10 Beginner Mistakes to Avoid when Colour Grading
There are some beginner mistakes, mostly technical, that most professionals would universally agree a colourist should not do.
Not just because they make you look amateurish, but also because they can diminish the impact and message of a film.
Just like any other art form, colour grading is a creative process and therefore subjective. Your idea of a good grade may be completely different from mine, and that’s okay. As a colourist at editlounge, I’ve realised over the past 5 years that everyone has a different eye and preference for colour but one thing we try to maintain is technical perfection.
Here are some common “beginner mistakes” that every colourist should avoid:
Not grading in a suitable environment
If you’re not working in a suitable environment for grading, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Having the right set-up is super important for colour accuracy. Thankfully, these days, it is possible for you to set up a suitable grading suite at a reasonable cost. And trust me, it will be worth every penny.
There are various factors to consider: from lighting to monitor to even your wall paint colour. These can easily influence how your eyes perceive colour and getting any of them wrong can negatively impact your grade. Learn more about setting up your own colour grading suite here.
Grading with a badly calibrated monitor
Even if you buy a high-end consumer monitor with superb out-of-the-box colour accuracy, it can still need basic balancing. Retail stores usually adjust monitor settings to overblown contrast and saturation levels in order to attract buyers. If you grade with those settings, you will end up with a grade that won’t look good on a properly adjusted TV set.
An easy way to fix that is by using the SMPTE bars to adjust your monitor’s brightness and saturation levels. Remember to do this only after you have determined how bright you want your room to be. Learn the step by step process for monitor calibration here. Once you’re done, you can get to the fun part — colour grading!
Not balancing and matching your shots FIRST
It’s your first colour grading job and you’re really excited. You open up a new project, pick a shot you like and then spend a long time grading until it looks perfect. You then show it to the director of the film, who replies, “Looks awesome! Apply this look to the entire scene.” This is when your nightmare begins. The next clip was shot on another camera with different settings, so find yourself spending a lot of time trying to get it to look like the first shot. The struggle continues with the following clip, and the next. By the end of the project, you think you’re not cut out for grading after all. Does the above scenario sound familiar?
It’s not your lack of ability that’s causing you to wrestle with the footage. You’re just not approaching the process in a smart way.
Generally, most colourists would attest to this workflow:
- Balance each individual shot
Fix any obvious issues in the shot. Is it over-exposed or under-exposed? Is there any obvious green colour cast? Does it look out of focus? Make sure to rectify these errors that were made in production first so that you have a good starting point for your grade.
- Match all the shots in the film to one another
Compare all the shots in your film, especially the ones that are adjacent to one another. Try to ensure that they all have similar contrast, saturation and white balance. Play through your film and see if any shot jumps out jarringly at you and fix it.
- Apply your creative look to the shots
Now you can apply a look to your shots. Pick a suitable shot (usually a wide shot or master shot) and let your creative juices flow! If you’ve done step 1 and 2 right, then you should be able to apply the look to the rest of the other shots fairly easily and consistently.
While you’re fiddling around with the look, be careful to avoid the next common colour grading mistake:
As a new grader, no doubt you’d want to prove your worth by putting in a lot of effort. This can backfire terribly and cause you to over-grade. Beware of crushing shadows or blowing out highlights until you lose detail, over-saturating so much that the talent looks sunburnt or applying an overly heavy grade on a shot. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when any of these so-called “mistakes” are actually stylistic choices that are appropriate (more on this later). But when these are done without a good motivation, then they would constitute a technically bad grade.
A good grade is when you play your part to immerse the audience in the story without drawing attention to the grade itself. Whether you’re going for a natural look or an artistic look, aim to make it look as believable as possible. One of the best compliments a colourist can get is that the audience didn’t even notice the grade because they were so focused on the story.
Not taking enough breaks
Another common beginner mistake is not taking enough breaks, which often also leads to over-grading. Maybe you have a tight deadline or you’re too absorbed in your work that you lose track of time. All too often I have made this mistake myself. After sitting in my grading suite and working on a scene for a few hours, I finally step out for toilet break. When I return to my suite, I get a massive shock because the talent’s skin is totally red!
Over time, our eyes become so accustomed to the colours on our monitors that they look normal or even dull, causing us to add more contrast and saturation. The simple solution is to take more breaks. To reset my eyes, I usually go to the office balcony to look at the scenery for about 10 minutes (preferably in daylight and not during golden hour of course!) When I walk back into the room, I will have a fresh perspective which can help me identify problems in my grade which I didn’t notice before, like weird skin tones.
Weird skin tones
“Audiences never notice when skin tones are correct, but they wince when they’re wrong.”
That is absolutely true. Weird skin tones will distract viewers from the film and draw them out of the experience the director worked so hard to create. So, no matter how strong the creative look is, always remember to keep an eye out for skin tones. If the dancing lady in your film has a purple face, is there a good justification for it? Maybe she is dancing on stage with a purple spotlight shining on her. That probably makes sense. But if she is dancing on a rooftop at midday, then her purple skin tone would be questionable.
Mask or key the skin tone so that you can control it independently. But make sure you get those keys right because if you don’t, you will distract the audience and cheapen the product.
Bad keys and tracking
Bad keys and tracking will quickly expose you as a new colourist who is still trying to learn the ropes.
This is an example of a bad chroma key:
As you can see, the key that was pulled is not clean, and parts of the green screen are still visible. Keying can be challenging for new colourists and you will need some practice to perfect it. Personally I find that the 3D keyer and Despill functions are the best combination for keying out a green screen. Use the highlight visualiser to help you identify problematic parts of your key.
A better key….Looking good Mr Bolton!
Here is an example of bad tracking:
Not feathering a power window enough is a common rookie mistake. You can see the oval shape around the interviewee moving together with him. Spare yourself the embarrassment by simply increasing the softness of the window. This is how it looks after:
These technical mistakes can easily distract a viewer from the film. Thankfully, they can be fixed easily and therefore you should really avoid them at all costs.
Your grade does not match the mood of the film
Moving away from technical issues, one of the most common colour grading mistakes is when your grade conveys a different mood from what the director intended.
I recently watched an interview of award-winning colourist Dado Valentic in which he described his role as a colourist,
“My job is really to look at the image, to understand the emotion in it, affect it and control it so that the viewer has got access to the same emotion the director had in the first place when they created that image.”
I couldn’t agree more. You can give your film a gritty, vintage or the so-called “Instagram” look. None of these stylistic choices mean anything unless they are appropriate to the film. A high contrast black and white grade may not work well for a romantic comedy, while a soft pastel colour palette may not be effective for a horror film. Enhancing the emotional experience is always the first priority in storytelling. You could even get away with some technical “mistakes” like crushing the shadows and weird skin tones if they are effective in bringing across the feel and message of the film.
Also, remember to play through the timeline and listen to the audio in the edit while you grade. The edit and music choices made by the director and editor often drive the film’s emotion and overlooking them would prevent you from fully experiencing the mood of the film.
Limiting yourself too much to industry norms
Even though there are some common ways to convey mood with colour (red for passion and blue for melancholy), be careful not to limit yourself too much creatively. A lot of movies look similar to one another because they utilise the colour schemes and techniques that have been tried and tested. But you and I are not obliged to follow the same trend.
A dystopian film does not always have to look desaturated and gritty. Mad Max: Fury Road is a famous exception. (Check out this article by the film’s colourist Eric Whipp.)
Likewise, a horror film need not be completely dark and shadowy, as seen in Stephen King’s It. (Find out more from colourist Stephen Nakamura.)
Forgetting the Customer Viewing Experience
Finally, if you don’t get this right, everything above is for naught!
You’re providing a service for your client, so make it as enjoyable an experience as you can! Make sure your viewing room is clean and organised, the air-conditioner is set to a comfortable temperature, the monitor is set-up so that your client can see it properly and your project is not lagging during playback. These may seem trivial but they are easily overlooked and can actually contribute greatly to your clients’ experience. You can have the best grade but it would be pointless (and a huge pity) if they are distracted by external factors so much so that they can’t focus on and appreciate your masterpiece.
I’m sure these tips will help you as you navigate the world of colour grading. Sometimes I, too, have to remind myself not to commit these mistakes in my own work. If you’d like to find out more about my work, check out my colour grading showreel.
Remember that colour grading is partly technical and partly creative. If you want to avoid doing a bad colour grade, make sure you get the technical aspects right. As for the creative side, good luck.
More colour grading tips here. Feel free to comment below.