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Color Grading 101

With my latest short, STORAGE, I want to share more of the journey with you. It definitely will NOT be a start to finish process of making a film and I'll try not to get too technical, but I'm hoping to give you a peek into the process of making a short and some of the crazy details that are involved.

First up, color grading.

I've come a long way from my first film, ABDUCTION. On that film, my goal was to "fix" issues in order to make up for my lack of film knowledge and the results pretty much ended up the way you'd expect. :)

For my second film, IN MEMORIAM, my knowledge of grading drastically improved, but my camera skills still lacked. Once again, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of having to correct a lot of the footage, but the end result was visually much better than the first time around.

Fast forward to today: I've officially started production on STORAGE and I'm much more confident and comfortable with not only my camera skills, but the entire process.

What you're looking at below is a "test" grade from actual footage that will be used in the film. What I'm going for here is dark & creepy (the open storage shed), along with making sure that the contents of the trunk (the boxes) remain the main focus.

But where did we start? Here:

No, this isn't bad footage that needs to be fixed. The picture above is what the raw footage looks like coming out of the camera. It's well exposed and in focus, but the image is flat, boring and everything blending into each other - it's hard to tell what you should be focused on. Right now, your eyes should be pulling you to the back of the storage shed - definitely not what I want.

First, it needs to be balanced:

By balancing out the highlights, mid-tones and the shadows, I'm creating a more rich-looking image by pulling out color and darkening the image naturally. Instead of looking flat and washed out, the colors begin to look like they would in the real world and things start to separate from one another. Your eyes should be more focused on what is in the foreground (the tail light and car) vs. the, now darkened, back of the storage shed.

Next, from light to dark:

"Supernatural and horror will be fun!", I said. ...Until I learned how difficult it is to film at night. :) You need light for great imagery, but this scene takes place just before nightfall - it needed to be dark. So, further stretching the shadows, adding a blue tint and giving our colors a slight saturation boost is what gives the appearance that it is later than when we shot. I also added some additional contrast to sharpen the look.

Next Up: The red cast:

For this scene, the red light cast from the tail lights is extremely important. It sets the tone for the scene and will highlight the contents of the shed. (I can't tell you why, because I don't want to ruin the story. You'll just have to trust me - it's important.) BUT, you can't just slap a red tint across the whole thing, as it would change the color of the car, too. The red light cast was only added on and around the storage shed in the front, to simulate light emanating from the tail light.

Bring back the boxes!

For this particular shot, I want the viewer more focused on the boxes in the trunk of the car, but we lost them when we went from light to dark. In the image above, you can see that I only lightened the back inside of the trunk, so the focus is back on the boxes hanging out. I included brightening the interior light, as well, so the light source made a bit more sense in relation to the lightened boxes.

Finally, a bit of blur:

And last but not least, I added a blur to the top and, even though you can't really notice it, the bottom. Why? Because I like it and I think it helps soften the lights, along with giving it a more dreamy look. Was it the right thing to do? I think so, but you can tell me if you like it or not. That's the great thing about art - it's subjective!

The end result is something that will live a very short life on the screen, but if I did it right, and with the scenes directly before and after this one, it should help you stay focused on the boxes in the car, but also get the sense that something ominous is about to happen...

...maybe from within the shed? You'll have to hold out for the end result to see what happens!

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