Having color graded countless films over the years in collaboration with other filmmakers, I’ve encountered my share of creative and technical challenges along the way. Of all of them, by far the biggest hurdle to overcome was attempting to re-build color contrast in a scene that simply didn’t have any to begin with.
This process almost always took the same course in the color sessions that I ran –
To start, a director or DP would come in for a looks building session, during which they would share their creative ideas with me and most importantly their visual references. These references were most often screen grabs pulled from other films in the same genre or tone, with the goal of replicating the same look and feel for the project at hand. Unfortunately though, in many cases it simply wasn’t possible to achieve what the filmmaker was asking for without re-shooting the material…
Almost every time this situation came up, it had the same root cause: The film wasn’t shot with the grade in mind, and lacked color contrast.
The footage would often be very warm overall, with little (or no) cooler tones to be found. No practical lights with cooler color temperatures. No cool colors in the wardrobe. Just a warm wash…
I encountered the same issue many other times with other color casts (blue, green, etc.), that seemed to dominate the look of the raw footage. Regardless, the end result in our color session was always the same –
I would have to inform the filmmakers of why it’s not possible or recommended to proceed with the grade as they had previously suggested, and we would then have to brainstorm ideas for alternate looks that would be feasible within the constraints of the raw footage.
This scenario could easily have been avoided if I (or another colorist or production designer) was consulted during pre-production, as any potential issues could have been nipped in the bud.
To get a bit more specific, I’ve had filmmakers ask me to create a vibrant, poppy, saturated look in post, similar to what you might find on a film like Spring Breakers. And while it would normally be relatively simple for myself (or any colorist) to achieve that type of look, the source footage wouldn’t allow me to do so.
The raw material was flat and lacked any pops of color in wardrobe, production design, lighting, and setting, and therefore left very little overall color information to work with. The footage looked good in other respects from a technical level, and was shot on RED/Alexa, but the shots didn’t have enough color contrast to give us options in the grade.
I could certainly attempt to add a bunch of contrast/saturation to the material and simulate color contrast in post by pushing the shadows and highlights in opposite directions, but that wouldn’t achieve the look that they were after. It was too late…
And on a side note – the Spring Breakers look that I’m describing is far from the only scenario where a lack of color contrast on set can result in limited options in post. In fact, almost all looks or styles (with the exception of Black & White, Bleach Bypass, or Sepia), are not fully achievable without taking color contrast into account from the beginning of the filmmaking process.
When I advise filmmakers on this issue I always remind them of the following:
It’s easy to remove color in post, but difficult to add it.
To give a really obvious example, imagine you shot something natively in black and white. Would you bring that footage to a colorist and expect that they could turn it into color? Of course not. So why would you expect that an image with very little color information in it from the beginning could match an image with a tremendous amount? It’s just not possible…
And to clarify further, I am not suggesting as a blanket statement that all films should be production designed or set dressed in a way that allows for lots of pops of color. Every film has different needs. My point is that if any colors are intended to be emphasized in post, they need to be there during production too. It may just be one or two key colors that need to be taken into account, not a wide spectrum.
As an example, there are many films that have a relatively limited color palette, but at the same time make use of a couple of key colors that are complimentary to each other. There might be a lot of orange and blue in the film’s wardrobe, set design, and props, and although the film might be intended to have a washed out or desaturated look to it, the orange and blue motif can still cut through in the grade, as it is ingrained in the visual DNA of the film.
So how exactly do you ensure you are setting yourself up for success when it comes to building a color palette for your film?
For starters, consider these 3 fundamental pillars –
1. Factor color into every step of the process
Assuming you are the director of your project, if a distinct or specific color palette is important to you, you need to make sure it’s just as important to everyone else on your team too. This starts in pre-production and by the time your footage gets to the colorist, most of the heavy lifting should have been done already.
You need to speak with your DP and whoever is in charge of makeup, wardrobe, and set dressing/props, and make your intentions clear early on.
If you have a specific color palette in mind, create a look book and share that with your team. Ask them to run any choices by you that may not be in line with that look book, and decide on when and where to make exceptions to the rule on a case by case basis.
As the director, it’s your job to ensure everyone on your team is making the same movie. Your direction has to be cohesive, and that applies not only to the more obvious facets of the project (story, character, etc.), but to everything else too. Including color.
2. Use lighting to create color contrast
No matter how much planning you may do in pre-production, there will always be certain scenes that need some extra attention on set with regards to color.
For instance, you might shoot a night scene in a dimly lit house that requires your actors to wear white clothes or muted colors that aren’t in line with your look book. Let’s assume that you can’t adjust the set dec or wardrobe for story purposes, but still want to be able to create a vibrant look in the grade, despite not having vibrant wardrobe or props in this one scene. What do you do?
Focus on the lighting.
There is so much that you can do by playing with the varying color temperatures of different lights (let alone using color gels) to create as much color variance as you may need in any given scene.
This is especially helpful when attempting to saturate a scene in which the most vibrant colors come from someone’s skin tone. Without a warm practical lamp buzzing in the background, or an ice cold splash of light cutting across the wall in the background, the only color that will be saturated is the skin tone of your actor. And we all know how bad it can look to over saturate skin tones!
But by using various color temperatures in your lighting setup, you can create a more vibrant look without having to over saturate everything, and you’ll be able to keep your skin tones in check at the same time.
3. Be careful of IR pollution and ND filters
The first two items on this list are really the fundamentals of achieving strong color contrast on set, at least from my experience. That said, you still need to ensure that the color palette you’ve worked so hard to create is actually being captured properly by your camera. And unfortunately, some lens filters can throw a big wrench in your plans.
If you’ve ever shot with a cheap ND filter, you know just how much color shifting can occur as a result of the tint in the filter’s glass. In some cases this can be dealt with in post, but in other cases it simply isn’t possible to ever get the color balance looking perfect. Depending on the filter used, the colors in the scene, and the intentions for the grade, it’s very possible that the color cast from a cheap ND filter may wash out/alter the colors you need to capture to deliver the look you’re after.
And there’s more…
All cameras are vulnerable to IR (infrared) pollution to some degree, but some are affect move severely than others. It all depends on the sensor and whether or not there is any sort of internal IR cut being done in the camera.
For those of you that are not aware – infrared light is a type of light that is invisible to the human eye, but can show up on digital sensors and cause certain colors to render inaccurately in the final image. IR pollution is often exaggerated by the use of ND filters which cut most of the “good light” from hitting your sensor, but still allow the ugly infrared light to come through.
This means that a disproportionate amount of IR is hitting your sensor, which can make blacks look magenta and cause all sorts of other color shifting issues that aren’t really fixable in post.
Even if you buy an IRND filter (an ND filter that also cuts IR), you still may not be in the clear. Your filter may cut too much or too little IR for your camera’s sensor, which is why cameras like the Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K include their own IRND filters that are specifically calibrated to the camera. Unfortunately there is no such thing as an IRND filter that will work perfectly with any sensor.
So the point is not that you can’t use ND filters, of course you can! Just make sure that you do a lot of tests with your chosen filter/camera setup to ensure none of the critical colors that you want to capture are being lost along the way. The last thing you want to do is spend weeks or months prepping for your shoot, and then throw all that hard work out the window because you didn’t test your filters.
Assuming you get this (and the other steps on this list) right, you can rest easy knowing that a wide variety of options are open to you in post. In the future, I’ll be doing a follow up to this article that focuses on the post-production side of color contrast, and we’ll look at how to enhance your color palette in the grade, so stay tuned for that!