RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Movie-making depends more and more on the dance of digits. Films are edited digitally. They get their sound digitally. And in just the past few years, movies are using technology that changes color without fancy lighting or painted sets.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
That work is revolutionizing the look of films and it's done by only a handful of major companies.
NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg visited one of the color maestros.
SUSAN STAMBERG: In a big, dark room in Santa Monica, a forty-something fellow hovers over a digital workstation called DaVinci. With a palette of keys and dials, Stefan Sonnenfeld is a Da Vinci of movies.
Mr. STEFAN SONNENFELD (Digital Coloring Specialist): So right now I'm taking this initial image - it's kind of a - just right off the truck - and then I'm slowly manipulating the skin tone.
Mr. PAT SANDSTON (Film Producer): Because she was green before.
Mr. SONNENFELD: Because she was green before and I'm trying to get some nice contrasts right now. And I'm getting some color out of the black.
STAMBERG: Digital coloring specialist Sonnenfeld is working on the forthcoming film "Diary of a Shopaholic." He's loaded the film into his computer, and now he and a Hollywood client - Pat Sandston - project some test shots onto a big screen and fiddle with colors.
Changing skin tones is just one of Stefan's talents. He can also change the weather, go from sunny to snowy in a blink.
Mr. SONNENFELD: So Pat, this is the snow?
Mr. SANDSTON: So this is the snow test, because this was a 60 degree day in New York. So we just want to cool it off and make it feel, you know, wintry in New York.
Mr. SONNENFELD: Chilly.
Mr. SANDSTON: Exactly. There you go.
STAMBERG: Producer Sandston is experimenting with the look of the test footage in Stephan's studio before the real shooting starts.
Mr. SANDSTON: This just gives you so many choices. And this is a tool that helps you fix a lot of production issues.
Mr. SONNENFELD: Contrast is good.
Mr. SANDSTON: I think...
Mr. SONNENFELD: Yeah.
Mr. SANDSTON: That looks good.
STAMBERG: The sky changes during the shoot? Not a problem. The color yellow not quite right? Change it to magenta.
Mr. SONNENFELD: It's basically amped-up Photoshop in a high-resolution format. It's easy to do it on a frame or a still, like on your laptop sort of thing.
STAMBERG: But when you have hours and hours of images that you need to manipulate for a feature film...
Mr. SONNENFELD: That's the difficult part.
STAMBERG: So enter Sonnenfeld and his DaVinci. This technique has been used in TV ads and on MTV for some time. But in the past few years, full-length movies have gotten into the act.
(Soundbite of theme from "Mission Impossible")
STAMBERG: You know how they airbrush those glam images in fashion magazines? Well, digital coloring turns the airbrush into a tornado. It can erase frown lines, eliminate five o'clock shadow with a digital shave.
Tom Cruise became a fan when he worked with Stephan on "Mission Impossible III."
Mr. SONNENFELD: And I don't think Tom has ever experienced this color-correction process before. So when he came in here and realized we could manipulate images, and his image too, he was so interested. And we spent time manipulating stuff to make everybody look good or better or worse...
STAMBERG: But did he get rid of his double-chin or...
Mr. SONNENFELD: No, Tom...
STAMBERG: ...a couple of wrinkles under the eyes?
Mr. SONNENFELD: Tom is ripped. So he doesn't need the double-chin fix. But we did spend time on his close-ups and others. And that's what we do. That's the whole point of this process.
(Soundbite of movie "Mission Impossible III")
Mr. TOM CRUISE (As Ethan Hunt): I want to help you get whatever you want, but you've got to do what's right.
STAMBERG: In fact, some stars have digital coloring written into their contracts. And Sonnenfeld says 95 percent of all films are color-corrected now, scene by scene, which makes Stefan Sonnenfeld one of the most influential Hollywood artists we've never heard of.
Mr. SONNENFELD: And we actually don't take credit. This is the first time, I think, a lonely colorist like me gets a chance to speak to a, you know, an audience about that.
STAMBERG: In his lonely studio, Stefan has dabbled with color on "Dreamgirls," "Pirates of the Caribbean" - one, two and three. There were 2,200 visual effects in that one. Also "Into the Wild," "National Treasure," and this film, "Sweeney Todd."
(Soundbite of movie, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street")
Ms. HELENA BONHAM CARTER (As Mrs. Lovett): Benjamin Barker.
Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (As Sweeney Todd): Not Barker, Sweeney Todd now, and he will have his revenge. Where's my wife?
Ms. BONHAM CARTER: She's gone.
Mr. SONNENFELD: And here's the actual raw film.
Mr. SONNENFELD: OK? So it's actually brighter and warmer. And what I've done to it is that.
STAMBERG: You took away its color.
Mr. SONNENFELD: Yeah.
STAMBERG: You know what it looks like, what you've done? It looks as if they're living people and through your manipulation you have drained them of their blood.
Mr. SONNENFELD: And Tim absolutely wanted that, but not ghastly, not completely devoid of any kind of humanity.
STAMBERG: Director Tim Burton got what he wanted. His London is a moving ash heap, except for the blood that his vengeful demon barber Sweeney Todd extracts from his clients. That blood is an ungodly color, so red it assaults the eye.
(Soundbite of music)
STAMBERG: Directors and stars like digital coloring, but a costume designer we know says she hates it. She spends all this time getting the clothing colors just right, and then they come in and tweak everything.
Stephan says there were studio executives who used to have similar objections.
Mr. SONNENFELD: There were people who literally said we will never do this process. We will never let you do this. We want to have total control, and this gives filmmakers too much flexibility.
STAMBERG: But he points out color-correction saves setup time on location, saves money and effort. But it's so dishonest.
Mr. SONNENFELD: Not really. I think everybody appreciates the fact that we try and do the right thing.
STAMBERG: I was hoping you'd say no, it's the magic of movies.
Mr. SONNENFELD: It's the magic of movies. There it is.
(Soundbite of movie, "Sunset Boulevard")
Mr. ERICH VON STROHEIM (As Max von Mayerling): Are you ready, Norma?
Mr. SONNENFELD: It is the magic of movies.
(Soundbite of movie, "Sunset Boulevard")
Ms. GLORIA SWANSON (As Norma Desmond): All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
STAMBERG: Gloria Swanson said it in black-and-white in 1950, but digital coloring specialist Stefan Sonnenfeld could rainbow up her close-ups with the click of a key for today's "Sunset Boulevard."
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Films are edited digitally, get their sound digitally — and increasingly rely on technologies that can change the colors of a costume or a background digitally. Even a star's frown lines can be banished — by artists like Stefan Sonnenfeld, pictured — with a mouse click.
In a big, dark post-production room in Santa Monica, Calif., fortysomething Stefan Sonnenfeld hovers over a workstation called DaVinci.
Apt name — because Sonnenfeld, who is what's known in Hollywood as a digital colorist, is a kind of Da Vinci of the movies. He's part of a revolution in moviemaking, an art that depends more and more on the dance of digits.
Nowadays, films are edited digitally, get their sound digitally — and, in just the past few years, rely on technology that can change the colors of a costume or a background digitally, without fancy lighting or painted sets.
Need a skin tone corrected? Click: Green-around-the-gills becomes a healthy glow.
Want scenes shot on a 60-degree day to look like they were filmed in a New York winter? Click: Instant overcast.
This kind of work is revolutionizing the look of films, and it's done by only a handful of major companies. Stefan Sonnenfeld's is one of them — and that makes him one of the most influential Hollywood artists you've never heard of.
Behind the Scenes, a Quiet Digital Revolution
Sonnenfeld's Company 3, a digital post-production house with facilities in Santa Monica and New York City, broke into the business in 1997 with work on music videos and commercials. It didn't begin to branch into feature films until 2001. Already its portfolio includes big-ticket blockbusters like Dreamgirls, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean — all three of them — and National Treasure.
The techniques? They've been around for a while, but they've only recently been used in full-length features.
"It's basically an amped-up Photoshop," Sonnenfeld says of the software behind his wizardry. "It's easy to do on a frame or a still, like on your laptop, but when you're using hours and hours of material — that's the difficult part."
Among other things, the cost of color-correcting a feature-length movie was prohibitive until recently.
"Just look at your computer," Sonnenfeld explains. "The cost of storage used to be a million dollars when Titanic was made. Now it's fifty bucks, a hundred bucks at the store."
When Company 3 first began work on feature films, there was tremendous opposition in Hollywood.
"There were people who literally said, 'We will never let you do this,' " Sonnenfeld says. " 'We want to have total control, and this gives filmmakers too much flexibility.' "
The tide began to change two or three years ago. Now, Sonnenfeld estimates, 95 percent of films are color-corrected. Not that he's bragging — or even expects much attention.
"We actually don't take credit," Sonnenfeld says. "This is the first time, I think, a lonely colorist like me gets a chance to speak to an audience."
An Expensive Process, but an Economical One
The color-correction process is still expensive, and it takes weeks — sometimes months — to do. But it also saves time and money during actual shooting. Directors of photography, for instance, can work more quickly on a set, knowing they can adjust color and refine lighting in post-production.
Still, there are doubters. One costume designer who spends a lot of time choosing colors for her wardrobes says she hates the idea of the digital colorist. A purple scarf, after all, can change to green with a click.
Of course Sonnenfeld's tools give him far more power than just that. He can create the whole look of a film. And that's why many directors are relying more and more on these digital intermediates — or "DIs," as they're commonly called.
For the recent film 300, an epic inspired by an ancient battle between the Greeks and the Persians, director Zack Snyder shot the film almost entirely on green-screen special-effects stages, with few sets. Every scene — every scene — was color-treated in one of Sonnenfeld's post-production DI studios. The result was unlike anything previously seen in movies, giving the film an otherworldly look.
For 2004's Collateral, director Michael Mann wanted to capture the smoky feel of Los Angeles at night, as assassin Tom Cruise cruised the city with taxi driver Jamie Foxx. Mann shot the film in high definition, because he thought that was the only medium that could capture the look he wanted. With post-production color correction in mind, he overexposed everything. According to Sonnenfeld, the movie would be unwatchable in its original format.
Director Tim Burton adapted Sweeney Todd for the big screen. At first he was skeptical of digital colorizing. But he came around: It allowed him to create the striking look of the film — that Industrial Age London that looks like an ash heap.
With a few clicks, Sonnenfeld demonstrates the difference between Burton's raw film stock and the finished movie: The screen fades from the warmer, brighter original to the washed-out, monochrome gray of the final print, in which even the living characters look as if most of their blood had been drained from them.
"Tim absolutely wanted that," Sonnenfeld says. Ashen, yes — "but not ghastly, not completely devoid of any kind of humanity."
And then there's the actual blood, of course: When Sweeney Todd, that vengeful demon barber, murders his clients, they bleed an ungodly color, so red it assaults the eye. That, too, was a product of Sonnenfeld's digital palette.
Digital Magic Corrects More than just Colors
There's one more thing digital colorists can do. You know how fashion magazines airbrush those glam cover images? Well, digital coloring turns the airbrush into a tornado. Sonnenfeld can erase frown lines, or eliminate 5-o'clock shadow with a digital shave.
Tom Cruise became a fan when he worked with Sonnenfeld on the 2006 film Mission Impossible: III.
"I don't think Tom had ever experienced this color-correction process before," Sonnenfeld says. "When he came in here and realized we could manipulate images — and his image, too — he was so interested, as I would be too. We spent time manipulating stuff to make everybody look good, or better."
Sonnenfeld touched up Cruise's close-ups. He also did a little smoothing on Johnny Depp's face in Sweeney Todd. In fact, some stars now have digital coloring written into their contracts.
Which raises the question: Isn't all this a tad dishonest?
"Not really," Sonnenfeld says. "I think everybody appreciates that we try to do the right thing."
Ah, the magic of movies. Gloria Swanson played an aging, forgotten actress in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. She closes the movie, shot in black-and-white, with a famous line: "I'm ready for my close-up."
Today, digital coloring specialist Stefan Sonnenfeld might rainbow up that close-up with the click of a key.