Why do so many movies look like they were filmed in gray without any colors? Over the last 20 or 30 years, films and TV have been presented in a gray desaturated palate. This dull filter covers every scene and movie no matter what the story. This look is created by color grading using Look Up Tables called LUTS. Katie Stebbins, a film Twitter personality, calls it the “intangible sludge.”
These two stills from the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? tell the story. The top shot is before color grading. The bottom shot is after color grading. The colors are muted as you can see. This was the beginning of digital color grading in movies. Since that movie color grading has become the standard practice for nearly every movie, TV show, commercial and YouTube video. There’s a YouTube video essay by Patrick H Willems that demonstrates and explains Why Do Marvel’s Movies Look Kind of Ugly?
Desaturating a shot is not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems to be overdone. Why would an entire movie have that same desaturated look? Color correction has been around for as long as color movies have been made. In the days of film, it was done chemically. And it was invaluable for matching shots that might have been made months apart in different light etc. By manipulating colors, you could manipulate the emotions of the audience in that scene.
When you watch Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? you would never know that it was filmed in a lush, green Mississippi summer. It looks dry and worn out. Director of Photography Roger Deakins knew that the Coen brothers wanted the film to look like the Dust Bowl tinge. But he had to shoot in verdant Mississippi summer which would be filled with greenery. Deakins first tried using filters in front of the camera lens, but that didn’t do it for him. So he used a company called Cinesite because they just done some remarkable work with the colors in their 1988 film Pleasantville. In that film color is used to differentiate two universes – people who have experienced epiphanies or strong emotion are represented in color, while the people who are still only black and white try to segregate and oppress them.
The history of the desaturated look can be traced back to most any film noire movie that was shot in color or to The Godfather. Some say The Matrix perfectly exemplifies the aesthetic of the desaturated, end-of-the-world look. For a much deeper look into this trend see Vox’s article Colors: Where did they go? An investigation.