With the release of the superb Mind of Evil on DVD, we talk to recolouring maestro Stuart Humphryes on his devotion to bring classic stories back to life…
* Early attempts at colourisation of monochrome material, notably Hal Roach’s Laurel & Hardy films, were commercially successful for the US networks, but attacked on grounds of poor quality and tampering with the original artistic vision. Technology has helped improve the quality significantly, but do you think the technique will manage to win over in the area of artistry?
There’s a huge and very distinct separation between technology and artistry that is too often overlooked. Technology has certainly improved to the point where better colourisation can be achieved, but only in the hands of someone with a telent for the work. Unconvincing colourisation is still churned out by an industry with all the whizz-bang gizmos money can buy. Having cutting edge technology does not guarantee results that are in any way naturalistic if the colouriser using them does not have an aptitude for the job in hand. There are hundreds of millions of computers in the world with word processing programs, but that does not mean the world is populated by a race of compelling authors. Technology is only a tool to aid an artist and is not a substitute for art itself. Technology will never manage to win over in the area of artistry, but individuals using that technology may. These days anyone at home can colourise monochrome film relatively easily, but whether it is any good is entirely down to the talent of the individual.
* Taking Doctor Who as an example, archive material exists on a multitude of different formats, with differing requirements for recovery. Do you believe there is an inherent difference between recovering colour for material which was originally made that way such as Mind of Evil, and colourising content which was not colour to start with such as An Unearthly Child?
The question can be answered two ways – either the physical process of colourisation or the ethical implications of doing it in the first place. Procedurally, there is no inherent difference between colourising episode one of ‘The Mind of Evil’ and colourising episode one of ‘An Unearthly Child’. The same artistic requirements are brought into force: the brush technique and attention to skin tone, the aim for naturalism. There are subtle differences, as ‘the Mind of Evil’ had a prescribed palette dictated by the later episodes, so that costumes and sets had to match later appearances. Colourising an episode from scratch allows greater artistic licence and expression (which is more fun for an artist).
There is also the issue of grading that distinguishes colourisation from re-colourisation, Something that originally existed in colour was lit for colour, with a more dynamic tonal range. Footage that was originally monochrome and lit for monochrome generally has less contrast and depth and requires more vigorous grading to make it look natural in colour. Again, technology allows this to be done well in the hands of someone with a skill and aptitude for the job.
As for whether it is ethical to colourise monochrome material in the first place, it is entirely down to the sensibilities of the viewer. Some people are outraged by the idea of applying colour to monochrome material, others are not. There is certainly a difference in many peoples’ minds between returning colour to footage that originally existed in that state and applying colour to a work that was originally monochrome. I do wonder whether that gut reaction is largely down to the fact that it has generally been done so very poorly in the past. I cannot think of any archive TV series or, indeed, movie which has been colourised artistically and sympathetically, with skill and an eye for naturalism. Until that begins to happen I can fully understand peoples’ resistance to the notion. Poor colourisation adds nothing at all, bar a distraction from the original cinematography.
It also comes down to whether people see the monochrome original as art in its own right. Some classic films use the monochrome medium to its full advantage, creating atmosphere and mood through the use of shadow and shade. Film Noir, with its roots in German Expressionist cinematography, is an art form that certainly benefits from being in black and white, but it would be a mistake to imagine or believe that all monochrome footage is an art form of merit. Without the beneficial eye of a skilled and artistic cinematographer, monochrome film is often no different to a colour film constrained by the budget and practicalities of the time. Black and white television shows especially, churned out on a daily conveyor belt production by studios constrained by the monochrome technology of the era, would most certainly have been made in colour if such technology existed for them. I feel no compunction in applying colour to a 1960s TV show – the art is in the scripts and portrayals and imagination of the production, very rarely in the cinematography.
* Starting from a sequence of monochrome footage, how do you approach the task? What is your workflow?
The first step would be to capture the frames. If I am working alone, without the benefit of an interpolator, I would capture every frame as a still image. If an interpolator is going to motion estimate the colour then they would provide me with all the necessary key-frames.
Once I have the frames, I would look through the sequence and decide which is the best to tackle first. For example, if the scene takes place on a set which is particularly intricate and busy, I would try to find a frame that showed the most complete view of the set, without actors in the way. I would then spend an hour or so colourising that frame as naturalistically as possible and that would be my “key frame” for the set.
Once I am happy with the initial frame, I advance through the remaining frames to colourise the set, ignoring everything in the foreground, such as actors, that may move across the background detail. Ultimately, I would have all the frames in which the background environment is in colour, with the actors and moving props still to do. I then revisit all the frames again, one by one, advancing through them to colourise all of the things which move, With actors I will colourise their costumes and be left with a third and final revisit in which I will do their faces.
The skin tones are extremely important in colourisation – more so than any other aspect of the work. Our brains are innately programmed to recognise faces and instantly spot what is incorrect about them. It is an issue that animators and CGI artists face every time they attempt to render a realistic human. How they move, how they look, can instantly ring alarm bells in the mind of the viewer, so getting skin tone as realistic as possible is the greatest challenge that can make or break the illusion. The faces are always the last thing I colourise on the frames. The ambient lighting and the tone of the set all have an impact on how I will colourise the skin tones. It would look wrong if I did the faces first and then the backgrounds later.
* Perhaps the most mainstream application of colourisation in recent years was the work to recover colour from the chroma dots on the black and white print of the Dad’s Army episode. This technique was used on The Mind of Evil episodes 2-6, but was not able to be applied to episode 1. In this case, there was no other viable alternative, but in general, do you see a benefit to hand colouring vs other methods?
Hand colourisation does produce a stable chroma base whereas colour-recovered material can tend to have lots of chroma problems – saturation pulsing in and out, extraneous colour artefacting, bleeding and so forth. Hand colourisation can be rock solid in those regards, but often let down but the flatness of colour. This flatness is entirely down to the colourising artists rather than down to the process itself and I have made a conscious effort to introduce colour variation and depth to my work that is often lacking in colourised footage. But, as is often the way, commercial concerns obliterate artistic ones and it is both cheaper and quicker to produce flat wash colourisations that do nothing to advance the art. I believe Commercial colourising companies outsource the work to cheap labour on other continents, with swathes of people dabbing colour washes on frames with little artistic merit – the DVD release of ‘Mind of Evil’ is probably unique in world of commercial colourisation in this regard, as the “art direction”, colour application technique and palette choices and were all down to one person. Of course, this approach has significant drawbacks commercially, as it takes a very long time to complete the work. I understand that ‘Planet of the Daleks’ episode three was colourised in a week. Episode one of ‘The Mind of Evil’ has taken 18 months. In an industry often constrained by tight deadlines it is little wonder that the quicker option is often chosen.
* Given the choice (and time/budget!), which monochrome story or sequence do you feel would have the greatest potential benefit from being seen in colour?
I often hear on-line that fans consider the historical stories to be most suitable for colourisation, with ‘the Aztecs’ or even the missing ‘Marco Polo’ cited as appropriate candidates. But personally I’d prefer to bring colour to more fantastical elements of the series that would offer me more artistic scope. I think ‘The Web Planet’ or ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’ would be marvellous to bring to colour. They offer so much scope, interesting alien characters and exciting locations, all the things that would excite and motivate me to experiment. Any artist interested in colour would prefer to tackle the Menoptera or Celation rather than Ping Cho or mauve alien suns rather than Mexican stonework.
*It seems like the BBC have been giving you a mixed response. Using you for offical projects, like the mind of evil and Genesis of the Daleks DVDs, but then blocking your unofficial work on youtube (most notably the 10 doctors which is still blocked). Given the beeb often turn a blind eye to not for profit work why did they have such a big problem with 10 doctors?
The YouTube work has always been unofficial fan work and exists in a grey area of copyright use. Do such transformative creations fall within fair use or is it piracy and theft? Any number of people will have differing views on the subject, though I do not see my video art as either theft or piracy, as those terms evoke visions of material gain and benefit.
I do not benefit from the work in the slightest, I don’t monetise or accrue revenue from the creations, it’s rather altruistic for the enjoyment for fellow fans. But the BBC have every right to exercise their claim on Doctor Who material, which they do on a daily basis and, sometimes, they strike against me too. It’s frustrating and, occasionally, intensely irritating but ultimately it’s something that I understand will happen. When they removed my colourisation portfolio, the BBC were very gracious in contacting me and apologising, being at great pains to express their support of creativity that benefits the brand and so they re-instated the work. I think ‘The Ten Doctors’ was likely to be zapped in the Anniversary year anyway, as it sought to achieve, on a fan level, something that the BBC would probably want to try on the programme itself. Indeed, they even used the same shots of Patrick Troughton that I had used in the Ten Doctors and so, in retrospect, I am not entirely surprised they wanted my work removed from public view.
*What made you want to re-colour the early episodes?
It was purely a personal challenge, to practice and improve my colourisation technique. I started out colourising photographs and Tele-Snaps, just as a pastime without any agenda or greater intent than that. Once I realised it might be possible to apply that process to video frames I thought it would be terribly interesting to see what results could be achieved. I have no vendetta against monochrome episodes and the William Hartnell era is my favourite. I think it is the fact that I like those early stories so much that the choice to practice on them was quite natural.
*You’re working on Terror of the Zygons to insert some re-coloured missing footage. Is this likely to be the last one ( unless more footage turns up) or are there other opportunities that may be in the pipeline?
I imagine it is extremely unlikely I will ever work officially on ‘Doctor Who’ again. The classic DVD range has come to its natural end, bar the possibility of a few revistations, but there’s nothing I imagine will need my participation on. Fans have asked for ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ to be revisited, as the colour recovery on episode one is of poor quality, but I cannot imagine spending another 18 months of my life re-colourising that episode without a very significant rethink of the restoration budget. I earned less than the National Minimum Wage for the hours I expended on ‘Mind of Evil’ and that is not a situation I would be prepared to experience again. So I think that’s probably a venture for somebody else. I’ve had a couple of enquiries this year from programme makers interested in colourising footage, though neither involved Doctor Who, but I shall take each enquiry on its own merits and decide whether it appeals to me or not. I may do another project, or I may not, but I am not “hungry” for it. If it interests me and it pays well I’ll happily give it consideration!
*Just how time consuming is it to recolourise the black and white footage?
The initial frame of a scene takes about an hour to colourise correctly. It is important to get the very first frame correct as it dictates the palette and look of all the other frames that will follow. If the first frame is wrong, the whole scene will be wrong – you can’t suddenly change colour or saturation halfway through a shot so it’s imperative that it is correct from the start. It’s not just tonal balance, saturation and palette choices to think about, it’s the lighting too and how the camera moves through the scene. It all needs to be thought about before colourising the first pixel.
There were also quite a few hours spent Googling images for colour reference too. I spent a long time locating the painting of Queen Elizabeth which hung in the Brigadier’s office, and looked at hundreds of ECG machines to see what colour the screen should be on the old Cambridge ECG monitor used in the episode. Then there were the trim phones and so forth. So a lot of background research was undertaken to make things as authentic as possible.
For ‘Mind of Evil’ I created a lot of reference frames from later episodes. I had folders and folders of different types of reference shots on my computer – one filled with different angles of the Brigadier’s office, one filled with different shots of the Keller machine and so on. It was very helpful to be able to see the sets in extant colour when choosing my palette on part one, even if some of the colour-recovered hues were not quite right.
Of course, how time-consuming a frame takes is entirely down to the colouriser. You can spend 50 seconds doing it or you can spend 50 minutes. I know I was working hideously long hours for a year and a half to complete the job. I could have taken a fraction of that time if I had just slapped the colour on without any artistic integrity. We are all often our own worst enemies and I made the job a very arduous one for myself because I cared about the quality of the end product.
*Has it speed up much with recent improvement in computer power; are you able to harness the power of modern graphics cards for instance?
Ha! I’m an befuddled old techno-ignoramus with an ancient PC. I’m one of the few people in the UK who doesn’t even have a mobile phone, let alone a home full of gizmos and gadgets. You are more likely to be bedazzled by my old wireless set than any advanced computing power, so I am not best placed to pass comment on that question. The mere fact I know where my computer’s on switch is located is a constant source of pride. So no, I have no idea how fast a modern graphics card might be but, rest assured, my PC does its job just fine with whatever one it’s got!
* Given the investment of time required, do you see yourself sticking with the hand colouring approach as a starting point where you produce one high-quality colourised keyframe which is then used as the basis for the next N frames, or can you see the process evolving further?
The colourisation work is really just a hobby, like painting by numbers or building the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks. It may take a long time to do it frame-by-frame but it whiles away the hours like most hobbies do. At my age I think it extraordinarily unlikely that there will be any sudden career change where I’ll find myself doing commercial colourisation. I’m rather long in the tooth to fight my way into an industry with up-and-coming graphic artists less than half my age all jostling for employment. But I enjoy it as a hobby and I’ve been able to give something back to the series and to fellow fans. That’s a huge source of pride to me. But I think I’ll be sticking to my frame-by-frame technique on YouTube until such time as someone wants to give me some interpolation software.
* Were you involved in the (Aztecs?) colouring for The Name of the Doctor and are you doing anything for the 50th?
No, I was not involved with that particular colourisation attempt. Well, I say “colourisation”, but it was actually a rather bizarre hotchpotch or applied colour in one shot, a beige wash in another and an untouched monochrome shot later on. It seemed like the dictionary definition of half-arsed to me. There had been some informal enquiries earlier in the year to one of the Restoration Team, who emailed me to ask if I’d be on board to possibly be involved and I said yes, but nothing came of it. Such a shame, as that sequence would have benefited from a little love and attention, not to mention a little colourisation skill. I have no secret Who work for the Anniversary story either. Well, maybe unofficially for my youTube channel, but nothing for the show itself.