doodledo talks to... Neill! Answering your questions about grading and colour.
March 14, 2022

So. Colour grading is one of the coolest things we do here at doodledo, and our grading suite is one of the coolest parts of the office - but if you don’t know what it is, it can seem like a mystery. We’re here with Neill, the colour man himself, to dig into what a difference a grade can make, and how it all works. 

First thing’s first. What is grading? A small question, but I don’t doubt it’s got a very big answer… 

Grading is one of the final stages in post-production, where you make corrective and creative changes to the colour of a film - making it all look consistent, create the right atmosphere, get it all looking polished. But what I tend to say is, first and foremost it’s a technical thing! You take the colour processing out of the camera, and do it on a computer - which is so much more powerful. To ensure that a film looks right in whatever format it’s in, whether that’s cinema or streaming or TV or even DVD… I’m sure people are still buying DVDs… 

Our surroundings are pretty unusual. What are we doing in this grey, windowless, dimly-lit room? 

Everything is neutral, 18% grey - the walls, the clock, the couch. The lighting is high colour accuracy LEDs, and even my monitor brightness is kept lower, because basically, you want to control the light! The colour, the purity, the brightness - so your eyes are adjusting as little as possible to what they’re seeing on the screen as you’re grading. Different colours of light will change your perception of what you see, as well as reacting to brightness - if we had a bright light here, your perception of the whites on screen would be different to what they actually are. It’s about calibrating your eyes at a consistent level. 

I grade with DaVinci Resolve, always have. Up on my panel, the DJ looking thing - that’s like a mouse on steroids. You can navigate around lift (for the shadows), gamma (for the middle values), and gain (for the highlights) and keep the balance, to add here, take away there. It makes the whole process faster and cleaner. Then, and we’re really pleased with this, we have one large calibrated broadcast monitor positioned so that both myself and the client are viewing the same screen. Quite often a colourist will have their own calibrated screen and the client will be looking at a domestic TV, and these can look different due to poor calibration or different competing display technologies - that’s an effect called metamerism! It’s complex, but it's one of the things we’ve considered when setting up our ideal grading environment…along with the contents of the drinks fridge!

So the projects you work on - is it all dramatic, artsy stuff? What about if you just want your project to look real? Do you still need a grade? 

That’s the hardest part! You can fall in love with an image and think ah, I’ve done an amazing job on that, but then come back in a couple of weeks and think oh it’s been overcooked. But when you know you’ve worked an image really hard and it still looks natural, that’s when you know you’ve done a good job.

A lot of the time you have to pull everything back, take an image to its maximum and then reigning yourself in. You’re toeing a fine line, but making sure the image is balanced - that’s usually what makes it look natural. Even if you are working on a really hypersaturated, energetic job, there still has to be balance. If your reds are way more saturated than your other colours, they’re going to dominate everything, and if it’s not Coca Cola or Manchester United, you don’t want that! 

And then just on the technical side - things like matching the look and colour of different scenes shot in different lighting, as natural light changes throughout the day. A grade just allows you to iron out these issues! I worked on a project last year that had a conversation between two characters, and it was two over the shoulder close ups. But there was one shot from the end of a sunny day when they were losing the light, and it was cut with a shot from first thing in the morning, on an overcast day! These are usually the more difficult tasks, over the creative side, and sometimes there is only so much we can do to get them to match, even with our tools.

Then there’s commercial stuff. Fashion, for example, you get the beauty work where you brighten eyes, eyebrows, touch up makeup and skin… Relighting shots, drawing the eye to where it needs to be in the frame. But it shouldn't be unrealistic - if the colourist has done their job correctly, you shouldn’t notice! That’s why most people don’t know what grading is, because most of the time it’s a hidden job. 

Where does creativity come into it, then? 

That’s the most rewarding part of it. If you don’t get the technical side of things right, though, you’re not going to manage the creative. You have to get the balance first, and the creative process flows out of that. One of the really fun aspects of it is stuff like restoration jobs, on old footage… It's quite surprising sometimes, because some of this footage has never been manipulated in a computer before, and you can surprise yourself with how much information there is and how much you can fix. 

Colour can be a really essential part of storytelling, too - warmer or cooler grades can have a big impact on the feel of a scene or its place in a narrative. And of course it’s about manipulating the viewer’s eye, too, drawing it towards a pop of brand colour or a product subtly grabbing your attention, enhancing how it all works together to do its job without being too unnatural. 

Often a Production Designer and DOP will have already thought about the colours, like purposely putting a blue settee against a yellow background, or even designing the entire colour palette specifically. But as long as you’ve got those colours, you can do a really good job enhancing the vibe they’ve given you, and ensuring it’s delivered to their expectations in the final film. Making sure you’re matching and augmenting the tone of the project! 

What about animation? Does that need grading too? 

Definitely! It’s just as essential for establishing the look. There might seemingly be less to do as a 3D or 2D artist ultimately has total control over the animation, but potentially that project still has to be colour-managed for different formats, be that the cinema, TV or web.  The colours might have to be limited to what the display is capable of. And then there are often things that it’s just easier to do in DaVinci Resolve that you can play back and view in real time… If you have a project that’s complete, but you just want a few tweaks to lighting or colour, you can go back into the grade and recolour and re-render in minutes rather than spend hours and hours on it, going back to the source project.

Then you’ve got motion graphics and VFX that combine animation with live action. My grading goes hand in hand with the compositing to bring the two together in a way that doesn’t look jarring. 

Tell us about your favourite project - or types of projects! 

One of my favourite projects that I have worked on was a TV commercial campaign that was connected to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was a daunting experience at that stage in my career, a very expensive job was in my hands, that had been shot with the same Panavision lenses that had been used to shoot the original Star Wars Trilogy and by a highly experienced and renowned DOP. A lot of heads were in the room and they were all focused on me… people were on the phone to Disney! The work turned out beautifully and everyone was extremely happy but unfortunately due to some other issues, it never saw the light of day. Other than that, I really like food and fashion in the commercial space. They’re the jobs where you’ve usually got a lot to do, even when it’s been filmed beautifully - they’re really reliant on you to take it to the next level.

One more creative project we did was a music video for a band called Litany, shot in the Northern Quarter [here in Manchester] in an arcade. You know that episode of Black Mirror, San Junipero? That’s what I used as my reference. Very 80s, very filmic, giving it that nostalgic vibe… but there were a lot of technical difficulties! It was one long shot, no cuts at all, and I had to balance the lighting on the screens of the video games, the banners, the artwork and some of the underlit areas of the space all moving with lots of tracking and masking…  I watched it back recently, and I thought, hey, I did a really good job on that! It looks really natural even though I knew the amount of post work that I’d put into it. 

What about challenges? What are the trickiest things about grading and colour work ?

It’s often if there’s a project that’s been shot on multiple cameras, or different lenses. There are limitations to what we can do if it’s on one really expensive camera, and one less high-end one - or a go-pro! People say, oh, I could feel that cut… Of course! But you just have to explain it the right way. People are less affected by that these days anyway, with adverts with iPhone footage, or YouTube videos with lower resolution cameras. It’s just  managing expectations whilst still doing the best you can with what you have been given.

Finally - what’s one thing you wish everyone knew about grading? 

The running joke is people calling my calibrated broadcast monitor a telly… It isn’t! So no, we can’t get Sky Sports on it….... unfortunately.

Want to know more about our grade services? Fancy coming down to the office to watch Sky Sports check out our facilities? Give us a call on 0161 298 1298, email and let's get you in for a brew and a tour.

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