20140605-how_to_make_movie_6_color_correction
For the last part of this series we’ll dive into basic color correction.

There are actually two phases for color correction, one is obviously fixing problems on our images, and two is enhancing the images (most colorists would call this “color grading”). Here’s what I’ll be going over:

  • 4 most used filters and what they do
  • 3 most used scopes and how to read them
  • 2 step method for basic corrections

I will skip talking about “color grading” because that’s a series of books and posts by itself and it’s also more of an artistic nature, decisions that may take days or months to get right depending on how obsessive you are.

I do want to talk about making “primary corrections.” These are things such as setting contrast, fixing color issues, and balancing colors. There are also “secondary corrections” which is generally used when wanting to affect only a certain range of colors for tasks like enhancing skin tones or removing unwanted color casts.

Color correction is important for the sole reason of keeping your audience invested in your story. If each consecutive shot in your movie differs in contrast or color temperature, it’s a very jarring effect.

I subscribe to Patrick Inhofer’s method of color correction over at taoofcolor.com. His blog is full of insightful information when it comes to this stuff and he talks about it in a way that doesn’t sound like reading the manual for a spaceship.

There are only two steps involved when I’m correcting:

Step one: create your image basis
Step two: match your shots

So now, let’s get to what I do for almost every little project I take on.

A Word On Workflow

Since I do all the work myself instead of handing a project over to a colorist, the time when I begin these color corrections is after PICTURE LOCK. When a project is set, and hopefully won’t have to stray from the timeline by adding or removing parts, is when I feel most comfortable tackling–for me–this daunting and sometimes time-consuming task of coloring my video.

What We Use: Primary Color Correction Filters

Within most editing programs–and certainly stand-alone coloring programs–you’ll find these types of filters (If you don’t, you may need to step up to a beefier application):

Levels Adjustment
This filters looks like a histogram you would find on your camera with the left side representing blacks, the right side whites, and everything in between as your midtones. Playing with the adjustment points increases or decreases your contrast.

Curves
If the Level Adjustments filter makes broad adjustments, the Curves filter can be more precise, or make broad adjustments as well. It’s versatile that way.

RGB Sliders
I’ve just recently gotten into using RGB sliders because of using DaVinci Resolve for my coloring needs. It’s very intuitive to use unlike the Curves filter, probably because there’s color involved in the UI (User Interface).

3-Way Color Corrector
For the longest time this was my go-to filter when it came to fixing color problems. Since there’s a color wheel, if say there was too much blue in my shot in the shadows, I would take the shadows color wheel and move the center point to the other side of the color wheel which we can tell visually is yellow and viola… goodbye blues.

What We Use: Scopes

Your eyes are useless after sixty seconds. So says Steve Hullfish, author of The Art and Technique of Digital Color Correction. Your brain has this sort of automatic white balance, so the more you look at something, the more correct it looks. At this point your eyes are basically lying to you.

We can extend these sixty seconds by using quantitative data: waveform monitors, vectorscopes, and RGB Parades. There are others, these are just my most used.

Larry Jordan, Bay Area independent filmmaker and chairman of the film department at the San Francisco Art Institute, explains using scopes better than I could in this video:

Now even after you have balanced your images out using numbers, we still need to use our eyes when it comes to more creative decisions–enhancing a shot and creating the overall look. So use the scopes to get things technically correct, then let your eyes take over again. You know what you want it to look like, hopefully, so make it that way. Experiment.

Now let’s get busy.

STEP ONE: Create Your Image Basis

Is your movie broken up by scenes or is it just one long, or short, project? I suggest working by scenes if you have them since each scene will carry certain image qualities that will stay consistent throughout that scene. I say this because the corrections you make during an interior scene may not work too well if the next scene is outside due to the camera having to expose differently and matching those shots will be slightly more work… unless you like pushing the pixels around on your monitor for hours, then have at it.

What we want to do during this step are four things:

1. Analyze our image for problems.
2. Set Contrast.
3. Fix problems.
4. Balance colors.

Analyze our image for problems.
Take some time to review and pick out a shot you will use as reference for all the other shots. A wide-shot is often preferred since there’s more going on during that shot than in any other. I personally choose the most prominent shot for my scene since I believe most people will remember those shots more–sometimes it’s a wide-shot, sometimes it’s a close-up–it’s always the shot that has the most weight.

Everything you decide to do in this reference shot will influence your decisions in all your other shots.

Now we’ll look at this image and find what we need to fix. Don’t go straight into fixing yet, there’s still an important thing to do before then, for now just keep in mind a plan of action.

Don’t worry if you have no idea what to look for. I’ll tell you the most common problems I run into. Let’s take a look at them. And for the sake of not making you jump from different sections to see how I fixed these, I’ll add the corrected images to this section as well.

Slightly overexposed.

This footage is a little bright, but at least it is not blown-out. That would be bad because then there would be no way for me to get the detail back in the bright areas of the picture but with this I can at least increase the black point to help make it less diffused.

Slightly oversexposed–fixed.

Underexposed.

“The Bearded Man” photo above is a little underexposed for my tastes. I need to bring the white point up and possibly add a little saturation.

Underexposed–fixed.

Incorrect color temperature.

This was shot at sundown under street lights. Now these street lights already give off an orange tint and this should be fine if I were going for realism but I’ll want to bring down that orange/reddish tone.

Incorrect color temperature–fixed.

Set contrast.
Our first actionable task will be to set the black point (shadows), white point (highlights), and midpoint gamma (midtones). This can be done with the Levels Adjustment or Curves filter quite easily.

This is always the first thing I do to an image because I shoot in a flat picture profile to begin with. All this means is that I prefer to enhance pictures in post-production rather than try to get the picture right “in-camera.” Being able to manipulate the image to my hearts content makes my job easier when I decide to suddenly change the tone of a scene by changing saturation levels or messing with the hue. And believe me, you will make last minute changes. Everyone does.

What I’m looking for is simply to get detail out of the shadows and highlights–the darkest and lightest points of the image. Setting black and white points… get it? Then I’ll move on to the midtones, increasing brightness or bringing it down.

Fix problems.
A lot of the problems I face deal with mixed color temperatures (warm or cold tones) and unwanted color casts. These problems can be dealt with using pretty much the same method. Bring up the RGB Slider or the Three-Way Color Corrector and whatever color you find in the shadows, highlights, and mids that’s bugging you, take it out by adding it’s opposite color.

On dedicated coloring programs such as Davinci Resolve and more popular non-linear editors you can isolate colors to desaturate it if it’s too obvious or color everything around an isolated color, such as you’d see in summer blockbuster movies to keep skin tones and the world around them another color, like the overused teal and orange combo. These would be considered your “secondary corrections.” Although I must note, that particular color scheme has to be worked out before shooting, trying to get that look without thinking ahead would take an awful lot of time and money to work out, but doable.

Balance colors.
On balancing colors, the first thing I make sure of is: black is black.

Neutralize your blacks. This is key in continuity between shots. Any slight hint of color in your darkest shadows will draw attention to it, and again, we don’t want to pull our audience out of the story… unless that’s your intention. You can use the Three-Way Color Corrector to easily take out color from the shadows. Look to your Vectorscope to verify which color is obvious.

You may need to adjust saturation to the overall image to your liking. Sometimes when bringing up contrast early on, pictures tend to look more saturated than I need so I’ll bring it down just a bit. But most of the time, I really don’t have to tweak much.

Saturation levels are going to be more important when matching your shots which, by golly, is what we’re getting into next.

STEP TWO: Match Shots

We have our reference shot as the basis for corrections, now we need to do this for every shot in the scene. Every. Shot. Not a typo. This is going to take some time. It’s not always as easy as copy and paste, although every once in a while if I’m on a deadline I’ll do that. Shhhhhhh. You tell no one. Actually, if a shot is exactly the same, do it.

Within your editor you should be able to save a still or snapshot of the image you’re working on, so save a shot of the footage you graded and bring it up in another window to help guide you when working on the rest of your shots. Depending on your program, your snapshot may actually have to be compared by using a slider point within your preview window or a button that you click to A/B your saved shot with your working shot. I am still assuming you know how to use your selected editing program.

Remember we’re matching shots and not matching colors. I said before how our brains will want to correct colors for us the longer we look at something. With that in mind that makes color matching seem not as important. It’s a part of shot matching but not what the priority is.

Your eyes will notice differences in brightness, or tonality, before noticing differences in color, so it’s better practice to match that before anything else.

The waveform monitor is best for comparing tonality in shots since it’s useful in spotting the luminance ranges of your shadows, midtones, and highlights. Be one with it.

Once we’ve matched tonality, then we’ll move on to matching saturation and hue. I want to note that we’re STILL matching shots at this point. If you’re technically correct between shots according to your scopes, but they look different to you: they don’t match. You can trust your eyes a little more since you’ve already balanced out your first image that you’re matching against. A lot of trusting your eyes will come with experience.

And so ends our primer on making a movie. I’ve gone over a ton of basic skill sets that I believe will help you out in your filmmaking endeavors. My hope is that this series is helpful to you to get out there and start DOING. Actually going through the action of making and creating will teach us more than any information we just read about.

If you have any questions, leave a comment on that particular post in this series. I always welcome feedback and I’m constantly learning something new so this primer may end up going through numerous iterations.

You can find me on my Facebook, which is where most of my ranting and experimental work goes. Or if you just want to know when I post stuff to the site you can subscribe here and I’ll remind you, and also ask you the occasional question or two so we can figure out more things for our creative and design-ey minds to latch on to.

Thanks for reading.

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