Stranger Things: Analyzing the Color

Looking at interesting color grades is a worthwhile exercise. This week, I dig in and do an analysis what Netflix have done with their new show “Stranger Things”. The show hit the stores (well, the Netflix library) on 15th June 2016 and has since garnered praise from masters of horror such as Stephen King and Guillermo Del Toro. The series is an homage to the 80s shows the creators watched growing up in the 80s and early 90s. The Duffer brothers take take horror, mystery, thriller and fantasy tropes and combine them in a way that creates a thrilling narrative that pulls you right through the short eight-episode first season. But enough praise, let’s dive in.

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I’ve Got This Magenta Feelin’

Stranger Things was shot on Red Epic Dragon using Zeiss Prime lenses. While this is an interesting piece of trivia, the show does look like it was shot on a Red. Sometimes it is hard to tell, I feel, what camera was used. This isn’t the case with Stranger Things: here, we are clearly seeing a Red show.

To acurately pinpoint this sensation is a little more difficult.

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Take this shot, the right side of the house has a clear mauve-magenta hue to it. It’s not white, even though it is supposed to be. Check out the guy’s apron. Same thing. The grading choice here was to go for contrast, because the left side of the house is a lot darker and greener – a choice to not only compliment the brightness, but also the color of the right side. This is effective in separating these two areas of the image.

Check out this comparison by Radiant Images at https://vimeo.com/101107159
Check out this comparison by Radiant Images on Vimeo

How does this relate to a Red camera feel? Well, Reds are … red. Bad pun, I know, but Red cameras produce stuff that feels redish to me in the way an Alexa image feels green.

So, if you watch Stranger Things, you will detect few hints of an overall magenta color scheme – to contrast, greens and blues are usually reserved for the bad guys. A slight yet pervasive magenta that is not too much or blatant is the general, guiding idea behind the color grade in Stranger Things.

It Was Acceptable in the 80s – The Retro Look

Let’s talk about the 80s. You know, David Bowie, Queen, sleaze rock, crack, AIDS, all the memorable stuff. And how it looked. I’m not an 80s kid, but I wish I were. I love the music, some of my favorite films were made in the 80s, and the looming sword of nuclear anihilation seems exciting. But jesting besides, even as someone who didn’t watch a lot of 80s TV, there is a certain look engrained in my head that screams 80s. Stranger Things goes full-on retro with the set dressing and wardrobe to achieve this look and they don’t hold back with the color grading either.

To substantiate, here are a few examples of 80s film looks that filmbrute.com gathered.

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I find that the skintones are always that rose-ish color, soft and pleasant but not quite flesh-tone. This happens frequently in shots with natural light, such as in this one.

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Also, it always helps to not have too solid, deep blacks. Just make sure nothing’s really black and you’re good. This holds true for many hipster looks today but it certainly gets you closer to the Polaroid instant photo style, too. Great job, Stranger Things.

Look at dem’ lights.

At the outset of the show, since it’s a mystery story, you aren’t quite sure what’s going on. One thing that really stands out, though, is the look of lights on screen. That is, when practicals appear in frame, they seem to have an aura, a glow around them, like the moon on a not-perfectly clear night.
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I immediately wondered what this meant and in order to not spoil it, let me just say it has something to do with the nature of the mystery. A cool device, really, to use VFX and grading in a subtle way to build the world and backstory of the series. No flashy lightsabers or starships need to be pasted in, just a few glowing lights. Cool.

It’s In the Lighting, Too.

In addition to the great sets, props and color grade, the lighting scheme definitely helps sell the 80s style. As I said before, I’m not an expert on 80s TV and hence can’t provide a detailed comparison. However, the way the toplight comes in seemingly as a practical together with the highlight from behind that chisels out Steve (the guy in green) from the otherwise rather flat background seems very classic to me. It seems to me today this scene would have been lit much more dramatically.

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Ok sorry for this unsubstantiated comment on the lighting, it was just something I noticed. Continuing.

Me and my crisp white shirt.

I mentioned it before, but let’s investigate this further: the bad guys live in a teal colored technical wonderland with crisp white shirts and hazmat suits. Night shots, of which there are many, and the creepy side-world in Stranger Things both have the oh-so-typical teal shadows, orange highlights thing going on. The teal-orange look is taken to the extreme in bad-government agency land.

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Nothing is really white, everything is blue or teal or green. As my SO commented, stuff looks whiter when it’s blue. Wow. Such revelation. If you want to show a character being shady as f###, just make him wear a white shirt, but then make it omnious by tinting it blue. The Expanse, famous SyFy channel TV adaption of the Expanse novel series, does this too: space is blue. I’d have the blues if I travelled for ages hauling water.

Wrap Me Up.

Concluding, Stranger Things is a great show. It sustains the mystery over its 8 episodes in Season 1 and never gets stale. Its visual style is appealing and well crafted, reminicent of what the 80s looked like while still being a modern show. They refrain from destroying their picture with grain or a VHS-type distortion and basically tell us: “This is glorious 80s stuff, in 4K!”. I’m buying it. Like El digging in here, I love the show.

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