Post 1 of 12
Colour grading is a vital part of any movie production, no matter the budget or genre. With low budget movies it can be even more vital, reducing the need for expensive lighting and camera equipment.
There are generally two stages to grading. The first is colour correction, which involves tweaking contrast, levels, brightness etc and ensuring that colours match from shot-to-shot. The second stage involves manipulating the footage to create a specific stylised appearance.
I recently worked on a video segment for a local theatre production called The Coalition of the Ring, which I’ll be using for examples in this tutorial. While I used VisionLab HD, most of this tutorial is also suitable for CompositeLab Pro users.
Each shot example includes links to preset packs that you can download and use in your own movies.
For many of the shots in the trailer I started by looking through the FXhome.com Preset Library. Many of the final shots began with an existing preset before having additional changes made for the specific requirements of the director.
Time can also be saved by creating your own presets. When satisfied with a particular look, save it as a preset so that you can apply it quickly to another shot with a couple of clicks.
The order of filters is very important. The top filter in the toolbox/timeline listing is the last to be processed. Different orders will create different results.
Aragorn in the forest
The production team used two cameras for the shoot, one of which created very inferior results, as can be seen in the still below. There is hardly any colour information left, with everything being a generally muddy grey.
There’s clearly two areas to the shot – the foreground tree and actor, and the background forest. Given the abundance of foliage, I wanted to make the shot more verdant and lush. Boosting the green in the entire shot made the actor seem rather sickly, however.
Digital grading offers exciting new possibilities, enabling specific areas of the shot to be graded separately. First I copied the shot onto a new layer, then I used a garbage matte to isolate the actor and tree. The greens were then enhanced considerably in the background layer.
The foreground layer could now be graded individually, continuing with the green theme but more subtly. A Contrast Pro filter enabled finer control over the blacks.
White balance is a crucial part of your camera, as it is responsible for ensuring correct colours. In this shot, the natural lighting in the room and incorrect white balance has resulted in the shot being far too pinky-red.
By applying an orange wash, the colours appear more natural and it gains the rustic, autumnal appearance that was desired. This also meant that it matched perfectly with the reverse shots of Gandalf, which used the same palette. Once the first shot was graded, I used the preset system to easily transfer the same settings to the other shots in the scene.
A drop in saturation helped to remove the exaggerated pink colours of the original shot.
This shot was fun due to a specific request from the director: make Frodo look ill. This required using a carefully animated mask to isolate the actor’s face and drain almost all the colour. The original shot saw both actors with the same skin tones:
Multi-colorize was used to deepen the reds and make the blacks stronger and larger, resulting in a bronzed image that looked far more dramatic, while saturation boosted the presence of Arwen’s coat, hair and grass.
The second layer with the isolated head was carefully tracked to the camera movement and then desaturated, with a slight feather to disguise the edges.
Discovery of the One Joke
A great shot, but the lighting is lacking somewhat – a common problem in no-budget productions that cannot afford professional lighting rigs. That’s where grading comes in, to make the shot more dramatic and evoke the emotion of the scene.
For this shot the main task was to darken it down to avoid its initial washed-out appearance and beef up the orange to make it match the previous Bag End shots, as well as give it a warm palette to go with the oven.
A separate layer was applied for the donut ring itself, to ensure that the donut remained bright and visible, distinct from its surroundings. Several unusual filters were used here to create a particular texture and lighting of the donut.
Finally, a slight displacement map was applied to a slowly moving field of particles to simulate a shimmering heat haze. When in motion, the shot really comes alive.
Forging of the One Joke
This shot needed to be epic, exciting and visually powerful. The original shot, however, was far too grey and lacked the required drama.
Extreme grading was applied, boosting the yellows and blacks to create a bold, almost two-tone image. The striped oven glove helps, giving strong contrast, and the donut ring stands out perfectly from the dark oven interior. Bleach bypass and defocus create the unique styling.
The same fake heat haze was applied from the ‘Discovery of the One Joke’ shot, with the addition of a smoke particle effect to complete the illusion of a white-hot burning furnace.
This is a good example of cinematography, visual effects, grading and composite distortion all working together to create the finished shot.
Possibly the most famous shot from The Lord of the Rings, and the Coalition guys did a brilliant job of replicating it for their spoof. The original shot is fantastic, with perfect composition and lots of dark and light contrasting areas.
Grading enhanced the shot further, giving it a rich, deep amber hue and really emphasising the dirt on the actor’s skin.
A separate layer was used for the donut ring, enabling a localised composite glow filter to be applied, giving it the distinctive golden shine. Using rotoscoped masking and careful adjustment of the glow settings, the glow appears gradually as the actor unfurls his fingers.
Here is an example of grading gone to extremes. The shot features three separate layers, each with different grading settings, to recreate a classic romantic fantasy image. The original shot suffered from being a little flat, due to the nature of consumer camcorders, which tend to even out colours and keep everything in sharp focus:
Having everything in focus all the time is not very dramatic, so the first step was to isolate the actors from the background. Two extra layers were applied, one for each actor.
The background was then darkened and blurred using the defocus filter. This ensures that our attention is on the actors, vital for such a brief shot.
Arwen was given a soft appearance with a strong glow and high saturated colours, reflecting her elven nature, while Aragorn benefited from darker shadows using a simple contrast filter. The result is a far more dramatic shot, even if it sacrifices total realism.
Nazgul on the hunt
The entire Coalition of the Ring shoot took place in daytime, which meant that a lot of the Ringwraith shots were a bit too cheery and lacked the necessary spookiness. The costumes also looked more grey than black, which needed correcting.
A day-for-night filter was applied to the entire shot, darkening it and bringing up the blues. Multi-colorize was used to drive the blues even further, giving the shot a deep purple appearance.
Contrast was tweaked extensively to really bring out the blacks and give the entire shot a more threatening, atmospheric feel. Despite the brightly illuminated sky in the background, the shot passes for night easily and sets the mood perfectly.
Orcs on the march
The original shot was already very effective thanks to the superb orc make-up, props and costumes, not to mention a huge amount of enthusiasm from the extras:
All the combat shots needed to have a similar appearance and needed to evoke the same mood and palette as the Amon Hen climactic scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring.
Therefore the blacks were enhanced and a browny red tone was applied using color balance and ambient light filters, with a glow filter making the tree canopy bloom out beautifully and disguising the over-exposed lack of detail from the camera. The final shot is one of the most satisfying and dramatic in the trailer.
Council of Elrond
I wanted these shots to have the idyllic, autumnal calm of the Rivendell scenes in Lord of the Rings. The original was very greeny-blue and lacked a certain magical sparkle.
Alteration of the colours managed to turn the winter hues (it was filmed late 2005 in blustery Norfolk) to a warmer autumn palette, emphasising the leaves and trees. In addition a diffuse filter was applied to give the soft, glowing, smooth appearance and lend an epic, heroic feel to the scene.
The final battle
This shot mainly involved enhancing and enriching the colours that were already present. The original shot lacked in contrast and colour variation due to the overwhelming green light coming from the tree canopy:
By adjusting the contrast and colour levels the forest was turned dark and shadowy, Aragorn’s costume became bolder with strong blacks and the leaves were given a warm autumnal brown.
While it looks like the sword is a separate layer with additional glow, the show is in fact only a single layer. The glow settings were adjusted carefully to affect mainly the sword, giving a strong, powerful focus to the shot.
Get off the road
The forest road required some interesting alterations. The original was a little grey and colourless, lacking in strong contrast:
Deepening the blacks and greens was a simple matter of tweaking contrast and adding some ambient light, but I wanted to add something extra that was present in the original shot from Fellowship of the Ring – dappled light streaming through the tree canopy.
The Gleam composite filter turned out to be the perfect solution. Positioned carefully above the canvas to spread the gleam rays down through the canopy was effective, but didn’t look particularly realistic.
Switching the blending method to ‘hard light’ drastically changed the manner in which the gleam filter affected the footage, making it look far more like sunlight hitting the leaves. The result was a very atmospheric and foreboding shot.
This was also shot using the less advanced camera, resulting in another rather grey shot. The actor became lost in the background tree far too easily, with very little contrast:
The same techniques as with ‘Aragorn in the forest’ were used to separate the actor here from the backgound, enabling the trees to be infused with a luscious green without accidentally making the actor look incredibly ill.
As an after thought the zoom blur was added to the background layer to lend some more excitement to the shot and make it more heroic. It also slightly simulated the dolly-zoom effect from Fellowship of the Ring, at least from an atmospheric perspective.