cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

The Making of "We Must Be Killers"

"We Must Be Killers" is not only my current favourite of all the vids I've made, it's one of the most technically complex vids I've edited, about on par with a constructed reality like "Movin' On". Hopefully you have no idea what I'm talking about right now, because if I've done my job right, you shouldn't even really notice that "We Must Be Killers" has any difficult effects at all. They are not the point of the vid, so I tried not to draw attention to them in the vid itself.

The short version is that the film I used, The Defiant Ones, is only available in black and white, and I wanted to make the vid in colour. The long version of how I did this is behind the cut.

This year for Festivids, I really wanted to make a vid featuring Sidney Poitier. I nominated The Defiant Ones (1958), because it's such a great story -- dramatic, elegantly told, focused on characters, and made in an historically interesting moment -- but didn't have any real hopes of being matched to a request. I honestly didn't think anyone would want a vid made from this source.

Much to my delight, it was requested by [personal profile] lilly_the_kid. Little did I realise as I let out my giant HOORAY at seeing the match that I was about to embark on a ridiculous colour odyssey as a result.

I'd seen the film years ago on TV, but didn't have a copy, so I had to track it down which took a bit of doing. It was no longer in stock anywhere, so I ended up buying it second-hand. I was so excited when I finally got my hands on it... and then I started watching it, and felt this horrible sense of betrayal.

You see, in my memory, the train sequence at the end was in vibrant colour, but the film itself was in black and white. Was it just the copy I had? Surely there was a colour version somewhere? After scouring the internet, I concluded that this film had never been released in colour, nor had it been colourised. Which meant that I had colourised it with my brain. Good one, brain.

All my happy dreams of vidding the movie disappeared in a puff of disappointment. I wanted the train in colour! I didn't want to vid that scene in black and white! It needed to be in colour!

Yeah, I was kind of petulant about the whole black and white thing, even though I really like black and white movies. Anyway, I put aside the idea of vidding The Defiant Ones, and instead I started looking at the other sources [personal profile] lilly_the_kid had requested -- all of which were awesome, and in colour. The idea of The Defiant Ones (and Sidney Poitier) kept niggling at me, though, so in the end I cracked out my Google Fu and typed in "colourising film".

Because of course that's what a sane person would do when faced with a black and white film they wanted to vid in colour. *facepalm*

I found exactly what I was expecting. A whole heap of sites with some n00b asking, "How do I colourise this old black and white film I have?" and a dozen knowledgeable people laughing and pointing at them, and replying, "Pay Industrial Light and Magic $60,000."


Even though it's exactly what I already knew, it made me cranky. So got kind of curmudgeonly about it and I started looking a bit deeper, following the obscure links left by the few people who took the question seriously. Most were dead-ends -- they required specialised programming skills, or a lot of cash, or they just didn't work (I trialled several Avisynth plug-ins that didn't work the way I hoped). However, there was one possibility I decided might actually work: coloured filters.

I didn't have time to get deeply into colour theory (something I really want to do -- I now totally get the awesomeness of clapperboards and test patterns and want to know more), but I did some basic Colour 101 reading, and in the end decided to attempt an old school solution -- adding a primitive three-colour tinting process (red, blue, green) to the film using filters, and see what it looked like. I think it turned out pretty great, actually. Surprisingly so, given my total lack of colour expertise.

I did the colour conversion in three stages.

Stage 1: Cleaning the film

The Defiant Ones is an old film, and it looked it. The print I had was grainy, and I knew if I tried to add colour to it, the whole thing would look really ugly and fuzzy. So I cracked open the trusty A&E's Technical Guides to All Things Audio and Video (v3), and cleaned up the source footage. As you can see in the screencaps below, this removed some of the texture, but also nearly all of the grain, leaving a nice clean canvas to add colour to. This took the best part of 24 hours.

Click to see in detail

Cleaning the source

Stage 2: Creating the tints

Using my nice clean black and white footage, I ran Eugene Khoroshavin's Color Mill 2.1 in VirtualDub (which you can download from the AMV guide), creating three different coloured tints. I decided that skin tone and sky were the most important colours, so I rendered in sepia rather than a deeper red, then a sky blue, and then finally a plant green. Because I was rendering these tints losslessly, it took about 24 hours to set up and render each tint, and the files were enormous.

Click to see in detail

Three-colour process

Stage 3: Mixing the colours

Once I had my three tints, I mixed them in Sony Vegas. I wasn't aiming to produce realistic colour. My goal was to get something that looked pleasing, and evoked old-fashioned sepia photos.

I tried several different mixing approaches -- starting out with the sepia track and adding in the other tracks, but wasn't happy with the result.

In the end, I used the clean black and white as the main track, but set it at a high level of transparency. Green was the next track, also set to be highly transparent, and then finally blue and sepia. I did some colour correction on the black and white track to enhance dark, mid-tone and light saturation levels, to bring out the relevant colours -- for instance, I set "light" to enhance blue, as most of the light tones were sky.

I then did another lossless export of the three-colour tint, and this was the source I used for the vid. The colour mixing and rendering process took about two days.

Click to see in detail

Mixing the colours

The end result doesn't look that much different to the sepia, but it has some important characteristics that the sepia alone did not have. First, you need some colour in the source in order to be able to make use of tools like the colour corrector wheels, and the tinted source now had all three colour embedded in it, even if only vestigially, so I could now somewhat manipulate the colours while vidding. Second, scenes shot in the studio or at night had very little colour differentiation, because the cameras of the day didn't capture a wide spectrum of light under those conditions. However, scenes shot in full sun actually looked the most like full colour, because there was a wider range of light captured, and so the tints were more subtle and nuanced. This meant I could further enhance the colours using colour correctors and saturation/contrast controls for scenes in full sunlight.

This was actually perfect for my purposes, as I wanted to build up to the most saturated colours for the climactic train sequence.

Editing the vid

Editing was the longest stage, taking about ten days to complete; this doesn’t include planning or music editing or creating the art, but does include beta and revision. There were a few issues that arose specifically because of the colorisation.

After all my hard work in producing a clean, tinted media source, when I actually started editing I found that it was incredibly fragile (and to be fair, I think this would also have been true of the black and white version). What this fragility meant was that I couldn't use most of the transitions and effects (like velocity changes or pan/crops) that are the standard stuff of vidding more recent, robust sources. When I tried, the image went fuzzy very quickly. There are a few effects in the vid, nonetheless, but very few, and mostly used at very minimal settings -- if you look closely you can tell every time I use one, as the clip is slightly fuzzier than those either side.

The one effect every clip has is colour correction to some extent. In the early scenes this is mostly tweaking green versus blue depending in whether it’s day or night. Saturation also increases as the vid goes along, with the highest saturation for the climax.

Click to see in detail

Colour correcting in Sony Vegas

Transitions proved to be the most difficult part of the vid. I wanted crossfades for most of the cuts, to enhance that old-fashioned look. Normally crossfades are easy, but in this case there were colour artifacts from the tinting process that became apparent in crossfades, creating purple after-images. I had to try a lot of different crossfade curves before finding one which minimised the colour artifacts.

Another issue was in the final sequence, after they jump/fall from the train. The day they filmed that sequence must have been gorgeous, as the sky was a deep enough blue that it registers as a mid-tone (in other words: it’s sepia in the three-colour tint rather than blue), so I couldn't get it to look blue without making everything else blue too. In the end I used a mask for these clips -- masking out the brown sky, and using matching clips from the blue tinted track to replace it. Quite a tedious job, as Poitier keeps sticking moving body parts up into the sky, but I like how it turned out. In the image above, you can see this edit where the clips are layered on top of each other in the editing tracks; the title sequence is also overlayed, which is why there are so many clips.

Finally, I did several test renders and tweaked the colour until it looked reasonable. I prefer it as a Windows Media file, played in Windows Media Player -- that codec is really nice, one of the Window products that actually works awesomely.

Click to see in detail

The result in media players

Final thoughts

There are some things I'd do differently with the benefit of hindsight. I'd spend some more time learning about colour balances and how to reset white and black -- they are the shades which got tossed out in the tinting process, and I think the colour overall would be richer if I had spent some time on white/black correction at the end of the tinting process.

Would I do it again? I'm really not sure. I like black and white film, and many of these old films were shot in studios, so the light captured wouldn't allow for a good tint in any case. It was a really interesting challenge, though, and I love the vid I ended up making. It was definitely worth it for this particular project. Having done this project I now want to learn more about colour, but even so, I doubt I'll ever colourise a film again using this method.

Would I recommend it as a viable method for colorising a film? No, not for a whole film. There are huge sequences of the film which ended up looking weird when I mixed the three-colour tint, but I didn't need them for the vid, so I didn’t bother to try and correct them. I suspect you’d need to do a lot of mixing and editing to end up with something reasonably watchable. You could do it, if you were prepared to spend the time, and it would be cheaper than the alternatives. But it would take a hell of a lot of work.

Anyway, that's a snapshot of my colourising odyssey. I'm open to questions if you have any.

This entry was originally posted at
Tags: festivids, how-to, software, vidding
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