🎬 Color “Grading”: Creative Color

Creative Grading

After enduring the technical, let’s get to the creative.

Use of Creative Color In Film

Studio Binder Film Color Examples

Cinematographers’ Opinions On ColorΒ (These are the people you’re pleasing)

The disappointing thing most students ultimately learn is that color is way less about teaching “look recipes” than they first imagine. It really is more about analyzing shot-by-shot what the artistic needs are and knowing how to artistically apply them. That’s why most color tutorials are somewhat disappointing in that they rehash the same “looks” but don’t give away any “secrets”. For a long time I looked for those secrets and after talking with some of the best colorists in the world I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on some principles that work. But just like there’s no one-size-fits-all LUT, there aren’t a lot of universal color ‘looks’ that fit every bill.

That said, there are a few common techniques we’ll quickly cover and then I’ll get into some underlying philosophies.

Strong Color Cast

Curves work great for this. Don’t always tint your shadows and highlights.

Bleach Bypass

Use the layer mixer node and add a bunch of grain.

Cross Process

The basis of a lot of film looks, especially the retro ones.


Determine contrast. Black can be gray. Whites can be very muted. Lifted blacks are in.

Fenn Philosophies for Creative Color

  • Observe other artists constantly and analyze BTS footage against the final film’s look. If you have a LUT you like try recreate it manually and see what happens.
  • If you read the Photoshop section you’ll know I advocate spending a lot of time in the basic dodge/burn and clone stamping phase of post. It is equally useful in color for video.
  • Pick an area of the frame that has interesting color and increase saturation; this helps enforce an existing color palette
  • Create fields of complementary color; again this has a unifying effect and makes color feel more vibrant
  • Pro corporate stuff looks nice with cooler highlights.
  • Desaturate skin if you just can’t get it to look right as oversaturated skin is quite offensive. Desaturate skin highlights especially and make sure the brightest highlights are allowed to hit high specular values with a secondary.
  • If specular highlights aren’t at white the image will feel flat. Be very conscious of your “diffuse white” and “specular white” levels.
  • Unify skin tone in value and color
  • Qualify shadows of skin and push more red into the darkest parts to make skin feel more alive
  • CONTRAST, both local (clarity) and global and SATURATION tailored to each luma range are key. Think very consciously of maximizing both those things in any shot for maximum pop.
  • Make sure blacks are desaturated or it looks cheap. Highlights can have some muted color.
  • Use a qualifier to isolate the top quarter of highlights and pull them up even a bit more for additional pop.
  • Intentional broad fields of saturated color (especially next to its complement) look nice
  • Milkiness, low contrast, painting white over highlights can reduce contrast and add a sense of depth/dimension (atmospheric perspective) and ‘magic’.
  • Big soft circular power windows brightened up to simulate lights in the background can look nice. I’ve created fake suns in skies before.
  • Vignette tastefully. Muting highlights looks bad and drastic relighting looks painfully forced. Look at the small thumbnails in the clip timeline to spot too strong a vignette (it’s more noticeable at the smaller size). Remember you’re adding depth in 3D not 2D so try to make windows that follow what the scene would naturally do.
  • I used to do some funkier things with using luma channels to bring out richness in colors, but the “dehaze” plugin actually works very well these days at doing something similar.

The Film Look

There is much time and effort expended on “getting the film look”. My recommendation would be to simply use Film Convert. And make sure highlights aren’t allowed to over saturate.

Alexa look (per Art Adams):

  • Add saturation selectively to cyan/blue.
  • Alexa ‘look’, a lot of it has to do with the Alev sensor’s red channel response
  • β€œA final fast and dirty trick to give footage the ‘Alexa look’ is a simple one node operation. Change the node colorspace to YUV and in the curves select the green channel only, then click on the curve around the 0.2 and gently push it upwards. 
  • The YUV trick isn’t as daft as it sounds. If you test it on a colour chart (while viewing a vectorscope) you’ll see there’s very specific behaviour when the individual chroma channels are adjusted. It isn’t the same response as LAB. Using curves to boost gamma on the green channel results in an increase in saturation at both ends of the yellow/blue axis, as well as some hue convergence. Very interesting to observe. Pulling the curve in the opposite direction creates an effect somewhat akin to the Two Strip Technicolor process (in appearance). Straight off the bat you can offer the client a choice of two options: Fear the Walking Dead, or The Aviator”
  • Alexa mimics Film by hitting peak saturation at around 35 IRE and holding until around 65 IRE, before falling off, whereas other digital cameras such as Sony and Canon don’t hit peak saturation until 65 or 70 IRE.
  • Canon push red toward yellow so that red becomes an orange β€œfire engine” red, and blue is pulled toward green such that bright greens, like grass, become cooler in hue.
  • The C300 really wanted to make flesh tones more red than the Alexa did, and portions of our hands that are normally redder than normal skin tone (like knuckles) blended beautifully into the surrounding skin on the Alexa but popped bright red on the C300