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Sunday, November 1, 2009

••◊ Color Correction for Noobs

First, I am in no way an expert on color used in film. This entry is mainly about what I learned while trying to do a minor bit of color correction for my own film recently.

What a lot of people don't realize is that pretty much all film and commercials are shot with available or neutral colors (as much as feasible). With film, the raw color balance is determined by the film stock so you don't get a choice of white balancing the camera and have to do it in post. When the video or DI is edited, the footage is put through a process called "color correction"or "color grading."

Color correction is done as an aesthetic to convey a time, place, or mood. Take for example the current incarnations of the TV show CSI where highlights are ultra-saturated into primary colors and everyone is orange. ...or Cold Case where everything is blue and desaturated. The Matrix is perhaps one of the most common examples where the world inside the matrix is green.

So to give a film look you most likely need to do color correction. My introduction to this came in the form of a tutorial on creativecow.net called "Creating a Summer Blockbuster Film Look." Stu Maschwitz dives in to how create a typical blockbuster look, which means turning peoples' skin orange and making the shadows teal. The unfortunate thing is that now I notice this color scheme in nearly every Hollywood film I watch. The background of why this came to be so common came from the practice of apply complementary colors. Stu also points out the Adobe Kuler tool online that helps you design a color scheme based on established rules of thumb for complementary colors. Nice skin tones just happen to complement teal, as Kuler points out.

For the more advanced (not me), there's 3-way color correction. This separates the pictures into highlights, mid-tones, and shadows, allowing you to change the color balance and saturation of all 3-regions. I am definitely not at this point yet. There's a tutorial here specifically for Adobe Premier Pro. Maybe when I have more time I'll delve into this subject. It's detailed enough that they make sub-$1M machines from DiVinci and Quantel just for film colorists to do their work. You can do most of it on a desktop, but it's not the same accuracy or real-time feedback the pros get to experience.

So, what did I learn? I approached this from the standpoint of a photography. Step 1 is to find the right frame that shows skin tones or the subject of interest. We'll start with a frame from an interview I recently did for my 24 Hours at Hurkey Creek documentary. Below is a (low quality) frame grab of the raw footage. No correction applied. When I was shooting I used auto white-balance and a -1 setting for the contrast (because I was outdoors with unpredictable lighting). This video was shot in late afternoon, so I wanted to give it at least somewhat of a sun setting feel.

The first adjustment was to the contrast and brightness. These are the really big knobs in any picture correction. I brought down the brightness 2% and brought the contrast down 5%. You can just barely notice a difference in the skin and his shirt, but it's significant to the setting sun feel.

The second adjustment was color balance. I made the skin tones a little more orange to reflect the late afternoon sun. You can also see this in the trees in the background. They have a warm wood feel to them now.

Finally I applied saturation to really give that sunset feel and make the skin tones pop.

So that's my quick and dirty process for color correction: brightness/contrast, color balance, then saturation. No, it's not the total professional route but it worked sufficiently for this project.

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