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Before and after for “Down Here” a project I was DP and Colorist on.
Before and afters for the music video ‘Heaven’ by Louise Burns, Directed by Daniel Code, which I was the colorist.
Before and afters for a video “Momentum”
I found after the frame looked good, her eye was just too dark, so a specific grade was just applied to her eyeball and tracked throughout the clip. You can see that the eye looks a bit clearer in the graded version, due to a little lift and a slight bit of contrast being added.
Some scenes can end up with a lot of tracking grades, which are screen-space specific adjustments which follow movement within the frame.
They allow for an incredible amount of tuning and offer a tremendous amount of potential, but they can be quite time consuming.
Here is a shot from the beautiful short film ‘Take Me Home’, for which I was colorist. The director wanted these scenes to be very punchy and contrasty, and for the back half of the film to have a ‘filmic’ look as if it was shot on high ISO film stock. We pushed it pretty far, it looks great in motion and suits the scene.
Here’s the final frame. A Kodak film stock was used as a 3D LUT and additional cool tones were put into the shadows. The mids and highs were made more warm/rose to compliment the darker blues. We went pretty far with it, and it looks amazing in motion. The blues in the window frame were made to be a complimentary hue to the reddy/orange of her skin.
The party scene needed a little more contrast and saturation. The lights just didn’t have enough bite. It wanted to be a really colorful party scene.
People are drawn to complimentary color arrangements, which are 2 or more hues straight across from one another on the color wheel. Yellows and oranges work nice with blues and greens, like in every sunset. It’s math, it’s weird, it works.
Have a look at the color wheel, reds across from greens, blues across from yellows… So many scenes from nature work this way.
Remember, your eyes get used to colour. Any time you’re under fluorescent lighting, your eyes will quickly adjust and you’ll see white things as white, when really it’s not that white at all, hence whitebalance on cameras. We get used to the amount of color in scenes, which is why color pacing for a film is so important, the color contrast of one scene to the next is very important. You’ll find that you get used to the saturation of one scene and the cut to a new location/color treatment is one way to ‘refresh’ the viewers eyes. Some films go too far, and there’s the hopefully soon to be over teal/orange look that Hollywood is into so much right now. There’s a hilarious article on that here.
Take a look at this scene in the excellent movie ‘Amelie’ color graded by Didier le Foues. The saturation is incredible. As a still it looks a bit over the top, but when you watch the film it just works, because you acclimatize to the color, just like you do everywhere else. There’s some amazing before/after shots of this film here.
Here’s two frames from ‘Traffic’, colored by Julius Friede. It’s very warm and as a still image it looks quite intense, but as a film you get used to it. The color design played out super amber when in Mexico and switched to being really cool / blue when in the USA.
Look at those crazy skintones! Yet it works, just like how your eyes adjust to fluorescent lighting. The frame is balanced within itself, but it has a very strong cast to give color tempo from the previous Mexico warm look.
Here’s a shot from transformers. It’s a little in the ‘amber teal’ look which is bordering on overdone, but it illustrates a complimentary color scheme very well. Look at that line straight across the color wheel. The color grading put some blue in the shadows and wardrobe chose a shirt with some blue. A nicely crafted frame.
A nice complimentary warm/cool scheme for “On the Road”, where blues were clearly added to the neutral whites and the the skintones.
Not everything has to be a complimentary color scheme obviously, here’s an example of a monochromatic palette.
Another monochromatic palette.
It’s no accident the blood in the face matches the color of the trim on the letter in the background and that it has a complimentary color relationship with the blues. This is the DP, Production Designer and Colorist all working together.
So much can be done in post, but it’s far better to plan your scenes, work out your colors, buy the gels and talk to Production Design and Wardrobe before shooting. Each of those creative members are like notes on a keyboard, it sounds best when they all play notes in the same key.
One very daring film in terms of color grading is the beautiful ‘Nói the Albino’. I’ve never been able to find out who did the color grading… Rasmus Vidabæk was the DOP. It’s absolutely crazy how far they go – whites are never even close to being white – yet it works, it’s beautiful and I applaud them for the boldness. Strong complimentary alignment with the teal / cyan and the reds.
Look how the reds pop and pull your eye. After luminance contrast, hue contrast is the second strongest way to direct the viewer’s eye within a frame.
It’s a pretty safe guess where your eye first went on the frame from ‘Amelie’, below.
Reading a spectral analysis of the image can help advise on how to make colors fit into a more complimentary scheme. Below, the colors don’t quite align on a complementary palette.
After this pretty drastic grade, the colors line up in a distinct bar, or line straight across the color spectrum. This means that every hue, every color works with every other color.
Color grading is more than balancing and adding contrast from the flat footage straight from the camera, it can also be used to pull the viewer’s eye to specific areas of the screen.
People’s eyes are drawn to areas of strong contrast, that being of luminosity or hue. In the original frame, the twinkly lights in the lower left were drawing the eye away from where you should be looking which is her eye and her expression. People would look around the frame, maybe getting stuck on the twinkly lights, when really they should be looking at her eye straight away.
Increasing the brightness on her forehead and contrast in the eyes draws the viewer’s eyes straight to hers, making that area the first-read within the frame. Again, this is with that strong filmic look which suits the style of this short film and contrasts with the opening of the movie which was really high key and desaturated.
Another scene from ‘Down Here’. This is a really low point for the character in the movie, he’s unhealthy and depressed and in a dump of an apartment. It’s his rock bottom. There was some mood and contrast in the original lighting, but after seeing the edit and this scene in further context with the rest of the film, we decided to really push the depression and darkness.
The director and I worked for quite a while on this scene – it’s a pretty dramatic push – but it works well in motion and it supports the heavy tone. We wanted to pull information out and really bring it down and work with the contrast to make it dark and heavy. The blacks right down to their lowest safe limit, more contrast, more saturation in the greens. There’s no noise or any colour banding in the shadows, because it’s wasn’t shot dark, it was made dark. A massive creative/technical difference. This grade is pretty full-on, but it looks great in motion and it helps reinforce the emotional tone of the scene.
It’s really important to consider the context for each project / scene and where it will be displayed. Watching a movie puts the viewers in a dark room and they will adjust to the colors onscreen. As we’ve seen above, many highly acclaimed films are quite drastic with their colors because they know the audiences will adapt.
It’s important to keep in mind that looking at stills on a website is a different context from which the images are designed for.
I’ve spent many years as a Lighter, Art Director and a CG Supervisor and have a strong understanding of color fundamentals. I’ve directed the lighting on numerous multi-million dollar projects and am very adept at reinforcing the mood with skillful color and contrast usage. See the bottom of my About page for more on my process.