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Sep 29 2011

The strange case of disappearing color in films

If I walk into a room where someone is watching a film on TV, I can always tell immediately whether the film is a recent one or from a few decades ago, even without clues about the actors. But I would not have been able to explain how I knew this.

It turns out that it is due to the fact that films now look different in the color palette that they use. In earlier days the colors in films were more natural and often quite lush and vibrant and ranged over all the hues. Photographing color is tricky and apparently directors in days gone by paid close attention to the colors that appeared on screen to prevent any jarring effects. But with modern films, it is possible to manipulate color in the post-production phase and thus less attention is paid to this aspect of filmmaking photography.

The trend in modern color films is to drain the colors out and impose a kind of subdued bluish tint. This article gives examples of the change. Look at the stills from some old and new films and you will see immediately what I mean.

Why did this happen? This article explains that with the ability to digitize film and manipulate its color, film makers have during the post-production phase deliberately set about to created the somewhat drab look that is now so ubiquitous.

You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land? Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal. And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will “pop”, and sometimes even vibrate. So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to “pop” from the background. I mean, people are really important, aren’t they?

And so we now have this teal-orange dominance in modern films. Although I had not read these articles when I posted the item about old and new film trailers, those two trailers illustrate this point quite nicely.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Somite

    This explains John Boehner! It wouldn’t surprise me if some image consultant actually suggested an orange hue.

  2. 2
    Scott

    I wonder if the current lack of color represent a different mindset; is our culture now more cynical about the future, and our films reflect that (subconsciously) and the filmmakers (and society) of the past were more optimistic, and their films reflected that? Ironically, Adobe Premiere (a movie-editing program) has a color preset called “Technicolor.”

  3. 3
    Mano

    Scott,

    There is something to what you say. The mood has darkened and the coloring of films seems to at least partly reflect that. We now have a grittier, less sunny, outlook.

  4. 4
    Tim

    I was thinking along the same lines as Scott. While every era is difficult, perhaps the lack of color is a symbolic representations of today’s world.

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