“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” Is Not a Techno-Thriller

Movie poster for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

…but 15 years ago it would’ve been.

First off, GWTDT (sorry, I just can’t keep typing the whole title) is an exceptionally crafted thriller and mystery that weaves in thoughtful characterizations and startling glimpses of grotesque horror and awkward sexuality. If you can’t tell from all that, I really liked it. However, I was reflecting this afternoon that the technology used for the digital research that was portrayed throughout, and which was a major motivator of the plot, wasn’t the focus of the story. In fact, the titular character’s skills with the computer were, within the context of the story, almost prosaic despite her clear virtuosity.

This stands in stark contrast to several high-tech thrillers I’ve seen in recent years wherein any portrayal of competent computer use continues to be some kind of hyper-realized graphics and animation extravaganza, with characters pulling off ridiculous hijinks with the wave of a mouse and a few taps of the keyboard. Furthermore, “hackers” and computer experts are usually shown having superhuman analytical skills, with individual characters finding hidden codes and patterns that rooms full of Pentagon or government analysts and IT types have somehow missed. Also, the hands-on computer whizzes are typically guys.

Not so in GWTDT. I’m no command-line jockey, but I’ve had just enough experience with terminals, Unix, c-shell, and perl over the years for the computer usage montages and onscreen closeups to ring true. Even the hacking of someone’s computer remotely that constituted a significant plot point indicated nothing more esoteric then someone logging in remotely using VNC (or Screen Sharing in the parlance of Mac OS X, which all the characters were using). Sure, some clever off-screen social engineering was probably required to get the password, but that’s not implausible.

Furthermore, it’s incredibly gratifying to see the portrayal of a serious-minded young woman with intense computer and analytical skills shown in a truly modern context. She’s not a nerd, she’s not a ditz, and her mastery of technology isn’t even what distinguishes her individuality—she’s a seriously-styled goth keeping the world at arms length. Computers are what allow her to do her work, and she’s good at what she does. What makes this even more effective is the direct analogy drawn between her and the other main character, a newspaper reporter with a slightly different skillset who does exactly the same thing—deep research—sometimes using computers. In this context, the tatooed heroine’s use of technology is not shown as an obsession or lifestyle, simply a skill used to advance her other activities.

I could also rave about the rest of her portrayal, and go on and on about other absolutely terrific facets of the movie (great script, performances, and direction throughout). Sticking to the point, however, it’s simply good to see technology portrayed not gaudily, but realistically, and to see it used as a tool that helps to drive the narrative forward, and not as the point of the story. Networked technology has finally been around long enough to not seem so unusual to the average consumer, it’s high time that the movies finally caught up.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Notes From NAB, Part Deux

NAB South Hall Show Floor

The south hall NAB show floor (where all the postproduction was) on Wednesday was packed.

Upon my return to New York and my first full night’s sleep in a week, I thought it would be good to follow up upon my last post and share some experiences from the rest of the show before they faded from memory. Overall, I had a great time visiting the different vendors of color correction hardware and software and comparing what they can do. Interestingly, the south hall (where most of the postproduction hardware/software vendors were located) was packed, much moreso then what I saw of the north and center halls, where all the production and distribution gear was located. With the abundance of tools now available to enable talented people to do increasingly incredible things, it’s a good time to be involved with post.

I got a fuller demo of the workflow involved with moving Avid and FCP projects to and from Baselight. Baselight has a clean, if packed, user interface, and as far as I can tell has pretty much every software tool ever devised for making color correction adjustments. It’s accompanied by an equally impressive price tag, but then if your clients really need that kind of horsepower, you should be able to afford it. I saw both AAF and XML project files round-trip without any drama, although I feel obligated to point out that although there’s support for multi-track timelines and speed effects, support for other effects (motion effects, still frames, generators, etc) is predictably absent, so anyone who has complained about the amount of project preparation required in moving a project from FCP to Apple Color isn’t going to find this any better.

However, it’s still better then a one-track EDL-only workflow for projects requiring multi-track media management. ProRes compatibility is a big deal, although the means for supporting ProRes on a Linux application is interesting; an Xserve works as an intermediary, reading the ProRes data and converting it to a data stream that’s sent to the Linux computer that’s actually running Baselight. It works well, and allows real-time work at full frame rates (though on the base system I was watching, the final corrections still had to be rendered before being output). Still, it seems like a lot to go through. Sure would be nice if Apple provided ProRes support for Linux (since there are now a ton of post platforms on that OS). Oh yeah, and Baselight has a great control surface.

One other thing of interest–Sony introduced a new version of HDCAM SR, that among other things is capable of storing CDL color correction metadata on tape. Baselight can read this data, and extract the on-camera color adjustments for each piece of media in the timeline to use as the starting point of the grade. Nice. I look forward to seeing how many other vendors use HDCAM SR CDL data for various workflows.

Baselight Control Surface

The control surface for Baselight will make your suite look like the bridge of the Enterprise.

In the spirit of fairness, I also had brief looks at Digital Vision’s Film Master (interesting compositing tools and AAF support) and Assimilate Scratch (new compositing operations that look to make multi-track FCP XML workflows even easier), and both are impressive platforms for their intended markets. Unfortunately I don’t have much more to say as I didn’t get full demos, but I hope to have closer looks at both systems in action in the coming months.

Incidentally, I also had another look at Davinci’s software Resolve product for Mac OS X. As this is a system I could actually afford to add to my suite in the near term, I was curious about the Mac Pro hardware configuration they were running on the showroom floor. I was told that of the two NVidia cards installed, the one doing the heavy lifting was the GTX 285 (the other being the base GT 120 card that’s handling the UI). This is definitely an affordable option, though it’ll be a change for all the Apple Color users (myself included) who’ve set up their systems based on the ATI graphics cards that have long been recommended.

I also got a nice look at Cintel’s diTTo film scanner. With some fancy-pants technology for dust and scratch elimination, this is actually a “portable” solution (it even has integrated storage so it’s completely self-contained) for situations where a film scanner needs to be taken to a film archival facility to scan prints that can’t be taken off premises.

It does 2K and 4K film scanning. Cintel seems to be positioning it as a jack-of-all-trades film scanner for preservation, effects work, and digital intermediate work. It’s not the fastest scanner around at 2 frames per second, but it’s relatively affordable (I believe it was around $300K–I said relatively) and what really impressed me was the lack of necessary infrastructure. Put it on a level surface in a clean and dust free environment, plug it in, and spool up your film. There are no special cooling, ventilation, or other installation or connection requirements to deal with. I had somehow expected film scanning equipment to be more hassle. Neat.

Cinetal Ditto Evolution

A "desktop" film scanner from Cinetal. Make sure it's a strong desktop.

I also took a look at Dolby Labs insanely spec’ed new PRM-4200 reference monitor. It’s an LCD-based panel that uses red/green/blue LED backlighting (similar to the Dreamcolor and Flanders Scientific displays) to deepen blacks and extend the gamut. It’s surprisingly deep (it’s a beast of a monitor), and rather large to look at too at 42″. Aside from full Rec. 709 color accuracy (for which this monitor is way, way overkill if you ask me) it has 100 percent support of the DCI/P3 colorspace required for digital cinema. For reference, the Dreamcolor and Flanders Scientific displays both say they support in the neighborhood of 97% of the P3 primaries (which really isn’t bad), so getting something other then a 2K projector that can do 100% of P3 means you can build a smaller cinema grading suite that still shows all the color of digital cinema.

I watched the darkened room demo, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. If it survives closer scrutiny from industry display experts, then it’ll probably be a big deal for large post houses with deep pockets.However, for the rest of us boutique sized grading facilities that primarily work within Rec. 709, this monitor is probably not a serious consideration considering its high price tag (I’ve read other blogs put the TBD price tag anywhere between $30 and $50K). I’ll be curious to see what the final pricing is, and who starts to deploy this model first.

So that was everything that made a big impression on me. I looked at a lot of SAN and direct-attached storage solutions, and while I saw lots of great high-performance drive systems, I’m disappointed that prices for Fibre-based systems stubbornly remain high. Otherwise, I find it impressive that support for ProRes is growing throughout the industry (the ability to record to ProRes 4444 in the new ARRI Alexa camera is simply stunning), as is FCP XML round-trip support, making it easier and easier to handle complicated edits from FCP in other grading solutions. It’s all good news for the midrange post facility trying to add services and improve capabilities in a tough economy.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Notes From NAB

Another year's pilgrimage to NAB, in Vegas...

Well this year’s NAB is shaping up to be a doozy. Having spent the day chatting with representatives from various vendors of color correction software, color critical broadcast monitors, and accelerated storage systems, all of which I take a professional interest in, I thought I’d share some end of day thoughts.

Of course, the biggest news is Blackmagic/Davinci’s announcement of a $995 Mac OS X compatible, software-only license of their flagship color correction application, Resolve. Spending $30K gets you the overwhelmingly designed control surfaces (USB connected, by the way), while $50K gets you the control surface and a Linux license (and then you need to buy the appropriate CPU/multi-GPU configuration to run it).

A terrible picture of a terrific color correction system, Resolve for Mac OS X

Interestingly, on Mac OS X, you’ll end up installing two NVidia GPUs into your Mac Pro, one in the default slot that’s used to run the UI, and a second one to do the image processing. Coupled with an additional Blackmagic card for video I/O (they say they’ll introduce compatibility with other video I/O interfaces eventually), and another I/O card for whatever flavor of accelerated storage you’ll be wanting to use, you’ll have one full Mac Pro workstation. From what I saw on the showroom floor, you can do quite a bit with this configuration.

While they were at it, Davinci has refined the user interface of the new version to make it a cleaner, sharper, darker experience. Overall, it appears to be a powerful and efficiently designed product. Davinci has long been one of the top names in color correction systems, and having the Resolve software available on OS X is a big deal, never mind the exceptionally affordable price point. I look forward to having this tool in my suite.

Of course, there’s plenty of other news. Iridas is showing an update of their color correction software Speedgrade (for which there’s also an OS X version), which expands upon an already impressive array of native format compatibility.  Speedgrade has a lean, efficient interface with a useful and unique take on some common operations, and a really interesting field-to-post suite LUT-based workflow that’s very cinematographer-friendly. I’d like to get to know this product better.

I also checked out Discreet’s Autodesk’s color grading software, Lustre. From a distance, I’ve always been a bit put off by Lustre’s dense user interface, but watching the demo artist in action, and especially seeing some of the new shot sorting and grade management features they’ve put into the application for their new release, I was impressed. They’ve also put quite some thought into the stereo grading workflow, which I’m seeing is fraught with all kinds of pitfalls for colorists (left and right cameras not matching and with a lens flare in one eye but not the other, jeez!). Sure would be nice if they took a page from their Smoke playbook and brought Lustre to the Mac, but that’s just me thinking aloud.

At colleague and friend Robbie Carman’s suggestion, I also went to see the Flanders Scientific monitors. Having heard about these for years, this was my first view of them. Although the show floor is the worst possible place to evaluate a monitor, what with all the ambient glare killing the contrast, I was impressed at the gamut handling, the wide viewing angle, the visibility of full-range image data (super-white and super-chroma), and the properly presented interlace handling (there’s still plenty of 1080i programming being produced, it’s not all progressive frame yet). Coupled with true 10-bit processing and display, HD-SDI and 3G, and full-blown 3D LUT calibration, this is a righteously proper broadcast monitor for a mere $10K.

On the other hand, I finally had a look (after two years of wanting to see one) at HP’s Dreamcolor monitor. Again, it’s hard to judge fairly in the environment, but I liked what I saw, and at a mere $2K, it’s a nice solution for the right suite, and certainly priced to move. Not, however, necessarily a good solution if you’re needing to work with interlaced material for broadcast (the Dreamcolor engine can’t deinterlace and calibrate, so you need to feed the monitor a deinterlaced signal). Again, if all you do is progressive, then this is not a problem–it depends on the work you do.

I saw lots of other things (my Twitter feed has many more ramblings, if you’re into that sort of thing), but I’ll end with my one extravagant, yet unobtainable wish–the Konica Minolta CS-2000.

If only I had a spare $24K lying around...

It’s a spectroradiometer of extreme accuracy and low-light sensitivity. In my color correction writings I often like to spin off onto tangents of comparative research, and I wish I had a tool like this to go crazy with measuring real-world color phenomena.

And this was only the first day. Much more to see tomorrow, I hope to connect with Filmlight and Assimilate to see what they’re up to in their new releases. Oh, and I’ll be interviewed briefly on Larry Jordan’s Digital Production Buzz at 4:05. Whew!

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

I’ve Moved! (My Suite)

I’m a week overdue in mentioning this, but after a month of preparation and two weeks of backbreaking work, I’ve moved my color correction suite to co-locate with Twitch Post, with whom I’m partnering to offer my color correction services to an even more diverse clientele.

For those of you who’ve already been working with me, nothing has changed. You can still reach me through correctionforcolor.com and contact me directly for inquiries and scheduling, and I offer the same range of color correction and compositing services as before. However, being located at Twitch means that additional editorial and finishing services are also available under the same roof, should you need them!

My new, larger suite offers many advantages, not the least of which is a huge 114″ front-projection screen (nearly 10′ diagonal), for an immersive grading theater experience suitable for any project. My HD-native projector is THX-calibrated, and the entire room has been constructed to conform to established digital cinema evaluation standards. Narrative and documentary features, shorts, and promos can be color corrected with complete confidence that what’s on the screen is what the audience will see.

And not only have I moved, but I’ve already completed the first project in the new space—color correction for artist John Pilson’s nine screen video installation “Frolic and Detour”—playing at the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Visit www.correctionforcolor.com for direct information about my color correction services, and to contact me for quotes and scheduling information.

Visit www.twitchpost.com to learn more about Twitch Post.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

A Color Update, and Support Articles

It would appear that Apple has released an update to Color 1.5, putting the application at 1.5.2. Hooray for bug fixes.

Although these days I use Color solely as a working colorist (and I’m busily moving my suite over to Twitch postproduction here in NYC), I did write the manual for versions 1 and 1.5. I guess old habits die hard, because with the new update I couldn’t help taking a look at the Apple Support knowledge base to see if there were any new and interesting tech notes, and then making a list.

I’m glad I did, searching for “Color 1.5” in the title revealed the following issues that I hadn’t known about:

While I’d rather not have any bugs at all, I’m glad Apple saw fit to mention these issues in the support library. Especially the RED issues, what with a few RED projects that might be coming my way in the coming months (although I doubt I’ll be worrying about the “mixed 4K and NTSC material” bug any time soon).

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Are 3D Movies a Fad? Who Cares?

I’ve read a lot of back and forth about the merits (or lack thereof) of 3D movie-making. Enthusiasts compare it to the transition from monochrome to color television. Haters think it’s a lame fad and a waste of creative resources. I even read someone compare 3D to Quadraphonic audio, implying that, like Quadraphonic’s ill-fated experiment in the 70’s, 3D is also an impractical format that’s awkward to use and will lose favor with consumers.

Honestly, I think that analogy is a bit harsh, especially considering that multi-channel audio made a huge comeback eventually, only for movies. In fact, I think the analogy is rather apt within this other context. I would suggest that the 3D systems in current use are comparable to the introduction of surround sound.

Is surround-sound necessary for the enjoyment of a good movie? No. Plenty of movie-lovers I know watch their movies with the carefully-mixed 5.1 surround downmixed to mere stereo. However, nicely set up surround sound is really fun to listen to. In fact, I go to IMAX theaters just as much for the massively spec’ed surround sound audio system as I do the towering visuals. And yes, I upgraded my own surround sound home setup last year (Klipsch, if you must know), so I’m a fan.

Getting back to 3D, I’ve seen a fair number of movies using the current polarized light systems. One that springs to mind most immediately is Coraline, a really wonderful film. It was a terrific 3D experience in the theater, my wife Kaylynn and I both enjoyed it immensely. Several months later, we enjoyed it a second time with a friend on our home plasma, on Blu-Ray. I insisted on skipping the Anaglyph-style presentation (Red/cyan glasses? Please…) and we simply watched it in 2D.

What a surprise; it was still a great film.

Whenever 3D plasma, OLED, SED, or whatever the dominant technology is five or ten years from now becomes affordable, I will happily watch it in 3D again, and that’s what I think is the real point. A good movie is a good movie, whether it’s 2D or 3D. 3D presentation is simply the icing on the cake, a bit of extra fun that some folks will spring more dollars for (along with their surround sound speaker setups), and other folks will ignore.

And to that end, as a director and a viewer, I really hope the technology improves and the format survives. It would be nice to have the option, and folks that don’t care can easily skip it. As for cinemas, I imagine that, similar to anamorphic presentation that can be switched on or off depending on the film print, 3D presentation will be switched on or off depending on the movie. It remains to be seen whether (assuming that 3D survives as a permanent option for directors) the cinemas of the future will be wholly 3D for a given movie, or whether 2D screens will continue to remain available for a movie capable of 3D presentation.

While 3D is all fun and games for viewers, I do see a downside, and that is whether or not studios are going to be forcing directors to shoot movies in 3D who would rather not. Especially at the blockbuster level, this conflict has already started popping up in the Hollywood press. For example, Darren Aronofsky apparently dropped out of doing a Robocop remake because of studio pressure to make it in 3D, while Aronofsky had no interest. The over-the-top financial success of Avatar doubtless has movie companies worldwide hungering for a bit of that 3D cash flow, and I’m sure it’s having a ripple effect in the development of movies above a certain budget. Heck, even I’ve done a few experiments with the animated web series I’m developing, recompositing a few of the animated illustrations in 3D to see how the workflow would be. At the moment, it’s too much hassle for our small crew to handle, but were we to have a bigger budget, man would it be fun.

Of course, I’ve no doubt that all it’ll take is one massively expensive flop to throw a wet blanket over the notion that 3D = waterfalls of money. Hopefully, when the time comes, the studios will be circumspect. All it should take would be another Up, Coraline, or Avatar (II probably) to get folks excited again.

It’s an interesting transition to witness.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Even More On Memory Colors

Over at ProLost, Stu Maschwitz presents a nicely illustrated overview of the topic of memory colors. Go and give it a read. This is a fascinating subject that I myself stumbled upon three years ago while researching the IPT color space (long story), and there’s a whole body of academic research in the imaging science world on memory colors going back sixty years if you’re interested in digging deeper.

It’s also a topic I’ve been researching for my next book on color correction, in which I’m planning on citing the sources covered in this blog entry to try and provide a more data-driven framework for discussing why we colorists make the kinds of adjustments we do. Until then, here’s a super-quick overview of articles to provide some food for thought. My apologies for the lack of imagery, I’ve not had the time to get illustration permissions from all the papers I’m citing here (that’ll have to wait for the book).

An excellent starting point is a great article from 2004 that was presented at the IS&T/SID Twelfth Color Imaging Conference (coauthored by Clotilde Boust and too many others to list here) titled “Does an Expert Use Memory Colors to Adjust Images” (the paper is available on PDF here). It cites experiments tracking how a number of expert photoshop artists in controlled environments identify regions of a series of images to isolate for specific correction, and the direction in which the colors were adjusted. Correlating data from their work on four specific images, it was found that the following image regions were consistently isolated for targeted adjustment (secondary color correction, for you film/video folks out there):

  • Skin Tone
  • Green Grass
  • Blue Sky

Experts preferences for these three colors were found to overlap, with all the test subjects adjustments pushing those colors into the same directions when their individual adjustments were plotted with vectors on a u’ v’ graph. It’s an interesting paper, and I’ve absolutely found in my own work that these are the three subjects clients most often want more tweaks made to in any given scene, whether it’s a documentary or narrative program.

What’s really interesting to me is that, while adjustments to a particular subject corresponding to a memory color fall within a particular region, the regions are fairly large, leaving room for individual preference, subject variation, and the influence of lighting (discussed later on). Thus, the data seems to support general guidelines over hard rules.

This paper draws upon information from Sergej N. Yendrikhovskij’s 1998 paper, “Color Reproduction and the Naturalness Constraint” (available from Wiley Interscience). It’s a long and technical document (I freely admit I’m no mathematician) but it’s also filled with a lot of valuable background on the search for a meaningful definition and means of measurement for color image quality in a world of incredibly different display devices and print technologies.

Chapter 2 specifically deals with memory colors. It cites E. Hering as the originator of the term  with regards to “the colors that are recalled in association with familiar objects” (quoted from “Outlines of a Theory of the Light Sense,” Harvard University Press, 1964). In a great example for us colorists, Yendrikhovskij describes memory color within the context of a person looking for a banana at a grocery store. Taking for granted the phenomena effecting the eye’s perception of color in that situation, the banana as perceived in the bin is compared with the memory color of that person’s ideal banana (how that ideal memory color is formulated is an entirely different topic).

My key takeaway from this example is a) memory colors have a concrete effect on the appeal of a visual subject to the viewer, and b) someone’s ideal color for a thing may have nothing to do with that thing’s exact, photometrically measured color. This is when the client tells you, “I don’t care if it’s accurate, I want it to be yellower and more saturated!”

Digging deeper, I found a great study by C. J. Bartleson (Eastman Kodak Company), in the January 1960 issue of the Journal of the Optical Society of America, titled “Memory Colors of Familiar Objects” (available from OpticsInfoBase). The goal of that study was to identify, based on fifty observers (with percentages of “technical” and “nontechnical” people alike), what colors were most consistently associated with specific, highly familiar objects (I’m paraphrasing here). This paper found 10 objects for which viewers exhibited consistent preferences across the group (plotted as a close cloud of points on a hue vs. chroma graph) that includes:

  • Red Brick
  • Green Grass
  • Dry Grass
  • Blue Sky
  • Flesh
  • Tan Flesh
  • Green Foliage
  • Evergreens
  • Inland Soil
  • Beach Sand

This is clearly a longer list of subjects that may elicit audience expectations, but I find while the previous skin/grass/sky subject isolations apply well to requests I routinely get from clients, this longer list applies more accurately to the expanded list of things that I’ve found myself fiddling with in various programs, before the client even makes their first comments. For example, I’ve not had very many clients make specific requests about targeted adjustments to dirt, but having color corrected a feature that took place in the desert, and many scenes in beach environments, I can attest to having spent lots and lots of time obsessing about the ideal colors for earth and sand!

Getting back to audience preferences, the earliest paper I found related to this subject is by J. P. Guilford, from the December 1959 American Journal of Psychology, “A System of Color Preferences,” (available at JSTOR) testing 40 observers (20 men, 20 women) on their general preferences of colors, irrespective of object associations. Color chips were rated from 0=”most unpleasant imaginable” to 10=”most pleasant imaginable.” I’ve not fully digested the entire article, but while the tested subjects make the study very region specific (they all lived in Nebraska), I’ve been curious to see if the paper identifies any preferences I’ve observed in my own client sessions.  I’d also be curious to see if an identical study done today would reveal changes in color preference over time (in Nebraska).

One last paper I’ll mention, Scot R. Fernandez and Mark D. Fairchild’s “Observer Preferences and Cultural Differences in Color Reproduction of Scenic Images” (available from the Center for Imaging Science). This is another series of experiments testing observer preferences, but this time sampling an international group of subjects (Chinese, Japanese, European, and American) to try and see if there are consistent regional preferences. The results point to statistically significant preferences in different populations, and I think it’d be really interesting to compare these to anecdotal observations of colorists doing client work within each of these regions. In two examples cited by this paper, Japanese seem to prefer a lighter image compared to the other groups, while Chinese seem to prefer higher contrast images then do Americans and Japanese.

So, is all of this research worth pouring through to a working professional? As another colorist of considerable experience mentioned in a mail list elsewhere, much of the professional colorist’s work is intuitive, based on years of experience grading many programs for lots of different clients. Any colorist who’s been in the business for years is an individual treasure trove of this kind of information.

Personally, I find it comforting to read through a body of research investigating how the audience perceives the image, and that backs up many of the things I do on every project. As a writer and occasional instructor for color correction classes, I also think it’s extremely useful as a starting point for discussing how to begin going about making color adjustments with people who are new to color correction. Lastly, it’s a nice rationale to offer to clients that want a specific adjustment made that one might consider ill-advised.

However, I think an important point to make amidst all this research is that we shouldn’t all be grading skies, grass, and skin tones identically in every project we work on. That would be dull, it ignores individual variation, and it also doesn’t take into consideration the important role that scenic color temperature plays in keeping all elements of the picture unified, rather then ripping an image apart to look like a poorly made composite. The dominant light source in a naturalistic scene affects everything it illuminates, and in a typical grade I think that subject highlights ought to reflect that. In the 2006 paper “Color Enhancement of Digital Images by Experts and Preference Judgments by Observers” from the Journal of Imaging Science and Technology (available here), the authors state:

“The expert also follows some rules: the corrections must be plausible inside each segment and for the whole image, in relation with the illuminant of the scene. The images are accepted by observers in relation with the presence of memory colors and when the treatment of the whole image seems coherent.”

Furthermore, it would be a mistake to interpret this type of research in too literal a fashion, so that visual storytelling is held hostage to audience expectations of the way things ought to be. Instead, whatever the client and you decide to do from a creative perspective, you are at an advantage if you’re aware of how you’re either playing into, or against, the audience’s expectations (whether the audience is conscious of it or not).

That to me is the real fun of the job, finding the right tense scene in that thriller where pushing the color very gently against type, if you will, can give the audience just the right sense of unease. Or conversely, grading the kiss in a romantic comedy knowing with full conviction the audience ideals of hue for skin tone and background sky that will put the shot right over the top.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Every Director Should Spend One Day as an Extra

My day as a background player, bowling

First off, a shout out to the cast and crew of the NOVA special I participated in as an extra. Very professional, very ambitious. I can’t share the name of the production, but for at least the part of the script covered by this shoot, physics and bowling are natural bedfellows.

Now, as a writer/director I spend what time I’m involved with film/video projects behind the camera. Despite some limited experience in acting classes and helping friends out, I’ve never really held performance to be a personal ambition. However, when a friend of mine who was art directing a program for WGBH approached me about doing a day as a bowling extra on a program that two other friends of mine happened to be working on, I said why not.

Despite all the familiar faces on set, everyone was naturally far too busy achieving an ambitious day’s work to chit chat with me. Having been in their shoes, I fully expected that, so I contented myself by assuming the role that I myself have put others through over the years, sitting around waiting for my scene to come up. Predictably, despite the 10 a.m. call time (the last feature I directed demanded 5 a.m. call times for sunrise shoots, so this was luxury I hardly deserved), we three extras weren’t needed until 5’ish, so I read my novel, chatted with the other extras in hushed tones, ate my free lunch, and took in the activities of the set.

At key points during the day, the producer and director were careful to let us know when we were likely to be needed, and to update us with inevitable rearrangements of the schedule. I felt I’d dodged a bullet in costuming when one of the combinations of garments I brought was enthusiastically endorsed by the director (I somehow had a feeling that the red bow tie would be a winner…). Everyone was considerate, professional, and overall it was a pleasant display of how nicely a shoot can be run, even with a hard deadline and an ambitious shot count for the day.

For myself, it highlighted the importance of providing a calm, inclusive atmosphere for everyone, even the extras who are stuck sitting around all day waiting for their scene. It was also a reminder of what it’s like to be the one sitting there, and while I’ve always made an effort to be considerate of everyone on the set of one of my projects, in future I’ll be even more mindful of the scheduling and handling of the background players.

It’s so easy to be caught up in the minutia of directing the scenes at hand–especially on lower-budgeted shoots with small crews and a blurred line between producing, directing, and assistant directing–that necessary pleasantries and interactions with the larger crew can fall by the wayside, when in fact even three minutes spent making someone who’s waiting around feel like they’re part of the proceedings can result in hugely better attitudes all around. And better attitudes pay real dividends when its someone’s turn to be on camera.

I’m glad for the experience.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Unexpected Surprises in Potentially Boring Action Sequences

I was watching Pulp Fiction on IFC the other week (in HD, thankfully), and was reminded about one of my favorite aspects of the movie; how the script takes potentially ordinary action scenes, and makes them compelling by making them unusual. The gunfighting chase culminating in the sword-wielding rescue of Marcellus from the “rape of the rednecks” is perhaps the best example. The surprise confrontation between Bruce Willis and John Travolta (who’s sitting in the bathroom) is another. Granted, these scenes were brief, but with swords being slashed and machine guns being fired, I say they’re action scenes.

All of which made me think of the Crank movies.

Outrageous as they are (Crank 2 more delightfully so then the original), they do make a point of staging each and every action sequence as unusually as possible. The result is an audience riveted as much by “I can’t believe he’s having a gunfight while experiencing oral pleasure from his girlfriend” as by Jason Statham in a sharp suit stoically employing firearms. To be frank, I had expected both of the Crank movies to be either a) terrible, or b) a guilty pleasure. But the imaginative (and hilarious) plotting, Statham’s complete commitment to playing it straight, and its highly unusual action sequences kept my eyes on the screen for two whole installments.

Which isn’t to say this notion of unusual action staging can’t be overdone. Speaking of another movie I had no business enjoying but kind of did, Shoot ‘Em Up employed the same idea, outrageous action sequences staged in ridiculous ways. However, whereas the examples I cite in the previous movies are (by comparison) down-to-earth sequences that could plausibly be performed by a fit and practiced marksman, the sequences in Shoot ‘Em Up are utterly beyond the boundaries of any possible human achievement. While the director get points for imagination (not to mention including Monica Bellucci), I take more points away for eliminating any hope of suspension of disbelief. (And yes, I do understand that the whole point of Shoot ‘Em Up was to be completely and totally outrageous. It was.)

Now, before you tell me I’m insane for even mentioning suspension of disbelief in a post discussing the Crank movies, please note, I’m talking about the action sequences themselves, not the overall plot.

While I find myself utterly engaged by action that’s imaginative and creatively staged, I’m only truly engaged if I’ve got an emotional investment in the scene, which usually happens if I believe, in the moment, that a character is trying really hard, and has an actual chance of dying (or at least being horribly maimed). If the action is so far over the top that it triggers my “no-fucking-way” response, emotional engagement goes out the window, and at that point I’m simply watching a well-choreographed routine. Maybe fun, but not stirring.

So that’s my personal take-away on action scenes, and what I try keep in mind as I write. Keep things plausibly within the capabilities of human physiology, but stage things interestingly, and hopefully the audience will get a ride they can connect to and enjoy.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Why Do Blu-Ray Distributors Hate Me?

A bit of captain obvious on every disc...

I rent a fair number of Blu-Ray titles through Netflix. I also purchase a smaller number of Blu-Ray titles for my modest collection–movies I’ll want to watch a few times, examine the extras of in detail, and perhaps even put into my yearly “oh, I haven’t watched that in a while” rotation.

Which is the problem. Because the majority of the Blu-Ray titles I happen to own and watch repeatedly begin, right off the bat, with a trailer advertising how great Blu-Ray is. You can probably guess my forthcoming rant.

Why, oh why, does the distributor think that the virtues of Blu-Ray need to be extolled to someone who already owns a frigging Blu-Ray player!? Seriously. I plunked down the money for the player. I wouldn’t be seeing the stupid ad if I hadn’t. And I’m obviously watching a Blu-Ray disc, so what possible purpose could this kind of preaching to the choir have other then to piss me off after the third viewing of the same disc.

True, I could skip the offending ad with the touch of a button. However, I’m usually too busy dimming lights around the living room and grabbing a glass of beer (love those nitrogen widgets!) to catch it at first given the boot-up time necessary for the magic of Blu-Ray to take place. Then the hype machine starts up, I start sputtering about being nagged over buying something I already own, and my wonderfully patient and understanding wife smiles a calm smile for the umpteenth time and hands me the remote, so as not to deny me the pleasure of skipping the ad, with vigor.

My quickdraw ability with the remote is not the point. One possible point is that these little ads are one more grain of sand on the beach of reasons for physical media haters to decry the obsolescence of any disc format. An argument I have little patience for since the highly compressed video delivered by streaming or downloadable media services pales in comparison to a nicely compressed Blu-Ray disc. Yes, I’ve tried Netflix on demand and Amazon streaming. Yes, it’s awesome and convenient. And yes, I find the video quality is inferior, and I’m tired of the occasional skips. At the moment, I still like discs for movies I really care about seeing.

Getting back to my ad hatery, the real point is there’s no reason for it.

It’s not like the Blu-Ray authoring that creates the discs for manufacturing somehow leverages the authoring that went into making the DVD version of the same title. Both formats have widely different authoring requirements, and both sets of discs need to be created separately. No, I can instead imagine some executive or another demanding “I don’t care if we’re hyping the format to people who already own it, we need to make sure they’re constantly reminded that the more expensive discs are the best!” As if the folks who took the trouble and expense to go out of their way to assemble an HD television and Blu-Ray player combination are somehow not going to be aware of which discs to buy. Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I suspect that owners of PS3’s and $200+ dedicated players are capable of “grabbing the blue box off the the shelf.”

If you’re going to burden customers with an ad, burden ones who might actually have a reason for buying the product (sorry DVD watchers) and might possibly need to be made aware that there’s a higher-quality format out there that they can blow their hard-earned cash on. (This is assuming they’re not part of the 10% unemployed as of this writing, or the undoubtedly larger percentage of working poor who don’t have the money to spend on this kind of nonsense.)

But better yet, why don’t you just leave us all alone. Skip the ads telling us how great your format is. Skip the trailers that are going to be outdated in five months. Just throw up a menu and let us watch the damn movie we gave you our money for.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Back From London

Another fine trip to London

Amazingly, Google has already stuck my blog onto the front page of hits for my name, so I guess I’d better get on the stick with this thing.

Just returned last week from London, where I had the opportunity to put my writer/director hat on to present a project that’s been near and dear to my heart. Anyone who knows me can attest that I love discussing my work, and it was an extremely productive exchange.

Of course, while I was there I had a nice time wandering around the city on Halloween, as well as attending an opening night party for Hammer Film’s London Festival, with a great collection of vintage posters and publicity stills from various movies. Later in the week I also attended a screening of Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter at the Curzon Soho theater, where I got to meet the wonderful Caroline Munro. We chatted about acting and her role in the upcoming film Eldorado (an extremely eclectic cast, and the final performance of David Carradine).

All in all, a fantastic trip. I hope to have reason to return soon.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.