A New Colorist Paradigm

Color grading in the film and video worlds has always been a heavily technical occupation. It always will be, because a major part of your responsibility is ensuring that your project meets the precise standards of broadcast and distribution companies. As a throwback to telecine this technical knowledge is one that few other post-production professionals have and requires constant research and analysis to get right.

But the difference between a good professional colorist and an also-ran has always been the degree of creativity that they bring to the gig once a set of images are technically correct, their ability to enhance a project by creatively fine tuning the style and look of the pictures to better tell the story, and to step into the design of individual images to change the balance between elements and direct the viewer to the part that they should be taking in. This is truly the art of the color grader, and whereas the technical side of the job can be taught this artistic side can only be developed as it is purely about innate creativity.

For most colorists these two parts of the post-production equation have been the scope of their role since the job was first created as an extension of film timing.

But something else has changed in our industry, in the heady days of massively expensive tape based edit systems and suites there were two very distinct halves of the edit – off-line editing and on-line editing.

Off-line was very basic stuff that took place in little cubicles hidden away under the stairs at most production companies and every post-production company, a simple two machine cut of the final project footage with embedded timecode from low quality tape copies against a scratch audio soundtrack. On-line editing was where all of the magic happened and the edit decision timecode list from the off-line was recreated with the original high quality footage, effects and transitions added, the color pulled closer to acceptable, graphics and animation inserted, the finished edit soundtrack added and all of those rough and ready edit decisions were fine tuned to the exact edit points for a seamless flow.

On-line editing was serious stuff, with multi-million dollar suites, the best and most experienced editors backed up by a gang of tape operators behind the scenes, chyron and fx operators beside you, beautiful suites, in-house chefs… and massive hourly rates! For the most part these suites are relics of the past, replaced by cheap computer systems and software that does the same thing and more, that any film school graduate can operate adequately – whether they are qualified editors, directors or camera operators. But in combining the off-line and on-line edits into one function something critical has been lost from many productions, the “master” on-line editor and his width of knowledge and skill set.

At CLAi, Chris Layhe has started to develop a new paradigm for colorists – the concept of the post-production “closer”. It’s a very simple idea, but one that seems to make sense… we:

– Take a rough “off-line” cut edit from our client, which can be created in any editing software, and can be as complete as they choose – and download or disk transfer their edit project files and original footage, plus any stills and audio tracks at full resolution, along with these ProTools and Photoshop files.

– Fine tune the edit, correcting any loose edit points, refining the timing and flow, and adding effects and transitions where these are appropriate, double check all graphics and then send an output of this to the client for checking and approval. Effectively this is the traditional finished on-line edit, still in their edit software.

– Prepare this edit for conforming, compressing the layers, removing overlaps, take out any pre and post audio runs, move and where possible compress the audio tracks to be able to meet the separated dialog, sfx and nat sound and music track convention, double checking the naming conventions and links to go to the original footage.

– We then export this timeline in a format that can be read by DaVinci Resolve Studio, usually an xml, and open this in DaVInci – which is the project software from this point on.

– Next step is to relink all of the footage to the original in it’s native format and size, and do the same with all other graphic, animation and audio elements. We then run this new DaVinci timeline against the output from the signed off on-line edit and check that every element has been carried over correctly and that the timing and levels are all correct.

– If the audio needs it we recreate the tracks in ProTools and sweeten the sound, cleaning up any nasty little noises at the same time. If the dialog, sfx and nat sounds, and music mix has not been done then we do this sound work against the final picture at this point.

– We will always check the mix levels between dialog, music and sfx and nat sound… it’s strange how often a mix done by a composer has the music tracks too loud in the mix, or a foley artist somehow ends up with over mixed effects! We also take into account the media that the video will be shown on at this point, and may do different mixes for an Internet version and a theater version, for example, to match the dynamics of the speakers in those scenarios. Multiple tailored outputs are a big part of our process. A new output with the final audio mix goes out to the client for notes and approval.

– Now we can get into the color correction phase of the post. Essentially this is going into each set of original files and bringing all of the looks that should be color neutral to the correct specification for blacks, whites and color balance to meet the master output specification. This usually means overriding the project settings used in RAW footage and removing LUTs from other footage so that we can get the exact balances right on spec.

– Next up is the color grade. Having got the levels right we step through the video again to grade on a shot by shot basis and build the exact look to match samples and client notes on the project, changing elements within each shot to get the desired emphasis points at the same time. This is a slow process, and we usually upload sections of the video each night for the client to give notes on and approve. We can grade with the client in all of the sessions but we usually suggest that this may not be the best idea – simply because it takes about twice as long to get each shot right with a lot of live and interactive comments, and much of this work doesn’t require input. If you have the budget then bringing the director and DP into the grade is a good idea, if you don’t then save 50% and work with notes and then a final interactive session to fine tune.

– Now we have the best quality master footage in the timeline, correctly graded with a soundtrack that is also finished the last stage is to master. As I mentioned before, we usually produce multiple masters tailored to each desired output so that wherever the project is shown it will look and sound as good as possible. We master direct from DaVinci so that we don’t have to downrez any footage or reduce it’s color depth until the final output.

– Obviously, we always create a master file for further edit use, usually in a 4K, 2k or 1080P QuickTime ProRes 4:4:4:4 format – it will be huge and probably won’t play on your computer but it is there as a lossless best quality master. Then we go into the individual output masters, usually this includes both a YouTube and a Vimeo web version tailored to the different quality levels each of those has and their individual color biases (which we test live on our private site, of course), and then we may be asked to create a theatrical release version, or a broadcast version for, say Discovery to their specifications, often a laptop to television screen version, and sometimes we are asked for a BluRay and/or DVD version, either as a viewer or a master disk for replication.

– Finally we back everything up on our archives, just in case, and give you a drive with your original material and project, the DaVinci Resolve project files and any intermediate outputs, all of the master outputs, and an assembled timeline version of the final DaVinci Resolve linked to a set of graded outputs of just the files and sections used in the program, usually in your editor of choice.

That is a pretty comprehensive set of services to complete any film or video, of any type, and it brings everything together for a producer as one company and one contact – taking the weight off the “off-line” editor and allowing them to concentrate on what they are brought in to do… tell the story without having to worry about anything else.

So far we have been offering this “post-closer” concept for around eight months at CLAi, and it seems to be exactly what it was designed to be – a new paradigm in the role of the Colorist, and a simple way of bringing all of the post-production elements to a single, comprehensive level of quality and sophistication. Yahoo!