Hollywood's Dark Side
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 10 (Oct 2006)

Hollywood's Dark Side

The gruesome 1947 murder of fledgling actress Elizabeth Short—dubbed the Black Dahlia by the press after her death (due to her propensity for wearing black clothing and a play on the then-current film title The Blue Dahlia)—showed the darker side of Hollywood. At the time, the investigation into the struggling actress’s death was one of the biggest ever conducted by Los Angeles detectives. The list of suspects was extensive, and the killer was never caught. And the story—with its allure of sex, beauty, and violence—captivated the nation and soon took on a life of its own.

Nearly six decades after the murder, the fascination with the Black Dahlia murder continues. Last month, director Brian De Palma resurrected the story in the period movie The Black Dahlia. Using the mysterious, ominous, shadowed look of a film-noir style, punctuated by post work by LaserPacific, the director and Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond set an exciting stage for the drama. “Zsigmond asked for an overall desaturated sepia look,” says senior colorist Mike Sowa. “He also focused on the things you wouldn’t be able to do in traditional film timing, like bringing down the skies without affecting the rest of the frame, or bringing a whole scene down to a nice density level and then using [an Autodesk Lustre] window to open up and track a doorway, for instance.”

The Black Dahlia, set in the late 1940s, uses a desaturated sepa look to emphasize
its period style. That look was enhanced and standardized in the 4K digital
intermediate process at LaserPacifi c, where colorist Mike Sowa worked alongside
the fi lm’s cinematographer to achieve the fi nal look. Using the power windows
feature in Lustre, Sowa was able to fi ne-tune a number of complex shots.

According to Sowa, he was tasked with helping the director and cinematographer maintain the desired look throughout the movie; this required him to go through the footage frame by frame, ensuring that the style remained consistent. “I sat down with Zsigmond and changed elements within the shot in terms of lighting that, at the time of the filming, he either didn’t have the time to do himself [on set] or didn’t come up with until after the fact,” explains Sowa.

This work—changing light sources and patterns on walls with shadows, for example—was done using the power windows feature inside the Lustre suite, a digital color-grading system. Power windows, he says, allows him to draw a shape and change the color density either within or outside that shape. “The best way to describe the tool is Photoshop on steroids,” says Sowa, noting that what Adobe Photoshop does for photos in terms of color density, Lustre does for film frames albeit on a more complex level.

Shades of Gray
Despite its dark look, The Black Dahlia was filmed in color, with the sepia look a prominent part of the process. Sowa’s job was to enhance or create more of a desaturated sepia look by adjusting the color and density from the color negative. To accomplish this, LaserPacific first scanned the negative on Thomson’s Grass Valley Spirit 4k DataCine and conformed the movie so the group had a digital version to work from. For this project, Sowa could jump right in rather than spending the first few weeks coming up with a final look. That’s because a style had already been established by LaserPacific’s Frank Roman for the movie’s preview. “By the time I got it in the DI suite, they just said to match the preview,” Sowa says.

However, that was easier said than done. When the preview was established, the colorist worked in a different color space—709. Shortly thereafter, LaserPacific migrated to a digital cinema preferred color space of P3. “Part of the challenge was to create the look they achieved in the 709 color space in P3, which has a cooler white point and much denser contrast,” explains Sowa.

Also, in the time between the preview and the DI, the filmmakers wanted to make some changes—mostly lighting alterations they had discussed doing for the preview but didn’t have time to implement. So during the eight days of the DI process, Sowa not only standardized the look of the movie, but also, with Zsigmond at his side, made many subtle changes, enhancements, and refinements. “For every single scene, we did a general balance and then looked at it for shadow detail and for window enhancement,” says Sowa. “We decided where to best place windows so the focus of the attention remained on the actors. We also made sure that if something distracting was in the shot, it was removed, or if something needed to stand out, it was highlighted. That was almost a session in itself.”

According to Sowa, the windowing ability within Lustre made a difference in how far he can go with color timing. “I am no longer subjected to the limitations of circles, diamonds, or squares and having to make those work over shapes that aren’t geometric patterns,” he explains. “I am now able to draw shapes around patterns in the frames and then soften the edges, maybe just one out of 10, before blending it nicely and morphing and roto‘ing whichever part of the frame I’d like.” Moreover, Sowa says he isn’t limited in the number of windows he can use or his ability to track them. In the visual effects world, editors have been able to do this for a long time, he notes, but it is relatively new during a feature timing session.

Not long ago, creating different types of looks, such as a skip-bleach film contrast or oversaturated/undersaturated shots, would have had to be done through a different channel from straightforward photography. Now, though, most of these looks can be refined in the DI suite as opposed sending the film to an outside shop to be treated. “Sending the film out means a lot of time and a lot of money for a look the filmmakers aren’t absolutely certain about yet,” explains Sowa. “We can sit here in real time and just create a look until they finally decide on something, in practically no time at all.” Because the work in the DI is performed on a digital scan, the director is not committing the precious film, so the original shots remain preserved.

In the Shadows
Sowa says that The Black Dahlia is the first film-noir movie he has worked on where the sides of the actors are completely in shadow. “The shadows cutting across the faces really add a dramatic feel,” he notes. Mostly, that was accomplished through the lighting on the set. In fact, the filmmakers already used modern tools and techniques on location to make the film look dated; the DI process just enhanced that style. Although there were some scenes that required relighting, Sowa says those were few and far between. “Zsigmond shoots to get it all on film. He had never gone through this process and didn’t know these tools existed within this environment,” says Sowa. “The first time I drew a window around something and brought [the lighting] down, I think it excited something inside of him. He realized he could do these types of changes here and now—changes he didn’t plan on doing when he got here.”

With power windows, Sowa was able to transform
the fi rst image on the right, which used a split
diopter so that the background and foreground
characters were equally in focus. But once the
shot was color-timed, the background characters
were no longer visible. Treating each element
separately in power windows resulted in the fi nal
shot (bottom image on the right).

As Sowa notes, many shots that he worked on had huge camera moves in them. One that stands out in his memory is a night scene in which the camera starts and stops at the sky, with the Hollywoodland sign in the foreground, before panning downward to reveal a car driving into a housing development below. The sky was very bright, he says, and Zsigmond wanted it to look like a very dark night. “All I had to do was draw a window and rotoscope the window as the camera moved, so I could just isolate the sky, and then at the bottom of the frame, I have other windows coming up and illuminating parts of the housing development,” he recalls. “There were a lot of windows and morphing and tracking going on through this one shot.” Sowa adds that he had several similar shots that were also challenging, and had he been working on any other system, they would have been far more difficult.

For another scene, Sowa fine-tuned the effect of a split diopter, which Zsigmond had used to maintain the same focus in the foreground as in the background—about 40 feet back. “It splits the frame in half, so you can focus on each half separately. The lighting in this scene required me to use power windows and split the split diopter scene in half and treat each one separately,” he explains. In the shot, actor Aaron Eckhart (sergeant Leland Blanchard) is standing in the foreground while police officers are visible at the top of the stairs in a doorway. But once Sowa timed the shot, the police in the stairwell were no longer visible. By treating each segment separately, however, he was able to make each character stand out.

Sowa also encountered an issue whereby the split diopter middle was visible in the shot as a light density streak down the middle of the frame. Using the Lustre tools, he was able to minimize the streak and bring the flaw down to where it didn’t draw attention. “Those are the things we found and fixed as we went through the movie,” Sowa says.

Some shots contained huge camera moves. In the DI, Sowa darkened this one to give it a dark-night
look, but had to illuminate certain parts, such as the housing development, so they would be visible.

In yet another example illustrating the type of challenging work Sowa did on the film, the colorist points to a nighttime scene in which actor Josh Hartnett (officer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert) is seen walking toward a shed; originally, the exterior lighting was so bright that he was nearly silhouetted against the structure. To correct this, Sowa keyed the light source in the background and brought it way down, and then keyed the foreground density to bring it up so that a little detail can be seen on the actor as the camera pans across the scene. “That shot truly shows off the windowing ability in Lustre,” he says. “I had the shed come in at the end of the shot, and I had to window that separately; I had four to five power windows up, I was keying densities, and I was keying color. I had color density dissolving all the way through the beginning, the middle, and all the way to the end of the shot.”

DI to Die For
Every DI job has its own special requirements, notes Sowa. For this project, it was to achieve a film-noir desaturated look. “This film is unique; there aren’t that many movies with this style. So trying to keep that look within the dramatic environment was fairly new for me.”

 Nowadays, many directors and cinematographers opt for the DI process for a number of reasons. In fact, Sowa says that the first few movies he did in DI, he was re-creating looks that weren’t necessarily achievable through the traditional filmmaking process, such as a bleach bypass or some other process that would require the filmmaker to commit the negative. In contrast, today’s DI requests are not for visual effects, but rather for making the movies look good. “But just having the ability to fix issues if necessary has attracted a lot of filmmakers to the process,” he says. “Often the director or cinematographer has gone through the DI before, and they have the experience and know how much control they have over the images. It’s a control factor.”

Another reason for going through a digital intermediate process may be for technical purposes. Perhaps the movie was shot on video and needs to exist on film. Or, the movie could have been shot on 16mm and will ultimately be released on a 35mm print. In the past, this has resulted in a big optical blowup, because the image suffers going through the process. But now, the group can scan the 16mm negative into the system, and the copy follows the same process. The digital master is down-rezzed to a 1k proxy to expedite the timing process in the DI suite. The changes are applied to the conformed 4k files (if applicable), and an ARRI Laser records the timed digital master out to 35mm film, used to generate the release prints. “The resolution of the image is kept intact,” Sowa points out.

Despite the magic of DI, Sowa says film labs are still getting their fair share of films—perhaps due to cost, confidence, and/or time. Yet, there remains a steady stream of DI customers, and Sowa does not expect the momentum to drop off any time soon. And with good reason.

“Once I worked on a movie and I heard the clients whispering to themselves that they wished they had done something differently with the lighting on the set, and the one guy said, ‘well, it’s too late now,’” recalls Sowa. “I overheard the conversation, and while they were talking, I drew a window; while they were looking at the screen, I started to change the lighting to create what they were talking about, and it blew their minds. I get a little bit of that with every movie. That’s what makes the process fun: to create something the client didn’t know he or she could achieve.”


Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.