What Is Color Grading? Learn the Importance of Stylizing Footage

Young man editing video in dark studio using color grading tools and modern equipment

Ever notice that certain movies seem permeated with certain colors? In the Harry Potter series, for example, you’ll see a lot of warm, bright yellow tones in the first few films. As the series progresses, each movie gets darker with distinctly blue tones, making the setting feel bone-chillingly cold. 

The color changes are the work of a professional film color corrector. During the post-production phase of filmmaking, a director works with the color corrector to create a uniform color palette that unites different parts of their movie in a process known as film color grading.

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What is color grading?

In the world of cinema, color grading refers to the manipulation of film and video images to create consistent color tones throughout a motion picture. Many filmmakers use a color palette as part of their overall production design. These palettes represent artistic choices that provide the film with a unified overall look. When film footage does not adequately match these color palettes, directors and colorists use digital color grading tools to change video colors as needed.

Color grading is the successor to a 20th-century film processing technique called color timing, which took place at film labs when everything was shot on actual negatives. Modern color grading takes place on computers, where it draws upon high-powered editing software like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, or DaVinci Resolve. 

Is color grading necessary?

From an artistic perspective, the color grading process plays an essential role in filmmaking. By grading your footage, you add a unified sense of style to all aspects of your film. For generations, Hollywood filmmakers ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Martin Scorcese to Kathryn Bigelow to Greta Gerwig used movie color grading to denote setting, suggest mood, tweak character traits, and indicate transitions in time.

Of course, great filmmaking goes far beyond stylized color. When a movie wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards, they don’t call up the film’s colorist to accept the trophy and give a rambling speech about the wonders of Adobe Premiere Pro. Great films hinge first and foremost on storytelling, dialogue, acting, and production design. Still, film and video color can offer the finishing touch that helps these components resonate with an audience.

Color grading vs. color correction: What’s the difference?

Color grading and color correction are related processes that occur during the course of video editing. As a general rule, color correcting involves essential fixes to video images, often patching up mistakes made during the filming process. Color grading more commonly involves general artistic choices applied to multiple scenes or the entire film.

  • Color correction: During the color correction process, a professional video editor called a colorist will adjust the colors in film and video in order to make all images appear clear, natural, and with proper light exposure. Modern color correction video software can unify basic color schemes, adjust white balance, darken video, brighten video, and balance skin tones. It also makes the video coloring from disparate cameras look the same—as though all the footage came from the same camera. The process of color correcting video is essential to making movies visually clear to an audience.
  • Color grading: Color grading happens on footage that has already gone through the color correction process. The choices made during color grading help produce a unified look throughout the movie. Typically this look mimics the director and production designer’s initial color palette that they developed during the pre-production stage of filmmaking.

What to do with dark footage?

Sometimes a director and colorist will sit down to edit video color and discover that some of their film footage is poorly lit and appears consistently dark or underexposed. However, with the help of powerful color grading software like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, or DaVinci Resolve, you can manipulate dark footage to your artistic advantage.

Color correction video software can overlay colors onto shadowy images. It can add an artificial exposure effect to make an overall image seem lighter. It can also alter color density curves that bring out more specific colors—like red, green, and blue—to change the character of an image. While there is no true substitute for fantastic original footage, today’s color grading tools can leave a marked impact on your final color palette.

How to get started on color grading: A step-by-step guide

When you’re new to the world of color grading, the process can seem a bit mystifying. Use this step-by-step guide to ease you through the craft of movie color grading.

  1. Color correction. Before you can color grade, you must color correct your footage. To properly color correct, you need a picture profile that establishes a consistent look for your film or video, with an emphasis on color, saturation, and tone. Adjust your dark tones, mid-tones, highlights, and white balance to make your footage as clear as possible.
  2. Color matching. The act of color matching is a mix between color correction and color grading. In this step, directors and colorists use lookup tables (LUTs) to identify a primary color scheme and to match each shot to that scheme. Today’s digital software can do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to color matching.
  3. Shot matching. Shot matching runs hand-in-hand with other aspects of color correcting. Using color correcting software, you must make sure that every shot from every camera looks like a uniform piece. Notable differences between shots will make your film appear scattershot and unprofessional.
  4. Matching skin tones. All tones need to be consistent from shot to shot, but the human eye particularly notices when skin tones don’t consistently line up. Use software scopes, as a digital vectorscope, to hone in on skin tones in each of your principal characters (skin tone matching is not quite as important in background actors but should still be addressed if the time and budget permit).
  5. Address setting and mood. Once you’ve covered the essentials, turn your color grading focus to artistically enhance the setting and mood for each scene, and for the overall film. Top-notch color grading can add everything from levity to mystery to dread, depending upon your artistic choices. Use tools like the digital vectorscope but also your own artistic taste and intuition to guide this process.
  6. Make final color grading adjustments. Color grading comes near the very end of post-production, so you will not have other chances to go back and change your work. Use this final opportunity to match up your images with your initial color palette and lookbook. Jump on any chances to nudge the mood or sense of setting through the use of colors. During this tweaking process, be sure not to overdo it on color changes. Color grading is not a substitute for compelling acting or great camera shots on location. Your existing footage is the meat and potatoes of your film, and color grading is like the glaze on top.

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