B efore beginning the shoot, Roger Deakins performed many photo chemical tests at film labs and post facilities to see if he could get the look that he and the Coen Brothers wanted. They were to shoot in lush, green Mississippi during the summer, but wanted a dusty, brown, burned out hand-tinted look that reflected the 1937 Depression era. The only place he felt could give him this was Cinesite at that time. I became involved during the testing.
You have to remember that back then, in terms of color grading for film output, while not exactly the Stone Age, was more like the Bronze or Iron Age. There were no such things as real time conforming, 3D look-up-tables, 2K digital projectors, or real time playback of data files. These things are taken for granted today. It was pretty much the wild west for grading.
We used Silicon Graphics CRT monitors that the engineering staff at Cinesite calibrated especially for film, which gave a reasonable contrast range approaching film, but color accuracy was another matter. We would film out test frames after every session (film recording was very slow and expensive back then) and view the print the next day if the print met LAD AIM (the film equivalent of color bars, so to speak). If not, a new print was struck until it did. Then we would see what we had. The interesting thing was that some scenes we thought would be very straightforward proved to be problematic, while others we thought would be troublesome proved to be no problem at all.
A-B negative rolls
We had cut A-B negative rolls to be scanned on a Spirit Datacine. For anyone who is not familiar with cut A-B neg rolls, a brief primer: the neg is cut together in a normal editing environment. When a transition is required (dissolve, wipe, etc.), enough handles to cover the duration are included in the shot, followed by black leader until the next transition is required, then the camera original shots are continued on, and so forth. This is the A-roll. Then the B-roll is created inverse to the A-roll. Using A-B cut negative required a lot of reel changes and cleaning of the transport, since the black leader normally used in cut neg left a lot of residue on the rollers and in the gate. Sometimes a C-roll is used, but I don’t recall if we had any. We may have had one or two. This continues for every film roll.
The grading was done operationally like a typical telecine session, and we used a Pandora Int's Poggle with MegaDEF system. That was the only system at that time (circa 1999 - 2000) that worked with 2K (2048 x1556) data. As in modern grading systems, we could select a color and adjust the range affected by phase, saturation, luminance, etc.
Deakins and the Coen Brothers wanted to do the green-to-brown transform entirely in the grading bay, but throughout the process we didn’t want to change all the greens to a single shade of brown. That could look phony. So we would change the trees, for example, to one shade/density of brown and the grass to another. Sometimes on a shot we would change a grass field to one shade, the shrubbery on the edges of the field somewhat different, and the trees yet a little more different.
The biggest issue in the grading process was that the greens we were changing to dusty, burnt brown didn’t translate well at all on the monitor. Being that this was the crux of the whole project, we had to deal with it somehow. The only way I knew to do this in any kind of timely manner was to look at the difference between the print and what we saw on the monitor, try to determine in my mind how different it was in grading terms, apply an opposite adjustment to the file, film it out, and see where we were. After a few of these, it became a bit easier to apply a mental LUT, but it still required a proper grading on the monitor so that Deakins and the Coens could determine what they wanted, film it out, view the print, and make the change. A bit cumbersome to say the least.
Outside of losing the greens, it was a pretty common grading session. We made sure the RGB controls were balanced properly and that the brightness and contrast ranges were appropriate. Of course the film had an overall look, a palette, but no other individual colors were specifically isolated or treated as a whole. It wouldn’t make sense to have the environment be a burnt, dusty look and have the talent be in bright, saturated primaries. It wasn’t shot that way. Everything had to look as a whole.
Secondary controls, of course, were used as necessary. The type of adjustment is varied depending on content and desired results. One example of this was a shot of the actors on a handcar. The shot pulls out and tilts up to a very wide shot. Besides tracking the foliage, the sky was almost white, so we put some windows in the sky to give it a gradated late day look. The sky gradations also had to be tracked.
There was no “special” attention paid to skin tones, eyes, etc. They just had to look like they were supposed to and consistent throughout a scene and throughout the film. We used normal grading procedures, still stores, and what felt right, even if it wasn’t a technical “match”.
Deakins and the Coen brothers were great to work with. Deakins was intimately involved. He was present in the bay virtually every day as far as I recall. The Coen brothers came in periodically to view film out tests, but they were very much on the same page as Deakins, so there was no need for them to be present daily.