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Pro Tip: Color Grading in Passes

Aaron Williams

Color grade in passes so when time runs out, you always have a piece that’s ‘client ready’!

Color Grading

One thing that a lot of new colorists have trouble with is finishing a piece in a limited amount of time – like a scheduled session with a client. They’ll usually start out strong with a great looking first few scenes, but as time goes on they get more and more hurried, and the tail end of the piece suffers in quality. By color grading in passes you can manage your time more efficiently, and if your session time runs out before you get to the end, you can be sure that the entire piece has gotten the attention it needs.

Here are the basic steps – in order – that a colorist goes through:

  1. Balancing and matching the shot
  2. Creating the look for the shot
  3. Fixing and enhancing the shot

Most new colorists tend to do the whole process shot-by-shot, or at the very least scene-by-scene. Some even get really excited and start with the look first. Color grading in passes means that you do each step for the entire piece before moving on to the next step.

Balancing and Matching

Video ScopesGo through the piece one scene at a time, pick your “hero” shot that you’ll match all of the other shots in the scene to, and start balancing and matching. Use your scopes (you do know how to read them, right?), and make sure that the shots in the scene are color balanced, have correct white and black points, proper exposure etc., and are matched well to the hero shot for the scene.

After you’ve done this for the whole scene, don’t move on to the next step and start creating the look. Repeat the process for the next scene, over and over until the whole piece is balanced and matched and you’re done with the first pass. If your time runs out right when you finish this step, at least you’ve done the most practially important job of a colorist and corrected the piece. It may not be emotionally engaging or look “cool,” but you have a technically sound piece that won’t jarr the viewer.

Creating the Look

Hopefully you’re good enough as a colorist where the “correction” step doesn’t take up your whole allotted time. After you’re done with the first pass and the whole piece is matched and balanced, you can move on to the next pass: creating the look. Create the look and apply it for each scene. If you’ve balanced and matched the shots well, the look should be pretty uniform throughout each scene, requiring only minor adjustments on a shot-to-shot basis. Fix major issues (like badly needed face windows for example), but don’t worry about making the small detail-oriented adjustments that make a shot polished. Keep creating and applying the look for each scene until every scene has it’s look. If you ran out of time at the end of this step, you’ve got a technically sound piece that has mood an emotion and you can be happy with your delivery.

Fixing and Enhancing

DaVinci ResolveThe last pass is what often separates a good, experienced colorist from the rest. Now that every scene is balanced, matched, and has a look, you start fixing distractions and enhancing the subject. Pull down that wall that’s too red, brighten up that face, add a vignette to draw attention to the key prop – you get the idea. Take the rest of the time you have left in your session and polish the shots. Hopefully you were making notes of shots that you would need to come back to for this step while you were matching and balancing. Hit those shots and make the piece shine.

As you get more experience, you’ll learn to better pace yourself for each pass so you can leave enough time to do all three passes. The benefit of continuing to grade in passes – even when you’ve got a lot of experience – is that you never know when you might get a challenging shot or scene that require a lot of work to balance and match, or if your client ends up being really picky about the look for each scene. Grading in passes keeps you prepared to have a fantastic finished product, even if you run out of time.