Color Grading is too often regarded as an arcane, exclusive science not fit for mere mortals. But the digital age is slowly starting to reshape this mentality and allow for a clearer perspective through the haze of hyperbole. Which is a good thing because the tools for getting great color grading results have never been better, cheaper or more accessible.
Any cinematic art can be complex, nuanced, detailed, scientific and specialized – editing, sound mixing, cinematography – but simply because these arts can be highly specialized shouldn’t mean you have to be a Specialist to engage with them; they shouldn’t be inaccessible or unapproachable.
Contrary to popular belief, Color Grading isn’t that hard. It is nether arcane nor unassailable. You CAN color grade your own digital movie and get good results. You CAN color grade on a desktop computer without dedicated hardware. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply out of touch or a technology snob.
Of course a colorist specialist in a dedicated hardware grading suite with specialized and carefully calibrated monitors will likely get better results than you at your desktop or laptop. But that’s absolutely not the point. If we all followed that logic no one would dare pick up a camera until they had been properly apprenticed on a 35mm Panavision; No one would sit down to edit until they had been well schooled on every element of an Avid Symphony; No one would drive a car on the road until they had mastered an F1 racer. Utterly absurd! That is an archaic and dinosauric perspective generally expounded by those terrified that the Digital Generation of filmmakers may show them up with the brazen audacity of their DIY ethic.
It strikes me as somewhat odd that very few would rally against the idea of the DIY when it comes tocamera, sound and edit but for reasons unknown there remains an entrenched idea that doing your own color grade is somehow blasphemy and folly.
If you’re careful, follow some key principles of color theory, ensure your grading is in-concert with your film’s story and theme, understand how to avoid clipping and illegal colors, and have even a half-decent set of eyeballs in your head then there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that you can’t get great color grading results on your own, doing it yourself, using low cost software on a domestic computer.
The color grading software options on the market right now (Magic Bullet, Colorista, Apple Color, After Effects not to mention NLE plugins) are myriad, cheap and powerful but before you start banging away gleefully at color curve graphs there are some key notions to engrain into the consciousness of every DIY indie filmmaker.
Plan color from beginning
Don’t let your color choices be after-thoughts and add-ons; put color at the centre of your film along with Storyboard and Casting. Your choice of a color palette should come straight from Character, Narrative and Theme inherent in your script. It sounds trite but it’s hugely useful to simply ask “if Character X were color what would he/she be?” “If Scene Y was a color what would it be?” “If My Movie were a color what would it be?” Distilling your ideas about color from the very beginning will inform everything you will do with color throughout the production process.
Good grading starts on-set
Contrary to popular belief, Color Grading is not a process of ‘adding’ color to your film but of manipulating the colors that are already there. As such, any color grade will only ever be as good as the source material. Therefore good color grading starts with good set-dressing, good costuming, good prop selection, good locations; choices made in concert with a clear color concept from the outset.
Build Color Swatch Sets
Like any other part of production, communication is key. You will need to develop a Color Plan and clearly communicate it to the various collaborating departments of your film to ensure you are all painting from the same palette. This is where Adobe’s online color tool Kuler (kuler.adobe.com) is your best friend.
Kuler enables you to use infinite variations on defined color formulas and relationships to build color swatches. Even more useful (and fun) is the capability to upload a photo and have Kuler extract the 5 key colors from the image to build a swatch set. A simple but highly effective process is to find a photo you like that has the sort of color tones you want and use Kuler to extract them. Kuler will then be able to give you the exact RGB values for each color in your swatch, values that can then be shared and used to inform every creative choice in the production; from production design and wardrobe, through to the DVD cover and the color grade.
A fascinating and highly useful technique my students at the International Film School Sydney and I have been exploring has been to take a still image of a scene from a movie that has an interesting color palette and load it into Kuler to extract the key colors. Then take three of those color tones – a dark, a mid and a highlight – and plug their RGB values directly into Red Giant’sColorista plug-in for Final Cut Pro (you could also use any 3-way color corrector but Colorista is superb). What this does is manipulate the High, Mid and Low tones of your image to directly correspond to the tones from the source film image. From there you can simply tweak the saturation to balance the shot. This is a somewhat unorthodox approach but one that yields some fascinating results and at the very least serves as a great place to start building a color grade.
Test Color Grades
Just as any director of photography worth their salt will perform test camera shoots, it is equally important to ensure you do a test color grade as well.
Use the test shoot footage of locations and castings and reccy’s to experiment with color and the assembly of a particular color Look. Once you have a clear idea and example of what you want make sure it is communicated back to the DoP. The cinematographer is far better able to shoot you the image you want if they know what you intend to do to it once it is in post.
Be sure to do the test grade on footage that will have the same lighting conditions as the final footage. In the case of exteriors this means matching the right time of day and whether to ensure you’re doing your test grade on the same color temperature, tone and shadows as the final picture. In the case of interiors to try to set up the same or similar lights to those you’ll use on the shoot so your test is more accurate and re-producible.
As we rest on the cusp of generational change in the digital age there is potential for misunderstanding and contradictory ideas when it comes to Directors of Photography and the demands of digital post. Sadly there are still too many DoP’s who, whilst they may have embraced the digital camera, are yet to engage with digital post. As such there are still areas of ignorance and misunderstanding between the conceptual ideas of the DoP and the creative needs of the Director, Editor and Colorist.
The most common manifestation of this problem is the DoP who endeavors to make the image in the viewfinder be as close as possible to their perception of the final image of the movie; to bake the ‘look’ of the film in-camera.
This kind of thinking really doesn’t compute in the digital age, which is predicated on flexibility and malleability. A DoP shooting to bake the image in-camera will invariably leave the Editor and Colorist with very little room to move, very little latitude to manipulate the image in post.
Digitally inexperienced DoP’s, in an effort to secure a particular mood in-camera, may often underexpose an image. Ask anyone who has taken a hand to color grading will discover immediately it is very easy to darken an image but near impossible to lighten it without overt visual noise. What color grading needs to build a look or mood is good vibrant exposure with lots of detail and latitude. As such the digital DoP should be aiming to err on the side of more light rather than less; what’s known as ‘exposing to the right’. Of course you want to avoid clipping and over-exposing but as a general rule, more light is better than less. You can always make it darker in post but you cannot make it lighter without problems.
As a digital director you may need to ensure you have properly communicated your needs to the DoP; showing them your color grade tests and inviting them to be a part of that process will certainly help. Prompting them to shoot for good post options rather than shoot to the specific look of the film may be a more difficult discussion at times but one worth having.
Increasingly DoP’s are embracing the digital age and seeing color-grading not as post-production but rather an extension of cinematography; the final part of their role in crafting the image of the film. It strikes me that this is an entirely logical progression that boasts great possibility for more integrated collaboration in digital post-production.
Watch your levels
All good dedicated grading software systems, like Magic Bullet Looks and Apple Color, will give you scopes to monitor the levels in your picture. Once you understand what they represent, ensuring that your colors don’t clip is really not difficult. Having broadcast legal colors is, of course, crucial for professional projects and all good systems will give you tools for clamping and kerbing colors to ensure you stay within these limits. But the common mistake of inexperienced graders is to rely on the Auto-Shoulder and Clamp tools that can lead to harsh colors and clumsy results.
The key to not needing the Auto-Shoulder is to monitor your levels constantly as you work. Solve any clipping as you go with individual processes rather than relying on the ‘solve it all’ at the end.
Calibrate your monitor
There is much you can do to calibrate your monitor. Some LCD screens come with built-in color calibration tools. Your graphics card may offer a calibration wizard to let you work through by eye. You can buy or borrow a calibration hardware unit that hangs over the front of your screen to check its registration. There are even a host of free online wizards to help you get the screen as close to a uniform standard as possible. All these are worth exploring. And of course investing in a good monitor to begin with is always smart.
One of the first and fundamental things you can do is set the Gamma of your display. Gamma refers to the apparent relative levels of luminance in the image and one of the areas many get wrong simply because they don’t think to check it. Mac users will want to pay particular attention because the default Mac OS X screen Gamma is 1.8 but the much more common gamma level used by broadcast and TV screens is 2.2.
The standard white point for video display can vary enormously from monitor to monitor and there’s no way to account for what individuals have their TV sets or LCD projectors calibrated to. The best you can do is match your monitor to the white-point ‘most’ screens are likely to be be using. But even here this isn’t so easy. Broadcast standards generally fix 6500k (known as ‘D65’) as the benchmark but most TV’s ship by default set to the ‘bluer’ 9300k. The dilemma for the DIY color grader is whether to go with 6500k to match what the broadcast white point ‘should’ be or grade to 9300k to match what most of users may actually ‘see.’ The real answer is to grade for one of these two and then cross-check the results with the other temperature. If you can get an image that achieves your desired aesthetic results and looks pretty good under either of these two, then you will have created an effective grade.
Substance Over Style
While its easy to get excited about the creative opportunities afforded by accessible and low cost software color grading tools, the trade off is that it’s also easy to get carried away.
Sadly one of the hallmarks of many indie films, digital shorts and student films over the past few years has been gaudy, overdone color-grading. Style over Substance driven by the ‘because I can’ concept.
A great color grade is not one that just looks good; a great color grade is motivated by the film’s themes, character and narrative. A great color grade is one that interprets and supports the film and not just dresses it up in sexy clothes. Very often with grading Less is More, don’t be afraid of subtlety and simplicity.
For the digital indie filmmaker color grading should be seen not as some sacred cow reserved for the high priests, but simply another creative arm of filmmaking to be embraced and exploited.
There will always be a place for the specialist, the unequivocal expert in a particular niche who is able to do things that a generalist could never do. And certainly this article glosses over, or provides simplistic perspectives on, what are otherwise very complex scientific elements. Color Grading is certainly an area where the specialization is a high art. But, this should never be leveraged as an excuse to believe that good results are impossible without a specialist or specialized facilities. The tools are simply too good for that nonsense, too accessible to persist with this obstructionist idea.
Great results are more than possible via DIY on software-only systems in domestic environments. Just as we shouldn’t hesitate to pick up a camera and shoot we similarly shouldn’t hesitate to pick up a computer and grade.