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jacob larsen

Drop Zone, Wesley Snipes, 1994

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Pardon what may be a silly question, but...

...would it be likely correct to assume this movie (And similar movies like for instance "Die Hard" and "Dirty Harry") is basically just white-balanced and then nothing more in terms of grading?

(I am judging it by the version shown on TV and streaming websites)

They are clearly not using LUTs (And never have the 'teal and orange' look we see today, but rather clear, vivid and distinct colors) as this is before digital grading, so is it fairly safe to assume that movies from those days basically get their looks from the film-stocks themselves?

And that 'color-timing' is basically just white-balancing (Including contrast-adjustments) of the image.

Or did they have methods back then to key certain colors (Like skin-tones) and create a 'teal and orange' look if they wanted to?

I am personally really mesmerized by how beautiful the movie "Drop Zone" looks 🙂 (And also how good its sound-track sounds, but that is obviously not for this post) and really wish I knew how to aim for a similar look with digital photography (Which is why I am trying to understand the differences between which parts of the look is inherent to film itself vs which parts of the look they crafted themselves with skillful look-design (Since the latter might be possible to re-create 🙂 ))


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Shot by my friend and mentor, Roy Wagner...

Before digital intermediates, color negative film was printed using RGB light corrections, so you basically had control over brightness and overall color, not contrast. I wouldn't call RGB printing "just white balance" implying a neutralized color -- you could make print the scene warmer or colder than shot, for example.

Adjusting contrast was a lot harder, other than with lighting, you could overexpose / pull-process to reduce contrast or underexpose / push-process to increase contrast but that had to be done to the entire camera roll and it had an affect on film speed and grain, and it still had limited affect on contrast.

But anything you see on a TV screen has to go through a digital color-correction stage, it's just that for an older movie, they'd usually transfer from a color-corrected film element like an interpositive and do minimal adjustments to look correct on video, and even if they transferred from the original negative, they would attempt to make it similar to the film print version, they wouldn't use much Power Windows except to fix a few minor things, not to create a new look.

Good cinematography, even today, is mostly about LIGHTING. Combined with good production design. The color, contrast, mood, etc. is mostly done in camera and in front of the camera, not in post.

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8 hours ago, David Mullen ASC said:

Good cinematography, even today, is mostly about LIGHTING. Combined with good production design. The color, contrast, mood, etc. is mostly done in camera and in front of the camera, not in post.

Thank you very much for that insight, David 🙂

I have only worked with film as still-photography, never as motion-photography, and have almost no practical experience with correcting an image outside the digital realm.

I think I am beginning to get a better understanding of where the thing I admire personally in the look of films, such as "Drop Zone" (Which I absolutely love on a whole, not just for its looks. But in terms of its looks it's one of those I use as a 'benchmark' or reference, since, to me, it stands as an example of perfection), comes from; the light during the filming (And seeing you say the same thing just reinforces that 🙂 )

For a long time I thought it was film itself that provided the 'magic', but since I have never been able to get that 'magic' just by using film I slowly figured out it had to be more than just that.

So I was curious how they would actually work with film during those days, to balance and create the final color-tone, and I half-way was expecting it to be a method like the one you describe; a global coloring of the film-frame.

My use of the term 'white-balance' may not be correct, but I was thinking, in simplistic terms, of 'simply' shining a light of some chosen color through the film-negative/positive to manipulate the color-tone of the image as a whole. It seems logical that, when working with physical light, it would have to be some method along those lines. So I feel like my initial thoughts on this were confirmed by you and am pretty confident I am on the correct track on my path to understanding how to achieve the look I am after with my own photography 🙂 

So thank you again 🙂

And if it matters to Roy, let him know his work on "Drop Zone" is very much appreciated and adored here 🙂


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Basically they shined red, green, and blue light through the negative, each on a scale of 1-50 points of brightness, to color-correct the image onto the print stock. I think it was six points for each stop of exposure change.  Most people shot film to be printed near the middle of the scale, so 25-25-25 though the reality was that it wasn't even.  If you went for a denser (overexposed) negative for better contrast and blacks in the print, the lights would be higher (i.e. it took more light to get through a denser negative), so a movie might print more in the 30's or 40's.

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What David says is correct.

The white light of the printer lamp is split into RGB using dichroic filters, in each beam there is a 'light valve' that can be instantly changed to a new setting. The valves are closed at zero and maximum open at 50. The printer is first calibrated to print neutral from an LAD reference negative at the standard printing lights of 25-25-25 using printer trims. 

The negative is then graded and individual printing lights are then chosen per scene, taking into account pre-corrections for different filmstocks etc. Contrast and saturation can be changed with use of flashing, pushed intermediates, etc. 

A good color negative would print between 25 and 30 for the green channel, a good B&W negative would print around 20.

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Clearly a much more involved process than simply sitting still for hours in front of a computer-screen thinking digital allows anything to be done in post 🙂

 And when I look at stills from "Drop Zone" now, I can clearly see that lights are used on a lot of the scenes. It is amazing how something you did not see before suddenly pops right out at you 🙂

Thanks for the details.

I am about to make some test-experiments myself with lighting vs no-lighting, to get more 'hands-on' with how it can alter colors and overall looks of a scene. Learning by doing 🙂



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