Look Building in Color Grading, Tools for Developing a Unique Look

Still from Rhinegeist Racing at Kings CX

Building a look is a key component to color grading any project. A well-developed look can help to set a film apart, give it its personality, and lend to the storytelling and emotion the director is trying to convey. By developing a look ahead of time for your project then applying at a scene or even timeline level, you ensure your entire project has a cohesive feel to it.

Today’s filmmaking has undergone a significant shift towards using digital tools to help shoot and craft footage. This means that not just colorists, but also cinematographers, VFX artists, and directors can take part in the color process by working on assets prior to shooting or editing.

Establishing a Baseline: What Is A Look in Color Grading?

Before having any discussion it’s worth establishing a definition before we get into the weeds. When we say ‘look’ what exactly are we referring to? Once we have established our goal, we can begin working towards it. In my opinion, the best definition of this comes from Cullen Kelly’s in his “Look Building” series on YouTube.

“A look is the consistent visual signature of a piece of content crafted in post. Looks aren’t about individual shots, they’re about all the shots and the way they marry together into a cohesive whole.”

Cullen Kelly: Building Looks, Part 1

There are a few key points we should note from that definition. Particularly that of a look being ‘consistent’ and part of a ‘cohesive whole.’ If you aren’t thinking of your look on a project or scene-wide level, you aren’t thinking about your look. I always apply corrections at a look level (in groups or at a timeline level) and then at the shot level, that way I know my project has a consistent DNA throughout it. This helps give it that “visual signature” Cullen refers to.

Before The Color Grade: It Starts at Pre-Production

In a perfect world, building a film’s look starts before production even begins. It is something that ideally should be planned and discussed at the very beginning of pre-production. When planning your project’s look, it’s important to think about the color grading palette you would like to use and how each shot will impact the overall look of your piece.

Before you even get on set, a colorist can help develop a look and build a show LUT. A show LUT is a LUT developed ahead of time so that when you are on set the cinematographer and director can reference how the final product will look once it is graded.

The biggest benefit to having a look in pre-production is that it allows the colorist and director to be very specific with their expectations. This can help avoid any surprises on set and keep everyone on the same page from start to finish. Additionally, it eliminates any guesswork or last-minute changes that may need to be made post-production.

There are also times when developing a show LUT can speed up post-production.

Set design can be a key aspect in creating a project’s look as well. By designing locations and props to match the aesthetic you are aiming for, set designers can help give your project consistency and cohesion. In addition, using wardrobe that matches the environment helped to create an even more immersive experience for viewers. All of this can combine with a well-executed color grade to create a seamless look.

All this being said – it’s not always possible or in the budget to bring a colorist in early on. In a perfect world, however, it makes things easier and ensures your footage looks the best it can.

Stills from Impak's Fuss music video
Basic Rec709 Corrected Footage (Left) vs A Color Graded Look (Right)

Developing The Look: Adjusting Footage in Post Production

Building a look can be done in several ways, and there are several color correction tools and ‘dials’ a colorist can turn to help develop a ‘cinematic look.’

Over time film stock was developed to create different looks, and this largely influenced what we find aesthetically pleasing in modern digital productions. The benefit of digital however is that we don’t always have to adhere to every one of those elements, and have the flexibility to adjust them much more quickly.

My Key Elements for Building a Look

I’ve outlined below, in no particular order, some of my key elements to look building.

Exposure Contrast

One of the most fundamental aspects of color grading is controlling the brightness and darkness of an image. We can add or subtract detail from a scene by adjusting luminance, effectively shaping its look.

Exposure contrast creates depth in an image, but too much contrast may be detrimental to a shot or a look. Finding the right balance is key to any good look.

Shoulder and Toe

While I’m including these as one piece, I think it’s important to note that they are technically two separate adjustments. An image’s “toe” is where the shadows flatten out and begin to lose detail, and an image’s “shoulder” is where the highlights flatten out before becoming entirely blown out. Typically film stock would respond less linearly to light and shadow on the extremes than around the midtones, creating a ‘toe and shoulder’ in the final image.

A good shoulder and toe can be manipulated in several ways, but the most visually intuitive is the contrast curve. Using this to balance your shoulder and toe to find the right amount of each for a look is typically how I approach this. Typically I do this alongside adjusting contrast as well. As with everything, it’s all about finding the right balance for your footage.

Example of contrast curves in davinci resolve
An example of a simple custom contrast curve in Davinci Resolve

Saturation (And Desaturation)

Saturation refers to the amount of ‘color intensity in a picture. Color saturation applies to how we perceive individual colors within an overall shot as well and can also influence our likes and dislikes for digital pictures.

Depending on which colors are saturated or desaturated, you can create additional separation and depth in an image. Due to the way color film and the human eye behave, colors get less saturated as things get brighter and darker. This can be used in conjunction with good exposure contrast to lend a sense of depth to your image.

Split Toning

Split toning refers to tinting the shadows and highlights in contrasting colors. As with most things on this list, it helps lend a sense of depth. There are many ways to accomplish this but I tend to use the RGB curves or the HDR palette in Davinci Resolve.

As to why split toning is effective in a color workflow, think about highlights and shadows in reality. Highlights tend to be warmer as they’re caused by the sun – which is warm in color. Shadows on the other hand are typically cooler. While this feels a bit abstract, I find it helpful to think about when looking at why one of the common ways to split tone is with cool shadows and warm highlights.

An example of spit toning in Davinci Resolve's custom curves
An example of spit toning in Davinci Resolve’s custom curves

Hue Rotating

Color theory tells us that certain colors work together well. Rotating the hues of certain colors to compress them into a certain range can help build a palette that is limited to a certain set of colors. Limiting your palette can help create a specific color scheme.

When I think about shifting and rotating different hues, I find it helps to look at colors on a color wheel and compare them to my footage. If there is a certain color I can play off of in the image, you can try to create a specific color scheme. The most common you’ve likely seen is the ‘teal and orange’ look.

Here is a great piece by CineD going into more detail on color schemes if you want to go deeper on this subject.

Skin Tones and Other ‘Reference Colors’

There are many things we see day to day that have very specific colors, and our brain perceives them in a very particular way. The sky is a certain color blue, greens in plants are a specific green, and most importantly the orange hues in skin tones look a certain way.

Our eyes and brain all see these one way, but a camera doesn’t always interpret them the same way our eyes do. Sometimes this can ruin an image, and make it look ‘off’ in a way that our brains just don’t like.

Somewhere, I believe I heard them called ‘reference colors’ and it stuck with me – although I can’t remember where I heard it. But in essence, it means these are colors our brain has a direct reference to in the real world, day in and day out. This means we are more susceptible to noticing if they look off in footage.

The best example of this, in my opinion, is in greens. A camera sensor will pick up greens in a way that is way more vibrant – almost nuclear – when compared to what our eyes and brain are used to.

When you are color grading, you will want to keep these colors in mind and make color adjustments to ensure they look natural in the scene. They don’t have to be identical to reality, however. As long as they make sense within the scene you can get away with it.

Another semi-related note here is to make sure your true whites are white, and your true blacks are black. As with anything, there are exceptions to this rule, but it can go a long way towards selling a look.

Building Your Workflow

Building a workflow is something I feel should always be evolving, so for that reason, I’m always studying and expanding this ‘list of tools.’ Go watch old films, study new ones, and experiment.

Have something to add to the discussion on look building? There are certainly plenty more tools a filmmaker could use to build a look than just what is here. Or do you disagree with me? Let me know in a comment below.

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About The Author: RK Color

RK Color is a Film & Video color grading company, dedicated to producing unique and creative looks across a variety of footage.

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