A Little bit of Color in my Life

Having done quite a few Grading jobs for Indie Film and taught the fundamentals of color for the last three years at workshops and as a Professor, I’m often astounded when the subject of Color grading tools come up, especially when that conversation is usually between the Producer and myself and not the Director of Photography. The tendency to say “We’ve got Colorista” or “Apple Color comes with FCP”, “Our editor will just tweak the colors at the end or he’ll just do it in FCP!” is almost as common as the hiring of a DP because he has a RED or a 5D with Lenses these days.

Here’s where the decision to “Finish on your own” if you are an indie filmmaker can turn into a nightmare

While Colorista and Color are wonderful tools and they have saved my butt many times, Stu Machowitz (the creator of Colorista) never intended for them to replace a DaVinci or the skilled artist that uses one. Colorista and Color’s toolset is impressive, especially given it’s price, but the fact that sophisticated but necessary task such as tracking are difficult, if not impossible to do easily in these programs, frame those tools as Primary and simple shot grading tools more specifically.

Sophisticated re-lighting or painting with light, in essence, recreating the mood or making a shot into a work of art, similar to a painting are the domain of the Colorist, not just making every shot balance out before a Quicktime is rendered

Tangent 200 Colorist Board

That is not say that your feature or short can not be done in Color or Colorista by your Editor or yourself, quite the opposite. But given the fact that more times than not, an Indie shoot is rife with let’s say “Less than ideal conditions” means that your footage is going to need MORE, not less attention in the grading stage. And that demands an artist, a Colorist, not an editor or producer “watching tutorials” minutes before starting a primary. My point usually to the Producer is to be as concerned with finishing as they are with sound. Both make or break a film. Both need capable professionals in tune with capturing an audience. Color decisions that make sense in a Quicktime environment such as FCP (like stacking 3way Color nodes to get a look), can prove disastrous if then that Quicktime is used for a DCI theater presentation (Film Festival). XYZ colorspace not with standing, the false gamma given by Quicktime has been known to make have many filmmakers scratching their heads trying to find out why the image on the movie screen was so flat.

Rum Runner Title Sequence

Rum Runner
Shot on Canon 5D, Zeiss Lenses,
Courtesy of ACK, ACK Productions

Color Correction

I wanted to pick an example which is reflective of the experience most Indies are having these days. The above image is from Rum Runner, a wonderful short directed by up and comer, Andrew Fenske, debut DOP’d by Kevin Coyne and Produced by Gina Brinker. Veteran Canon shooter John Turk served as Steadicam and Camera Operator for Kevin which allowed him to spend a great deal of time researching his look, but unfortunately as time constraints threatened the production, Kevin had to adjust on the fly. As a result, although lit adequately, he was not able to get the look he had hoped for in camera. The edit was done in Final Cut Pro and then sent to Apple Color where I performed a quick Primary and Secondary Grade on the film in order to get it out for a festival showing. But because Kevin and I had talked extensively before, during and after the production phase, I had a good ideal of what he was looking for and planned to go back later and do a full grade My workflow in Color was as follow, establish a Primary Grade, using the ProRes 442 online files with a roundtrip back to FCP in ProRes 422 with a gamma of 2.6 for theater delivery. Once the festival was done, I went back and looked at my notes for the shoot and CineSync reviewed all the shots. Below is the result.

Review session of colorBecause a lot of the shots on the production were done on a stabilizer and/or with a handheld approach, tracking a lot of the Color correction changes would be necessary. Faces, adding lighting to walls, corners, etc. would require a track first to compensate for the camera drift. Here’s where the decision to “Finish on your own” if you are an indie filmmaker can turn into a nightmare. While Colorista, MBLooks and Boris can use the AE tracker to apply an Adjustment layer with color changes applied to it, the process means stepping out of the plugin, tracking, then going back to the Color software. Not to mention that finding a reliable tracking point on a face is an adventure upon itself. The novice quite often chooses to just do a Primary using Magic Bullet Looks for getting a safe (Film, Television, web) deliverable rather than tackle a series of time consuming, tracking task along with stacking of Colorista nodes to get a look. The Colorist takes many different factors into account, such as concatenation (the negative result resulting from stacking plugins of same mathematical process on top of each other) 8 bit banding, and chooses the tool best suited to getting the job done. Sometimes Colorista is the best tool, sometimes DaVinci.

The second grade of Rum Runner saw the shots converted from the Canon master into Tif files (I usually like to use 10bit DPX files, especially if the master is RED, ArriRaw or some format that can give me a Log file. Since CineStyle was not available when we shot, the files were already encoded REC709, so Tif worked as a grading solution. I also want true 10bit images so I needed to bypass the ProRes Quicktime curve and acquire in as close to original master look as possible. The files were then taken into Scratch (my tool of choice for Canon 5D grading) and then a series of mattes, secondary scaffolds (Power windows), a key matted Diffusion pass (to smooth out skin) and a lens flare was added. A paint pass to fix skin blemishes was done and finally the color was graded for DCI (Theater, Film Festival) and REC709 (Television) and two different passes were output to digital files.

While the snapshot above does not reflect the finished shot, it is a significant improvement of the first grading session that I would call equal to what most indie filmmakers do. Quick, down and dirty. And while the software chosen helps, the point is that in order to compete, one has to emulate as much as the Hollywood experience as possible, for audiences will not except anything less. Grading is an art form and while the failure to do it well won’t destroy your film, a good Colorist can most definitely propel your film from ho hum to memorable.