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Just When You Think You’re Being Original

by alexis
Stained glass window in Prague

You take a trip and realize that someone beat you to it a hundred years ago…

This last winter my wife Kaylynn and I took a trip that ended in Prague. As we toured the city, we went to the cathedral within Prague Castle, the Basilica of St. Vitus (the patron saint of dancers, actors, and epilectics). It’s a magnificent structure, and I recommend it highly. As I walked around, I came upon a truly stunning stained glass window by Alfonse Mucha, one of my favorite artists (the window is excerpted above).

It’s a stunning work, filled with light and narrative, but one of the things that surprised me was the color scheme he employed. A look at the window in its entirety shows that the color scheme uses two rings of what I will crudely refer to as colored vignettes. Click the image to get a better look.

The reason I bring this up is that colored vignettes are a technique I covered in my Color Correction Handbook, as a way of creating a visually interesting treatment when you need to come up with something surreal. Of course, in the grading suite we cheat by simply drawing a shape to define the vignette, soften the heck out of it for a gentle transition, and then use either color balance controls or curves to create a wash of color over the edges, or within the middle (or both, if you’re really daring). Here are the two examples from my book.

The examples I use are really no comparison, except for the general concept of vignetting with color, rather then light and darkness. Still, it’s sobering to realize that whatever look you’re tinkering around with, some painter or another probably did the same thing a hundred or more years ago. Not that this is a fair comparison, since painters create their scenes from whole cloth, with total control over the art direction, composition, and palette. We film and video colorists get to work with what we’re given from the art and photography departments. Still, there are plenty of lessons to be learned, and ideas to be had.

Getting back to Mucha’s window, there’s another way to look at this example. If you click to enlarge the whole window, you’ll notice that, instead of simply washing color over the subjects indescriminantly in order to create the color scheme, the colors are built into the design of the costumes and items within the scene. Dark blue cloaks and shawls give way to light blue robes and props, giving way to green costumes, trees, and trim, which in turn surrounds a central region of yellow, gold, and red robes, chests, and blooming flowers.

Now, this is partially because each colored element needs to be an individual piece of glass, but I think an interesting lesson to be derived for the film and video colorist is that there may be circumstances where the art direction and composition of a scene lets you create the equivalent of a colored vignette by using HSL Qualification or hue curves to selectively isolate and emphasize rings of individual elements surrounding a central subject, be it foliage, sky and/or water, or architectural elements. The resulting correction will at the same time be a bit more naturalistic, yet highly stylized.

That’s the reason I love traveling. You never know what you’re going to see, and how it’ll relate to the work you do. (Oh, and Czech beer is fantastic, too!)

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Jeremy Wilker July 21, 2011 - 11:13 am

I was in awe the first time I saw that window. Just LOVE it. Now I see it in a new light (no pun intended). And Prague — mmm. love love.

Sybren August 14, 2011 - 6:43 am

Just look at some Rembrandt pictures, especially the portraits. Great inspiration for building vignettes (and for lighting and composition). Elliptical, diagonal, off-centered, darken ..

July: Color Correction July 23, 2012 - 12:10 am

[…] Just When You Think You’re Being Original – Alexis Van Hurkman comes upon a 150-year-old stained glass window and sees how vignettes (in this case, vignetting with color) have been employed for a very, very long time indeed. Cool post. […]


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