Film color timing

Color Timing Explained by Legend Jim Passon



C olor timing is the process of balancing the color and density of each shot in a motion picture. This was necessary because motion pictures were filmed out of order from the final edited sequence, over a long period of time under varying conditions (lighting, exposure and film emulsions). Then the film negative was sent to the lab for film processing which also had variables which affected the color and density such as developing time, temperature and chemical balance. When the film negatives were spliced together into the final sequence to make a film print on positive film stock, it needed to be analyzed for color and density to set the printer lights for each shot so the final print would be balanced. 

Although the technical process of color balancing was done by the color timer, the process of reaching the final color was a collaborative effort involving the timer and filmmakers; usually the cinematographer, director, editor or other production assistants. This was done through screening film prints with the filmmakers, getting their comments and opinions then applying corrections to the film timing till final approval was achieved. This would take from 2 or 3 timing passes up to 10 or more depending on the nature of the film and demands of the filmmakers.

The eyes of the color timer

The tools needed to color time a film print begin with the eyes of the color timer. Before the first print is made, the film negative is viewed on a film analyzer such as a Hazeltine. This is a machine that reads the negative and presents a positive image on a video monitor. The color and density can be adjusted using knobs which represent the printer lights usually from a 1 to 50-point scale for each color (Red, Green, and Blue). The timer turns the knobs until the color and density look right so the printer lights are set for that shot. This is done for each shot of the film, then a print is made. The film print is screened by the color timer who will analyze with his eyes and make notes to what needs to be corrected. The film print is then put on a comparator projector where it can be viewed scene by scene to make color adjustments by changing the printer lights for the next corrected print.

Read: Dan Muscarella about printer lights

Some timers use color filters to help make color decisions.  The color corrections are not seen until another print is made. Originally, these color corrections were written on a timing card which showed the footage and printing lights for each scene. The timing card was sent to a person who would have to make a paper tape with this information to be loaded into the printing machine. Now this information is input to the computer by the timer as he makes corrections and directly accessed by the printing machine.

The length of time to color correct a cut negative film from the first trial to final approval can vary from a couple weeks to several months. This varies based on the number of scenes, how well it was shot, the need for reshoots or effect shots and the filmmakers demands. A typical turnaround from a first trial print to a corrected print including color correcting and printing takes several days. An average film would take 3 to 5 passes for approval which would be about 15 to 20 days total.   

Categories of color timers

  • First would be the Daily Timer who would get the negatives from each day's shoot (dailies) and using a film analyzer, set printer lights for the daily prints.
  • An Analyzer or Hazeltine Timer sets the printing lights for the edited (cut) negative to make the first print to be screened.
  • The Screen Timer views the first print in a theater on a big screen taking notes for corrections to be made on the comparator.
  • The Comparator Timer (usually same person as Screen Timer) views the print on a small projector and applies the corrections based on the Screen Timer's notes.

With all the tools and complexities of today's digital color correction, it is easy to become too focused on micromanaging minor details and losing sight of the big picture. Film color timing was limited to color and density balance with emphasis on the overall scene to scene continuity. I would advise digital colorists to hold off using your specialty tools (secondary correction, windows, and mattes) until the overall continuity of color and density is addressed so the integrity of the cinematography does not get distorted.

Now that I have been effectively retired from color timing with the closure of film labs and the industry taken over by digital projection I can only hope that the "art" of cinematography will go on. Working with some of the great cinematographers throughout my career taught me the importance of the image caught using the lighting, lenses, and techniques used by the camera. With the new technologies, it is important that this art does not get distorted by the involvement of too many opinions and people in the digital timing bay. My biggest advice is to listen to the cinematographer.

Jim Passon


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Thanks for that concise article on film timing! 

I've had a while to ponder the difference between traditional film timing and digital color grading and would like to add a few observations myself.

Traditional film timing depended upon a lot of up-front experimentation and decision making prior to shooting, more modern productions tend to put the emphasis on post production shaping of the image with an eye toward maintaining maximum flexibility to shape the look in post.

For good or bad, you are locked into a gamma/stock response when traditional film production began and it is the duty of post production technicians to make that vision happen with the guidance of the cinematographer. 

Yes you can vary the initial gamma development of the negative but you are locked into a fairly rigid set of constraints that have very definite limits of variation in post.

Most of the determination of image quality occurred at the time of shooting, through the skill of the cinematographer to shape the image within a proscribed and per-determined set of filmstock, developing and release stock parameters.

Unlike most modern digital productions, the gamma of the negative image could only be varied slightly, the density range of the print only manipulated withing a certain range and the release print certainly proscribed its own limitations without resorting to highly unusual processes, fraught with peril and potential disaster.

So, sounding like an old man here, I say that "filmic looks" are difficult for modern filmmakers to emulate digitally because every parameter is potentially variable in a way that doesn't necessarily contribute to a unified gamma response of the presentation media. 

If you can vary the lift, gamma, gain, and independently vary the relationships between primary and secondary colors, in the post production period, it will not resemble a medium that constrains you to work within those limited parameters and could appear less cohesive.

If anyone would like a rough idea of what it is like to time film, Try this:

import a series of log-based files into Resolve with one being a test chart or representative shot of the whole project. 

Next, on the timeline, edit the sequence as desired.

Then, switch to the color tab and using only the luma curve and the sole representative shot within the timeline mode, create a 21 point curve on a parallel node to normalize the dynamic range of the footage; When satisfied, switch to clip based mode to continue.

Next, switch to the Primary Bars grading interface and USING ONLY the Primary Bars offset controls, time each shot by varying the RGB component of each clip to color balance and adjust the density ONLY using the ganged-wheel of the Primary Bars Offset to adjust for density.

You will quickly realize why on-set filtration, lighting and contrast manipulation are so terribly important to shooting film the traditional way.


Edited by Frank Wylie
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8 hours ago, Nicolas Hanson said:

Hi Jim, thank you for this introduction to color timing. Is it possible to affect only lift, gamma, or gain with printer points?

It is possible to apply a simulated 50 printer point scale to the lift, gamma and gain controls in digital grading but this would not be the same as printer point corrections on film where there is no separation for lift, gamma and gain, only density and color balance. 

Jim Passon

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Thank you for this in-depth article! How is printer points different from lift, gamma, gain when it comes to balance an image? Is it a more organic correction because it's global controls that affects the whole image?

Edited by Amada Daro
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You basically answered your own question. Printer point corrections for film affect the whole image with no separation of lift, gamma or gain. There are ways to adjust "lift" or black levels and "gain" in the photo chemical process by using flashing techniques, different print stocks or film processing adjustments but this would be a global correction to a full roll of film and would be difficult to apply shot by shot.

Jim Passon

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