Democratisation of technology has been happening and unless you’ve been living secluded by a pond in a hut of your own making, you have probably taken part in the change. Own a web server or DSLR? Are you a social media influencer or blogger? These are just some examples of how cheaper access to technology is disrupting traditionally expensive processes. (In these cases publishing, marketing and high-quality digital photography.)
Distrupting an Industry
The market for film production resources is no exception. Most disruptive, I wager, has been the advent of digital over analogue technology in filmmaking: the digital camera. A gadget that is now in most of our pockets, it has forced numerous changes in the way movies are made and who makes them. We can afford to capture more footage than ever before: shooting ratios of up to 1:10 for narrative productions (that is ten minutes of footage recorded for one minute of final screen time) no longer wreck the piggy bank. Releasing the finished film to a mass-audience equal to or greater than a silver-screen release via Youtube or Vimeo is rapidly altering film financing and release methods. Overall, filmmaking is not what it was 20 years ago, and this is due to the victory march of digital technology.
One co-development of digital image capture of the past 15 years is digital colour grading. For “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” (2000) the Cohen Brothers first employed colour grading on a comprehensive scale to drastically alter the overall look of the film.
Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Ring” trilogy was scanned fully into digital intermediates and graded digitally — this has since become the standard for almost all films still shot on celluloid and is called the Digital Intermediate process.
But wait. Altering colours in a film isn’t a concept that emerged out of the eternal fog of Gaia in unison with digital technology. Colour timing — using lights to alter film looks in the transfer process — has been used extensively pretty much from the beginning of colour film and even in black and white, the luminance of film was altered in the post production process. So why is digital grading such a big deal?
Colour timing machines were crazy expensive, clunky things — just as editing benches to cut celluloid were ungainly and heavy. Get where I’m heading? What the non-linear editors (Avid, Premiere Pro …) did for editing, free tools like DaVinci Resolve are doing for colour grading: the process is made readily available to the masses. Grading no longer requires a rack full of tapes and whirring electronics, it can be done with any decent computer and a monitor in your home office (no guarantee for good results with this setup, though ;)).
But NLEs not only brought editing into the homes of filmmakers. They added heaps of features and introduced revolutionary concepts to the process of editing — multi-cam editing, Three-Way Edits, anyone? Or some cheesy transitions at the stroke of a button? The same addition of techniques is happening for colour grading. DaVinci Resolve and other digital grading suites add the ability to efficiently apply Secondary Grading. The alteration of intricate details within a picture by selecting and keying almost any discrete area the heart desires gives fine control of technical aspects (exposure, contrast, white balance) as well as creative licence in applying complex looks.
The Curious Case of the “Hell Yeah I Can Add Effects”
Alright, enough with the dry history lesson. Remember Windows Moviemaker? That little tool that came with your Windows XP (yeah I’m over 20 and remember a time even before blue taskbars).
A small, lightweight NLE in its own right, Windows Moviemaker had all the transition effects and titles you ever wanted, in the early 2000s, anyway. Movies (or let’s say home video, eh?) cut on Moviemaker almost always contained every transition and effect at least once to show off that you were using a fancy tool that had all the bells and whistles necessary to make your video pop. Cause, transitions are great, right?
Let’s illustrate the point. Web 2.0, the buzzword for the new interactive web in the 2000s, brought with it flashy, gaudy graphics with reflections, glares, badges, drop-shadows and so forth. By this time the process of creating digital illustrations using Photoshop etc. had become so advanced that it became feasible to have heaps of visual effects on every website. School kids like me at the time could create fancy looking graphics for almost no cost and the general style of websites went from flat and clunky to drop-shadowy and glare-y.
DaVinci Resolve is now easy to get and not too difficult to use — the process of grading has matured from obscure tools that cost thousands of dollars to a common ingredient in most postproduction workflows. Since everyone can now try their hands at grading and want to show they do grade their films, every conceivable effect is thrown in. The exact same logic that made you use transitions in Moviemaker and drop-shadow the shit out of Web 2.0 graphics is now causing hipstery toned and desaturated looks to be slapped onto every film.
Drum roll. Here come the culprits: Split-toning of skin tones, sure! Adding a vignette for increased hipster-ity. Done. Relighting the shot you spent three hours lighting on set? Of course. Sparkly eyes on your beautiful talent. Check. Desaturate the result to emulate that old Kodak film stock you love now but never used back then. Most importantly: make everything tinted. Blue shadows — amber highlights, classic. Or maybe a little bit of Matrix green to pretend you shot on the ARRI Alexa (don’t stone me, I love the camera but it is a little green, which looks sublime). Don’t worry if this went over your head, this is just me rambling about what I see in most films right now.
I always thought more grading was beter grading. What type of colourist would I be, if I didn’t give it my all for every shot? I’d be cheating my customers, wouldn’t I? Surely a customer expects me to click every button in DaVinci once when they pay me for grading their film?
Well, no. Cheating customers is slapping on a Look-Up Table (LUT, for short) that you bought at a ridiculous price from an online marketing savvy grading charlatan who sells “One LUT Fits All” looks. And then call it the jazziest look to be had in 2016. If you sell stuff as jazzy I suppose you have other issues. Whatever. The excessive focus on LUTs is, in my humble opinion, based on the want for fancy, graded and expensive looking films but bypass the learning experience necessary to execute complex looks. Hey, guys (and it’s always guys): stop selling prosumers expensive LUTs, you cut throats. LUTs are great for a few things. Idea generation and quick delivery of dailies are two applications where I use them. But they sure as heck don’t substitute a colourist and making people think that is BS. Alright, I’m taking five to calm down.
What we need in grading is the measured, tasteful practice of creative work that is exhibited by the great creative minds of any generation. Less is more and a slight hint of a colour can go a long way.
Where is Digital Colour Grading Headed?
So where are things headed? At Cutting Edge in Brisbane, I asked this question: “Do you feel an increased need for colourists?” They said that every single project that went through their process got colour graded. This made sense: most likely, every single project they work on is shot in log or Raw, thus necessitating grading. But wait. These high-quality formats are becoming increasingly more affordable for smaller productions: more people are shooting material that needs grading. To me, this indicates there will have to be more able colourists in the future, taught simply by practice born out of necessity. A leads to B, leads to C.
Preliminary results from a running study show that about 30% of cinematographers have not worked with a colourist. I am including this crude and unscientific number because it is a great motivation: the need for colourists is rising and a third of DPs have not yet worked with one. That is a third of all productions not having a dedicated colorist.
In conclusion, the need for colourists is increasing naturally, forced by the availability of higher grade cameras . Yay — we are in a growing field. Should put that in my business plan, huh? But wait, there’s more.
Digital colour grading is here to stay and it is time to take the field by storm. Hand-made, quality grading is the way to go, just as hand-crafted edits and visual effects are the industry standard. Let’s conquer this growing market by educating ourselves, together, to produce amazing films that look stunning and original.
Also published on Medium.