4 Tips for Learning the Intricacies (and Complexities) of Color Grading
A job this difficult can’t just be an issue of black and white.
“The colorist is the person who makes your rubbish film turn into something watchable,” moderator Krishan Arora began on a panel on color at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018.
Alongside him were Katherine Jamieson, a colorist at the London-based Halo Post (with her recent work including The Real T-Rex with Chris Packham and Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago), Samuel Francois-Steininger of Paris-based Composite Films (a trans-media studio specializing in color, animation, and short films), and Ruhi Hamid (Africa: A Journey into Music), a director across broadcast television, with recent work for BBC, Channel 4,and Al Jazeera.
Hamid reflected on doing her own camerawork on her recent piece in South Africa: “It’s a visual medium we’re working with, so you have to make a feast for the eyes… Even though I’m doing all the filming myself, the production values have gone up so much, the demands are so high for broadcast television.” Hamid filmed on a C300 as well as on Go Pros, an Osmo, and drones.
“We’re filming in lots of different lighting conditions,” Hamid admitted, “such as dark little rooms if you go into a hut with a musician. The kind of filming I do is very much on the go: we set sequences up but then we let the presenter enter those sequences in as natural a way as possible, so you can’t do any setup and can’t do any lighting and so everything you do has got to go in camera. You try your best to do all your exposures and your white balance right but of course sometimes it’s just impossible.”
The challenge of that series was that it filmed in three different places: Mali, Nigeria, and South Africa. The segments have their own look, but there is also a desire for cohesiveness. Some performances occur in nightclubs and there is a rap video the filmmakers shot to look like a pop video. “As a consequence, we rely on the grade and on the colorist to bring that whole thing together,” Hamid says, “to bring all those different mediums together so that there is a cohesive look. There’s so much matching to be done which you cannot do on the ground, and therefore when it goes to the grade, that is so essential. I love going into the grades because it’s when you start painting your film and it is art. Every frame matters to me and I think the grade is something that really lifts your film up.”
1. Got a Match?
Many documentary filmmakers may not have the comparative luxury of having their projects graded at a post house. For Jamieson, the first step is taking all of the footage, which could have been shot over years in various conditions, and giving it a cohesive baseline. This applies both to wildly different footage as well as to a two-camera interview shot on cameras of the same make and model: the footage frequently still has to be matched.
“It’s very unlikely that those two cameras are going to match perfectly,” Jamieson says, “Your first goal is to give it that cohesive look, and then on top of that you build the different tones and feel you want for your film.” “Cohesive look” could refer to the actual making of footage look like other footage, or simply adjusting the footage so it fits together as it should in the context of the story. Often the first pass of color is to fix issues and hence match the footage, and additional passes are applying looks, both from a visual and storytelling perspective.
2. Colorful Language
A large part of a colorist’s job can be interpreting what the director says. Some folks rely on technical language—‘I’d like X amount of saturation, crushed blacks, or contrast’—while others speak in a more emotive way.
“I’ll ask ‘what we’re feeling at this part of the story,’ and ‘how is the viewer meant to be relating to this particular scene,’” says Jameison, “and I can interpret that emotional language into color… so you’re trying to essentially help carry the story across.”
3. Colorization of Old Footage isn’t Just Black and White
Samuel Francois-Steininger worked on a project, America in Color, and panel-moderator Krishan Arora happened to have worked with SPS Australia, a company that had commissioned Australia in Color. Francois-Steininger has colorized a number of programs for French television, and he reflected on the process of colorizing black-and-white film, a process specific to historical documentaries. One reason for colorizing older film is the belief that it makes history more accessible to younger audiences; it’s also a way to market the project.
“This history happened in color,” Francois-Steininger said, “and the people who filmed it saw it in color. Because they didn’t have a color camera at that time, they couldn’t print it in color. We are just bringing color back to history. That’s very interesting for me.” A mission Francois-Steininger gave himself was to go more and more into details via extensive research. “We didn’t leave anything to chance,” he says, “and we verified every shot of everything: every object, every uniform, every building, every car. Everything is carefully checked.”
Francois-Steininger explained how the colorization process happens technically: after the edit is finalized and a low-resolution footage is replaced with 2K or 4K scans of film prints, he receives the black-and-white film. Every shot is analyzed and researched to investigate what color the things on screen were. Francois-Steininger takes this very seriously.
For example, determining the color of a building shouldn’t be based on the color of the same building today, as it could have changed, so Francois-Steininger will reference postcards of the time period (or drawings) and he’ll correspond with collectors, museums, and re-enactors regarding uniforms and clothing. Color photographs can be very helpful. “It takes a lot of time,” he says, “but we always find the answer. Sometimes we have to cross-reference three or four different sources, written sources, and visual sources.”
A method to this colorization process doesn’t exist in commercial software, so a specific tool was developed, a mix between Photoshop and After Effects as well as Silhouette Shape. “I start by determining the objects on one or two different frames,” Francois-Steininger says, “creating some shapes as objects and associating some textures and color on them, and that used a reference file and we recreate the movement of the object, depending on the motion. It’s easier than traditional animation because you already have the canvas—the shapes and edges are already existing.”
Tracking software exists, but the footage isn’t 4K and it may be coming from multiple sources, so the edges of objects may be sharp in some cases and more of a blur in others; there is a lot to fix.
Joseph Maxwell, commissioning editor on the series in production in Australia, reflected on why having a colorized archive is interesting: a frequently told story of Australia, a country with an often Anglo image despite having a high percentage of immigrants, is around the fact that when Australia was federated as a country in 1900, it had a policy that no non-whites could immigrate to Australia. It’s an important narrative to unpack, but one that Maxwell believes audiences are over-exposed to.
When presented with the idea of a colorized version of this past, Maxwell realized the story could be told in a fresh way. “It’s a marketing tool absolutely, but it is also interesting because it has been a very white story and then there’s been the black story of our indigenous history and suddenly telling this in color actually reveals this beautiful multicultural history… I do think there’s an accessibility that’s really interesting…I’m intrigued by the really iconic footage when you see it fresh in a whole new light; I think that’s really intriguing and powerful.”
4. Hue and Your Viewer
“Every film does have a tone and a mode which I see in color,” Hamid reflects, “I’m a former graphic designer so I was brought up on color in a way; we had to study what color did, what tones go with each other… I think we all kind of dream in color. Color is so much part of an editorial.”
The Traffickers is an eight-part series on human trafficking, and Hamid made a film in the Congo on child trafficking, under the guise of international adoption. It’s a dark story, and color was used to create a mood and an emotion. “It’s difficult to explain because it’s a very subtle thing,” she says, “the way music can be used emotively, I think color can be used emotively… It’s part of the palette of your entire film; you’re making editorial choices but you’re also making emotional choices. Apart from all those technical requirements of matching everything, you are still trying to create a tone for your film.”
From fixing problems to adding an artistic layer, grading a film opens up possibilities as technical as matching footage and adjusting exposure, to as “big picture” as creating-day-for-night, adding a stylized look, and setting an emotive tone.