Demystifying Color Grading II

In previous posts on color correction and grading I’ve discussed how to use some of the built-in and third-party tools to stylize the look of your production. It never ceases to amaze me how many people assume color grading is just the click of a preset in Magic Bullet Looks or the click of the Auto-Balance function in a grading tool. In fact, grading is more than just fixing problems. It takes a bit of thought and effort to enhance an image creatively and tastefully. None of this is terribly difficult if you break correction down to its component parts.

Since this the start of a brand new year, I’ve decided to take another swipe at this fun subject. The objective here is to show how many different tools can be used to design interesting looks. Some are built-in, some are third-party, but free, while others cost, but aren’t terribly expensive. Everyone is probably aware of grading tools, like Apple Color, Magic Bullet Looks and Magic Bullet Colorista II. You may be less aware of the fine color correction tools already included in filter packages from GenArts, Coremelt, BorisFX and Noise Industries. So, this is a chance to see how various tools can be applied to give you something special.

As subject matter, I decided to play with the short film Convergence, filmed by UK Director Martin Scanlan and DoP Steve Lawes. This is one of the first video pieces produced with a pre-production model of the brand new Sony PMW-F3 camera. Scanlan was kind enough to post both the ungraded offline-edited version and the final color-graded version of Convergence on Vimeo. Further info is on their blog. They have graciously made the ungraded version available for download, so I pulled some examples from the 1920×1080 H264 file.

Please understand that the download is a conversion from the camera files, which I further converted back to ProResLT for grading. If you see some artifacts in the samples I’ve posted, they are in all likelihood a function of these various conversions for Internet travel. In addition, my grading is purely to demonstrate the possibilities and is not intended to be an example of how I would have actually graded this film. In fact, you’ll see similar shots with entirely different looks and quite frankly, a lot of this is heavy-handed simply for the sake of demonstration. The point is to use color grading to not only fix and even out shots, but also add subtle lighting and color changes in much the same way a photographer will burn and dodge still photographs.

The sample images below display the Final Cut Pro Canvas pane with the filters applied to the image, a Frame Viewer image without filters, plus a small snippet of the filter pane. Underneath each image is a brief description of the filters I’ve applied and why. Click on any image for an enlarged view, as well as the BEFORE and AFTER links to see larger versions of each.

BEFORE AFTER

The FCP 3-way Color Corrector was applied for the basic grade. To this I added two instances of the free Face Light filter to brighten both his face and his reflection in the window. The last filter is the free Vignette filter to darken the corners of the image. The combination of these two not only brightens the light on the face, but draws your focus to it. I probably use Face Light and Vignette more than any other third party filter when grading inside FCP.

BEFORE AFTER

The first filter added was the Sean Puckett FxAndy film emulation plug-in. It’s designed to mimic many negative and print film stocks. To this I added a Graeme Nattress Warm Diffusion filter. Between the two, I have taken out some of the green cast of the image, reduced saturation and pushed up the brightness of the highlights on her face. This caused the scarf to become very fluorescent, which I knocked by down using the FCP Color Corrector. When you use this or the FCP 3-way in the limit mode, it becomes an HSL keyer, just like in Color, Colorista II or DaVinci Resolve. I isolated the color of the scarf, thus creating a mask for the scarf. Then the corrector controls alters just the area inside or outside of that mask. In this case, I used it to separately adjust the color of the scarf.

BEFORE AFTER

One of my favorite all-in-one color grading plug-ins is DV Shade EasyLooks. It gives you 3-way color correction, diffusion, gradient, vignette and other tools all in a single plug-in. Here I’ve added a blue gradient, diffusion and a vignette with a single instance of the filter.

BEFORE AFTER

The GenArts Sapphire collection offers quite a few color correction/grading filters. I used the Sapphire Gamma correction filter to push up the overall level. When you do that with an image this dark, it invariably increases the video noise. To reduce that I applied Sapphire Grain Remove. The reason I used this instead of one of the various noise reduction filters is that Grain Remove tends to reduce the video noise without softening the skin texture of his face too greatly.

BEFORE AFTER

Luca Visual FX Stylizer is another comprehensive color grading tool. It can be used for some extreme looks, but when used more subtly, also works as an overall grading tool. In this example, I primarily increased contrast and removed some of the green cast from the image.

BEFORE AFTER

Back to the FCP 3-way Color Corrector for the initial grade. To this I added Luca Visual FX Vivid Touch for a bit more punch in the image.

BEFORE AFTER

This is a variation of the previous look. On this shot I used Magic Bullet Colorista II. This filter includes three correctors within one filter, plus masking, HSL keying and master curves. In addition to the overall correction, I used the secondary corrector’s keyer to isolate the skin tones of her face. With the face isolated by this mask, I could apply separate correction to brighten just the face without affecting the rest of the shot.

BEFORE AFTER

The Boris Continuum Complete 7 package includes BorisFX’s own take on a 3-way Color Grade filter. It permits masking combined with two levels of correction. In this example, I used an egg shape mask around his head and applied both inside and outside correction for the result.

BEFORE AFTER

Here’s a look that might be fun for a music video. I have applied the Magic Bullet Mojo filter, which was developed to balance skin tones against the rest of the image. It typically tends towards the so-called “blockbuster” look, using the trendy orange-and-teal grading of many feature films. To it, I have added the free CHV Silk & Fog filter, which softens her face by adding diffusion and glowing the highlights.

BEFORE AFTER

The FCP 3-way Color Corrector was used to balance the image – primarily pushing the balance more blue. Then I’ve added a BorisFX BCS Film Effect filter for more bloom and diffusion on the image.

BEFORE AFTER

I started by punching up the contrast using the Nattress Simple Curves filter and setting it to an S-curve configuration. The next filter is the Coremelt Secondary HSL Grader. I used it to shift the overall green-orange cast of the original image towards a more pinkish-neutral look. The last filter applied is the Coremelt Dewrinkler to soften her facial texture.

BEFORE AFTER

The primary grade was done using the FxFactory Heat filter. This was used to tint the image. Next I applied FxFactory Crush Color to stretch the contrast. Finally, I applied FxFactory Vibrance, which enhances color intensity, without simply increasing uniform saturation.

BEFORE AFTER

Back to DV Shade EasyLooks again for the primary grade and some diffusion. To this I added Luca Visual FX Regional Light in order to brighten the area of his face, as well as to add a slight tint within that area. The last step was to add the PHYX Techni2Color filter. This is one of the various Technicolor-style 2-strip filters. When used to extreme it can produce a somewhat unnatural look, since it’s intended to faithfully mimic the original Technicolor process. However, when applied more judicially, it can be used to subtly tint an image, as I did here to remove some of the overall green.

BEFORE AFTER

The basic grade was handled by the GenArts Sapphire HueSatBright filter. The next step was to apply Sapphire Hotspots to add bright glowing highlights. Again this caused the scarf to be pushed too far, so I used the FCP 3-way Color Corrector to limit and adjust the color range of only the scarf.

BEFORE AFTER

The built-in FCP Levels filter was the starting point to stretch the contrast. Then I added Magic Bullet Colorista (version 1) to isolate the area around his head and brighten and adjust the area within the mask. The third step was to apply Joe’s Soft Spot to blur the area surrounding him.

BEFORE AFTER

Magic Bullet Colorista II was used for the full correction. In addition to the overall grade, I used the secondary keyer to isolate and adjust skin tones separately from the rest of the image.

BEFORE AFTER

I started with Coremelt Luma S Curve for a basic midrange adjustment. To this added Joe’s Saturation & Colorize to adjust the hue and saturation of the overall image. Note that it’s a bit desaturated from the original. Next came the built-in FCP Brightness & Contrast filter to further brighten the image. The last step was to apply the free River Rock Studios Chromatic Glow filter, which I used to accentuate and whiten the highlights on their foreheads and faces.

BEFORE AFTER

The initial grade was done using the FCP 3-way Color Corrector. Then I added a second instance of the 3-way in the limit mode to isolate and brighten her face. The last filter was Joe’s Soft Gradients, which I used to darken the upper right-hand third of the frame. This filter uses blend modes, which varies the resulting looks you can achieve.

BEFORE AFTER

To punch up the overall brightness of the image, I started with GenArts Sapphire Gamma. Then I added two instances of the Face Light filter – one for each person. This brightened them even more in relation to the overall image. On top of this I applied the PHYX Haze Removal filter, which enhances the contrast and allows you to apply tinting to the scene according to taste. The last two filters were Joe’s Soft Gradients to darken the sky and Vignette to darken the four corners of the frame.

BEFORE AFTER

This shot is more “special effects” in style. I applied the GenArts Sapphire ZGlow to add an overall diffusion. Next was the PHYX Skin Light filter, which enhanced the brightness of lighted objects, like the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament. The last filter was idustrial revolution Volumetrix2 to add even more glow to the lights and the moonlight poking through the clouds.

BEFORE AFTER

This shot strictly used the PHYX filters. PHYX Skin Light was used to brighten their faces. Since this filter enhances the lighting of bright objects against dark backgrounds, it also brightens the area behind our couple. Next I applied the PHYX BleachBypass filter to make the color adjustments. Unlike other bleach bypass plug-ins, the PHYX version gives you a wide range of adjustment and can be successfully used for corrections other than the characteristic skip-bleach look. The last filter in this stack was PHYX SelectiveSat to reduce some of the orange intensity of their skin tones.

BEFORE AFTER

Another all-PHYX adjustment, using the PHYX BleachBypass for the basic luma adjustment. Then the PHYX Techni2Color filter to shift the yellow-green cast to a more peach-toned tint. Lastly the PHYX DigitalMakeupKit to soften his skin texture.

BEFORE AFTER

These last two examples used Magic Bullet Looks. This first one applies the typical orange-teal, “blockbuster” style.

BEFORE AFTER

Another Magic Bullet Looks example with increased contrast and heavy diffusion.

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Of course, I don’t want to leave Avid Media Composer out of this discussion, so here are a few examples showing similar approaches in that software. I have used a combination of the built-in color correction mode and filters from Boris FX, Magic Bullet and Sapphire.

BEFORE AFTER

I started with the internal color correction mode to get the basic adjustment for brightness and contrast. To this I’ve added two instances of the BCC Brightness/Contrast filter using its pixel chooser to isolate an oval around each people. This was used to brighten them up again the background. Finally, I added Sapphire Vignette to softly darken the edges of the frame.

BEFORE AFTER

The first few layers are several instances of the internal color correction mode in order to tweak the luma, contrast and color balance of the image. Then I added Magic Bullet Mojo to create a look for the skin tones and generally desaturate the other colors, not used for skin tones. On top is one more layer of the color corrector to add level-clipping on the highlight peaks.

BEFORE AFTER

This image is adjusted with a single filter – BCC Film Process. I simply applied its preset for blooming highlights.

BEFORE AFTER

This image was adjusted with only the GenArts Sapphire filters. First, I applied Sapphire HueSatBright for a basic correction. Next, I applied Sapphire Gamma to brighten the midrange values. Last was Sapphire SoftFocus to diffuse the image and soften her skin texture.

BEFORE AFTER

Similar to the previous image, this frame is adjusted with only the Boris FX BCC filters. First is BCC Color Correction for a basic luma and contrast adjustment. Next is BCC Color Balance to make the color balance “cooler” (i.e. more blue). On top of that is BCC Levels-Gamma to brighten the midrange. Then comes BCC Film Grain for a simulated grain effect. The topmost filter is BCC Glow to add a bit of diffused glow to the highlights in the image.

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Still want to learn more about color grading? Here are a few quick links to other related posts on my blog.

Color Correction Effects Demystified

Color Grading in FCP

Glow as a Color Tool

Grading with Color Wheels

Magic Bullet Colorista II

Music Video Fun

PHYX Color

RED One and Magic Bullet Looks

©2011 Oliver Peters