LUTs: Searching for Turner’s Palette

thefilmbook by Benjamin B

Greetings from Sweden, where I am attending the Gokinema event at Gothenburg Film Studios.

This post supplements my article in the January issue of American Cinematographer about the beautiful film Mr. Turner. The movie's dazzling images have earned cinematographer Dick Pope, BSC nominations from the ASC, BAFTA and the Academy.

Obviously the sophisticated look of Mr. Turner is the result of many choices by Dick and his team. In this post, I describe an aesthetic approach to researching and defining a palette that acted as one of the references for the look of the film, and also its on-set LUTs (Look-Up Tables).

Turner Palette-
J. M. W. Turner's Chelsea palette at the Tate


Dick Pope’s email

There have been many scholarly studies of J. M. W. Turner’s palette, including an interesting study by the Tate that follows his use of color in different locations.

Although there is one sequence in Mr. Turner which does reproduce a painting (The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838), Dick Pope’s approach in the film was primarily to evoke, not reproduce the artist's works. To do this he sought to find a way to use the same kind of palette and coloring as Turner’s paintings for the film.

When asked about LUTs, Dick Pope sent me the following email:

Well before prep began, myself, 1st AC Gordon Segrove and DIT Peter Marsden who both in their own rights are very talented photographers, absorbed Turner, seeing the exhibitions, reading books and revisiting Tate Britain, home to a magnificent permanent collection and a wealth of research material.
Gordon, especially, scrutinized Turner's use of color. Gordon writes:
"Turner used warm yellow in the highlights and blue/teal in the shadows as his two main complementary colors. Indeed this seems to be born out by the chart of color pigments available to him at the time and as displayed at Tate Britain. His use of these 2 complimentary colors adheres very well to color grading theory, in that if you add yellow to your highlights and blue to your shadows, basically split toning the highlights and shadows, you change the world around the subject but skin tones remain the same."
Peter then devised a palette based on this research and as a result of painstaking testing right through the DI process the appropriate LUTs were chosen.


researching a palette

I asked Peter Marsden to outline his process for defining a palette before making an on-set LUT. Peter explains that his approach was to develop an on-set 1D LUT to get a look that was right for the film. A 1D (one-dimensional) LUT is a simple way to define an on-set look.

The filmmakers started by trying to understand and describe what Turner did in terms of color. As Dick noted, this involved looking at his paintings in museums and looking at art books. Colleagues from the art department also showed Peter a list of 12 key paintings, handwritten by director Mike Leigh. Peter sought to find a way to analyze and present the palette used in these paintings, as a first aesthetic step to researching a look, and establishing a LUT.


1. timed paintings

Peter started by getting timed images of the 12 paintings singled out by Mike Leigh. He then asked himself: 'What were the colors used? Can we sample them?' To exemplify his process, Peter presents one of his favorite Turner paintings, an almost abstract evocation of a train coursing through a rainstorm entitled Rain, Steam, Speed:

Rain Steam Speed by Turner-
Rain, Steam, Speed by Turner, 1844


2. mosaic

After trying different color sampling software, Peter decided that he needed to simplify the problem by displaying fewer colors. So he used Adobe Photoshop’s mosaic filter to create a smaller number of tiles with averaged colors, a technique used by some other color researchers.

Rain Steam Speed by Turner -mosaic-


Peter reiterates that he wasn’t seeking a scientific approach, but an aesthetic one. Clearly the mosaic doesn't precisely represent all the colors in the painting -- many colors are missing -- but it does offer a rough approximation of the colors used. It’s also clear that the number of pixels in the mosaic has to be carefully chosen to give something that resembles or feels like the painting.


3. random samples

Having done a mosaic of all 12 paintings, Peter still had much too many colors to assemble into a viewable whole. He decided to use colorSchemer Studio 2 software to produce 10 random samples from each painting. He only intervened to eliminate any double values.

Rain Steam Speed by Turner -mosaic samples-


4. gathering samples

Peter then used Adobe Illustrator to gather the samples, because he found it convenient to gather and move the samples in that environment.

Turner digital palette -gathering samples-


5. ranking by brightness

Peter wondered how to organize all the samples he had, and decided to do so by gray-scale values, from darker to brighter. To do this he first converted the samples to grays. It should be noted that this conversion is also subject to various approaches, as demonstrated by the numerous variables available in Photoshop's Image conversion to black-and-white.

Turner digital palette -brightness samples-


6. Mr Turner palette

Once he had organized the samples by apparent brightness, Peter changed them back into colored tiles. The result is this "Color Palette for Mr. Turner," which served as a visual reference for the look and the on-set LUT. It is a subjective, digital version of Turner's actual palette pictured at the top of this post.

digital color palette for Mr Turner -thefilmbook-



Gokinema at Gothenburg Film Studios

wikipedia: Dick Pope

National Gallery: Rain, Steam, Speed

Tate: The Materials Used by British Oil Painters in the Nineteenth Century

Tate: Colour and Line, room guide, Turner's travels

Peter Marsden's web site

Gordon Segrove's photography site


My thanks to Dick Pope, and to Peter Marsden for providing illustrations to his approach.


Frame grab from Mr Turner-



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