I first started learning the art of color correction for one simple reason – I needed to give my DSLR footage more production value by emulating the look of higher end cinema cameras. It wasn’t long after I started learning the craft that I realized just how much value color can add to any project, and how crucial it is for all filmmakers to understand color.
Although my biggest focus day to day now is directing, I came up in the business through post-production (with a heavy emphasis on color grading) and still handle lots of color correction work, either on my own personal projects or on client projects. As such, I’ve had the chance to run countless color sessions with DPs of all types – ranging from amateurs just starting out in the business, all the way up to very well established cinematographers who shoot major national television shows and feature films.
One of the things I picked up on after many years of working with such a wide variety of DPs, was that the best cinematographers I worked with also seemed to have the best understanding of color, regardless of what level they were working at.
When I say this, keep in mind I’m not necessarily stating that the best DPs all know how to operate a DaVinci system. But rather that they understand the value of color correction and the technical principles behind it, far greater than the average budding DP. This is obviously the case for two reasons:
1. They have had more experience in the color suite and therefore have picked up more working knowledge from colorists they’ve collaborated with.
2. They were able to excel in their field by understanding or in some cases even mastering an aspect of the craft that many of their peers didn’t focus on at all.
For the sake of this article, it’s the second point that really matters.
It may sound cliche, but the notion that the cinematographer makes the image, not the camera couldn’t be more true. A great cinematographer will be able to pick up an iPhone and still capture a beautiful shot with the right mix of lighting, framing, camera movement, and color. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the shot wouldn’t look even better if it were shot on an Alexa, but it does mean that cameras like the Alexa shouldn’t be used as a crutch.
One of the things that frustrates me the most when working with certain inexperienced DPs is their inability to understand the potential of their own skill set, and their over-reliance on camera choice… And that’s coming from me, who is pretty obsessed with cameras!
There is no question that every camera has it’s own look, and therefore it’s own strengths and weaknesses. An Alexa will always look different than a RED or a 5D or a Blackmagic, but that doesn’t mean they all can’t look amazing in their own ways, or that they can’t be color graded to match very closely.
Take the Sony A7S II for instance. I personally don’t love the look of the colors straight out of the camera as they don’t look very organic or natural, in my opinion at least. Does that prevent me from using the camera at all? Definitely not. It just means I need to approach the color process with a bit more care than if I was shooting on a camera like the Arri Alexa (which has near perfect color science), and develop my own techniques for handling the footage such as my custom A7S II LUT.
I’ve often heard amateur cinematographers state that they only want to shoot on such-and-such camera, because they don’t like the “look” of the other cameras they have available to them. That’s all well and good, and you should absolutely be picky about your camera choice… But when you are just starting out you need to learn to work with what you have. You need to understand that an old Lumix GH2 can look as good as an Alexa if a better DP is lighting the GH2 footage, operating the camera, and directing the color session. And that it’s completely possible to match two very different cameras in the color suite if you know what you’re doing.
It’s this issue that holds back a lot of talented filmmakers that want to break into the business as DPs. They haven’t yet learned to appreciate the color process and rely far too heavily on their camera choice as a means to capture the best image possible.
In an ideal world you want to have the best of both – the best camera to shoot on and the best working knowledge of cinematography and color correction. In reality though, you can’t always have everything, especially when you’re just starting out. The more you can pick up the slack on the side of your craft, the less you will need to rely on camera choice and therefore budget.
Digital cinema cameras today are incredibly powerful and capable of producing gorgeous images – even the lower cost prosumer models. So if you’re struggling to get the right look with your 5D, Blackmagic, GH3, or whatever camera you might be using… Don’t go looking for another camera. Look to yourself and try to see where the gap in your own skill set may be, and you might just find that your knowledge of color is lacking.
If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and start to learn at least the basics of the craft. You don’t need to learn enough to be a professional colorist, but you do need to learn enough to be condifent in your decisions on set, and to understand what any camera is capable of under the right conditions.
Remember that it’s common for even the largest Hollywood feature films to shoot on a mix of formats. Some major features are shot in part on 35mm film, Alexa, RED, and so on. The DPs behind these films aren’t afraid to mix and match formats because they understand the color process. They understand that they can get them to match in post, and that any camera can look great when treated properly.
So if you’re listening – I don’t want to hear why your RED Scarlet is not good enough for your next project or why your C100 doesn’t have a filmic enough look. Anything can look good with the right color, so work on your craft and then graduate to the more elaborate cinema cameras when your projects allow you to.
There are countless resources online that will help you learn at least the basics of color correction, so if you want to step up your game there’s really no excuse.
That’s about it for now! Check back soon for more articles like this, filmmaking tips, gear reviews, and much more.