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 to follow certain color schemes? In the Harry Potter series, for example, you’ll see a lot of warm, bright yellow hues in the first few films. As the series progresses, each movie gets darker with distinctly blue tones, making the setting feel cold and ominous. 

Those 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 the movie in a process known as film color grading.

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What is color grading?

In cinema, color grading refers to manipulating raw 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 give the film a unified look. When film footage doesn’t match these color palettes, directors and colorists use digital color grading tools to change the video colors.

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 happens on computers, where it draws upon high-powered editing software like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, or Descript.

Cinematic color grading

Cinema uses color as a storytelling device to change the way a film looks. While most color grading is done in post-production, some filmmakers and cinematographers shoot with color grading in mind. Often, gels are used for adjusting luminance and color balance, as well as adding pops of color to wardrobes and sets. 

The following examples show how color adjustments added to the look and feel of some films.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Still image of scene from Mad Max: Fury Road.
Source: YouTube

Cinematographer John Seale used color to convey the story of Mad Max: Fury Road, which won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

He uses the desert and the color of rust to convey the sense of desolation and decay in the post-apocalyptic film. He also highlighted the vibrancy of the action scenes by using complementary colors on a color wheel: notice the bright blue sky.

Thirteen (2003)

Still image of scene from Thirteen.
Source: YouTube

In the coming-of-age story Thirteen, director Catherine Hardwicke used different tints throughout the film to show Tracy's progression and emotions. The footage initially looks unsaturated and almost washed out, showing Tracy's life as lifeless and dull. Then, as she explores new and possibly harmful experiences, the footage is tinted with orange, representing danger or warning.

After Tracy fully entrenches herself in destructive behavior, the film begins to appear green, indicating corruption and immaturity. As Tracy experiences depression, yellow is used to signify feeling destabilized, while blue symbolizes things falling apart. After Tracy heals, the film is shot in vibrant colors to convey a feeling of hope and life to the audience.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Still image from Blade Runner 2049 movie.
Source: YouTube

Denis Villeneuve uses more than RGB colors in Blade Runner 2049 to draw the audience into this cyberpunk film noir. In certain areas of the film, he uses color spaces to convey different emotions or foreshadow different plot points. 

For example, he uses yellow to indicate information or enlightenment for K (Ryan Gosling’s character), orange to warn or caution, green to show life and vibrancy, pink and purple to mean extravagance or romance, and white whenever K was close to discovering the truth.

3 types of color grading in films

In color grading, as with most post-production techniques, you have to develop your own style. For some filmmakers, color grading has become a signature style. Think about Wes Anderson or Tim Burton movies, for example.

There are, however, three standard color grading types in film and television:

Naturalistic color grading

A nature documentary is a perfect example of naturalistic color grading. Basically, it amps up the footage's already existing colors. It’s different from color correction in that it doesn't try to correct mistakes; it just makes the greens greener and the reds redder. 

Naturalistic color grading can be seen in Planet Earth II, which is shot with state-of-the-art equipment, but also uses naturalistic color grading to enhance the beauty and majesty of nature.

Still image from Planet Earth II showing naturalistic color grading
Source: YouTube

Contrast and mood-based color grading

Today, most modern films use contrasting color grading to create a visually appealing and emotionally resonant experience for the audience. 

The scene in Baz Luhrman's 1996 Romeo and Juliet when Romeo and Juliet take their lives has the dark moodiness of a funeral or death, with pops of neon to create an almost otherworldly fantasy.

Still image of scene from Romeo and Juliet
Source: IMDb

Genre-specific color grading

Think of different movie genres and the type of colors or looks you’d expect to see in each. As an example, a romantic comedy may use lighter colors and brighter scenes, whereas a sci-fi movie may use neons and artificial colors to convey futuristic technology. That’s the essence of color grading. 

There are specific color grading palettes for different genres. For example, Silence of the Lambs is a psychological horror film that uses muted tones and has dark footage. Whenever Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins' character) appeared on screen, the colors were stark with lots of white against black and red.

Still image from Silence of the Lambs
Source: YouTube

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 have 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.
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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, 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 image seem lighter. It can also alter color density curves that bring out more specific colors—like red, green, and blue (RGB)—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 tutorial 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. Many even come with plug-ins and presets to make it easier for beginners.

3. Shot matching

Shot matching goes 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, like 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 won’t 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 gravy on top.

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Color grading FAQ

How is color grading done?

In color grading, digital tools or photochemical processes are used to make videos or films look better or change the color tone and mood. In other words, it involves manipulating contrast, color, saturation, and other aspects to match scenes shot under different conditions.

What is color grading vs color correction?

Although color correction and color grading are closely related, they’re distinct processes. Color correction fixes errors and creates a neutral starting point, while color grading expresses stylistic ideas. To achieve a consistent look during the grading process, color correction is often done before color grading to correct issues with white balance, exposure, and other technical issues.

Is color grading easy to learn?

Learning color grading can be tough, since you need both technical skills and an artistic eye to do it right. Through practice and feedback, people can learn the basics and improve over time with the availability of digital tools like Descript or Adobe Photoshop/Lightroom.

Should I use color grading?

For professional video production, color grading is almost a necessity to achieve a desired aesthetic and mood, as well as to ensure visual consistency. Although it's not as important for hobbyists and smaller projects, it can make the final product look and feel more professional.

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