Color Grading Strategies

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A common mistake made by editors new to color correction is to try to nail a “look” all in a single application of a filter or color correction layer. Subjective grading is an art. Just like a photographer who dodges and burns areas of a photo in the lab or in Photoshop to “relight” a scene, so it is with the art of digital color correction. This requires several steps, so a single solution will never give you the best result. I follow this concept, regardless of the NLE or grading application I’m using at the time. Whether stacked filters in Premiere Pro, several color corrections in FCP X, rooms in Color, nodes in Resolve or layers in SpeedGrade – the process is the same. The standard grade for me is often a “stack” of four or more grading levels, layers or nodes to achieve the desired results. (Please click on any of the images for an expanded view.)

df_gradestrtgy_1red_smThe first step for me is always to balance the image and to make that balance consistent from shot to shot. Achieving this varies with the type of media and application. For example, RED camera raw footage is compatible with most updated software, allowing you to have control over the raw decoding settings. In FCP X or Premiere Pro, you get there through separate controls to modify the raw source metadata settings. In Resolve, I would usually make this the first node. Typically I will adjust ISO, temperature and tint here and then set the gamma to REDlogFilm for easy grading downstream. In a tool like FCP X, you are changing the settings for the media file itself, so any change to the RED settings for a clip will alter those settings for all instances of that clip throughout all of your projects. In other words, you are not changing the raw settings for only the timeline clips. Depending on the application, this type of change is made in the first step of color correction or it is made before you enter color correction.

df_gradestrtgy_cb1_smI’ll continue this discussion based on FCP X for the sake of simplicity, but just remember that the concepts apply generally to all grading tools. In FCP X, all effects are applied to clips before the color board stage. If you are using a LUT filter or some other type of grading plug-in like Nattress Curves, Hawaiki Color or AutoGrade, remember that this is applied first and then that result is effected by the color board controls, which are downstream in the signal flow. If you want to apply an effect after the color board correction, then you must add an adjustment layer title generator above your clip and apply that effect within the adjustment layer.

df_gradestrtgy_cb2_smIn the example of RED footage, I set the gamma to REDlogFilm for a flatter profile to preserve dynamic range. In FCP X color board correction 1, I’ll make the necessary adjustments to saturation and contrast to restore this to a neutral, but pleasing image. I will do this for all clips in the timeline, being careful to make the shots consistent. I am not applying a “look” at this level.

df_gradestrtgy_cb2a_smThe next step, color board correction 2, is for establishing the “look”. Here’s where I add a subjective grade on top of color board correction 1. This could be new from scratch or from a preset. FCP X supplies a number of default color presets that you access from the pull-down menu. Others are available to be installed, including a free set of presets that I created for FCP X. df_gradestrtgy_cb2b_smIf you have a client that likes to experiment with different looks, you might add several color board correction layers here. For instance, if I’m previewing a “cool look” versus a “warm look”, I might do one in color correction 2 and another in color correction 3. Each correction level can be toggled on and off, so it’s easy to preview the warm versus cool looks for the client.

Assuming that color board correction 2 is for the subjective look, then usually in my hierarchy, correction 3 tends to be reserved for a mask to key faces. Sometimes I’ll do this as a key mask and other times as a shape mask. df_gradestrtgy_cb3_smFCP X is pretty good here, but if you really need finesse, then Resolve would be the tool of choice. The objective is to isolate faces – usually in a close shot of your principal talent – and bring skin tones out against the background. The mask needs to be very soft so as not to draw attention to itself. Like most tools, FCP X allows you to make changes inside and outside of the mask. If I isolate a face, then I could brighten the face slightly (inside mask), as well as slightly darken everything else (outside mask).df_gradestrtgy_cb3a_sm

Depending on the shot, I might have additional correction levels above this, but all placed before the next step. For instance, if I want to darken specific bright areas, like the sun reflecting off of a car hood, I will add separate layers with key or shape masks for each of these adjustments. df_gradestrtgy_cb3b_smThis goes back to the photographic dodging and burning analogy.

df_gradestrtgy_cb4_smI like adding vignettes to subtly darken the outer edge of the frame. This goes on correction level 4 in our simplest set-up. The bottom line is that it should be the top correction level. The shape mask should be feathered to be subtle and then you would darken the outside of the mask, by lowering brightness levels and possibly a little lower on saturation. df_gradestrtgy_cb4a_smYou have to adjust this by feel and one vignette style will not work for all shots. In fact, some shots don’t look right with a vignette, so you have to use this to taste on a shot by shot basis. At this stage it may be necessary to go back to color correction level 2 and adjust the settings in order to get the optimal look, after you’ve done facial correction and vignetting in the higher levels.df_gradestrtgy_cb5_sm

df_gradestrtgy_cb5a_smIf I want any global changes applied after the color correction, then I need to do this using an adjustment layer. One example is a film emulation filter like LUT Utility or FilmConvert. Technically, if the effect should look like film negative, it should be a filter that’s applied before the color board. If the look should be like it’s part of a release print (positive film stock), then it should go after. For the most part, I stick to after (using an adjustment layer), because it’s easier to control, as well as remove, if the client decides against it. df_gradestrtgy_cb5b_smRemember that most film emulation LUTs are based on print stock and therefore should go on the higher layer by definition. Of course, other globals changes, like another color correction filters or grain or a combination of the two can be added. These should all be done as adjustment layers or track-based effects, for consistent application across your entire timeline.

©2014 Oliver Peters