Color is all about your story. From day one, you probably had an idea of what look fit your story and what mood you wanted to create. Is it bright neon and electric candy, or dark grays and misty fog? While your production probably established a lot of this atmosphere, in editorial this needs to translate to a finished color grade. Even in this age of digital video, you’ll probably have to correct and even re-expose the production footage to balance the colors. In achieving all this, it’s helpful to understand some theory behind color and bit of the psychology behind color combinations.
Digital cameras are pretty great, with built-in sensors that can push and pull colors like strokes from God’s paint brush. Still, there are basic concepts about the human perception of color. For example, why is a blue/orange tint good for certain emotions, while a bleach-bypass look evokes a completely different reaction? Or to put it less technically, why do romantic comedies tend to use a different color grade than the average action flick? Some of these choices may seem generic, but actually there’s a whole lot of theory behind them. And unless you’re making some kind of artistic statement about the innate violence of love, you don’t want to be crossing schemes.
For color correction, you basically want to be starting from zero. After the footage has been shot, you can readjust the exposure and white balance to give it a neutral foundation. Once you’ve done that, you can start grading the “look” of each shot. Scopes measure the different levels within the video, and are extremely helpful tools. Waveform tracks the luminance, while RGB measures color balance. Just like in life and almost every other area of filmmaking, overall balance is important. Once everything is balanced to a neutral grade, you can start toying with saturation, crushing blacks and boosting the mid and high tones.
Things you’ll be using to correct in whatever grading program you’ve chosen are:
Color Wheels – these are going to be labelled either “Lift, Gamma, Gain” or “Shadows, Mid-tones, Highlights.” Simply put, you’re either going to push colors in the shadows, mid-tones or highlights toward a certain hue, or you’re going to pull them away from one (which is essentially also pushing). If the mid-tones are too yellow, pull that color wheel to the blue. These wheels should also be able to brighten or darken within each range (Lift, Gamma, Gain – Shadow, Mid, High).
To see if you’re doing it right for color, you’ll be using your eyes (obviously), and maybe an RGB parade scope. You’ll see which colors are more dominant and in what range. If you treat correction like a game, the trick is to get them all even (or close to even). To see if you’re doing it right for luminance (or exposure), you should use a luminance scope. It’ll show you if things are too under exposed or over exposed.
If you really liked algebra growing up and miss seeing those graphs, you can correct using curves. Same concept as the wheels, but instead of affecting color in the shadows, mid tones and highlights, you’ll be affecting shadows, mid tones and highlights in the colors.
So what is the look of your project? Well, your story and by now expert understanding of color theory should have already established this. During production, the cinematographer may have also created the basis for the colors and overall style. Maybe now it’s just the simple task of amplifying the color grade that’s already in place. But if something isn’t right, a new idea has occurred to you or you simply want to burn down the house, you can play around with curves, waveform graphs and look-up-tables (LUTS).