Creating a Look

Robert Goodman

Robert Goodman
Emmy-nominated director and  the author of the “Goodman’s Guide” series of field guides for SD and HD cameras

Creating special looks for any camera starts with a baseline. I establish that baseline using a ChromaDuMonde chart. Once you set the camera up to what is essentially normalized technical accurate reproduction, you can begin to deviate from that norm.

Manufacturers generally set up the camera at the factory to reproduce pleasing skin tones by altering the color gamut of the camera. This is no different than Eastman Kodak color balancing Kodachrome so it reproduced bluer skies and reds more brilliantly than were often present in the actual scene. Fujichrome made greens look more lush and skin tones creamier than reality. And you can do the same with most of today’s digital cameras.

Under DAYLIGHT BALANCED lighting, shoot a ChromaDuMonde chart and use the camera’s controls to reproduce it on a Vectorscope so all the main targets are in their boxes. You’ll need to increase the gain to approximately 1.875 (for charts after May 2007 use X2 vectorscope gain) instead of the CAL (calibrated) setting because of saturation. Make sure you have a evaluation grade monitor preferably a CRT or one of the carefully calibrated LCD monitors, which are costly though less costly than the evaluation grade HD CRTs.

With the proper tools, you can begin to create your own looks. Want a warmer, more pleasing look than the “technically accurate” look you just created? Adjust the camera’s controls to skew the color reproduction of the blues and cyans towards the reds and yellows. Want a cooler look? Skew the color reproduction of magentas, reds, and yellows towards blue and cyan. It will take a lot of trial and error to get what you want.

Pay careful attention to the impact of changes on the intermediate colors. Try to keep the spacing between intermediate colors on the vectorscope uniform. Remember that when you skew the color reproduction, you are eliminating colors so don’t go too far overboard if you want to reproduce a nearly full color gamut.

Have fun and let yourself go overboard. In making adjustments you’ll discover the limits of the camera and perhaps a stunning look. Every shot doesn’t need to reproduce color accurately. A cinematographer’s job is to depict emotional truths. Accuracy is for scientists.

A few final words: Style is over-emphasized; if the audience is watching what the cinematographer is doing they aren’t involved in the story. Subtle color changes resonate and alter the mood of audiences in ways that heavily filtered images never can.

Robert Goodman has conducted workshops on digital production and post for AIVF, Guild of Professional Photographers, IFP, ITVA, SMPTE, Sony Corporation, Women in Film, and at film festivals in Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego, and San Francisco.