Whether you color grade once in a blue moon, your looks are red-hot, or the coloring process makes you feel a little green, we all know that color grading is a key process in defining the visual identity of a project, a process that is much more than adjusting the color of a film or fixing things in post-production.
In fact, the term "color correction", according to Encore Hollywood colorist Asa Fox, can be misleading because you're not just correcting problems, “You are creating a look from the ground up."
Fox opens the door to his coloring suite to give us a few color correction techniques and guidelines that you can apply to any production and at any budget.
Set a predetermined look early.
No matter who is setting the creative look, whether it's you, the DP, or someone else, there are a few tricks of the trade to help share color preferences and the look.
You can use mood boards or create references from films and television to help define your look (this is where all that Netflix binging pays off!). For example, two films that come up often as references for Fox are No Country for Old Men and Drive.
"No Country for Old Men has been used as a reference and that can be characterized by creamy highlights and warm tones; a pretty strong look but naturalistic at the same time,” Fox shares. As for Drive, the film has “a lot of reds, greens, and intense colors and really uses the mixed hues of the Los Angeles city lights.”
As you might expect, determining and clarifying as much information as you can from the beginning of the project, and gathering relevant production information during the filming will help down the line. Fox says, "In an ideal world, there would be a test shoot, and some test grading upfront, so that you would define the look of the film with the DP before you've even started."
Ensure a great color grade by ensuring a great production.
As you might expect, and as Fox reminded me, great color grades are achieved by great practices on set. This includes having high production design, setting up great lighting, shooting in log (which allows for maximum dynamic range), using at least 4:2:2 chroma subsampling (4:4:4: is best) and monitoring your work on set.
“If you use a good calibrated rec709 monitor on set, you can spot a lot of issues and change out that bright white shirt, or oversaturated red sweater for something that better fits the theme you’re trying to achieve,” Fox explains.
Editing skills, camera knowledge, and observation skills are key.
According to Asa Fox, you need three things to become a colorist:
- Experience as an assistant editor (being familiar with conforming, offline to online edits, EDLs, etc.)
- Knowledge of Color Software (Baseline, Nucoda, DaVinci)
- An understanding of color (color theory, artistic applications, etc.)
The great news is you can bring all of your knowledge from editing into the color room, including how to conform and how to work with common frame rates. “You cannot get a job as a color assistant without an understanding of how to be an AE [Assistant Editor],” Fox notes. “An AE role will give you most of the tools you need to be a color assistant aside from understanding of color. As much as you need to know how to color, you also need to know what an EDL is, and time code, and how to conform mixed frame rate materials.”
You also need to know things work on the production side, namely about cameras and how they play out in post-production suites, from cameras to codecs to bit depth.
Outside of the editing room, simply paying attention to your environments can help develop your creative color brain. “Observe the natural world and how light reflects and affects everything at different times of day and situations,” suggested Fox. “Seeing the changes and really observing deeply will make you good at achieving strong looks that retain a natural element, and help set an appropriate mood for a scene.”
Consider coloring, no matter your budget.
If you are considering coloring your project at all, and we believe that you will, don’t overlook contacting color facilities. Fox says, “The first thing you should do is reach out to some professional colorists and see if they can make your budget work because a lot of big facilities will try and work with people who are up and coming. The more interesting the project or topical or the better the project looks, the more likely they are going to be to work with you.”
For example, Encore colored the short films created through this year’s Film Independent Short Film Fellowship program. “If you show promise as a filmmaker, you are likely to be able to develop a relationship with a facility and your project will benefit hugely from that relationship, as will all of your future projects.”
As for doing it yourself, well, Fox doesn’t recommend that. “I would never recommend that somebody's first line of action would be to try and color something themselves. That's a surefire way to make your project look low budget." But if you are doing it in-house, so to speak, then at the very least you should use a professional reference monitor, which allows you to separate your project from the viewing window. If you’re considering purchasing a monitor and you’re on a budget, Fox recommends the LG C series 55” models. “[They] do a decent job when properly calibrated."
Remember: Coloring is a social process.
Despite the fact that editing, and coloring, often happens behind closed doors (because of the lighting and calibration needs), Fox promises that the coloring process is ultimately a very social process. “You are trying to achieve something with someone else's vision that looks good to both you and them and the world. And it's a fun, creative negotiation.”
If you do ever come to Encore Hollywood, be prepared for an energetic and positive environment outside the closed doors of the coloring suites. Encore Hollywood, part of Deluxe Entertainment and Encore’s Los Angeles home for post-production and coloring, provides a variety of services across a full spectrum of environments: From a kitchen with snacks (when I visited there were hot dogs to celebrate the world series), to a common space with comfy couches, to color suites with customizable lights (also with comfy couches...I’m sensing a trend).
Look laterally, not ahead, for the next leaders.
As filmmakers and creators, we are always inspired by others. We admire the work of icons and legends. During our chat, Fox reminded me that the next legend, the next person we will all look to for creative inspiration and standards, may actually be next to you, not ahead of you. “The big names that you will be working with are your contemporaries, not the people who were a big name when you were in school. Your contemporaries are your classmates and the people that you will be working with as you grow.”
So, here’s to working with others and lifting up the legends beside us. Or at least sitting beside them on the comfy couch.
Many thanks to Asa Fox and Encore for having us! For more information and to see work in action, check out @EncorePost and @AsaFoxColorist.