One of the biggest reasons that high end cinema cameras are so preferable to shoot on over DSLRs or other prosumer cameras, is because of the flexibility that they have in post. Cameras like the Arri Alexa, Sony F55, and RED Epic/Dragon all feature raw recording to allow for maximum creative freedom when color grading. Ironically though, footage from these higher end cameras often require far less color work than their prosumer counterparts, since their images look more accurate and natural straight off the sensor.
There is a very common misconception these days that for a camera to shoot a truly cinematic or filmic image it needs to shoot raw. While it’s true that shooting raw has some massive benefits (I shoot raw all the time for many reasons), a raw image doesn’t in itself mean a better image. The vast majority of high end cinema cameras do have the ability to shoot raw, but that is far from the only reason that they produce beautiful images. They have incredible sensors, strong color science, and cinema grade engineering that you simply won’t find on most lower end cameras. So yes, the high end cinema cameras do shoot raw and yes that can leave you with more wiggle room in post – but there’s a lot more going on under the hood than just the ability to capture a raw image, and that’s what this article is all about. We’re going to look at why cinema cameras produce images that are so pleasing, and how we can emulate that look when shooting with DSLRs or other similar pro-sumer level cameras.
The Importance Of Realistic Color Balance
Something that many filmmakers don’t recognize is that the most objectively nice looking images are almost always the most realistic looking (as far as color goes at least). We often think of color grading as a way to stylize our footage to make it look better or moodier than what the scene may have looked like in real life, but in most cases color grading an image for realism will be a more effective approach. The logic behind this is the same as the logic behind why people love IMAX films… They look so realistic that the viewer can become completely immersed in what they are watching. That said, when things are taken too far with regards to realism (such as shooting at really high frame rates), images can look ‘too real’ and take away from the magic of cinema.
When we go to the movies we want to see something that resembles reality very closely, but feels just a little bit off – both in terms of the imagery and the story. So when we see a movie in IMAX and it was shot on 65mm film, we think WOW! That looks like real life… They’ve captured something there that resembles reality but also helps us step into another world. This general principle very closely applies to color grading, but the only real difference is that with narrative work you do want to push things far enough in the grade that the film still feels like it’s own unique world, not an exact replica of reality. You want to viewer to be immersed in a new world, and for that new world to be quite reminiscent of reality but with just a few subtle differences so that each scene can guide the viewer visually through the emotional ups and downs of the story.
There are some films that benefit tremendously from an extreme color palette. Black and white films (like last year’s ‘Nebraska’) create a very distinct feeling by pulling away all the color and leaving us with the rawness of the story and characters, while highly stylized films like ‘Traffic’ can get away with multiple bold, cyclical looks since it fits the subject matter. But for the majority of films, their stories are best served by a more natural color palette. Look at the images below from these four films all released in the past year or so – Boyhood, Night Moves, The Fault In Our Stars, and Under The Skin. Even though they are all different genres and very different films in general, the use of a natural color palette works well across the board.
Of course there are plenty of films over the past year that went in a different direction with regards to the color (like Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes for example), but even films like this that do call for a more hyper stylized look are careful not to go overboard with it. There is still some semblance of reality in these final image, even if it was graded fairly heavily:
Cinema Cameras And The Natural Look
We’ve gone over why the natural look is desirable, but how exactly can we best achieve that look? For starters, shooting on a cinema camera that was designed for critical color accuracy will get you going in the right direction (although you can certainly get great results on lower end cameras as well)… Many other factors obviously play a role in achieving a natural look (such as lighting, exposure, etc.), but all things equal it’s the camera that you need to rely on to capture the right image on the day, and if you’re shooting with a camera that doesn’t pull it’s weight, then you need to make up for that in post by grading the image carefully.
If you’ve ever graded footage from an Arri Alexa, you know just how amazing that footage looks straight out of the camera with just a a rec709 LUT applied to get the contrast/saturation back. When grading Alexa footage you have this feeling of freedom, knowing that you can push the image as far as you want to, but at the same time you may never end up pushing it too far away from the baseline since the original image is so strong…
When you’re color grading DSLR footage though, it can immediately feel like a lot of work needs to be done. The skin tones aren’t always right, color temperature differences are more obvious, and the color generally feels less uniform. Typically DSLR colors don’t blend and bleed into each other softly like they would on film or a higher end digital camera, instead they feel more rigid, defined and separated from each other – more reminiscent of video. Since DSLR footage (no matter how well shot) is never going to be at the same baseline as an Alexa, you’re naturally going to need to push things further in the grade to get that nice looking image. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve often had to spend lots of time with DSLR footage pulling keys, doing noise reduction, and testing looks in order to get it just right, whereas with Alexa footage, the look can be achieved much more quickly, sometimes with just a single primary color correction. This by no means is to say that DSLR footage can’t look nearly as good… In fact I believe in the right hands DSLR footage can compete with the best cinema cameras in the world. But I am suggesting that you need to be aware of state that the footage is coming in as, in order to approach the grade correctly. It’s very tempting to start pushing DSLR footage really far in the grade in order to hide some of less desirable colors, but the better approach would be to color grade that footage to look more neutral first, and then grade it for style.
When coloring DSLR footage, your first step needs to be to correct the footage, not grade it. This will solve two problems: 1) It will give you a more accurate representation of how strong the image is at a neutral baseline, and 2) it will force you to match all of the shots in your sequence first so that they are properly balanced before you stylize them. To start this process, simply assess the shadows, mids, and highlights of your image by using whatever method works for you (scopes, reference images, etc.) to compare your image to a baseline, and then adjust your color wheels so the image becomes more balanced. Often times on Canon footage I’ll need to cool down the shadows and highlights, whereas with GH4 footage I might need to warm up the highlights slightly and cool off the shadows. Every camera is different, but after coloring a handful of shots from any camera you can start to see it’s quirks and will get into the habit of looking for potential problem areas. That said, don’t rely too heavily on past experience when grading footage from a certain camera since lenses, lighting, and many other factors will play a big role in your image. Regardless of how you get there, the goal is simply to get your footage looking as close as possible to what a natural and balanced image from a cinema camera with a stronger sensor/color science might look like. From there, you can choose to leave it as is or push it a little bit further.
Although it can be tempting to push your colors really far in post, you need to make sure that you are making the right decision for your film. 9 times out of 10, films are best served with a color palette that is at least somewhat natural looking, so don’t feel like you need to stylize your film during the color process just because your can. You do want to give your film it’s own distinct feeling and look, but that doesn’t mean that the color grade needs to be overdone to achieve that result. If you’ve done your work in pre-production and on set, your film will already have it’s own style to it to some degree, and the color work should be done in a way that emphasizes what’s already there as opposed to working against it. If your film truly is in a genre that is best served by having a stylized color palette then by all means go for it, just make sure that before you start grading your images too heavily, you’re able to balance them all to match with a natural look, so that they will look more congruent once graded.
I personally like images that have a bit more of a ‘look’ to them (even with non-genre films such as dramas), but on my own work I am always conscious about the way that I approach these looks – specifically by making sure that I am working from a neutral starting point on every shot in order to avoid color shifting. I also try to push things far enough that the audience can feel it, but not so much that it’s distracting… Nothing screams amateur color grading like an overdone color grade, so when it doubt keep it natural!