Understanding visual grammar
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
I recently watched the film 'Dark Waters' directed by the excellent Todd Haynes and DOP'd by the masterful Edward Lachman. Now I'm not going to go into 'Kermode' mode and cast my thoughts on this film; but I shall talk about the film's undeniable aesthetic beauty and some of the processes used to define its visual grammar. I'm going to focus on the colour grade - don't worry, it's not technical, it's fun - trust me.
Dark Waters has a relatively muted colour palette - this is no Wes Anderson film (thank god) - the film's colours comprise of cool blues for the exteriors and a green/yellow hue for much of the interior scenes. Within the context of this story and subject matter, the colour grade is a masterclass in creating the visual grammar of the film; I say this because a common thread of this film is injustice - and how it's a process in life that to some degree we all experience and have to meet head on.
A typical colour grade in Hollywood films is the much discussed 'teal and orange' look. This takes two colours on the opposite side of the colour spectrum and creates an effective contrast of cool blues against warmer orange skin tones. Dark Waters keeps the skintones pretty neutral and this is an incredibly important creative decision as there is little warmth for our characters within the story structure.
Having researched the film - I read an interesting article from Edward Lachman explaining how he came to the decision to employ a green/yellow colour scheme for the interiors instead of perhaps a natural soft tungsten look. Lachman believed the yellow and green hues helped convey a sense of illness that had impacted a community - this is a fundamental part of the film; it's a true story based on a corporate cover up involving chemical contamination which impacted a large community of people in the U.S. This is a deeper process than just creating a mood board and treatment - he gets deeply and emotionally involved in the subject matter of the film and starts constructing the visual grammar from a blank canvas.
Lachman's approach does not merely play to the aesthetics we deem desirable; he takes creative gambles and the films he photographs always have an incredibly visual grammar that sets them apart. For the film 'Carol' he was inspired by a titan of the New York street photography scene; Saul Leiter and the photography of 1950s America - he went so far as to replicate the most commonly used film stocks for the movie. There's a plethora of stunning scenes in Carol of rain soaked windows and beautiful refracted imagery.
Another key component that makes the images come to life is the careful use of cinematic grain. Now grain is a natural part of the emulsive process when shooting on film - Dark Waters was Edward Lachman's first film using a digital camera and the grain was added in during post production; however not all grain is created equally. If the grain is too strong it can distract the audience, if it's too textured it can shout 'this was shot digitally'. Grain algorithms are a key part of the colour grading process and can dramatically change the aesthetic of an image. It comes back to painting; grain dances on the screen and adds incredible texture to the image - grain also improves the viewer's perception of image sharpness - it's the antithesis to photo realism and not too dissimilar to the short visible brush strokes that often characterise impressionism based artworks.
At Girafingo we take inspiration from masters such as Ed Lachman and apply an artistic approach to grading. Realism is all well and good when the story demands it - however it's important to remember that if you wish to transport your audience to the story world - an effective colour grade is a key tool to utilise. We love film and hope you do too; check out Dark Waters and sit back and marvel at some stunning imagery.