What's behind the "look" of mid-80s cinematography?
January 18, 2016 5:31 AM   Subscribe

I was recently watching old clips of Labyrinth and was struck by how dingy and washed out the colors all looked. All browns and grays, with a pre-digital fuzziness to everything (but which is nonetheless absent from even older movies). I've noticed this before in other popular movies from around the mid-80s: the New York of Ghosbusters, for example, appears constantly overcast and even sootier than it ever probably was, and the Neverending Story also seems to share the same palette of dark colors and the occasional washed out pastels. What's behind this "mid-80s" look? Was it the quality of film stock that was used in big budget pictures during those years? Trends in lighting, set design and/or post-production? Or something else entirely?
posted by decoherence to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm guessing it's mostly that you're watching faded prints. Look at a side-by-side "restored" clip of a 1980s movie and the "before" version will probably have the look you're talking about.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:39 AM on January 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

I agree with Ursula Hitler.
Here are some comparisons of Star Trek to show how remastering can help 'lift' up colors from the original film.
posted by like_neon at 5:48 AM on January 18, 2016

Other factors:

-There's a trend these days particularly in TV to really push the contrast and in particular the blacks (maybe to achieve a more "expensive" look?) So I don't know if it's so much that prior films have been really washed out as we seem to be in a really contrasty period. FWIW I think the modern stuff actually looks worse than 80s films, but that's just my opinion.

-Labyrinth may have in part been a deliberate choice. I remember that film having a lot of browns and then when you look at The Dark Crystal, it's a lot more colorful, so they may have chosen that for whatever reason when doing lighting/production design/etc. There was also an occasional trend in the 80s to use a deliberate sort of vaseline-on-the-lens effect in "fantasy stuff"; see Legend.

-If you're watching clips on Youtube, they just tend to be crappy captures, so it may not be the best place to judge these things.
posted by selfnoise at 6:14 AM on January 18, 2016 [14 favorites]

Oh, and also: remastering isn't necessarily going to restore a film to "original" condition. It may instead reflect the values of the remastering team/process from that period. This is true in music when sometimes you see people do very strange/terrible things to albums in the name of "remastering" them.
posted by selfnoise at 6:19 AM on January 18, 2016 [10 favorites]

Ghostbusters looked like it looked IRL. Mid 80's was the end of MadMen era type smoking (remember that scene in 16 Candles where the grandma is smoking making eggs and the other grandma is trying to use the spatula to keep the ash out of the cooking pan?) Some of this look might be smoking residue. Look up the restoration of the dome in Grand Central Station. They left this wee square in a corner with something like 80 years of residue, the rest is a vibrant deep green. Shocking!
posted by jbenben at 8:00 AM on January 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

A lot of the films you mention also had extensive optical effects, which degrade the original image.

Film is a funny thing. Sunny exteriors from Gone with the Wind look like they could have been shot yesterday, because that film is getting properly exposed. Interiors look flat and washed out for a bunch of reasons, which up until fairly recently no one could do anything about.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:16 AM on January 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

I noticed it too. I thought they were just going for a dark, depressing feel - I thought that was the whole point of those movies. We were going through some things back then.
posted by bleep at 10:34 AM on January 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

In many cases, you can find out what kind of film a movie was printed on in the IMDB; in the case of Labyrinth it was on Eastman 5384, which this page describes as having good "dye permanence" and "nice, rich colors."

So the somber colors you're seeing may to some extent be a result of a poor transfer to DVD or whatever medium you're watching it on now. Some may be actual print fade. And some may be the fact that these days, we've become accustomed to digital color grading.
posted by adamrice at 10:54 AM on January 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

yeah, optical effects are probably a pretty significant part. To add an element to the picture, you had to make a film shooting a projection or print of the original film while it was underneath another layer of film (the top layer has the element to be added). The movies you mention had complex SFX with lots of elements added to shots.

Imagine how dark and muddy a window would be if you made it out of several overlaid sheets of copier transparency. A single sheet looks transparent, but when you start stacking them, they get pretty opaque pretty fast.

If you look at this frame from star wars, you can see a box around the tie fighter where the background is muddied by the overlaid transparency element the tie is printed on. If you watch the original movies, you can see it in motion. But the muddying is only visible here because the transparency the tie is on doesn't cover the entire picture so you have a picture with an added element right next to an area of picture that has one fewer added element.
(If you can't see the lighter-hued box around the tie fighter, turn up the brightness of your monitor, or if LCD you could also just move your head to where the viewing angle brightens)
posted by anonymisc at 11:01 AM on January 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's not faded, it's color casting. Ghostbusters is a case study in film schools for color casting, along with movies like the Matrix. Back in the day of film you had enormous control over the colors via development processes and lenses. These days only the truly high end digital cameras can do that, only one type I think can really bring it. Ghostbusters was lit and shot like a drama not a comedy, dark and moody on purpose. It's also purple as fuck, which gives it that weird unsettling vibe.

And Labyrinth was all puppets except for the owl scene I think. I know someone who worked on it, almost zero computer type effects. They just made puppets and sets and filmed them.
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 PM on January 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

It's an "all of the above" situation.

It's hard and expensive to create a GOOD and faithful new television source from a pre-digital-editing original. The ones that were well done were often optimized for DVD playing through a CRT or early generation 720p plasma and not for arbitrarily compressed television or internet stream playing trough a late generation 1080p LCD or LED. And many were not done well to begin with. With the decline of the DVD/Blu-Ray market this isn't going to get better anytime soon -- the costs of a meticulous film restoration, 4K scan and faithful color correction are rarely supported by what streaming or cable licensees will pay.

The 1980s aesthetics for color pallete, luminosity and sharpness were indeed quite different from those that emerged more recently. Ghostbusters made a real effort to seem big and scary in a 1980s way. Also, they were influenced by a technical desire to look good in a dark theater because home viewing -- on a small 480i screen, panned and scanned -- was visually trashed from the get-go. And where there was deference to the home experience when it came to brightness you would dial down because good CRTs were very bright.
posted by MattD at 12:28 PM on January 18, 2016

If you look at this frame from star wars

Fun fact: The effects scenes from Star Wars were shot on Todd-AO (super-high-quality negative format) specifically to minimize picture degradation, although this mostly affected film grain.

I think the more common use of higher-ISO film stocks in the 80s might also contribute to the effect OP mentioned. (Before the 80s, high-ISO film generally sucked and nobody used it unless they had to.) I'm not sure if high-budget, single-camera productions did this though.
posted by neckro23 at 2:15 PM on January 18, 2016

They also bleached the film for Empire Strikes Back to make it blue-r to match the tone of the film.

Color "correcting" old films for DVD release and losing the intended colors is a huge pet peeve of mine.
posted by fshgrl at 11:08 PM on January 27, 2016

And Labyrinth was all puppets except for the owl scene I think. I know someone who worked on it, almost zero computer type effects. They just made puppets and sets and filmed them.

Before computer effects they used optical effects. In a Google image search for "labyrinth movie", almost every search-result image has a matte, for example.
posted by anonymisc at 6:09 PM on February 1, 2016

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