Color Grading: Using Color Profiles

If I have learned anything in the software-based world of video editing…it’s that achieving the look you want in your productions don’t have to be done purely by art direction, lighting, and in-camera settings.  There’s a whole new world to “painting” the picture…or should I say whole new “paintbrush” to use as it’s another tool that even Hollywood is using more and more in the big budget studio movies.  I’m not discounting the need for great lighting at all, so don’t misunderstand.  Nor do I think it’s always necessary as a general rule to never alter the image within your camera.  But these 3 primary areas coupled with art direction (the colors in the scene being photographed; like the set decor and actors’ wardrobe colors) are all necessary to work together to bring about the best desired color profile.

When I say color profile…I’m referring to the overall color gamut of your scene or movie or whatever you’re making.  This is important to decide upon before pre-production.  If you look at some Hollywood big-budget movies you can see that the color profile is no accident.  There is a general reference colors that compliment each other that Art Directors, Cinematographers, and Colorists use to get these profiles.  The Art Director, or anyone doing the art direction (like myself and many other filmmakers who must conform to low budgets and play 20 different crew members at once), must know which profiles are desired and make sure the actors’ wardrobe and set decoration matches said profile.  The Cinematographer (again usually me) must light the scene to match said profile and usually setup the camera (if digital) to achieve the desired results.  After editing, the Colorist will scrutinize every part of every frame to further adhere to the color profile.

NOTE: In digital cinema or video, the camera should always have the flattest curve with no in-camera alterations of color, contrast, etc if color grading will be done in post production.  I would even add, if you have the means, some scopes to the camera that allows you to see the threshold of the exposure and RGB profiles.  (Many cameras have this capability built-in) I can’t stress this enough!  Leaving the camera with the flattest image might not look all that great right out of the camera, but it records the MOST INFORMATION to the camera for best lattitude in post grading and giving you the most options to choose from when the color grading process starts.  Otherwise, for example, if you choose to alter the camera settings to crush the blacks or over-saturate the colors…you will NOT be able to brighten up those shadows or decrease the over-saturation in post and make it look decent.



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Here’s a fantastic tool that I use that’s free to use from Adobe called “KULER:” This will allow you to play with the colors you want in the film, and will show you 4 other colors that are acceptable to accompany them.  As you adjust one of the 5 total colors, the others will adjust accordingly.  Here’s a screengrab of a shot in Transformers that shows a certain color profile, again not an accident:


After playing a bit with Kuler, I came up with this profile as best I could…


You’ll notice that the color in the shadows are sort of green and the skin tones are sort of pinkish-orange.  You can see this color profile throughout the entire film.  Again…not an accident.

There are many many options for color grading software available.  The big-boys in Hollywood use the “DaVinci” system which does coloring in “real time” (allowing you to color while playing the footage without rendering) but doesn’t have nearly the options you have in software-based systems like Apple Color or the array of programs from Red Giant like Magic Bullet Looks (my preference).  Here’s a great tutorial by one of my favorite cinematographers, Phillip Bloom, on using Magic Bullet Looks:

Whatever system you choose…there really is never a “magic bullet” for true color grading.  For it to be done properly and professionally, achieving the Hollywood looks…the color profile and grading process starts way before the first camera rolls.
Here’s my Color Grading Demo Reel:

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