involve your colourist as much as possible. Ask for their input during pre-production or bring them in for a day early on in the shoot for them to have the chance to help you maximise the image you’re capturing in camera in terms of the final look you’re trying to achieve.
  • Consider not only how you’re going to light a shot, but also the way the elements you’re placing within it are going to interact with one another.
  • Experiment with using complementary colours as a guideline to build the base for your looks. If they’re good enough for Hollywood’s elite they’re good enough for you.
  • Colourists don’t want to fight the image you’re supplying us. We’d much rather build upon what you’re shooting, not turn it into something completely different.