Your Best Color: The Indie Director’s Guide to Color Correction

Sure, you thought about your edit, visual effects, and music during pre-production… but you overlooked color correction.

This happens often, yet color is an incredibly important part of any film—a huge driver for mood and tone. How can directors and cinematographers maximize their budgets, collaborating with colorists to make their films look the absolute best for any delivery format?

“A lot of people underestimate what it takes to have something color corrected,” says Sal Malfitano. “You don’t want to spend your entire post budget fixing things when that could go towards enhancements instead.”

Malfitano works at Nice Shoes, a New York City-based production and post-production studio, whose colorists use skills honed in commercial work to aid many independent filmmakers. Four of them pooled their best advice to filmmakers looking for great color on a reasonable budget.

  1. Consult a Colorist Early

Independent moviemakers should get in touch with a colorist and post-production house early on to begin talks for the look of the film. “Even if you don’t wind up working with them, it’s good to get a colorist’s point of view as you’re preparing to shoot,” says Malfitano, who recently graded the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What. “Many post houses and colorists are happy to advise filmmakers at this point to start building a relationship.” He recommends sending over footage and stills to a colorist as the project progresses, so that he or she can test out some looks.

In the case of The Invisible Front, director Vincas Sruoginis’s passion project about the Lithuanian Partisan Resistance’s armed struggle against the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1953, Nice Shoes’ Lenny Mastrandrea was brought on early in the creative process.

“We worked together with our visual effects artists to blend reenactment footage shot on a Sony XDcam with footage shot on 16mm film,” says Mastrandrea. “We were able to anticipate the needs of the film because Vincas met with us before the project was even close to being shot, which helped us marry the different sources.”

So what should you discuss with a colorist at the outset?

  • Camera: Let your colorist know what camera (or cameras) you’ll be working with, so he or she knows what file formats to prepare for.
  • Look: Being able to convey what you want visually is key early in the conversation. Bring references so that you and the colorist have something to look at.
  • Schedule: Give the colorist (and every member of the post team) a sense of your overall schedule. They can help budget the proper amount of time for color grading.
  • Budget: Each project will have different budgetary limits. Don’t be embarrassed about yours—be upfront. Most post houses will develop a schedule with you that accommodates your needs. The better prepared you are before you start color grading, the more bang you’ll get for your buck.
  • Final deliverables, like format and resolution: Your film might be shown in multiple formats (cinema, web, television, archival), so try to include a rough plan of the mediums you’re planning to exhibit with.
Sal Malfitano color graded the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What

Sal Malfitano color graded the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What

2. Reference Film History

Chris Ryan appreciates a director that can speak in the shorthand of other films. “Having worked on a range of Criterion transfers [such as 8 ½, Gimme Shelter, and Richard III], I love talking to filmmakers who have an appreciation of film. When someone comes in and can give me a film that they’re looking to reference, that really helps me better understand what they’re going for.

“Look at Young Frankenstein as an example. Mel Brooks really wanted it to look like the original Frankenstein films. Brooks and the DP, Gerald Hirschfeld, spent months testing film stock, lighting and cameras to make their film look just like old Universal films. Go shoot something, give it to a colorist, and get advice on the look you’re trying to achieve.”

  1. Make Color a Part of Art Direction

No aspect of moviemaking is an island. Your cinematography and art direction should cooperate with color correction to produce the best results.

“I can work with you to make a scene ‘blue’ in post,” says Ryan, “but if you’ve already worked with the cinematographer, the gaffer, and the art director to establish a number of blue elements on-set, the finished project is going to be so much richer. Go out of your way to shoot with a yellow filtration if you want a yellow look in a scene. I can go in afterwards and give a scene an amber quality, but it would look far better if you actually lit it with amber lights.”

“You don’t want to come in saying you want a really colorful film when all of your locations and sets were devoid of color,” says Malfitano. He found that while collaborating with Joshua and Benny Safdie on Heaven Knows What, an uncompromising portrayal of heroin addicts in New York City, the aesthetic that the directors had captured on set with their cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, provided a very strong foundation for the color grading process.

“Joshua, Benny and Sean were looking to create a hazy, milky look, one that was flat but not flat, and desaturated but not too desaturated,” says Malfitano. “There is no true black in any of the film, which reflects the world these characters inhabit.”

Three stills from Robert Vorkahl’s dark comedy Completely Normal, before color correction and after. Courtesy of Nice Shoes

Three stills from Robert Vorkahl’s dark comedy Completely Normal, before color correction (left) and after (right)

  1. Prepare for Post-Production

“Proper preparation, at any point in post, will make it easier for everyone,” says Mastrandrea. “Prepping or fixing media costs valuable time that could be spent on developing the look of the film.”

If you intend to work with the original source footage, then your editor needs to ensure that the EDL, AAF, or XML files correlate to the raw footage and not any transcodes that have been created along the way. Make sure that the transcodes created for the editorial workflow are managed properly, and that the file names and timecodes reflect the original files. Project frame rates should match across the pipeline. If you’re unsure about the quality of the preparation, regular communication with the colorist is key. Most are happy to test material to make sure it’s in a workable state, and help you to get it where it needs to be.

Malfitano suggests anticipating how the film will be shown. “Have an idea of what kind of deliverables you’ll need at each stage of that process: from the copies needed for submission to what the festival requires if your film is selected. Big-budget films have the luxury of being able to tweak for a theatrical run and for Blu-ray release, but a good colorist can work with indies to craft a deliverable that’ll look good on any platform.”

“Factor in the delivery date of the film, too,’ he adds. “Work backwards from there to allow for at least a month of collaborating with your colorist.”

  1. Test Color Throughout the Process

As Ryan color-graded with Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick on These Birds Walk, a documentary about the struggles of street children in Karachi, Pakistan, the filmmakers found that their initial vision for the color of the film wasn’t working.

“We used color swatches they had brought in as a guide to start with,” says Ryan. “But as we started to apply that look to a few scenes, we found that the muted palette was making a story that was already a little sad, too sad. The color needed to be a little bit more uplifting. After Bassam and Tariq screened the scenes we had graded for a few people, we went with a natural look that emphasized the hopeful feel of the film, working to bring out the colorful beauty of Pakistan. Bassam and Tariq were apologetic about starting off down the wrong path, but that’s what’s interesting about color.”

“A lot of times people get used to their rough cuts. They think that’s what they have,” says Gene Curley, who recalls working with directors on two recent projects to discover the look of their films. “Robert Vorkahl’s upcoming feature, Completely Normal, was beautifully shot on the Arri Alexa by cinematographer Brian Harnick. The raw images came up really clean and getting a nice balance of color was easy. But Vornkahl wanted the look of the film represent the unglamorous, tedious lives of the protagonists. So we actually skewed colors and washed the whole look out to give it a more desperate, bleak feel.

“The Graham Parker documentary Don’t Ask Me Questions by Michael and John Gramaglia, on the other hand, was a lot of older multi-format footage from concerts, interviews, and various performance pieces. John wanted a uniform look. By maintaining a consistent level of contrast and saturation throughout and cleaning up all of the whites, we were able to achieve a distinct look throughout the film despite the difference in quality of source material.”

Directors Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick work with Chris Ryan to color correct These Birds Walk,

Directors Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick worked with Chris Ryan to color correct These Birds Walk

  1. Good Color Correction can Save Your Ass—and Budget

Not sure you can pull off that crazy ambitious lighting maneuver on set? Remembering that your colorist can be part of your lighting crew may save you time and money in production.

“A colorist can almost be a gaffer working for the DP,” says Ryan. “We can achieve many lighting effects in a color grading suite that would be costly or time-consuming on set. A lot of times these things were impossible due to any number of issues: bad weather, time, talent schedules, and so on.”

That says, Ryan cautions against the dreaded “fixing it in post” mentality. “We can’t help out as much if a filmmaker captures footage in a specific location, at a specific time of day, and then tries to work in pick-up shots from a different time or lighting setup. A colorist can match the overall tonality, but can’t compensate for drastic lighting changes.”

  1. Don’t be a Helicopter Director

Finally, leave some space for your colorist to breathe. Once a filmmaker has gone through the film with the colorist and set the looks for each scene, it’s time to let the film go for a bit. Because of time constraints, it’s often better to let the colorist work alone, and then come back for one or two supervised sessions for any final adjustments.

“Once we have a clear direction, it’s just a matter of taking the time to apply that color throughout the film,” says Mastrandrea. “As long as I have a clear understanding of the film, I can really focus on making it look beautiful.” MM

This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2015 issue.

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