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Colour Grading Guide

Discussion in 'Film & Film Production' started by Rohann van Rensburg, Jan 29, 2019.

  1. Hey folks,

    So I remember Mike talking about films making everything orange and teal. I've certainly noticed this, and it seems to be kind of the cinematographical equivalent of generic blockbuster music -- it's at the point where everyone expects it. I see it all over YouTube, and I find myself starting to think the contrast looks good. And sometimes it does. But it's generic, and does nothing stylistically -- little thought for mood, story or characters. Other films take a relatively generic "blue is sad, yellow is happy" approach and tend to completely overdo it, but I figure there's some room in here for working with audience familiarity, sort of like established ideas in music.
    Before I give examples, does anyone have any good resources or tips for "transcribing" cinematographical composition? I'm mostly interested in photography (but everything is the same, so of course the same principles of subject, story, direction, etc apply) and I find studying composition a little more intuitive in that regard, but in terms of knowing how and why a particular scene has the colours it does and where those colours lie seems a little trickier. There's plenty to study with photography, but the most interesting photographers often seem influenced by cinema, and vice-versa. There's a real vintage obsession within photography that I don't have an opinion on yet, other than the fact that constantly decontrasting photos doesn't always seem that interesting.

    Overdone, from X-Men something-something-don't-lose-the-franchise-rights-Sony (because we all know the sun is bright blue):

    New-ish films I've noticed that stand out in this regard are films like Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Skyfall, Push, and John Wick. I don't have the experience to understand well enough what they're doing, but as an audience member, I certainly noticed it and thought it was done stylistically well.

    Dark, but effective:

    Highly stylized, but colouring tells the story:

  2. I'm not sure what exactly you want to be able to do in the end, but there is a lot to learn about using color from painters. Here is a link to a youtube playlist of some good videos:

    Was that even supposed to be during the day? They often film night scenes in the day and try to "convert" it in post, which tends to look weird.
  3. This is a huge and complex topic. Like, really big. However, here's a refrain you might recognize: image composition and color are inextricably linked. I don't really want to get started, but I can give you this: very little of today's color grading is real - it's created after the shoot, in post, by power-windowing everything and treating highlights, shadows, focus, etc. independently. The problem is that in nature, if you change one aspect of an image, the physics of light change everything around it, too. A simple example - if you shoot a person with a white light and then color it blue in post, it will not look anything like if you shot that person with a blue light - in the real world, the blue light would propagate differently and interact differently with things around it. Think of it like the difference between recording sections of the orchestra separately and then putting them together in non-real balance later - it will always feel artificial somehow, even if people can't tell you why. It's because none of the real interplay between instruments is happening.

    Thus, we are embedding all of our imagery with relationships in luminance and color which our brains instinctively (and from a lifetime of comparative data) know is unreal. This creates a permanent disconnect from the images, however aesthetically pleasing in the moment, and is part of what has contributed to films being so forgettable, generally. Partner this with what you already know are the failures of music to connect (for many of the same reasons) and you start to understand why the best word to describe the bulk of media produced today is "fogettable." It is hard to craft real, lasting images with nothing but unreal, homogenized input. More to come on this in the future; stay tuned.
  4. This would make a great Masterclass - Film School 102: Cinematography - featuring Laura Beth? ;)
    Samuel Diaz likes this.
  5. Totally second this!! We definitely need a Film School 102 class, I thought the first one was fantastic.
  6. Great points in that video. You can really exchange a lot of those ideas directly with music, especially re: transitions, etc. Thanks for posting! Painting is a fantastic place to look, I'll bear that in mind.

    Mostly trying to create moods and styles within my own images that aren't flatly "1:1 everyday life" but also don't look overdone and contain a good understanding of composition. The reality is that cameras don't capture what your eyes do so even recreating, accurately, the lighting and mood from a particular scene as it was experienced in real life.

    And yes, you could see the actual sun shining through the trees. This was a memorably terrible scene in that respect:

    I'd love an extended class on this. Seriously. Great point re: colour and composition. The more well-regarded and noticeably competent cinematographers are recognizable in both respects. Hollywood blunders abound -- the X-Men example being particularly heinous, as is the post-processing on Star Wars that you pointed out in a Vimeo video. I couldn't believe that got the pass.

    I suppose there are two main things I'm after in respect to your points (in regards to photography, specifically):
    1. Since cameras don't capture precisely what your eyes see, this needs to be compensated for in post in one way or another if one wants to represent what one's eyes saw (I have no idea what darkroom processes were like with film so I won't attempt to draw parallels) -- i.e. my Sony camera has a large dynamic range, but in order to actually take advantage of it I need to correctly expose the highlights while taking the photo and manually bring up the shadows in post in order to get an image that looks realistic if I'm shooting a high contrast scene, and possibly play with the vibrance, saturation, since I'm shooting RAW. I'm not sure what the equivalent would be with film, or what the best approach for this is to avoid the aforementioned issues. In this vein, how does this fit in with the kind of nuances and palettes various types of film stock used to introduce? Where is the crossroads between these ideas?

    2. A lot of the most interesting lighting is prohibitively difficult to capture if you're simply a hobbyist, or, in the case of nature, is particularly rare. I hate fake light, suns, etc being added to photos in photoshop or the like, and obviously actually capturing the right lighting at the right angle is 90% of photography. But is there any way to tastefully play with colours and imply different moods without going the "fake" route? I suppose this is sort of a "how do I get as close to realistic as I can with Virtual Instruments" question.
    Unfortunately true. I'm curious about places where they do end up being used creatively and memorably, however -- i.e. the distinct green vs. blue hues in the Matrix. It's a fairly memorable aspect of a film that stands out in the last few decades.
  7. Fortunately, we don't actually seek to, nor have to, make a low-dynamic-range image (all media in the universe) look the way the high-dynamic-range universe looks to our eyes. What separates the girls from the women in image creation is having craft enough to make those low-dynamic-range images feel like the real-life experience, even if they don't look like it. Again, huge topic, but totally a candidate for the second film class.
  8. Yeah this is obviously much larger in scope than a thread. Appreciate your and others' insight though, to whatever degree is reasonable here.

    I think the more worthwhile discussion, until I develop a better understanding and philosophy regarding visual art, is rather film vs digital, instead of real life vs visual. Would a better parallel be trying to get digital to capture the nuance of film? Narrowing the focus in this manner seems to be more akin to making virtual instruments sound like a recorded symphony, as opposed to making VI's sound like a live symphony (something a recorded symphony can't do, real instruments, analogue recording or otherwise).

    There are no shortage of noteworthy photographers that accomplished a great deal with high-contrast images (i.e. Fan Ho). And on the other side of the spectrum, HDR "effects" obviously tend to look fake, complete with poor colour balance, haloing, etc, so I'm not referring to the digital HDR blending effect (although multiple exposure blending has been around since the 1800s). What I'm more interested in is actually utilizing the full dynamic range of a given digital camera so that it at least matches the dynamic range of film (film having on average 13, apparently, and newer DSLRs and mirrorless cameras having around the same or more) and this doesn't seem to be possible without editing in post-production software. Surely there is some philosophy available here that helps one utilize digital to one's advantage, without losing that vital connection of relatability?
  9. Lord God, no.. stop. :) Don't even go down this road yet, it's a circle-jerk and little else. First of all, there is no "HDR" photography. Until we have a computer monitor or television as bright as the sun, what we mislabel "HDR" is just tone-mapping. It's a stylized image, and not representative of "the way we see things," as we cannot separate the energy of photons from our visual perception of same. Think no more on this, and ignore everyone who argues. Trust me. 2nd, the couple-of-stops latitude difference (I shoot on the Alexa when possible, which is damn-near-film) is not a lynch pin in any way - Roger Deakins has fully embraced digital photography, and remains one of the best in the world. Far better to consider would be the colorspace limitations of digital and again, that's gravy, not the meat.

    Great music can be represented in mono with a limited dynamic and frequency range. Similarly, great image composition and contrast ratios can be represented in black and white with limited exposure range. Don't get bogged down by this stuff - like music, it takes care of itself when it's in service of something, and we have a vocabulary.

    I mentioned this thread and the issues raised to Laura Beth and she immediately began a rant, so this is will definitely be our next Film class.
  10. #10 Rohann van Rensburg, Jan 30, 2019
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2019
    (I think I may have derailed myself -- the talk about dynamic range had more to do with a philosophy of post editing, i.e. using Lightroom to edit a digital photo as one would have used traditional editing techniques with film, or how to not abuse it. Clarification at the bottom.)
    Great point, of course, the proof being the lack of convincing realism an "HDR" effect tends to produce. Ah, Roger Deakins -- I mentioned Skyfall but forgot to mention Sicario and Prisoners as other films that stood out to me in recent memory.

    Wonderful! I look forward to having some preconceptions torn apart (it's why I'm here, after all). I think I misunderstood where you were coming from initially, so I'll avoid digital vs. film questions and plumbing the depths of my ignorance. I'd love both of your perspectives on this, looking forward to the next film class.

    Since the simple answer in music is, "listen to and transcribe the masters", is there an equivalent simple(ish) answer to how to "transcribe" the masters in cinematography (for the purpose of photography) or photography specifically? How does one develop a vocabulary in an equivalent way to transcribing music?
    Studying composition and lighting seems to be a bit more obvious, but I'm specifically wondering about the colouring, contrast, etc as well (and the editing process) and how that ties into composition since they're obviously inseparable. How do I accurately represent the nuances of visual imagery in the framework of a digital photograph? Obviously minimizing the need for digital editing is preferable (i.e. use reflectors, GND filters if appropriate, etc), but do I avoid post-editing altogether? If not, how do I do it faithfully? Am I trying to imitate what would have been done in a darkroom? It's these things that aren't obvious to me, but perhaps this is too large in scope, hence wondering if there's an easy way to explain how to transcribe these things and develop a vocabulary in lieu of having a class on it.

    There's also the question of whether a movie still can be equated to a photograph, but aside from the larger story being told within a scene or shot, I imagine a film still can function like a musical section in the context of a symphony, the musical phrase still being a complete piece of music.
  11. #11 Mike Verta, Jan 30, 2019
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2019
    Transcription works in part because it treats all the various complex disciplines as one which must be taken together, versus studying individual aspects of composing. It works for the same reason language immersion does, versus learning to be fluent in a language by conjugating verbs, just like no infant does.

    Transcription in this medium might consist of replicating an individual shot/composition/sequence, including lighting. One would learn very quickly all the separate disciplines at once - camera movement/lens choice, staging, depth-of-field and exposure considerations, etc. The first time somebody tries to shoot a miniature, they learn a volume's worth of info about just how much light one needs to make that work, and how to choose the right focal length.

    There are tons of CG artists, whom have never so much as picked up a camera, who are right now posting renders of their finished pieces where they've arbitrarily added a totally inappropriate level of depth-of-field blur, and are accidentally making all their objects look like miniatures. Ignorance of the basics is everywhere.
  12. I don't understand the fascination with "realism". I find an image full of deliberate artistic choices and deviations from reality much more interesting.


    Ikea did something cool: they took their photographers and gave each a couple years of training in 3D rendering, and they took their CG artists and gave them each a couple of years of training in photography. Their catalogs are a wild mix of photography and 3D renderings, and they're so close in quality that the average person will never notice, and you really gotta know your stuff and look for it, to tell them apart. I'm not even convinced I would guess all 100% right, and I know a thing or two about it.
  13. #13 Rohann van Rensburg, Jan 30, 2019
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2019
    Forget I implied realism, or mentioned "high dynamic range" -- I'm trying to avoid buzzwords and processing "special effects". I generally dislike the look of such effects due to their lack of subtlety and everything Mike mentioned. I'm with you that artistic choice is more interested in a lot of cases, and why I initially brought up the subject of colour palette, tonal consistency, grading, etc. Even exaggerated palettes can be evocative and interesting, although the same principles apply.

    1. In bringing film into the discussion, my intent is also to demonstrate the inherent procedural differences between analogue and digital. Please correct me if I misunderstand, but my point with a higher-end DSLR or mirrorless camera is that straight out of camera, the entirety of the available detail isn't represented. If you compare an out-of-camera digital shot with a film shot, the film shot will have noticeably more i.e. dynamic range, contrast, saturation, etc, by nature of the light being printed onto the medium of film (again as far as I understand). I assume this is more akin to a negative vs. a developed shot (without editing). The digital RAW shot will need adjustment to simply display the available information. I'm not debating film vs digital in terms of "which is better", but trying to illustrate the inherent limitation of digital photographs (depending on the camera).
    Example (unedited film left, unedited Canon 6D on the right):

    2. What I'm trying to get at is what the philosophy surrounding post-production should be (obviously this is a much larger topic), but specifically how one is to coax the available information out of a digital photo while remaining faithful to the inherent characteristics of the medium and of the physics of light, colour, etc, if not through post processing. What's the negative vs. developed vs. edited digital equivalent?
    What I've interpreted Mike saying is that editing individual adjustment values of exposure, colour, etc after the fact (necessarily independently, unless you simply stick to broad sliders) is inherently problematic by nature. I imagine I've misinterpreted at least to some degree, because listening to someone like Deakins talk about his work indicates he obviously does post process and grade to maintain tonal consistency and compensate for changing natural lighting, but obviously subtly with the majority done with real lighting.

    3. Is manipulation of a digital photograph in i.e. Lightroom or Photoshop the digital version of editing and processing a film negative in a darkroom? Or is it more akin to the process of a camera capturing light onto film and this film being developed?
    There are basically 3 options here:
    A) Shoot RAW with no digital post-processing in Lightroom or Photoshop. Adjust the exposure appropriately pre-shot and live with the results.
    B) Shoot JPEG and let the camera do the processing. Pick the appropriate white-balance in camera and allow the camera's presets to do the work.
    C) Shoot RAW and adjust in editing software.
    I suppose a lot of the above could be applied to shooting video with a modern handheld, i.e. shooting LOG versus shooting an in-camera profile.

    If the answer is C, and that adjustment isn't inherently the issue but how one uses the software, then what's the best place to begin learning this? Surely this isn't a secret.

    PS -- As Mike mentioned, replication is a helpful tool. None of what I'm referring to is implied to substitute good/effective lighting, lens choice, etc. It seems obvious that your lens choice, aperture/DOF, shutter speed, focal length, exposure, framing, lighting etc etc needs to be captured properly at the time of the shot.
  14. In my humble opinion you should focus on those first, and I think you are way overthinking the rest. Try different workflows, see what suits you. Learn to use Photoshop and Lightroom, even if you end up deciding that you want to do the least possible processing, it doesn't hurt to be in full control of your image editing tools. Make sure you understand what is going on in an image file down to bits and bytes, it'll make you understand better what's going inside cameras and during post processing and will allow you to answer many of the questions regarding bit depths and RAW file formats for yourself. But the real important stuff is in your decisionmaking before you even take the shot. You're better off having that knowledge and taking pictures with an iPhone, than having all the deep tech knowledge in the world with 5-figures worth of gear and not knowing how to light and compose a good picture.

    Personally I think the value in shooting photos on film isn't in the colors, it's in the mindset of each photo having a cost and consequently taking more time on preparation, trying to make every shot count, learning to better anticipate how to set the correct settings instead of always going for "trial and error" because there is no cost to making digital photos. A bit like recording straight to tape instead of midi maybe.

    Compare the lighting in some old movies with modern ones. It's amazing how much better many of the old ones were lit.

    And one last thing because it seems you might not know this: film isn't a neutral medium and there isn't only one type of film. There are many and they have different looks.
  15. You need to abandon the distinction between digital and film entirely. It is only the tiniest of considerations in the creation of emotionally dramatically effective imagery. Much of what you're bringing up is a conflation of technical issues, failing to make distinctions between raw imagery and the inherent nature of photochemical stock. Technically there's a slightly different workflow working with digital but this is all post capture and truly the least of your concerns until you've got the fundamentals about dramatic image creation under your belt.

    While ultimately they are different beasts and are handled differently both in the capture and post capture, the truth is when you know what you're doing you can make a good image and that's what you need to focus on. This is the same way that if you really know how to orchestrate and how to perform you can get that out of Live players or out of a VST. The difference is that there's a universe of quality difference between a VST and a live player and that is just simply no longer the case between digital and film and hasn't been for a long time
  16. Maybe it's better to think of shooting digital vs on film as recording audio to a hard drive vs recording to tape?
  17. I, of course, agree with this. Just like anything else, fundamentals are key. While I don't consider myself a good photographer, I have been doing it with varying degrees of enthusiasm as a hobbyist since I was a teenager. These basics are always what I'm trying to work on and reference photos for.

    Again, absolutely agree. There are certainly interesting colour palettes, film effect simulations, etc that I see coming up though that are obviously the partial result of post-processing, and I've been wondering for years how to achieve moods in colour, saturation, contrast, etc in a tasteful manner. More in-depth editing is new to me and navigating it in order to create interesting moods is why I started this thread.

    Again in agreement here. A lot of pro photographers echo the same and will shoot film as an exercise to remember this.
    Hearing Deakins talk about lighting vs reading about Mad Max's post processing obviously shows a massive contrast in approach. I imagine there are arguments for Mad Max's approach due to the difficulty of the area they were shooting it, but it comes down to willingness to put in effort in the end. The Revenant was shot entirely in natural light in an environment where it's constantly fleeting, and that obviously took a whole lot of patience.

    I am aware re: film. I frustratingly took the thread off course with that example -- I was trying to point out that the inherent nature of printing to film is, in effect, "processing", vs a digital camera's RAW file. But it is a physical process, not a digital one, and as such is subject to natural limitation. Digital doesn't have the same type of limitation in this regard.
    Martin Hoffmann likes this.
  18. #18 Rohann van Rensburg, Jan 30, 2019
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2019
    Sure; the example became more of a red herring than intended. Really what I was trying to get at is clarification about how one is to learn to post-process and subtly colour a digital image without failing to keep it connected to fundamentals of how lighting, contrast and colours actually work and interact. This involves proper lighting and composition, but it obviously involves post-processing as well, and the interaction between these and other elements of the photo.
    You mentioned treating highlights, shadows, etc independently, and I'm not sure if you mean literally avoiding individual adjustments with a photo or having the understanding to make sure those are being adjusted in the context of the whole. This might be due to my lack of knowledge about film editing, but I see photographers using these adjustments extremely well and extremely poorly. Is it more appropriate to separate the questions of "RAW processing" vs. "editing and grading"?

    And I do of course agree that fundamentals are most important, and really the lifelong pursuit, but surely there's an appropriate point after doing this for 15+ years (sporadically, admittedly) that learning to edit properly is helpful (i.e. for the purpose of tonal consistency, colour emphasis, etc) -- whether going back to editing basics of processing and balancing RAW files properly, or taking a properly processed RAW file and further editing it for stylistic effect. I don't see the sense in taking RAW photos for this long and never processing them to the point of a "finished" photo. I literally don't know, nor have heard of, a single photographer who works with digital and doesn't process their files in at least a basic manner.

    Then again, maybe the answer is simply to study more compositional basics and "transcribe" the combination of composition and processing, assuming what is and isn't good processing will show itself more clearly when composition is better understood. It can be hard to do this without seeing how an image was processed, though, just like transcribing music is more difficult without sheet music.
  19. I don't know what the best way for a photographer is to learn those fundamentals, but to any painter I'd recommend this book (the amazon auto embed doesn't work for me - it's "Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter" by James Gurney) :

    Your question has 3 sub questions: how, what, and why. Painting books will address the what and the why in a way that should be mostly applicable to photgraphy, and the how part is a lot easier in digital image editing. For the specifics on how, I'd watch a few photo editing/compositing/post processing tutorials on youtube, and experiment with Photoshop. Not sure how it's today but I remember the manual being surprisingly decent ~2 decades ago.

    Personally I'd say just go for it! Experiment, have fun! There's a wealth of knowledge to be discovered through experimentation. Adjustment-layers are your friend, try working in a non-destructive-workflow if you can.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  20. Book isn't showing up, unfortunately. Link?
    EDIT: Just saw you post the title, thanks.

    I appreciate the video you posted too, there's an awful lot in there that's applicable. Going to re-watch and take notes.

    I think the problem is that there's a boatload of "how" and "what" on the internet, like with most things, but not really the "why". Thinking about it now, I wonder if resources for studying and understanding lighting (and painting, fantastic idea!) would get me closer to what I'm after, because in the end good colour grading is relevant to the way light actually functions (i.e. shadows and darkness desaturates due to our use of rods vs. cones, etc).

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