Film & video

What Is Color Grading?

Learn how to manipulate color to evoke emotion in your audiovisual projects

Color grading is a very creative process. In the same way that a video editor tells a story and shapes its narrative, a color grading artist evokes emotion through the manipulation of color. They do this by digitally modifying exposure, white balance, contrast, tones, and more, using specialized software and tools.

Why do we need to color grade the footage we’ve shot?

Producers and directors ask themselves the same question: if the footage is well shot, why does it need to be color corrected/graded? It’s normal to question this, especially given the extra time and costs there are to consider. The answer is very straightforward: if the footage is good to start with, once it’s color graded, it will be even better.

What Is Color Grading? 1
Juanmi Cristóbal

Color theory

Every brain perceives color uniquely–the way an individual sees color is a result of their unique brain activity. It has been a subject of study for a long time, not just from a scientific point of view, but also in the fields of art and culture.

In 1810, Johann Goethe wrote “Theory of Colors,” a book in which he explored the nature of colors and how they are perceived and evoke emotion.

What Is Color Grading? 3
Johann Goethe

Color grading in film

The film industry began using color correction a long time ago. In the beginning, it consisted of adjusting the balance of the film negative by changing the RGB–red, green, and blue–values in a way that allowed continuity in each scene. Later this was also used in telecine, where basic color correction was used to adjust the tone, saturation, and brightness of the images in sections.

Today, color correction is done digitally and applied to films using DI–Digital Intermediate–which enables you to change a color or brightness value throughout the entire movie. The first feature film to use this method was the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” which Roger Deakins worked on as director of photography.

Colorists: key features of storytelling

It’s worth mentioning that, in the film industry, different terms are used to refer to the process of adjusting contrast and color in each clip. Some professionals see the word “correction” as suggesting that you only have to change that which is wrong. Most editors prefer to use the word “grading,” believing that it better communicates the artistic nature of the work.

One of the color grading artist's tasks is to help create a world that is presented from a subjective point of view. In cinematography, rarely would a filmmaker not manipulate the lighting, colors, and tones in a scene (unless making a documentary). On the contrary, they always use instruments, tools, and artistic strategies to manipulate these elements of a scene in order to create an aesthetic that fits with the purpose of that scene. In essence, you can use color correction to create a style that feels melancholic, magical, raw, frightening, and more.

Color grading artists are essential in the creation of the stories we see on screen. Understanding their role will help you to recognize what makes or breaks a project.

If you want to learn more about color grading, sign up to Introduction to DaVinci Resolve for Color Correction with Juanmi Cristóbal (@jmicristobal) and Digital Grading with DaVinci Resolve with Sonia Abellán Avilés (@soniabellan).

You may also like:

Introduction to Color Correction with Adobe Premiere Pro, a course by Sergio Márquez
Adobe Photoshop for Color Correction, a course by Manu Torres
3 Creative Retouching Techniques to Work Magic on Your Photos

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