colour grading process

colourist balls

What are those colourist balls all about?

Ahhh the balls.  Ok. So let me first put in a disclaimer that yes, the fact that I play with balls all day is one of the oldest colourist jokes around! There is no way around this occupational faux pas.


We play with 3 balls on a colourist console, and they each have a spin-able ring around them.  The balls affect the colour.  The rings affect the brightness.

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The left ball is for “lift” (shadows/blacks), the middle ball is for “gamma” (midtones/middle of the road colours that are neither dark or bright) and the right ball is “gain” (highlights/whites/bright colours).  By moving a ball in a certain direction you can push one range of colours toward a different range of colours. For example moving the “lift” ball from left to right will push any yellowy shadows toward more bluey coloured shadows.  Moving the “gamma” ball from left to right will make yellow midtones move toward blue (ie. taking some yellow out of skin tones and cooling it off toward blue). The left/right/up/down movement of the ball mirrors a vector scope. When I was starting out I drew a diagram like this below so that I could remember which way to push the balls! Quickly it becomes second nature.  In the early days during some particularly busy grading weeks I had been known to go to sleep, eyes closed but moving my eyeballs around to make different colours in my dreams.  Now there is a cool and weird colourist confession if I ever heard one!


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This diagram replicates a vectorscope (an electronic tool we use to measure hue and saturation).  You push the balls in the direction you want to get either red, green, blue, yellow, magenta or cyan.

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Now for the rings.  By moving each ring to the left, you wind it down/lessen the brightness of that parameter (either the shadows, mids, or highlights). By moving each right to the right you wind it up/crank it/brighten that parameter (either the shadows, mids, or highlights).

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You can colour grade without a console and it’s balls/rings and just use a mouse. The software usually has little colourful ball diagrams so you can drag your mouse from left to right on the each ball and do it that way. The beautiful thing about a console however, is that it means that you can use your two hands to intuitively move and spin the balls and rings to get your desired effect. When you change one parameter it effects another eg. Lifting the shadows will slightly lift the midtones also. Everything flows and is connected. So by using your hands it really becomes more like an art form in my opinion, very instinctive and reactive and I really love this bit about grading.

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Next time you’re in my suite, ask me for a spin!

How to make your videos look better in 2019

1.  Light. Light. Light. Light. It’s all about light.  Without it we would literally have no image.  Look for interesting light to capture… filtered, speckled, coloured, soft, dappled, twilight, harsh, glittering and glorious light.  Capture the contrast between light and shade and this will make your image more dynamic.  If the natural light is not interesting enough cut some of it out and create dark shadows.  Make sure your character has an eye-light – every character needs a light and a twinkle in their eye no matter how dark the scene is.  If you are filming a dark scene, light it up and put light into those shadow details then bring the exposure back down in the grade.  There is no coming back from an underexposed shot and your image may break up with noise.  Hire a good cinematographer!  She/he is worth their weight in gold.


2.  Create a visual mood board of the look that you want before your start shooting.  Show your collaborators and have this on hand when you’re making decisions on costume, location and set design.  Show your cinematographer and your colourist so that every one knows your intention and can aim for the same visual goal.  This planning and preparation will help make your videos look better – if you are wanting a soft colour palette then make sure your lead character or presenter is not wearing a black shirt or a bright, bold red dress.


3.  Stay away from cream walls as a backdrop.  If you’re shooting a documentary interior try and find a wall nearby with some colour or some pattern.  If it’s an interview set up give the shot depth by having them stand in the foreground of a location with a background with objects at different heights (buildings, trees etc).  If you have a stationary subject create depth and interest by adding something in the background which can be out of focus like a coloured curtain, a vase, a sculpture, or a painting.  Cream walls also make it more difficult to pull out/isolate some subject’s skin tones and it limits the separation between background and foreground.  We want a good separation between background and foreground so avoid cream and go find a wall of a different colour or pattern, or if you have time and budget paint the wall!

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4.  Limit zooming in on full frame shots during the edit unless very necessary for the story.  Zooming in on a shot reduces the quality of that shot no matter what the source resolution.


5.  Leave enough time in the filmmaking process for the final finishing.  Lock your edit (!) and let the VFX, the sound and colour department have time to craft their magic.  This is the best part (in my biased opinion!) so try and avoid crazy finishing deadlines and soak up the wonderful experience of putting the icing on the cake.  Great finishing will elevate your video and make it look infinitely better.  

ASK THE COLOURIST: PART 2 – Featuring “Magenta”, “Warm it up” and “Softer”

In Part 1 it was explained how this series of blog posts would aim to unpack some colour grading language and turn it into easily understandable terms.  I had some great feedback about “Crush the Blacks? Split the Diff? and How to make something Fluro?”.  Reminder to email me at angelacerasi@gmail.com if you have any terms or questions you would like me to decode or answer.  Here’s the next instalment!

MAGENTA?

Magenta is basically a fancy pants word for the shade between red and blue.  A purpley-pink.  This word is often thrown around in a grade suite if the skin tones look too pink or red, someone might say “it has too much magenta”.  Poor magenta gets a bad wrap… no one likes magenta!  As a colourist when you pull magenta out of the image you are increasing the green, (decreasing one colour increases the complimentary colour) so often when you pull the magenta out you do it just slightly because no one wants a green image either.  Pulling magenta out of skin tone and going toward green will make it less red and more yellowy instead.  No one wants a ruddy skin tone and often too much magenta in an image can be very undesirable.    

Image with a lot of magenta in it
Image with less magenta in it

WARM IT UP?

All images are basically on a scale of warm through to cool.  A warm image is literally in the realm of red, orange and yellows.  It is probably lit by tungsten (artificial lamps) or candlelight.  A cool image on the other hand is in the world of blues.  It might be lit by natural daylight which is actually blue compared to artificial interior lights.  In advertising warm images can be more appealing and pleasant so being directed to “warm it up” is quite common.  Skin tones are warm by nature and it’s really important to get warmth in the skin tones in most cases so the character looks healthy and well.  As a colourist who needs to warm up an image, depending on the image you are working on you can add yellow/orange to the midtones (which will usually affect the skin tones), highlights (skies, brightest parts of image) or shadows (blacks).  The most common thing to do would be to warm up the midtones/skin tones, and increasing yellow/orange means decreasing blues.

Image which would be considered ‘cool’
Warmed up

SOFTER?

Making an image softer has nothing to do with focus and should not be confused with soft focus.  We always want sharp images (unless you are doing a drunken POV for example!) and the sharply focused image can have a soft feeling to it.  You can make an image “softer” a few different ways.  In practical terms it can be executed by decreasing contrast, lifting blacks, rolling off highlights.  You could also desaturate any jarring colours so they were not so bold and strong.  Also slightly blurring the picture or a part of the picture if the pixels looks too sharp.  Often Go-Pro’s are too sharp and will need to be softened to match other shots in the sequence if they are not Go-Pro.  The effect of ‘softening” can make the image more pleasant, feminine, flowing, cozy and “nice”.  The opposite of making an image softer is making it more “punchy”, hard, harsh or crisp.  Examples of commercials that feel soft are usually baby-related ads, life insurance ads and ad’s for fabric softener!  

A harsher image
A softer image

ASK THE COLOURIST: PART 1 – Featuring “What is crush the blacks?”, “Split the diff?” and “How to make something fluro?”

Hello and welcome to my first Q & A post!  Shout out to my girls at the ‘Free the Bid’ workshop last weekend who submitted the content for this post and some of the future ASK THE COLOURIST posts.  If you have a piece of terminology or a phrase that you have heard thrown around in a colour grading session and you have no idea or a vague idea what it means, feel free to email it to me at angelacerasi@gmail.com.  No judgement here and all will be anonymous.  The goal is that next time someone geeks out about LUT’s or codec’s in your session, you can have the confidence and knowledge to know exactly what they’re talking about and why it does or doesn’t matter to the actual story at play!

 

Disclaimer: I will try and decode any jargon in my answers!

 

CRUSH THE BLACKS?

This is often used to describe a style which is heavy on the blacks (read: dark blacks, deep shadows) and you will often see this look in an action film or gritty, grungey work.  If the luminance (brightness) in your image is made up of whites through to black and all the colours in between, the bottom end of the luminance channel (the “toe”) which means the light shadows, the shadows, the dark shadows and the black would all be crushed down to a black level. Often some details in the shadows can be lost but perhaps those details aren’t important.  The overall effect of crushing the blacks is often a hard look.  Sometimes it can feel cinematic because in the cinema there is the scope for the picture to be darker (dark environment means our eyes just and we can see more in the shadows).  The opposite to crushing the blacks would be to pull more detail out of the shadows and sit the shadows up.  The image will feel lighter and not so heavy.  Examples of works which do not crush the blacks are commercials for baby related products like nappies, hygiene/cleaning products and romantic movies!  Examples of works which often crush the blacks are action films, horror and hard hitting drama.

This still from Narcos Mexico has “crushed blacks”. The shadow areas have been crushed down to black and detail has been lost. However the overall effect which is gained is that the scene looks gritty, the room looks dingey and the emotion that you can see in the lit part of the character’s face is emphasised as it’s the only part we can see.

 

SPLIT THE DIFF?

Splitting the difference between one look and another is literally going half way between the two looks.  In our colour grading software there is an option to set the output to 50%, but if we don’t want to get so technical about it the colourist can just do it by eye.  An example may be adding a heavy sepia look to the image, splitting the diff would be reducing that look back by 50% to where we were before and not going so hard on it.

 

HOW TO MAKE SOMETHING FLURO?

I wonder if this question means fluro colour or fluro lighting?  Best thing to do is use fluro/neon coloured clothing or lights from the get go.  Failing that we would crank (increase) the saturation of the object but also crank the luminance/brightness.  You could twist any primary colours of red, green, blue to lighter/brighter versions.  Cool thing about fluro colours is you get those really unique candy pinks, apple green, off the chart yellows.  You could slightly desaturate everything in the scene to make the neon stand out even more.

 

Most peeps try and alleviate fluro lighting that may have been captured unintentionally on set.  It can be pretty nasty on skin tones and give an unwanted green cast.  If you want to try and make something look more fluro (ie. like a night time scene in a 7-11), you would increase the brightness and take the whites and top end of the luminance channel towards a light apple green colour.  If you can see the practical lights you could make them glow or make the entire top of the frame a little hazy (read: lower contrast, but sitting bright) because often fluro light is just so garish and bright.

5 ways to get the best out of your grading session

If you are a director, producer, cinematographer or advertising creative, here are a few nuggets which might be useful for your next colour grading session!

1. Be prepared and think about what you want visually in advance. If you can't quite articulate what it is that you are after, are there any images you can bring to the session? What is it about these images that you like? If you can't quite put your finger on it then do not worry! Your colourist is an expert at imagery and deals with pictures everyday. They should be able to see a common thread. These reference images are a great place to start.

 

 

2. Know that the longer you look at an image the more it can normalise. Go get a coffee. Go to the fridge. You can begin the session exploring some really interesting looks and styles but for some reason after a while they don't look that interesting or stylish anymore. This is kind of like how when you walk into a blacked out room it looks really dark at the beginning and then after a while it doesn't seem as dark. Your eyes start to adjust and get used to your surroundings. This is similar to how your eyes start to normalise the image in a colour grading session. I think it's really useful to work on images briefly at the beginning and move forward rather than go into too much detail on one shot. Your colourist can save some key looks and then compare them side by side to give them context between one another. Your colourist uses electronic tools like a "vectorscope" (to measure hue/colour and saturation) and a "waveform" (to measure luminance/brightness) to keep their eyes in check and know how far away from the "normal" looking original they have taken it.

 

 

3. If you would like to know more about the colour grading process as it happens feel free to ask questions. Most colourists will be more than happy to talk about their craft and actually love talking about what they do! As they say, there are no stupid questions and giving a commentary of what you are doing can be really insightful and lead to new ideas about what is possible.

 

 

4. Provide your colourist with a copy of the final edit (an offline reference) before the grade session. At this point your could always email through some reference images too. If it is a long form project the colourist will have time to watch the project through in advance. If it is a music video or commercial then the colourist will be able to get an idea of what is involved and can start the session without any surprises.

 

 

5. A true collaboration can yield the best results. Come to your grading sessions with some visual ideas (either brief or detailed) and ask your colourist their opinion. They work with colour and images every day and this is their niche. It is also really awesome to be challenged in a session by questions, requests and suggestions. At the end of the day it is YOUR session, use it how you like!

 

Would you like to know more?

 

Email Angela at angelacerasi@gmail.com