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The Colorful World of 'Mad Max: Fury Road’

Does George Miller’s latest ‘Mad Max’ film have the same “cyan/orange” look dogging so many recent big action movies?

'Mad Max: Fury Road'

To follow-up on from my previous blog post, Avengers: Age of Ultron and the End of Physics,” I thought it would be pertinent to look at the new Mad Max: Fury Road movie. It is the opposite of the Avengers film, using real stunts, slick editing and imaginative color grades. More to the point, however, is that it is excellently executed. Rather than simply lauding over the movie myself, I spoke to another fan who is an employee here by the name of Chris Ryan. Chris is a colorist at Nice Shoes with 25 years of experience and has worked on projects for American Express, IBM, Kodak, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Mercedes among many others. He has also worked on the Criterion Collection transfers of many feature films including Gimme Shelter, 8½ and Richard III. He has a vast knowledge of color, cinematography and all things sci-fi. Having previously noted how color grading has changed over the last 20 years, I wanted to see how he saw Mad Max fitting into the scheme of things.

Steve: My last blog entry looked at the overuse/misuse of CGI in tentpole movies, such as a comparison of Jurassic Park to Jurassic World. My hope was that Mad Max: Fury Road might be a change back to practical effects and to a less “cyan/orange” color grade that has dogged movies recently. First of all, did you like the movie?

Chris: I thought it was great, I loved it! As a Mad Max fan, I’ve loved all of the films and while I was watching I was trying to picture [Mel] Gibson in the role of Max, as he was supposed to be in it. What kind of movie would it have been? What would have been different? Perhaps the physicality would have been different as he’s older but Tom Hardy was great, it was just a really fun movie. Charlize Theron was fantastic too.

Steve: So from a color perspective, to give us some background, how have you found color grading has changed in film over the last twenty years?

Chris: I think in general, as in commercials, films used to all have their own unique feeling about them. You can look at certain eras and see similarities. I can tell a movie that was shot in the 1970s, whether it’s a Frankenheimer film or a Marathon Man-type thriller, for example. They all have a certain quality to the film stock used at the time. If you look at the 1950s, they had a black-and-white and color movement and Film Noir movies, while beautiful, had a very similar look. Also, movies shot on Technicolor had similar color values because of the film stock. All that’s happened today is down to the use of the Digital Intermediate (DI) and digital cameras that capture images in a very similar fashion. There’s a certain color curve that seems to work for digital and when you apply LUT’s (Lookup Tables) and color correct it, the end result turns out to be comparable. Because there are only half a dozen or so big houses color correcting the major movies, they each develop a “house style” that ends up looking similar as they copy each other.

So I agree, a lot of movies do look similar, especially with the “cyan/orange” look of recent times, but I don’t think it’s anything different from what we’ve seen in the past. In these past “eras,” there were always outliers that go against the grain and I feel that Mad Max is one of them today.

Steve: So moving onto Mad Max, how was the color?

Chris: There’s almost a theatrical look to the lighting. The colors and gels almost reminded me of films from the late 1980s. In Michael Mann’s Manhunter, there’s a scene where William Peterson is with his wife contemplating taking on the job and there is this incredible blue gel to signify night-time. In Fury Road, one scene has Max lit by a gorgeous blue light while the back seat is red. It’s nice to see these gels being used. I also loved how the vibrant blue sky was coupled with the redness of the sand. We are so used to seeing bleached out, gritty, dystopian films that it was a refreshing change.

Steve: How did you find the “day for night” section? It felt quite surreal to me, taking me away from the realism earlier. What did you think?

Chris: It definitely felt part of the movie because of the strong effects earlier. It was a distinct change from the reds and yellows of the hot desert to go to a very blue and silvery palette for night. Typically a night shot would be almost bleached out, without color. It was obviously a deliberate choice because it is such a strong look. [Nice Shoes colorist] Sal Malfitano noticed that the colorist Eric Whipp was credited as Look Development/Senior Colorist early on in the credits.

Steve: I suppose similarly to how Gravity used cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki early on in previs, it would be helpful to have colorists involved early on too?

Chris: Very often, especially in commercials, we’ll spend a lot of time fixing things in the grade because of issues on the set or even budgetary issues. Ideally you would want to do the art direction up front. In a movie there is a discussion involving the director, art director and cinematographer to set a look for the whole piece. Unfortunately in commercials if you are doing a series of spots, you very often don’t get the same team for the whole campaign. If a new spot is shot by a different director, it’s unlikely that they will want to follow the previous director’s vision. So there is a juggling game of trying to appease the client and the director. This can obviously compromise end quality

Steve: So in a similar vein to VFX, if the shoot is prepared correctly, the post work usually goes smoothly?

Chris: Absolutely, as they say, “You’re better off getting it in the can.” That doesn’t just mean shooting something well, but shooting it correctly for the look you want to achieve.

Steve: So how would you like to see color grading change over the next few years?

Chris: It was funny, when I went to see Mad Max there were a series of commercials before the movie. What bothered me is how similar they all looked. One was for electronics, another for a yogurt, and so on, but you could have changed the titles and nobody would have noticed. They had a “lifestyle” feeling and were shot the same way with flares, soft contrast, natural light, and in a “found moment” style. When this look first came around I loved it, but I’m hoping that we can get out of this era and start doing some more interesting color treatments. I’m often asked by clients to grade with a “modern look” which really means to copy everything else that is currently out there. If I go for a different look, they feel that it looks old. Directors need to be bold and stick with their stylistic vision, not adapt to what might just be popular at the moment.

Steve: To wrap things up, I’d love to know any favorite movies or moments where the color grade really impressed you.

Chris: Recently, I thought that Ron Howard’s Rush had a beautiful look to it. It really captured the time period well. Going back earlier I thought that Minority Report had a great look. It was one of the first to usher in a clean, metallic look. I was fortunate enough to work with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and he said that they shot Minority Report with lenses that had had their coating removed. This created the interesting flares and a kind of “sizzly” look. Saving Private Ryan also came out when film really hit its peak look wise.