Getting It WRONG In Camera – Color Grading

These golden brown grass stalks are bright green in real life.

A common saying among photographers is “getting it right in camera.” That is to say, make the shot you get when you snap the shutter as good as possible: exposure, color, framing, etc, so it reduces the amount of work you have to do in post production (i.e. Photoshop). Ironically enough, when it comes to DSLR filmmaking, you should actually get it WRONG in camera…on purpose. As Ricky Ricardo would say, “Ron, joo have some splainin’ to do!” So, let me ‘splain.

COLOR GRADING

Color grading is the art of finessing the final look and feel for your film by tweaking things like exposure, color, white balance, contrast, etc. Every movie you see in Hollywood has some amount of professional color grading done, whether it’s a fantasy adventure epic like “Lord of the Rings,” or even a melodramatic romance like Will Smith’s “Seven Pounds.” (There was a scene in “Seven Pounds” where Smith’s character is sitting in a field of golden colored grass stalks with Rosario Dawson’s character. It invoked a feeling of warmth and romance. But when you watch the behind the scenes making of that scene in the special features, you see that all those golden brown stalks were actually green! That’s color grading. In the photo above, also notice how the clothes Smith and Dawson are wearing are neutral and and towards the other end of the color spectrum. I guarantee you that’s planned).

Nothing you see on screen is how it looked when it came out of the camera. A professional Colorist has done some kind of work on it to give the film its signature looks, using high grade equipment and software worth thousands of dollars. Independent and event filmmakers can use programs like Apple’s Color, Red Giant’s Magic Bullet suite of products, or Tiffen’s Dfx filters, which all cost just a few hundred dollars vs. multiple thousands.

Color grading plays a huge role in attaining the look of films like "Lord of the Rings."

These programs all work by adjusting parameters like exposure, color, white balance, contrast, and the like. In order to have the most flexibility when using them, the most experienced filmmakers will shoot their raw footage in such a way to make it “flat.” That is, these parameters are slightly reduced “in camera” (thus the title of my post), thereby allowing you to make them look the way you want when you actually go to edit. Digital film cameras like the RED shoot in a proprietary film format that is already flat. (If you’ve ever seen raw RED footage, you’ll know what I mean. It’s actually quite ugly. But it’s designed that way so it can be professionally color graded.) The best article on the web I’ve read about why you do this, as well as suggested settings for your DSLR camera to achieve that flat look, is Stu Maschwitz’s. You can find it at prolost.com/settings.

TIPS ABOUT GRADING

Here are five tips to keep in mind when you decide to head down the path of grading your DSLR film:

  • Render Time: the programs I mentioned above usually required long render times, so keep that in mind. The more powerful your computer, the faster the render times.
  • Additional storage space: when you render footage, you’re creating additional video files on your system that can take up as much space as the files you’ve rendered. For example, a 5-minute HDV file is just over 1 GB. If you were to add color grading filters to it and render 100% of it, you’d create a render file that is 1 GB. The more rendering you do, the more space will be used up.
  • Keep it real: in most cases, you will want your color graded footage to look real. That is, you don’t want the grading and the filters to overpower the look so much that they draw attention to themselves. Again, using the “Seven Pounds” example above, you’d never guess when watching the film that the grass stalks were originally green. Even when watching a movie like “Lord of the Rings,” where the final look is substantially different from the raw footage, it seems real. In other words, when you see that scenery, as far as you’re concerned, it looked like that when it was shot. It can be easy to overdo it with these programs.
  • Get input from a “pro”: If you can afford it, assign your color grading to someone who has an eye for it, or if it’s in your production’s budget, higher a pro color grader. But you don’t have to spend money. I will frequently get my wife involved in the color grading process. She’s a pro photographer and has a great eye for such things. I’ll pull her up to the computer and have her go through the various Magic Bullet looks on my screen and show her how to tweak them. Her photographer’s eye has significantly improved many a project.
  • Pre-planning: the more you know how you want your final film to look ahead of time, the more you can make wardrobe, lighting, and set design decisions that will aid you in your color grading process. If the makers of “Seven Pounds” had Smith or Dawson wearing any green, that would have hindered their ability to achieve their desired look because the green in the clothing would be changed like the green in the grass.

TO BE CONTINUED…

But what if you don’t even have the hundreds of dollars to buy the programs I mentioned above. No worries. In my next installment of this series, I’ll introduce you to a guy who didn’t let a lack of fancy, shmancy tools stop him from getting the look he wanted. Stay tuned.

5 thoughts on “Getting It WRONG In Camera – Color Grading

  1. Great timing! I am working on a project that had very very poor lighting and color correction is talking FOREVER!!! This is helpful and timely. Funny… my wife is also a professional photographer and I am constantly pulling her because she has a great eye for color… especially skin tones.

    BTW… I have become a Neat Video evangelist… have you tried the Neat Video plugin for FCP? (neatvideo.com) I am blown away! Much of the footage I was going to scrap because of very high ISO and horrible lighting became very usable, and stuff that was already looking great looks even more amazing with it. Just curious.
    Thanks Ron!

    Dan

  2. Getting your image as close as possible in camera is still done today. I feel like you sort of say that isn’t the case. With your 7 pounds example, the time it would take to paint the grass or wait until the season changes the color wouldn’t be smart. So they nail the rest of their image and change what they have to in post. I don’t think you make a clear distinction in your post about creative coloring (changing the grass) and simply coloring to make your image look different (throwing on a look).

    1. Hey Phil, Thanks for your input. The title of my post is just to be “cute” and provocative. My main point is that shooting with a flat profile gives you the flexibility to make your film look anyway you like, even if you just want it to look like the actual colors on the set. As Stu points out in the settings article I alluded to, the flat profile reduces some of the video-y look you can get even with a DSLR. Also, as far as I know, every major movie and TV show is significantly color graded to give a certain feeling or look.

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