A.P Bio, NBC's newest sitcom, is off to a rough start.
With a 5.7/10 on IMDb and 53 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, thinks don't look great for Glenn Hwoerton's lead role.
But let's take a sidestep away from the acting, plot structure, premise—basically everything important for a tv show— and talk about A.P Bio's color grading.
So what is color grading? In film / video you shoot in a very flat manner. No contrast, no heavy saturation, etc. You do it all later in post production where you have more control. In recent years this flat look has been popularized, and we see it showing up in cinema every once in a while.
I think one of the best examples of color grading is 'The Matrix'
The Matrix does this really well. In case you need a refresher on the 90's hit, one of The Matrix's main colors is green. It's what they use for their famous computer sequences, and its the set piece for all of their color grading. Think of color grading like a tint. Or an Instagram filter. In the above photo, nothing is ACTUALLY green (outside of maybe the exit sign), but a teal/green tint is added later.
This is done in a great matter. It's stylistic, and helps define what is in The Matrix and what is in the real world.
So this is "real". Normal-ish colors, no obvious grading (maybe a bit, but its subtle);.
And this is 'fake'. I think The Matrix does color grading so well because it has a distinct purpose. It can be broken down into a philosophical reasoning or how its a good plot device or how it works as a visual cue...but the bottom line is that it does it for a distinct purpose. Not "just because".
So back to A.P Bio. This is one of the first scenes you see in the TV show. Like The Matrix, there's a lot of teal. Like...excessive teal...
The set piece of the school, "Whilock Highschool" uses Teal as their main color. It's the color of their mascot, their school colors. It also happens to be the main color of the show. Why? It's not entirely clear to me, and that's bad.
Color grading for no reason is bad. It's decently OK of an excuse to say you are copying whats popular or because it is 'trendy'. But just doing it for no reason just makes it a bit tacky.
The best example I have is this:
So the chalkboard is, perhaps eerily, the same tone as everyone else's shirt. And shoes. And pants...wait hold up.
The show tends to be excessive with the teal...which is hard, considering how no one thinks teal is a very modern color. How many teal pieces of clothing do you own? Why does every child in this show wear a lot of teal and turquoise? Realistically, they likely aren't. It is likely being changed in post processing to make it match that good ole chalkboard.
It seems odd that, for no discernable reason, the show decides to make things teal except to match that weird shade of green that their chalkboard is.
And to be clear, I don't think this is a bad thing. This is like 'The Matrix' version of computer screens.
Well..three episodes in, and the chalkboard hasn't really developed into anything interesting. Yes, it is used, but not as heavily as you might think it would be.
The Line Between Parody, Pastiche, and…Just Sloppy Craftsmanship
So if you look on Youtube, lots of people make a comment about how it looks like a "Wes Anderson" comedy. This is not a phrase you should be using.
Wes Anderson works through, yes, some select color grading. But he also has a distinct purpose with his cameras, sets, props, etc.
Wes Anderson seems to be stuck in the retro zone and usually elects to make his films look like they're shot on an old Kodak disposable camera. This is fine! This is good! There is a sense of style here. There is a distinct aesthetic to this which has proven to work. He uses colorful props to help supplement his style along with a wonderful sense of framing and witty writing. It works.
A.P Bio fails because its color is often forced. Walls are painted teal. Check the details: the cardboard filing boxes are painted green. Why? Why? Who does that? Even the water in the watercooler is a weird Kool-aide blue green. There's...there's no reason for this. Where Wes Anderson succeeds, A.P Bio tries to copy, and stumbles horribly.
Sometimes A.P bio gets it right. I mean, sure, fine, copy Wes Anderson's color palette, filmography, and general approach to videography. Sure.
This scene works well. It's incredibly quirky, and shows off the main color palette of the entire show: peach and teal. Yes, peach and teal. Very 2018 colors, I know. So trendy. I see it everywhere from my....teal iPhone, my peach-teal sunglasses. So hip. So in.
But really, this particular scene uses colors well. It's fairly subtle, and it does create a contrast. It's a short scene though running at only about 4-5 seconds. So...thats bad.
Some scenes even have no teal or green in them at all! It's quite amazing.
The downside of being SO aggressive with an uncanny color scheme like this is that anything that is 'normal' suddenly becomes weird. Don't normalize weird colors.
Get To The Punch Line
Ok, so i've been shitting on A.P Bio for a while now. There are plenty of weird color decisions here. And to be honest, not everyone is going to be a Wes Anderson or make a masterpiece like The Matrix and be able to get away with it. That's fine. Neither do you.
But, like The Matrix, you should have a reason for doing so.
As I noted before, lots of people online seem to be calling it a 'Wes Anderson' sitcom. This is bad, like I mentioned, because Wes Anderson has a purpose for his colors. Its a quirky world that we're invited into, and that's warrants weird and wacky colors to match it.
In A.P Bio the tone of the show, occasionally, shows bits of quirkiness that maybe warrants it...but its a stretch. It's a new comedy, so i'll let it pass.
What I can't let pass is simply having no excuse for it.
This is mainly because of first impressions. Your average viewer will watch the show and think "oh, hah! Just like Wes Anderson!" I mean, forget the fact that Wes has millions upon millions to spend on his movies that have long timelines vs. a sitcom which has a much smaller budget to spend on props, wardrobe, etc. and needs to produce content fast. Sure. Make that connection.
But really...the problem here is that A.P Bio isn't a particularly stellar comedy so far (again, hovering around 50 percent ratings) and its breaking away from the mould of other comedies.
Friends, Everyone Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, Modern Family...think of any sitcom old or new or current. They don't really have a color scheme, do they? They just...exist. If anything, they tend to have brighter, flashier colors. Upon first glance, it LOOKS like a comedy.
I mean, look at this! The Big Bang Theory. There's no color harmony, no weird effects. Justa lot of light, colors, and contrast. I can almost hear the laugh track!!! It's no different than Friends or any other sitcom...and thats ok.
For comedies like this, first impressions matter. This is a "I just want to relax after work and drink a beer and laugh with the laugh track" kinda show. Does it push boundaries? No. But it does reek of familiarity, which is good for getting an audience (and therefore money/funding).
Additionally, it makes it much easier for the production to run smoothly. I can't imagine the people on A.P Bio saying "NO NO NO, NOT ENOUGH TEAL. IT NEEDS MORE TEAL!!!"
From what I can tell (or remember) the guy on the bottom of the left part of the screen shouldn't have a purple sweater. He wears a teal/green hoodie most of the show (of course...) so its not clear to me why he suddenly changed to purple.
Anyways, back to first impressions. The lack of interesting color grading in most modern comedies is in fact a good thing. If we think of our TV cop dramas or murder mysteries or sci-fi shows...they all have a distinct "look" to them, right? Its the music, its the costumes....we know when we are getting space operas, and we know when we get comedy.
Sadly, this "unique" (and I use that word very lightly) color scheme isn't going to attract audiences. Sure, if you really wanted to go for that weird, awkward, quirky kind of look, maybe the comedy could match it. But it doesn't.
Why This Matters
Ok, so lets look for life lessons here. How does this apply to photography? Well, 'color grading' is our equivalent of image editing in photoshop...but similar properties apply. Landscapes generally look a certain way. Edgy, urban scenes have certain tints to them. Street photography has a particular look..etc etc.
If you're stuck, just follow the trends. There's nothing wrong in doing what everyone else does. Again, not everyone is going to be Wes Anderson or Annie Leibovitz or whoever you want to compare yourself to. Thats fine.
But if you do want to break apart from everyone else, just make sure you have a distinct reason for doing so. Are you going to add red hues to all your shadows? Ok. But why? Do you have a reason to back this up? Is your audience going to pick up on this change?
This even goes for how you light a subject or what clothes they wear. Why are they wearing red? Or why is there such a harsh light on their face? If you don't have a reason for breaking the rules, don't break them/
To be clear, I don't think you have to follow everyone else. Make your landscapes super contrasty and de-saturated, sure, go for it! But have a reason for doing so. If you can't backup your decisions to edit in a certain way that is out of the norm, don't do it. Because if you can't explain it, your audience won't know how to either. Does everything look gross in 'The Matrix' when it is green? Yes. But that is the point: to make it look drab. It's also explained through other cues through the whole movie. This is using colors effectively. This is using color with purpose...Otherwise, you end up with an 'A.P Bio' on your hands: a product that is failing and can't answer a simple question:
"Whats with all the teal, man?"