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Revitalizing Black and White Film with Digital Colorization

They were nominated for a BAFTA Award in Visual Effects for their work in the 13-hours TV-series ‘World War II in Colour’ (2009). 

They were the ones who carefully restored the original hand-colored negatives of George Méliès ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902) and brought it in 4K for Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ (2011). 

They’ve recently done tremendous work on the documentary ‘Generalissimo, Franco’s life in color’ (2019) by Director Luis Carrizo.

Meet West Wing Studios, a pioneer company in film coloring

We’re happy to present to you West Wing Studios, one of the most respected pioneers of film coloring in the industry. 

West Wing Studios is not only a champion of the art and techniques of digital colorization, but they also carry a mission of transmission toward younger generations, far from the colorization debate that surfaces from time to time. 

In a recent interview, founder Vivek Rao and producer Stanton Rutledge shared with us their story and took us through their coloring process, which is fascinating when we understand that the demands to convert historical black and white footage to color are increasing rapidly these days.

Vivek and Stan have worked together since the company was established in 2002, when digital film color grading was still in the state of improving. As film lovers, they saw a need for better film coloring technology and started to develop their own coloring software. 

The company has offices in Tampa, Florida, Los Angeles and Goa, India, where they have put together an incredible team of 50 color designers and animators. 

George Méliès ‘A Trip to the Moon’, restored and colored by West Wing Studios

Soon, West Wing began receiving projects from Sony Pictures and Columbia Tristar, and the exceptional accuracy of their digital colorizations became well known.

With documentary projects coming from the US, Spain, UK, Greece, Russia, Australia and many other countries, they earned a worldwide reputation, and today we can find West Wing in the film credits of many inspiring productions – such as ‘The Beatles: Eight Days a Week’ (2016) by Director Ron Howard. 

Keep in mind that if you are interested in using digital colorization for your current or next project, the best time to approach West Wing is when you have your final edit in hand. As you will discover here, the process is very complex and there’s no room for last-minute changes, so starting the process with your picture locked film will save you precious time and money.

All you wanted to know about digital colorization

It’s important to state that digital colorization is not only a VFX technique taking advantage of the latest improvements in computerized imagery. Digital colorization also requires the artistry and expertise of West Wing’s dedicated team to create vibrant colors and achieve a natural result.

As Stan and Vivek point out, digital colorization is all about quality and precision. The result needs to look realistic and not artificial or flat. More importantly, it needs to be accurate to the time period of the film.

« We deeply care about the era the archives have been produced. We are trying to give the color of a particular decade and not make it looks like today. It is historically important to stay true to that time period. »

According to Vivek and Stan, it’s all about the design. Once the design is set, the colorization itself can be generated quickly.

But what do they mean by design? Design is, Stan says, « the most important phase », when they make all the crucial decisions about what colors will be used for color conversion amongst the 16 million that are available. 

One might think naively that the software is simplifying everything by replacing the image’s greyscale with the corresponding colors according to the light values, but « the key is the color research ». 

Courtesy of West Wing Studios

How does it work?

Once the West Wing operators have analyzed the black and white footage, they extract one still image per shot based on the edit and the camera cuts, and give it to Stan.

With his 30 years’ of experience and a very trained eye, Stan is then able to figure out, image by image, what pallet of colors is best adapted to every shot before going to the next phase – the frame-by-frame animation.

« I’m like a kid in a candy store. It is fun designing the colors. It is something new every time. »

The clients are involved every step of the way, and receive colorized stills in jpeg format for each shot. If they approve the proposed color design, it will be applied to the entire shot in the production phase.

There are tons of details in one single frame, such as hairs, eyes, fingers, war medals, etc., and the most challenging step of the workflow is to match them with the right color. In order to do this, it is essential to conduct an intensive and manual process of compositing by drawing a mask around every single object present in the digital frames to isolate them. 

Sometimes, with war footage, there can be 900 masks per frame, or even up to 1200 when it comes to parades or crowds! Needless to say, it takes quite a lot of color decisions to arrive at the final image – and thus quite a lot of details to animate.  

None of the color decisions Stan makes together with the client or filmmaker are done arbitrarily. « French uniforms are different from German uniforms, » he remarks, and they need to make sure to use the right shade of khaki.

A research phase is absolutely necessary in order to make color decisions. The production company often provides story inputs and precious historical insights, and West Wing’s team completes it by digging through archives, in museums and libraries. Google can also be really helpful! 

Color decisions are not only based on research: West Wing holds a secret weapon.

Thanks to all the projects they’ve been involved in, the company has compiled a huge library of color references that is constantly growing: medals, costume colors, hair colors, shoes, locations or historical figures… This is an incredible tool that makes their work so unique and impressive.

Take a look! 

Courtesy of West Wing Studios

History didn’t happen in black and white

An experienced team and great technology, West Wing Studios succeeds in bringing to life decades of black and white archival footage and in making colorization of these footage a widely accepted practice.

Digital colorization, when it’s made with historical ethics in mind, reminds us that history didn’t happen in black and white. It brings the past closer and creates a more intimate experience for contemporary audiences. As a result, broadcasters today are developing a growing appetite for digital colorization.

« Young people forgot what history looks like. It allows younger generations to take a glimpse at historical events. We want to be part of the understanding of history for younger generations. Our mission is to make sure it is there for posterity. »

Feel free to visit http://www.westwingstudios.com to know more.

West Wing Studios Digital Colorization

This article was sponsored by West Wing Studios.