A brief introduction to Midnight in Paris:
Gil Pender, a romantic daydreamer and novice author, visits Paris with his insufferable fiancée, Inez, and her conservative parents. While in the “city of love,” Gil slowly isolates himself from his fiancée and begins to take midnight strolls around his beloved Paris. In a fantastical turn of events, he is picked up at midnight by an old-fashioned car and taken back to Paris in the 1920’s, an era Gil idolizes as the “Golden Age” of Paris. He meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, among others. He falls for Pablo Picasso’s alluring mistress, Adriana, and eventually realizes that he and Inez are not meant for each other. Adriana and Gil are picked up by another mysterious car and brought even further back in time to the 1890’s, the Belle Epoque era, which Adriana feels is actually the Golden Age of Paris. However, when Gil and Adriana ask the Belle Epoque Parisians what they believe to be Paris’ most idyllic era, they answer with “the Renaissance.” Gil begins to see that everyone mistakenly believes the past to be better than the present, instead of enjoying the present as it is. He returns to the 21st century, breaks off his engagement with Inez, and decides to stay in Paris.
A highly informational clip showing the first use of full digital color grading in the Cohen brother’s film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Analysis of clip and relationship to Midnight in Paris (2011):
Before digital color correction, film stock would be sent to a post-production laboratory to undergo chemical processes, which would then generate the desired final look onto the film. Roger Deakins, the director of photography for O Brother Where Art Thou?, explains that this photochemical process was limiting because only the three primary colors could be used: blue, green, and red. Deakin calls the process “hit and miss” because it can often drift to colors that were not intended. The archaic laboratory processes were unsuccessful at achieving the “dust-bowl era” look the Cohen brothers and Deakin wanted, so they brought O Brother Where Art Thou? to Cinesite, a digital coloring company. On the computer they could change and fix certain shots or items in shots, then easily record the corrected images back out to film.
The Cohen brothers and Deakin envisioned the film as looking “dry and dusty,” but had shot the film during the Mississippi summer, a luscious green time of year for the state. Deakin explains in the clip that had he done the process of color correcting chemically, it would have involved numerous other steps like flashing the negatives, using sepia filters, and doing multiple runs through chemicals. If you go to 5:39 on the clip above, you can see the before (lush and green) and after (golden yellow) of one image, and the drastic effect the filmmakers were hoping to make for this movie – made extremely easier through a few clicks of the mouse rather than hard hand-labor with chemical treatments.
O Brother Where Art Thou? truly changed post-production and the effect editors and colorists can have on the look of a film. Deakin rightly states that as people become more familiar with digital color grading, laboratory processes will be a thing of the past. Digital color correction will open up new methods of filmmaking that were not available before this technology. Directors now shoot film rather flat, grabbing as much detail in the image as possible so that in post-production the editor has as much information to change and alter as possible. Later in the clip, Randy Starr, VP of Business Development at Cinecite, says,
Color became a character, it washes over the audience as you view it. As a character it lets you feel the period of time. It lets you feel the heat and the sweat on their body. That is something the filmmaker could not capture on the camera, and could only use digital technology to let them capture.
In O Brother Where Art Thou? you can see a drastic difference between what was originally shot on the film, and what is found in the digitally corrected version. Green is replaced by gold, the yellow is overly saturated, and there is almost no blue to speak of. The landscape has been completely re-mastered to look like dry and barren Mississippi during the Great Depression. Since 2000, color correction in films has become the norm, oftentimes being a primary indicator of exactly the genre and time period the film fits in. The color grading locates us to where the story takes place and engages us in the themes and palettes commonly associated with those spaces.
Now to Midnight in Paris! Praised as one of Woody Allen’s best recent films, it begins in contemporary Paris but quickly transports its main character to Paris in the 1920’s – through the powers of color correction. Paris in 2011 is overly bright and the colors are extremely saturated. In the opening sequence alone, which is full of images of Parisian boulevards and gardens, you notice how vibrant the greens and yellows are. This introduces us to a modern, vivid, and warm Paris.
(Gil, Inez, and Paul and his wife peruse around French historical monuments. The blue in the sky is almost lost, while the greens, yellows, and browns dominate the shot.)
(Inez’s conservative parents discuss the Tea Party. Again, green from the flowers pop, while the entire restaurant oozes yellow. Also, funny dialogue J)
The palette of the modern Parisian landscape is almost limited to yellow, gold, brown, and off-black (not even a true black). This color grading is a bold choice from director Woody Allen, who states in one interview with The Examiner, “I want warm pictures….I like the colors to be autumnal: yellow, beige, brown, tan, and gold.” He believes characters look the best when the color is intensely warm, as opposed to being under harsh blue and white lights. This color grading has an immediate effect on skin tone, and throughout Midnight in Paris we never see a character with a “correct” skin color – they instead look orange and “like tomatoes” as Sven Nykvist, one of Allen’s colorists, once said.
(This leaning towards orange as skin tone color is a new trend in color correction – a trend that many are upset over. Films are using orange and its complementary color teal to make the actors pop off the screen, until almost every person looks like a tanned Guido from the Jersey Shore (their words, not mine!). They are creating unrealistic images, and perceptive movie-goers are not happy with the colorists’ “laziness.” Found at: http://theabyssgazes.blogspot.com/2010/03/teal-and-orange-hollywood-please-stop.html)
In his article “Sunshine and Shadow,” Ford defines the cities cast in Film Noir movies as “having an uneasy ambience” with “tense, malevolent light” that is crucial to the mood of the stories (p 120). Dark, isolating cities reflect the main character’s internal confusion and despair. In Midnight in Paris, the lighting in Modern day Paris works exactly the same, except the opposite. Gil is an optimistic and romantic kind of guy, so the lighting of contemporary Paris is brighter and reflects his hopeful and boyish nature. Furthermore, Gil is a wanderer – a pedestrian in Paris – happy to walk the streets in the rain and soak in the city-scape. De Certau, in his article “Walking in the City,” considers walking through an urban system to be a kind of speech act with the city itself (p 97). Throughout the movie, Gil does seem to have a kind of dialogue with the streets and bars of Paris as he is transported through time.
The 1920’s scenes, though exactly the same city, feel like an entirely different landscape – one of nostalgia and the past. Sure, the colors are still warm, but there is more deep red and brown. They are darkened like a faded photograph. By changing the color palette ever so slightly, Allen has transported Gil and the audience into a different era of Paris.
In this picture, Gil is talking to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald – two lively icons of the Roaring Twenties. The Fitzgerald’s clothing, and that of all the other Parisians in the 1920’s, has less variety of colors and is our first clue that we are not in modern Paris. The bar they are in has been color corrected to look darker than any shot we are have seen thus far, and the lighting is made to be a bit softer. Allen has created an entirely new cultural era simply by changing a few colors, and the audience gladly follows the fantastical adventure.
In the same article, “Sunshine and Shadow,” Ford writes “that the role of cities in film gradually changed over time from serving as mere background scenery to acting as the equivalent of major characters” (p 119). This could not be more correct than in the case of Midnight in Paris. In this time-travelling film, the city can and should be able to change its appearance in a matter of seconds, as the changing color of the landscape reflects the era Gil is occupying. The city has opened its doors to Gil so that he can meet his literary idols, but also learn a valuable lesson. Interestingly, when other characters attempt to time-travel like Gil, they are foiled. First, the car to the past does not appear for Inez, presumably because she is a non-believer. And the snooping detective sent to follow Gil is trapped in 1400’s Paris. It seems that Paris has decided only Gil can safely tread the waters of time travel. In this way, the city-scape of Paris has become a character, alive and transforming.
(Please excuse the grainy quality of this picture. It was taken with my iPhone, and I was sitting very far away from the screen in the Norris McCormick auditorium…so this picture might actually also be illegal.)
This is the Belle Epoque era, as dreamed of by Adriana but now fully realized through Midnight in Paris’ magic. It is many shades darker than the 1920’s Parisian landscape, with almost no natural light. Everything has a muddy yellow and brown tinge, giving it a very old and far-away feeling. Many details of the room are lost in the shadows. Using color correction, Allen has constructed a landscape that he believes is the aesthetic of that time period. He has taken the “raw material” – the film – and corrected it to create the landscape that will orient the spectator to the 1890’s. As Andrews believes, “the landscape is what the viewer has…modified in accordance with certain conventional ideas” (p 4). I am told to imagine this is what a cabaret hall would look and feel like, simply from the dinghy lighting and deep reds and blacks Allen associates with the time.
Color correction is essential to Midnight in Paris because otherwise, Paris would look practically the same in every era, except for the clothing style. Color correction also makes the city of Paris a character that Gil adores and learns from as he roams the streets. We are not overwhelmed by the color correction as we are in some films today, but the subtle differences in color do help divide the city-scape into its appropriate time period.
Andrews, Malcolm. “Land into Landscape.” Landscape and Western Art. Oxford University Press, 1999. 1-24 (ch 1).
de Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 91-110.
Ford, Larry. “Sunshine and Shadow: Lighting and Color in the Depiction of Cities on Film,” Place, Power, Situation, and Spectacle: A Geography of Film. Eds. Stuart C. Aitken and Leo Zonn. Lanham Maryland and London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1994. 119-136 (chapter 6).
Hay, Carla. “Woody Allen Talks about romance and time travel in ‘Midnight in Paris,” Posted May 20, 2011. Found at: http://cdn2-b.examiner.com/celebrity-q-a-in-national/woody-allen-talks-about-romance-and-time-travel-midnight-paris.
Midnight in Paris (2011) Woody Allen, 94 min
Miro, Todd. “Teal and Orange - Hollywood, Please Stop the Madness,” Posted March 14, 2010. Found at: http://theabyssgazes.blogspot.com/2010/03/teal-and-orange-hollywood-please-stop.html
O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) Joel and Ethan Cohen, 106 min.
Seitz, Dan. “5 Annoying Trends That Make Every Movie Look the Same,” Posted August 5, 2010. Found at: http://www.cracked.com/article_18664_5-annoying-trend-that-make-every-movie-look-same.html
Painting with Pixels (O Brother Where Art Thou?) Uploaded by BullaBoy, 2010. Found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plaapd1uatg
Images from: http://happyotter666.blogspot.com/2012/02/midnight-in-paris-2011.html
(For some blatant color correcting by film genre, go to: http://www.cracked.com/article_18664_5-annoying-trends-that-make-every-movie-look-same.html)