One of the most noteworthy elements of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is the visual distinction between its three major story threads. The cold blue look of the Ohio and Washington, DC-set sequences centering on Michael Douglas' character and the sun-drenched palette of the San Diego scenes were achieved during production. But for the subtitled sequences set in Tijuana, featuring Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican police officer, something different was required. That was supplied by Cinesite, Inc., part of the Entertainment Imaging division of Kodak.
First, negative on the relevant scenes was digitized at the rate of five frames per second by the Philips Spirit Datacine. Then, Soderbergh (who shot the film himself under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and Cinesite colorist Julius Fride put the images through a telecine process on Pandora's Megadef color corrector to add an overall brownish cast. “He had done nothing out of the ordinary during shooting,” says Cinesite vice president of business development Randy Starr. “There were no tobacco filters. To the eye, it looked slightly flat; in Tijuana the skies were white and it was difficult to get depth of exposure in the shadows. So we upped the golden yellows for that brown, dusty color, and the second thing we did was to add contrast, to make it a richer exposure.”
While Cinesite was at it, the film's 255 subtitles were also added by 2-D technical director Steve Wright. “Steven preferred the quality of digital subtitles versus optical or laser subtitles,” says Starr. “Since we were digitizing the sequence anyway, it made absolute sense to take it from the coloring workstation to the digital compositing workstation before handing it back to the neg cutter.” The completed sequences, which add up to about 40 minutes of screen time, were written back to Eastman EXR 5244 color intermediate stock.
Since Soderbergh moved very quickly through preproduction and production on Traffic, Cinesite's involvement didn't come until post. “Most people come to us before production begins,” says Starr. A prime example of that is the Coen Bros.' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was the first 35mm feature Cinesite digitally colored in its entirety. That movie's cinematographer, Roger Deakins, had shot tests during preproduction in an attempt to achieve the yellowed look of a vintage photograph without affecting skin tones and other colors in the image.
It didn't work. “So he came here, and within half an hour we were able to dial in exactly what he wanted,” says Starr. Julius Fride worked with Deakins to shade the film's lush Mississippi greens into golden and mustard-yellow tones throughout. A bonus for Deakins: “We were able to output a high-definition master of the movie at the same time. This replaces the telecine that filmmakers do to produce DVDs and videos several months later, when they're on another project.”