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.

Foundation:

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.

1) Pushing cool colors into shadows and highlights to create cool color cast

2) Pushing warm colors into shadows and highlights to create warm color cast

3) Pushing cool colors into shadows and warm color into highlights to create separation or contrast with complimentary colors (i.e. “blockbuster” look)

4) Pushing warm colors into shadows and cool colors into highlights to create separation or contrast

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.

Original:

Grade concept:

“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.

No better example to use than sunset shot in winter as the white snow best reflects the light hitting it:

“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.

Conclusion:

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 :)

Cheers,
Denver Riddle

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18 Comments

Ryan SouthwellApril 2, 2010 5:44 pm

Denver,
Great post. I’m glad to hear someone at least defend the art of it. I don’ think people want to see the “true to life” colors that come straight from the camera. I think half the fantasy-factor for clients and viewers is that it does look altered, yet cool. I’ll admit to the occasional over-indulging into teal and orange, partly just because I could, and because it’s just plain more fun to watch.
Great job on the blog. Love reading it.

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Evan WatersApril 3, 2010 1:04 pm

But surely the entire point of the original post is that it is overused? The problem is not that it exists or even is popular, the problem is it’s used to the exclusion of other colors.

It’s like Homer Simpson using the star wipe over and over again. “Why have hamburgers when you can have steak?”

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denverkr April 03 2010 14:12 pm

Agreed, I just wanted to add some clarity as to why it's popular. Additonally I made the point of contrast and so I even spoke to using the look exclusively would make it bland unless contrasted to other colors in the color palette. So other color palettes should be used to contrast the "blockbuster" look. But the look shouldn't be thrown out for reasons stated, it should just be better understood as to why colorists use it. Thank you for your comment :)

jim garrowApril 4, 2010 4:25 pm

If i had a dollar for every time a client told me to avoid orange tones, i would ne rich!

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denverkr April 04 2010 16:29 pm

Avoid orange tones where? Please be more specific.

Cheers,
Denver Riddle

jim GarrowApril 4, 2010 7:49 pm

On the face. I have never worked with client who requested “Orange” faces. I hear terms like “natural” or “honey” or “warm” or “golden”. I am usually trying to create warmth or warm tone, without it looking orange! Just my 2 cents.

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jim GarrowApril 4, 2010 7:51 pm

I guess i agree with the teal part of your point. Just not the orange.

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denverkr April 04 2010 20:19 pm

Well we're not talking about going to extreme with the orange I don't believe that was ever stated. I mentioned pushing yellow into the highlights to create the look and was trying to describe roughly where skin tones lie on vectorscope between yellow and red, additionally I used "orange" only in referring back to the blog post talking about "orange and teals." I speak to simply contrasting the shadows to compliment skin tones with the skin tones complimentary color. Depending on how much warmth is pushed into the highlights/midtones the skin tones should stay fairly consistent with the "flesh line" on the vectorscope depending on how warm you want the skin tones to be (i.e. lighting during that time of day). Great care should be taken to preserve and enhance these but not misrepresent these with extremes (except in certain cases). Stu Maschwitz has a great write-up on what he calls, "Memory Colors" those colors like skin tones that we've committed to memory that should be preserved, otherwise our brains reject the color. It's a great read: here

Cheers,
Denver Riddle

VickyApril 10, 2010 9:25 am

As an artist, I love color grading in film – it appeals to me visually. Artists (painters) have been doing this for about 150 years – caused quite a revolution with the Impressionists. The only thing that I would consider is the overuse of it, and may make a work look derivative.

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denverkr April 10 2010 11:31 am

Oh I agree :) I want to reiterate the concept of contrast which does include contrasting this look to other looks so that this look doesn't become boring.

Caleb PikeApril 10, 2010 11:43 am

Excellent! Very objective and to the point.

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Greg KatsoulisApril 10, 2010 4:03 pm

Two points that I feel should be addressed. The effect is discussed here tends to favor European skin tones. While the theory can and is be applied to darker skin, it is not as effective.

Second, before the age of digital grading, similar effects were achieved with physical filters and film stock – most notably Technicolor which had everything to do with creating vibrancy on screen and little to do with “accurate” color.

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denverkr April 10 2010 18:27 pm

Both excellent points. The beauty of understanding color correction is skin color is the same for every person regardless of race or ethnicity, this is because we all have the same color of blood "red" and our dermal layers effect the tone (or lightness and darkness of the color. Nonetheless it's still the same hue or color. All this according to the fleshline of the vectorscope which any colorist will tell you. Interesting isn't it, so with regards to darker skin tones this contrast can still be created, I am Legend is a perfect example of this look with Will Smith.
To the second point, I love the fact that digital color correction can allow us greater control then we ever had with conventional means. Thank you for sharing with us your thoughts.

EmailApril 11, 2010 1:05 pm

Hoppefully, colorgrading is not only giving a “sunset/sunrise “magic hour”” look to a movie…
In most of cases (except of course for “Blockbuster”…) colograding is a subtle process…
I try to achieve this colorgrading way in my work, and I speak about this in my blog (unfortunately in French ..) : http://blognotedunvideaste.blogspot.com/
Didier

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IvanApril 12, 2010 11:43 pm

When the Rusians in the 70s were shooting on their own SVEMA color film it had a color “problems” wich led to be call sovcolor (soviet color).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj0PDqNukPU&playnext_from=TL&videos=dQtrlu1mK8s&feature=sub
Please see 1.32 min.
I guess yesterday problems are todays effects.

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yituxSeptember 20, 2010 8:31 pm

Like your post, but disagree with the contrast part. I think that the orange/teal combination is so funtional is because it is no so contrasty as yellow/blue. In fact yellow/blue are the two extremes of each tone, but red/cyan are the second ones. If we make an average it gives us the orange/teal contrast wich is in middle of those two and have almost the exact brightness. I think this is why it is so pleasant and not extreme shocking to the eye, as if you would place a yellow face into a blue background.

I´m thinking on writing something about this, but my blog is in spanish. By the way sorry for my bad english.

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Charles O. SlavensNovember 19, 2010 1:49 pm

I enjoyed the article. We’ve been getting this kind of separation in Photoshop for a number of years now, but by using masks. I think that masking gives you more specific control and a wider range of choices… not just color.

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EarllFebruary 8, 2011 10:41 pm

My biggest problem with this look is that it is everywhere. As an informal survey, I went on youtube and searched for 2010 and 2011 trailers. Every single trailer I found had this look. Summer blockbuster, romantic comedy, drama, it didn’t matter, they all used the same color palette. Several action movies were so extreme I couldn’t discern significant details out of the sea of blues!

You mentioned above how digital color correction has given you more control of a film’s look than ever before, but when the end products all look the same, can it really be said such control is freeing? Or even artistically valid, considering its overuse?

Finally, as a viewer, once you notice this in one movie you notice it in all of them. It starts as that nagging thought in the back of your head that something’s just not right, then you figure out what it is that’s bugging you: the colors are all wrong. That knowledge doesn’t go away, and the more it’s evidenced the more it irritates you, to the point where the color palette becomes so distracting it can pull you out of a film completely.

I understand the point of the scheme, why it’s useful, and all the people who’re involved in choosing a film’s colors, but please, encourage some subtlety and originality among your peers. Much like bland over-produced pop music, the current trend has left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Bibi Purisaca November 12 2016 23:01 pm

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