With color grading software like DaVinci Resolve and Adobe Speedgrade being readily available to just about anyone with access to the internet, it’s no surprise that more and more filmmakers are attempting to color their own footage. In many cases, I would advise against coloring your own work unless like myself, you also work as a dedicated colorist. That said, if you are set on color grading your own projects, or are simply a colorist starting out, one of the most important things you need to tackle is the order of operations with which you approach your color process.
Like any other part of the filmmaking process, color correction is best approached by following a general set of guidelines that allow you move through the process as effortlessly and efficiently as possible. When writing a feature length script, you need an outline before a first draft of the screenplay. Just like when editing a movie, an assembly cut needs to be created before fine tuning a picture lock. Color correction is no different, yet many filmmakers or amateur colorists who don’t yet have their bearings go about things in the wrong way, and in the end their work suffers.
When I color grade any project, regardless of the style, look, genre, or format – I always adhere to the general strategy outlined below, and in fact just about every professional colorist working today follows a similar flow. I by no means created this approach, just like I didn’t create the notion of a three act structure – but I still find both immensely helpful in guiding my work in the right direction within each respective area of the craft.
For the purpose of this article, I am going to include a few frame grabs from DaVinci Resolve, as it’s the color software I prefer to work in (and arguably the best color grading software in existence today), but these general principles can be applied no matter what software you are using. It’s all about the order in which you perform these adjustments, not necessarily which software you are using to make them.
1. NEUTRALIZING & MATCHING
Before you start coloring your footage, you need to balance your shots to fix any glaring issues with regards to white balance, exposure, contrast or any other technical parameter. The idea is that you want to work from a blank canvas once you actually start doing the creative work, and if you’re working with an image that is completely unbalanced, you are going to have a much harder time achieving the grade that you’re after… Not to mention, you’ll have an even harder time matching shots to each other in the sequence, as you won’t be able to simply apply a look that you have created for one shot to other shots in the scene.
There are two key things to remember here: 1) Do not give your image any unique style or look at this point, just give it a nice neutral baseline. And 2) Make sure to color correct every shot in the scene or sequence you’re working on to match each other before moving on. It will take you a few more minutes up front, but you’ll save loads of time later… Especially if you decide to change the look, as then you can easily blanket apply your changes to everything without having to make individual changes to every shot. When matching shots, I usually recommend picking a wide or medium wide shot as your baseline ‘hero shot’ and then matching the other shots in that environment to it.
If you don’t already know how to read scopes, I would suggest that you take some time to acclimatize yourself to them. Scopes can be immensely helpful in showing you a visual representation of where your image sits – in terms of saturation, color balance, contrast, and more.
2. EXPOSURE FIXES
If you did your job well in step 1, your image should be generally well exposed. That said, in many cases even if your starting image is relatively well balanced, there are bound to be some small exposure issues that you may need to solve as part of step two. For instance, maybe there is a window that is blowing out in the background, or someone’s dark t-shirt is clipping to black. Whatever the case may be, it’s best that you adjust these issues at this stage in the process – not before or after. In the case of the blown out window – imagine you attempted to compensate for this in step 1. You would end up with a window that is properly exposed, but an overall image that is underexposed. The same goes for attempting to lift shadows to compensate for an area that is too dark, and then ending up with an image that is washed out.
In terms of specific ways to fix these issues, there are many different techniques that you can use, but probably the most effective way is by using power windows. A power window allows you to isolate a specific area of your image and adjust anything that you’d like within it’s boundaries.
I’ll point out again that it’s important to remember not to start creating your look at this point – you are simply setting up the image for the grade.
3. COLOR FIXES
Much like the previous point, this stage is all about fixing issues that couldn’t be fixed in your primary grade (step 1), but that you want to fix before applying any sort of look to the shot. You might have a shot where the talent is wearing a red t-shirt, and that color is popping out far more than it should be… Which by the way is quite common. You should always be aware of vibrant colors when color grading digital footage, as they can often be far more oversaturated than they should be in the source footage.
Another big thing to look out for at this stage are skin tones. Since skin tones can often have red or pink hues to them, it’s quite common to need to reduce saturation and cool off the midtones and highlights in the skin tones to compensate. In other cases, you might have skin tones that are too green – possibly as a result of fluorescent bulbs – and need to push some purple into them… Whatever the issue may be, the solution is going to require that you use a qualifier (in DaVinci Resolve terms), or a selective color tool.
The idea is that you will pull a key on the color within the image that you want to correct, and then just affect that area. In some cases, you might also want to use a power window in conjunction with the color key in order to prevent the key from affecting other areas of the shot.
4. THE LOOK
At this point, your shot should be well balanced, and have any obvious exposure or color issues fixed. Now you are really working from a blank canvas, and any adjustments that you make to your image from here on out will be far more satisfying. Imagine for instance, you were going to apply ‘The Blockbuster Look’ to your footage, which mainly involves cooling off the shadows and warming up the highlights and mids. If you are working from a perfectly balanced image, this look would be easy to achieve. However, if you have any problem areas in the image (let’s say the skin tones are too red, and you haven’t fixed them), then this look will exacerbate the problem. Rather than the skin tones getting shifted to a nice warm color, the red in them will be pushed even further and the talent will look distractingly bad.
In many ways, this stage in the color process is the most fun as you can get really creative. In some cases you might want to hyper-stylize your footage and go for a really unique color palette, while in other instances you might stay with a natural look and simply bring out what is already there. Whatever the look you are going for may be, you will get there way faster now that you’ve done the leg work to prep your footage accordingly. And you will really notice the speed increase when you get to other shots in your sequence, which (assuming they are properly matched and balanced) can generally have the same look applied to them as a blanket effect.
5. FINAL TWEAKS & LUTS
When you’re happy with the overall look of your shot, you have the option of making some final color adjustments to help pull everything together. You usually want any adjustments that you do at this stage to be relevant to just about any other shot in your project, as the purpose of this stage is largely to create a subtle feel – or creative motif – that ties everything together. So for example, if you are going for a ‘milky black’ look, you might choose to lift up the shadows at this stage (although you could also justify doing that in stage 4).
Additionally,I highly recommend adding a Creative LUT (Look Up Table) at this stage, which can really help to blend all of your color changes together, while also enhancing your overall aesthetic.
The great thing about setting up your LUTs/your overall final look on it’s own node (in Resolve), is that the final node can easily be tacked on to other shots in the project and still work really well. For example, you might be coloring another scene later on that has a totally different look to it, but you can still apply the color adjustments from that final node (on your first shot) to the end of the node tree on the next scene too. Since this node is primarily dedicated to making overarching (and relatively small) stylistic changes, it can be used on scenes that have very different grades, and will help the entire project to have more consistency. The same principle applies even if you aren’t use a node-based color system, but it’s especially easy when using software like Resolve.
Like most aspects of filmmaking, color correction is both a creative and technical process – but not necessarily in that order. To achieve the best results creatively, you want to get the technical adjustments out of the way first. This will take a few more minutes up front, but could potentially save you hours of time later on, particularly if you decide to change your creative look at any point. Also, it’s really important to note that just because I’ve listed 5 steps above, doesn’t mean that those adjustments should be made in only 5 nodes or layers. In some cases you might need more… For example in step 3, there may be more than one color that needs to be keyed, so don’t be afraid to add as many adjustments as you need until each step in the process is complete. And conversely, you may have a near perfect shot to work with that doesn’t require step 2 or 3. So always use your discretion, and when you do need to adjust all of the usual parameters, be sure to do so in this exact order.