What is Color Grading In Film & Video?
What Is Color Grading? I define color grading as the act of manipulating an image’s tone, palette, and texture with the end goal of enhancing the image as much as possible The key phrase here is ‘enhancing the image as much as possible.’
The ultimate goal of a good color grade is to improve an image. Anything you do in the color grading process that damages or otherwise takes away from the image starts to become something else. “Improve the image” is the golden rule to guide each part of your workflow.
An example of a color corrected image (left) vs a color graded and stylized image (right)
The Golden Rule: Color Grading Should Improve The Image
As obvious as it sounds, you want to maximize how much you can improve your footage. By the nature of the definition of “improve,” this also means you don’t want to do anything that will damage your image – do no harm.
It’s important to remember that no matter the creative intent, you can’t fight the footage you’re working with. You have to work with your image, not against it. If your image was shot low-key, making it high-key in the color grade isn’t working with the context of the image.
In order to think within the context of the image, we need to be considering two main areas: the technical, and the creative.
The Technical Limitations Of The Footage
How your image was exposed, the cinematography, and technical quality of your image will be the first the first piece to consider. Any adjustments that you do to your image that damages, introduces noise, or otherwise breaks the image, becomes something that is not enhancing or improving your image.
If your image is underexposed, raising it’s luminance or brightness past a certain point will begin to introduce noise. Even if this adjustment better matches your creative intent, introducing unwanted noise would go against the idea of improving your image.
If you are working with low-quality, brittle footage the same applies. Large adjustments may break your footage, and go against the fundamental rule to do no harm.
The Creative Considerations
The second area to consider is your storytelling. What does the scene’s storytelling and mood require, and what creative actions do you want to make to achieve it?
While creative ideas are less objective than the technical limitations of footage, the same principles apply. A straightforward documentary may have it’s message dampened or otherwise muddied by an overly stylized look.
Similarly, the mood of a horror movie tends to be enhanced by a darker color palette and look. Though on the other side of the coin, a bright colors and a high key look could also enhance the storytelling and mood through the nature of it’s contrast – like in the case of Midsommar.
Different colors will evoke different emotions, but it all depends on your creative context.
How Color Grading Enhances Your Video Production
I like to think that color grading is the piece that makes all of the visual aspects of a project truly shine. Editing, cinematography, and storytelling can all be elevated with a good look
A good color grade for a project will help avoid technical issues and add an extra level of cohesion to your project. Ultimately though it acts as another useful tool for creative storytelling.
It Elevates Your Production Value
Primarily, color grading has a significant impact on the overall production value of your project. In my opinion color grading is that final piece of the puzzle that brings together all of the visual elements of a project and makes sure their value is greater in the sum of their parts.
In the world of filmmaking, there are countless variables that change between scenes or shots. Lighting and exposure may be slightly different, camera settings may not be perfect, etc. If you only apply a look to your footage, the imbalance between scenes will take away from the on-set work done.
The color grading process solves this by polishing and refinement to ensure your footage is balanced across the entire project. A colorist will balance both the exposure and colors of your footage, as well as shot-level adjustments to better tailor the creative look.
A well-balanced project adds that proper polish to elevate your production value.
It Properly Manages Your Footage
At the technical level, color grading ensures that the footage captured by the camera sensor is properly conformed for your display.
Your average modern camera sensor’s job is to capture as much data as possible, not make an image that’s aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. This often results in low contrast, low saturation, log footage that doesn’t look all that good.
The process of color grading video footage takes this raw data and transforms it to a specific display color space, ensuring that it looks correct wherever your audience is viewing it.
It’s Another Creative Tool
Ultimately though, color grading serves as a creative tool to enhance the storytelling of your project. Just like cinematography, wardrobe, and set decoration, color grading offers its own unique set of creative parameters to work within.
A professional colorist will not only ensure your footage enhances the storytelling and conveys your message effectively, but they should also make your footage aesthetically pleasing. It’s a vital step in conveying your message and ideas to your audience that if you skip, you miss out on.
Ultimately a “good” looking image is subjective, but it’s what we’re all chasing. So do as much as you can to create a great looking piece.
Deciding Between Hiring a Colorist or Coloring Yourself
Hiring a Colorist: The Benefits
If you’re hiring a colorist, you’re entrusting the job to someone who specializes in color grading. This is their chosen specialty, and as a result their tools and workflows have all been tailored around coloring your footage and getting the best results out of it.
A skilled colorist will also be following a proper color management pipeline. This means that from a technical perspective, you know you are handling the footage properly. Aside from preventing any issues with your footage, a colorist will make sure your image is properly conformed for your deliverables.
Working with a colorist also means you’re likely to get a quicker turnaround with better end results. The attention to detail a colorist will give you image will help to make sure your project looks incredible.
Learning Color Grading: DIY Approach
If you decide to dive headfirst into the deep rabbit hole that is color grading, you’ll find a wealth of resources There’s no shortage of courses, YouTube videos, and tutorials to get you started. The wide array of information can be a bit intimidating, and without some other knowledge it can be tricky to know to apply correctly.
To get started I recommend building your knowledge around three primary areas. Color management, look development, and process or workflow. These are the essentials that will set up a foundation to build.
Learn how to properly manage your footage, moving it from your camera color space, to an intermediate color space for adjustments, and outputting it to your display color space. This will ensure your process is technically sound and is the main thing you should be doing on every single project.
A color managed workflow ensures your tools behave properly and helps conform any different camera color spaces into one intermediate space. This means that across different cameras, your look development will be applied consistently and properly. A consistent look means you have to spend less balancing and making basic color adjustments, and ultimately frees up that time to create a better end product.
Look development is the key difference when looking at color grading vs color correction. A proper color grading process will include color correcting your image. The part of the process that differentiates color grading however, is developing a unique, creative look for your image.
Look development adds creative intent to your footage, and this part of the process is where most of the creative tips and tricks you find on the internet will apply.
Develop a Process For Color Grading Video
Maybe the most important skill that applies to all areas of color grading, is that of developing a workflow. A well established and structure that allows you to efficiently color grade your shots and scenes, as well as develop a system around look development.
Without a workflow, you can find yourself using any and all tools that come to mind. Jumping from the objective of “create a look” straight to the tactics of “make a contrast curve” and “adjust hues.” A standard way of operating acts as a strategy, and gives you structure to all the various tools for image manipulation you’ll collect over the years.
A proper process will also save you time when making passes to grade footage, which can be the name of the game. Grading footage faster means more time for refinement, more time to focus on detail work, and a better end product.
Aside from learning the ins and outs of color grading, you’ll also need a few things to get started.
You’ll want to pick up some color grading specific software – like Davinci Resolve. While Adobe Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, and other video editors have some color correction tools, for a proper color grading toolset you’ll want to look into Davinci Resolve or Baselight. These are pieces of software with fully fleshed-out color grading tools. Davinci Resolve has a free version, so just go download that.
You’ll also benefit from a quality calibrated monitor. Calibrating your monitor will ensure better consistency, and make sure you’re not making nuanced white balance or tint decisions based on poor monitor settings.
Start Coloring Your Next Project
Working on a project you need color graded? Let’s chat!
What Is Color Grading In Film And Video Production?
Start Coloring Your Next Project
Working on a project you need color graded? Let’s chat!