Color Me Impressed

When I started preparing for a new transfer of The Ice Storm, I asked director Ang Lee if he wanted to supervise the session. Ang said that he’d like the cinematographer, Fred Elmes, to supervise, and that he would come in at the end and review the color correction with us. That’s typically the way many directors go about the process these days, although they’re all different. Years ago, it wasn’t so easy to get a director in the room for a color-correction session, but things have changed. As Ang put it, “More people are watching the film on video than they are in the theater, and this is the way the film is going to live and be seen.”

I often find that directors are noncommittal about coming into a transfer session. When I asked Lars von Trier to come in for Zentropa recently, he said, “Thanks, but we trust you to do a good job.” That’s while I was in Copenhagen, mind you, just a few miles away! (Luckily I got to screen an original print at the lab while timing, therefore keeping the original ideas intact.) Then there is Jim Jarmusch, the complete opposite. Jim not only wants to watch the color correction, but he wants to review any fixes, check the compression on the DVD, and talk through the entire process. There were a few issues with Down by Law that had to be corrected in the transfer room, and Jim spent hours on one scene, making sure the black and white levels in the swamp were just right.

Like many filmmakers, Ang Lee knows that it’s as important to grade the video master as it is the prints. He also knows that you have to emphasize certain things for the small screen that you wouldn’t normally for a print being projected on a huge screen. I called Fred Elmes to come in for the Ice Storm transfer, and Fred wanted to try grading the film in the theater at Technicolor in New York. I hadn’t had this request before, since the theater is typically used for digital intermediate work—color correcting a digital scan of the original negative that will eventually be output back to film. It’s not normally used for video remastering. I phoned Joe Gawler at Technicolor, one of our favorite colorists, and told him Fred’s idea. Joe was intrigued and set about getting his engineers to do some tests. After a few weeks, Joe felt confident that it could work. Fred came in and was thrilled that we were doing it this way. We color corrected for days like this, and I have to admit, it was pretty nice seeing the film so large on the big screen. Ang finally came in, and vetoed the projector idea. He felt that although it was nice to see it like this, it wasn’t going to be representative of the typical home viewer’s experience, since most people would be watching on CRTs or 30- to 50-inch LCD or plasma screens. We then sat in the back of this giant theater gathered around a 24-inch CRT monitor, finalizing the color of The Ice Storm. I told Ang that we might want to trade the CRT for an iPod since lots of people are watching stuff on them as well. We all cracked up imagining ourselves gathered around an iPod for eight hours grading The Ice Storm. Is it really that far away?

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