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Q&A | 02. {color grading: curves are sexy}

There hundreds of directions to go with color grading (enough for 2-3 posts on it) but I thought I would just touch on a crucial tool that Danielle and I use when color grading both our images and our video.... and that is 'curves' 

....and curves.... is where its at when you want to add some sexiness to your imagery. 

However, the sexy you make the color grade/post processing on an image it HAS to be consistent with the story you are trying to tell. Color grading is a powerful tool and can influence viewer perception of the story. 

In filmmaking, its hugely important to make sure all the skin tones are consistent throughout a range of sequences, in order to both preserve the overall "feel" of the imagery and the continuity between scene to scene and location to location. Colors in filmmaking can also play a huge role by subcontiously influencing an audiences perception and understanding -- where scenes with red hues can represent bad, menacing, evil; while scenes with blue hues can represent good, strength, safety. However, these roles can easily be reversed, where reds represent warmth, passion, and love, and the blues represent lack of emotion, fear, and anxiety. The way a scene is color graded should be determined by the actions of the characters within the scene set within the context of the story as a whole. Color is a powerful tool and is a major catalyst in getting the message across while further motivating the viewers understanding and connection to the story. 

in still photography color grading (post-processing) is also used in a similar manner -- where you can evoke a feeling through the way the image looks. Where muted colors, black and white, and sepia tones can give a photo a vintage + rustic feel. And vibrant and punchy colors can give an image a fresh, new and youthful feel. Color grading can also be used to make things look real (as if we snapped an image with our eyes) or a surreal, where the image has more of an artistic quality. 

We recently did a 70's inspired engagement session with Elaine and Everett. After looking at a bunch of imagery from the 70's from both film stocks and polaroids, I noticed that the images had slightly muted mid-tones and punched in the greenish blue hues in the sky. In Photoshop, the curves filter offers a ton of control, where you can click on the tab that is labeled RGB and adjust the curves of the colors individually. So I began to experiment and try to find the right look to give the images a 70's vibe. 


Curves in Photoshop


I worked with adjusting the green and blue curves and then worked with RGB as a whole to brighten the image and mute the highlights. Once I got a decent 70's feel I added a grain layer and a curves layer on top of that to crush the blacks a bit. 

The initial curves layer I made for the image, you can download it here


RGB Balance + Color Corrector in Final Cut Pro

While there isnt a specific filter in FCP for 'curves' you can create the same controls by working with RGB balance and using the luminance sliders (dark-mid-highlight) in the two-way color wheel. I like to first adjust the brightness of an image via the 'color corrector' filter , then apply a look via RBG balance, and then drop on another color wheel to add final adjustments. 

For this series of clips my goal was for the imagery of New York to have a more gritty/ darker feel yet retain the raw colors that were present like the yellow of the taxi's, reds on subway signs, and warm yellow/ orange from the sunlight.  I used the Color Corrector to crush the blacks down, brighten the midtones, and then slightly back-off the highlights, then with the RGB balance, I added more blue/green hues to the darks by decreasing the blacks within the red slider and bringing up the blacks in the green slider slightly and a bit more with the blue blacks slider.

It makes a huge difference in the ease of color grading if the exposure and color temperature are correct IN camera -- where you can focus on making an artistic choice, rather than fixing bad colors, or a color temperature that is off in post. Below is a split-screen of the fully graded sequence and then the sequence straight from out of the 5d. We shot these in NYC for the teasers/bumps/rollout for the NFL Draft on ESPN with friend and cinematographer Jason Jobes.


nyc | splitscreen | straightfromcamera/graded from Casey Warren | MIND CASTLE on Vimeo.


Below: full res version of the color graded clip:


nyc | clips | color graded from Casey Warren | MIND CASTLE on Vimeo.



Skin tone consistency

Another important thing in color grading is to keep skin tones consistent throughout the entire piece. I took some quick frame grabs from different times within the piece to illustrate how the RGB balance can be used to keep skin tones consistent but also grade the background colors separately. I wanted to try to keep the darker tones consistent throughout the piece, where they have a slight greenish/blue tone, but the lighter peach/pink skin tones stay consistent even if the background changes. The opening scene has a rather warm background while the scene of people walking across the street has a darker blue background. Using the RGB balance you can adjust the mid tones in all three areas - red - green - blue. The mid tones are where the skin tones lie and they can be kep pretty consistent throughout if you adjust these areas to match. Then you can tweak the highlights and blacks in the red - green - blue sliders of the RGB balance to grade the background separately. 


For more in-depth info on color correcting + color grading as well as filmmaking and photography in general send us a note about our ONE2ONE workshops. 

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Reader Comments (9)

Thank you for sharing, but curves download link doesn't work. ;(

This is pretty freaking sweet--thanks for sharing guys!

May 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGerald

Great tips and info! Can't wait to see how Jane and Riz's SDE turns out at their wedding. :)

May 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAriel

Excellent info! Thanks.

May 8, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersage

I am so thank you were much :)

May 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGogai

People I love your work, thank you for sharing

May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMuriloVbonfiM


Thanks for letting me know, the link should be fixed now. Give it a try.


May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Warren


Yeah, we are pumped for their SDE too! cant wait. Their Maui ceremony turned out awesome, very intimate and super fun, we had a blast.

~Casey W.

May 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Warren

Hi Casey,

Really enjoying your Q&A posts, very informative. Keep up the great and inspiring work :)

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

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