colourful language: from pleasantville to sin city

 
Sin City 2005 (Dimension Films)

Sin City 2005 (Dimension Films)

CGI and compositing are usually the centre of discussion when conversation turns to the role of computers and digital technologies in filmmaking. The creation or insertion of objects that did not originaly appear together or exist in the first place on film changes the nature of film in some people’s eyes. When films are not presentations of reality but instead presentations of “reality” some feel the fundamentals of film form have changed. Colour correction and digital intermediates create an ambiguous middle ground, where the contents of an image remain the same but the meaning and interpretation is altered. As the expressive potential of the moving image is expanded, new paradigms of film style are being created to incorporate these uses into the preexisting model of film grammar.

For those who have not come across the term, let me explain what a digital intermediate is. If a movie is shot on film, each individual frame is scanned into a computer. If they are shooting on digital they just plug in the hard drives. This computerised version of the film is the digital intermediate. Through amazing computer magic each individual piece of the frame can now be altered. This technology is used to alter the colours of some parts, erase other parts, in other words they can paint each individual frame with digital paints and washes as much as they want. Once the desired effect has been achieved, the frames can be printed back onto film or the digital files can be prepared for projection.

Using this technology, Roger Deakins, while working as the Director of Photography for the Coen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), was able to take footage shot in summer where the trees and grass was beautifully lush and green and make it look like it was shot during the days of the Dustbowl in the deep south of the USA. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first film to be entirely scanned and colour graded, and showed how the technology could be used, not only to simplify the production process, but also to artistic ends. The dry, muted colours evoke a nostalgic mood and add an otherworldly characteristic to the film's visuals, easing the audience's sense of disbelief at a narrative borrowing heavily from myth.

While Deakins and the Coens used the power of a digital intermediate to convey mood, director Gary Ross used colour correction to convert specific parts or often the entire frame into grayscale on his film Pleasantville (1998). In the film David (Tobey Maguire) and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are absorbed into the black-and-white world of David’s favourite syndicated television program from the 50s: "Pleasantville". Jennifer ignores David’s pleas to conform to the straight-laced morals of the show, which has the unexpected effect of bringing colour into the world of Pleasantville. As the inhabitants adopt more liberal perspectives on life, colour floods the frame.

Pleasantville, 1998 (New Line Cinema)

Pleasantville, 1998 (New Line Cinema)

Pleasantville isn’t the first film to use both colour and black-and-white images but it is the first to do so in a diegetic manner as part of the narrative. Beyond the days of hand tinted black-and-white film, colour was used in a way that emphasised its presence. The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a prime example. The spectacular events that occur in Oz were presented in colour, bookended by the everyday world of Kansas being presented in black-and-white. Even into the 70s black-and-white was still used for some dramas but epics had to be in colour. Pleasantville’s use of colour differs from its usage in the past. The world itself at the start of the film is literally in black and white and when colour appears, it’s presence is diegetic. The characters contained within the world notice the change and can see it, just like the audience.

John Belton sees the use of colour in Pleasantville, alongside Schindler’s List (1993) and Sin City (2005) as threatening the “traditional understandings of chromatic and achromatic color systems and their creation of a credible narrative space.” Because the image is so flexible, new interpretations are being made about the nature and meaning of colour and its presence on film. Belton seems preoccupied with how colour can be employed in a narrative role, rejecting applications that he sees as difficult to understand in this narrative sense. For instance he asserts that the colouration used by Robert Rodriguez in Sin City is “random” and “colour for colours sake.”  This perspective contrasts with that of Aylish Wood, who is interested, not by the narrative applications provided by the digital intermediate, but, the emotional impact it conveys.

AFX, or Affective FX refers to a digital manipulation that creates tension between two competing aesthetic strategies in a sequence of images. Wood coined the term based on an analysis of modes of engagement by Brian Massumi. Massumi identifies two modes of engagement possible with imagery: one is embedded in a meaning system, connecting with a specific emotion, and the other is a modification of an emotion that is not aligned with meaning. The second mode of engagement can have either an enhancing or suppressing effect on the emotional response. The term AFX refers to a digital manipulation (the FX part) that creates tension between two competing aesthetic strategies in a sequence of images to construct emotional play within the image (the Affective part).

With the concept of AFX fresh in our minds, let us examine the first scene from Sin City. The film opens with a black screen, we can hear the sounds of a city and sirens wail. A saxophone plays over a piano as we fade to a rooftop balcony overlooking a ( computer generated) city. The soundtrack evokes pulpy noir, and the high contrast black-and-white references the film’s graphic novel source material. Onto the balcony walks a woman in a red dress. All eyes are immediately drawn to the colour. A reverse shot reveals a man, who has provided non-diegetic voiceover. Now we can see the woman’s lips are red as well. The red of the dress and the woman’s lips can be read as denoting passion, maybe love, maybe lust.  As the man lights a cigarette for the woman he references her eyes and they glow green. Alongside the narration, this moment provides a key for reading the rest of the film. The colour is a reflection of the man’s experience of the world. We see how he sees. We notice what he notices. After a brief exchange and an embrace framed in an inverted silhouette directly referencing the graphic novels, the scene takes a dramatic turn. We hear a gunshot and the woman falls to the ground. It’s a murder, not an affair. The blood red dress now takes on an additional meaning for the audience as it pools underneath the woman as she falls to the ground. The ambivalent nature of the colours clues the audience into the wider world of the film, showing how looks can be deceiving and not everything should be taken at face value.

Watching Sin City in just black-and-white, or even in full colour, the audience could still be effected on an emotional level through the image, sound and editing, but the addition of selective colouration creates a tension between what is observed and another emotional response that is not yet allocated. In this way, the digital intermediate is able to produce AFX, specifically modifying an audience’s emotional response throughout the viewing experience. Where Belton saw the best use of the digital intermediate as a narrative tool, Wood is interested in how it can be used as an emotive one. Both are important and neither is superior. The continued play between directors and technology is leading towards a broader range of stylistic tools that can be utilised by future filmmakers in their efforts to present their artistic endeavours on screen.

The abilities of the digital intermediate are easily apparent, but from the examples thus far, it might be difficult to see how the new technology is to be used beyond these somewhat niche applications. So far we have seen the ability to selectively colour or desaturate used in somewhat extreme circumstances. Not every narrative has its protagonists absorbed into a black and white world, and not all commodities are based on especially stylistic graphic novels. Neither of these examples shows a method for the general application of a technology which is able to broaden the scope of filmic possibility. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the first film to be processed entirely through a  digital intermediate, used the medium in a way that has become the mainstream application of the technology today. As Scott Higgins points out, art direction has been used in the days of colour cinematography to organize attention, and now the use of a digital mise-en-scene is able to carry forth in this role (70).

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000 (Universal)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000 (Universal)

The digital intermediate has several advantages over analog forms of set dressing as a way to convey meaning through colour. Firstly the digital intermediate has the ability to draw out and change individual elements, altering their colour and saturation to either draw them to attention or make them recede into the background. Deakins was able to use this facility in O Brother to manipulate the colour palette of particular shots and scenes to make them better suit the mood and tone of the scene within the narrative, even though they were shot under the same lighting conditions. The digital intermediate also has the ability to be dynamic within a shot. Colours can change on screen before our eyes.

The dynamic nature of the digital intermediate has been used more recently in several applications, once again extending the range of tools for filmmakers to achieve their goals in visual storytelling. The most notable example is Tom Ford’s directorial debut: A Single Man (2009), because it pioneers a usage of the technology that seems the most likely to become a mainstream application. Ford uses the digital intermediate to alter the saturation of his images, in order to emphasise the mood of the main protagonist,which in turn enhances the subjective nature of the experience. A Single Man uses a muted colour palette to represent the thoughts of the protagonist George (Colin Firth), a man contemplating suicide. The image changes during moments of happiness, however, increasing in vibrancy and saturation. Throughout the day, the last he plans to spend alive, moments of colour break through the cold greys and blues as moments of light occasionally break through his depression.

A Single Man, 2009 (The Weinstein Company)

A Single Man, 2009 (The Weinstein Company)

A Single Man, 2009 (The Weinstein Company)

A Single Man, 2009 (The Weinstein Company)

Black-and-white is used in the film as well but only for one scene. The scene is a flashback and is prompted by a black and white photo, but it is unlikely that this is the reason it is presented the way it is. The scene shows us a conversation between George and his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) about his friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and the relationship between them. Throughout the film we have been exposed to George’s subjective emotional experience. We have intimate knowledge of how he feels about the people in his life and his daily experience. If this memory were to be presented in colour the saturation would betray his true thoughts about Charley. Instead, the grayscale image blinds us to the truth or falsehood of his statements. This draws us closer to the character but defines a boundary that will not be crossed. If the film had have been made 40 years before it might have been shot in a similar way, with colour and black-and-white stocks being used in place of high and low saturation but the fine control and dynamic nature adds a particularly soft and subtle quality to the film. A Single Man has used the digital intermediate alongside preexisting film techniques in a way that extends the modes by which film is able to convey the subjective experience of protagonists.

The digital intermediate is often touted as providing access to an infinite amount of manipulation to a film image. With infinite permutations available, surely we will see an expansion to the range of uses filmmakers find that enable them to convey meaning and emotion to viewers through this technology. The examples above have shown how the ability to manipulate colour throughout an image has been put to use for both narrative and emotive effects. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? colours were altered shot to shot to help the film chart the emotional journey of the narrative. Pleasantville introduced the idea of colour as a diegetic element, using it as an integral part of the narrative. Sin City used a similar selective use of colour, but increased saturation and impact in order to create a more authentic adaptation of a graphic novel, which enabled the film to borrow stylistic cues from the medium that conveyed character’s subjective experiences to the audience. Finally, A Single Man showed how the digital intermediate’s fine control enables a more subtle and expressive expansion of film techniques and cues that are used to echo the subjective experience of protagonists. It is through the exaggerated implementation of new technologies that the film medium may find its way to a new, expanded standard of film grammar that includes the digital technologies that have only recently become available.

 

Works Consulted
Belton, John. "Painting by the Numbers: The Digital Intermediate." Film Quarterly 61.3 (2008): 58-65. Web.
Griffiths, Keith. “The Manipulated Image.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 9.4 (2003): 12-26. Print.
Higgins, Scott. "A New Colour Consciousness: Colour in the Digital Age." Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 9.4 (2003): 60-76. Web.
Lewis, Simon. "What Is Spectacle?"
Journal of Popular Film and Television 42.4 (2014): 214-21. Print.
McQuire, Scott. “Impact Aesthetics: Back to the Future in Digital Cinema?: Millenial Fantasies.”
Convergence. 6.2 (2000): 41-61. Web.
Wood, Aylish. "Digital Afx: Digital Dressing and Affective Shifts in Sin City and 300."
New Review of Film and Television Studies 9.3 (2011): 283-95. Web.
Wood, Aylish. “Pixel Visions: Digital Intermediates and Micromanipulations of the Image.” Film Criticism. 32.1 (Fall 2007): 72-94. Web.