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MAKING THE GRADE: Scoping a look which works for you and your project

Updated: Jun 20, 2022


Tracks and Layers offer an expert colour grading service right here in Manchester / MediaCity UK, but whether you decide to engage with us for your next project or someone else, it’s always helpful to get a better understanding of how to get the most out of a colour grade and it’s especially important to know how to prepare both your project and yourself for the process. This article should help to guide you as to how best to find a look which is going to work for your project.

Waveform scopes in DaVinci resolve

When it comes to colour grading, the bottom line for us is to always ensure that we are able to compliment your project and we see ourselves in a position as a mediator between the creative vision and technical execution. It’s on this basis that you should not have to worry too much about the technical side of the process.

Whether you’ve commissioned the services of a colourist before or you expect to do so soon, if you can cover the following key points then you’re sure to get the most from the service.


Knowing what you want

This is really key and something which may be described as “establishing a look”. It’s not uncommon for this to happen during the colour grading session itself but this may result in inflated costs or less time to actually apply the grade to your project.

4 very different colour grade looks
There is never an obvious direction for a colour grade, but depending on the genre and tone of your project - there is bound to be a look which compliments more than the others.

Start off with a general overview of how the project should feel. As a rule of thumb, try and think of the look of the grade in terms of a kind of short synopsis, for example:

  • Glossy, refined and like you would see in a premium fashion magazine

  • Understated and muted with cool tones to give a sense of bleakness

  • Dark and moody with deep rich shadows to bring out gritty textures

  • Bright and vibrant colours with punchy contrast.

Then follow this up with some examples if possible. Using tools such as Pinterest can really help to set an overall style. Simply search for keywords which appear in your synopsis or even just type in the film titles which carry a similar target aesthetic.

One common pitfall of this part of the process is to simply create a collection of images or looks you like, but without a consistent style between them. Good references should show a range of lighting conditions or at the very least, lighting which has a similar quality to your film.

Examples of references with a consistent look under different kinds of lighting
If your project contains a broad range of lighting conditions, try to include similar ones in your example reference images.


Understanding what’s going to be possible

Even with the most expensive camera, with the highest resolution and the sharpest lenses and all the lights you can grab from your preferred rental company - a colour grade can only ever be complementary to how things have been filmed in camera.

Eg: an overcast day is not simply just darker than a bright sunny day, how the shadows and light are cast in a shot cannot ever be recreated after the fact. Film noir lighting cannot be undone in favour of a flatter, more lit aesthetic.

The same shot under 3 different lighting conditions, see how the shadows and highlights create three dimensional definition in the shot. Notice how the light itself casts visible beams through the trees and how the native shot contrast is different.

Keep in mind that a colour grade can exaggerate or deemphasize what’s already there and it can help to balance or unbalance things (depending on the look you want).

Another factor to keep in mind is that the more consistent your exposure and lighting are, the less time has to be spent correcting for this in the grade.

The final key factor to being able to unlock the most potential is down to the technical quality of the video media itself. This consideration warrants (a far more technical) blog post in itself as it’s a real Pandora's box of options and factors which can be at play. Needless to say that some lower end cameras may benefit from using an external recorder and where possible you should ensure that you are filming in some kind of “log” format or “raw” codec. This is a great example of where you can benefit from getting your colourist in a conversation with your camera department ahead of time.



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