The idea for this article came about after a dear friend of mine dared to ask me:
– ” Do you think color grading really matters?”
I almost fell off my chair! She is ridicoulusly talented filmmaker and she had invested everything she could in her self-funded project, and as it happens unfortunately too often, she felt that she had overstreched herself after production.
I instantly replied:
– “I don’t know, do you think that fashion really matters?
I was trying to find an analogy in something I knew she genuinely cared about. She had just confessed to me that she had purchased an overpriced coat in a French store, that she knew she couldn’t afford. But she was invited to a prestigious film festival, and she rightfully needed to make an impression.
I pondered about what was the better investment to advance her career, a beautifully graded film or an elegant networking outfit. I still haven’t reached to a definitive answer…
She needed a coat and fell in love with that one; there is nothing wrong with it. But since I loved her film and was saddened by the state of it, I felt cornered, and I emphatically said :
– Color Is The Single Most Important Part of Filmmaking! Period!
Obviously, this point is highly debatable, but as I spent many years in Law School, I thought I could make an argument for it. And perhaps it could make for an entertaining article. So here it is: My four and a half reasons why color grading is the most essential part of filmmaking.
1 – COLOR IS IDENTITY.
Color grading seems easy at first glance. If we keep the fashion analogy, it is like shopping for clothes: all you need to do is try it on, take a good look at yourself in the mirror, say yes or no, and remember your four-digit credit card pin code. The next day you realize you made a mistake, you return it and try another style.
Except, it isn’t that easy.
Dressing with style and taste is work. It is a daily routine, takes years of research, trial, and error, receiving notes and comments, taking in backhanded compliments and continuously readjusting. What if, suddenly you feel you are overdressed, you are too noticeable, and everyone you meet cannot help but wonder what is wrong with you? You imagine coming across as someone who seeks attention and feel that everyone avoids you. But then, six months later they all dress just like you.
Great color grading is story-driven and doesn’t call attention to itself. It is also hard to define and impossible to systematize. It is the subtle art of being impactful yet not noticeable, whispering not yelling. It is the delicate art of being just right.
We live in a world saturated with moving images. Video content is everywhere. Every company is a media company and they want our attention. To survive in this environment we must develop instantenous and subconsious filtering skills. If it doesn’t look just « interesting,» we can confidently swipe right past it. Any youtuber knows, something needs to happen in the first 3 seconds or your audience is gone.
The quality of your grade participates greatly in that decision, and it also defines your social status. Are you cheap or luxurious? Are you fiction or non-fiction? Does it look like Network TV or is it Cable?
We can almost instantly guess if we are watching a trailer, a commercial, a tv show, a youtube video or a piece of branded content. We all have become experts at identifying content and if a particular piece is worth our attention or not. Most of the time those decisions go right past our conscious mind.
Colors play a singular role in the anchoring of our memories. I might be especially sensitive to visual queues but let’s try. What image comes to mind when you read the following titles? And are there colors or particular image treatments attached to those memories?
Mad Max Fury Road; Games of Thrones; Charlie And The Chocolate Factory; Manchester by the Sea; Atomic Blond; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; A Star is Born; Peaky Blinders; Mr. Robot; Fargo (season 2); True Detective; The Deuce; Breaking Bad; Mr. Glass; Arrival; Blade Runner; Sicario; Enemy; Her; Stranger Things
We need an emotion in order to store information in our long term memory. And when it comes to movies, each of our memories is deeply tainted by color. It is part of the identity and the brand of a film and is essential for marketing and getting an audience to tune in.
Movie stills and trailers are pretty much the entire marketing material available to the public.
It is so important that I now ask to be the person who delivers the trailers as well (you should give this option to your colorist).
Now, color grading is not always creative, and there might be a distinction to make. It may be that the project requires to look exactly like another show or another commercial or another film. Looking unique isn’t always what the project needs; sometimes it just needs to be familiar and balanced. And my guess is the jobs will be the first to be given to Artificial Intelligence.
It is hard to measure the value of excellent color grading, but easy to see the consequences of a bad one.
Another fun fact about how important it is to marketing: 85% of Facebook Videos are watched without sound.
Color is sophisticated; I won’t get into color theory here. But let’s remember, color is a physical, psychological and neural phenomenon (the research are pretty intense about it). Color isn’t solely aesthetic; it is how we can perceive the world. Colors are involved in pretty much every consumption decision we make. If it doesn’t look eatable, we don’t eat it.
In color grading you have an unique opportunity to make your story feel different. The most powerful illustration of that is probably coming from the legendary Peter Doyle, with the the Ballad of Buster Scruggs by the Cohen Brothers.
The film is composed of 6 separate short films. Because of the unique color work designed for each story, the audience knows almost instantly that we are in different worlds.
2 – COLOR GRADING BEATS THE PARETO LAW
This one is my favorite. Color is economically by far the easiest and most efficient part of filmmaking!
You sit in a comfortable space, it is fun, creative and doesn’t take much time. It is effortless compared to the work of a cinematographer, a production designer or a costume designer. You don’t need to carry heavy equipement, you eat well, you don’t have stand all night in the snow.
But the impact of the colorist’s work is so apparent that no film can be exhibited without it. Color grading is the difference between finished and unfinished.
Have you heard of the Pareto efficiency rule? Is it also called the rule of the vital few? Economist Vilfredo Pareto states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It is an economic rule to describe the distribution of power in the world.
It has nothing to do with color grading, but it is a neat illustration of my point. The colorist work is easily 80% of the impact of a film on an audience. Without any grading a movie has little emotional impact, it is not even marketable.
Color grading requires minimal effort compared to other creative position in the industry. But the consequences of the colorist work over the finished product is exponential.
Therefore in economic terms, the colorist is the most effective position in filmmaking, relative to the actual efforts that he or she provides to the film.
Dear producers and investors: now you know, the colorist can turn $1 into $100.
Stop bargaining with your colorist! It is worth the investment ( = but please make sure the investment goes to creativity)
3 – THE COLORIST GIVES LIFE TO EVERYONE’S WORK
We often pair the colorist with the cinematographer and for very good reasons; without light, there is no color. But the colorist work goes well beyond shaping light. It is about language, musicality, and communication (in the sense of perception and clarity).
If the colorist is responsible for orchestrating the balance of colors across of a piece of visual storytelling, it relies as much on the work of the production designer, the choice of location, the make-up artists, the actors and the color of their skin, the prop master, the costume designer, the weather, and pretty much everything that appears on screen.
The colorist surfaces every visual creative artist’s contribution to the film.
The colorist’s real work is to find opportunities to emphasize or make sense of those choices, in relationship to the shot, the scene, the sequence and within the entire film.
Every single choice should be story driven. The possibilities in color grading are both immense and bound by all those decisions made on set.
But in reality, most of those decisions made on set are in fact renegotiable in post-production. Pretty much everything can be changed and not just color, which leads to my next point.
4 – COLOR GRADING IS AS MUCH ABOUT PERCEPTION & CLARITY AS COLORS
I am often asked to work on the texture of the image. Either to smooth the “digital sharpness” or “video look” and often I am directed to try to give it a “film look.”
In reality, if you have captured your film digitally, you should throw away all your film and texture references.
Unless you are shooting on celluloid. In digital, you can create a new texture for each film from scratch in a unique way.
Why focus on film grain when you can make a custom made sensation? Should it be smooth and buttery, or granular and rasping? How can that help your story?
I am only saying that because freeing yourself from the film analogy might trigger some creative magic in the color room.
There is an entire universe of sensations that have nothing to do with colors but everything to do with the colorist. It is less talked about because of it harder to find words for it.
We have trained our eyes to think celluloid, but we should free ourselves from it when it comes to shooting digitally.
The colorist contributes to the physical relationship between the eyes and the image. Along with the editor who works to cut a seamless story, the colorist works to guide the eye of the viewer on the screen.
4 1/2 – WE JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER!
I believe that is the end of the thought experiment. I doubt that will convince anyone that « color is the most important part of filmmaking, » but maybe, maybe it will help realize that there is a world of creative opportunity and that is a large part what will attract your audience.
Whether it is conscious or not: we judge books by their covers.
If you start to think color in terms of identity or branding, this is the fastest way to leave a lasting impression on your audience mind.
What feeling do you want them to take away?
Color is an essential part of filmmaking. And I believe that understanding what images are made of can improve what I think is the truly most important part of filmmaking: WRITING!
Think about your colors in your script. Give yourself and your colorist the instruments you need to make your story unique at first sight.
The real limits to color are the limits of your imagination.
The idea for this article came about after a dear friend of mine dared to ask me: – ” Do you think color grading really
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