I’m not going to talk about codecs too much because, to be honest, I’ve started to bore myself to death thinking about them, talking about them and – thankfully, to a lesser extent – writing about them. But unfortunately they are very relevant to the way colour is recorded, so brace yourself, here we go...
One of the biggest problems facing us filmmakers using digital cameras is the many limitations of the file types used to capture our precious rushes on to whatever media format we are recording to. One way or another, this has always been the case; but always bear in mind that with codecs being as efficient as they now are, and media being as cheap as it is, to the naked eye at least, with bargain video-capable cameras. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’ve never had it so good.
Unfortunately, most of the codecs used by mainstream large-sensor cameras to record video were developed as delivery codecs: not really intended for editing and, as a result, cause a few problems in the edit. Thankfully, we’ve been working with these codecs for long enough now to have developed our own workflows to make things more manageable and limit the preview renders; thus allowing our creativity to flow relatively unhindered by those pesky render progress bars. GPU-accelerated editing software has also helped users to become more efficient and offer a choice of workflows without absolutely having to re-encode every file prior to performing the simplest of edits.
Unfortunately, a codec has to be efficient enough to perform a balancing act between video quality and the amount of data the camera’s processor can lay down to the media. It’s a balancing act because the camera manufacturers have to achieve the least compression while retaining the most colour information. This means that the camera has to throw away some of the colour information; but not enough for the average human eye to notice. This is called chroma subsampling, and is shown as a series of numbers. Ideal would be 4:4:4; most of us are working at 4:2:0. I won’t continue with a full explanation because it’s either something you already know and understand, or can research further by typing “4:4:4” into Google.
So, enough of me whining about limitations and problems; as I said, most of them are not even noticeable to us mere humans. So let’s leave all the theory and crack on with some of my preferred working methods, opinions and those contradictions I promised.
In the beginning there was light. No getting away from it, you need light: soft or hard; daylight (5500k) or tungsten (3200k). Ideally you need to light your scene how you want it to look. We looked into this in some detail in Issue 5 but, with the exception of shooting day for night – which is also, in my opinion, less than ideal – it’s rarely wise to shoot with the grade in mind. The grade should be the fairy dust sprinkled on an already well-lit scene. Lighting is one of the best ways to raise your production values. An hour spent lighting your scene can improve your production disproportionately. Don’t be scared to move your lights around and try different modifiers. It’s important as well to avoid mixing colour temperatures: tungsten light in a mostly daylight-lit and white-balanced scene can cause major problems when it comes to the grade.
Now to cover the complex issue of colour profiles/styles. I may be teaching Grandma to suck eggs, but it’s worth covering to avoid skipping important elements of the process. Personally, I tend to use a neutral profile. I’m not keen on increasing saturation or contrast in-camera; but then, I don’t generally want to use a profile that is too flat either. I do realise that this approach is becoming less popular, with more people choosing to shoot with a log-colour space, hyper-flat profile, like the Technicolour Cinestyle profiles for Canon HDSLRs. These offer improved dynamic range by reducing contrast in the image, but ideally they need to be viewed on-set, using a monitor that can interpret the image using an LUT (look up table); so you have a better idea of how the image will look when it is graded. Although this may sound like a far more convoluted process, if done right, it is worth it. It can improve overall balance and take your film away from the now-common, blown-out 5D look. I would, however, advise caution and recommend gaining essential log profile experience on plenty of personal projects before wading into a no-fail job with your muddy profile boots on. It’s worth mentioning that the flat approach has been the staple of film-based filmmakers for years. Remember though, a film colourist will have decades of experience and can perform near miracles when it comes to colour correction.
Let’s skip through the shoot to the edit: this is when you need to make the decision to either do basic colour correction in your edit application, or hold off and do a full grading job on your masterpiece. For me, this depends on the job in hand. Not every film warrants a full-on grade and often there just isn’t time: a colour-and-go effort will suffice. I’m actually underestimating the power of the average pro edit application; especially if you have a few extra plugins at your disposal. A couple of examples of films edited using pro edit applications and plugins can be viewed on the Hungry Eye Vimeo channel. The first to look at is a film I shot with a Nikon D800 (http://vimeo.com/39625461). This had some basic colour correction using nothing more than the two-way colour corrector in Final Cut Pro 7. Another one worth a look was shot on a Canon EOS 5D MkIII (http://vimeo.com/41933684). This was edited using a combination of the two-way colour corrector in Final Cut Pro 7 and a DFT Film Stocks plugin. I didn’t actually use any of the presets, but found it to be a really interesting, useful, intuitive primary grade tool that didn’t need any round-tripping, as it works from within the editing application.
The other option is to bite the bullet and use a grading application. This is a professional tool and therefore requires a steep learning curve to master. But if you are prepared to put in the time and accept an extra arm to your workflow, using a grading application can pay dividends in the finished look of your film. The grade should be performed after you have picture lock, and differs from colour correcting in your edit software: mainly because of the large range of additional features and tools designed specifically for the task. The most notable features are the ability to perform a secondary grade, selective grade and motion track mattes while selectively grading. This means, for example, that it is possible to reduce shading on one area of the image, while correcting the flesh tone of the subject and cooling down the whole scene, all at the same time.
This is only part of the story, of course, because for shorts, features, music videos, ads and many more projects, the grade is an integral part of the production design process. It can create atmosphere, change the mood of a scene, immerse the viewer in a post-apocalyptic landscape or just make your film look pretty. It has the ability to polish your film and give a look way beyond your budget; thus making a huge difference to the way the film is perceived.
Just one cautionary tale: you will encounter the “Nan’s TV effect”. This is the bane of every colourist. You’ve graded your latest project to perfection, with utmost skill and attention to detail. By whatever means you do it, your film has to leave the familiar surroundings of the grading suite and make its own way in the world. Unfortunately, the world is full of badly-calibrated projectors, computer monitors and, worse still, with contrast and colour cranked fully to the right, it’s your nan’s TV. Ask any colourist how often they are disappointed when they see one of their projects in the real world. The answer? All the time.