Colors in movies and TV: What happened to them?

Yoshiko Yap

If you watch a lot of movies and TV shows, you might have noticed that over the last few decades everything has gotten a lot more … gray. No matter the kind of story being told, a sheen of cool blue or gray would wash over everything, muting the colors and providing an overall veneer of serious business.

So many TV shows and movies now have a dull filter applied to every scene, one that cuts away vibrancy and trends toward a boring sameness. Every frame’s color scheme ends up feeling the same as every other frame. And when there are so many projects using similar techniques, you end up with a world of boring visuals that don’t stand out.

The best term I’ve read for this comes from incisive film Twitter member Katie Stebbins. She calls it the “intangible sludge,” and her comparison of screenshots from season one of Dexter (2006) and the new Dexter limited series (2021) underlines what she means.

Notice how in the first image, you can see the pinks of Michael C. Hall’s skin, the various blues of his shirt. But in the second, everything is muted. Hall’s skin is pale and even yellowish. His shirt is an indefinable blue/green/black/brown. A shadowy blandness coats everything.

The word that describes the look of that second picture is “desaturated.” Colors have been pulled way back, giving everything a slightly washed-out appearance, like in an old photograph. Desaturation is not in and of itself bad. It’s a tool that can be used poorly or used well. But why is it everywhere now?

There’s no one answer to that question, but here are my five best guesses as to what I think might be behind the endless desaturation of Hollywood.

Possible answer No. 1: The rise of digital color grading made it really easy to come up with all-purpose looks

Okay, things are about to get technical, but we’ll have some fun along the way. Promise.

From the dawn of color film, color timing has been an important part of moviemaking. (“Color timing” is more colloquially known as “color correction,” but people who actually work in the field don’t view it as “correction.”) When you’re filming something over multiple weeks or months, you might be piecing together a scene or sequence from bits and pieces shot over multiple days. The light might not match, or the leaves on the trees might not be the same shade of green. And if things don’t match, we’ll notice almost immediately on a subconscious level.

Hence: color timing. For most of the history of film, color correction was achieved physically, via chemicals applied to film negatives in a lab.

And pretty soon, filmmakers figured out that you could use these sorts of color shifts — whether they were created on set or in the lab — to guide an audience emotionally through a film. Cutting between scenes with wildly different color schemes could even provoke certain responses within viewers.

“It’s not just the color in any given scene. It’s how that color bumps up against the scene, that’s before and after it,” said Steve Cosens, one of the directors of photography on the new HBO Max miniseries Station Eleven. “There’s color latency. If your eye is looking at a scene, and it’s so warm that when you go to the next scene, your eye is automatically going to compensate, and it’s going to make it cooler.”

In the late 1990s, it became possible to digitally scan film negatives in a way that allowed people who would eventually become known as digital imaging technicians (henceforth a DIT) to manipulate the properties of the image. The first film to have its run scanned for this sort of manipulation was the 1998 movie Pleasantville. In that movie, two ’90s teenagers are sucked into a black-and-white 1950s sitcom world, and as they introduce things like sex and literature and weather (yes, somehow they introduce weather), elements of the town burst into color. The entire film was shot in color, then digitally converted to black and white, with a handful of elements kept in color for effect.

At the time, this was treated as hugely groundbreaking filmmaking, but the articles written about it in 1998 undersell how ubiquitous these techniques would become.

The first movie to use digital color manipulation in the way we’d think of it today — i.e., shifting the colors within a film image to meet a digitally achieved palette — is generally considered to be the 2000 Coen brothers’ Great Depression picaresque O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins knew that the Coens wanted the film to have a Dust Bowl tinge, but he also knew that the film would shoot in Mississippi in the summer, which would mean lots of lush greenery. To tilt the picture more toward the yellow sepia tone the Coens wanted, he initially thought about applying physical filters to the lens. But he found that process limiting and decided to turn to a company called Cinesite — which had just broken new ground with its work on the 1998 film Pleasantville.

The results are striking. Watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? and you will never know it was filmed in a lush, green Mississippi summer. It looks dried out and beaten to hell. Deakins and the Cinesite folks talk about that process in the following video (which is really worth a watch if you want to get into the weeds on all of this).

O Brother, Where Art Thou? showed how color grading could be used in much more subtle ways. In this case, the palette of neutrals and brown tones was subtle and desaturated,” said Dr. Jennifer O’Meara, a film professor at Trinity College Dublin, who has studied digital film coloring techniques extensively. “Notably, Deakins worked collaboratively with the colorist, Julius Friede. The specifics of their working arrangement helped to reduce fears among cinematographers that postproduction color editing would take the creative control of a film’s image track away from those who shot it.”

In 2022, nearly every movie and TV show has a dedicated DIT who works with the cinematographer and the director to figure out what an image might look like after it’s been run through a series of digital filters. As with so many technologies in film history — from hand coloring to Technicolor — a handful of pioneers showed what was possible, O’Meara explains, and then everybody else got on board.

“It usually takes some overt demonstrations of new color processes in action to make them look appealing enough for more filmmakers to invest the time and money required to use them,” O’Meara said.

Now, cinematographers and others on a film’s production team have to know how to work with these digital processes.

Digital color timing “really is like painting,” Cosens said. “If you lit a scene with a neutral white light, and if there are blue couches in that scene, you can grab that blue and swing it to be a slightly more purple blue, or you could swing it to be a slightly more green blue.”

Digital techniques are ubiquitous in modern Hollywood. Many projects go to set with something called a “look-up table” (henceforth a LUT), which is a formula that nearly instantly manipulates the raw footage captured on set and allows anyone involved in production to see what that footage might look like once it’s been manipulated digitally. The LUT usually features some version of the color palette everyone has agreed to aim for, but it’s not the final image, and many productions only use it as a rough starting point.

But if you see the image as produced by the LUT and say, “Hey, that seems pretty neat!” then you might not bother to shift things very much at all. After all, working to painstakingly control just how much your eye is working to follow shifts between scenes is tricky stuff. If you have an all-purpose visual presentation you can just sort of apply to every scene in a movie or show, hey, then you don’t have to worry about latency. You can just do whatever.

“When digital colorists are making changes it is much easier and quicker to make what are called global color changes, where groups of pixels with the same pixel values are all changed in the same way at once, much as different color filters work on platforms like Instagram,” O’Meara said.

Now imagine that idea extrapolated to the most popular film franchise on the planet. And as YouTube essayist Patrick H. Willems argues persuasively below, Marvel movies are among the worst offenders in terms of dull, uniform color grading.

So, okay. You have the technology. Now what do you want to use that technology to make your movie look like?

Possible answer No. 2: Everybody was trying to look like The Matrix

The rise of digital coloring techniques occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and it’s worth looking at the predominant trends in what the biggest movies at that time looked like. And what’s notable about the late 1990s, especially, is that they’re full of films that have a dark, slightly grimy aesthetic. Yes, movies drenched in shadow have existed for decades — see any given film noir or The Godfather. But in the ’90s, movies like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Se7en (1995) created hugely influential color palettes streaked with darkness.

But if I’m looking for the film that boiled these trends already building in the 1990s into one single aesthetic, right on the cusp of the digital coloring revolution, I’d point to 1999’s The Matrix. In fact, look at this clip and tell me you can’t see the path that gets us to that Dexter screenshot above.

I want to be clear: This Matrix scene is really well-handled in terms of color and lighting. Key lights hit Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne just right to let us see just enough of their faces to read their performances. When the red and blue pill appear, the colors pop against the slightly desaturated look of everything else, but there are subtle hints of color here and there throughout, like the chair Fishburne sits in, which is a cool red.

What’s more, the aesthetics of this scene and the original Matrix trilogy more generally reflect the predominant visual aesthetic of onscreen computers at the time. The famous trickles of green symbols raining down a black screen are reflected in the film itself, which is bathed in the eerie digital green light of the fictional Matrix.

“The first Matrix was very stylized, and every almost every scene was a small vignette on its own in a particular color way. Green was the color of the Matrix, and blue was the color of the real world,” said Peter Walpole, the production designer of The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the franchise. “It is very specific in that first film, and it works incredibly well. It enhances the overall art and design of the film, whether it’s coming from the Wachowskis or the people who lit and designed it.”

It’s not hard to imagine a filmmaker seeing the above clip, however, and not grasping all of the ways directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski kept the whole scene from becoming too dour. The history of art is visionaries coming up with new ways of creating, then a whole bunch of people trying to blatantly copy what they did but missing the part where the original was so arresting because it felt like nothing else out there. Trends get watered down into thin gruel.

And the same goes for other terrific visual stylists of the 21st century who like to play on the monochromatic side of things. Christopher Nolan’s movies, for instance, have a sturdy machismo rooted in a look that perpetually mimics an overcast day. Nolan knows exactly what he’s going for; his many imitators miss the point.

The Wachowski sisters themselves have mostly made bright, colorful movies since they left the initial Matrix behind. In fact, look at this clip from The Matrix Resurrections, the recently released fourth film in the series, directed by Lana Wachowski.

Watch this clip, and it’s full of color. The rich red and blue that was present only in the pills in the clip from the first film is everywhere here. One character’s hair is blue, and the seats on the train are red. The walls of the train are light blue; the cherry trees the train passes through outside are pink. The prevalence of blue throughout actually tugs the dark stocking hat Reeves wears from black toward navy, because our eyes like to make colors bleed into each other.

“I asked [Lana Wachowski] how much we were going to keep the first movies as a reference, and she said, ‘Our movie is a different movie. Don’t worry about it,’” Resurrections cinematographer Daniele Massaccesi said. He added that the green and gray look of the original made sense in 1999, but not so much in 2021. “Sometimes, you look at a photo on a computer, and it’s even more colorful and real than the real thing. So we decided to go even further and keep all those colors.”

Walpole confirmed to me that the choice to work in references to blue and red was deliberate, but he also said that it created some tricky decisions here and there, because red can be a distracting color that’s too vibrant on screen.

“Red can make reference to love or passion or violence and danger. But it’s also a very good block color,” so it can be used to create interesting contrasts with other colors in a scene, Walpole said. “I actually used it in [Neo’s] apartment. His apartment is quite masculine because he lives on his own. There’s lots of gray and charcoal. There’s lots of wood. But we did one small wall in this very dark, deep red, and it almost was a subliminal message” about the nature of the movie’s reality.

So, okay, the people who make the Matrix movies are moving away from the hugely influential visual style of that first film. Why isn’t everybody else?

Possible answer No. 3: Actually, digital technology makes brighter colors too easy to achieve, and this is a counter-reaction to that

Check out this chase scene from the 2004 movie Collateral.

You’ll notice that the overall aesthetic of this scene is vaguely similar to the washed-out look that is so common in movies today. But it’s also not quite capable of pulling off that look. Indeed, it has to lean on the intentionally subdued costume design — Tom Cruise’s gray suit, Jamie Foxx’s faded T-shirt — to achieve the effect it’s going for.

The reason for that choice is simple: This is one of the first big-budget movies ever shot primarily on a digital camera, and the digital cameras of the time worked great in low-light environments but also tended to flatten the entire image in a way that more or less tugged the entire picture toward the darkest pixels within it.

Now, Collateral doesn’t have particularly flat images, but you can hopefully still see how the clip above is trying to have a moody, grimy, washed-out feeling and struggling to do so. The camera keeps pulling out pops of color almost without trying. (Notice the way the lights from the cars on the freeway keep grabbing your eye in a way they might not otherwise.) And that’s in a film made by director Michael Mann, one of the greatest filmmakers out there at knowing exactly how to create precise images to achieve certain effects.

When people who weren’t as good as Mann at getting exactly the images they wanted up on screen were behind the camera, a lot of early digital filmmaking looked garish and a little weird, with colors that seemed spattered onto the screen almost at random.

This period is part of filmmaking history that I had largely forgotten about, because it was a relatively brief chunk of time — roughly the last half of the 2000s. But cinematographer Christian Sprenger, who shot the mesmerizing Station Eleven, persuasively argued that that period of time caused a mini-backlash that coincided with the trend toward darker visuals in general and got us here.

“When digital cameras showed up, they naturally had more saturation and more pop to them. For a while there, everything we saw was super-saturated, and super-poppy. If you go to Best Buy to buy a television, you’re looking at these incredible color demos of the most colorful colors possible,” Sprenger said. “I think a lot of filmmakers almost see that as an antithesis to cinema. If you really look back on a lot of cinema history, a lot of things are not overly colorful and saturated like that. So I think people are pulling that back to try to make digital a little bit more like film.”

It’s an idea echoed by Gina Gonzalez, a co-producer heading up post-production on Station Eleven, who points out that one of the most common places to find hyper-saturated colors right now is in commercials. And no movie wants to feel like a commercial.

“Let’s use a Target commercial as an example,” Gonzalez said. “Yes, those commercials have a red that is in your face because of the logo. But all of the other colors that they choose are very poppy, and they make you excited.” They make you, in short, want to go shopping.

So if brighter colors are subconsciously associated with advertising (and advertising has always loved a bright color), then it stands to reason that duller colors are meant for serious business. And this is an age of stories about serious business.

Possible answer No. 4: We’re obsessed with the end of the world

My secret belief is that when we talk about the intangible sludge, what we’re really talking about is the way that the blockbuster mentality has taken over everything. If you go digging around in the worlds of film and television, there are plenty of examples of movies that use color in fascinating ways. Ari Aster’s horror movie Midsommar is a feast of cool color ideas, and the Netflix hit Squid Game is rife with bright and poppy visuals. But both of those projects were produced on a smaller scale than, say, a superhero movie.

And within superhero movies, less vibrant colors are king, with a handful of exceptions.

The irony of this genre being based on characters from comic books, who were so often portrayed using the brightest and vibrant colors imaginable, is worth nodding toward. But I think the cinematic superhero’s descent toward intangible sludge has something to do with how often these stories have enormous, potentially world-ending stakes. If every time a superhero suits up, they have to save not just this universe but many of them, then the story becomes one about the end of the world. And we think the end of the world looks like this:

Our vision of the world’s end is heavily influenced by the post-nuclear war stories of the mid-20th century, which took place in a gray, barren landscape where low-hanging clouds blocked out the sun. (Incidentally, The Matrix takes place in a post-nuclear-war reality.) That notion of the end of things is, yeah, what everything would look like after a nuclear war, but it’s so all-pervasive that basically every post-apocalypse looks like that now.

Not all post-apocalypses have that gray, washed-out look (hello, Mad Max: Fury Road!), but enough of them do that we’ve come to associate that washed-out look with the enormous stakes of the world ending. So if you’re telling a lot of stories where the world might end, then desaturation will be your go-to cinematic tool.

But there are other ways to tell these stories. the new HBO Max series Station Eleven makes the post-apocalypse lush, green, and beautiful, for instance. The series’ color palette deliberately made use of rich reds, blues, and greens, and the post-production digital color work actually tugged the colors toward richer, more saturated hues.

“In many ways, we were trying to invert the post-apocalyptic genre,” said Station Eleven creator and showrunner Patrick Somerville. “Quiet, big, expansive, beautiful, green. Not destroyed. Just still.”

Yet even if stories about the end of the world can take a turn toward the colorful, the tendency to make the post-apocalypse gray and washed out will probably never stop being the primary way we present these tales. In an era where we seemingly meet a new potential apocalypse every day, our post-apocalyptic go-to visuals have trickled down into almost any story that wants us to take it seriously.

The new Dexter (which, I should say, is pretty good!) is about the ways in which our pasts are inescapable, and something like Netflix’s crime drama Ozark presents each and every bad choice its characters make as a potentially catastrophic event. The post-apocalypse isn’t the only reason we associate grays with serious business — the dark shadowy vibe pops up in visual art throughout human history. But with the end of the world lurking around every corner, it’s not hard to see why the post-apocalypse would become a visual shorthand for things getting serious.

So all of those answers make sense of both how we got to the world of the intangible sludge and how we might be finding our way out of it. But there’s one other answer worth considering: how these techniques intersect with digital visual effects. And to talk about that, we have to head back 20 years to some enormously influential films.

Possible answer No. 5: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (seriously)

The more I worked on this article, the more I started to think that it might answer one of the long-standing questions that I have always had about three movies I love: Why do the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies have a slightly different color grade from the theatrical editions?

Fans of the series first noticed this in November 2002, when the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring arrived in stores. The theatrical edition (released in December 2001) was lush and colorful, and the extended edition, which added new footage to the film, had just a slight turn toward desaturation. That disparity has continued to be true, right up until new Blu-ray remasters of the films were released in 2020. Here’s a good visual comparison of the two editions from a DIY color grader trying to tug the look of the extended editions closer to the theatrical editions.

The Lord of the Rings movies are full of computer-generated visual effects, which by and large still stand up to scrutiny. But the effects in the theatrical edition received a time and attention that the ones in the extended editions just could not receive in a similar fashion, since they were for a fans-only direct-to-DVD project.

One truism of computer effects is that it’s easier to hide their seams if you are placing them in a dark or rainy environment. The T. rex attack in Jurassic Park, for instance, is the first time I was ever unaware a visual effects sequence had been created in a computer. And the T. rex shows up when it’s both dark and rainy. But if you don’t have a scene set in the dark or in the rain, is there a way to perhaps achieve some of the same effect without having to, say, create an artificial night? There sure is if you can toss a desaturated digital color grade over everything! And, indeed, such a color grade can help make computer effects look a little less like they live in the uncanny valley.

“If you have a visual effect that is sharp, and you know you’re going to apply a desaturated look to it, you also know that it’s okay that it’s going to be that sharp, coming out of the VFX vendor, because you know, there’s going to be some softness added to it through the color process,” Gonzalez said.

To be clear: This is an Emily VanDerWerff theory. Nobody I talked to told me The Lord of the Rings extended editions are patient zero for this particular trend. But if you look at the timeline and the influence of these films, it certainly seems possible. And at the very least, the use of digital color grading to hide the seams of more obvious computerized effects feels persuasive to me.

In the end, though, there is no one answer to the question of why desaturation is everywhere. I’ve left even more possible answers out of this article (like the rise of LED lighting). Even so, I’m glad at least some productions are realizing the intangible sludge has become a cliché.

“Our responsiveness to color can be very strong and goes back to early childhood, when babies develop their color vision within the first year of life and bright, particularly primary colors begin to grab their attention,” said O’Meara. “People often pay close attention to color in everyday life, with strong preferences for particular shades when it comes to clothing, physical appearance, décor, and so on. This same kind of responsiveness to color can make its way to film viewing, particularly when color is used in an expressive way by filmmakers.”

So if color can create such potent emotions in viewers, why are so many filmmakers leaving that tool in their toolbox and just doing what everybody else is? C’mon, Hollywood. Not everything has to look like it was filmed in a sink.

Correction, 3:40 pm: This article originally included an action scene from Collateral that was shot on film, rather than a digital camera. The sequence was later altered so the film images looked digital, but to make the point better, we’ve swapped in a sequence that was predominantly shot on a digital camera.

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