Who’s in Control, the DP or the Colorist?
Is the Director of Photography still the sole “Auteur of the Image?”
I would say not. At best, in the digital age, the DP shares this creative role with the Colorist.
I believe color correction is more and more becoming an integral part of the creation of the image. And I don’t see DPs trying to reclaim this powerful control of their images.
With the advent of high quality digital imaging in many RAW formats the only thing a DP can “bake in” to the image is the composition, the lighting, and the camera movement. Not to denigrate these important aspects, but the DP has many more arrows in his quiver, which are increasingly being taken over by the Colorist.
The Origins of Color Correction
Back when DPs shot on film (a few still do) their work was graded in the lab by a Color Timer on a Hazeltine. This is an analogue printer, which senses notches in the edge of the film and instantly drops a new pack of filters into the light source, correcting and balancing the image from scene to scene.
This pack of filters was varying intensities of the colors yellow, cyan, and magenta and also the density of the light source.
This gave the Timer very limited control of the image, and NO control of contrast. This meant that the DP had to create the “look” of the image with lighting, exposure, choice of film stock, and possibly by flashing the negative.
If the DP wanted to create a vignette or to knock down the intensity of a sky, or diffuse a woman’s close up he had to do it in camera with filters in front of, or behind the lens.
In short the DP had to create the entire image. The Color Timer had an important role in balancing the end result, but it could not really be called creative control.
Color Correction in the 1970s and 80s
Cut to 1977.
The Rank Cintel Flying Spot Scanner Mk.3 was used to transfer film to video tape.
Around that time I was becoming heavily involved in shooting television commercials, which made me an early adopter of this revolutionary new technology.
In the early eighties, Encore, a high-end postproduction house in Hollywood came out with a proprietary Telecine system, which had Secondary Color Control. This is the ability to isolate each color individually and manipulate it without affecting the remaining image.
Playing around with this powerful new tool, I used it heavily in this Karen White music video.
Color Correction in the 21st Century
Cut to the third millennium.
In 2000, the Coen brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou was the first film to use the toolset we had been using in the commercial and music video business for many years. But this time, the end result was a film negative instead of a video tape.
This was the birth of the Digital Intermediate – or DI. Although almost every movie was still shot on film, this began the slippery slope of the DP relying on the post-process to control the image.
It became very easy for the DP not to take the time on set to use a flag on a hot white door-jam, or to set a grad filter on a hot sky, because he knew he could knock it down when he got to the DI suite.
And with it, digital color correction tools have burgeoned. Powerful masking, rotoscoping and tracking tools are now incorporated into ubiquitous color correction software.
What used to be a multi-million dollar professional color correction suite has now become free desktop software.
DPs, Take Back Control!
So, back to my rant about DPs giving up control of their images to the Colorist.
I was certainly never going to do this. But, I am never one to shy away from embracing new technology. I knew the best way to stay in control of my images (beyond taking care on set and honing my DP skills) was to master the Colorists software myself.
I have a good background in digital imaging and VFX. I have been in color suites sitting beside the Colorists telling them what I wanted for many years. And I have been cutting my own reels on my desktop for some time and have done a lot of minor grading in Final Cut Pro.
So, when DaVinci was bought by Blackmagic Design and came out with a full color correction suite for under $1000, I was all in. Next came a really steep learning curve in producing and manipulating images for the big screen DCP.
I have graded every feature film and almost everything else I have shot since. I can be so competitive with my desktop suite! With the fact that the director/producer gets the DPs eye and original intent, it becomes a no brainer to have me do the work.
Next blog I will go into detail about my “steep learning curve.” And how I go about grading a feature film.
Let me know if there is a topic you would like me to cover.