Color Correcting & Grading

The reedit/redesign of the IHOPU 2010 promo is almost finished! I hoped to get it done by last Friday, and then by Saturday, and then by Sunday… and now finally, at 2am on Tuesday, I’m exporting the final video. The last hurdle is to send a H.264 encode off to our media director and get it approved.

One of the last steps I did was color correct and grade the footage. What’s the difference, you ask? The terminology may vary, but here is how I think of it:

Color Correcting: Adjusting hue, luminance, and saturation in order to achieve a correctly exposed and white-balanced image.

Color Grading: Adjust the hue, luminance, and saturation in order to achieve a specialized look, often times slightly or dramatically different from reality.

It’s tempting to jump right into color grading, because while color correcting is somewhat mathematical and “boring”, color grading is where you get to tweak the image and come up with a distinct and stylized look. The first time I heard about color grading was watching the special features on the extended Lord of the Rings DVD set for The Fellowship of the Ring. They gave a demonstration of how they color graded scenes from Hobbiton, and it was so cool and cinematic!

But before you color grade, you have to have a clean image. You can come up with the coolest look, but if your footage looks like a yellow film is over it and faces are over-exposed, your cool look is just going exacerbate the problem. Before you grade your video, make sure you correct the footage and get a good, clean image to start with.

There are a few fancy-dancy programs to color correct and grade, and if you can afford them and incorporate them into your workflow, by all means, go for it. In my case, working at IHOP-KC, this video didn’t require intense correcting, so I did all of the corrections in Final Cut Pro using the 3-Way Color Corrector. I then used Magic Bullet Looks from Red Giant Software to color grade.

Before correction:

Notice the over-exposed lights and walls and the overall yellow tint of the footage. If we applied our grade without correcting these issues, the inherent problems would only be exaggerated.

After correction:

Adjusting the hue of the highlights and mids results in a more natural skin tone and the right color in the walls. Adjusting the luminance of the highlights also pulled some of the detail back into the walls, and also helped define the edges around the head of the speaker.

Next step, color grade. I didn’t want anything too dramatic, because this promo is meant to showcase a college and we want the footage to look natural and inviting. That said, I did want to shift the footage just slightly away from raw, unaffected video, because our interviews were shot on green screen and had a slightly stylized look them.

In the end, I used:
1) A vignette, which was centered on the main focus of each shot.
2) A low diffusion. This softened the edges a little and gave the footage a slight polished look.
3) Low film curve. I didn’t want exaggerated contrast, so I lowered the curve to just slightly crush the blocks and enhance the highlights. The result is a slightly more punchy image.
4) Slight desaturation, only about 90-95%. This helped the footage match the graphics, which had a white background.

Corrected footage before Grade:

Corrected footage after Grade:

Note how after grading the audience is blackened out, thus drawing your attention to the speaker on stage.

And that’s a large purpose of color grading: directing the eyes of the viewer. I want the viewer to focus on the speaker, not the crowd way off in the distance, so I can darken the crowd and spotlight the speaker. The increase in contrast makes for a more dynamic picture; luminance (brightness of the image) ranges from 100% bright all the way to 0%, resulting in clear distinction along lines and highlights.

Did you notice how often I said “slightly”? 9 times, to be exact. You don’t have to make your color grade extremely noticeable. Most times you want the footage to look perfectly natural—and yet, when you compare it to the raw footage, you can see that so much is added by grading. Sometimes you want a noticeable grade, like in Minority Report or Band of Brothers, but other times, like in my case or in The Fellowship of the Ring, you want to affect the image but only ever so slightly. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way.

Just as writing, directing, acting, and editing are important tools to helping you tell your story and express your message, remember that color is also a tool. Having footage that is correctly exposed and white-balanced is essential, and you can take your video to the next level by grading it.

And now that the IHOPU 2011 promo is uploaded for review, I am outta here. Cheerio!

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4 thoughts on “Color Correcting & Grading

  1. Jesse Koepke

    Yeah, Michael Bay goes pretty heavy on his grading. Red Giant Software did a tutorial where they walked through a bunch of the blockbusters from 2009 (including Transformers 2) and looked at how they all have the same basic coloring: accurate skin tones and blue shadows. Once they pointed it out, I saw it every movie. It’s a great video if you have some time. http://www.redgiantsoftware.com/videos/redgianttv/item/23/#

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