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How to Guarantee Your First Professional Color Grading Session is a Success #DPNotes

Shadow and Act By Cybel Martin | Shadow and Act April 24, 2014 at 2:49PM

How to Guarantee Your First Professional Color Grading Session is a Success #DPNotes
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Prof' Color Grading Article Photo

Congratulations. You've graduated from presenting your video footage as is or altering some colors and contrast in After Effects to hiring a professional Colorist/DI Specialist. Now your film can realize its full visual potential.

Here are my guidelines to getting optimal results at your color correct session.

Before I begin, I want to share my philosophy on cinematography. This is not the same for every DP. Perhaps because I “cut my teeth” shooting film, I prefer to commit to the look in camera. (Some DPs prefer a flat image that they alter in post.)

My philosophy is to create/dream in pre-production, commit in production and confirm and finesse in post. In prep, the director and I pour over films, photographs etc and have fun dreaming up our film's visuals. In production, I use my lights, film emulsions/camera settings and lenses to commit about 90% to the final image. In post, I confirm our original intention for the cinematography and use the talents of my Colorist/DI Specialist to further enhance our creative choices.

I recently finished grading the film “No Vagrancy” by Ernest Leif Boyd. I'll share my #DPNotes as reference.


PICKING A POST HOUSE

- Chose a post house with experience in your final output/media (tv, narrative, commercials, docs etc). They’ll be mindful of your deliverables, distribution, deadlines and will grade accordingly. Also, be realistic about how your film will be distributed. As much as I love the idea of a 35mm print, “No Vagrancy” was graded for a Digital Cinema projector.

-Don't be swayed by the free cappuccinos, cozy couches and impressive film posters dotting the hallways. We did our color grading at the very sexy Harbor Pictures. They have all sorts of ammenities and treats which are wonderful for your clients/directors/producers. What mattered more to me were the DI Theaters with projectors (some places grade only on monitors).

- It's extremely important to me that I work with a Colorist who is respectful of my directors, who may not know a lot of technical terms. I need a Colorist with patience and strong communication skills. It’s unfortunate how many may “phone it in” if they dislike your project or your budget. Tour a potential post house before committing. Ernest had worked on Black Nativity, which posted at Harbor. His having a prior relationship with them was persuasive.


YOUR PREP

In pre-production, my director and I have plenty of time to philosophize and explore creative ideas. You don't have that luxury in post. You must come prepared. Color grading will cost you a few hundred dollars per hour. If you show up unprepared, you will waste time and money articulating what you want and likely leave with a film that is just “good enough”.

How I prepared for the “No Vagrancy” session:

- I rewatched the trailer (which was professionally graded). Ernest and I discussed the grading decisions made for the trailer (to be seen on a small screen) and what we'd like to keep or push further for the final film (to be projected theatrically).

- I reviewed the photographs used as reference material. In the past, I’ve emailed the references to my Colorist. This can’t hurt, but keep in mind they may not have time to review them. Plus you can’t guarantee that their monitor and your computer are calibrated in the same way and will render the images identical. When we began our session with Roman Hankewycz at Harbor Pictures, I went over our references and explained exactly what about the images I wanted to replicate.

- I wrote down my visual “rules”. For example, no color could be brighter nor more saturated than the female protagonist’s dress. These rules were determined by the script, our reference material and the results of my camera/lens/wardrobe tests completed in prep. Color grading requires several hours in a dark room. Your will brain freeze. These notes and rules will prove invaluable in reminding you what to focus on.

- I also reviewed my shooting lighting diagrams with corresponding script notes. We shot "No Vagrancy" two years ago and this helped to jog my memory of which gels I used, lighting ratios and why. For example: “use back light with Mist Blue gels to express vulnerability.”

- This article is written with DPs in mind who can easily articulate concepts about color and light. However, if you are attending a color session without your DP, definitely know in advance how to talk to your Colorist  about saturation, shadow detail and contrast. When speaking to Roman about "No Vagrancy", I relied on references to printer lights, party gels, panettone and oil colors to describe the look. Thankfully, he always knew what I meant.


IN THE SESSION

- Trust your Colorist. My directors may know a lot about cameras, but they ultimately trust me to create their vision. You must extend the same courtesy to your Colorist. Always be firm about your vision but respect your Colorist’s input. Your exposures, dynamic range/latitude, color bit depth and resolution will dictate how much "wiggle" room you have to alter and play in post. If a look can’t be accomplished, it's probably because of your camera/lighting choices and not the incompetency of your Colorist.

"No Vagrancy" was shot on the Arri Alexa, ProRes Log-C 444. Thanks to its dynamic range, I had plenty of room to play with the image. There was only one shot I was concerned about and that needed to be "fixed in post". I won't say which but Roman did an exquisite job and the shot fits seemlessly into the rest of the film.

- Time management is key. If you are consumed with small details upfront, you'll probably rush grading the rest of film. That scene will look ravishing, but what a waste if the rest is only "good enough". Your Colorist will probably tell you how he/she likes to run a session. Together you will prioritize. For "No Vagrancy", my main priorities were to do a complete pass (grade the entire film), be precise about the female protagonist's yellow dress and maintain a certain level of low contrast. That was completed and we had time to spare. We were able to use our remaining time to finesse smaller details that still had a big impact on the film: color temperature of the shadows, diffusioning the light in certain scenes etc.

- The laser pointer will be your best friend. When I'm tired or stir crazy, I can lapse into calling everything and everyone "thingy". Make sure you're given a laser pointer to point out changes you'd like to make.


MOVING FORWARD

Chances are you won't have a dialogue with a professional Colorist until after the film is complete. However, we are moving in the direction of artistic choices and time tables in production and post-production overlapping.

Last year, I visited the Cine Gear Expo in NYC. There were a lot of "toys" that caught my attention but I thought impossible to get on an indie film. However, after shooting with the MoVI System, on a documentary no less (small clip from Lana Garland's doc “Living Off the Line”) I realized I never know what a producer will agree to.

Another toy I was excited about was Light Iron's Lily Pad On Set Creative Suite. It can create and save multiple color looks on set and provide same day iPad timed dailies. Although my directors and I usually agree upon a look in prep, I like giving them creative options and flexibility on set. This tool, like generating a LUTs, will make it easier to communicate with my Colorist and speed up the post production process.

Production still above is from "No Vagrancy", starring the wonderfully talented Roslyn Ruff.


Additional Reading:

Wonderful article about different DP & Colorists collaborations

Deliverables Demystified

Check out Malika Franklin, the first female Colorist I've ever had the pleasure of meeting

See my work and past articles at CybelDP.com and chat film with me at @cybeldp.

This article is related to: FYI


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