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Key Workflow Tips For A Smooth Color Grading Process

Noam Kroll

It was only a few years ago that color correction was an expensive part of the post-pipeline, only reserved for fully budgeted productions. But today, with an abundance of color software options out there, more and more filmmakers, DPs, and editors are able to properly color their footage without breaking the bank.

This is great news, however for many (that haven’t gone through the process before) there are a lot of workflow issues that can cost their productions time and money.

I’ve been working as a colorist for several years now. While I’m not exclusively a colorist, I spend a great deal of my time on color correction – either on the projects of my collaborators or my own personal projects. As such, I’ve seen just about every single mistake that can be made on the workflow side of things, and now go into my color projects with a very different approach than I did when I was first starting out.

When most people think about color correction, they are simply thinking about the actual act of grading and adjusting their footage during the finishing stage of post. What they often neglect to consider though, is the workflow – which can be a huge mistake considering the fact that on many projects dealing with a roundtrip pipeline can be just as laborious as the actual color work itself…even when it’s done right.

So if you are a colorist, or simply a producer/director that is looking to have some of your projects color corrected in the future, be sure to follow these 5 tips below as they will save you a lot of time and energy down the road.

Shoot for the Grade

This first point is specific to those of you that are also involved on the production side of things. If you are a post-supervisor, producer, DP, director, etc. and will be involved in both production and post, it’s critical that you take the necessary measures during the production of your project to ensure your footage is being captured in an optimal way for the color work that you will later have done. In some cases, this can mean shooting in a flat (or log-style) setting in order to have maximum flexibility in post, while in other cases it might mean shooting with an LUT applied in camera so that your colorist (or maybe yourself, if you are the colorist) can work quickly. There isn’t a one size fits all approach to this, but by simply assessing the needs of your projects and knowing the capabilities of the camera that you are working with, you can keep your color process as streamlined as possible.

Lock Your Edit

This might sound ridiculous and obvious (especially for those of you with a finishing background), but you absolutely need to lock your edit before you go to color. You wouldn’t believe how many productions I’ve worked on that gave me locked edits to work on, that were later unlocked (meaning edit changes were made) and I needed to go back in and re-do some of the color work. While many color programs (such as Resolve) have tools like “Color Trace” that allow you to copy grades over to a new session when edit changes are made, this isn’t ideal as it doesn’t always work smoothly and adds more room for error during the process. So whatever you do, make sure your edits are locked and singed off on before going to color.

Know How to Use Proxies

Even though most editing platforms, including FCP X and Premiere Pro can edit raw files natively, it’s still often preferable to use proxy files for editing. For those of you that are new to this, proxies are essentially smaller, lower res versions of your raw files that allow you to edit much more smoothly during the offline process. The idea is that you will later relink the footage back to your raw files during color grading, to have a best of both worlds situation. The challenge with this workflow is that you need to know exactly how to create your proxy files, as if they are not created properly, you will not be able to relink to the raw files in the color session easily.

The biggest thing you need to be aware of are the file names. Your file names need to be 100% consistent between the raw and proxy files (with the exception of the file extension which will vary depending on which format you are using). By doing this, you will have an easy time re-linking your footage as whatever software you are using will be able to recognize the naming conventions that you have been using throughout the process.

Be Aware of Re-timed Clips

Typically projects are brought into color software (from editing software) via a translation file – such as an XML or AAF. These files essentially tell the color software how to re-build the edits to match what was done in the NLE. In an ideal world, everything gets translated perfectly…but in reality, that’s often not the case. One of the biggest issues you need to look out for are re-timed clips (clips that are sped up, slowed down, or have speed ramps), as often times color software doesn’t read the speed data properly, and the clips come in at regular speed.

Depending on the specifics of your project, there are a number of ways to deal with this issue. One option is to export the retimed clips as self contained files, and bring them into your color session as individual files. Alternatively, you could color the regular speed clips in your color software and then retime them again in your NLE, if you are round tripping.

Know When to Letterbox

In some cases, you might choose to finish your project entirely inside of your color software and do your deliverables and final output straight from there. In many other instances though, you may choose to bring your colored files back into your NLE to add final titles, audio, and credits there instead. Depending on where in your pipeline you are planning on doing your final output from, you’ll want to decide when you will add your letterbox matte (assuming you are cropping to 2.40:1 or similar). The general rule of thumb is to do it at the very end of your process. If you were to add it in your color session, and then brought the colored/letterboxed files back in to your NLE, you will prevent yourself from doing any additional reframing in your NLE if you catch a shot that needs to be shifted a bit. Just to be safe, always render your files as full resolution with no letterbox, that way if you or anyone else requests a change at the end of your process, you won’t need to go back into the color session to re-export individual clips.