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Monotone Color Correction - Why?


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#1 Jon Traina

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Posted 09 November 2015 - 12:47 PM

I am a very big fan of genre films –mostly horror – and I find that most of these films use a ton of color correction in post.  Most of these types of films seem to be monochromatic.  There are many examples but the one that comes to mind first is Late Phases which was released last year.  https://www.youtube....h?v=EJgXfzSYehk

 

The other thing that I notice in a lot of the films –and I am wondering if there is a correlation – is they typically seem to be lacking in quality of light as well.  I am curious to know why these seem to be prevalent and if they are. As I mentioned, correlated.      

 

My theory is low budget basically.  The filmmakers do not have a lot of time to get the lighting right, the do not have a lot of studio light to leverage, and the camera they are using  does not have the dynamic range – read sensitivity to light – so their master come out darker then intended as well as not consistent from scene to scene so they must go monochromatic in post to fix it basically. 

 

There could always be an artistic reason behind it or some other technical/practical issue that I simply don’t know.  Am I right?  What are the reasons behind this trend in genre pictures?  


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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 09 November 2015 - 01:42 PM

This may be a generational thing, but the original classic horror movies were in b&w and were inspired by German Expressionism movies and art (and much of the art were in monochromatic forms like woodcuts, ink drawings, etc.)  Darkness and shadows are the foundation of the horror genre.  Color can be expressive but often it also is "pretty" and therefore a distraction, hence why modern horror in color tends to want to minimize it.  It's tricky because pastel colors are not the same thing as a b&w image in terms of dramatic power, so some filmmakers will compensate by emphasizing cyans, let's say, rather than have a pallet of pastels running around.

 

You saw in the 1990's the use of the skip bleach process, and other processes that left black silver in the image, as a way of creating that texture of b&w photography while also desaturating the image -- "Se7en" is a good example.  "Sleepy Hollow" is another.  Both used the process with a monochromatic production design.

 

In terms of production design, going for a b&w look is hardly a low-budget choice, a low-budget compromise would be to not stylize the color scheme and just use what reality throws at you.

 

The thing to remember with horror is that there is not one single approach to the genre.  Some go for that painterly German Expressionist look and others are more realistic, like "The Shining" (though at the climax, there are some classic horror movie lighting moments).  Some subvert genre expectations and some play up to them.  Look at Hitchcock's works -- through most of the 1950's, he was interested in creating suspense and tension in a mundane or pleasant environment, what he called "a murder in a field of daisies" (I'm paraphrasing) but then he made "Psycho" and went for all of the Gothic horror visual elements -- besides shooting in b&w, you had the classic scary old house on the hill with storm clouds behind it, the corpse in the basement, etc.  And yet within that, he also set the famous murder sequence in a brightly-lit white bathroom.

 

And many horror movies go from a naturalistic look to an expressionist look as part of the journey of the narrative -- the happy couple moves into the happy neighborhood, everything is sunny and colorful, and then bad things start happening and by the end, they are running around a moonlit house with lightning flashes and big shadows everywhere, etc.

 

It comes down to the whole notion of "what do people find scary?" and "how do I create a feeling of dread?" -- darkness and shadows are a classic tool in this case.  Same goes for art direction -- what is scarier?  A children's playroom in bright pastels in sunshine or some dark, damp basement that is moldy and full of cobwebs?  You're not trying to create pretty pictures, you're trying to get under the skin of the viewer and unnerve them.

 

So there are plenty of artistic reasons for a monochromatic color design or a dark image that have nothing to do with budget.

 

Now in terms of shadowy, "crude" lighting, there is some backwards logic here -- if you have a tight budget, then crime and horror are good subjects to shoot because they naturally lean towards lower light levels or more shadowy lighting, there is less need to make things pretty or glamorous.  So it's not so much the tight budget determining the look as it is determining the genre which allows that look.

 

I've found in color-correcting a horror movie that when you take a scene and decide to time it darker and with less color, it is because the question of "is it scary enough?" has come up, it's not because of some mistake in lighting that needs to be fixed.


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#3 Jon Traina

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Posted 09 November 2015 - 02:27 PM

Thanks, David.  I think that was stated admirably.  As I was reading your comment I thought of the suspension of disbelieve.  A monochromatic composition doesn’t fill me with dread because I perceive it as too unreal to be believed.  I like the work of Hitchcock –obviously - and other B & W horror so perhaps it is a lack of contrast that I find to be unappealing.  I love the look of John Carpenter’s films (Halloween, The Thing notably) and his use of contrasting hyper colors and shadow depth is quite masterful.  I am pleased to hear is it an aesthetic choice and not a practical one.  I see it so often that I was beginning to think it was a limitation. 


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