Really this section ought to be called Color Correction, Color Grading, Color Timing and generally just Colorist work because these are all aspects of the same discipline...
It’s one of the more confusing parts of the whole film and video production process – but one which we revel in! That database of all knowledge, Wikipedia, defines it as:
“Color grading is the process of altering and enhancing the color of a motion picture, video image, or still image electronically, photo-chemically or digitally. Color grading encompasses both color correction and the generation of artistic color effects. Whether for theatrical film, video distribution, or print, color grading is generally now performed digitally in a color suite. The earlier photo-chemical film process, known as color timing, was performed at a photographic laboratory. Color timing, involved changing the duration of exposure processes during the film development process. Color timing was largely used for colour correction, but could also be used for artistic purposes.”
Always a wealth of information, sounds good and has some truth to it – you have got to love Wikipedia.
Essentially the work of the Colorist is initially to take a raw piece of film or video which is part of a sequence and bring into up to the correct technical specifications – so blacks are legally black, whites are legally white, the other tones of the image are well distributed between these. The legal part of this relates to the IRE, or brightness levels, that are set by various bodies for showing on their products – so an image that is going to be on broadcast television in the USA is only allowed to have the darkest black at 7.5 IRE (which is really dark grey) and the brightest white at 100 IRE, but for computer monitors the darkest black is at 0 IRE and the brightest white can go up to 102 IRE or more. The same confusion goes for color depth and intensity, which varies between television and computer monitors, digital film projectors and the like. To make things even more tricky different cameras work to different standards and settings too – so both the input and the output have to be managed by the Colorist.
Having got everything legal for the device the program is being seen on you then have to look at what is in each image and decide if the color of everything in the shot matches what the viewer expects. Our memory tells us that a Campbell’s Soup can is deep red and white with gold lettering – if the lighting and camera settings have made it green and white then it either needs to be changed to match or we need a reason that we can accept as to why it has changed. The same goes for, say, a sunrise which is generally thought of as golden versus a sunset which is generally thought of as red – if the shoot schedule meant that the two got switched it doesn’t read right for the viewer and we need to fix it.
This is color correction.
Then we have to make changes that are desirable for the shot – if it is important to see through a window for the story but it is burnt out then we need to fix that, if the main figure is standing just out of the pool of light then we need to bring him to the desired level of brightness, if his shirt is a bright yellow that jumps out at you then we need to calm it down to a darker yellow so you look at his face instead. And, of course, if you see a big old lighting stand in the corner of the shot we need to get rid of it – either by changing the composition and recropping the image or by coloring it into the background until it disappears!
This is just fixing problems and making the Director and DP happy that they shot everything perfectly.
Then we need to match between shots, so that when you cut from the dark shot of a couple to the brighter single shot of the guy to the green tinted single shot of the girl they are all brought to the same brightness and color levels to match one another and the editing becomes seamless – allowing the viewer to watch the sequence without being jarred. Of course, it may be the other way round, that the nature of the shots should be jarring and uncomfortable for the viewer but they were shot the same – so we do the opposite.
This is color grading.
The last part of the Colorist challenge is creating looks that evoke specific desirable feelings – which may be as basic as turning all of the blacks into very dark blues to give a feeling of melancholy, or making it all have a golden cast to evoke summer in California or increasing the contrast of shots to give a sense of tension in a film noire style. It may be putting a soft highlight on the face of the lead actress and track it through shots to bring her out in the image and underlie her role. It may be wobbling the picture about to give the feel of handheld shooting on the run. It can be pretty much everything and anything that the Director wants to tailor the impact of a section or the complete production to more completely create a response or belief from the audience.
This is the artistic role of the Colorist, where you get to paint with light and color after the shoot.
At CLAi we do color and love every second of it! At the same time we usually try to go back all the way to your original shoot footage to make sure we have as much data and resolution as possible to work with – particularly when you have shot in RAW, where we can make enormous changes to every aspect of the picture without changing the quality at all. This is a time eating process but it results in the highest possible sharpness, brightness and color depth when we go to create the master files for each output media. We can color grade without taking this step of total rebuilding by just working with the best output of the program you can provide if your budget is limited or if the piece doesn’t need this depth of tuning…
As with everything else in the production game the highest possible quality solution is not always the one which is appropriate for a program, and part of our job at CLAi is to make sure that we provide you with a solution that is acceptable for the budget you have available and the impact value of the final piece. But you can always spot a program that has not been breathed on by a good Colorist, so it is a step that should be allowed for in time and budget at the start of the game. I should also note, if only for the record, that color grading really is an art form not an automated technique and is very very different to editing or shooting, which is why editors and cinematographers can very rarely achieve even acceptable results by just buying the right plug in or LUT…
I’m very proud to have been nominated as one of the earliest members (at number 37) of the Colorist Society International – the equivalent of ACE for editors or ASC for cinematographers. The CSI represents the interests of feature film colorists within the professional film industry, as well as helping to establish our role and bring new colorists to the business.