A dead body is not just a still body, it has a certain color. Not colorlessness, color. If you have seen one, depending on the length of time since death, it has a progression of losing (in the case of a Caucasian) pink and taking on grey. And there is almost an artificiality about it, as if the body never really lived. You can almost imagine that someone took away the carcass that used to be living and replaced it with a less-than-adequate substitute that is somehow not quite right. Without the life of the person that once inhabited it, the body loses more than the life it held; it loses its realism.
So often movies do not capture the appearance of death, particularly in the case of murders. The film may portray a body that is bloody, but that blood appears applied rather than shed; the body may be still, but not obviously absent spirit; it may be laid out, but lacks the seeming obscenity that accompanies one who is splayed ignominiously after having been felled.
I wanted the death of the young girl in the movie to be portrayed in a way that would capture the horror, sadness, and unfairness of murder. So many things had to come together just right to make that happen. The actress had to be willing to act, purely act. In other words, she had to abandon any attempt to “look good” and allow herself to be what she was to be….murdered. Director Roger Lindley had to arrange for her to be laid out on the bed in a convincing manner. The male on-looking actors had to be totally professional, because one simple jocular remark could have marred the seriousness with which the scene was laid out and played, and thus how it would appear on screen. And the camera work had to be exceptional, with the angle capturing the scene without being prurient or grotesque.
When I first viewed the takes of the death scene, I was silent and sad. It was that good. I stared for a long time, considering how much time should be on the body, and then on the action around the body. The balance needed to be struck with enough time on her to show that the scene was ever so serious, yet also sufficiently on the investigators to keep the action moving and the dialog relevant. It took a lot of thought and time, but in the end, it felt right.
But it had to wait until coloring to make the scene whole. By that I mean that the “dead” body was still pink, still alive.
When Colorist Justin Warren and I got to the death scene, we spent a lot of time analyzing it. I was the one who knew what hue of grey we were after for the body, so we worked until we got that. But we also needed to subdue the other colors in the room as well as the lighting. It had to inter-mesh.
In the end, we achieved a color correction for the scene that I think goes very well with the somberness of murder, with the loss of a young life. The effect on the viewer is subtle, but that is the way it should be. No one should know that the mood is being set; it should just happen.
But all of that effort at making sure that death is properly conveyed almost went for naught. It was during the final sound design review, after the coloring had been completed, when Johnny Marshall, our Sound Designer, said, “Hey, are you going to fix the heart throb?”
“What heart throb?” I asked. I felt that odd mix of adrenaline you get when you are at fault, coupled with a high level of anxiety over whether a serious mess can be righted. I guess the best description is that I was overcome with dread. Here we were, finished with editing, special effects, coloring, and in the final run-through of sound and there was a big problem.
“You know, Maria De La Cruz. When she is lying there dead, you can see the blood pulsing in her neck.”
Shit. My editor hadn’t seen it. My colorist hadn’t seen it. But most importantly, I hadn’t seen it. I am well aware of where the buck stops.
I went back to Justin even though we’d finished coloring. “Hey, let’s fix the heart throb.” And he did.
But the event really unnerved me. If I had missed that, what other obvious things had I missed? It is okay if I saw something and chose not to fix it, or couldn’t fix it. But the throb was in a scene for which I had pulled out all of the stops on the amount of time and level of attention I’d been willing to devote to getting it right.
But, thanks to all those who put so much into making that scene, I think it came off very well. And, thanks to Johnny, it wasn’t blown by having one stupid mistake, a heart throb.
I am a professional photographer who takes color extremely seriously. This is perhaps why one requirement for RIK was crystal clear for me from the outset: I didn’t want a dark or unnaturally hued film. The film would not be de-saturated, heavily contrasted, or look as if shot through a colored lens. I conveyed this to everyone relevant. Anyone who did not fulfill these objectives would at some point be overruled.
I had selected Justin Paul Warren as my colorist for several reasons. His reputation and credentials were superb, I liked him the moment I met him, his wife (our DIT) was a fabulous person, Angel recommended him highly, and he lived in Ft. Worth. This meant that I could go and personally work with him on the film. I can honestly say that my coloring experience with Justin was nothing short of exceptional. He is not only a true professional, he is a creative and knowledgeable person to work with.
One of the first questions Justin asked me was whether I understood that there was a disconnect between my preferences for color and those that had been developed during filming. I explained that I was paying for the entire movie and that I intended to supervise the coloring the way I wanted it. Justin understood my position as was glad that I had clear ideas about the way I wanted the film to look. So we dove right in.
I went to Justin’s studio every workday and some weekends for a couple of months for 6 or 7 hours a day. We would watch each scene and discuss what, if anything, needed changing. The usual problem was skin color, which was fairly easy to adjust. And there were a host of situations where the coloring needed changing due to imbalance. For example, an actor’s shirt would rivet the eye, but de-saturating it made it innocuous.
Then there were what I think of as “middle” problems, ones that took some time to fix, but which were not as challenging as the “bad” issues. Many of these resulted from odd lighting. For example, one of the first scenes in the movie is in a bedroom. The light from one lamp was warm and from the other, cool. And one was brighter than the other. The adjustments had to be made not only to the lamps, but the areas onto which they cast light. If I had the movie to over again, I would make sure that every lamp have the same type of warmth and that each be put on a rheostat.
But there were two sets of problems that were very time-consuming to fix. The first involved some scenes with back-lighting and which were badly underexposed. These required that Justin go through and “tint” the background frame-by-frame because actors were moving and continually exposing the brightness behind them. It became so complicated and such a time-sink that at one point I said that we should just forget it and let it be what it was. To his credit, Justin said, “You don’t want that kind of low quality in your film. We need to take the time to fix these problems.” Thanks goodness he had extra patience when mine wore thin.
The second problem was over-lighting. The worst case was a house in one of the final scenes. It was like it had a set of searchlights on it—so unnatural and unreal. It was difficult to fix because it entailed greying the light, which risked looking artificial. It still bothers me when I look at it, but it is a ton better than it would be if we’d left it alone.
In addition to the problem-fixing, there were the creative aspects of coloring. Justin made sure, for example, that a gunshot flash cast just the right amount of light on the face of the shooter; that the movie being watched on an iPad reflected just right on the face of the viewer; that a flashlight shone down a hall appeared at the correct moment and intensity.
One of Justin’s suggestions that I liked very much and which we incorporated was a tonal shift in tint when the lead actor comes to understand the magnitude of the problems he faces. The hue we used from this point forward is slightly yellowed and a bit de-saturated. I think it adds tremendously to the emotional shift of the viewer of the film, yet it is subtle enough not be obvious.