Analyse the Grade: House of Cards

PSA: Potential Spoiler Alert. Duh.

House of Cards, the first original Netflix series and worldwide hit starring Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, L.A. Confidential) and Robin Wright (Forrest Gump) is a marvellous piece that pulls you into territory you thought was thoroughly boring. Besides the phenomenal cast, the series is written, produced and directed by seasoned industry professionals (David Fincher, anyone?) so don’t get too hyped thinking it was an indie success that was graciously picked up by Netflix. It was far from that. After a series of pitches with networks and cable companies, Netflix won the show by simply paying the most money and offering to produce a first full season right from the start (read more about how Netflix picked up House of Cards in: “The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap”, Neil Landau).

While binging through the first season and actually writing about it in my bachelor’s thesis, I noticed some interesting colour grading choices that add to the outstanding cinematography of House of Cards.

Colour grading is often about subtlety. Not always. Sometimes you are surprised at how much you can get away with.

Especially in small, hipstery short films and low-budget productions, blatantly obvious looks hammer home the fact that “wow, we spent time and resources on colour grading”. Also, customers will ask for these boilerplate looks. House of Cards embraces uniform colour tint as a look that makes the show stand out from the poppy, enhanced looks that have become a staple of feature films recently.

Take a look at this frame.

that lovely green tint


The shadows have a noticeable green tint and it looks like her face was not especially selected and graded separately: no split tone grading. Thus, the skin tone on her fill-side (the darker side) has a slight green touch. Talking about skin tones and split toning, check out this “Avengers: Age of Ultron” screencap.

split toning wooooow.

The whole frame has a warm, cosy feeling to it, but look at the highlights on the building structure behind the gang. Slightly blue highlights there make the warm skin tones pop even more. And say what you want, Tony’s face looks so comfy-amber like, I bet this is split-toned.

Split-toning, in short, is splitting the image into light and dark areas and tinting these areas differently and is super-effective when using complementary colours for the opposing areas. Check out this next frame from House of Cards.

Check out the yellow / blue split toning.

Highlights (chandelliiiiieeers…) are yellow as f***. Like, no subtlety full on yellow. Extra perk: check out the crazy blue balloons that drive home the point of “this is a democratic party event!” Look at the frame some more and you will notice that split-toning was done in perfection: the shadows are blue — the opposite (and hence complementary colour) on the colour circle of yellow.

Now look at Russo here.

His skin tones are slightly yellow. Yellow in skintones is often a result of a green tint. Call me crazy, why is yellow a result of a green tint. Consider the standard colour circle used in many a grading application:

Standard Colour Wheel with Skintone Indicator

Indicated is the mark for where skin tones generally lie in terms of hue. (degree shows hue, radius shows saturation in these circles). If you now alter your grading suite control to add green to the picture, all pixels will be moved into the direction of the green hue.

Skintone Indicator shifted towards green

Now, the marker we had set previously for skin tone hue resides more in the yellow area. Think of it in terms of a vectorscope. If the line represented the reading on the scope, the second image represents the scope after the alteration. Therefore, if you add a green tint to rather saturated skin tones, you end up with yellow in the skin tones.

Throughout House of Cards, you will find green tints. This frame in the Herald could be straight out of the Matrix.

The Matrix featuring journalists.

If you look closely at the white walls, they are actually slightly greenish. In essence, it is a white balance offset.

To me, the grading in House of Cards is done in a deliberate, stylish fashion without being blatantly hipstery.

Split toning is often overdone these days and so easy to achieve (at first, but then hard to make it look real nice) that you quickly tire of it. House of Cards often deals in just a simple green or blue tint that is so unassuming, it is highly effective in giving the show a specific (not special as in groundbreaking) look. This is not me saying the grading is simple or cheap — quite the contrary. It does not draw attention to itself and doesn’t show off, which grading so often does. My takeaway is exactly this. You can create something unique and remarkable without having to be garish and flashy.

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