Color Grading in Filmmaking: Why It Matters | Hurrdat

The Blue Man: Color Grading Hurrdat Films’ Latest Project

The Blue Man: Color Grading Hurrdat Films’ Latest Project

“Make this film look how Mumford & Sons / Luminaries sound.”

This might sound like odd instruction to get from your director, but actually it was what I needed. Plus, anybody who knows the film’s director, Dan Napoli, knows he kind of “talks” in musical terms. (One note once said, “I want to feel like I’m trapped in the pit of Slayer concert and can’t leave.”)

So this was my director’s instruction on our latest film for Planet Eclipse, The Blue Man, which is out next month.

Why Color Grading Is Important

As the colorist, I’m the editor responsible for that last bit of polish that, along with the music, really conveys that final piece of subtle storytelling. Controlling the tone of the film visually to enhance the overall story my director is trying to tell.

Most of the action sports films we’ve produced for Planet Eclipse in their ARtifact FIlm Series have some element of a warrior tone to them. It’s epic, cinematic, and urgent.

The Blue Man is unique, as it focused on a different side of that sport-camaraderie. The film also looks back on the 33-year career of Michael “Blue” Hanse, his connections, and his legacy.

Dan and I talked a lot about how the story would be different (It wasn’t about wins and losses) and how both the soundtrack (Dan is the music supervisor, so he scores all his films himself) and the visuals needed to communicate the warmth, which was at the heart of the project.

Earlier this year, I used a look on a short I directed and edited for Community Savings Bank in Iowa that I thought was a good starting point.

The project, titled Thundering Hooves and Raining Cowboys, was about the story of a small-town rodeo, which brings in around 10,000 attendees each summer. We wanted that project to have a strong Americana feel to it. I used it as a basis for The Blue Man because they have a similar color tone and theme. The majority of the footage from both projects were shot outside and had a strong palette of natural colors.

Over the last year at Hurrdat Films, Dan and I have gravitated toward incorporating LUTs (Look Up Tables) into our workflow. LUTs can make a variety of adjustments to footage, like increasing the saturation, lowering the contrast, or adjusting (even changing) colors. Very simply, when an LUT is applied to footage, it automatically makes programmed changes to the image. The changes an LUT makes can be subtle or drastic, depending on the LUT.

LUTs are just another tool we use to tell the story. Like any other tool, it’s important to use the right tool for the task. It’s possible to drive a screw into a wall with a hammer, but it’s going to be way easier to use a screwdriver. Similarly, I could try using a sledgehammer to tap in nails, but most likely, I’d end up punching holes into everything because that heavy hammer has too much force.

So we need to find the right tool that gives the right amount of effect. The same goes for LUTs. I can apply an LUT to a shot, and it might work, but really good-looking color grades require some customization and consideration to make them really accomplish what is needed for the project.

The Blockbuster “Teal/Orange” Look

There is a heavy, longstanding color grading technique used in summer blockbuster movies. Transformers is a great example. This is referred to as the “Teal/Orange look.”

This look basically means to put a little bit of teal (blue-green) into the shadows of a shot and a little bit of orange into the highlights. This is done because the orange adds warmth into the skin tones of the actors. The teal is used because it’s the complementary color of orange on the color wheel, so it gives a nice contrast and dynamic to the shot. This Teal/Orange color grading is so prevalent in modern cinema that we add it into our projects to subtly enforce with the audience that they are watching a film.

RAW

BASE LUT

HAND ADJUSTED LUT

We picked an LUT that worked well with the Teal/Orange look, which was warm and welcoming and also really emphasized the blues. If you’re going to make a film called The Blue Man, about a guy who competes with blue equipment, you had better create a color grade that makes the blue look great.

We liked the LUT, but when I started working with one of the opening shots of the film—a shot of Blue, our titular character, making a move to a piece of cover—the LUT created a problem. The LUT was over accentuating the teal colors in the shot, which was overpowering most of the other colors. This was drawing the focus onto a wall in the background, a wall that had nothing to do with our story or our main character.

This was especially a problem because it was the first shot of Blue. The audience hasn’t been introduced to Blue yet, so we need to signal to them that this is the guy we want you to be watching. Through color grading, I was able to reduce the saturation of those teal elements—without damaging any of the blues on our subject’s jersey—and this pulled the focus back onto Blue, our subject.

Color grading is really the next-level color correction, going beyond simply crushing the blacks or popping the highlights. It’s another tool of visual storytelling.

The biggest note we had done something right was when our client saw the final rough cut. For previous versions, our film’s director had been submitting versions with raw footage. (We shoot a modified S-LOG on the Sony FS5, but that’s another discussion for another day.)

They were blown away when they saw the final color grade “Wow—it looks like a totally different film! I feel extra warm and fuzzy watching this now!”

Mission accomplished.

James Chramosta is video editor, colorist, and Director of Photography for Hurrdat Films. He is going on his tenth year making films with Director of Visual Storytelling Dan Napoli. James lives in Omaha with his wife Lacy, and their dog, Pepper.

The Blue Man will premiere at a screening December 2 as part of an action sports event in Ocala, FL. It will be available worldwide via YouTube from Planet Eclipse December 5th.