The Anatomy of a Color Grade

For those outside of video production and even some who are just starting out, color grading can seem like a foreign and/or daunting endeavor. But, once you understand the basic principles, it can be a fun and creative way to tell a story visually. I am going to break down a more heavy-handed color grade of a shot from an actual client’s project. Though I will touch on some technical concepts, this breakdown will be less of a tutorial and more of an overview of how this grade was approached.This is the opening shot for a fun, vibrant, and colorful commercial.

The focus of this shot is on the sign of a restaurant. That sign really needs to stand out, while still having a deep, blue sky and lush, green grass. As you can see, the image appears to be washed out and unattractive. Out of the camera, the image is referred to as RAW and will appear as this soulless image. All of the detail is there, but having the “information” flat allows for more room as an editor to expand the creative possibilities.

The first step in color grading is called Primary Correction. First, we want to correct any white balance issues from the day of shooting. This ensures that our white clouds and blue skies are rich and will pop with the correct hue on screen. The next thing to adjust is the contrast. Here, I want to deepen the shadows, brighten the highlights, and adjust the midtones to my liking. Since this commercial is supposed to be very colorful, I intentionally dial in saturation levels at this step more heavily than I have on videos outside of this series.

Now that we have gone over the basic correction of white balancing, contrast, and saturation, we move into Secondary Correction. This is where you correct mistakes such as covering up a logo or turning premature fall leaves to summer green. As we saw in the previous image, our footage looks colorful, but the main focus (the sign), appears dull and gets lost among the background. By implementing a Power Window around the sign, it allows me to affect only a certain area of the image. Once I set the boundaries I want around the sign, I can brighten and sharpen the image within.

Finally, we implement the last touches. This series of commercials features the cinematic look of cropmarks – or those black bars at the top and bottom of the image. I will overlay the cropmarks and the logo, repositioning the image as needed.

Color grading is something that an editor should do on all projects. Most of the time, the process only includes simple adjustments and will not be as extensive as the shot we went over. Like a lot of skillsets, a master colorist has done their job well if no one can see the tricks they implemented. As technology and computers increase in their power, the ability to manipulate how the audience perceives an image will only be limited to our creativity.

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