Saturday, February 13, 2010

Colour Grading - concepts and paradigms

Of all the digital cinematic processes I use and teach it is Colour Grading and the manipulation of chromatic form - light, shade, tone, style - that i find the most overly engaging and pleasing. Editing has it's thrills, the on-set experience of shooting is a great pressure cooker and building visual effects is an intricate art but none of these seem to have the same immediate power of colour grading. Here the response, the result, the impact of your manipulations is so immediate, tangible and, when done right, profound that its hard not to get a kick out of it.

One of the things i love most about teaching what ive done as a profession for so long is that you, as tutor, are forced to question, interrogate and articulate the not just the how but the Why of what you do. As a result I can say with great confidence that I now have a far greater understanding of cinema practice, process and artistic impact from teaching it then I did from making it. When you're teaching (particularly when teaching very smart, inquisitive and ambitious students) you're forced to investigate the deeper level thinking that informs the instinct of what you do as a practitioner. 'How' is not good enough, it has to be re-enforced with the why. And it's here that the teacher is prompted to make great discoveries for themselves every bit as palpable as those of the students.

It's in this vein that i have recently been intrigued by an investigation into how we use and manipulate colour in cinema. The tools for colour grading are so powerful, so flexible, so accessible (RedGiant Magic Bullet Looks is arguable to most popular piece of software at the International Film School Sydney) that it's all too easy to 'get carried away' and have students deliver childish results born of the 'because I can' approach to software. What i wanted was to build a viable conceptual framework to focus students' use of colour grading with set of guiding principles to make their use of colour more grounded and informed. More controlled brush strokes and less coloiur splatter.

The first run at such a taxonomical break down yielded more than a dozen modes of colour use in cinema and it was invariably a mis-mash of rather un-useful terms. The most powerful paradigms are most often simple ones; those that function as Verbs - driving a process in action - rather than Noun's naming that process after-the-fact.

So I distilled and came up with a much more modest and simple triptych of modes by which colour may be employed in a cinematic image; three methods to describe the intent of a colour change, look, style or grade.

1. Impression - our visual response
This kind of grade is one designed to imprint on the mind of the viewer an element beyond the picture; to leave an impression by creating a visual response from a set of tones overlaying the image.

An example of this would be Se7en where by a distinct de-saturated, sepia tone, dreary and dirty palette of tones seems intent on a specific feeling in the viewer. We might think of the Impression grade as one where the viewer's experience of the action and events is done through a filter and it's the filter rather than the contents of the frame that leaves the most stark impression. We might forget scenes, plots and characters faces but no one who has seen Se7en can forget the impression the visual tone made.

2. Expression - our emotional response
The Expressionist grade reflects emotional states, emotional changes and emotional journey's. Where the Impressionist grade is concerned with the external - the world and how that world feels - the Expressionist grade is concerned with the internal, the mind set and those elements stemming from character wants and desires. An Expressionist grade seeks to express an internal mind state of a character, or characters, on the world around them. Expression grades are therefore essentially reflective - reflecting in colour and tone the internal sentiments or journeys the characters are going through.

The image below is from the Korean film Natural City and each change in colour grade from scene to scene is intrinsically connected with the internal monologue of the characters. Desaturated, bleak, cold, high contrast when the character is cold and unfeeling. Warm, soft, glowing, saturated when the character is reflecting on memories and better times. Expressionist grades are outward reflections of internal states.

3. Construction - our cultural response
A Constructivist grade is one that builds upon, exploits or plays with or against pre-existing knowledge the viewer may have. Such a grade relies on a cultural understanding of what the audience already knows, perceives or expects and then plays too or against those pre-concieved notions. As viewers we are neither passive nor empty vessels. We enter the movie with an inbuilt knowledge bank and that information is the touchstone filter for everything we watch.

A simple example would be Three Kings where the image plays hard in opposition to established visual references the viewer already possess of desert war and the middle east. Rather than the blazing yellows, hot red tones and open blue-skies that form the popular conceptions of the middle east, Three Kings delivers a deliberately desaturated palette. Cold, bleached of warm tones, skies blown out to white. The films' grade plays against cultural assumptions to create a constructed cultural response.

Now this if of course not to suggest that all films work in one of these 3 modes in exclusivity. Most cinematic works may range through each of these in the duration of their screening; drawing upon Impressionist, Expressionist and Constructivist modes at different times for different aesthetic outcomes. Nor should such a set of conceptualizations be taken as an all encompassing tool of analysis of cinema colour. Rather these three modes are merely the basis by which the colourist may begin to ask questions of the film they are working. hey are intended as a starting point. If a colour gradist can look the film/sequcne/shot they are working and ask :

- What impression am i trying to leave?

- What expression am I trying to invoke?

- What cultural response am I trying to solicit?

then they will be able to enter the colour manipulation process with a far greater degree of clarity and articulated purpose.... less colour splatter and more defined brush strokes.

As with all cinematic arts the power to unlock creative endeavor lies in the knowledge of technical detail. Cinema IS Technology. As such the list below of tutorials, articles and essays regarding colour grading should form the initial reading list for anyone interested in engaging colour manipulation in a proactive way.


Colour Correction by Kevin Shaw

When colour correction is a necessity by Kevin Shaw

Layer it by Kevin Shaw

Website of Colorist Kevin Shaw (lots of great articles)

The nature of light and colour

The not so technical guide to log-gamma curves

Professional Colour Correction with Premiere Pro

The Colorists (article on colour grading professionals)

How to use Magic Bullet Looks (a step by step video)

Grading ‘return to dungeness’ : video tutorial on using MBL

Using Colorista in Final Cut Pro Introduction

Using Colorista in Final Cut Pro Advanced
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