When I did the first two documentaries, I didn’t become obsessed with “color grading.” I was doing somewhat basic footage, and viewers weren’t likely to fixate on color issues, so color grading struck me as a self-indulgent, time-consuming process for little benefit. The most I did was remove a slight yellow cast to some shots because I’d forgotten to do a white balance on the video camera.
Here’s a shot from the BBS Documentary (this is Ed Williams, one of my favorite interviewees):
I really am fine with this shot, even 9 years later. It has good information about Ed, captures his gestures, and lets him express himself and be heard. The excellent content of his interview, not the image, is why Ed shows up several times in the BBS Documentary. A perfectionist, however, might have wanted to make changes. This is where color grading comes in.
When people say color grading, they now mean a whole host of image repairs—from cropping the image, to changing the color, intensity and overall feel of the shot. With digital footage, the ability to do so on the fly has gone from the realm of craftsmen and expensive studios to anyone with the ability to manipulate a slider—like me.
In Ed’s image above, one might bring him forward in the shot by darkening the background, or change the color balance a tad, or play around with the framing to get just the right feel. I didn’t think it important, but this was also 720×540 Standard Definition video footage, shot on Mini-DV. My new footage is whole other matter.
When you have a shot like this…
…well, now you’re going to have a whole range of things to check out. Do you want to bring him forward? Is the lighting just right? How’s the focus? Do you want to change his skin tone from what the environment caused?
To do this, I have a whole range of tools. But since it’s so time-intensive to do, I wait until the last moment to see exactly how much of each interview’s footage is going to appear in the documentary.
Here’s another scenario. You’re shooting with a camera that wasn’t quite designed to be a video camera (but does it well), and you’re the crew, and you’re shooting in a foreign country, and you discover that the frequency of the lights causes your camera’s manual setting to freak out—so the whole thing looks like fake videogame footage—and you’re not inclined to tell your subject to just stop by the next time you’re in Finland, so you go ahead and shoot anyway, and when you do, this happens:
To be honest, this shot looks kind of awesome, but the chances are pretty high of it jarring the audience out of their absorption in the film to ask, “Why was this filmed inside a kiln?” One fix is to just use the excellent audio from the interview, but instead I’ll do color grading at the end. Here’s a very rough example of playing with the color balance in my video editing software:
The shot is still nowhere near perfect, and obviously is in need of a lot more tuning, but I wanted to demonstrate that a shot that may seem “ruined” is not necessarily. In fact, the troubled shot might even inspire you to take more risks with the look of parts of the film. Ideally, you want to get the shot 100% right the first time, but there are just too many factors to guarantee it, and so at some point, it’s likely color grading will come into your future.
By far, the absolutely best video I’ve seen on color grading is this one done in support of an Australian Electronics documentary. You’ll get it, I promise.
Now, let’s hope I never have to mention color grading again!