Probably the most effective way to add production value to your project during post, is to apply a really nice color grade to your footage. Color correction and grading can completely transform the look of your video, fix problem areas, and make otherwise dreary shots look amazing. One of the most common looks in cinema today is often called the ‘Blockbuster Look’ by colorists, as it’s used so frequently on high end films. The look is known for having cool shadows and warm highlights and adds a very nice color contrast to the image when applied correctly.
Here’s a quick sample shot from the film ‘World War Z’, using this look. Note the cool shadows and warm highlights:
This look may not be what you’re going for in every scene, but from my experience it works on just about any shot you apply it to. Other looks (let’s say a bleach bypass look) can look fantastic when used in combination with the right setting, time of day, wardrobe, lighting, etc. but typically is not as adaptable as the Blockbuster Look which can be used just about anywhere you choose. Whether or not the look creates a mood that suits your scene is a different question entirely, but it will nearly always create a very balanced, pleasing aesthetic.
Here’s a quick before and after, applying this look to a shot from a recent project of mine:
As you can see on the color wheels, I didn’t actually need to push things very far. This single correction that took all of ten seconds to make, changed the image completely. All I did was push blue/cyan into the shadows, yellow/orange into the highlights and pushed the contrast a bit to bring the black/white levels back to normal. I also made a minor mid tone adjustment to get it looking just right.
Something that is very important to remember as your grading an image is that you don’t need to go overboard to get a stylized look. If you push your colors too far, the image is going to fall apart – this is especially true for DSLR footage, but applies to any format including RAW. If you know what you’re looking for going into the grade (in the case the Blockbuster Look), then you won’t need to stretch the colors so much that the image begins to degrade. That said, in order to know what look you want or at least to have a relatively good starting point it’s important to understand one of the most important principles in color grading…
The reason the Blockbuster look is so good and works on almost any footage is because it is making use of the two most complimentary colors on the spectrum – blue and yellow. Complimentary colors are very easy to understand when looking at a color wheel:
Notice how blue and yellow are opposite from each other – that means they are complimentary. The same goes for purple and green, red and cyan, etc.
So in most cases when you’re grading your image it’s really important to create a look that has color contrast. The easiest way to get this look is to push the shadows in one direction and the highlights in the exact opposite, just like we did in the example above. Keep in mind though that some colors still work better than others with each other. Be sure to try out different combinations with your footage to see which you like best. One good rule to keep in mind though, is try to push the brighter colors into highlights, not shadows. For example, pushing yellow into shadows won’t look as nice as a darker color like blue or purple.
Although you can get nice results with all sorts of color combinations, blue and yellow will always give the best results. Not only are they complimentary to each other in terms of their hue (color), but they are just as complimentary when it comes to their luminance (brightness). Take a look again at the color wheel – the darkest saturated part on the color spectrum is blue and the lightest is yellow, which again makes these two colors as opposite as possible from each other, which in color terms makes them the perfect pair.
Getting a film look is really all about contrast, even on set. When you’re lighting a scene, you want pockets of light and shadows. You might use a rim light, or some negative fill, but the general objective is to create enough contrast in the image that it is pleasing to look at. That exact same principle applies to the color grade, but is achieved not only by creating luma contrast, but also color contrast.
Look To Nature
Think about the concept of complimentary colors the next time you’re watching the sunset or noticing your surrounding environment out in nature. It’s no coincidence that these colors pop up just about everywhere and whether we realize it or not, we are wired to love the look of blue and yellow together.
Once again the key with this look (or any other) is not to push it too far. If you push this particular look too far it will create a very unsettled feeling in your viewers as the look of saturated blue in the shadows can be strange to look at. And just because it does work doesn’t mean you should take the easy way out and use this on everything. There are many situations where this will work, but another grade would be more appropriate or just better looking. Personally speaking, I either use this look when I know I am going for the blockbuster feel, or if I’m stuck on a grade and looking for a new color pallete to use as a starting point.
For you editors out there, be sure to also check out my article on the latest groundbreaking version of FCP X.