How To Abolish Your Darkest Doubts About Color Grading

If you are like me and keep asking yourself if your grades are tasteful, subtle and beautiful, you might know that there aren’t easy answers to these questions. You could say taste and beauty have nothing to do with an effective color grade and I wouldn’t contest that statement. Still, I have struggled with how thickly I should apply the tools of grading before the end result becomes a garish show of how well I can push all the buttons in the grading suite.

Flying high.

After analyzing the House of Cards color grade in a recent article I realized there were at least two hallmark movies that helped shape my handle on taste and subtlety. The seminal Martin Scorsese film “Aviator” with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as famed inventor Howard Hughes sports a variety of distinct color grades. The choice of looks corresponds with what technology was available at the time where the story is set. Most notable are the recreation of Technicolor’s “two-strip” and “three-strip” color processes.

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The two-strip process is actually a collection of three different methods of achieving color reproduction using exclusively black-and-white film stock and color filtration. Essentially, a special camera exposed two strips of film simultaneously using a beam splitter. The light falling on these two films was filtered with a red- and green-filter respectively. Later in the process, depending on which two-strip method was used exactly, the two strips would be dyed, filtered and mated together to reproduce the colors of the original scene by either additive or subtractive color synthesis.

Comparison of the Three-Strip Look vs. the raw footage.
Comparison of the Three-Strip Look vs. the raw footage.

The three-strip process is responsible for the distinctive look of films such as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and of course “The Wizard of Oz” and became widely renowned for its supreme color reproduction qualities. It widely outclassed previous two-strip processes that were limited in the range of colors they could reproduce based on just red and green base colors. Again, without going into too much detail how the process worked (you can check it out here), three black-and-white strips of film were exposed using chromatic filters to capture different wavelengths of light. In the post processing, these colors were used to subtractively produce a full-color image.

In Aviator, both processes were digitally recreated using AfterEffects and a 3D lookup table (LUT) by the folks at Technicolor. The results are stunning.

What I learned from watching Aviator with its blatant, in-your-face looks was that, sometimes, you can go full on and call it art. Certainly, Scorcese made an eclectic choice when he decided to recreate these hallmark looks. The crucial aspect, to me, is that it doesn’t look like Scorcese just went and copied stuff, even though that is exactly what he did. It was a bold choice, yes. It was a choice to reuse looks that are associated with epic pictures of historical relevance and still, these looks elevates the film Aviator. People will always be talking about it, saying “Hey, you know that film with the crazy colors?”. The point is, artists do copy blatantly sometimes and still achieve something great.

Plus, it has to be noted, in 2004 when Aviator was released, digital grading was still very much in its infancy. Scorcese’s choice to rely on this technique to post-process his film has to be regarded highly.

On to other worlds.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy is indubitably one of the epic cornerstone pieces of 21st-century film. Produced at a reckless pace in remote New Zealand, the three films employ every single trick in the book: forced perspective to make hobbits look smaller, smart digital armies that fight independently of an animator and a full digital intermediary process including a digital color grade. I highly recommend watching the entire LOTR production blog — a video series that goes into great detail, showing exactly how the films were made. For us colorists the video on digital grading is absolutely relevant. In my quest to understand taste and how to achieve a tasteful grade, I find this video outstanding. As late DP Andrew Lesnie, colorist Peter Doyle and Peter Jackson talk us through their process of digitally reworking about 70% of the LOTR Trilogy, one thing stands out to me. I don’t know which system they were grading on, but whenever they show some of the controls actually used, it seems the ways they graded were rather simple. I don’t mean this to say it is a bad grade, just by comparison, today, you can achieve more complex looks on a home computer. Again, I’m not saying the grade isn’t good. Just that it wasn’t overly complicated.

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These shots from the films tell the same story: the looks are simple but functional. No excessive frills seem to have gone into them. That may actually belie the truth because no doubt has there been matting going on etc. but the result is a rather straight-forward, honest look. The key word here is simple and straight-forward looks. The takeaway to me is this: A grade doesn’t have to be overly complicated and technical to be good. Sometimes a slight nudge in the right direction can go a long way to achieving an appealing grade. Especially the Council of Elrond scene is a great example of this: the golden look that was already prevalent in the ungraded footage is taken and enhanced. No involved grading magic. Just a nudge into the warm sepia tones. Simple but effective.

The Final Contender

A few weeks ago I posted an analysis of the House of Cards color grading, concluding that it was often subtle yet effective. Their frequent use of a slightly off white-balance in the green direction plus the resulting yellowish skin tones are a recurring look across the series. Without re-hashing everything I wrote previously, I find House of Cards interesting for just that reason. It has a unique, effective look, yet it doesn’t slap it into your face. Different than the Lord of the Rings grade, this might be a bit more difficult to achieve sometimes, so the word here is not simple but subtle. I doubt your regular household TV viewer can say “Wow, House of Cards, that’s that green show!”. They can say “Hey, LOTR, the elves were so luminous!” Subtlety versus simplicity.

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The Three Words of the weeks

  1. Blatancy: Aviator shows us that we can be bold. Go full on. Try that crazy look. Don’t be afraid and you just might pull something great out of your hat.
  2. Simplicity: Not every grade has to be complicated. Sometimes a tint and a bit of contrast or some desaturation might go a long way to achieving the right grade for the project.
  3. Subtlety: Yes, we want to legitimize our work as colorists. But sometimes, a grade that is good because it is almost invisible is a beautiful thing in its own right. Slight, small changes instead of big words.

These three statements are very different from one another and frankly I have no idea how to merge them together into one coherent how-to of how to achieve taste. What I do, however, is return to these principles when I doubt myself. Is the look too obvious or too insignificant? Am I trying to hard when there really is a simple solution? When looking at these hugely successful examples, Aviator, Lord of the Rings and House of Cards, we see that very different roads can lead to Rome and we can feel reassured that might just be on a decent road, too.


Originally published at indiecolorgrading.com.