The efforts made to accurately represent diverse skin tones on screen are finally breaking through in the form of Digital Melanin Cinematography (DMC), reports Adrian Pennington.
From the roots of its invention the fabric of cinema has contained bias. Stemming from a deliberate decision to prioritise the aesthetic beauty of Caucasian skin over darker skin tones in the chemical composition of colour film stocks, the accuracy of how non-white people look on screen has largely gone unchecked. The bias is also ingrained in digital cinema systems perpetuating the false assumption that darker skin tones require more light or are harder to film.
A group of South African filmmakers and scientists aim to change that by creating a new universally accepted standard in the approach to filming, photographing and processing melanin rich skin.
“This inherent bias has turned film into a political weapon in that [film] was never made for non-white communities,” said Mandla Dube, director and cinematographer (Silverton Siege) who has pioneered Digital Melanin Cinematography (DMC) with fellow filmmaker Ndumiso Mnguni.
DMC, they explain, is a study of how the appearance of skin from the people of the African and Indian diaspora is affected in media. The results of its research are hoped to be presented in a white paper at IBC this year. One of its aims is to counterbalance the weight of R&D that has led to prevailing standards for capturing skin tones on film.
“The film industry been around for more than 100 years during which people have oriented around a body of knowledge,” Dube explained. “But [non-Caucasians] were not active in producing film stock. Film was expensive and not easily accessible, limiting representation and how we could portray ourselves in our own stories. When the industry migrated to digital that research simply didn’t exist. The status quo continued.”
DMC: Improving on manufacturer LUTs
They have partnered with South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CISR) to devise a tool that cinematographers can use to more accurately calibrate a digital sensor to photograph skin tones of all hues. Digital cine cameras with 17-stops or more of dynamic range and wide colour spaces should have the sensitivity to capture any skin tone, yet when lensing their own work Dube and Mnguni avoid using manufacturer LUTs (the default Look Up Tables that come with digital cine cameras).
“We’ve found they don’t necessarily map around African skin tones accurately. So, we’re building up our own profile. One of our attempts is to build a colour chart that can sample skin tones at a higher rate and help the camera render a wide variety of skin tones.”
Skin is the largest organ of our bodies and something all of us are very conscious of. It provides us with important non-verbal information such as perceived ideas of age, health, and cultural background.
“Understanding how pigment is created and perceived through the human experience gives the study of melanin cinematography a foundation before translating into something that sensors can understand and reproduce accurately and beautifully,” he said.
They have conducted tests with different camera systems and compiled a database for the software which could be applied on different projects.
“We are multiple using data sources,” said Mnguni. “Some we think are good skin tone renditions and others are bad skin tones. It’s important not to get just one perspective which would echo one’s own bias but to achieve a universal sense of agreement with a larger sample. But where is the data going to come from as far as digital melanin skin tone is concerned unless we feed it?”
The filmmakers hope SMPTE and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will take notice. The Academy’s ACES colour image encoding system is itself nearly a decade old and is arguably due for an upgrade. Discussions would also be important within British and American cinematographer societies.
DMC: Industry collaboration is key
Reference monitors would also need calibrating to the same standard in order for cinematographers and colourists to see the results of their work. Ideally, all display panels from TVs to smartphones would also be built to take account of digital melanin’s skin tone accuracy.
“Clearly, this is not going to happen overnight,” said Dube. “We will need the collaboration of engineers, filmmakers and studios globally if we are going to be intentional about changing the rendering of all skin tones.”
There has been positive feedback from some camera and grading systems manufacturers including Sony and Blackmagic though none has yet adopted Digital Melanin’s schema into their product.
Google made improvements to the camera on its Pixel smartphone in 2021 to better capture darker skin tones. ‘Real Tone’ ensures that the auto white balance in photos is improved, so that darker skin tones don’t look paler than in real life. Announcing the development, Google said it would focus on making images of people of colour “more beautiful and more accurate.”
Just as important as technology change for Dube and Mnguni is to provoke dialogue among the cinema community in the hope of establishing best practices for the curation of images that respect all skin tones.
“We’re not saying that African skin has never been rendered beautifully through cinema history,” said Dube, “but we are saying there’s a lack of consistency of standards and that we have a framework that will yield the best results. Digital Melanin is a chance to interject new information into the curation of the digital negative and become part of the growing body of knowledge in film.”
They argue that when cinematographers prepare to shoot a project with the intent of skin tone accuracy it is a process of trial and error. The proposed DMC tool would give filmmakers a starting point that removes the guesswork.
“We’re not taking away from the filmmaker’s own creative process but giving them a good basis of truth from which to begin,” said Mnguni.
DMC: Positive progress to date
Their work has already made an impact. Sony Pictures’ The Woman King was shot in 2021 in South Africa by Polly Morgan ASC BSC with Digital Melanin’s guidance.
“Historically some filmmakers haven’t done the best job in lighting properly for dark skin,” Morgan explained.
“From a light meter to a camera sensor every exposure tool [cinematographer’s use] is based on 18% middle grey. Since 18% grey is matched with lighter skin tones, when you are exposing everything is related to Caucasian skin. The aim of Digital Melanin is to help cinematographers everywhere to light dark skin with accurate tonality. It is important for everybody to have this conversation and not be shy of shooting black skin or nervous about broaching this topic.”
Netflix is also supporting Digital Melanin’s initiative. The streamer has invested $160 million in African originals since 2016 including commissioning Dube’s Silverton Siege.
“Netflix is talking to us about how to integrate our ethos into work shot for Netflix Africa,” said Dube. “Naturally, a lot of content shot here now mostly features African skin tones in front of camera.”
The ‘Digital Melanin’ approach doesn’t just concern lighting but encompasses a production-wide embrace of wanting to see people correctly on screen. Make-up artists, for example, have a role to play in learning about the best application for different skin tones.
“How people are portrayed in cinema has a profound effect on how people see themselves,” said Dube. “Growing up I was watching Caucasian people rendered in a way that looked beautiful and larger than life. That has an effect on your self-esteem. How someone looks aesthetically on camera can have a huge impact on how they perceive their sense of self-worth. This is gradually starting to change and we want to show how we can part of moving that further upstream. This is the philosophy of DMC.”
Other notable cinematographers like Tommy Maddox-Upshaw, ASC (White Men Can’t Jump) are making vocal and visual statements about this nuanced and global approach to tonality.
“When I look at shows, a lot of the Black folks look monochromatic and that’s not right. I have four sisters and we are all different hues of brown. I am a different complexion to my daughter.”
He extended this sensibility universally. “People in the UK have a different skin pigmentation from Caucasians in South Africa or the Mediterranean. All digital cameras interpret skin tones a certain way but my take is that I should be the one in control of manipulating skin tone if I want to.”
Cinematographers, encouraged by film schools, will still often take their cues from the classics of European art. Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer are revered for their lighting, true, but also their portraits of white skin tones.
“What does that say to me as a black cinematographer when working with African skin tones?” asked Mnguni. “Which painter do I refer to as a baseline?”
Historically the industry standard for capturing images was centred around ‘Shirley cards’ which were used to calibrate skin-tones and light. They only featured Caucasian people up until the 1970s where photographers shooting commercials raised concerns over not being able to capture the ranges and variations of colour found in wood and chocolate.
Shirely cards were distributed by Eastman Kodak to photo labs and featured photos of “similar-looking alabastrine, brunette white women,” according to Kaitlyn McNab writing for Allure.
“Shirley became the standard for colour correction, the yardstick used for processing by technicians, and now, a symbol of the skin colour bias deeply rooted within the world of photography,” she writes.
While FujiFilm began to alter its colour stocks to better reproduce Asian skin tones, the R&D from Kodak the world’s dominant film stock manufacturer persisted in the transition to digital.