Here is a still from the film “TURN” that I wrote and directed back in October of 2010. I was still a pretty fresh filmmaker at the time (and some could argue still am) with little than some college work, experimenting on my own, and a boatload of commercials and web videos under my belt. But like I said, at that point, I still had a lot to learn. And one of the biggest things I had yet to learn was the importance of color grading. And oh, how I wish I had recognized it’s importance.
Color grading was not something I’d had much experience with at the time personally, and for God-knows-what-reason, I didn’t push to have the film color graded. We were up against a very tight deadline for when we were to premiere the film, and I’d had quite a few challenges making it in the first place (which may be it’s own entry one day), and at the time I was working a full time job, so I didn’t really have the time or energy to put into something as “trivial” as color grading, I thought. I, it turns out, was very wrong and stupid for thinking that.
The picture above, while the framing is nice, is hideous in color. All I see is RED/ORANGE. At the time of filming, there were so many other beautiful colors playing into the shot. (I think another issue we had was that I’m not sure we white-balanced, perhaps because at the time I thought I liked the eerie red/orange color of the “street”. Idiot.) Anyway, It always bothered me after the premiere and when showing anyone the film. The most common thing I heard was, “Boy, that was really red/orange.” NOTE: Not a direct quote.
Over the couple of years following that, and being so bothered by it, I started to really delve into color grading, and like pretty much everything else I’ve ever done, started to teach myself how and used tutorials where I got stuck. And yes, that IS pretty bass-ackwards, but it tends to be how I learn best. The hard way. By figuring things out myself, it allows me to start understanding the mechanics of things on my terms and in ways that I understand, though over the years I have a much healthier blend of using tutorials, blogs and other talented people, and knowing when to branch off and explore on my own.
So I tried many different attempts at grading the film; many painstaking hours getting each shot looking just how I wanted it, and only when rendering it out in full did I notice all of the noise, pixelation and artifacting that was happening because of not being totally sure what I was doing. I would crush blacks too deep, push colors to their saturation points, and pretty much anything that ended up making the picture look nothing like what we had shot. Subtlety was not my strong suit when it came to grading. I would do color grading on commercials, TV and web spots, and while to me it looked good at the time, I look back and can see where I didn’t use grading to compliment what was shot, I was using it to try to completely recolor and change the look of the shot. In some instances this was okay, but usually the picture as it was just needed a slight fine tuning to make the colors pop and register a bit better. That’s not to say I never got better or learned what was good and bad as I practiced, but I always felt like there was something missing in what I was doing. And that the color grading, while some of it looked absolutely beautiful when I really started to find my groove in it, continued to look occasionally over-graded and false. Which I also am not typically a huge fan of, though I do believe it has it’s place. It’s all about knowing when to use it.
But the film. Oh, the film.
It still looked dreadful.
Enter Shane Hurlbut’s blog, http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog. Yes, he was the Director of Photography of Terminator Salvation (which I think is a fantastically shot film, and one of my favorite as far as production design and lighting goes). But he also did a lot of other stuff too. Really, REALLY good stuff. And he is a champion of DSLR shooting, which is my preferred kind…
Anyway, in this blog, he posted an entry about color grading, and the 7 main steps to it. “7?!?!” I thought. “I thought there were like… 3, max!” (Again, IDIOT.) but I read his entry, and followed the steps, and used the thorn in my side- my own film. I reduced noise, I white balanced in post, I relit the scene, I graded the colors and chose a filmstock in Synthetic Aperture… and though it’s definitely not perfect… WHAT. A. DIFFERENCE.
There are actual colors. Colors that help the tone of the shot. It helps you feel the coldness of the concrete beneath their feet, the shadows over the villain’s face, the separation of the lady in the background (my wife and actress Amber Lynn Potter) looking for the owner of the wallet she just found, and how the light from the alley spills onto the sleeve of our hero’s jacket, giving us the hope that she catches it and will help somehow. The lights bouncing around in the background add to the atmosphere and the tension of the scene, and really fill the whole frame with an interesting palette of color.
INSTEAD OF RED/ORANGE.
So, many thanks to the very generous and really entertaining/knowledgeable Shane Hurlbut, who has really helped me to up my game in the color grading arena, which is now one of my favorite parts of the process. As I continue to learn this process, I will post more and more about it. Since I have started to grade more and practice grading on just about anything I can get my hands on, I am seeing so many different colors and shades in everything, and it has really helped my cinematography, as I am paying so much closer attention to the details of the light and shading and shadows.
It’s just such an invaluable tool that I’m embarrassed I hadn’t put more thought into at the start.