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Most aspiring filmmakers struggle with trying to achieve the coveted ‘cinematic look.’
Two of the most critical and often misunderstood topics in the process which lead toward such a look are color grading and color correction.
So what is the difference between color correction and color grading?
Color correction means fixing colors to represent reality more accurately, while color grading is about changing colors according to aesthetic preference. Think of color correction as an essential step in the post-production process, used to correct colors to more accurately reflect the real-life color that was recorded. Meanwhile, how much or how little color grading is done on a particular project is a subjective decision that will vary from one video to the next.
Let’s take a closer look at both.
A short introduction to the origins of color grading and color correction
Like most tools in the arsenal of the ‘cinematic look,’ color correction and color grading originate with video’s analog original: celluloid.
Back when movies were still shot on celluloid – mainly because there were no alternatives – color correction took place in the stages of processing the film material after development.
When shooting on film, it became common practice (starting in the ‘90s) to scan the celluloid (via a device called a telecine) to an adequately high-resolution ‘digital intermediate’ for doing post-production work, from editing through any visual effects and color work.
Once the post was finished on the digital intermediate, the final film would then get printed back to 35mm film for posterity and distribution.
Since the digital revolution of the early 2000s, digital video has dominated the field and in the process made prosumer grade cameras more ‘cinematic’ than ever.
This availability of video and filmmaking tools has lead to a democratization of easy access to more powerful tools, and in this respect color grading is no exception.
Before we can discuss the many differences between color grading and color correction in-depth, let’s have a closer look at each separately.
What is color correction?
As the name suggests, color correction means fixing your footage.
Maybe you’ve over- or underexposed a shot.
Maybe the colors don’t match from one cut to the next.
Maybe you used a multi-cam setup and shot on more than one camera simultaneously. Different cameras register different color information.
Color correction is the step responsible for fixing these errors within shots and between cuts so the final film can flow seamlessly in playback.
If a shot is recorded with an incorrect white balance, color correction can fix the color temperature so that everything from skin tones to the light of the surroundings looks as it should.
That said, it is far more challenging to correct the white balance in post than while shooting, so always make an effort to pay attention to capturing the correct white balance while you are still on set!
What is color grading?
Color grading means enhancing your footage.
Maybe you’ve shot a dystopian sci-fi, gritty thriller, or an absurd comedy.
Whatever the case, each film will need its color profile or identity so that you can amplify the story via appropriate visuals.
Sometimes looking at existing films of a similar genre can give a good idea of how you might want your film to look.
In the color grading process, you might want to bring out one specific hue or increase the intensity of a couple of complementary colors.
Why you should color correct your footage
The answer here is pretty simple: uncorrected footage looks amateurish.
Color correction is an easy way to bring your film a step above a lot of other amateur projects out there, and by smoothing errors between cuts, you will improve the visual flow of the project.
For example, if the white balance of a shot is incorrect, the color scheme changes drastically between two shots of the same sequence, or objects do not reflect their real-life colors, this is something professionals watching your footage will take note of, and consider an oversight or missed opportunity.
Color correcting your footage lets you fix color, exposure, or white balance errors that are made during shooting to a certain degree.
Why you should color grade your footage
Whether you aim to be taken seriously as a professional videographer or editor, are chasing that ‘cinematic look’ or want to bring out the best possible version of your project, you should always take the time to grade and revise your footage.
As is the case with virtually all aspects of filmmaking, the more practice put into the process, the better the results you will achieve over time. Every project is an opportunity and a learning experience!
Color grading your footage lets your visual creativity shine.
It can be used to breathe life into the images, bring out dimensional depth, and highlight key details. The color grade of a film has a significant impact on its atmosphere.
How you should color correct and grade your footage
While both color correction and color grading come near the end of the post-production process, it’s important to note that the ideas for the color processes should begin in pre-production!
The earlier you have an idea of how you want the color palette and saturation to look, the better.
Having a decent idea of the color and what type of ‘cinematic look’ you’re going for before filming is crucial and helps everyone work toward a typical visual style.
It can be helpful for the production designer to keep in mind what sort of colors you want to see in the background, and it is essential for the director of photography to know how you plan to treat the footage later on.
If you plan to show the film in black and white, shoot it in black and white!
As with most prosumer level technological advancements, these days, color correction and color grading are more accessible than ever.
If you edit with Adobe Premiere or After Effects, the Lumetri Color effect is a great (and decently reliable) tool for starting with the basics.
If you don’t have the budget for Adobe, DaVinci Resolve offers a remarkable free version of their software, which can also be used for general editing.
While it understandably does not offer quite as many features as Premiere when it comes to editing, DaVinci Resolve was created first and foremost as a coloring tool and offers superior and professional node based correction and grading options.
A quick introduction to Adobe Lumetri Color
For this article, let’s focus on what kind of options Adobe Premiere offers us with its simple and powerful Lumetri color tool.
Once you’ve applied the Lumetri ‘effect’ to a video clip, the Lumetri panel will first offer you some options for color correction under ‘Basic Correction.’
The first option is the possibility of applying a LUT. We’ll cover a bit about LUTs in just a moment, but for now, you can keep in mind that this is a useful option for certain types of footage, but is not always essential.
The first options you’ll be offered for correction are ‘Temperature’ and ‘Tint’ for altering the white balance.
Then, under ‘Tone’ you’ll have options for altering the exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks.
These settings should all be pretty self-explanatory for anyone with a bit of video experience, and they are easy to test and adjust thanks to simple slider controls.
Once you’ve finished with the ‘Basic Correction’ drop-down, the next drop-down menu offered is called ‘Creative,’ where – you guessed it – we’re offered some more creativity-based subjective color options, with adjustments like Faded Film, sharpen, vibrancy, and saturation.
The creative tab could be said to cover the color grading part of the process.
‘Faded Film’ emulates the look of old celluloid, and you can apply film grain as well for a more organic film look.
Similarly, the less sharpening applied on the next slider, the more ‘cinematic,’ just be careful not to get too soft.
The vibrancy and saturation options allow for creative choices to come into play – do you want your project to pop with color, or are you looking to tone down and create a more neutral approach?
While most of contemporary indie filmmaking conventions suggest that more neutral colors equate to a more cinematic image, keep in mind that abundant older films shot on celluloid relied on bright and saturated colors which came about via Technicolor processing.
So rather than trying to chase trends in the ‘cinematic look,’ keep in mind that your idea of ‘cinematic’ is valid, and color grading is a creative opportunity to bring your vision to life.
When you should color correct or color grade your footage
If you have edited the footage together and plan to show it to an audience, color correction is an absolute must!
Because coloring can be intensive and there would be no point in changing the color of a shot that might end up on the cutting room floor, no work should be done on the color until the edit of the film has been finalized and locked.
Once you’ve finished color correcting, you can consider how the video looks and take some time to decide what kind of color scheme might best suit the work. Then it’s time for a color grade.
As mentioned in the previous sections, the grade is when you have the opportunity to be creative.
Just be sure always to keep the cohesion of the overall project in mind while you work; if one scene relies on saturated neon light, don’t arbitrarily de-saturate everything in the next scene (unless you deliberately want to shock your audience’s eyes).
How to improve at color correction and color grading
As with everything, if you want to get good color correction and color grading, it takes practice, practice, practice!
Every assignment or personal project is a new opportunity to improve.
But even before starting on your color work, spend a little time paying attention to color!
Sit down with some of your favorite films and pay specific attention to the color. Do they look as you had remembered them? What kind of creative color grading to do you appreciate most? What type of color work turns you away from an image (if any)?
Look at some stills from those films removed from the context of their movement.
Then come back to your work and analyze the colors and the way you’ve portrayed them.
Open a spare copy of the project and try to grade your work to look like it came from some of those favorite films.
What is a LUT?
LUT is an acronym which stands for Lookup Table.
LUTs are mostly like presets to produce a particular look, often aimed at emulating older film looks and stocks, and typically made to be applied to a specific Log video.
Log is a video file type with a high dynamic range which allows for greater color depth.
For example, there are LUTs which correspond to camera-specific Logs, such as LUTs intended for pairing with footage from an ARRI Alexa, Red Epic, or Black Magic Cinema Camera, among many others.
There are also plenty of LUTs intended for more general use to produce a specific ‘look’ without the limitations of corresponding to a specific camera’s output.
Effectively, LUTs are like color presets that can be applied to your footage to produce a look that might be predominantly warm or cool colors, higher saturation, a flat ‘cinematic’ look, etc.
If you want to learn more about the differences between LUTs and LOOks and a lot more have a look at my article Guide: Look, LOG, LUT, White Balance, Picture Profile & RAW.
But when using a LUT not intended for your specific footage, be careful! As with all color work, a blanket solution usually won’t work as well for all of your footage, so always review the results of your trials carefully.
Of course, these are a broad topic on their own, so to learn more, keep an eye out for a lengthier future article devoted to LUTs.
Now that you know the basics get out there and try this stuff for yourself!
Shoot some test footage for the express purpose of working on the color correction and grade.
Try shooting some material slightly wrong and see if you can correct it. Practice, practice, practice!
About the author
Maximilien Luc Proctor (+MLP+) is a French-American filmmaker, musician & writer living in Berlin. He holds a B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated with honors. He is an Eagle Scout and National Merit Scholar. He has been a contributing writer for Photogénie (photogenie.be) since participating in their Young Critics Workshop in 2015, has been running Ultra Dogme (ultradogme.com) since its inception, and his short films have played in festivals around the world.
Photo by: Alex DePew