Why the so called “Blockbuster” look? (color grading explained)
It seems that artists are beginning to notice the trend of the so called “Blockbuster” look that’s becoming more and more popular in feature films and in personal projects with the advent of plugins like Red Giants Magic Bullet Looks & Mojo. For those who are just discovering the look, are plastering it all over their creative projects and those discovering the trend in feature films are beginning to bemoan its overuse. But nobody (to my knowledge) has explained yet why the look is popular.
I’ve decided to address this topic of why this look is so popular after reading this blog yesterday with the blogger expressing his disgust with the look. Be sure to read it to know the specifics. And just as Stu Maschwitz explains the why of 24p? I’m going to justify why this look is at least popular and where it’s place is, in cinematography.
This is quite an endeavor for me to explain so just bear with me. Let’s first establish the foundation that in storytelling/filmmaking that you emphasize the important aspects or parts of the story and eliminate distractions or things that are less important. In other word you focus the audiences attention on what you want them to see. One of the best ways of doing this is to create contrast, to emphasize something by contrasting or comparing it to its opposite, this way it stands out. Obviously the actors and their performance are the most important and so focusing the audiences attention on this through the use of contrast in color achieves this.
How the look is achieved:
Basically blue is pushed into the shadows and yellow into the highlights. For detailed instruction watch Stu Maschwitz’s tutorial on creating the “blockbuster” look.
Contrasting color with skin tones:
Contrasts in color or complimentary colors, (colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel) “compliment” each other or makes the other color stand out when matched up next to or on top of its opposite.
Skin tones lie between red and yellow on the color wheel, or sort of an orange color. The complimentary color of skin tones or opposite is teal or blue. Since we’re trying to emphasize the skin tone of the talent which is orange, it’s natural then that this color of teal is used to help the skin tones stand out against environment. This focuses the audiences attention on the actor.
The funny thing, is our brains like contrasts because it makes it easier to discern detail. This is why looking at an image that has contrast in tonal range with an “S” curve, is aesthetically pleasing as compared to a less contrast or “flat” image. The same must be understood for chroma or color.
Best contrasting colors:
I will tell you that blue and yellow (or if you want to call it teal and orange) are the best complimentary colors on the color wheel for the reason that they contrast each other tonally as well. If you were to take the color wheel and convert it to greyscale (black and white), what do you see as the blackest or darkest color? What do you see as the whitest or brightest color?
You would see that it is blue and yellow respectively. Thus blue and yellow contrast each other tonally not just in chroma. No other colors do this as well naturally.
With this understanding in mind, it’s also important to note that darker colors recede into an image while lighter colors “pop” out. Thus skin tones or the talent actually stand out in comparison to their surroundings.
You can think of pushing colors in one of four basic variations, with cool colors being green, cyan, blue and warm colors being magenta, red and yellow.
With the last variation pushing lighter or warmer colors into shadows can be problematic as it effects the tone or the brightness of the shadow, (not to say it isn’t done, some films use this look) and cooler colors into highlights, seems unnatural when contrasted to warm shadows. So you really see that cooler colors typically belong in the shadows and warmer colors in the highlights when trying to create this type of contrast.
Pushing cooler colors into shadows and warmer colors into highlights seems more natural and creates more or less the “blockbuster” look. How much the colors are pushed may determine if it would be considered the “blockbuster” look. Of course these are only basic variations and the “blockbuster” look is a basic look. But more variety of complex looks can be achieved with secondary color correction.
“Blockbuster” look in nature:
Lastly if this reason isn’t enough of a reason by itself, this look is found in mother nature. The most beautiful part of any day is either at sunrise or at sunset. Lots of contrast in chroma and tone. The color temperature of the sun changes during these parts of days to warmer yellows and oranges. Things that are in direct sunlight or highlights are yellow, things that are literally in the shadows are blue because of the sky acting like a giant blue light source or bounce card. Contrast is created between the brightest sunlight areas in color/brightness and the darkest areas of color/shadows. They are perfectly harmonized together, hence we call it “magic hour.” Contrast in tone between highlights and shadows and contrast in complimentary colors of blue and yellow! Aesthetically pleasing to the eye and the brain. I had always recognized this but was never able to articulate this until I had a better grasp of color theory and the fact that contrast is aesthetically pleasing to our eyes because of our brain’s ability to discern detail.
“Blockbuster” look can be achieved:
It’s only been within the last ten to twelve years that the technology of digital color grading has allowed us to grade with this look, hence the reason its popping up in most of the feature films. With the fine tune control that comes with grading digitally as opposed to color timing, blue can be pushed into the shadows, yellow into the highlights and preserve the color of the skin tones with power windows and HSL keys.
In summary this look is popular because:
1) Blue & yellow contrast each other as complimentary colors
2) Blue & yellow are best complimentary colors as they contrast tonally as well
3) Skin tones (orange) standout as they are contrasted to teal/blue, thus focusing audiences attention on talent
4) Color grading in this way imitates the sunset/sunrise “magic hour”
Obviously this look can be taken to the extreme and if used all of the time in every film it will become compound in one without having a contrasting look in and of itself. But if used wisely and sensibly it’s one of the best looks to create. It would be foolish to think that its only a fad or dated look and will be going away when its visually and aesthetically sound in story telling, color theory and in practice. Is it the look you should always use? No. But when you understand why and when it should be used, then use it. Otherwise create the look the story/mood calls for and then you can never go wrong. Just my two cents for what it’s worth