Color correction is just one step of the entire filmmaking process…but oh, what a difference it can make. You can take average footage and really make it pop, sing and enhance the viewing experience of your project. If you have excellent footage, then the sky is the limit. You can also make images look garish, ugly and destroy all the hard work the crew did to capture those images on the day of the shoot. The challenges and choices are many and it comes with great responsibility if you are the one applying the Color Correction and Color Grade. In the indie film world, jobs are more often merged and unified and Color Correction is more and more falling into the hands of the Editor. The smaller the budget and tighter the deadline…the more often this becomes true. Shane asked me to take this opportunity and pass on some tips and tricks I have learned over the years of Coloring features, shorts, ads, music videos and documentaries. I choose to use Adobe CS5.5 for my Color post work and bounce between After Effects, Photoshop and Premiere as I love the seamless integration it provides. I am ecstatic to be integrating Speedgrade into my workflow as it will be part of the upcoming CS6 release. That said…the tips I would like to share with you are applicable to all Color Correction software.
To get on the same page, let’s quickly go over some terminology that clarifies what is what in this realm.
COLOR CORRECTION is the process where every clip is manually tweaked to get a good exposure and balance of light. Each clip is adjusted to match color temperature to a predefined choice for each scene. This tedious and mechanical process is essential and in its own way, an art form. The use of SCOPES (Waveform, Vectroscope, Parade) is critical to this step and luckily most NLE’s and Grading software have them built-in. Without them you are literally flying blind and solely trusting your eyes, which have to adjust to room light ambience, fatigue, funky monitors and other factors constantly. Trust the SCOPES and let them guide you into accurate and creative decision making.
COLOR GRADING is the creative process where decisions are made to further enhance or establish a new visual tone to the project through software including: introducing new color themes, re-lighting within a frame, films stock emulations, color gradients and a slew of other choices. Being that this is purely creative, there is no wrong or right…only what the DP, director and colorist feel is appropriate for the story. It can be subtle and invisible or over-the-top and uber-stylized. Therein lies the challenge…The challenge of choices. The tools available are so numerous, powerful and often free (Davinci Resolve Lite!) that you have no excuse not to explore these options further before you embark on the Grading journey.
LIFT-GAMMA-GAIN / SHADOWS-MIDTONES-HILIGHTS / BLACKS-MIDS-WHITES
These are the 3 interchangeable assignments used to describe what portion of the image you will be working with. Every program uses one of the 3 naming conventions above, but in essence they are all the same. Even when working with LEVELS or CURVES, you rely on numericals but still have 3 sliders (at least) to make your adjustments. With these 3 controls, you can mold images almost at will.
There are so many different elements to Color Correction that trying to fit it all into one blog would be futile. I would like to focus on several specific tips that will allow the indie filmmaker to be as effective as possible in creating imagery that will help serve the story. I would like to thank Michael Evanet, the director of “HWY”, for allowing me to share his footage for this blog. I just finished editing and Color Correcting his film.
TIP #1 – SHOOT WITH A FLAT OR LOG PROFILE
Shane has learned over his extensive research and testing of every profile available that choosing a flat profile will allow you to capture as much information as possible into the camera. When I shoot on the 5Dmkii, I like to use Technicolor Cinestyle or Canon Neutral with minimal sharpness and contrast. I’m also about to test the Similaar Flaat profiles that just became available in 4 different flavors. The camera companies often have stock profiles that look contrasty and rich in camera but when analyzed on a monitor, you will have crushed blacks and blown-out highlights. That is information that is gone forever and you cannot get it back. We, as filmmakers with the tools in our hands, cannot accept stock anything! Just as auto anything on the camera is a recipe for disaster, stock profiles are for rank amateurs. Tweak away!
TIP #2 – TRUST THE WAVEFORM, VECTROSCOPE and PARADE SCOPES
In PREMIERE, go to the WINDOW tab and choose WORKSPACE and COLOR CORRECTION. Push the little RGB BUTTON on the bottom right of any window. This will reveal the SCOPES and more. Waveform=Luminance. Vectroscope=Chrominance. Parade=Red,Green,Blue values. I can’t stress enough how critical and essential it is to use these tools. Once you embrace the SCOPES, you will be confident to plow through footage and have instant visual feedback to confirm you are making the right decisions. I won’t broach the calibrated monitor issue that is always lurking ($$$) and will just say that understanding and trusting the SCOPES will get you 95% of the way home. Grab a Matrox Mini and use that to calibrate any LCD TV if you’re in a pinch. This includes finishing projects for broadcast or passing QC for distribution. I’ve on-lined 4 indie features on Final Cut Pro using only SCOPES that all passed QC the first time around. I was sweating bullets…but survived! Adobe makes it even easier for me now.
TIP #3 – ORDER OF OPERATIONS
To maintain image quality and to preserve as much info as possible, it’s important to do things in the proper order. Just as you wouldn’t ice a cake before you bake it, when you apply an effect is critical. I have always achieved great results using Stu Maschwitz’s advice. Doing Color Correction on your footage in this order will help you maintain extremely high quality in the interaction of all the effects you use. Not all steps are needed for every shot but in case you have to use them all, here they are:
1. Remove artifacts and de-noise.
2. Balance your shots by adjusting BLACKS/MIDS/WHITES, SATURATION and WHITE BALANCE.
3. Relight within a shot using power windows or masks.
4. Add gradients, diffusion and other lens filters.
5. Add vignettes
6. Grade your images
7. Simulate a film stock of your choice
8. Resize and sharpen
TIP #4 – THE FAST COLOR CORRECTER EFFECT in PREMIERE is 32 BIT, EASY AND EFFECTIVE
This video effect is a great starting point to tackle any shot. This one effect will allow you in REAL-TIME to address levels, saturation, tinting of the image, white balance and more. The shot below shows how I added contrast by raising the input black slider and lowering the white input slider. I used the color wheel and dragged towards orange to counteract the blue in the original image. You can also use the White Balance dropper to achieve an accurate starting point…but I preferred in this case to Tint the whole image towards orange and approximate a 1950’s film look. I boosted saturation by a healthy 40% to make the image pop. Finally, a 2.35 matte was added to approximate the old Cinemascope aspect ratio.
TIP #5 - ADJUST YOUR LIFT/SHADOWS/BLACKS FIRST
By adjusting your BLACKS first, you get a baseline started to balance your image. I like working from the bottom up and getting my BLACKS just kissing 0 IRE on the WAVEFORM. I then push the WHITES up to expand my image and get some contrast into it. Finally, I tweak the MIDS as needed. You will notice that moving the BLACKS or WHITES up or down will affect the entire WAVEFORM so there is a give and take dance as you work back and forth. MIDS do not affect the BLACKS or WHITES too much and that is why you should work with them last. Lastly, if you raise MIDS, you will lose overall saturation to the image, so compensate by bumping up the SATURATION to keep the colors popping.
TIP #6 - MIDS ARE WHERE FACES LIVE
MIDS are where the skin tones live and you can really make a face pop by raising the MIDS after you have a good balanced image. Sometimes it feels easy to raise the EXPOSURE in Premiere or After Effects to brighten a face or scene…but that raises all the levels evenly and will ultimately not be as effective as separately adjusting the 3 zones. A good IRE for a properly exposed face is 60-70 IRE on the WAVEFORM. If you raise the MIDS too much, you will introduce the beast of digital noise, so use judicially!
TIP #7 - Look for the FLESH LINE on the VECTROSCOPE to see how far off your skin tone is. On the 3-Way Color Corrector effect, or on a plug-in like Colorista, you can change the specific zone of color where the flesh tones live. By adjusting the color of the MIDS wheel you can introduce the proper hues into a face that need tweaking. Move the wheel in the direction of the color you need more of in your face. Watch the section of skin tone move until it lines up with FLESH LINE. An interesting note is that the FLESH LINE is accurate for all races and skin tones. We all share the same skin pigment that registers as numeric FLESH color. Proper WHITE BALANCING earlier will make this a minor but still important adjustment. If you are going for a natural look, no one likes a pink, red or green face. SATURATION should be dialed in at this point to give a natural look to the flesh tone. Here’s a subtle example of adjusting for skin…and an overt example for comparison. Neither is right or wrong….it’s all up to what feels right for that moment.
I hope that I was able to pass on some helpful knowledge and that you learned at least one thing you didn’t know before you read this. There are infinite ways to approach Color Correction and the best thing is…no one way is the best. You don’t need every plug-in known to man, a 4k projector and a $20,000 control surface to color correct. You only need time, the simplest effects and a sense of wonder and excitement. Feel free to push the footage around and see how it responds. What may look like a mistake on one shot could be the secret sauce you need for a completely different shot. Experiment and enjoy!
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