The Changing Impact of Color in Video & How to Apply it to Cinematic Storytelling

Published on in Miscellaneous

Color is a simple concept for everyone to grasp, even if they don’t understand color engineering or science. Compared to other technical fields—for example, computer security—you can talk about color with lots of people, because everyone can confidently say, ‘that’s red’ or, ‘that’s reddish-orange,’ and can answer questions like ‘What’s your favorite color?’ People are willing to discuss color and color associations even when they don’t know anything technical. 

But color is a complex, technical topic – even more so when you factor in human biology. Our understanding of color is uniquely human – color science is based on how the eye reacts to color and light stimuli. It also includes how we ‘fool the eye’ based on what we’re expecting to see, as well as how the eye adapts to different conditions, such as sunlight versus dark night. 

So how do we take this science and apply it to cinematic storytelling?

It begins with defining the “look” of a film. When film-based movie making was in its heyday, you would pick your film stock based on what character you wanted to give your film. Now, with the transition to digital video, you have the ability to emulate many film stocks with the adjustment of preferences – opening up a new realm of possibility based on the preferences of your region. 

For example, there has been a slow shift toward more accurate colors in reproductions, partly enabled by highly color-accurate digital cameras. If you flip back through older books with color from the 1960s, you’ll often find contrast and unnatural colors that seems extremely unappealing compared with modern preferences. Contemporary pictures seem to be much closer to the actual colors.

A look can also change a day-time scene to a night scene, or turn back time by applying a sepia tone. The color palette could change as the main character goes through different phases of life, from hardship to happiness and back. You can tell the intended mood of a scene from its look alone. A gritty, contrasted and de-saturated look helps us realize we’re looking at a dark, evil character, while our heroes live in a bright, colorful, low-contrast world. This concept of storytelling through motifs isn’t confined to visuals or cinema—think of the musical cues of an opera, or the soundtrack leitmotifs in a TV series.

Expectations for proper color treatment are high in today’s films – viewers now expect color correction to be applied to RAW media and can often suggest images look flat without tweaks to add contrast – incorporating stark contrasts into your videography increases the eye’s ability to spot minute details that were barely perceptible prior to post-processing.  

But today’s filmmaker is faced with more challenges than just picking the right color to match the mood – they must also account for the impact that changes in editing processes have made to their coloring process. Even if you have a perfect calibration, and are working under color management, if you are working on a video at home under inconsistent lighting conditions, contrast will appear radically different from day to night, so aim for a consistent viewing environment, where the lights are controlled and low.

In addition, filmmakers need to consider the conditions under which their media will be viewed, and try to optimize for that experience. Will your target audience be watching on the big screen, on TV at home, or on a mobile device? The impact of color in each case will be vastly different and now needs to be strongly considered. In an era where phone cameras produce high-quality video, we need to also consider the differences between new devices and even slightly outdated ones. How does the video that looks great on my new phone appear different for others who have devices that are just one or two years older? Color management will certainly help preview the look on different devices.  

This issue is more pronounced for broadcasters. With the rise of HDR (high-dynamic range) on the capture side of production, broadcasters are using evolving camera technology to record video in stunning HDR color, but they will still be limited by the capabilities of existing television sets that don’t meet the same standard, and will need to create different versions of content optimized for HDR and non-HDR TV sets alike. The lack of strong industry standards for HDR content makes it challenging for broadcasters to push forward with new color innovation – the existing standards are a compromise at best.    

In the next year, expect to see significant progress in color standards set by SMPTE and ITU to help broadcasters and filmmakers optimize their content for these various devices. These standards will allow you to use tools like our Adobe Premiere Pro editing software to more easily export to a variety of formats and ensure consistency. I also believe that we’ll see the start of a gradual increase in the use of HDR-enabled TVs. Once consumers begin to experience HDR in their living rooms, they will be excited by the sharp color enhancements they will perceive from any side of the room and from farther distances away from the screen. I expect this to stimulate consumers to also own more HDR capable devices in the future to capture their own HDR content.

About the Writer

Lars Borg is a principal scientist in digital video and audio engineering at Adobe. Borg, who joined Adobe in 1989, develops solutions and standards in the areas of high dynamic range (HDR) video, wide color gamut, Ultra-High Definition TV, digital cinema, color management, video compression and holds over 30 patents in related areas. Borg was a key contributor in developing the Academy Color Encoding System, create the CinemaDNG format, is active in standards committees at SMPTE and ICC and is the chairman of a SMPTE group on Dynamic Metadata for HDR Color Transforms. Borg received his M. Sc. EE from Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden.
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