Why The 1-Man Crew Needs Color Grading Skills

This is a guest blog post from Sherwin Lau of Walk/Humbly Films. This is part 1 of a 2-part series.

As a filmmaker that frequently works with clients that are non-profits or small community organizations, I usually don’t have the luxury of a crew and trucks full of production equipment.

During production, I’m typically responsible for camera, lighting, sound, directing and producing.  As much work as I do in pre-production, sometimes, I can’t implement that plan fully because there’s no time, help or money.  And other times, “user error” rears its ugly head and I’ve messed some setting.


This is where dedicated color correction/grading software comes to play in my post-production workflow.  These two reasons are huge reasons why the color-correction phase is an essential step in my post-production process:

1.  Correct specific problems that happen due to improper exposure and color balancing
2.  Digitally re-light a shot/scene (with some caveats)
3.  Low-cost to entry

There are many resources out there for those who want to grow in color grading.  Alexis Van Hurkman (who was a guest on the Crossing the 180 Podcast) has written a book that is one of the best resources of color grading out there: Color Correction Handbook: Professional Techniques for Video and Cinema (2nd Edition).  I would recommend that book as a starting point for your color grading adventures.

#1: Correcting Specific Problems in an Image
There are so many ways of fixing problems in an image nowadays with effects built right into an NLE, third-party plugins, and dedicated color grading software.  The effects and most plug-ins are useful tools but a dedicated piece of color grading software gives you the most control over your image.  And because I’m a control freak, I love using color grading programs.

Final Cut Pro X Color Board

With these programs (DaVinci Resolve, Adobe Speedgrade, Apple Color (R.I.P.) to name a few), they have two basic ways of treating your image: primaries and secondaries.  A primary correction is where you can change the color balance or your shadows, mids and highs over the entire image.  A secondary correction is adjusting those same things (color and contrast) but in a much more specific part of the image.  The implementation of secondaries is typically what these grading programs are better at than the plugins or built-in NLE effects.

With HSL Qualifiers, power windows/masks, tracking tools, I can literally have complete control over my image.  HSL Qualifiers allow you to select only the hue, saturation and/or luminance of an image to adjust. Power windows or masks allow you to create a shape and adjust only that part of the image inside or outside that shape. Tracking tools allow your adjustment to stick to what you’ve corrected even if they move about in the frame or out of it. Using a combination of those features, I can adjust specific colors, or parts of the frame.

DaVinci Resolve

With those three features, I have the ability to fix most problems that happen.  The next reason utilizes those same features but instead of fixing problems, it’s a feature that allows me to do more to my image.

#2: Digital Re-Lighting*
This is the feature that one man crews like myself love having.  I typically lack time, resources and crew so I don’t have the time/gear to light a huge exterior location at night the way I want.  What I do is shoot it in a way that allows me to digitally relight or reshape the lighting during my color grading phase.

What do I mean by that?  By relighting/reshaping, I actually mean that I can make it look as if I had flagged off an area of the background on set or knocked down the fill area of the subject’s face as he moves through the shot.  This is basically doing a visual effect on your image.  Using a combination of secondary color corrections, I can significantly enhance the look of my image or even totally change it to look a different way.  I can change a field of bright green grass to a dead yellow field.

Scene from “Seven Pounds.” These stalks of grass are bright green in real life.

* It’s important to note that nothing can ever make up for lazy filmmaking.  So I am not advocating that anyone go into a production with the perspective that you can just fix everything in post.  You can’t grab an ALEXA or RED EPIC Dragon and just aim and shoot and get Skyfall.  A beautiful work of art always points back to the creator, not the brush.  Nothing can recreate the lighting and look you create in camera, but knowing how to use these digital color correction tools, you can come close.  In the end, it’s just another tool to have in your toolbox.  Knowing what you can and can’t do, will give you more freedom to create.

#3: Low-Cost to Entry
Master DP, Roger Deakins, used this digital relighting process (digital intermediate, DI) for the first time on the film “O, Brother, Where Are Thou” in 2000.  It was the first feature film to go through a DI for the entire film.  He was able to create a look for the entire film that would’ve so much longer had he done it photochemically.  (On a side note, he has written an interesting post regarding this DI, digital color grading process)  A decade later, we have the ability to do that for free.


Just a handful of years ago, we were charged over $1000 an hour to do a DI for a short film.  Fortunately, my friend shot it well so we didn’t have to do an entire 8-hour session.  Today, I can do basically the same thing for $0 an hour.  Granted, the DI was in a DI theater using a 2K scan of the negative BUT the tools are now available at a significantly lower cost of entry.

The power of color grading is more than just making your film look like Pleasantville or Sin City.  It’s a huge boon for those of us who have very little resources and time to create our film. We can create a look for our project that was too time-consuming/impossible to practically do in camera to better serve the story or message of the film.  I recommend taking a look at any of the color grading tools out there and learn how they can improve the production value for your films.

How have your productions been affected by these color-grading tools?  Would you be interested in learning about a specific color-grading program?

C100Sherwin Lau is an award-winning filmmaker and educator based in New Mexico.  He and his lovely wife, Monica, started Walk/Humbly Films. His mission is to glorify God by using the visual arts to serve individuals, organizations, and the community.  Sherwin also teaches film production courses for the Creative Media Institute at New Mexico State University.

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