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DIY Color Grading: Be assertive with your DoP

In Part 2, DMN contributor Mike Jones also covers Levels and Calibration By Mike Jones

In Part 1, DMN contributor Mike Jones discusses the importance of planning. You can read Part 1 here .

As we rest on the cusp of generational change in the digital age there is potential for misunderstanding and contradictory ideas when it comes to Directors of Photography and the demands of digital post. Sadly there are still too many DoP's who, whilst they may have embraced the digital camera, are yet to engage with digital post. As such there are still areas of ignorance and misunderstanding between the conceptual ideas of the DoP and the creative needs of the Director, Editor and Colorist.

The most common manifestation of this problem is the DoP who endeavors to make the image in the viewfinder be as close as possible to their perception of the final image of the movie; to bake the 'look' of the film in-camera.


This kind of thinking really doesn't compute in the digital age, which is predicated on flexibility and malleability. A DoP shooting to bake the image in-camera will invariably leave the Editor and Colorist with very little room to move, very little latitude to manipulate the image in post.

Digitally inexperienced DoP's, in an effort to secure a particular mood in-camera, may often underexpose an image. Ask anyone who has taken a hand to color grading will discover immediately it is very easy to darken an image but near impossible to lighten it without overt visual noise. What color grading needs to build a look or mood is good vibrant exposure with lots of detail and latitude. As such the digital DoP should be aiming to err on the side of more light rather than less; what's known as 'exposing to the right'. Of course you want to avoid clipping and over-exposing but as a general rule, more light is better than less. You can always make it darker in post but you cannot make it lighter without problems.

As a digital director you may need to ensure you have properly communicated your needs to the DoP; showing them your color grade tests and inviting them to be a part of that process will certainly help. Prompting them to shoot for good post options rather than shoot to the specific look of the film may be a more difficult discussion at times but one worth having.

Increasingly DoP's are embracing the digital age and seeing color-grading not as post-production but rather an extension of cinematography; the final part of their role in crafting the image of the film. It strikes me that this is an entirely logical progression that boasts great possibility for more integrated collaboration in digital post-production.

Watch your levels
All good dedicated grading software systems, like Magic Bullet Looks and Apple Color, will give you scopes to monitor the levels in your picture. Once you understand what they represent, ensuring that your colors don't clip is really not difficult. Having broadcast legal colors is, of course, crucial for professional projects and all good systems will give you tools for clamping and kerbing colors to ensure you stay within these limits. But the common mistake of inexperienced graders is to rely on the Auto-Shoulder and Clamp tools that can lead to harsh colors and clumsy results.

The key to not needing the Auto-Shoulder is to monitor your levels constantly as you work. Solve any clipping as you go with individual processes rather than relying on the 'solve it all' at the end.

Calibrate your monitor
There is much you can do to calibrate your monitor. Some LCD screens come with built-in color calibration tools. Your graphics card may offer a calibration wizard to let you work through by eye. You can buy or borrow a calibration hardware unit that hangs over the front of your screen to check its registration. There are even a host of free online wizards to help you get the screen as close to a uniform standard as possible. All these are worth exploring. And of course investing in a good monitor to begin with is always smart.

One of the first and fundamental things you can do is set the Gamma of your display. Gamma refers to the apparent relative levels of luminance in the image and one of the areas many get wrong simply because they don't think to check it. Mac users will want to pay particular attention because the default Mac OS X screen Gamma is 1.8 but the much more common gamma level used by broadcast and TV screens is 2.2.

The standard white point for video display can vary enormously from monitor to monitor and there's no way to account for what individuals have their TV sets or LCD projectors calibrated to. The best you can do is match your monitor to the white-point 'most' screens are likely to be be using. But even here this isn't so easy. Broadcast standards generally fix 6500k (known as 'D65') as the benchmark but most TV's ship by default set to the 'bluer' 9300k. The dilemma for the DIY color grader is whether to go with 6500k to match what the broadcast white point 'should' be or grade to 9300k to match what most of users may actually 'see.' The real answer is to grade for one of these two and then cross-check the results with the other temperature. If you can get an image that achieves your desired aesthetic results and looks pretty good under either of these two, then you will have created an effective grade.

Substance Over Style
While its easy to get excited about the creative opportunities afforded by accessible and low cost software color grading tools, the trade off is that it's also easy to get carried away.

Sadly one of the hallmarks of many indie films, digital shorts and student films over the past few years has been gaudy, overdone color-grading. Style over Substance driven by the 'because I can' concept.

A great color grade is not one that just looks good; a great color grade is motivated by the film's themes, character and narrative. A great color grade is one that interprets and supports the film and not just dresses it up in sexy clothes. Very often with grading Less is More, don't be afraid of subtlety and simplicity.

For the digital indie filmmaker color grading should be seen not as some sacred cow reserved for the high priests, but simply another creative arm of filmmaking to be embraced and exploited.

There will always be a place for the specialist, the unequivocal expert in a particular niche who is able to do things that a generalist could never do. And certainly this article glosses over, or provides simplistic perspectives on, what are otherwise very complex scientific elements. Color Grading is certainly an area where the specialization is a high art. But, this should never be leveraged as an excuse to believe that good results are impossible without a specialist or specialized facilities. The tools are simply too good for that nonsense, too accessible to persist with this obstructionist idea.

Great results are more than possible via DIY on software-only systems in domestic environments. Just as we shouldn't hesitate to pick up a camera and shoot we similarly shouldn't hesitate to pick up a computer and grade.


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Mike Jones is a digital media producer, author, educator from Sydney, Australia. He has a diverse background across all areas of media production including film, video, TV, journalism, photography, music and on-line projects. Mike is the author of three books and more than 200 published essays, articles and reviews covering all aspects of cinematic form, technology and culture. Mike is currently Head of Technological Arts at the International Film School Sydney (www.ifss.edu.au), has an online home at www.mikejones.net and can be found profusely blogging for DMN at www.digitalbasin.net


Related Keywords:color grading, filmmaking, digital intermediate

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