Black and Blue: The 35mm Colors of Uncut Gems and Star Wars
Fall 2019 provided us with a massively budgeted 35mm feature in the form of J.J. Abrams’s The Rise of Skywalker (shot by Dan Mindel and colored by Stefan Sonnenfeld at finishing house Company 3) and a surprisingly visible A24 mid-budget art film in the Safdie brothers’s Uncut Gems (shot by Darius Khondji and colored by Damien van der Cruyssen at The Mill). In each case, the choice to shoot on celluloid was rooted in what could be termed (charitably) as a nod to film history or (uncharitably) a nostalgic gesture. I make no claims as to which it is, nor would I say the ways in which their use of film is similar beyond a deliberate referencing of past icons. For what it’s worth, as a director, I’ve shot my last two films on Super 16mm.
What stands out, however—particularly from my perspective as a critic, director, and film colorist by trade—were the ways in which the two films mark particular approaches to contemporary modes of digitally color grading celluloid, and the relation of that color to the chemical makeup of film itself and its traditional color looks. The look of Uncut Gems—unmistakably blue-tinted, featuring a heavy heavy amount of bluish color and even blue dots and grain in its darkest colors—is easily noticed by a layperson viewer. Film blacks are often noted for their blue tint, which has been amped up by the shooting and coloring methods of the film. It is, put simply, an extremely “film-y” look, one that starkly recalls classic 70s and 80s low-budget. The specifics of and reasons for this look in 2019 seem noteworthy.
Color grading was, in the pre-digital days, referred to as “color timing,” and involved altering the printing process of celluloid to match color between shots and to achieve specific looks. After the switch to digital methods, color grading become much more involved, allowing film colorists to push film color to new extremes and opening up new possibilities in color. Today, even most films shot on celluloid are colored digitally. When I first saw Uncut Gems, I assumed it was shot on 16mm, due to the highly visible film grain shot throughout. When I saw it was primarily shot on 35mm, suspected it was most likely deliberately “pushed” in processing, a process whereby footage is intentionally underexposed and then made brighter when the film is developed. (I was right!) This leads to a grainer look with higher contrast in color saturations, and tends to make film look, well, more “filmy.” Furthermore, the blacks, at least on the DCP projection I saw, are dripping with blues and even blue noise, with Sandler often enveloped in a vibrating sea of pulsing blue/black noise in the darkest exterior scenes. It’s worth noting that this is at the relatively extreme end of a degraded film image, and in a manner that suggests pixels in the texture of that noise. This is likely a combination of necessity and choice—when you underexpose film and color digitally, this happens more often, but it’s also in keeping with the film’s emphatic blue-tinted color palette, an extreme look made possible even in daylight exteriors by digital color grading and the interaction of film stocks and lighting conditions. Furthermore, pushing film tends to bring out its innate qualities—increased contrast and saturation means the inherent color balances in film are more obvious, more pronounced. All in all, Uncut Gems’s color palette and texture is one that screams “shot on film,” to the point where it inevitably shapes audience reactions.
Presumably for reasons of the physical heft of film cameras and budgetary concerns, the film wasn’t shot entirely on 35mm. Parts were shot on digital, and this poses a challenge for any colorist seeking to seamlessly match digital in film. Typically, this involves using film color curves, predesigned templates that mimic the look of film, and then applying a digital scan of a film grain to the digital footage. Digital breaks down when “pushed” in the color process much like film does, but it doesn’t contain those blue blacks, which have been amped throughout, and so this too was likely added. It may also be the reason that that unforgettable static haze that surrounds Sandler as he stumbles out the trunk of a car—an all-digital attempt to match film at the limits of ideal lighting conditions opening up a new look for the projected image. Those cool blue tones that glaze the film are a product of our digital age, though aided by tungsten/daylight stock fiddling and lighting schemes. Despite being based on the inherent physical properties of film, it is a film that looks, in many ways, more like a “celluloid aesthetic” than many of the 80s celluloid films it references, and which uses digital tools to do what 35mm alone could not. It looks more like the past than the past could have, via the tools of the contemporary. This is, of course, the Safdies’s raison d’être, crushing retro aesthetics up against a frenetic display of characters who are likewise “out(side) of time” in a hyper-contemporary moment.
Star Wars, on the other hand, points to a different legacy. Its 35mm is pristine, sparkling, immaculate. Beyond referencing the high-budget gloss of the original 1970s trilogy, Skywalker rarely highlights its celluloid origins, leaving them to quietly pulse in the film’s rich colors and subtle grain. It’s an equally future/past set of choices by other means—a sci-fi film that inevitably seeks to ape a 1970s image of the future, that “a long, long time ago” taking on new meaning. At the same time, it too is digitally colored and must reconcile and blend the pixels of its heavily CG shots and the film capture medium onto which they are applied. Here we see a seamless, high budget blending of film’s saturated colors, lush skin tones—and yes, blacks with a bit of blue in them and frequent forays into contemporary blue-orange or blue-red duo-chrome palettes very in keeping with contemporary digital color trends. The climatic moment between Palpatine, Rey and Kylo set amid a murky green-grey-blue morass of fog and spectral figures is the most overtly modern, punctuated by still-warm skin tones and pops of lightsaber, but set against the lush, full color-spectrum photography of the rebel base. In short, Skywalker utilizes a color look on 35mm that is at once classic and “filmic” without the overt signaling of film stock to viewers of Uncut Gems. But it, too, is completely impossible prior to digital color techniques and the color-isolating and color curves available to it.
These highly visible films point towards trends that began with the switch to digital shooting formats and continued to evolve during the slow resurgence of celluloid shooting formats. Once the “film look” became a rarity due to the rarity of film, it increasingly became an aesthetic. One needs only to look at Rihanna’s digitally-shot “We Found Love” video (2011), shot by Paul Laufer and colored by Dave Husser, to see the summary of the entire visual vocabulary of the 2000s and signs to where we were headed — not just in color, but I’ll let readers unpack the rest of that video themselves.The switch to digital, and the log format ultra-flat washed-out colors necessary to properly compress color, led to a predominately low-contrast, low-saturation color style. That’s all over “We Found Love,” but you’ll also see the seeds of the “film look” that would come to dominate a certain type of self-consciously arty filmmaking in the 2010s—partially, one imagines as a rejection of that flat look, which while still present in much “independent” cinema, seems to be on the wane as analog shooting resurface and infects the color language of all film with its colors. The blacks in “We Found Love” are so blue it’s almost a stretch to call them blacks, and the colors throughout resemble degraded 8mm or 16mm film, a yearning for lost colors and lost time, the ever-present desire of the cool to recoup the past. At the same time, digital color tools are hyper-present as well, in garish, impossible skin tones, extreme emphasis of particular colors (confetti, smoke!), and duo-chrome and monochrome palettes.
In “We Found Love” all this color play is in service of creating a sense of “cool” and “stylish” images—a perfectly valid artistic impulse—but it’s also serving to perform a certain play with nostalgia, time and contemporaneity that Uncut Gems (fairly explicitly) Star Wars (fairly implicitly), and much of contemporary cinema in its current analog-digital hybrid age carry on in the other direction. Uncut Gems has a look that is arguably “more film than film,” using today’s tools and today’s post-digital and digital color standards as means by which to call attention to the physicality and properties of its shooting medium. It urges a particular engagement with the film as “film” (even if some of it is shot digitally), its materiality causing us to self-consciously question what “classic” looks, characters, and narratives feel like when intensified in a contemporary age. Star Wars, on the other hand, is at once more practical-minded and more subtle, content to use film color and digital color in tandem to encourage us to positively relate the new film to the old ones, to accept it as a continuation and an “improvement,” given modern technical techniques. Its time crushing is of a sleeker, more commercial sort, taking the film look as a basis for recall while marking it as “contemporary” in the same moment, color and history as smooth, invisible marketing. At the same time, one could argue that its approach indicates current trajectories and possibilities more so than Uncut Gems, subjecting the history bound up in the chemicals of film stock to the tools and demands and possibilities of the current technological milieu.
And then, of course, there’s Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (shot by Yorick Le Saux), the third of the winter’s big 35mm trifecta, which, like Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, simply shoots film as perfectly as possible according to classical standards of its perfection and grade it in such as way as to highlight both its grain and its rich saturated colors. The historicity here couldn’t be more first-level—it looks “old” and tells a period piece—but at the same time that directness accomplishes a hyperreal film aesthetic that feels at once utterly in key with the ideals of the film strip’s inherent colored and keyed into modern possibilities and affordances. It never makes the forays into digitally-assisted color looks like that green-grey sinkhole of Skywalker’s climax—its sole trick is to blue tint its future timeline and yellow-tint its past timeline, a trick as old as color film, though likely digitally assisted here—nor does it degrade or push its film stock to achieve that unmistakable “film-ness.” If Uncut Gems is obsessed with how film falls apart in ways that call attention to its “film-ness,” Little Women simply makes film that takes the classically shot even film look and subtly amplifies it.
One can’t help but wonder, though, if there are more possibilities available to us. Uncut Gems is a film of gorgeous texture and enveloping surfaces, but they always circle back to the moment of their capture. Star Wars keeps its contemporary reworking of film trapped in the realm of the “classic.” Oddly, nearly 8 years ago, Spring Breakers (2012), shot by Benoît Debie, offered us a different path forward at the beginning of the decade, a film whose colors were only possible through analog shooting and digital color, and yet which stood somewhat outside of classic 35mm color looks. As celluloid continues its resurgence, it remains to be seen what new alleyways open up. The realm of “experimental” film on the contemporary festival circuit often offers a “pure” set, but the infected cinema of commercial and/or narrative filmmaking is a far more evasive beast, though filmmakers continue to test the waters. If “We Found Love” encapsulates an explosion of “film” color tendencies onto digital, the moment remains open as to what the explosion of “digital” onto film can provide us with.