On the Art of Color in Film

by criticalhit009

I reread a particular entry in Answerman, Anime News Network’s excellent column on all things anime. Answerman’s current writer, Justin Sevakis, is incredibly knowledgable in terms of anime production, and I felt compelled to share this long quote about the art of color correction from this entry.

When it comes to presentation of anything that came from an analog source, if you’re talking about color tint, saturation levels, the amount of grain, the brightness/contrast levels, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “CORRECT.”

A little bit of background… Back when everything was made on film, first the film was shot, then developed, then edited together, then color timed. The film would get run through a color timing machine, which was this big clumsy film viewer with three dials controlling the levels of red, blue and green in the image. Each knob only had 16 settings. The director or cinematographer would sit with the colorist, and they would go through the whole film, carefully setting the color balance for each shot, trying to make the look of each shot match the others in a scene. The settings were recorded on a long strip of paper with holes punched in it.

In the entire film post-production process, until digital came along, that was the only control filmmakers had over the coloring of their films. Before anyone could see the final product, the film would get printed through generations of different film stocks, which would be developed in different ways at varying temperatures. Each time the image got “printed” to another strip of film, it would be affected by that film’s grain, variances in its color sensitivity, and the contrast would get a slight boost. By the time the final prints would go out to a theater, the look of the film often changed substantially.

Filmmakers understood this inherently — it was the limitation of the era. The look of a movie could change from print to print, from theater to theater. The filmmakers didn’t labor over the color balance of each print, or think too much about how much film grain should be in each scene. Film was a living, photochemical thing that had a mind of its own sometimes, and anyone playing with it knew and understood its inherent flexibility. Analog video was even worse. Early video gear would change brightness and shift colors so wildly that engineers used to joke that NTSC stood for “Never The Same Color”. Things as trivial as cables, processors and amplifiers, and even bad building wiring could change the look of the image.

Now, think about how most film-based anime was made: quickly, under tight deadlines, often using cheap lab techniques to skip steps if the final product was intended for television. Final edits and fixes would be done on videotape. We are not talking about productions where the color timing of each scene was labored over. In fact, I’ve spotted many OAVs that were clearly never color corrected at all!

DVD releases often came from older film or video elements that came much later down the chain of production. Having been copied so many times, they were higher contrast and lost some detail, probably gaining a lot more grain in the process. However, when old movies and TV shows are remastered for Blu-ray, the only way to get a clear enough image for HD is often to do a new scan of the original edited camera negative. The original color timing is often lost, if it was even done properly to begin with. The original director or cinematographer, if they’re still alive, probably can’t remember what he was thinking 20-30 years ago when he made it.

So, when we remaster the classics, the engineer can only think about what we PERCEIVE to look good to our eyes, today. What colors seem to work for each scene, how much film grain would lend the desired dramatic effect. This is all very subjective, and there’s a lot of disagreement. Anime, and film in general, is a very emotional thing, and we all want to preserve our connection with a film in its purest form possible. No two people are going to have had exactly the same experiences with a single piece of film, and so while one engineer might remember vivid colors in a movie theater, another might remember the grain of a beat-up copy he or she saw on television as a kid.

Neither one is right. The detail and color reproduction of the blu-rays we get today are so much better than we ever got before, and so much time has passed since those films were made, that we can only do the best we can to reproduce those images the way we think they should be. And everyone who cares is going to have a different opinion about that.