Tuesday, 2 February 2016

TO GRADE OR NOT TO GRADE


I was recently asked by a filmmaker friend, if he should shoot flat to give him some room to colour correct and grade in post or if he should use physical lighting to get the look he wanted. I thought it was an interesting question and it had me look at how I approach that aspect of filmmaking and how and why that has changed since I started making movies. 

Ungraded shot from
Code of Silence Music Video
If you've seen any of my work, you'll know how important colour is to me when I'm putting together ANY project. It is one of the first things I consider when I begin pre production. A lot of inspiration for this comes from Italian Director Dario Argento and his use of colour thematically across his work in the 70's and 80's as well as the fact that I grew up reading comic book and 'marvelling' at their use of vibrant colour as a language. As result colour always seemed like an equally important aspect of any visual medium to me. Especially filmmaking. 
Graded shot from Sinnergod/Blaze Bayley video 2012
Its strange to think that, even as short a time ago as the late 90's, colour wasn't given a lot of thought when putting together the look of a film. Go back and look at almost any big budget film shot in the 90's, they all have a the very same, flat, grey cinematic look, that not exclusive, but for the most part. I mean back in the early 2000's David Fincher was still considered a stylised 'out there' director and he was certainly one the directors who paved the way for this line of thought that 'colour' was, in many ways, as important as anything when telling a story. 

As we come closer to the new 20's, every film that appears in theatres is now heavily 'stylised' in its own right, a far cry from their 90's counterparts. Grading is now a permanent part of the workflow and it looks like its here to stay. So today I wanted to talk about my approach to colour and grading and how it has evolved over the last few years since I started making feature length films.

*Please remember, as with resolution, lighting, lens choice and compression, Colour and grading is a very small part of what makes an image look 'cinematic'.

TO GRADE OR NOT TO GRADE

Since I started filmmaking I've graded hundreds of projects. Being an early adopter of programs like HITFILM (Back when it was called AlamDV over a decade and a half ago) one of the programs primary functions outside of VFX was colour grading and it was a new an exciting tool for us as backyard filmmakers. Soon everyone was adopting it and grading became a huge part of the no budget workflow in a world where there had been no room for it before and it opened up a world of possibilities for us as visual storytellers.

The problem arose for me when I started to notice a trend, a well documented trend, that you've most likely come across before. All films started to look the same and when Hollywood finally took the tool to its full extension we started to notice that every film came with the same look. 

That 'Orange and Teal' thing that you now see on every big budget movie that hits theatres in this day and age. I hated it. Not the grading itself, I actually really like the look of a lot of these films, but just the fact that all films both low and high budget started to all just look exactly the same and in the medium of visual storytellers that is dangerous ground to walk on. In many ways, 'grading' films has made us lazy, its become the go to tool of the 'fix it in post' generation.

TO GRADE

When I made Slasher House (back in 2010) I didn't have the equipment or the know how to really get the look that I wanted for the film. I had a clear idea of what I wanted and how the final film should appear on screen, but I was left with the option of lighting it flat and colour grading it in post. The film, for better or worse, is known for its 'nuclear' grade' and, for the most part, taking the grading approach and pushing it as far as I did really helped get the film noticed. But for me, I just wasn't happy. It didn't feel natural, it felt artificial. It felt lazy.


Ungraded shot from +Slasher House 2010
Final Grade from +Slasher House 2010
 Grading is an extremely useful tool, when I'm pushed for time on set its sometimes easier for me to shoot with a flat profile and spend my time in post just getting close to the look I want. It is an extremely powerful in terms of setting tone and it can help tremendously if you are relying on your post production time.

Graded shot from the MychoTV web series. 2011.
I directed a web series in 2011, and we had very little on set time. Sometimes about 2 hours to shoot entire sequences and we just didn't have the time or the equipment to light the way I would want to, so shooting flat and taking care of it in post was the best way to go. Its very much the same story on a lot of music shoots, with limited time with bands or performers, I'll make the choice to shoot flat as possible and do the work in post afterwards. For short form stuff, its an approach that works great for me, but in terms of how I want stuff to look, its still a compromise.

The same thing happens when I'm shooting bright, daylight exteriors. Apart from work with colour temperature, there isn't really too much I can do in terms of lighting when I'm working on a low/no budget. So I'll usually make the choice to shoot smart with available light, shoot with a flat or neutral profile and make any adjustments in post if needed.  

For me, this comes with drawbacks, It feels artificial at times and thats not the aesthetic I look for when I'm shooting. After doing this for a couple of years I decided to rethink my approach.

NOT TO GRADE

Ungraded shot used in Legacy of Thorn 2013
For my next feature in 2013, Legacy of Thorn, I was determined to evolve the look of the film and made the choice very early on that I wanted everything to be as physical as possible and I decided that I wouldn't stop with just pour practical effects. I decided that I would shoot everything as I wanted it to appear in the final film 'in camera'. The result was far better, it felt more natural, more real. I'd never been happier with how one of my films looked and I knew, for me, that this was the way I wanted to do things from here on in.
The next too features I worked on had very little in the way of colour correction at all. In fact Cleaver : Killer Clown, had none apart from a couple of slight colour balance shifts and some adjustment to brightness and contrast in the odd shot to match colour, but again, for the most part the film footage you see on screen is the footage I shot in camera with nothing altered. 

Ungraded shot from Cleaver : Killer Clown 2014
After getting through 2 films using almost no colour correction at all, I felt that I had found comfortable space to work in, that really worked for me and the style that I wanted to bring to my films. Using combination of lighting, gels and colour temperature in camera I found it easy to get the look I wanted without ever having to run it through colour software at all. This had some huge benefits for me.
Ungraded shot from Hollower 2015
First off, because I was doing it this way it made me think about the film and its colours in a lot more depth, right down to props, costumes and even hair colour of my actors. The approach 'forced' me to look at how I was using colour to help tell stories and best of all, saved me, literal weeks in post production because the footage was as close as I wanted it to final product meaning that a large part of my post workflow suddenly just disappeared.



Now technically I actually DO do 'some' form of colour grading, the difference being that I do it 'in camera' before I even shoot anything, but I'll talk more about that next week.

SLASHER HOUSE 2

Graded shot from Slasher House 2010
When it came to Slasher House 2 I was faced with an 'interesting' dilemma. The look of the original film had been popular with the vibrant colours of the grade really standing out as a feature, but I had evolved my filmmaking style since then to use as much in camera lighting as possible. The challenge was taking the style of the original film and recreating it, physically, in camera.
The approach I took was using gels to emulated the colours and choosing costumes and locations as wisely as I could in order to keep the unique colour aesthetic, whilst helping it match the 'in camera' style that we had now employed in our filmmaking. This mixed with adjusting the cameras colour temperature and the contrast/saturation on my 'custom picture profile' helped me get the look I wanted, that has way more depth than I could ever add with a computer in post.

Ungraded shot from Slasher House 2015.
The added bonus of this, now that we're shooting our first 4K film, was that I could cut my footage with very little post processing, meaning I risk very little degradation in the image, which is more common when shooting compressed images. It also means that I can work faster and have a finished product in much less time simply by taking a little extra time on set getting it right.
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Overall the most important thing is that this is what works for me personally, everyone has their own style of working and their own way of doing things and above all, you should be finding the approach to the look of your film that makes you the happiest. 

Ultimately my advice to my filmmaker friend was, "do it however YOU want to do it, its your film after all". I understand the importance of both approaches and I've seen some amazingly well graded stuff that puts my stuff to shame, and the same is true when watching people get their look right 'live on set'. It doesn't really matter how you achieve what your looking for, its all about making YOUR films YOUR way. In the end, as always, thats all that really matters.

MJ

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