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A Color Grading Case Study of the New Music Video from Hip-Hop Artist Killer Mike

Even with the growing prominence of cheaper color correction systems, the craft of color grading is still mysterious to many, including those who work in post-production. I’m often asked how I approach specific projects or how I achieve particular looks so I thought it would be helpful to illustrate some of my methodologies with a music video for the rap artist Killer Mike. Beyond nerding out on Resolve, I hope the reader will start to see that there is a lot that happens outside of the software.

Here is the music video (and you can check out more work here). There is some NSFW language:

I had worked with director Ben Dickinson and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra on several projects by the time we worked on this one, so I already knew somewhat how they worked. A positive pre-existing relationship can help the work tremendously because aesthetically you are aware of where the other creatives may want to take things, where their sensibilities lie, and what elements in the frame they are likely to be drawn to. Ben and Adam don’t just rely on one signature style, but approach the grade from an angle that makes sense to that specific project. So they don’t just always have super-crushed blacks or popped colors.

The facilities at Pleasant Post also provided a great environment in which to grade, particularly because their color suite houses an OLED monitor, which was a huge help especially on this video as the monitor displayed beautiful blacks, enabling me to dial in subtle details from the black chasm the talent inhabits. Due to the large amount of Red work Pleasant edits and grades, they invested in a Red Rocket so render times didn’t take an eternity.

I always ask for a rough cut before I step onto a project not only to begin thinking about the appropriate palette but also to diagnose any potential issues before they occur, from separating graphical plates, to multiple camera formats, to seeing if the client has an unrealistic expectation of what can be achieved (for example, bringing back overexposed skintones or changing an element to a radically different color). When I received the rough cut I was excited as it was a very different type of rap video, and care had been given in the mise-en-scene.

The look’s general direction consisted of desaturation with warmth, a nod to Renaissance paintings.

We scheduled four hours to grade on the day of the session, which I thought would be enough time as the edit was not very complicated and some of the shots were repeated setups, though I still needed to check these shots to make sure an exposure or color change hadn’t occurred across their duration. Ben and Adam needed to shoot a pickup shot (the opening shot with the hourglass) so we discussed the grade beforehand and let me work while they got the shot. They had a ton of references organized into a PDF that they had culled from Renaissance paintings which we used as a conversational starting point. They were drawn to paintings that popped one color element, usually someone’s clothing, as a way to guide the eye. Whenever possible I made a note to achieve this (one good example is the black Madonna with her child). Blacks were to be black, as opposed to a tinted black, and not overly crushed. The image was to have a golden look to mimic the era’s palette, with relative desaturation to give it a more natural feel. Skintones can actually be very desaturated without feeling processed. It just depends on the creative’s sensibilities.

I actually prefer to have the edit project instead of a XML generated from the project as many editors are not informed on how to prep timelines adequately for Resolve beyond just getting all the clips down to one video track. There is actually much more to the way I prep the timeline to help me later in the session. On the timeline I can easily diagnose things I know are going to trip up Resolve, such as multiclip camera angles or odd effects that were left on the clips. I can get rid of edit points in the same clips that were added as part of the editor’s process. I can also see which shots are blown up, sped up, or flopped. I use the multiple video layer capability of XMLs as a way to flag clips to myself visually. For example, sometimes I put every shot that is blown up on the second video layer, or on a multiple-format project, I may opt to put Alexa footage on V1, Red footage on V2, and 5D/7D footage on V3. This is an easy way to answer the client’s question of what format the current shot you’re working on was shot on and to know which shots need resizing.

It’s also from the project file that I create my reference picture to make sure my XML came in correctly. Sometimes editors make H264s that lose timecode, making me go into the edit program to reexport anyway.

I loaded all the raw Red footage manually which I requested to have on the drive, and loaded the XML without selecting “automatically import source clips into media pool” as the video was cut using Prores Quicktimes, the most common Red-Final Cut workflow.

Resolve has the ability to link a rough cut with your XML after you bring it in. After loading my session the first thing I do after loading the footage in is to load the rough cut and compare all the shots. Even with cinestyle cameras such as the Reds and the Alexa which contain timecode and metadata, for some reason during this project some clips would be one clip off from the correct shot. Using the Final Cut project that was given to me made it easy to find the correct shot and force conform with the correct clip. This is an essential preparatory step as there is nothing worse than loading a cut with the wrong shot and having the client call you out on it. Neglecting this step is an immediate way to lose credibility.

Resolve automatically groups shots that share the same dailies together so you only need to grade the shot once for it to apply to all of those setups. I went through and grouped other shots that were clearly the same setup, but just not part of the same dailies to make this process even more autonomous.

On to the actual grading. I began by crushing the blacks in each shot and building in a healthy bit of contrast, not spending more than thirty seconds on each shot to accomplish an initial correction before moving on to the next shot. I really had no idea when Ben and Adam would get to the session but it would be best to be able to show them a work-in-progress of most of the cut as opposed to a finely-tuned first shot that they might change completely.

The black Madonna’s red tunic was hue-shifted to get exactly the right tone of red the creatives wanted. Vignettes were added to the actress and baby to bring out their faces.

Most of the images in the video ended up far below the upper legal limit of the scopes, probably around 80 IRE, resulting in images that were not too bright but by no means were dim either. I desaturated the shots while pumping in a golden yellow mostly in the mids to add an old-world feel to the overall image.

I quickly realized that the guest artist’s skintone was very different than Killer Mike’s. I inched them closer together and made a mental note that I’d have to do that throughout the whole video, particularly in shots where they both appeared.

Some shots featured extreme relighting, like this one of Killer Mike’s head on a plate. It is normal in a session for the client to keep refining the image into double-digit nodes, and Resolve is great at keeping up with the speed of the creatives. Vignettes were added to affect multiple portions of the frame, and in node #7 a vignette was used to darken the bottom of the shot to give the sense that Mike’s head was severed from his body.

I continued blasting through the setups, trying to accent at least one element in each scene, whether it was the subtleties in the clothing or the heavenly halos around the artists. When the creatives arrived they were happy with the progress thus far, and made some aesthetic changes to intentionally leave certain shots less consistent with each other. We spent time putting the Malcolm X setups into their own world, and let the closeups of both artists edge into a warmer, more saturated territory to accent their candlelit faces.

We let these setups go a little warmer to draw attention to the candlelight that clarifies the talent’s faces.

Whenever possible we warmed up the smoke by adding vignettes as I knew they wouldn’t separate cleanly with secondaries. We directed the viewer’s eye by accentuating the shafts of light in the baseball bat scene and reframed certain shots to add to the story, for example centering Mike in frame when his head was on a platter, or the very last shot where he is meant to be killing himself which was shrunken.

I used vignettes to accentuate the lighting that was already there, but did not come through as pronounced as what the director and DP intended. Here, a heavy vignette frames the shot to create the sense that a higher presence is watching Mike.

The project was rendered at 1080p and round-tripped back to Final Cut via XML where Ben applied further effects before shipping the video for an exclusive premiere on Pitchfork.

A personal favorite shot of mine occurs during a cut from a wider shot of Scar to a closer one. In the closeup, I qualified his eyes with a secondary and brightened them, giving an ethereal, heightened feel to the shot, perhaps further unsettling due to the shot’s short duration.

Would you like to see more types of these articles? What would be most helpful to you in elucidating the mysteries of color grading? (And yes, an article on Speedgrade is in the works.)

Tristan Kneschke is a freelance editor and colorist who operates Exit Editorial based in New York City. He has worked with a long list of clients including Victoria’s Secret, Pepsi, Microsoft and Google, and has also enjoyed working with such artists as Beach House, RJD2 and Newvillager.


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • excelente, would like to see more!

  • Always enjoy your grading commentary, Tristan. If anything, I finish reading and think, “I need to hire a colorist…” So, in a lot of ways, you’re helping define what it is that you do and why the DP or the Editor isn’t a Colorist :) Those of us coming from the DSLR/One-man-band world need to know the division of labor in post-production. I think you are doing a great thing by pulling back the curtain.

    From a practical sense, discussion about nodes would be the most helpful, as that is where grades really move from 80% to final master. That is where the magic happens, so to speak.

    Again, thanks for this and look forward to further commentary.

  • Another Great post, and much appreciation to the author

  • Articles like this are why I keep coming to this site! Awesome write up, thanks!!

  • “desaturation with warmth, a nod to Renaissance paintings.” Renaissance art used bold, not desaturated colors (although desaturation was used in the background to enhance the dimensionality of the work) and while some art may have exhibited warm hues, this was not indicative of the majority of the work produced. Perhaps the author should stick to what he knows: Color Grading/Resolve, and avoid subjects he is not expert in.

    • Wake up on the wrong side of the bed today?

      • Ryan – is that the best defense you can mount? How about respecting your audience and insisting that writers, whether guest or not, ensure there are no inaccuracies in their articles? I believe that would be best for the community.

        Rob – too often those in the present time judge the past absolutely and without context – the colors used during the Renaaissance (3 periods, the last having even bolder colors) were the most vibrant possible at that time, there were even particular hues used more than others; of course as time has marched on, the colors have faded; none of which changes what I stated. Imagine seeing VHS for the first time, in the 80s it was fine. Today HD blows it away and you would judge VHS poorly.

        • I didn’t realize I needed to “mount a defense.” What is this, the Spanish Inquisition? Actually though, speaking of the Spanish Inquisition, the style of this music video does remind me a de Goya painting of said inquisition… though I guess that was done in the Romantic style, not the Renaissance. But what do I know.

          Anyway, here I was thinking this was a free blog where we welcome corrections. I’m not disagreeing with your correction, I’m disagreeing with your tone. Perhaps you should also avoid things you “are not expert in,” like for example the English language.

          BOOM! See, there’s a perfect example of an unnecessarily combative tone.

          Here’s an example of what “would be best for the community”: instead of criticizing the author for only getting 98.7% of the article factually correct, and at the same time suggesting that our multi-billion dollar fact-checker is broken, you could ADD something to the conversation (the Comments Policy above states this clearly). Something like this: “It’s my understanding Renaissance paintings were actually very bold in contrast and color. The use of light, color, and shadow in this video actually reminds me of the works of ______ [Rembrandt perhaps?], which you can find some nice galleries of here: [link]”

          I for one would actually gain something from that.

          • Peter Kelly on 09.10.12 @ 7:12PM


          • There was nothing wrong with my english however, so that’s not an apt comparison. Not to mention the fact that English is a living language and therefore no one can be an “expert” in the conventional sense. As for tone, it’s just my style of writing, nothing personal intended.

            As you said, it’s a blog, and too often those who write aren’t held accountable by those who read. I could have provided links but, I wasn’t sure of the policy on that. Now that I know, I will certainly do so the next time I have a comment or criticism.

            Finally, I wasn’t trying to score points but prevent an error from being compounded and magnified through the internet. I think everyone has that responsibility within a community; especially an indie community.

    • Daniel Mimura on 09.26.12 @ 6:06PM

      How can you judge about what colors they were talking about if you didn’t see the actual Renaissance paintings in their PDF morgue?

      There were plenty of bright Renaissance paints and plenty of dark/desaturated ones too. (And that’s ignoring the whole issue of how paints and paintings age, so what we see today might not be what they painted hundreds of years ago…), so maybe the director/dp/colorist were referencing what most people think of about the Renaissance, not the Rainbow Brite Period (or whatever) you seem so particular about.

  • Really enjoyed this! Looking forward to more articles about grading, maybe focusing on the fundamentals?

  • Great article. I’m just starting to learn Resolve so this is very helpful in understanding the workflow options.

  • Awesome article! its great to see a bit of what goes on in a professional grading session. I would appreciate more articles of this flavor

  • Thoughtful Suggestions on 09.10.12 @ 2:36PM

    Thank you for putting this summary together. As a reader I’d like:

    1. Before and After Grades
    2. Software Demo Instructions, perhaps a few “step-by-step” commands for the slightly tricker parts. These could fall towards the bottom of the article, after your nicely written summary section.
    3. Your process for scoping, or judging blacks, is it purely by eye, or is it numerical at all?
    4. Roto, Track? what’s involved on tricky shots. Are you limited to feathered ovals for selection?
    5. Your screengrabs are nice, but perhaps an explanation of what’s going on (technically) on screen during those grabs?
    6. When you export to XML, this is an edit decision list that allows the FCP editor to read in the color-graded 1080 selects?
    7. If you were to include VFX in this pipeline/workflow, where would it fit in? Is coloring always the “last step”? What other effects were applied in FCP that you mentioned?

    • I too would love to see before and after shots in future articles. That would be incredibly helpful as I learn more about color grading. Particularly how to affect small areas of the picture.

    • 1. Before and After Grades

      Sometimes this is not possible due to client restrictions, but usually I can grab a rough cut for demo purposes. You can check out some before/afters now on my Color Studies page at , particularly the RJD2 project where I talked about how the dance group’s color scheme helped determine the extreme look I ended up achieving #shamelessplug. I’ll try and provide more before/afters in the future though, several others have already asked as well.

      2. Software Demo Instructions, perhaps a few “step-by-step” commands for the slightly tricker parts. These could fall towards the bottom of the article, after your nicely written summary section.

      Could you be more specific? After talking with a colleague tonight I realized there are several ways to approach a particular problem so I want to make sure I realize what you’re asking for.

      3. Your process for scoping, or judging blacks, is it purely by eye, or is it numerical at all?

      The scopes are god. I use them when I can’t trust my eyes, which is…all the time. If I were given 30 seconds to balance a shot at gunpoint, I would use the first 25 just staring at the scopes and the last 5 actually looking at the image! Since you asked about the blacks in particular, the blacks are where I’ll start in evaluating an image. It’s amazing how if you correct the blacks the rest of the image will start to look “correct.” Think about it: we perceive blacks as black, but whites can either be cool or warm and still feel okay. On the waveform/parade just make sure that the RGB channels are all lining up without a color bias to balance the blacks, and on the vectorscope pure blacks and whites sit right in the crosshairs.

      4. Roto, Track? what’s involved on tricky shots. Are you limited to feathered ovals for selection?

      Roto is what I would call a fine-tuning process, and coloring is largely a broad-stroke-process. There is an insane amount of beauty cleanup that goes on to make the leading ladies look their best. We are talking painstaking, frame-by-frame stuff. For those that don’t have access to a high-end Autodesk product, I would look at each application’s strength and utilize it for its best use. Don’t try to do cleanup in color software, and don’t grade in something like After Effects. Yes, it is achievable, but it’s gonna take much, much longer. Recently I edited a project shot on Alexa where we applied a 3-way corrector just as a rough color pass to show the client. The client seemed happy, but when I graded it in Resolve, I was BLOWN AWAY by how much better the color science was in an application that is built to take advantage of that.

      I track only when I need to, and in general I stick to circular power windows over more complex shapes. The only reasoning for this is purely for speed and the fact that they’re more easily manipulated on a control surface. You don’t want to keep barking clients waiting! A good example of practical tracking was on the Pepsi breakdown, also on the Color Studies page on my site, where I dramatically altered the inside and outside of a tracked window as the client thought the luminance values were too different on either ends of the shot. Just remember, in Resolve when you track something, it won’t track beyond your timeline shot, so if you’re spitting out handles you have to be sure to extend the tracking into those handles!

      5. Your screengrabs are nice, but perhaps an explanation of what’s going on (technically) on screen during those grabs?

      I tried to accomplish that a little in the image captions, but I have a feeling video clips may be necessary in the future.

      6. When you export to XML, this is an edit decision list that allows the FCP editor to read in the color-graded 1080 selects?

      Pretty much. The editor starts by giving me his edited sequence and I break it down further into what makes sense for my world before grading and spitting it back to her. In a perfect world, the XML you export will adhere to what you have in your grading timeline. This is not always the case, and there are several issues I am already aware of and can diagnose, for example if the editor uses the time stretch tool to create a speed ramp effect. Sometimes shots are off by a few frames, and that’s why rendering with handles is always good practice. At the end of each session, if the job is finishing in an NLE, I pass the editor back a sequence or project file that they can immediately work with.

      7. If you were to include VFX in this pipeline/workflow, where would it fit in? Is coloring always the “last step”? What other effects were applied in FCP that you mentioned?

      For this video, the second shot had a lot of “junk” in it (a member of production was holding the frame but was cropped out later to give a sense that the frame was just floating.) Other minor reframing and cropping may have occurred as well. Coloring typically comes just before VFX. Often VFX artists will get my graded material but will still pull keying information from the raw. This is because in the grading process elements may have been pushed artistically that are less beneficial for effects (say, crushing the blacks too much or applying a severe color tint), which is why VFX people go back to raw to start with as much information as possible. Any key data they glean from the unprocessed shot can be applied then to the graded shot.

      The Beach House video I worked on had a ton of visual effects. For the shot where the kid touches the world as he watches it all fall away from him, that was a greenscreen shot with a separate backplate that got the same grade, and the above workflow was used. I did a grade on the band footage but the band members were so silhouetted and processed later that I think the VFX guys just went to town on it, so not sure how much of my original grade is even retained there.

      • Thoughtful Suggestions on 09.11.12 @ 12:30PM

        Thanks bro, I appreciate the detail and the time you took to respond.

      • I’m intrigued by 7). I would have thought that grading would usually come after VFX, since it seems like most of the grading work would either be wasted entirely, as in the example you talk about, or have to be replicated by the VFX guys to blend their work into the shot?

        • It really depends. A common example is stuff that involves screen replacement. Let’s say it’s a phone commercial. They’ll usually shoot the phone with tracking marks or a greenscreen as the screen and I’ll color the scene without the “screen” there yet, because at the end of the day the graphics guys have the utmost control in how the graphics are shown. This is also what the client will be most looking at, so you don’t really want to mess with carefully art-directed logos and treatments that have been set in other software.

          On my end, I also want to have the most control over the various elements that are in a scene. So if it’s a shot of an astronaut greenscreened over footage of the moon, I’d want to grade the astronaut on green separately than the plate of the moon which is another shot. Doing so when they’re already composited forces me to “color conservatively.” From there the graphic artist swaps the footage and re-renders. Yes, there may be additional work involved but it is usually considered to be the best course of action as it’s all about having the maximum amount of manipulation possible for the image.

          The Beach House example is admittedly an extreme one because it was so treated, but other times I’ll color plates with the intention that they are going to be keyed out later, and that’s the final look of it.

          • Tristan, thanks so much for taking the time to give us some insight into the process of color correction/grading. It really helps and it’s really appreciated when working pros take a time out to share with the community. It seems like you have a bunch of other stuff posted on your site so I am going to head over there now.

  • Awful video but, good to hear some of the process.

  • Great article. Interesting video. Many of the paintings I saw in the Uffizi Museum in Florence seemed to have the desaturated look of this video: Perhaps due to smoke from all the candles those paintings were subjected to when they used to hang in churches a few hundred years ago. Having the pdf reference images of Renaissance artworks seems to be a great way to get the team on the “same page”. Reminds me of a black and white documentary style project I did. The art director brought reference visuals of photos by Elliot Erwitt to the grading session.

  • I loved reading this article and would love to see more on color grading. And the video was a great change from the standard bling and babes of a lot of music out there.

  • Beautiful and inspiring. Bring more grading stories too, indie guys are jacks of all trades.

  • I’d just like to echo the prior comments: These kind of ‘how I did it’ tutorials from pros are what keep me coming here. Awesome article.

  • As a “Noob” to colour grading and downloading Resolve Lite 9, it’s always great to get the pros posting and sharing their work. These are invaluable tools for research, irrespective of wether the Renaissance used desaturated or bold colours I’m interested in the what the end product looks like and how you ended up with the said look. Thanks again and keep posting.

  • Poor you…!
    I could not listen to this NOISE!

  • Well Done.
    Yes, I would like to see more of this type of article.

  • great post koo