“Color. Now that’s a subject I still haven’t covered”. A joyous realization I got last night. As I said before, it’s not as easy to come up with interesting blogposts about new perspectives on great shots as it was half a year ago. And I want to avoid writing about a shot just because I want to say I like it.
Actually it’s weird I haven’t talked about color more extensively before, as it’s such a primary force in cinematography. And it’s becoming a main subject of analyses and discussion more and more, now that digital color-grading has become a mainstream activity.
I think it was O Brother, Where art Thou (2000) which was credited as being one of the first motion pictures that was filmed on film, then transferred to a digital intermediate format, color graded and printed back on film for distribution. That’s not the start of color-grading in any way (though I think they called it color-timing before) but the shift to digital grading did expand the possibilities of after-production image-manipulation into the stratosphere in comparison to the what was possible before.
Nowadays raw-enabled film cameras are starting to dominate both the high-end segment of cinematography (led by the RED cameras) as well as the indy-level world of freelancers and small businesses (where Blackmagic Design is starting to push). This shift in technology towards raw-formats in the digital world is mostly because of the increasing demand in digital color grading.
*I have to point out for a moment that raw-filming is not something new, just as HD or 4K is not ‘higher definition’ than film. 35mm, a film-format that has been used for decades, is a raw format that can easily present a 4K-level of detail. The shift towards raw then, is mostly a shift BACK to the quality levels of the analogue times, before the first generations of digital cameras that used compressed media to record.
And nowadays color grading is the technique ‘du jour’ in most of the video & film production. From the extensively detailed work done on big Hollywood productions to the basic vintage filters that are presented in Instagram, everyone is getting used to color-manipulation as being a part of the whole production process.
And with great power comes great homogeneity. At least, that is what reality seems to show us. You would think that by gaining the great tools of color grading, modern-day films would literally explode in a creatively expansive palette of colors. No two films would ever have to look alike anymore…
Yet the painful reality is that most of every big-studio production conforms to one basic color formula; Teal and Orange, or more broadly defined, ‘Blue and Orange’. A combination of cooled off shadows (pushing them towards the blues) and warmed up mid-tones (which become orange-like). As these two colors are complementary and are the most contrasting, we perceive this combination as attractive. An added benefit is that skin-tones preside in the mid-tone level and thus everyone will get a nice tan when graded in this way.
Technically there is nothing wrong with this approach, and I can’t deny it’s effective beauty in some films. But gradually the look has begun to dominate cinematography up to a point where it almost feels as if we’re entering a second age of black & white cinema, just with a different duotone.
So, that’s my blogpost-rant about Teal & Orange. I guess most every blogging filmmaker has written about it the last few years, so I want to leave it at that and move on. The thing is; realizing the mundane tendency of drowning scenes in blue and orange, also made me realize the beauty of the cinematography where this wasn’t so prevalent. Looking back at films being graded a few decades ago, for example, it almost seems like a veil has been lifted from your eyes (as a forum-member once poignantly described it to me) and you can see all these colors and nuances again.
And more importantly, it’s good to know that color grading shouldn’t necessarily lead to an Instagram style filter-look. I remember how The Matrix (1998) was graded in these green hues for the matrix-scenes, blue hues for the machine-world and warm-reds for the Zion caves. Hardly a suble use of color, but quite effective and a little more creative that T&O. Or take Traffic (2001) where three stories were painted in three different colors (cold blues for the political- & school-world, hot reds and yellows for Mexico and deeply saturated popping colors for the world of the drug-dealers’ wife).
And maybe even more important was that great quote (I forgot the origin of it) about color: If you want to make your film look green, put green stuff in front of the camera! As in; it’s not all about color correction, but also about what you film, under which lights and with what camera.
But enough context for this post. It’s a long way to travel towards the shot I want to discuss, but it is the frame through which I looked at this shot, so I have to explain it.
On to the One Shot then! It’s from the film The Double Life of Veronique (1991) by legendary Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. It’s a gorgeous, dreamy film about two woman, played by the same actress (the mesmerizing Irène Jacob) who live separate lives, but seem connected in a way, sharing between them a unified sense of longing and dreaming. It’s not really a narrative picture, in that its story isn’t the focus. It’s more about the atmosphere, the emotions displayed on the face of Irène Jacob and the overall feeling you get from the film. Sounds kinda vague, which is what this film is, but it’s a good-kinda vague. And the cinematography by Slawomir Idziak is absolutely gorgeous!
He bathes the movie in deeply saturated tones of green, red and yellow. That’s right; no blue or teal whatsoever! There was a point during the film where I realized this color palette was so fresh to my eyes, after all these T&O palettes I’ve become accustomed to, that it prompted me to start writing this post.
That said; I do believe the cinematography of The Double life… has been copied quite strongly, just not as extensively. The main example of ‘copying’ is probably Amelie (2001), which uses not only the same color palette, but a similarly surrealistic way of framing (though it pushes the surrealism even further and more to the front) and even kind of look-alike main actress (and they’re both mostly french) with kind of similar personalities.
But The Double life… stands on its own as a gorgeous piece of work, as something that is worth experiencing and fall in love with and hope it will slide into your dreams at night. The joy of life, or should I say Joie de Vivre, visible in the film, especially in the Polish version of Jacob’s character, is intoxicating without it ever becoming sentimental. Perhaps because the film refuses to say anything out loud and mostly just whisper its ideas and narratives, it avoids the risk of sentimentality.
Now, as for the cinematography, it’s magical. Not overtly magical as it is in Amelie. It’s more subtle than that. Yes, Idziak filters the shots with yellow and green hues and he uses surreal forms of lightning, but it’s never really magic, it never becomes a fairy tale in the way that Amelie did. And that’s not a criticism to either film, but what I do find impressive is that even though Kieślowski never pushes for the overt magic in his imagery, the feel feels magical in its atmosphere. Both Kraków and Paris feel like they’re beaming with wonder and delight. And it’s not because people break out in dance spontaneously, but because Kieślowski and Idziak manage to find beauty and wonder in the smallest of details. As the film opens we she Véronique, or actually Weronika (Jacob) singing in a choir. It starts to rain and as the other singers scurry of in shelter Weronika stays, keeps singing, as the rain starts to pour over her. Her smile only grows bigger as she is drenched by the rain.
It’s these ways in which Kieślowski manages to let Jacob interact with her environment that create that sense of wonder and magic. When she stares at the outside world through the distorted view of a glas ball, when her fingers start grasping a lampshade as she is making love or when she is spying on a man from behind a colored glass door, you’re just in awe of Véronique’s wonder. And then I’ve saved my favorite example of this grounded magic for my One Shot. Here it is:
Weronika, after she leaves her singing lessons, walks through an old and dusty walkway, visibly in a good mood. She has a small marble with which she casually plays, throwing it around. Then she pauses and smashes the marble to the floor, making it bounce -off camera- all the way up to the ceiling, which causes some dust and dirt to slowly fall down. Weronika lets her head hang back, and as her face is lit by the glowing light of the sun, the dust slowly comes down, unto her face. Weronika accepts it as if it’s fairy dust that is sprinkled onto her in a moment of blessing and euphoria.
That something so simple and mundane as dust and dirt is transformed into something so magical, just by way of filming it right and letting the actress interact with it in a wondrous way, is what made me fall in love with this image. Even more, it made me fall in love with the whole film, and with Véronique/Weronika. It’s such a beautifully poignant way of showing us the joy which presides in Weronika. And not a single word was needed to express this, it’s all in the image. That’s powerful. That’s great cinematography.