The Digital Intermediate - Colour Manipulation


Grading / Colour Correction / Timing

Whenever I have looked online, at books or researched about colour correction techniques, most, although interesting or detailed, usually are very product specific. They are dedicating their workflow ideals to a particular piece of software or hardware, which in fairness is very good if you are looking at a particular package but not very good if you are just looking to broaden your horizons. Also the industry landscape is constantly changing, many reference books and 'how too' manuals are soon out of date and superseded by a weightier tomb of new sliding options, toggles and face lifted control GUI.

Depending where in the world you are reading this, there are many different terms and ideologies from colourist to colourist (if you are American). Alternatively you may refer to yourself as a colour timer or that you are working in a timing or grading session, the point is there are too many names describing the same function - so apologies if I use different terminology but hopefully I'll be talking from the same song sheet.

To be fair, colour is very subjective and has a very personal response to what each individual likes or dislikes. As a colourist you need to be open to change the look, even if you personally do not like the way in which the session is going. You have to remember, although you are there to accommodate the client, you also have to know what is possible. Some of my favourite sessions are trying to explain to the client that no matter how much they wave there brightly printed pamphlet in front of the monitor, or my face for that matter, my monitor simply will never mimic the Pantone ® colour that is their logo!!

The process of colour correction can be simply described as the balancing of the material, be it film or television on a scene-by-scene basis. Multiple scenes may have been shot on different exposure rated film, different days or even in completely different continents and the idea is to make it look like they are shot side by side and together - sounds very simple but can be very challenging. Imagine trying to balance a scene where character 'A' was shot in blazing sunshine and character 'B' was three weeks later during a thunder storm - extreme I know but it does happen.

The colourist's job is quite complex, not only are we expected to perform miracles during the colour correction session - he or she also has to advise/guide the client as to what is possible with the material, or ultimately within the timescale! The final job is about entertaining the client because camaraderie is paramount when spending such intensive periods together in a darkened room. You need to make the connection between colourist and client to make the project a success. It is extremely difficult if the client can't make a decision, or simply will not sign off on something because they have made an error of judgment during the capture of the image - such as highlights being blown out or there are far less details in the shadows.

My final note would be about the colourist them self - I have worked in many locations round the world and I have found it very interesting watching others work their individual magic. It seems to me by the very nature of the environments we live in, that all of our eyes are very different. Watch someone from the UK grading imagery and the grade seems to be a lot colder compared to someone from Australia or somewhere very warm. It may be something to bear in mind, the environment that you live in effects the way in which you grade. I live and grew up in the UK and find anything graded too yellow seems unrealistic to me but normal to my friend from Oz!

Traditionally colour correction only involved the manipulation of the red, green and blue values to maintain the balance and density within the scene over the entire frame, this would have been known as primary correction. However as colour correction capabilities through technology have advanced the precision and intricacies involved are quite complex. We can now enter each scene and adjust individual colours or skin tones. Low lights (shadows), mid tones or high lights can be independently controlled which are known as secondary’s.

In this section I'll take a look at different ways in which the image can be manipulated to give it a particular look, achieve a particular style or to just plain 'beautify' it. Using broad brush strokes - I shall endeavour to show the ideas behind techniques without specifically using a particular colour corrector or piece of software.