Is That What You Want? ‘Cuz This Here Is Teal!

Earlier this year, a very interesting and very enlightening article about Hollywood’s ridiculous obsession with the colors teal and orange made the rounds through the blogosphere. I’ll be damned if every word in it isn’t true. I very much agree that this modern trend in film color grading is extremely annoying. Sadly, major filmmakers have fallen for the craze, and they’re even retroactively imposing it on their older movies. The latest victim: James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’.

I’ll admit, a couple of months back I wrote a post here fretting about an interview James Cameron gave which stated that the new Blu-ray master for ‘Aliens’ had been “completely de-grained” – buzzwords that imply excessive Digital Noise Reduction. At its worst, this type of de-graining results in an ugly and unnaturally rubbery picture, such as what happened to the atrocious ‘Predator: Ulimate Hunter Edition‘ Blu-ray. Fortunately, my paranoia on that subject proved largely unfounded.

It seems that Cameron’s use of that phrase was misleading at best. I have to assume that the director was just throwing out buzzwords he thought would appeal to a non-techie audience. Although I’m not reviewing it for this site, I am in the process of reviewing the ‘Alien Anthology‘ Blu-ray set for one of my other jobs. I’ve watched ‘Aliens’, and it doesn’t look DNR’ed at all. The picture’s sharpness, detail, and clarity are downright amazing. While the movie’s still grainy, it’s no longer swamped in grain the way previous video transfers were. The grain structure looks much more reasonable and appropriate.

On the other hand, it turns out that another part of that interview is what I really should have been worried about. Specifically:

I just did a complete remaster of Aliens personally, with the same colorist I worked with on Avatar… [We] color-corrected it end to end, every frame.

Indeed, he did. In the past, Cameron often favored a “steely” blue color palette in his movies. ‘Aliens’ was one of his signature pictures in that regard. It was a very blue movie. But no longer. The color grading has now been completely revised so that, from the point that the Colonial Marines arrive on planet LV-426 forward, literally every single shot of the movie is teal. Every. Single. Shot. There’s of course a fair amount of orange thrown in for contrast, but there are few other colors beyond those anymore. The amount of teal in the movie is just off-the-charts absurd. Once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing it. I found it terribly distracting.

I’m really conflicted on this one, and am not sure what grade I should give the disc’s video quality. From a technical perspective, the transfer is fantastic. Yet, aesthetically, I find it just plain hideous. Really, I’m kind of sickened by it. Perhaps it’s not quite as bad as what William Friedkin did to ‘The French Connection‘, but it’s honestly not far removed.

Ah well, at least ‘Alien’ looks great. That goes a long way.Dammit, I just went back to rewatch the first ‘Alien’, and it’s inundated with teal and orange too. Perhaps not as badly as ‘Aliens’, but there’s a ton of teal all through the movie. I don’t know how I missed this the first time.


  1. Well, you just made me make up my mind on the Aliens Blu-Rays. I only liked the first two movies, and I already have HDTV rips of those. If something I pull off of HDNet or HBO or EPIX is of better quality than what they are going to release on Blu-Ray, then I won’t bother to buy. Its why I haven’t picked up Lord Of The Rings yet – I got the extended editions in HD off of TV, and they haven’t released those on Blu yet. Plus, the quality of the HDTV versions is much better.

  2. Adam

    Thanks for pointing this out. Now I will notice it in like every damn movie I watch. It’s sort of like when someone points out an annoying noise to you.

    The bigger problem here, as we all know, is that directors need to stop messing with their movies after the fact. You made a movie, which, in the case of Aliens, turned out pretty well. Leave well enough alone and stop messing with our damn movies!

    • Yeah, I’m afraid to go to the theater now.

      Then again, if I see ‘Paranormal Activity 2’ like I was planning, everything should just be nightvision green, right? Right? What? It’s teal!?

    • I just think they need to give us multiple versions of the film. If you ask me, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Harry Potter Ultimate Editions did it right.

    • Josh Zyber

      I don’t believe everything I read on AVSForum. No doubt there was *some* degraining. And *some* of the grain in the picture now may be artificial. Regardless, in that respect, the transfer doesn’t *look* DNR’ed or unnatural. The grain looks appropriate. It’s just the colors that are hideous. And that was an aesthetic decision made by James Cameron himself.

  3. If I placed my faith in any director to revisit one of their signature movies, it’s Cameron. Sure, he’s gone all loopy with his Avatar nonsense, but in terms of his movies and changing their looks, I trust him. He is far too meticulous a director to let some sense of righteous power overtake his artistic sense (I’m staring daggers at YOU, Lucas!). If he went through and remastered a movie as seminal as Aliens, from beginning to end, then what you see is what you SHOULD be seeing. It is what he wanted it to look like from the get-go. If it’s too different not to notice, then it’s just the outcome of seeing it so many times in a bad light…

    • Josh Zyber

      I wish I could agree. But having watched the disc, I just can’t. The movie is now fully drenched in the cliched teal & orange look, which didn’t come into vogue until the early 2000s with the advent of digital color correction.

  4. Though, I do feel the same about the change a lot of movies take when transferred to Blu Ray.

    Like The Matrix. I saw it in the theater a few times and loved it, but I don’t remember it being THAT green… I mean, it seems like EVERY surface in the Blu Ray edition has a green tinge to it… EVERYTHING!!! Surely every human being in that movie doesn’t have a green undertone to their skin…

    • Josh Zyber

      The Matrix was green-ish in theater, though not as much so as the Blu-ray (and the last DVD). The green tones are meant to convey that something is “off” about the world inside the Matrix.

      The first movie was shot in a process that de-emphasizes blues in order to leave a greenish tinge. The sequels were shot with much heavier green tinting. When they remastered all three movies for the Ultimate Collection box sets, the Wachowskis had the color timing on the first movie updated to match the sequels.

      I would also like to see the original color grading, personally.

  5. Jane Morgan

    Josh, looking at the last thirty years of movies, what are the odds that when we see a movie at our local theater that we are getting an accurate experience of the director’s vision? Color, contrast, brightness, resolution.

    Is it possible that we’ve never seen the perfect version of these movies, and now, with blu-ray, with ‘Aliens’ for example, we’re getting the best version to date?

    Is it possible the version of ‘Aliens’ you want them to release is a version that doesn’t even exist?

    Is it possible that when these directors redo their movies for blu-ray that they focus on perfecting the intended emotional experience by tinkering slightly with the original aesthetic experience?

    Is that one blog post going to affect your video scores for all future reviews? Will every upcoming movie that goes teal-orange get a little Zyber punishment?

    • Josh Zyber

      These are actually good questions.

      In terms of what we see in theaters, the biggest issues are physical damage to the print and lack of brightness (due to dimming projector lamps, or lamps intentionally run at half-power to cut electricity costs). A dimmer image will also seem to have less detail. Contrast can appear washed out due to too much light in the theaters (from exit signs and whatnot).

      Colors shouldn’t be too affected. The colors are printed onto the celluloid. All the theater is doing is shining light through them to illuminate them on screen. If the color temperature of the lamp shifts due to an aging bulb, that can affect colors in the picture, but not enough to suddenly make the entire movie teal if it wasn’t teal to begin with.

      As far as my disc scoring goes, I have always been consistent. If something looks “good,” I will rate it well. If it doesn’t look good, I won’t. My scores are based on a combination of technical issues and aesthetic issues, a balance between which must be struck.

      I generally won’t punish a movie for being teal-orange if it’s always been teal-orange, though I would note in the comments that I didn’t care for it. But if the movie previously had better looking colors and the director completely changes them to something that’s now ugly for no particular reason, I’m more inclined to dock points. (See: The French Connection.)

      With that said, I did give Superman Returns a low video score mainly because it’s photography was so freakin’ hideous. At the end of the day, an ugly picture is an ugly picture, and should be judged accordingly, regardless of reason. 28 Days Later is never going to get a 5 star rating, no matter how faithful the video transfer.

      • However, color on film CAN fade, colors CAN be muted on copies, and then you have issues in the chemical processing of color film. You also have issues with different theaters using different material for their screens (I have seen white screens, grey sceens, silver screens, transparent screens for placing theaters behind it, solid screens, screens that are badly maintained).That being said, Fading shouldn’t be too noticible in a first theatrical run, and hopefully the studios by now have the chemical processing of film down.

        I saw Harry Potter 6 twice at two different Digital Theaters, and once on Film about six weeks after it came out. All three looked different, with film looking the worst (film degredation, film jitter, and all sorts of other problems). Huge differences in brightness and even in color (the colors in the film version were MUCH more muted). So it COULD be argued that one (or even all three) of the screenings I saw was not the director’s intention for the look of the film.

        Just saying. I know its an extreame.

  6. Tobito

    I should warn all of you: if you google “Loudness Wars” you’ll realize that eventually all movies will end up teal and orange.

  7. hurin

    Would it be possible to ‘repair’ this while you watch the movie? I have a projector and I’m thinking that by tweaking the colour palette in the menu, I could make the movie look more like it should look.

    • Josh Zyber

      You could try fiddling with your colors to make the teal more blue, but I think you’d probably just wind up throwing flesh tones even further off.

      I rewatched the beginning of the movie last night, and it turns out that there’s plenty of teal before the marines get to LV-426 too, just not every single shot. However, even in shots without much teal, little bits of it slip in. Like when Ripley wakes up in the hospital bed in Gateway station, she’s wearing white and the room is white. Then the nurse walks in and she’s got little teal lapels on her uniform. It’s like Cameron and his colorist had a running joke to see how much teal they could get in the movie.

  8. hurin

    I just finished watching Apocalypse Now on bluray (hope to see a review soon). When they reach Kurtz’s compound the images become saturated with green, which contrasts nicely with the red from all the blood.

    So this is of course not a new thing. But in recent years it’s gotten stupid. Like the loudness wars on CD’s.

    • Josh Zyber

      A couple of things about Apocalypse Now:

      The colors you see in the Apocalypse Now Blu-ray are not the colors it was photographed with. Its colors have been extensively manipulated on multiple occasions over the years.

      Also, the contrast between green and red is not quite as guady as the contrast between teal and orange. Green and red are colors that might occur together naturally, but teal and orange are not.

      • Jane Morgan

        Damn you, Zyber. I watched Iron Man last night and all I could see was teal and orange. It was disturbing. I want to be oblivious again. You should put a Read At Your Own Risk warning on that article.

  9. EM

    When I read Josh’s article and the one he linked to (holy moley!), I wondered how the articles would—no pun intended—color my viewing experiences. The first color film I watched after my reading was “The Ring” (2002), a favorite of mine that I watched again last night with a friend as part of a Halloween merrymaking. I’d always known that the colors in that film were a little unnatural, but I had never paid so much attention to them as I did last night. Although there were some shots that might look a little on the teal-orange side, I don’t think that’s really the film’s esthetic. I don’t have the training or, really, the eye for this sort of thing, but my estimation is that the film’s palette is somewhat drained of color in general; if there is a general push to a particular color, I think it’s more of a steely blue or maybe a cool-blue–cool green continuum. (A major exception is a recurring image of a tree at autumn sunset, in which red is quite vivid and even serves as a plot point.) It’s not just processing that shifts the hues; it’s clear that the general palette is also served by preproduction decisions about set design, wardrobe, and so forth.

    While “The Ring”’s palette looks more unnatural to me than ever, I am not at all displeased. It’s a movie about the supernatural, and it’s a movie with a somber tone, and so the colors enhance the experience. But I wouldn’t want to see color movies generally shift towards “The Ring”’s look any more than I would want them to generally shift towards the teal-orange look. And for films already made, I think I’d prefer hands off.

    These chromatic shifts remind me a little of the tinting of black-and-white films that was common in the silent era (black-and-white talkies tend not to have it; a notable exception is the amber tinting of the black-and-white scenes of “The Wizard of Oz”). It’s pretty obvious that the old-style tinting does not produce naturalistic color (a single tint would cover the entire frame), but I don’t think filmmakers were trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, whereas I think that is generally the attitude today with color “correction”. In the old days, tinting was used to both *suggest* the environment (e.g., blue for nighttime or red for fire) and to depict emotion (e.g., blue for deep sorrow or red for fury). It was an artifice, but it was an honest one. Of course, pure black-and-white (in the sense of grayscale) is artificial too for most people, but again it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.

  10. coolhive

    I am getting tired of reading on these blu-ray/high def websites about grain being good, etc, etc. Also, this color grading topic is a non-issue for me. It seems more based on obsessive nitpicking than anything else. Need I remind people that a certain color palette and “look” to a film is very much a trend-based decision. Look at Tony Scott’s films. They all look the same, and they all look like countless other generic action films. (Michael Bay, anyone?)

    I hate a grainy picture unless it is a tool used by the filmmaker to convey a tone or style. Saving Private Ryan has appropriate grain. It adds a gritty realism and works on an emotional level. Much like the use of lower quality film stock, or techniques (Cloverfield, Blair Witch, Quarantine) to convey a gritty feel. In those cases, it works to their advantage.

    But on Blu-ray, Aliens and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are two recent examples where grain is intrusive and distracting. Much of the time it pulls me out of a film if all I see are dancing blocks of grain. Aliens looks terrible on BD to me. Alien looks so much better. (I have a 50″ plasma TV, so maybe it’s just my setup.)

    I don’t care if it’s inherent to the film stock used at the time. Today, in 2010, we have methods to compensate. Filmmakers don’t always choose a certain film stock for creative reasons; often it is a financial decision, as with Aliens. Cameron himself has pointed this out. It’s very common, particularly with films pre-2000.

    I don’t care if they have to tweak a film to de-grain it. I encourage it! I would much rather look at plastic-y or waxy faces (Predator) than a grainy mess that distracts the eye. Every other shot in Aliens (or thereabout) is excessively grainy. Also, Blu-ray tends to ENHANCE excessive graininess, which makes it look far worse than in a theater.

    My hopes were raised when Cameron said he supervised the adjustments frame by frame for Aliens. IMO, he failed miserably. Aliens deserves to look pristine, if at all possible. It deserves better.

    Let’s also remember, when it comes to color, most men are to some degree color blind. (Keeping in mind that color blindness doesn’t mean you CAN’T SEE COLOR. It means you see some colors differently than other people do, or can’t see a certain tone.) It’s very common, so one person’s teal may be more blue to someone else. There is no way to please everyone. Who knows if these post-production colorists are even tested for color blindness. I would bet not.

    In any case, the teal/orange look will probably fade when the next big film dares to use a new look. Then we’ll all hear complaining of films being too red or purple, or whatever the new trendy color is.

    • Josh Zyber

      What you’re really saying is that you don’t care about film as an art form, only smooth and sparkly eye candy for your TV. You are entitled to feel however you want to feel. But it’s very easy for you to reduce grain by cranking up the Noise Reduction feature on your HDTV, whereas it’s not possible for us to put grain or detail back into a picture if it’s been scrubbed away during the video transfer. That detail is gone forever.

      • EM

        To be fair, Josh, Colin did state that grain was valid under some circumstances. But I agree with the rest of your reply. Similarly, the viewer/customer is free to mess with the hues on his TV; I’d prefer the filmmakers leave the teal-orange filter off in most circumstances and let us set our TVs’ fleshtone level to “godawful” if that’s what we want to do. For theatrical exhibition, I wonder if it’s feasible to hand out teal-orange glasses à la 3-D, for those who want the extra pop? (I would hope there’s no extra charge for patrons who don’t want to don the glasses…)

      • I honestly have no opinion one way or the other on the whole grain issue. I’m just not a stickler for such things.

        When it comes to games though, I’m right on board with the purity of pixelization. Adding a filter or antialiasing to get rid of pixels really ruins the look of old games. I tried playing ‘Castlevania: Symphony of the Night’ with the filter on and I just felt queasy 🙁

  11. I’m watching the 4th Harry Potter film, and the entire thing is DRAPED in Orange and Teal contrasting shots, and that’s not even exaggeration. as Josh said, once you notice, you can’t stop noticing.

    damn it!

  12. Eli Levine

    I find Todd Miro’s article interesting, but I think he over-simplified the situation. Films have always featured contrast in color temperature—usually with cooler outside sources and warmer inside sources. It’s a good way to bring depth to the image. I think what Miro was trying to get into is that wacked-out, flourescent look that action movies with over-zealous DI work seem to have. This is what I call the “parking garage” look, where the image looks overly tampered, with boosted contrast and unhealthy flesh tones. Most of Miro’s screen caps reflected this, but some were just a natural balance of warm and cold. And I don’t think anyone can answer when something is officially “blue,” “steel blue,” or “teal.”

    Now, I admittedly have not yet received my copy of the Alien Anthology, but judging from the little I’ve seen, there has been some work to modernize the second film. Still, it needs to be kept in mind that Aliens always had an industrialized, sickly feel to it. It’s impossible to know just how blue the blues are supposed to be and how dark the blacks. The blues here seem to lean slightly more towards green than the DVD, but is the DVD a correct approximation? My stance is that, while this is different from how the film looked in theaters, the aesthetic decisions mostly support the narrative. I think James Cameron’s work on Aliens is similar to the restoration work done on the James Bond films. In both cases, the final result is much less grainy, with a slightly more “modern” color scheme. I don’t really see these films as historical artifacts, so I’m mostly okay with it. But I’ll have to see Aliens all the way through before I can say that for certain.

    Also, I don’t see any evidence that Alien has been altered. The colors look perfectly natural to me, and I doubt the film ever had a completely neutral palette. Like most films, Alien varied between cooler and warmer light from scene to scene.