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Creativity and Color Management for ‘The Hurt Locker’

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s indie feature The Hurt Locker swept the Oscars in great part because of the subtle way the director communicated the action to the audience. Although set in the middle of the Iraq War, the film portrays Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, above) and his work disarming explosives in a very straightforward way, devoid of the sometimes overwrought conventions of a lot of war films. The almost subliminal way the film grabs the audience boils down to a large number of details, some of which came about in Colorist Stephen Nakamura’s da Vinci Resolve bay at Company 3, Santa Monica.

Nakamura spoke with Cinematographer Barry Ackyroyd, who shot the film on 16mm negative, and Bigelow to get their take on the material. “Kathryn saw Sgt. James as being ‘addicted’ to war,” Nakamura explains. “I started looking at the photography and thinking about that idea and I was playing with the notion that Sgt. James doesn’t see Iraq the way the other soldiers might. This is where he wants to be. If you went to Hawaii and just loved being there, you might remember, ‘That place has the greenest plants I’ve ever seen. They had the bluest water of anyplace in the world.’ So when other people might be looking at these parts of Iraq as this sort of really drab, desolate place he might look at it and see something beautiful.”

The colorist used Resolve’s color keying and tracking capabilities to boost colors wherever there were colors to boost. “The character sees this pure, pristine white sand,” he says. “He doesn’t see washed out skies; the skies are a beautiful blue. He idealizes the green uniforms because of his feeling about being in the military. So we pulled out all those colors — everything we could find from clothing to the helmets to the colored wires when he’s disconnecting the bombs.”

When Sgt. James’ tour is over and he’s able to visit his girlfriend and child, Bigelow staged the scenes in depressing, overcast conditions and Ackroyd deliberately let the look go a bit on the flat side — with very little in the frame that’s either rich and saturated or bright and sparkly. Nakamura helped push the footage in this direction to give the audience the same feeling of a flat, colorless environment that makes Sgt. James so eager to back to the war. “It was kind of rainy and dark in those scenes,” Nakamura explains. “And he’s taking weeds out of a gutter and goes to a grocery store with fluorescent lighting everywhere. The shots were organically cold and my work there was mostly a matter of pulling a bit of color out of some areas.

“It was a different approach than a lot of people take for a war movie set in the Middle East. All these touches were very subtle. Nothing really jumps out. But I think in context it all worked very well.”

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