I love color grading! From music videos, to short films, to even a simple interview, color manipulation is all very fun for me. I took a look back at my "What would you like to learn" post and noticed that a lot of you requested tutorials on color grading, so here we are!
Before I actually go on to make actual tutorials, I want to bring to your attention what I call "purposeless grading." That is a problem I've noticed with most non-colorists- they color without any purpose. Do they alter the color? Yes. Do they know why? Not one bit. They just aimlessly push buttons and the resulting footage usually looks worse than it was prior to being tempered with.
That used to be me back in the days until I began to ask questions. Why was I making it warmer? Why did I add a diffusion filter? How will that color help tell the story? When I started asking questions while color grading the process started to make a lot more sense to me. I was no longer like a dog chasing cars (Joker reference!), instead I was able to make conscious decisions based on how my choices affected my vision.
So, here are 3 essentials questions I ask when color grading:
1. What do I want the audience to feel?
Asking this question is actually not just helpful for color grading, but for writing, directing and editing. It's a simple question, but you'd be surprised how much your results improve when you have a clear idea of your goals. Think of it this way: Each scene/video has a certain mood, and it's up to you to communicate that mood the best you can to your audience.
Once you know what you want the audience to feel, all there is left to do is work on how to accomplish the desired feeling. Let's use the shot below as an example.
As you can see the original film was shot very flat, which is good because it gives you more information to work with when grading. Before I even open up my grading suite, I'll ask my first magic question. What do I want the audience to feel?
This is actually a very happy scene. It's Angel and Daniel's first date, and he takes her to explore the town she's never been to. Everything feels so different and magical to her, and they're both having a great time. I want the audience to feel what they're feeling, so already that tells me this scene should be colorful and a little warm.
I used the Curves to add a bit of contrast, and I upped the saturation to about 110%. I then made the mids a bit warmer and pushed the shadows towards magenta. These subtle changes make the scene pop and fit the mood I'm going for. The result is below.
2. What do I want to stand out?
I always look for things I want to highlight in a shot such as a particular object, person, or color. Reasons for why I make things stand out vary from shot to shot. Sometimes I emphasize something because it benefits the story, and sometimes I just do it because it looks freakin' cool (gotta love music videos). Either way, my point is that you must do it for a purpose.
In the shot below, the next thing I did was bring up the exposure on Daniel and Angel's faces using power windows. Their faces are very important in this scene, and since we shot it on a cloudy day I wanted to light up their faces slightly. Daniel's shirt is the only blue object in the shot, but it was a bit desaturated and looked slightly purple. I saturated the shirt and toned down the reds so it could be a purer blue.
While coloring the shot I noticed how distracting the SUV between the actors was, so this time I needed to make it stand out less. Using a power window I decreased the exposure to make it blend into the background. Now that I look at it, I probably could've pushed it a bit more. I also made the bushes lighter and made Angel's hair less red. Below is the result.
3. Does it feel natural?
You've probably noticed that a lot of the changes I made in this shot have been subtle. To me, good color grading isn't supposed to draw too much attention to itself. This is a film, not Instagram, so control yourself please! The example below shows a more extreme version of the same grade I applied earlier. While it doesn't look bad per se, it is obviously color graded and her purple-ish hair is distracting.
Also watch out for skin tones. If you push the grade too far in the wrong direction you might end up with actors looking like Shrek or a Na'vi from Avatar. Unless it's for a specific reason, keep your humans looking like humans.
The image above is a Vectorscope, and they're found in most editing and color grading software. I usually use a Vectorscope to make sure my skin tones are where they should be. Highlighted in red is what is known as the "skin tone line," and as the name suggests, your skin tones should be on or near that line. Since this post is more psychological than technical, I'll go into more details on Vectorscopes in another post.
Aimless coloring will get you results, but it might not be the results you need for your project. I've found that asking these 3 questions when color grading will help you make better decisions that improves your footage instead of destroying it. Gone are the days of randomly turning nobs; you control your film's look, not the other way around.
Thank you for reading! As always, let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments below. Be sure to also check out our stock footage and effects for all your Filmmaking needs!