What Is Color Grading And Why Is It Important?

Color is light waves that are bounced of of an object, or emitted from a light source, and perceived by our eyes. Just like sound for our ears, there is a specific spectrum of light wave frequencies that our eyes perceive as color. Just as sound can elicit feelings, color can do the same thing.

Color is a very important element in a film or video. There are two main reasons to pay attention to color. One is technical and the second is creative. (The RAW workflow also introduces a third area I’ll discuss in another post.)

When we speak of color correction we are speaking of the technical aspects of the color of a film or video. It’s important that white is actually white, that black is actually black, and that the luminance and chrominance spectrums are within broadcast limits. The term “white balance” means that the part of an image that is supposed to be true white is set according to whatever the main light source is, whether it be artificial lighting or natural sunlight. This is set in camera before the shot is taken. With celluloid film it’s based on the film stock and lens filters. For digital film it’s done electronically in camera. If it’s not correct, it can be corrected in post production. Once color is correct, then we get to the creative aspect of color, the grade.

So why is color grading important? Color can affect a mood or feeling. It can set a tone or time of day. It can determine the way a shot is interpreted. A single shot can be used as a daytime shot or night shot. The term “day for night” refers to a technique of shooting during daylight but simulating night time, depending on the way it’s filtered in camera or graded in post production.

Color evokes emotion and goes beyond what is said in dialogue or the action taking place on screen. It can direct your eye to a part of the shot the director wants you to notice. The color grade can make an image pop and appear sharper than the original. It can also date the film and place it in a particular time period by emulating the look of film stocks in use at the time.

The grade can set an artistic tone that has nothing to do with realism but is a stylistic statement.

Color grading is an art form and as such, can be totally subjective. As a viewer, we see an image on screen that is pleasing, calming, interesting, or disturbing, unsettling, or boring. As we continue to watch and absorb the story, we become accustomed to the “look” and our suspension of disbelief allows us to accept the art form as reality.

(Click any of the images for greater detail.)

Tony Scott’s “Domino”used a “cross processed” technique in the film lab to get the greenish yellow hues and high contrast for some of the shots. A very un-natural look but when viewing the film it adds to the intensity of the desert heat and adrenaline fueled action sequences.

Keira Knightley as Domina Harvey in Tony Scott's "Domino", Cinematographer Dan Mindel.
Keira Knightley as Domina Harvey in Tony Scott’s “Domino”, Cinematographer Dan Mindel.

In the Danny Cohen lensed film, “The King’s Speech”, Director Tom Hooper in some of his shots emphasizes the cold austerity of the royal blue blood by introducing blue hues into the skin tone highlights.

Colin Firth as King George VI in "The King's Speech".
Colin Firth as King George VI in “The King’s Speech”.

In this DPC-LLC production, the shot was graded to accentuate the stone structure of Burruss Hall at Virginia Tech. Complimentary colors are pleasing to the eye so I worked on bringing out some warmth in the stone and road to compliment the blues in the sky and clouds.

Burruss Hall on the Virginia Tech campus graded to accentuate the stone structure by working with complimentary colors in the sky and clouds.
Burruss Hall on the Virginia Tech campus graded to accentuate the stone structure by working with complimentary colors in the sky and clouds.

In this diner shot from The Texas Tavern in Roanoke Virginia, the blues in the stainless steel counter were brought out and blue highlights added to compliment and emphasize the natural orange and reds in the skin tones. The red, yellow, and orange accents in the foreground and background further enhance the skin tones.

Enhancing skin tones through use of complimentary colors.
Enhancing skin tones through use of complimentary colors.

Random accidents resulting in beautiful images are great. However, they are few and far between. More often that not, a great deal of effort has gone into the images we see in commercial work and entertainment. There is a science and and art to creating those images. Often times it’s so subtle that it’s only perceived at the subconscious level. Other times it’s so pronounced that a new reality is created. I’ve spent years looking for those looks that give images a subtle but noticeable punch, and countless hours late at night learning to use the tools to achieve them.

I’m fortunate to call this my job :)