Color Grading, Part 1

Posted by William Litwa on Apr 4, 2016 4:47:05 PM

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I wear a lot of hats at New Sky Productions. My two biggest hats are Lead Editor and Colorist. No, not a hair colorist! Outside of the filmmaking world, most people haven't heard of a film colorist. I find it to be a fascinating field, and I would expect you (the reader, possibly our client), might be interested in what we do to make your videos look awesome.

One of the best-titled books I've seen on color is called If it's Purple, Someone' Gonna Die (Patti Bellantoni). To summarize (very briefly): Imagine two people talking in a café. If the scene is sad, I might create a grade using bluer colors to set the mood. If it's heartwarming, I would most likely choose oranges and yellows. If it's edgy, uneasy, or intense, I might choose greens (the ugly kind). Or, if someone's about to die . . . purple. This isn't just some filmmaking tradition, or standard way of doing things. Colors have different emotional effects on people. Certain blues do evoke sadness, or melancholy. Certain shades of green, particularly cast upon a person's face, put us all on edge. There have been a great many books written on the psychology of color.

As a colorist, my job is twofold: to make color corrections, adjusting clips to look accurate and match each other, and to create a grade—a visual look, style, and feel for a video or particular shot.

The first step is corrections. This doesn't always mean the camera operator made mistakes. Often lighting situations are challenging. In the following example, an interview was filmed in an office building. The primary light source was from overhead fluorescent lights. My primary concern was to correct for the yellow-green of the fluorescents, creating a more calming image to look at.

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In a second example, the original image (left) appears very dull and flat. Rather than seeing ripe, juicy cranberries, the image instead depicts a drab factory. By increasing contrast, getting rid of the greenish tones in favor of blues and reds, and livening up the cranberries, the corrected image (right) better conveys how awesome the processing of cranberries is. (It really is pretty cool.)

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Color grading is a multi-faceted and multi-step process. Often one part of an image needs to be corrected one way, and another part a different way. Take the following example from a car commercial. The original image has the same issues as the first two examples—fluorescent lighting and drab, flat color. First, I do an overall correction to the entire image, getting rid of most of the fluroescent yellow-green and increasing contrast and color saturation. The background still has a some of the yellow-green in it from stronger lights, so in step two I correct for this. Finally, I really want the car to pop (it is a car commercial), so I slightly increase the contrast and really pump the color. The final result is something I'm much more comfortable including in a car commercial.

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So how do I do it? The finer details are decidedly less interesting for someone not in the field of filmmaking. To summarize: Absolutely first, you have to have a color accurate monitor. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean picking up an easy-to-use calibration tool at your local electronics store. Our color grading monitor is a Flanders Scientific CM171 (pictured at the top, center monitor), one of the top manufacturers of color accurate monitors for color grading. (We're really excited to own one of these!) The other two monitors are relatively inexpensive, and display a timeline of clips, a myriad of controls, and a set of graphs, collectively called scopes, that show color distribution in various methods and formats.

Next: Part 2: Monitoring Color

Topics: color grading, post-production, #technology, gear

William Litwa

Written by William Litwa

Before joining us, William worked on a wide variety of films, including commercials, music videos, documentaries, and short fiction. He’s lived in Arkansas, California, New York, and now New Hampshire. He has an MFA in Photography from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, CA and a BA in Studio Art / Emphasis in Photography from UALR in Little Rock, AR. He also works as a fine artist, and bases his work around concepts found in both contemporary theoretical physics and mythology, synthesizing the two fields to create experiential work.