The importance of color in filmmaking.
There are few professions in video production that have as much influence in manipulating our emotions than that of a Professional Colorist. Of course if you’ve watched a lot of films you’ve likely noticed the role color plays in terms of design but a Professional Colorist’s role goes much deeper than simply the surface appearance of a film. The Colorist plays with our emotions.
Since the Silent Era, Hollywood producers have struggled with bringing color to their pictures. They began simply by laminating colorized film layers together. Producers even went so far as to hand-brush dyes onto black and white film. Then as today, producers have always sought to increase the role color plays in their films for one very simple reason…
Color means business.
As film technology advanced, Movie Producers embraced newer and increasingly better film technologies. Technicolor has been around since the beginning of the Silent Era but it finally came of age in a big way during the Great Depression.
Simply said, Technicolor is a color process, which synchronizes uniquely colored monochromatic film elements to produce a single color print for projection. Technicolor was considered the state-of-the-art in cinematic processes from 1930 onward when films such as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and Fantasia were produced in glorious color, breaking all records for receipts at the box office.
During the first half of the 20th Century, coloring a moving image was the result of breakthroughs in film and processing technology, Nowadays however, few movies are actually shot using motion picture film with most films today being shot on digital cameras.
Is there a place for Technicolor today?
Even today in our digital age, the look of Technicolor continues to have appeal and can still have a place in movie making, especially in period film productions set during the mid-20th Century. According to Wikipedia, “Parts of The Aviator (2004), a biopic about Howard Hughes were digitally manipulated to imitate color processes that were available during the periods each scene takes place.” The Technicolor look also seems apparent in the way Tarantino managed to Color Grade the palette to feel like it’s 1969 in his film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019). Learn more about the history of color in film here.
By applying a retro Technicolor appearance to a contemporary digitally produced film, we see a perfect example of Color Grading, as opposed to Color Correcting, which we’ll speak more about later.
Nowadays of course, the vast majority of productions are shot on video cameras, processed by video editing systems, and viewed on video monitors, which means, thanks to advancements in technology, an individual now has a chance to actually become a Professional Colorist working in Post-Production.
There’s no better time than now.
All you really need to do is fully embrace the extensive technology while developing your own unique sense of aesthetic. Sounds simple enough, right? If you still think you might want to become a Professional Colorist, please continue.
By the end of the pre-production phase of a film’s development, the director may have already pre visioned a particular look for the material and has perhaps worked with the DP and Art Director to begin the process of achieving that visual look during the Production phase through set design and applying basic Color Correction to the footage.
During the shoot, a Digital Image Technician also known as a DIT may have already done some preliminary work to color the footage. That part of the puzzle will come later.
Your role as a Professional Colorist.
Typically, as a Professional Colorist coming in at the very last step of the Post-Production process, you will be expected to interpret the Director’s vision using the tools and skills of perception you have trained yourself to master, to utilize your sensibilities, knowledge and skills to play your part in advancing the story, perhaps even beyond what the Director may have envisioned.
There are two important factors that will determine whether or not you are successful in getting to this level; first is your investment in the tools of the trade; and second is your willingness to spend the number of hours necessary to master them.
Time and Money.
However, if you simply want to move up at your job working in a smaller Post-Production studio by increasing your skill levels, the same principles apply. It takes the right gear (which should be on the dime of your employer) but more importantly, the right attitude and a strong desire to research and to learn new things.
Your learning should begin with an in-depth understanding of the language of film and more specifically, the language and purpose of Coloring video. There are many good websites and YouTube videos on the subject so a few hours with Google should give you some idea of the challenges you may face.
But first, let’s answer a question that came up earlier: What’s the difference between Color Correction and Color Grading?
Put simply, it’s the difference between fixing a thing and making a thing your own. It’s also been referred to as Correction versus Creation and both add value to the film. Remember, that’s what you’ll be doing once you’re working as a Professional Colorist, adding value to your pictures. You can learn more about Color Correction and Color Grading careers here.
What is Color Correction?
With Color Correction you’ll be first tasked with fixing what’s wrong with the footage. It may involve correcting mistakes made in-camera, perhaps by adjusting the white balance or the exposure of the footage. It could even be something simple, like matching footage from different manufacturers’ cameras, each with its own unique color rendition.
But beyond fixing glitches, anything you can do to make the footage appear more lifelike – whether by adjusting Hue, Saturation, Brightness or all three (HSB) – you should most definitely attempt it.
So what’s Color Grading, then?
Color Grading operates at a bit higher level than Color Correction and is often done after the correction process is complete. In many cases it involves working with the Director or DP to achieve a specific look for each scene that will help realize the creative vision and advance the arc of the story.
But let’s take first things first.
Earlier we mentioned an investment in equipment. If you’re still with us, now is a good time to get down to what you will actually need, at least initially.
To get you started, in terms of hardware, you’re going to need a computer with enough firepower to handle 4K, 6K, perhaps 8K video files. You’ll need a PC with a multi-core processor and sufficient RAM to handle the demands of HD video editing. A slow computer is likely to result in very long rendering times, which will frustrate both you and your producers. By wasting time, a slow computer could even minimize your hourly earnings so investing in a powerful computer is a must.
Perhaps more importantly, you’ll want a calibrated 4K color video monitor. If you’re more of a beginner, any monitor that covers the entire sRGB/REC./709 Colorspace should work but for those with Professional ambitions, who foresee their involvement in the final stages of movie making creating projection files for theaters, your investment must include a monitor that covers the entire DCI-P3 Colorspace. At either level however, the monitor you choose must be receptive to calibration. Learn more specifics about which monitors might be best here.
There will also be some miscellaneous hardware required, signal converters and perhaps a variety of additional video monitors to double, even triple check your final output. Hardware-based scopes can be handy.
Once your hardware is purchased you’ll need to have an editing software program to actually do the work. Adobe Premiere and After Effects both have Coloring capabilities built into their programs so if you have either of those platforms, you’re already good to go.
If not, you might consider downloading the free version of DaVinci Resolve. Resolve is essentially the industry standard, and at some point you will probably need to work with it, so it’s probably your best choice if your plan is to become a Professional Colorist. You can save some money now by not paying for the full version just yet, or at least until you’re earning enough from your work to justify the expense.
But whether you’re using DaVinci Resolve or any number of other viable software options, you should spend some time familiarizing yourself with your program’s image analysis tools.
Learn to scope it out.
Your software should include such features as Histograms, Vectorscopes and Waveform Monitors to verify what your eyes see on your video monitor. Mastery of these tools will be necessary to make the most of any footage you’ll be working with, now and in the future.
Once you’re equipped with hardware and software you can begin to apply your skills as you learn them. It’s been said that frequency is the best teacher so at the end of each day you need to stop and ask yourself, “How Many Minutes of Footage Did I Color Today?” Only through repeated effort will you be able to develop the highly creative and technical skills necessary to master The Art of Color Correction and Color Grading.
So how does one become a Colorist?
You may remember earlier we spoke about the role of a Digital Imaging Technician DIT on set or on location.
Many people start out as Production Assistants working as Data Wranglers or Digital Imaging Technicians DITs on location. They are not the same task but oftentimes the same person does both jobs if the budget requires it.
Under the direction of the DP or Director, a DIT can quickly work their budding color magic by applying Lookup Tables or LUTs to Proxy versions of the RAW footage right there on location. Why you may ask?
Well, the purpose of the on set Color Correction is so scenes can be played back with a rough approximation of the film’s final color for the Director or the DP to review before moving on to the next scenes. The DIT’s on set Color Correction can also provide a peek at the production’s look for the Producers anxiously huddled around their Video Village monitor.
Don’t be that guy!
If this all sounds challenging, that’s because it is. You’ll need to be on your best game if you’re handling Color Correcting duties on location with a live audience of industry types. The last thing any of us wants is to be holding up Production wasting crew time and dinging the production budget.
Let’s shift gears and talk about some things to consider when coloring a movie. Of course you’ve heard this phrase.
Too Much of a Good Thing.
A word of caution: Just because you may have developed the skills and purchased the right equipment, should you desaturate a particular film? Should you color a scene teal and orange? Should you give any film an Andy Warhol pop? Of course, there are a number of different variations on color style you can either copy from others or create yourself but, like it or not, you are the final step in creating the artistic look of the picture and in art there is power: So take care and use your new powers of persuasion judiciously. You can learn more about the basics here.
Going a bit further, you should have clear reasons for Coloring any scene in the film. And you will need to employ some verbal skills to express those reasons to the Director or DP. Developing skills of persuasion while remaining open to the ideas of others, once developed, should carry you far in your career.
Are they scared yet?
So, whether it’s Color Correction, from matching footage from different cameras’ to making the film appear more lifelike to the human eye; Or Color Grading, giving a film its own specific look or style, you will serve the film best if you understand the emotive reasoning behind the various uses of color. You’ll need to ask yourself, what is the intended audience perception? How should the audience feel after screening the scene? What if it’s a horror film? Are they scared yet?
Remember to take your responsibilities as a Professional Colorist very seriously because at the very heart of Color Grading is you. That’s right, you! You are shaping what people actually feel while watching the picture.
That’s real power so use it wisely.