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The Guardian | Friday 27 August 2010

Brief encounters Colouring in Hollywood * A long-wave education Iron Man 2, Transformers, Saving Private Ryan and O Brother Where Art Thou

The future’s orange and teal

Readers recommend songs about assassination By Paul MacInnes


Film fans might have noticed a colour revolution in cinema recently, because Hollywood seems to gave gone teal-andorange crazy. Studio films from Hot Tub Time Machine to Iron Man 2 have used the combination, with the greenish-blue teal forming a backdrop and the orange (which includes flesh tones) in the foreground. The film blogger Todd Miro has suggested it’s all down to the colours being complementary: “Anyone who has ever taken Colour Theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary ­colours and put them next to each other, they will ‘pop’, and sometimes even vibrate,” he wrote, posting dozens of stills from the year’s big movies, united by the prevalence of teal and orange. It’s no conspiracy, though, says Stefan Sonnenfeld, a leading Hollywood colourist who worked on the Transformers films (Miro counts them among the main offenders). “There’s no specific colour decision-making process where we sit in a room and say, ‘We’re only going to use complementary colours to try and move the audience in a particular direction – and only use those combinations,’” he says. “Every film has its own look. We are always pushing our tools and our creative capabilities on every project.” It took Miro’s accusation to bring to light one of cinema’s hidden arts. Colour grading, in which a film’s palette is altered in post-production, has become more prevalent over the last decade, as digital technology has erased the limits on what can be done. In 2000, O Brother, Where Art Thou? became the first film to be scanned on to a hard drive in its entirety to create what the labs call a digital intermediate (DI) print, ready for the colourists’ virtual crayons; the Coen brothers, of course, went to town with the sepia on that one. Now everyone ­follows suit with their chosen colours. “Colour-grading is an absolute necessity now,” says Sonnenfeld, “Because there are so many different formats that are being used, from film stock to digital capture, semi-professional to consumer cameras. Blending all that stuff and ­having it work cohesively is a very important part of the process.” The special effects explosion over the last decade has been good news for colourists, offering a constant stream of work as spectacular effects are worked into films: “Special effects [only] come to life when you transfer them digitally,” Sonnenfeld says. “When we integrated the robots for the first time in ­Transformers, it was amazing. And that all has to do with contrast and lighting. We went back and forth so many times. Michael Bay is a genius at that.” But do colourists just execute ­directors’ instructions, or are they ­artists in their own right? The lines have to be drawn on each job, and sometimes the colourists are forced to call the shots. “I’ve been working hard to make ­cinematographers feel we’re not there to dictate what the movie should look like,” says Sonnenfeld, “Oftentimes, it’s not our doing, but the cinematographer isn’t there for the process, because they’re off shooting another film.”


Phil Hoad

Nowadays 3D is the brave new frontier for colour grading. Alice in Wonderland was another recent Sonnenfeld job, and his team constructed two different ­palettes for the 2D and 3D versions – because the latter demands greater ­colour depth. At the other end of the scale are the desaturated action scenes that have been with us since Saving ­Private Ryan, the dialled-down tones transporting viewers back to the ­hyper-adrenalised state of fight-or-flight lurking in the deepest, most reptilian parts of our brains. The best colourists, says Sonnenfeld, push those primal ­buttons: “It’s a latent tool. It’s got this hidden power. And you don’t ­necessarily realise how important it is until it’s done incorrectly.”

What French pop radio taught me Richard Williams It’s the summer of 1963, and letters are exchanged with a girl who is on holiday with her parents at a campsite on the Côte d’Azur. We’re both 16, a good age to be discovering stuff. She writes, in ­letters smeared with Ambre Solaire and smelling faintly of Disque Bleu cigarettes, about listening to French radio and hearing “this fabulous record called something like My Boyfriend’s Back, and Little Dutch Coupe by the something Boys, but they play about four records back-to-back and sometimes they don’t tell you what they’re called”. She’s reading Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues and instructing me to buy a pair of blue jeans. The Crystals’ next record is good, she ­reports: “It’s called And Then He Kissed Me.” Oh, and this: “I bought a magazine ­yesterday called Salut les Copains.”

That’s also the name of the radio ­Hugues Aufray – and who wouldn’t want ­ rogramme on which she’s hearing all p to look like that? these terrific records. It’s on Europe 1, So now, almost half a century later, I a long-wave station, and I can hear it, walk into a store in the south of France too, on my parents’ valve radio. It comes and discover two boxes of CDs, eight on at 5pm, which is when kids who are discs in all, commemorating the show still at school get home, and it lasts for and the music it presented between two hours. Pretty soon it’s obvious that 1959 and 1969, complete with jingles the disc jockey, Daniel Filipacchi, has a and facsimiles of the original magazine better ear for new sounds than anybody covers. Richard Anthony’s Nouvelle on British radio. Some of the French Vague, an imaginative and very French records he plays – mostly covers of recasting of the Coasters’ Three Cool American songs – are pretty horrible, Cats, is an early highlight; others among but by the end of the year he’ll be the 200 tracks include his J’Entends ­playing Martha and the Vandellas’ ­Siffler le Train, an excellent adaptation Heat Wave, Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get a of the folk song 500 Miles, Johnny Witness and Major Lance’s The Monkey ­Hallyday’s Les Mauvais Garçons, Michel Time, evoking visions of Parisian clubs Delpech’s Inventaire 66, Hardy’s Mon where effortlessly cool kids in terrific Amie la Rose and La Maison Où J’Ai clothes are dancing to one great record Grandi, and two fine examples of Bob after another. Dylan’s influence on French pop: This is a time when pop music on the Dutronc’s Et Moi et Moi et Moi and BBC is restricted to a couple of hours on ­Antoine’s endearingly daft Les a Saturday morning – presumably a ­Elucubrations d’Antoine. time at which it can’t get in the way of Some of the music maintains a homework. There are no pirate stations ­precarious balance between chanson yet. Radio Luxembourg exists, but the and yé-yé, which sounded hopelessly signal fades in and out. Salut les corny at the time, but now has a Copains seems to be made by ­curious charm. That benign fate has people very like the ones at also ­overtaken semi-competent whom it is aimed, and so does covers such as Eddy Mitchell’s its affiliated publication (the ­Repose (Roll Over …) Beethoven, start of a magazine empire that Sylvie Vartan’s Le Loco-­Motion, Filipacchi will turn into one of Dick Rivers’s Va T’En Va T’En (Go the world’s ­largest). If the girl on Now) and Henri Salvador’s Le Lion the beach in the south of France Est Mort Ce Soir (The Lion got the idea of the blue jeans Sleeps ­Tonight). The from Kerouac, it is the ­occasional American pages of Salut les and British originals – ­Copains that make them Telstar, Baby Love, seem feasible to an orThe House of the dinary kid in a provinRising Sun, Wild cial town. There are Thing, California pictures of French Dreamin’ – arrive singers in the first ­almost as interrupflush of success – tions to a collecFrançoise Hardy, tion lacking only Jacques Dutronc, the mingled scent France Gall, Claude of Ambre Solaire François, Chantal Goya, and Disques Bleu. Jacques Dutronc

Clip joint tattoos

hile staying in an Edinburgh B&B, I got talking to a fellow guest over breakfast. He was an Ivy League­educated executive who lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and had the refined manners of a 19th-century aristocrat – until, that is, it came to the subject of his current ­president. Anybody partly ­acquainted with American politics is familiar with his complaints – big ­government, bad bail-outs – but they were brought to a close with the following statement: “Paul, I just find myself asking, ‘Why won’t someone assassinate this man?’” I couldn’t finish my kedgeree that morning. But after going through this week’s nominations, it became clear that a) there would be an American bent this week and b) there is a long history of US leaders – political, religious or cultural, being gunned down in their prime. Abraham, Martin and John, as written by Dick Holler in the aftermath of the deaths of Martin Luther King and the brothers Kennedy, seeks to make a link between their assassinations and that of Abraham Lincoln a century before: “They helped a lot of people/ But it seems the good die young.” It’s a song of bewilderment at great loss, but when performed by Marvin Gaye it acquires an air of transcendence, the vocal being so beautiful it is impossible to feel despair. In the Summer of His Years also ­concerns the death of JFK, but is both a lament and a poetic retelling. “A shot rang out like a southern shout/ And heaven held its breath”, sings Mahalia Jackson. The solemnity of the ­moment is, again, conveyed solely through her voice, ­accompanied only by a martial ­drumbeat. Peter Gabriel ­offers another perspective on events in Deeley Plaza, this time from the point of view of the assassin (left ­unnamed). Again the music is disconcerting, a ­gentle piano line ­giving way to chugging guitars. In the end, the killer blames it on his parents. That John Lennon’s death is ­considered an assassination shows the extent of his influence. Loudon ­Wainwright III’s song is built around the image of Lennon leaving his ­studio in a limo, warning: “All you heroes best beware.” Is this the voice of Mark ­Chapman, or someone sympathetic? It’s not clear. Paul Simon ties ­together his memories of the death of blues singer Johnny Ace with the passing of Lennon, but both are ­unconventional responses. Then we have Black Star talking about what the killings of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur said about hip-hop culture at that time, and Charlie Poole, in the 1920s, remembering the death of the 25th president of the US. Phil Ochs ­attempts the thesis that America’s ­history of killing is inevitable: “The eyes of the rebel have been branded by the blind/ To the safety of sterility, the threat has been refined.” We end with two songs from Africa, where assassination has – in many ­people’s minds – shaped the destiny of the continent. Tinariwen salute the passing – officially in a plane crash – of a rebel Touareg leader, while Senegalese rappers Awadi address perhaps the most famous lost African leader of all, the ­Congolese Patrice Lumumba.

This week’s playlist Got movies on your mind? Join in our blog in which a reader picks their favourite clips on a particular theme. This week: tattoos Have your say at

Josh Du Sautoy writes: “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” So said Jack London, though he probably didn’t ­foresee the day when more than a fifth of ­British adults would have one. Most of us will know someone with a tattoo, even if they’re not willing to

show it. Inking has definitely become a part of the mainstream, but in cinema it remains something of a novelty. A lot of film characters have become like politicians: as bland as possible, so as not to offend anyone. Where are the tattooed romantic leads? Perhaps it has something to do with marketing, to paraphrase

London: show me a man without a ­tattoo and I’ll show you a product bland enough to tickle every demographic. Whatever the reason, you can ­generally pigeonhole film characters with tattoos into psychos, gangsters and Angelina Jolie. But one thing is certain: they always have interesting pasts …


Abraham, Martin and John Marvin Gaye


In the Summer of His Years Mahalia Jackson


Family Snapshot Peter Gabriel

4 Not Johnny Loudon Wainwright III 5

The Late Great Johnny Ace Paul Simon

6 Definition Black Star 7

White House Blues Charlie Poole

8 Crucifixion Phil Ochs 9 Mano Dayak Tinariwen 10 J’Accuse Awadi Next week: songs with jokes 1 You can have tattoos to show your colleagues your work, as Viggo Mortensen does in ­Eastern Promises.

2 Perhaps it’s simply a way of life, as it is for Brad Pitt’s ­bareknuckle boxer Mickey in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch.

3 Or, like Bobby de Niro as stalker extraordinaire Max Cady in Scorsese’s Cape Fear, you might just want to scare people.

4 Amnesiac Leonard just needs an aide memoir to keep his mind on the job in Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

5 Or you might want to dupe a widow into leaving you her loot, as does Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter.

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Colour grading  

August 2010. The wonders of the new digital paintbox at film-makers' disposal, as guided by top Hollywood colourist Stefan Sonnenberg

Colour grading  

August 2010. The wonders of the new digital paintbox at film-makers' disposal, as guided by top Hollywood colourist Stefan Sonnenberg