Here’s a breakdown video of what I’m going to cover in this post:
Wide shots are tricky and they usually are the most expensive to shoot. Why? Wide shots take much more time to set up and shoot… and time is money. They’re difficult to light because you need to rig lights on the ceiling since you have nowhere to hide them. There’s always a wire or a flag in your frame and most of the time you have a bunch of actors to place and direct. It’s basically like a group picture… there’s always someone blinking or something that goes wrong.
Wide shots vs. Close-ups
There is a ton of stuff happening in a wide shot compared to a simple close up of an actor. The viewer will make a choice (deliberate or not) as to where he will look in the frame. That’s why color grading a wide shot is so important. It refocuses on the star of the shot and tones down the elements in the frame that shouldn’t get too much of our attention.
A close up has a great deal of details too, but the main job is often the same: working on the skin tone. Although the skin color of a person will vary from a country to another, the grading remains fairly simple to do if it’s well lit.
In a wide shot, you still have to worry about the skin tone… AND everything that surrounds it. There might be a plant way too green compared to the set, a house light that isn’t the same color temperature, a red dress that steals the show, etc.
Example 1: Lighting an exterior shot
The first example in the breakdown is a shot from the independent short film Avant Demain directed by a friend of mine, Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers. Sandrine and I exchanged a couple of emails before the shoot because she really wanted a blueish look for her film and she was curious to hear my opinion on how to achieve it. She was worried that she wouldn’t get what she was hoping for because of the warm/yellow city lights. They were obviously on a tight budget, so replacing the bulbs of the street lights was out of the question.
After reading the script I realized that the phone booth was the main location of the film. Sandrine also explained that it was very important to showcase the booth… almost as if it was glowing from the darkness. Having that in mind, my first idea was to suggest to balance the lights of the booth so that it would be the same temperature of the street lights… but the city often use uneven cheap bulbs that aren’t exactly the same. We had to do it in post. I told her to focus on the booth and I would take care of the city lights.
I started grading on the overall image and ignored whatever it did on the yellow lights. I adjusted the contrast and balanced the image to get something nice and blueish on the the phone booth. Getting rid of the yellow lights was no big deal. I used a saturation curve and did quick soft masks around the lights. But even after this step, there was still a yellow cast coming from something I didn’t think about in preproduction: the snow. It was reflecting the city lights and bouncing its yellow color. To fix that, I isolated the snow with a keyer and applied the same saturation curve and added a bit of blue in the highlights. Finally, to put the focus on the phone booth, I did a power window on it and increased the contrast and the brightness. It still wasn’t standing out enough, so I added a few soft vignettes to darken the snow, the street and the right half of the frame.
A breakdown of the film is available here.
Example 2: Grading a commercial wide shot
This shot was much different to grade. The goal was to get a bright sunny day even though it was shot in spring. And it’s a commercial… which means that the color palette needs to match the product, in this case black and yellow for Videotron.
The first step was to increase the brightness and give a little touch of warmth. When I pushed the contrast to get rid of the raw look, a subtle green cast appeared, especially in the shadows. I removed it and added a little bit of red to get closer to a summer feeling. The turquoise bricks were distracting and outside of the color palette we wanted. I did a quick mask and took down their brightness and saturation to get a grey closer to Videotron’s palette. Then, using multiple vignettes, I darkened the edges (especially the top part of the image) to center the action around the actors and the ladder. In order to get even closer to a summer look, I isolated the windows and pushed to brightness and contrast to get sun reflections. The yellow of ladder had a weird greenish tint. I picked its color and matched it as close as possible to the yellow of Videotron. Finally, I darkened the asphalt to furthermore center the action and removed the red cast on the costumes to get the black we were lacking.
You can watch the full commercial here.
Example 3: Grading a mostly white shot
The third shot was quite a challenge to grade. Almost everything was white in this shot: the walls, the sofa, the floor, the costumes and the props. I had to cycle through the shots often when I graded this commercial; if I kept looking at the same shot for too long, it seemed like my eyes would do an automatic white balance and fool me into thinking it was white. I would spend 20 minutes on a shot thinking it was pure white and come back to it later to find out that it was in fact quite… red, or blue, or green.. well, anything but white. As I covered in THIS article, white walls are note easy to grade.
But let’s focus on our third shot for now. After carefully balancing to colors to get a neutral overall white picture with a nice contrast, the art director and I found out that there was a bunch of distracting elements that were distracting us in the shot. There was a weird blueish tint in one of the curtain. I did a very soft mask to isolate it and removed the blue with a saturation curve and a highlight adjustment. The swords are the most expensive thing in the shot and that’s where the kid is going, so the client wanted the viewer to notice them as soon as possible. Two steps were required to give them some “pop”. I started by drawing a small power window on them and kicking their exposure, as if a spotlight was shinning on them. Then, I drew a more complex power window isolating the back of the room and took down its brightness and saturation. This helped the viewer to focus right were the client wanted. The rest of the job was simple and similar: taking down the brightness of the sofa, increasing the exposure of the actor and adding a final soft vignette around the edges.
You can watch the full commercial here.
Example 4: Grading small details
Sometimes you toggle on and off a layer and barely notice the difference. But when you combine 10 layers of subtle changes, the difference is definitely there. Our fourth shot is a good example of this process. I won’t breakdown every tiny changes that I did in this image, but rather explain how small details are the key to get a professional looking image. This is especially true in advertising.
Wide shots are the perfect occasion to create tableau images. If your shot is mainly warm, a color like blue can be distracting, even if it’s just a tiny light in the background. Shifting its hue to orange will help you achieve a beautiful balanced look. Costumes and and set design are elements you need to consider too. If an actor is wearing a yellow shirt and is standing next to an orange wall, try to add a little bit of red on the shirt. The goal is not to make everything the same color, but to keep your colors in the same family so that they look nice and happy together. Sometimes you will try to do the opposite and make a clash between the color and that’s very good if it’s well done, but if you fall in between, your image won’t look professional. Art directors work hard to choose props and costumes that will match the set, but sometimes the lighting will affect them and change the way they look. It’s the colorist job to look out for the art director’s work, without them, we wouldn’t have all those nice colors to play with!
You can watch the full commercial here.
That’s it for now! I hope you guys enjoyed it and have fun color grading wide shots!