P&P Portraits in Color Grading

Here is a little portrait gallery from “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre“, my second short film musical adaptation of a classic Edgar Allan Poe short story (after “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre“).

I’m focusing on close-ups of the protagonist in different scenarios during the course of the film not because I am a narcissist obsessed with pictures of my visage – (well, I am an actor and so I probably am a narcissist obsessed with pictures of my visage) – but to use them as an effective and mostly spoiler free example of how color grading in collaboration with cinematography can achieve a wide variety of looks and moods for a film.

Color grading happens in post production. It’s like the digital equivalent of photographers using different chemical processes in developing a film negative to achieve different effects. How a shot is lit and filmed on set affects the look of the image; then digital color grading post-production adds to the process.

The director of photography on set was Jason Chua. Jimmy McCoy is doing the color grading.

The first four examples all represent naturalistic environments that the protagonist of this film finds himself in – a garret, a bathroom, a courtroom, a prison cell – but looking closely you can see that the lighting and coloring is different for each, effecting the mood of the image differently, even if the image in each screen shot, a mostly impassive face, is similar.

The next four examples illustrate some (but not all – avoiding spoilers here) of the extremes color grading will take us. Most if not all of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” takes place in a prison cell – but readers of Poe may remember that some dramatic changes take place in this cell; and these changes are reflected in how film was lit and shot on set and what is done with the footage during color grading in post.

We refer to the example above as “blind vision”. For long stretches the protagonist of Poe’s story is in a completely dark cell. No light whatsoever. How does one visualize that in a seven minute segment without simply keeping everything black and relying solely on sound? Above is our solution, a very specific black and white look achieved by how Jason lit the set and what filters he used in front of the camera lens, followed by a specific way Jimmy turned the image black and white during color grading. We’d also created a black and white look for “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre”, but there our reasons for going black and white were different, and the specifics of lighting, lens and color grading were different, and so its black and white look is also very different, as you can see here.

The extremes the protagonist finds himself enduring are reflected in ever greater differences of lighting and color.

Again, using close-ups of the face allows me to illustrate the extremes of the visual looks of the film without spoiling story or set design details. Gotta leave some of those morsels for later, right? This has nothing at all to do with showcasing my face over and over again, no, not at all…

Below is our most extreme example of color grading. The shot below was filmed on set much like the third example above in this series, but this look inspired by color negative film processes was achieved solely through color grading, no visual effects work necessary. Color grading enabled us to create a color negative version of the original shot, as well as highlight blue tones in the process, which is how we achieved this look.

And believe it or not, this vision of the protagonist, which lasts about 45 seconds in the film, is not wholly of my own invention, but is in response to Edgar Allan Poe’s description of the protagonist’s circumstances. How exactly, well, you’ll get to see that when you view “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”. But first we’ll have to finish it; still got more post-production work to do …

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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