I’ve been seeing this a lot, especially with projects coming from DIY filmmakers who are grading their own projects for the first time. Wall to wall green undertones. “It makes it look like a movie, am I right?”
If you don’t know what I mean, undertones (that’s how I define them, anyway) are coloration of the middle to light shadows of an image. Not all the shadows, for as you can see in the image above, there are still solid blacks in the image to provide healthy luma contrast. And the highlights and upper midtones (containing the all-important skin tone) are also left naturalistic, both to give popping highlights for contrast, and to lend appeal to the young woman (green faces work better in Star Trek or Wicked).
However, to add visual interest and a sense of situation, a wedge of the lighter shadows in the image is isolated (using either HSL qualification, a luma keyer, curves, or whatever tool works best in your grading application), and tinted.
I’ve also seen blue undertones (often in night scenes, or heavily shadowed daytime scenes), but honestly I’ve been seeing the green undertones look used all over the place, and seeing it used in a book cover made me have to say something. I used to blame The Matrix for the superabundance of green looks; while it was hardly the first use of green tints, it was popular and I believe put its use on client’s radars. Trailers, music videos, and indie features have flocked to implement this stylization over the years, and like excessively low-hanging jeans on teenage boys, it’s a style that has lingered for a surprisingly long time.
I will surprise you by not passing judgement. It’s your project, do what you want. I will point out that it’s been done, but then so have warm looks, cool looks, skip bleach looks, supersaturation, undersaturated blue, so on and so forth. We all try so hard to be original, and then our clients say “could you make this look like Saving Private Ryan?” and we sigh and implement our individual variation of the bleach bypass grade. You know you have one.
What interests me is how we, as colorists, justify approaches like the green undertone. I’m not really inclined to read anything more then stylistic preference into anyone else’s motivations, as I’ve read so many disparate justifications that I’m happy to accept “it looks neat” and leave it at that.
However, I think it’s useful to examine different approaches to creating color meaning for a particular project, especially as meanings can be fungible, depending on the narrative requirements of the project you’re working on.
Let’s look more closely at the image up top, which is the cover of a young adult novel involving vampires and boarding school. Based on the melodramatic content, one might work out the following use of color impressions to use for various scenes:
This makes sense, and falls in line with many visual tropes that viewers will be well aware of and comfortable with. However, this is not sacrosanct, and there are other interpretations of color that may be just as valid in different situations.
For example, if we were grading a movie taking place in the desert, the following mappings of color to mood might make more sense:
The point I’m trying to make is that the narrative content of a project can and should influence the interpretations of color that you decide to rationalize. While there are widely accepted correspondences between color and mood, these correspondences have lots of wiggle room, and depend heavily on situation to give one interpretation weight over another.
What’s less ideal is to impose a “look” onto your project just because you saw it somewhere else, or because you read in a book (mine included) that this kind of scene ought to look like that. What worked for their program might work for yours, or it might not. More importantly, you should always ask yourself if there’s a way of using the color palette that the art department designed and cinematographer photographed that is more specific to the story at hand, and perhaps more creative.
There’s more then one way to create a sense of situation, and green undertones are not the only tool in the box. Be a contrarian and try something different.