History of Color Grading in Movies With Examples from Films

As with almost every other element of our lives, film has evolved throughout the decades. Look back at films through each decade and you can see that with each decade came huge improvements in the quality of the film. Not just the way it was shot or the special effects, but the way in which color became an integral part of the story telling process.

Anyone who has an deep interest in movies will understand how much of an impact color and light can have on a film. A director might shoot a film in warm daylight due to circumstances and budget, but when the final movie is released the story might actually be taking place on a cold afternoon.  Color grading is a part of the post-production process and so with careful and creative attention by a skilled Colorist, the Director can alter the look and feel of the film. With this in mind, what is the history of color grading?

What is cinematic Color Grading

Cinematic color grading is the process of adjusting and enhancing the color palette of a film or video to achieve a desired look, mood, or atmosphere. This involves manipulating the brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue of the image, and can also include the creation of stylized color effects. The goal of color grading is to bring out the intended mood and tone of the story, and make the visuals more aesthetically pleasing.

In the post-production phase of film and video, a colorist works with the director and cinematographer to determine the desired look of the final product. They use specialized software, such as DaVinci Resolve or Baselight, and dedicated color hardware to make precise adjustments to the color information in each frame and scene. This can range from minor tweaks to create a more natural look, to more dramatic changes that completely alter the mood of the scene.

Cinematic color grading has a major impact on the overall visual style of a film, and is an important part of the filmmaking process. A good color grade can bring the story to life, help convey emotions, and enhance the overall viewing experience. By carefully balancing the color elements, a colorist can create a cohesive visual aesthetic that supports the story and enhances the audience’s engagement.

Where did Color Grading Begin?

Research online and you will find a wealth of information about color film and where it all began. You might read that The Wizard of Oz was the first film of color in 1939 but in reality, this is nowhere near the truth.

In fact, the first color film was actually released in 1912 by the British Natural Color Kinematograph Company. This was Our King and Queen Through India. It captured the journey of the King and Queen as they travelled through India, all of which was captured in wonderful color for the first time. This was the very moment when the film industry saw the impact and the potential that color had on the industry.

Of course, every technology has to start somewhere and it is fair to say the Kinemacolor really set the standard and from here, the industry began to evolve at a rapid pace. There were limitations to what Kinemacolor could do but it still inspired the creation of other processes.

This evolved to Pathéchrome in 1912 and then the Handschiegl Color Process in 1916 and from here we saw one of the most famous – Technicolor which was used for The Wizard of Oz.

The Turning Point of Color Grading in Film

The use of Technicolor was a real turning point for filmmakers. It instantly made an impact and that explosion of color through color grading brought the film to life. It helped to tell stories in a new and innovative way, the world of modern cinema was born and from this moment, it became a part of filmmaking.

From the 1960s, a photo-conductive telecine was used although this was mainly used for live broadcasting. However, in 1978 Rank Cintel released the digital version of the MkIII telecine. This made it possible to take advantage of the 3:2 pulldown which meant that it could be used in the USA and those countries that used 60Hz images. Following this, it also released Topsy which was a separate programmer. Following this came the Amigo in 1983 and it was from here that the colorist was truly born.

Along Came Creative Control

Technical grading was on its way out and creative control was becoming more mainstream. Film had a large dynamic range, much more than could be transmitted and this is where colorists created techniques that enabled them to delve further into the colors through the use of secondary vectors along with primaries.

There were significant improvements in film scanning while HD came along and the use of third party color correctors and controllers became the norm. Digital color correction became possible with the Copernicus but then Pandora and DaVinci transformed the landscape.

However, in 1993, Kodak released the Cineon Digital Intermediate (DI)system. Following this came the Quantel Domino and both came with a film recorder and scanner. This brought with it a digital intermediate stage that brought together analogue film acquisition and delivery. This gave colorists the ability to implement their skills and influence the movie industry. As a result, films such as Amélie had a subtle grading added to it, which enhanced the way in which the story was told.

From here, digital innovation removed the requirement for large and expensive film scanning hardware. This made it possible to carry out grading using software and from here, new companies were formed that created software that made grading much more effective.

Let’s take a look at how grading has been used in different films through the years.

Technicolor

Technicolor is a technology used in filmmaking to add color to black and white films. It was first used in 1916 and became widely popular in the 1930s and 1940s. The Technicolor process involved capturing separate images of a scene through color filters and then recombining them to produce a full-color image.

The Wizard of Oz made Technicolor famous and the process involved a three-strip process. There were large cameras and massive projects involved but it allowed the delivery of posterized primary colors. It’s possible to recreate this using modern techniques such as splitter nodes and by splitting the image into red, blue and green before recombining them.

Sepia

Sepia is a brown-grey tint that is often used to give a vintage or old-fashioned feel to photographs or films. This effect can be achieved by applying a sepia filter to an image or by using special film stock that has a sepia tone. Sepia is commonly used in films to create a historical or nostalgic atmosphere, or to convey a sense of aging or timelessness.

The Godfather is one of the most well known films ever made, and one of the key aims of the film visually was to recreate that 40s look. This was achieved through the use of Sepia whereby blacks were deep and whites were creamy. A touch of nostalgia was injected by adding warmth to the highlights while all other colors were desaturated.

Bleach Bypass

Bleach Bypass is a film processing technique that involves skipping the bleaching step during the development process. This results in a higher silver retention in the film stock, creating a distinctive look with increased contrast, heightened saturation and a reduced tonal range. The Bleach Bypass effect is often used in films to create a gritty, high-contrast and desaturated look that conveys a sense of intensity, grittiness or a heightened reality.

This is a technique that was first used in 1958 in the film The Rickshaw Man. It involved bypassing the bleach step during the chemical processing phase. This retains a lot of silver but then creates a desaturated look and this was seen in the likes of Saving Private Ryan and 1984. This was used in a lot of early films that attempted to move away from that hyper-saturated look associated with Technicolor.

Teal and Orange

Teal and Orange is a color grading technique in which the blue-green (teal) tones are emphasized and the orange tones are enhanced. This creates a high-contrast and stylized look that is commonly used in action and sci-fi films to create a sense of energy and excitement. The Teal and Orange effect is achieved through color grading software or by using special film stock and is known for making skin tones appear warmer while enhancing the cooler tones in the image.

This was another trend that has been seen in a number of films but one of the most prominent films is Transformers. It is used to make warm colors to stand out and cool colors to fade into the background. This creates a different dimension, bringing the subjects to life.

Color grading has now become an established part of the post-production process. From the results it has achieved through the years, it is clear to see why it has become so widely used in the film industry.


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