We’ve all seen films with an eerie green tint, or maybe a chilly blue that drives home the tone of the project. Period pieces shot on modern cameras have a classic and grainy film look, almost as if they found film reels locked away in a dusty steamer trunk in the corner of an attic.
This is achieved during the coloring process, but it takes a good amount of research and practice to control images with advanced precision.
In this post, we’re going to take you through the process of coloring digital video so that you get footage that resembles your favorite films and shows.
Table of Contents
Everything you need to know about Color Grading
Video Color Essentials
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1.1 VIDEO COLOR ESSENTIALS
The basics of digital video color
The process of properly coloring your footage is made up of three main interconnected tasks. Like any other recipe or formula it is very important to do each of these tasks in their proper order... step… by… step.
Digital video coloring steps:
- Establish picture profile
- Color correct footage
- Color grade footage
These steps have their own micro-tasks with their own specific order.
It’s the difference between “add two eggs” and “crack two eggs into a bowl, whisk them for thirty seconds, then chill in the fridge for an hour.”.
Before we jump into the steps, we need to go over some basic color terms that will be used no matter which program or camera you use.
1.2 VIDEO COLOR ESSENTIALS
What is color hue?
Hue refers to the color itself. In simplest terms, it’s the difference between red and blue. Your hue can then be altered by saturation and brightness.
Hues don’t always have to be the vivid, primary colors we may think.
A skin tone, for instance, might be a brown hue that has very little saturation, and a lot of brightness - giving us a ‘fair’ skin tone.
That same hue can be saturated and darkened to give us a different skin tone, all while still corresponding with the ‘brown’ hue. Some skin tones will have different jumping off hues, so use your spot sampler to identify.
1.3 VIDEO COLOR ESSENTIALS
What is color saturation?
Saturation refers to the intensity of the color, and this is determined by the amount of grey in the hue, from pure grey, to a vivid color.
Saturation is where you really get to make your colors ‘pop’ or become ‘muddy’ and this is all due to the amount of grey information in the color.
If you add pure white or pure black to your color, you’ll get a darker or lighter brightness value, which is our next category.
1.4 VIDEO COLOR ESSENTIALS
What is color brightness?
Brightness refers to the level of light in your color. This determines the difference between burgundy and candy apple.
The hue for each is still red, and the saturation is at the max for each, but the amount of white and black in the color value is different. A color with intense saturation that has a high brightness value might make the viewer feel energetic and happy, whereas the same hue with a high saturation and low brightness value may evoke dread.
Is blood creepier when it is bright or when it is dark?
Those are fun questions that can come up during pre-production, and be emphasized and seized upon during the coloring process.
1.5 VIDEO COLOR ESSENTIALS
Which coloring tools should I use?
There are a number of helpful coloring tools and effects that can be applied and altered to help you both correct and grade your footage.
Some work better than others, some faster, some more precise, and some are specific to a program like Da Vinci or Adobe Premiere.
Let’s break down these tools a bit, but remember…
Don’t begin coloring your footage until you’ve read through the entire article because color is complex, and if you rush ahead you quite possibly will destroy image quality and leave production value on the table.
1. White Balance
White balance is the same in your camera as it will be on coloring programs, and it describes the color temperature of your image.
If you properly white balance your camera for the scene, you should have images that keep your colors around their intended values. Even if you do this in camera, there may be some necessary tweeks to get you home.
Your white balance should be one of the first things you do, because it will affect every single decision you make from there on out.
If you do a bunch of color work only to find your footage is needs the white balance adjusted, you might as well just start over.
You will want to use SCOPES (Waveform, Parade, Histogram, Vectroscope) to give you some extra value information that you didn’t see initially.
Check out this video on understanding scopes.
As you can see, scopes are a simple but powerful tool that allow you to properly color correct your footage.
Scopes are a monitoring tool that show color and light information on a graph so that you can see the precise balance of these characteristics and how they compare to one another..
Instead of straining your eyes to see if there is too much green in an image, or too much magenta, you can use scopes to streamline your investigation.
Color correction is a relatively inexpensive way to gain massive amount of production value because your NLE will include most of the necessary tools for coloring footage. Your clients and viewers will appreciate it.
Curves are a helpful tool for precise correction and color grading, and you will want to pair these with your scopes. Many of the tools in your NLEs and coloring programs are somewhat redundant, because they will make similar changes but through different methods.
Curves can be used on isolated color channels, or to control the luminance of your footage. The reason curves have an advantage, say, over the simple level slider is because they are more precise and create gradual shifts rather than step shifts you get from levels sliders.
You can add points to drag colors to new values, and change shadows, midtones, and highlights with much more precision.
When you make a curves adjustment, you the entire color channel shift with any movement of the drag points, but that’s a good thing because it means the change isn’t isolated but interconnected.
If something is pushed too far or not far enough as a result, you will have the ability to create another drag point and adjust the channel accordingly.
This makes gradual changes rather than big extreme changes, and you can always zoom in and add another drag point to make a small adjustment.
4. Color Match
Color match allows you to choose a reference image that will then be analyzed and applied to your target image.
This is an automatic calculation, so it is important to check your scopes and use your judgement as to the quality of the color match.
Some people even like to use popular film clips as their reference image, and their own personal footage as the target image.
This is fine for your color grade, but don’t do this to color correct, as it will completely throw off the value of your colors and ultimately make your life a lot harder than it needs to be.
The best way to use color match is after you’ve color corrected some footage and now need to apply those same corrections to a target clip.
Often, you could just copy and paste the effects from your previous clip onto an adjustment layer, or through the use of bins, but if your footage has some lighting and exposure discrepancies, it may not work very well.
5. Three Way Corrector
Three way color correctors are a useful tool for many colorists in professional entertainment, but they have their pros and cons.
The three-way color corrector lets you balance the shadows, midtones, and highlights of an image using color wheels. You can set numerical values, or use the control drag point to set your value based on hue.
This is a powerful tool for both correction and color grading, but often you can
7. Color Qualifiers
8. Color Masks
Video Color Process
HOW TO PROPERLY COLOR FOOTAGE
2.1 VIDEO COLOR PROCESS
How to pick your picture profile
If you are shooting in RAW, you will have a large amount of control over the characteristics of your image. Beyond general quality, this is one of the attractive advantages of RAW, but it eats up a lot of storage.
If you are not working in RAW, chances are that you will want to record in a flat picture profile, or Log profile, to give yourself more opportunities when it comes to coloring and enhancing your footage.
COLOR SPACE DEFINITION
What is a picture profile?
A picture profile refers to a set of parameters that determine the characteristics of your footage. Popular picture profiles for professional video are ‘C-Log’ (Canon) or ‘S-Log’ (Sony), but there are many others.
What does a picture profile do?
- Establishes baked-in parameters for your footage.
- Specific profiles give you a more obedient image.
- Maintains consistency across your footage.
Do you see how important it was that we establish our color profile first?
You can’t go back on your picture profile because it is baked into your footage (unless you’re capturing images in RAW).
Your picture profile can be whatever you want it to be, but generally if it is more ‘flat’ it will give you the best chance to pull out some extra steps of dynamic range, and keep your footage out of trouble.
This is where you hear the term “Log” and more specifically “C-Log” (Canon) or “S-Log” (Sony). These are essentially neutral picture profiles, and they give you the best chance for controllable images.
2.2 VIDEO COLOR PROCESS
How to color correct video
Color correction methods have changed since entertainment production switched to digital footage, but it is still just as important for professional images. You’ve established your picture profile, so now let's talk about one of the most important steps in any professional post production workflow.
COLOR CORRECTION DEFINITION
What is color correction?
Color correction refers to adjusting white and black levels, exposure, contrast, and white balance to give you an image with accurate colors. The point of color correction is to ensure that subsequent color adjustments have more precision, and don’t yield unintended results.
The other purpose of color correction is to create visual consistency for your footage and scenes. You want them to match for better flow.
What does color correction do?
- Establishes true levels and colors.
- Allows for accurate and effective adjustments.
- Creates visual consistency throughout scenes.
If your white isn’t really true white, but rather more of a beige, any adjustment you make to your image will be incorrect. If you go rogue, something that looks good to you may look odd to someone else.
It’s like trying to write a great song with a guitar that is out-of-tune.
This won’t be the case if you do proper color correction.
Color correction also helps eliminate visual inconsistencies. You’ll need to go through this process if you hope to cut together footage that may not look exactly the same, but needs to be in the used in the same scene.
This is the moment where we have to explain that this process of coloring video is additive.
That means we are adding color information to something that already has baked in color values. We are not changing the digital values of color, but rather adding values on top of the existing values. It is similar to going to a museum with some paint, and adding more color to art on the walls.
You can’t change the green grass to red grass, but you can paint red over the green grass and hope it all works out. Even if you’re trying to lessen a specific color, your program adds white or grey to those specific pixels.
If your color profile is flat, desaturated, and has less contrast, it will allow these additions to have a more positive outcome, and give you a bit more control when coloring your footage. It also helps you to squeeze out some extra information in between your maximum and minimum values.
Think how easy it would be to color the art at the museum if it was flat, desaturated, and had less contrast. They’d be more like coloring books.
Let’s get into some of the micro-steps of color correction.
1. Apply your input LUT
The LUT (look-up table) that you apply in this case will shift the colors in your footage to the standard values of HD broadcast television, and we referred to it as an ‘Input LUT’.
This means that we intend to send our footage through this predetermined adjustment so that we may accurately adjust colors during our correction and grade phase, but…
You output LUT (if you choose to apply one) is intended to achieve a cinematic look or sometimes a ‘film’ look.
The Rec. 709 LUT will make your color correction sliders, curves, and scopes all work the way they should so that you can get the most out of your creative LUTs later on.
Here’s a fun (and odd) metaphor:
When you make coffee in the morning, you pour hot water over ground up beans to get… coffee!
You don’t, however, pour coffee over ground up beans to get coffee.
Log footage is your hot water, and the coffee beans are your input LUT.
Don’t put already ‘brewed’ footage with harsh characteristics through an input LUT because you’ll end up pushing values to extreme levels.
Rec. 709 will allow you to work from a place of accuracy, but it is not necessarily going to give you the look you hope to achieve, and that’s where additional LUTs and color grades come into play.
This is also an opportunity to white balance your footage, either via the Auto White Balance or manual temperature adjustments.
Your camera should have been white balanced before hand, but there are some picture profiles that slightly push the color temperature one way or another, so you’ll want to rebalance regardless.
Don’t apply any tint here, you just want to get as close to true white as you can so that each step works correctly. Unless your footage was shot in a way that the tint helps, chances are you should avoid it altogether.
2. Choose a ‘home base’ clip
The best way to attain visual consistency across a bunch of footage is to look at your clips and to find one that has average exposure and levels when compared to the rest of your footage.
That way, you can try to match everything to a place that is, at the very least, able to be achieved with all of your footage.
If you pick a clip that has an extreme exposure when compared to the other footage you got on the day, you may not be able to adjust those clips so that they match one another, thus eliminating options from your cut.
3. Adjusts white and black
You’ll want to use your scopes here, and you need to do each one at a time. Adjust the colors and levels to find true black or true white.
Your scopes will let you know if you’ve gone too high or too low with your levels, and you may need to adjust your RGB curves as well.
Use the scopes for precision.
4. Adjust overall gamma
This is where you adjust each section of your image, which includes the highlights, shadows, and midtones. Again, at this point we are still in the color correction phase and not stylizing or grading phase.
You are NOT trying to make your image look “cool” or “how you want it to look” but rather ‘correct’ in terms of color fidelity and the relationship between each level’s light intensity in the image.
Later, you can crush your blacks and blow out the whites, but during this phase you just want to make them coordinate with one another.
5. Basic secondary correction
The same way we’ve created archetypes for characters, so it goes for color schemes and color identification of objects and imagery.
We all know that the sky is blue, or that a stop sign is red.
These are colors that everyone knows, and will expect to register if say… you have a stop sign in your footage.
If the color of your stop sign looks weird, that means two things:
- Your color correction is probably off by a bit.
- Viewers will subconsciously question your story.
This means that skin tones need to look like real skin tones, blades of grass need to look like real blades of grass, etc.
That way, when you do adjust something later you can be sure that it works correctly so that you achieve your intended look.
Your imagery also feeds the willing suspension of disbelief so crucial in narrative filmmaking, all because you followed the ‘rules’.
6. Advanced secondary correction
This is where you begin to adjust specific colors a little further toward your desire, while still keeping in mind that they need to be ‘correct’.
This might mean you want to boost the yellow paint on a sports car you recorded. You’re not altering the overall yellow in the total image, but rather boosting a very narrow hue to make specific imagery ‘pop’.
2.3 VIDEO COLOR PROCESS
How to color grade video
When you begin, you will need to start with some software. This can be an NLE (non-linear editor) like Adobe Premiere or it can a program created specifically for color control like Da Vinci Resolve.
COLOR GRADING DEFINITION
What is color grading?
Color grading refers to the stylized color scheme of your footage. This can be super extreme like you see with many popular films, or it can be rather subtle so as to achieve color fidelity like with nature documentaries.
What does a color grade do?
- Stylizes the color scheme of your footage.
- Evokes specific emotions from your viewer.
- Transforms footage for the final look.
Every piece of footage that has ever been recorded has a color grade, regardless of any adjustments that might be applied.
This is different from color correction, because clips that aren’t adjusted to the correct levels are NOT color corrected, but any footage you capture has a color grade - and it is your job to adjust that grade.
Your color grade is where your footage begins to look stylized, but it won’t look the way you want if you don’t follow the first two steps correctly.
Below is a video that will show you some helpful tips on how to color grade your footage, but this is where you get to make your own decisions.
You can also enable a creative LUT to your color corrected footage, which will apply your color grade literally with a click of the mouse.
In our post on What are LUTs: FREE Download to Color Grade a Cinematic Look we go over the difference between creative output LUTs, and provide you with a FREE pack of Ridley Scott LUTs.
You can see right away how these creative output LUTs make your life much easier, and if you create your own custom color grade you can export it as an export LUT, and apply it to the rest of your scene.
Color grading is something professionals consider before they step on set, so while there is some creative latitude in post-production, you will want to determine a starting for your color grade during pre-production.
If you’re using production software like StudioBinder, you can collaborate with editors, colorists, and cinematographers all in one place. Leave notes, add reference photos to mood boards, comment on specifics - whatever.
If you’ve got a collaborator in Japan or Germany while you’re in New York or Hollywood, it may not be easy to coordinate a conference call or a face-to-face meeting that requires a day of air travel.
Video Color Examples
THE BEFORE AND AFTER OF VIDEO COLOR
3.1 VIDEO COLOR EXAMPLES
Color Profile Examples
Below is a clip of some footage being shot in ‘C-Log’, and if it hasn’t sunk in yet, you’ll be able to see exactly what footage should look like coming out of the camera. This is one of the reasons you don’t let clients or subjects look at footage, because unless you send them this article (hey… good idea) they won’t understand why this trustworthy artist is getting ugly footage.
If you’re working with a camera that doesn’t have a ‘Log’ setting, you can find your ‘Neutral’ profile and decrease the contrast and saturation levels thus creating a custom picture profile that resembles ‘Log’.
3.2 VIDEO COLOR EXAMPLES
Color Correction Examples
Showing you properly color corrected images will give you a clear idea on just how much footage is transformed before a color grade.
These clips were shot in a flat picture profile, ran through the Rec. 709 input LUT, and then corrected based on those values.
3.3 VIDEO COLOR EXAMPLES
Color Grade Examples
Here are some great examples of professional color grades.These were part of our post on How to Create A Movie Color Palette Like Ridley Scott where we provide you with three free output LUTs that makes your footage gain that cinematic look.
You’ll notice immediately how much darker the sand in the ungraded clip looks, and obviously the amount of saturation in the sky. I’d also say that there is a bit more green in the sky color, and that some of the reds are lost.
The blue is much more saturated, but also much the brightness is definitely turned down, and the highlights brought down as well. This is a great LUT for sci-fi footage, or even a nice Fincher-noir vibe.
The sky in this clip has completely lost its blue, and become brown, but man do those reds and oranges come out. You’d almost think the lack of color contrast would hurt, but it doesn’t.
If these clips had not been properly color corrected, these LUTs woudn’t have worked the right way, and may even destroy important information.
3.4 VIDEO COLOR EXAMPLES
Color Palette Examples
Here are some examples of color palettes from popular films and television, and I want you to try and see colors that have the same hues but different saturation and brightness levels.
Color is one of the more complicated portions of film because it requires everyone to be working together with a coherent plan.
Performances can be hashed out by the director and actors.
Lighting can be figured out by the DP and gaffer.
Sound can be taken care of by the sound team.
But for color to be done correctly, you need good lighting, good production design, thoughtful input from the director, and obviously a skilled colorist.
And now you know a skilled colorist who has done their research.
Color in Film: 50+ Examples
Now that you’re ready to color and edit your footage, make sure to check out our post on How to Use Color in Film: 50+ Examples of Movie Color Palettes where we provide you with a free ebook to help you color your footage during every phase of production.
If you’re about to color correct and grade some footage, why not use this guide to inspire some big decisions that will make your clients and viewers understand why they come to you - great imagery.