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Narvik: Hitler’s First Defeat – bringing colour to the darkness of war 

Feb 16, 2023

Kampen om Narvik (also known as Narvik: Hitler’s First Defeat), the dramatic Norwegian blockbuster set during one of the most important early battles of WWII, saw innovative use of colour. We discover how a close working relationship between the cinematographer and colorist, and the power of Davinci Resolve helped bring heightened drama and emotion to the big screen. 

John-Erling Holmenes Fredriksen FNF, director of photography on Kampen om Narvik, and Dylan R. Hopkin, senior colourist at Nordisk Film ShortCut Oslo, had previously worked together on the Viaplay series Okkupert (Occupied), directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, the co-writer and director of Narvik. 

Dylan R. Hopkin

But the film, which at heart, is a profoundly human story that takes place while German forces besiege the port city of Narvik in 1940, has extra resonance for the cinematographer. “I grew up in Northern Norway, and I have relatives who were in the battle, so it was a special project for me to be offered,” says Holmenes Fredriksen. However, he sought something other than classic war movies’ grungy, desaturated colour palette.

Inspiration came in the form of some ultra-vivid pictures in Life magazine from WWII, photographed with medium-format cameras on Kodachrome film stock.

“It’s not as nuanced as a modern digital camera, but the colours are saturated and vibrant,” says the DoP. “Then there’s the clarity of the medium format. It’s almost like you’re looking through a window into this world. I proposed to Dylan that we could use this effect to create a more colourful and intense war movie.”

Through multiple camera tests with costumed actors, the cinematographer and colourist examined how colour was replicated by the film stock, particularly the distinctive hue shifts.

“Dylan then started making colour transformations in Resolve, taking a digital image and twisting the colours, combining them to make our homage to the Kodachrome film stock,” Fredriksen explains.

This was the basis of a bespoke custom LUT (look-up table) which Hopkin could apply to the film during grading to give the finished cut the desired look and be deployed by Fredriksen in-camera on set to get everyone involved in the production used to the look.

Resolving the look

“We wanted the vintage feeling of Kodachrome, but with a modern touch to it,” says Hopkin. “This meant I had to create colours with depth. When you shoot highly saturated colours, digital formats produce bright colours, while colours on analog formats have more density to them; that’s what we were aiming for.”

Narvik was shot on Arri Alexa LF, capturing ArriRaw files with HDE encoding. “This format gives outstanding range during creative colouring,” says Hopkin. “The main contrast curve to get the image from the flat looking Arri Log C to a more visually pleasing projected image was created with Resolve’s Custom Curves tool.”

Hopkin also used Resolve’s powerful node tree workflow and Vs Curves to ‘unwrap’ colours, finely tune them, and bring this all together in one LUT.

“To get the filmic densities I required, I was doing manipulations on specific tonal ranges and hues,” he explains. “Not only using the RGB colour space, but also cylindrical colour models such as HSL and HSV. In this way, I could manipulate luminance and saturation separately from each other in a cleaner way.”

Hopkin’s skill meant that different shades of the same colour could be finely separated – such as the varying shades of uniforms of combatant soldiers – but also have some shades given more prominence than others for dramatic and emotional effect. Like the green coat of the leading female character Ingrid (Kristine Hartgen).

The whole look was then stress-tested, both within DaVinci Resolve and in the real world. “We went back and forth with test shoots and landed on something that Dylan and I liked, and that Erik also was on board with, then we finalised the LUT,” says Fredriksen. “We also made five versions of the show LUT with varying degrees of contrast to fine-tune it for certain scenes. After shooting started, we didn’t modify the LUT.”

With this strong foundation, the aesthetics of the film were in place before post-production.

The final cut

Nordisk Film ShortCut Oslo handled all the conform, VFX pulls, grading, online editing, and mastering with Resolve. Before grading the film, Hopkin worked with Holmenes Fredriksen, Skjoldbjærg, and producer Åge Aaberge, grading Narvik’s hero scenes for use in a teaser trailer. Colour decisions applied to this trailer and a choice of other key scenes chosen by Fredriksen then informed the rest of the grade, carried out in DaVinci Resolve using Hopkin’s custom-designed fixed node tree.

“My basic approach is to get a solid first grading pass done, relying heavily on printer lights and lift/gain for my primaries,” explains Hopkin. “For hue and saturation management, I tend to reach for Vs-curves and the colour space-aware Saturation control within the HDR palette.”

“The show LUT was placed at the Timeline level in my node tree, which meant my corrections were all done in Arri Wide Gamut / Log C space before applying the LUT. After that, I made additional trim passes on a per-scene basis, utilising Resolve’s grouping capability.”

In all, Hopkin spent around 100 hours on the theatrical grade of Narvik and six further hours on the grade for the Netflix release.

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