Video & Filmmaking

How to Improve Your Video with Better Color

September 7, 2015

By Josh Root

Color grading—much like editing in general—plays a dual role in any video production. It’s called on to ensure a consistent look across multiple file sources, and it’s also a source of creative expression.

“When used effectively, clients shouldn’t notice editing, sound or color,” says Onyx Media cinematographer Georgia Yeh. “When the color becomes ‘invisible’ to the client, we’ve created an experience for them that is emotionally engaging. The goal is to use color grading so effectively that the client does not see it, but rather feels it and becomes engrossed in the story being told without realizing how much color has played a part in how they feel. However, the moment there is a visual inconsistency, our minds will pick it up immediately and it becomes a disruption.”

You can also leverage color to visually enhance or stylize your entire film, imbuing it with anything from the deep blues and grays of a gritty Hollywood crime drama to the film stock of 1970s Kodachrome. “Color grading to me is a visual cue for the audience that often connects on a subliminal level,” explains Linda Ung, head of production at Filthy Look Films. “It may tell the audience at what point of the day it is, or if someone is having a flashback. It can set the tone of a scene without using words.” Jill Bogdanowicz, senior colorist at EFILM agrees: “Color grading helps tell the story of the movie. It helps integrate different sets, weather changes. It helps create a mood.”

Dealing with color can be overwhelming for filmmakers who aren’t used to the process. But overcoming these challenges simply requires making informed choices while filming and committing some additional attention to adjustments during postprocessing. “One of the essential lessons in filmmaking, especially when you’re in charge of both shooting and editing, is to make careful decisions from the beginning,” says Elettra Fiumi, a multimedia journalist and CEO/Co-founder of Granny Cart Productions. “All steps, from selecting the shoot location and considering what light will be available, to what camera settings you have when you shoot, will help your color correcting process later on and help you produce an overall better-quality film.”

When filming with color correction in mind, your goal should be to get the lowest compression and highest quality file possible. Color correction and grading can be particularly unkind to low-quality, highly compressed footage. If RAW or ProRes codecs are available on your camera, you should use them. If not, record at the flattest, most neutral color setting your camera offers. Once you have filmed your footage and everything is imported into your editor, the actual color work begins. Just what you’ll need to do will vary based on your software, but there are some general principles that apply no matter what tool you choose.

During the grading process, many editors like to start with the blacks first, then the whites, before moving to mid tones and skin tones. Many editors prefer to work in this order because changes to both blacks and whites tend to affect the entire scene, while changes to mid tones and skin tones don’t have such a universal impact on the surrounding colors.

“The first thing I do is throw on [Red Giant] Colorista, and reach for the eye dropper for auto-white balance. I like to make sure my whites are white. Then I make sure skin colors look good and I’ll tweak accordingly with Colorista’s color wheels in the Primary 3-way panel,” Ung says. “If the shot is looking a little green, I’ll use the center ball of the color wheel and move it to the opposite direction to the green color. Taking the ball in the other direction of the color wheel will help neutralize the color cast,” she says.

Another rule: Trust the waveform, vectorscope and parade scope information in your editing program of choice. These visual guides provide luminance, chrominance and RGB values, respectively, for your video. Similar (but not identical) to the role that a histogram plays for still image editing, these visual data points will ensure that you are editing colors consistently frame-to-frame.

Correcting for multiple light sources in a scene can also be a challenge when grading. This is particularly true when shooting in a run-and-gun style where not every aspect of the environment can be controlled, such as an interior scene lit by incandescent lights with a bank of sunlit windows. Programs such as DaVinci Resolve, with its Power Windows masking feature, offer a powerful way to approach these issues. EFILM’s Bogdanowicz explains, “I’ll select Power Windows from the Resolve control panel and then I select whether I want to isolate the section with a pre-made shape or draw around something freehand, which I do with a mouse. I then use the panel to tell the shape to track to the shot and Resolve maintains that selected area, despite the movement of the actor or the camera.”

Once initial corrections are finished, editors typically apply any overall grading for style or emotion. Your choices here are almost unlimited. Software like Red Giant’s Looks offer you scores of preset styles and emulations. Looking for more options? There are thousands of Look Up Tables (LUTs) available. LUTs are mathematical formulas designed to take footage and grade it to a specific look.

While amazingly powerful, LUTs don’t take into consideration what settings and equipment were used during capture. That’s why filmmakers like Ony Media’s Yeh use plug-ins like FilmConvert, which is essentially a dynamic LUT that is programmed to adjust for input and output values. “Once finished with basic adjustments in Colorista, I finalize the look by applying FilmConvert and its wide array of camera profile LUTs.” Yeh notes that it also simplifies a step that’s essential for any film shot with more than a single camera. As Yeh notes, “FilmConvert LUTs allow me to achieve the same esthetic across all cameras and I love using it to unify the look in a simple step instead of spending many hours in color correction.”

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