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Color Grading Steps: Marked for Murder

Color Grading Analysis
color grading steps

I wrote an extensive post a couple of weeks ago about on set color grading with Pomfort Livegrade in which I couldn’t resist including a breakdown video. My plan was to write a second Color Grading Steps article similar to the one I did for Bellevue Avenue… but things got crazy and I’ve been very busy working on a couple of spots and a documentary feature just before Christmas.

Fast forward a few weeks, thousands of graded shots, a Doritos commercial, lots of Christmas good food and alcool, moving a hundred boxes to my new apartment, way too much snow and a very little amount sleep and here I am… back to the blog! Just a reminder: Color Grading Steps articles are very much like The Color Grading Breakdown Series, but they feature more details and go beyond the technique. They include my ramblings about lightning, filmmaking and some philosophy behind color grading… read with caution, it could get boring!! But anyways, if you’re a man of a few words, you can still enjoy The Color Grading Breakdown Series or just skip a couple of sentences.

Let’s start with the video:

 

Goal

Achieve a dark, gritty, greenish and yellowish look. The director, DP and I wanted something dirty with a lot of contrast, but it was important for us to still keep a reasonable amount of detail in the highlights. The blacks had to be deep, but stretching the high portion of the histogram too much would go against the bleak look we were aiming for. Director of Photography Jean-Philippe Bernier and his team did a great job with the lights and the equipment he chose. He used the Panasonic AG-LA7200 anamorphic lens adapter that distorts and blurs the edges of the frame in a nice organic way. Having this effect done in camera was very handy. It helped me create the gritty look.. and I knew that adding grain over the blurry edges would look just right for this gore/fighting short film. The lightning team also gave me just enough range and created a dark and disturbing mood (also a great job by the art department). All I had to do was to color without going outside the lines.

 

Color Grading Steps

Step 01: S Curve and Saturation Curve

Nothing fancy here. A basic S Curve and a Saturation Curve are applied to get rid of the flat look. Don’t worry about the highlights being blown off sky high and the saturation jumping all over the place, we’ll fix this later. This is just ground work to get things started. For more details about this step, please refer to the first Color Grading Step article I wrote for Bellevue Avenue (scroll down to Step 01).

Step 02: Primary Neutral Balance

Working with the overall brightness, the respective brightness for highlight, midtones and shadows, and basic color tools like printer lights, I will restore the image I pushed too far in the previous step. Note that I’m not fixing a mistake. I’m toning down the previous adjustments I exaggerated on purpose to see how the image holds up. The goal here is to get a nice balanced image with the right amount of contrast and a neutral color temperature. This process will give me the freedom to add color  over a clean image in the next steps.

Step 03: Grading the Midtones

It’s time to add some color in there. My shadows seems to be good for now, so I start right away with the mids. Let’s add a little bit of green and yellow to get a step closer to our initial goal. The key is to add just the right amount of warmth without introducing to much red. We are aiming for a dirty industrial look and the yellow with a greenish tint is just perfect for the mid tones. I’ve also added a notch of brightness to slightly brighten the image.

Step 04: Grading the Highlights

I used a similar formula for the highlights, but went even more intense. The greenish yellow came out quite well in the whites. This step gives the impression that the light comes from dirty yellow neons. Since our eyes tend to automatically try to find what’s usually white in an image to do its natural white balance, adding yellow in it greatly helps to set the overall mood. I also reduced its brightness to make it more gritty.

Step 05: Grading the Shadows

My initial idea was to keep the shadows neutral and black… but once I applied color in the mids and the whites, the blacks seemed too dry. I decided to lift them just a little bit and added a touch of green in it. This small addition helped the greenish look to bleed smoothly between all the tonalities.

Step 06: Changing the Hue of the Glove

Now that the overall look is established, the next step is to analyse carefully the image in order to find the colors that work against it. It’s usually a prop, a piece of clothing or a wall that looks weird after you applied a lot of color correction. In our case, it’s the blue glove. It’s not a big deal, but if you want to step up your game and distinguish yourself from the competition, these details matter… a lot. The solution to fix this is often a color key or a saturation/hue curve. In my case, I keyed the blue glove and shifted its color by adding yellow, green and a bit of cyan. I took down the saturation a notch too. Notice the difference in the breakdown video… it feels like everything is now part of the same world we are trying to create with this film.

Step 07: Adding Saturation to the Blood

This is exactly the same technique that I used above. I isolated the fake blood and added warmth and saturation to it. It’s a gore film after all!

Step 08: Vignettes

This is one of my favorite part. When vignettes are needed, it can significantly enhance an image. The DP sculpts the lights on the set as much as he can, but he can’t go as far as the colorist does in post. Soft vignettes gives a lot of flexibility. By drawing soft shapes, we are able to alter the lightning and bring the focus where it is intended to be. For our shot, I drew shapes around the face to darken the background. I also drew a shape around the eye to increase its brightness. I didn’t go crazy with the vignettes for this shot since the lighting was already pretty good.

Step 09: Recovering Highlight Details

After all these steps, I had the impression that the highlights around the eye were getting too hot. I used a highlight key with a tight qualifier to select only the very bright portion of the image and lowered the brightness. I also added yellow in it so that it didn’t looked gray.

Step 10: Darkening the Wall

Same technique described above, but affecting only the brightest part of the wall behind the talent. It wasn’t a big deal… but I felt the lighting a bit too much in the corner.

Step 11: Removing a Notch of Saturation

A “notch” might be too strong of word… I removed a tiny hair of overall saturation. Honestly it wasn’t that necessary, but I always do it when I’m close to finishing my grade. It feels like everything blends together even if you’re only removing a tiny amount of it.

Step 12: Adding Grain

Using RGrain, I added grain by layering different footage of grain on top of the shot with various blending modes and opacities. I don’t want to go too much into detail for this step since it’s not really color grading… but I plan on doing post strictly about grain in the future!

Conclusion

Like I wrote in my other Color Grading Steps article… I would like to specify that although the order of the steps described is usually the way I work, it’s not necessarily the best or the only way to order your grading workflow. It just depends on the way your work, which software you are using, etc. Anyways, I hope you guys learned a trick or two and that you enjoyed reading my ramblings!

Stay tuned for more and happy color grading!

Charles-Etienne Pascal is a digital colorist working @ SHED in Montreal. His line of work mainly consist of advertising, but he also very much enjoys grading music videos, short films and documentaries. Chuck likes photography, writing screenplays, tv shows, travelling, metal music and of course color grading.
  1. Ryan Creason Reply

    Really great breakdown, thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Jacken Reply

    Another great post, thanks!
    I wanted to answer you a question – are you isolate shadows mids and highs and grade them in separate layers or you simply using three way color correction? I ask this because in software like davinci resolve if I grade midtones using three way color corrector it also affects the shadows and highlights and sometimes if very difficult to balance it in a right way.

    • iseehue Reply

      Hey Jacken! I believe there is a qualifier or tolerance setting bellow the wheel. This will help you limit what is being affected. You might need to switch to log mode for that. But there is no magic… you will often need to adjust the highlights and the shadows after playing around with the mids.

  3. Jacken Reply

    thanks a lot!

  4. Tom Reply

    Thank you so much for doing these blog posts! I’m learning Resolve, and this is a great resource to understand how much goes into each grade. Can you go into the importance of your order of operations and how you learned to grade video?

  5. Jason Bowdach Reply

    I greatly appreciate all your breakdowns and grading steps! THanks you very much for taking the time to share them. I find them not only very enlightening to see your process of grading, but it also give me some ideas that I can incorporate into my own projects. As very few people actually break it down to such a level, I wanted to reach out and thank you for going the extra level for those interested such as myself. Havent found a boring one yet!

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