Video sweetening

Color grading for mood, style and story

Video “sweetening” is both a science and an art. To my way of thinking, Color correction is objective – evening out shot-to-shot consistency and adjusting for improper levels or color balance. Color grading is subjective – giving a movie, show or commercial a “look”. Grading ranges from the simple enhancement of what the director of photography gave you – all the way to completely “relighting” a scene to radically alter the original image. Whenever you grade a project, the look you establish should always be in keeping with the story and the mood the director is trying to achieve. Color provides the subliminal cues that lead the audience deeper into the story.

Under the best of circumstances, the colorist is working as an extension of the director of photography and both are on the same page as the director. Frequently the DP will sit in on the grading session; however, there are many cases – especially in low budget projects – where the DP is no longer involved at that stage. In those circumstances, it is up to the colorist to properly guide the director to the final visual style.

I’ve pulled some examples from two digital films that I graded – The Touch (directed by Jimmy Huckaby) and Scare Zone (directed by Jon Binkowski). The first was shot with a Sony F900 and graded with Final Cut Pro’s internal and third-party tools. The latter used two Sony EX cameras and was graded in Apple Color.

The Touch

This is a faith-oriented film, based on a true story about personal redemption tied to the creation of a local church’s women’s center. The story opens as our lead character is arrested and goes through police station booking. Since this was a small indie film, a real police station was used. This meant the actual, ugly fluorescent lighting – no fancy, stylized police stations, like on CSI. Since the point of this scene isn’t supposed to be pretty, the best way to grade it was to go with the flow. Don’t fight the fluorescent look, but go more gritty and more desaturated.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Once she’s released and picked up by her loser boyfriend, we are back outside in sunny Florida weather. Just stick with a nice exterior look.

Nearly at the bottom of her life, she’s in a hotel room on the verge of suicide. This was originally a very warm shot, thanks to the incandescents in the room. But I felt it should go cooler. It’s night – there’s a TV on casting bluish light on her – and in general, this is supposed to be a depressing scene. So we swung the shot cooler and again, more desaturated from the original.

The fledgling women’s center holds group counseling sessions in a living room environment. This should feel comfortable and inviting. Here we went warmer.

Our lead character is haunted by the evils of her past, including childhood molestation and a teen rape. This is shown in various flashback sequences marked by an obvious change in editorial treatment utilizing frenetic cutting and speed ramps – together with a different visual look. The flashbacks were graded differently using Magic Bullet Looks for a more stylized appearance, including highlight glows.

Our lead comes to her personal conversion through the church and again, the sanctuary should look warm, natural and inviting. Since the lens used on the F900 resulted in a very deep depth of field, we decided to enhance these wider shots using a tilt-and-shift lens effect in Magic Bullet Looks. The intent was to defocus the background slightly and draw the audience in towards our main character.

Scare Zone

As you’ve probably gathered, Scare Zone is a completely different sort of tale than The Touch. Scare Zone is a comedy-horror film based on a Halloween haunted house attraction, which I discussed in this earlier post. In this story, our ensemble cast are part-time employees who work as “scaractors” in the evening. But… They are being killed off by a real killer. Most of the action takes place in the attraction sets and gift shop, with a few excursions off property. As such, the lighting style was a mixed bag, showing the attraction with “work lights” only and with full “attraction lighting”. We also have scenes without lights, except what is supposed to be moonlight or street lamp lighting coming through leaks from the exterior windows. And, of course, there’s the theatrical make-up.

This example shows one of the attraction scenes with work lights as the slightly, off-kilter manager explains their individual roles.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Here are several frames showing one of the actors in scenes with show lighting, work lights and at home.

These are several frames from the film’s attraction/action/montage segments showing scaractor activity under show lighting. In the last frame, one of our actresses gets attacked.

The gift shop has a more normal lighting appearance. Not as warm as the work light condition, but warmer than the attraction lighting. In order to soften the look of the Goth make-up on the close-ups of our lead actress, I used a very slight application of the FCP compound blur filter.

Naturally, as in any thriller, the audience is to be left guessing throughout most of the film about the identity of the real killer. In this scene one of the actresses is being follow by the possible killer. Or is he? It’s a dark part of the hallway in a “show lighting” scene. One of the little extras done here was to use two secondaries with vignettes to brighten each eye socket of the mask, so as to better see the whites of the character’s eyes.

A crowd of guests line up on the outside, waiting to get into the attraction. It’s supposed to look like a shopping mall parking lot at night with minimal exterior lighting.

And lastly, these frames are from some of the attack scenes during what is supposed to be pre-show or after-show lighting conditions. In the first frame, one of our actresses is being chased by the killer through the attraction hallways and appears to have been caught. Although the vignette was natural, I enhanced this shot to keep it from being so dark that you couldn’t make out the action. The last two frames show some unfortunate vandals who tried to trash the place over the night. This is supposed to be a “lights-off” scene, with the only light being from the outside through leaks. And their flashlights, of course. The last frame required the use of secondary correction to make the color of the stage blood appear more natural.

©2011 Oliver Peters

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