How Colorworks Kept a Funny Cop Movie Grounded in Realism

21 Jump Street may be a comedy, but it doesn’t look like one. On the contrary, much of the film more closely resembles the gritty, streetwise cop dramas it pokes fun at. That was a deliberate choice by directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who prefer to play their comedy with a straight face. “We didn’t want it to be over-lit like a typical broad comedy,” explains Miller. “Visually, at least, it’s more realistic and feels more like a cop movie.”

“But we were constantly looking for balance,” adds Lord. “We didn’t want to go too dark and not make it funny.”

21 Jump Street is about a pair of undercover cops, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), who pose as high school students to bust a drug ring. The film's look was finalized in a DI theater at Colorworks on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. It was familiar environs for Lord and Miller, who previously went there to grade Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. In both instances, the DI colorist was John Persichetti.

Persichetti got involved in 21 Jump Street during pre-production, when Miller, Lord, and cinematographer Barry Peterson were conducting camera tests. He graded test footage shot on location in Louisiana that led to the selection of the ARRI Alexa camera. “We were able to show that you could get a true, filmic look from that camera to distinguish the movie from the TV show,” Persichetti explains. Other tests helped determine how rain could be realistically added to location footage, and how digital media could be blended with 35mm film for certain slow-motion sequences.

Color-correction was performed on a Baselight 8 system, with VFX added in Autodesk Flame. Persichetti worked in P3 color space for the DCP release, viewing his work with a Sony 4K projector, then made additional adjustments to tweak the picture for its film-out for a 35mm print master. HD deliverables were also generated for home video release.

Final grading spanned a few weeks, with Lord, Miller and Peterson in attendance for most sessions. Persichetti says most scenes were rendered contrasty, with muted colors, in keeping with the dramatic realism sought by the directors. That is evident in scenes set both inside and outside the headquarters of the police undercover unit inside a former Catholic church. "For long shots of the church exterior, we darkened the edges to create a mood,” Persichetti recalls. “We also added depth and shadow to a lot of the backgrounds.”

The moody imagery sharpened the comedy by giving the directors something to play against. “There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where Jenko and Schmidt are trying to act tough to a group of bikers,” says Miller. “And we cut to a wide shot, where the grass is green and the sky is blue, to show just how silly they are.”

Grading the live-action 21 Jump Street was obviously a far different experience from the animated Meatballs. For one thing, considerable work needed to be done to create a consistent look from material shot in variable weather conditions. Miller notes that was especially true of a chase sequence shot on a section of freeway near New Orleans. "We closed a freeway bridge, so we needed to work very fast,” he recalls. “We shot from sunup to sundown for two days, so some of the footage looked like magic hour and other footage looked like high noon. Getting that to look like it was all shot at the same time was very difficult.”

“Although you have a limited time in post production, you can do almost anything,” says Lord. “You develop a kind of bunker mentality to get through it. It was super pleasant, and fun.”