Hold for Sound: Let’s Talk Color Grading

July 1, 2024

In our last episode of Hold For Sound: Let’s Talk Media Production, we kept coming back to the idea that it really takes a village to make any piece of digital media. A truly surprising number of people are involved in creating your favorite movies or songs, so it goes without saying that there are many unsung heroes in the production business.

One such “unsung hero” on the video side of things is the colorist – the person who takes the footage from desaturated to bright and colorful.

In episode number 2 of Hold For Sound, our host, Mantha, chats with one of our colorists, Hannah Pratt, about the art of color grading.

Who is Hannah?

Like all of us at Frostline, Hannah wears a lot of hats; she’s a cinematographer, editor, colorist, and whatever else needs doing at any given moment. She was “Alaska Grown”, as we like to say here, and always found a way to get her hands on the nearest camera.  

Hannah on a shoot north of Coldfoot, Alaska. Photo by John Maznio.

Where does color grading fit in the production process?

Color grading happens after picture lock, when all the shots are in their place, and the video just needs that last bit of oomph to become a fully polished piece. It’s often overlooked, but color is an essential part of our process here at Frostline, and is a necessary step in order to make a video look professional.

Working on Bloody Tango in Davinci Resolve.

We do our grading in Davinci Resolve, because Resolve has a much more comprehensive set of tools that allows for a more subtle grade than a program like Adobe Premiere – which excels as an editing software, but leaves some things to be desired when it comes to color grading. 

Prior to working at Frostline, Hannah’s only color grading experience had been in Adobe Premiere, doing utility grades. “Utility grading is basically what I do at the end of everything,” Hannah explains. “Just making sure the skin tones are right, making sure the white balance is correct, making it look good.”

But color grading isn’t just about utility. You can get more creative with it, getting into what’s called look development. “That’s the fun part,” Hannah laughs. Look development is going beyond just making the image look “right,” to using the color grade creatively to give the film a mood. When she began working at Frostline, she got to watch the process of look development for the first time. Rich Cooper (our Executive Producer) was working on developing a look for Peaks and Valleys, a feature film directed by Micheal Burns, in Davinci Resolve. “Watching Rich color grade was pretty neat,” she says. “Because it was a narrative film, he was developing a look. It was a cabin-in-the-woods, horror/thriller, and he was getting way more in depth than I had been able to do in Premiere. And that I even knew was possible.”

Since then, she’s worked on a number of documentaries and creative films, doing both utility grades and look development, and she’s learned a lot. Hannah would be the first to say that she still has a lot to learn, but through her experience, she now has a lot to teach.

Hannah’s top tips for the aspiring colorist

#1 – Learn from Cullen Kelly

The University of YouTube is a wonderful place. Hannah has spent a lot of time there over the years, and in doing so, came across a colorist named Cullen Kelly. “If you’re learning to color grade anything,” she says emphatically, “watch his videos.”

He also has a short e-book, The Colorist’s Ten Commandments, in which he talks about a number of concepts that have helped guide Hannah to really “up her game” as a colorist, including understanding memory colors, how to build a node tree, and keeping your adjustments broad and simple.

Memory colors

“Memory colors are things like skin-tone, sky, foliage. Things that you look at every single day,” Hannah explains. “You don’t know what the color of someone’s house is. It doesn’t really matter. But if someone’s skin in the foreground is wrong, you’re going to know that just by looking.”

The human eye has evolved to recognize specific colors like skin and sky – what Cullen Kelly calls memory colors.  “Human vision is tuned to these hues, and we recognize when they fall outside their naturally occurring range,” he explains. Memory colors should be your priority when you’re grading an image, because, as he says, “the foundation of any effective color grade is an image that feels natural and consistent with physical reality.”

How to build a node tree: consistency and simplicity

How many times have you reached a point during a grade where you’ve added so many effects to your node tree that the image starts to break, but you can’t find where you went wrong?

In order to prevent this, Kelly suggests building your node tree as simply as you can, and doing it the same way each time. “Having a consistent node tree means that you can go back and find where you went wrong if the image starts to break,” Hannah explains. “If you’ve boosted the saturation on your reds, you know exactly where that happened and you can go back and find it.” Starting with the same basic grade every time and staying within its framework as much as you can just makes everything simpler.

Some of the node trees Hannah used while color grading Bloody Tango. Note how, while different, they are all similarly organized.

Keeping adjustments broad and simple: Utilizing photographic adjustments and timeline grades

Cullen Kelly’s tips are all about simplifying your workflow to allow you to achieve the best possible result with the least amount of headaches. A consistent node tree is part of that. Another huge part is making broad adjustments whenever you can, ones that affect a large number of pixels rather than only a small subset. 

But why? Kelly writes: “The most obvious benefit of a macro-level adjustment is that they’re fast.” Not only that, but “the narrower our adjustments become, the less naturalistic the results tend to feel, even if we’re mechanically succeeding at our goal.”

To put that into practice, we can look at the workflow that Hannah used when grading a feature length documentary for Stan Bush at Go North Productions. The film – working title: The Last Front Page – tells the story of Skagway during the pandemic when cruise ships stopped coming.

Stills from the documentary.

Hannah’s first pass focused on making the shots consistent. She went through and made photographic adjustments – essentially anything she could technically have done in camera: overall adjustments that affect the entire image, like exposure or white balance – on each shot. When your first pass focuses on photographic adjustments, you get a truer image. In this first pass, “you’re not just pulling up your shadows or just your highlights,” Hannah explains. “The full image is getting adjusted.” 

“You can do all of the little adjustments later, and pull out specific colors, take the green out, and do all of that,” she adds, “but the first pass, the fastest pass, is to just do it as if you’re adjusting your camera settings. Those are broad adjustments that make a huge difference, and when you get those really close, you don’t have much more work to do.”

After finishing that first pass, Hannah turns her attention to a timeline grade. “Timeline grades are really great for look development,” she elaborates. A timeline grade affects every shot on the timeline. For Stan’s film, the timeline grade boosted the reds slightly and added a touch of blue to the shadows. “Putting the look on the timeline and making sure it looks good on all the shots means that I don’t have to do that on every single shot. It’s just doing it for me.”

Focusing on broad changes via photographic adjustments and the timeline grade allowed Hannah to spend more time really digging into each shot, leading to a result she’s really proud of.

We say this all the time at Frostline. We have posters, stickers, and t-shirts with this delightful art by Vienna Pitts.

#2 – Fix it in pre

If you’ve ever been on a shoot, you might have heard someone say: “Oh, well. We’ll fix it in post.” If a colorist, editor, or VFX artist was there, they might have replied: “No! Fix it in pre!”

Fixing it in “pre” is all about anticipating issues you may run into in post and shooting your footage in a way that minimizes those potential problems.

“The more that I learn about color grading and editing, and post production, the more that I learn about how I need to be shooting my footage,” Hannah says. Now, when she’s shooting, she asks herself, “How do I make my image, as a cinematographer, the best that it can be for when I color grade it? I’m constantly thinking about how it’s going to look when I grade it, and how I can optimize my recorded image.”

#3 – Question everything

“The biggest thing about this job is that you have to be a problem solver,” Hannah says. “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. You have to be able to figure it out. It’s just part of the job.” Being a good problem solver is knowing how to ask the right questions to get to the root of the issue – and not only to ask questions when there’s a problem, but to ask questions before one occurs.  

“That kind of thinking has started me questioning everything,” Hannah says, “especially since I’ve started color grading.” For example, we used to shoot everything in S-Cinetone. When shooting in S-Cinetone, the camera records the footage with high saturation and high contrast. The image already looks pretty good, so there’s not much you have to do to the footage in post. But then Hannah started asking, “Why do we do that? If I shoot it in SLOG, will I have more data to work with when I color grade it?” 

So she did some experiments, found some answers, and now we shoot most of our footage in SLOG. It’s about always looking for ways to do what you’re doing better, always asking “Why do people do it this way? Is it worth it for me to look into that?” Only half joking, Hannah says, “The joy of my job is troubleshooting.”

#4 – Trust your “editor goblin”

We talk about the “editor goblin” a lot at the studio; it’s a term coined by Courtney Dean, one of our other editor/colorist/cinematographers, and it’s basically that feeling in your gut when something just doesn’t feel right. You may not know what it is – maybe the cut is just a frame or two off, or the skin is just a touch too red – but your editor goblin knows that it’s not right. Trust that feeling. Your editor goblin never lies.

#5 – Color calibrate

Knowing that each screen displays color differently is very important for a colorist – and for anyone working with a colorist. When working on that documentary about Skagway for Stan Bush, Hannah experienced the importance of this first-hand.

“Stan had been watching all the cuts that I sent him on his laptop, and as we got closer to the end, the last couple versions, he suddenly put it on his TV,” Hannah remembers. “And he was like, ‘Oh my god! Everything is looking very different!’” At first she was confused; they had reached the micro-adjustment stage, so the difference between versions shouldn’t be “very different”… But then she realized: Stan had switched screens.

The takeaway? When reviewing something sent to you by your colorist, it’s really important to make sure any settings that change the colors of your screen, like blue light filters or TrueTone on Mac, are turned off. It’s a good idea to check the settings on your device (your computer or phone) and also on your display (the monitor or TV, if it’s separate from the device that’s playing the video.) And even if all the settings are turned off, you may still find that the colors you see on one device will not match perfectly on another.

There’s always more to learn

As much as she’s learned, Hannah is keen to keep asking questions. Whatever she finds out, we’ll be sure to share with you. Stay tuned for more blog posts – and more episodes of Hold for Sound: Let’s Talk Media Production!

We’ll chat about all aspects of what we do – whether you’re an industry professional, an aficionado, or just want to learn more, we hope you join us to sit down with the other folks who work here at Frostline as well as our colleagues throughout the media production industry and learn more about what it takes to bring music to your ears, movies to your screen, and more.

Bonus links and further reading

  • Cullen Kelly
  • Bloody Tango: Most of the examples in this blog post are pulled from the trailer for Bloody Tango, a short film by Courtney King that Hannah color graded. Check it out here.
  • “Fix it in pre”
    • “Fix it in pre!” artist Vienna Pitts’ store. Fun fact:, the person on the screen in this drawing is supposed to be Henry Cavill as Superman, a reference to the fact that, in post, VFX artists had to remove his mustache with CGI. Obviously less than ideal.
    • Interview with The Creator DP, Oren Soffer: In the episode, we chatted about how big-budget films achieve their specific looks through color grading, but how those looks are planned out before the footage even reaches the colorist’s desk. Hannah brought up an interview she watched with Oren Soffer, DP for The Creator (2023) as an example of this. The particular moment she’s talking about is at ~5:20 (in the chapter Color & LUT) but she says the whole video is really worth the watch.
  • Podcast “exclusives”
    • Joe 238, the first film Hannah color graded at Frostline. The documentary, from filmmaker Coleen Stymeist-Wood, tells the story of a family learning to honor their late son’s last wish to be an organ donor and is available to watch on PBS.
    • The intro and outro song for this episode of Hold For Sound is the track “Salt” by Carnelian Woman. Recorded, mixed, and mastered here at Frostline Studios and available wherever you get your music.

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