Color Grading: <I>Darkest Hour</I>
Issue: November 1, 2017

Color Grading: Darkest Hour

LONDON – Focus Features’ latest release, Darkest Hour, stars Gary Oldman as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who is in his first few weeks in office during the outbreak of World War II. Directed by Joe Wright, the film also stars Kristin Scott Thomas, who portrays Churchill’s wife of 31 years, Clemmie. Faced with negotiating with Hitler, or fighting against incredible odds, Churchill looks to the British people to inspire him to stand and fight for his nation’s ideals. Lily James plays his tireless secretary, Elizabeth Layton, who supports him as he writes speeches designed to rally a nation.

The feature was shot by Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC, on an Arri Alexa and edited by Valerio Bonelli. Peter Doyle, at Technicolor in London, served as finishing colorist, but was involved in the earliest stages of the filmmaking process. Doyle has worked with the director before, and is a regular collaborator with Delbonnel, the two having collaborated on Inside Llewyn Davis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

“My relationship with Bruno — and Joe to an extent — is, I really get involved from start to finish,” Doyle explains. “From conceptual drawings and production design, and working with Bruno on the kind of cameras that [he’d] like to use, and lenses and so forth, and really wrapping an image processing pipeline around that.”

Creating the color pipeline early on ultimately allows the filmmakers to view rushes, visual effects, digital intermediates or previews in a form that closely resembles what the final film will look like.

“The general feeling was that it was to be a very sharp film,” recalls Doyle of the earliest discussions. “Not diffused. It shouldn’t be a period film in terms of looking ‘desaturated’ or ‘sepia.’”

The real events took place during an unusually-hot summer in the 1940s, and as such, influenced the look of the feature.

“That became an interesting concept for the lighting viewpoint,” notes Doyle. “Being a very hot, bright summer during war time meant indoor lights were dimmed to at least 20 watts. They were all filaments. You had this interesting observation that outside would be extremely bright, hot and summer, and inside would be [an] extremely dark and filament look.”

It being the 1940s, there was lots of smoking, he adds, so walls would be stained from tobacco and nothing would look particularly shiny.

“That lent itself to the use of words like ‘patina,’” he explains. “When Bruno was designing his lighting treatment, it meant words like ‘high contrast,’ a ‘very warm’ color palette, ‘very warm’ color temperatures. From a narrative viewpoint, upstairs was the palace and the war rooms. We spent a lot of time in the war rooms, with smoke, so to go with a classic ‘sepia’ look would actually detract from all of that.”

Doyle says the idea was to try to make it look “as visceral as possible, but really catch the feel of the time.” The film’s exteriors would be blacked out from soot and camouflage. “That all lends itself to building a color palette that really zeros in on the particular colors that would have been there at that period of time,” he explains. “The fabrics would be wool. Joe and the costume designer had specific ideas for the greens and pinks. Winston’s smoking jacket, and dressing gowns, were a very intense pink, so the idea was to go through and play on colors, but also reinforce that ‘war time feeling’ of everything being quite dark.”

Characters’ skin tones were also affected by the color treatment.

“The skin tones were of utmost importance, and play up the fact that in wartime, people wouldn’t be that healthy,” notes Doyle. “When he is delivering speeches and is quite agitated, there’s a lot of blood and fired up skin tones and very intense eyes. It’s a subtle thing, but to try to enhance that, I think, adds enormous value to the experience of watching the film.”

Doyle is based out of Technicolor’s London location and has a suite that centers around a FilmLight Baselight system, a custom interface and keyboard, and proprietary Technicolor color science.

“We try to reproduce the theatrical experience so that what we see in the room would be a true and accurate representation of what is out there in the commercial cinemas,” he explains. “We work at 2K, rather than 4K, because 2K still represents at least 80 percent of theatrical distribution chain that is out there.”

Darkest Hour would see a range of distribution mediums, so Doyle says he created “a classic Rec. 709 pass, an HDR 1000 Rec. 2020 pass, a Xenon 14-foot lambert 2D pass, and a Dolby Laser PQ pass.”

For monitoring, he drew upon a range of display devices, including a Sony BVM-X300 for the HDR grade, a Christie Xenon 2K DCI-compliant projector for the Xenon grade, and a Dolby laser projector for the Dolby Laser release.

Beyond the initial discussions and dailies, Doyle says he spent between three and four weeks on the final color grade and approximately two weeks making sure it worked across the different distribution formats.

Darkest Hour opened in theaters on November 22nd.