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The Importance of Digital Color Correction

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The Importance of Digital Color Correction
CreativeCOW Color Correction Tutorial

The Importance of Digital Color Correction
Paulo de Andrade Paulo de Andrade
MacProNet.com
Corona, California USA

©2003 Paulo de Andrade and CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.



Article Focus:
Paulo de Andrade is an accomplished video effects artist whose work includes 19 years in broadcast television where he has worked on major international series and films. In this article, Paulo looks at the importance of digital color correction and explores some of the ways that he uses to create visual magic in his own work. As the founder of MacProNet.com, a site dedicated to Macintosh media professionals, Paulo focuses on tools like Final Cut Pro and Discreet Combustion in this article.



I absolutely love digital video technology! Having worked in television production for over 19 years, being able to do things on a single computer which previously took a couple of rooms full of equipment is truly amazing. Best of all, the capabilities offered by digital video make work a lot more fun and creatively fulfilling. To me, personally, this is like a video renaissance. And I feel as excited doing my daily work nowadays as I did when I edited my first television show.

There’s no question that digital video offers us a lot and has forever changed the way we work. Unfortunately, digital postproduction also creates many lazy professionals. Especially when the footage requires some extra work and time consuming rendering. The overall high quality of digital footage, instant gratification brought by easy changes when editing, and buttons that perform pre-canned functions in on the spot, makes many people consider a job finished when there may still be a lot to be done. With all the tools at our disposal, spending a few extra hours on a project can make a huge difference in the final result.

One of the most often underused techniques made possible by the new generation of hardware/software has go to be color correction. While many see color correction as a simple way to fix problems with the original footage, there’s a lot more to it than that. Color correction can perform real magic on any project, no matter what the final output is. From broadcast shows and independent movies, to DVDs and streaming videos, color correction is the perfect technique to not only make the final video look outstanding but also to give new meaning to certain scenes. Adopting color correction as one of the necessary steps in your postproduction sessions can make such a difference in the final results that you may soon find your productions rising to a whole new level, taking you several steps ahead of the competition.

I’ll mention a couple of practical examples of the usage of color correction on projects that I have done recently, just to give you an idea of what is possible. I’ll start with a simple application that anyone can use – making DV footage shot with inexpensive cameras look like it was shot with cameras costing tens of thousand of dollars. This is something I do every month for Elle, the fashion publication.

A few months ago they started videotaping their cover photo shoots to create behind-the-scenes videos for their web site. Most of the material is shot with a Sony PD-150, which produces very good-looking footage by default. While many professionals would be happy with the footage as is, there’s a whole world of possibilities brought by color correction that completely change the output, resulting in a much more professional final product. As a direct result of applying this level of color correction to the Elle videos, they have just been picked up by a major television network to be featured in a very popular show. Of course the original concept and footage are great, but it is the color correction that gave the show that special edge and look of expensive commercial productions that attracted the network’s attention. And when you see the segments on the air, there’s no way that you would say that they were shot with a camera costing under $4,000 and edited on a Mac using Final Cut Pro. Like most low budget projects, the video is captured via firewire using Apple’s standard DV CODEC and stays that way until the broadcast master is done. The only difference is the extra color correction step.

The typical Elle color correction session involves both technical and creative techniques. By technical I refer to the process of adjusting the levels on the footage so that they meet broadcast standards and also making shots in a sequence match in terms of overall look. By creative I mean using the color correction tools to “paint” the image and change the overall mood of entire sequences. The creative aspect is the one that makes the most difference but, like any process involving creativity, it is the hardest to master. Creative digital color correction is the direct equivalent to the color timing process that every major film goes through. If you have ever had a chance to view an edit print of a film and then see the final print, you already know the huge difference that color timing can make.

The latest Elle video I color corrected is the bikini shoot featuring supermodel Heidi Klum. You can see the final result at:


(Editor: These files have been moved, but you can still find them if you go to http://www.elle.com and then search for Heidi Klum -- choose: ELLE on Location: Heidi Klum)

The first thing I had to do was to get rid of the original PD-150 look. I love that camera, but it tends to give the footage a subtle bluish tint. Since the color blue is associated with cold, it gives the footage the opposite feeling of the desired one, which for a bikini shoot with such a hot supermodel is one of warmth. Therefore, the first step in the color correction process was to get rid of the bluish tint and enhance the reds and oranges, giving the footage that tropical warm look. But the process is not as simple as clicking a pre-defined button. Elle features very expensive and beautiful designer clothes and it is extremely important to keep their colors true to the original. I must, therefore, process specific parts of the signal so that, while the shots look warmer and more appealing, the colors remain natural. I do this by processing shadows, midtones and highlights separately and by sometimes defining very narrow ranges within these areas.

I faced two additional creative challenges with this specific show. First, the beach footage was shot under overcast skies. The original looks more like a winter day at a Northwest beach than at a Mexican resort. So I changed the look to that of a very sunny day. There are some specific shots at the end of the video where the difference is truly amazing. It was late afternoon and the sun was already low on the horizon. The light would have been perfect for that warm sunset look on a nice, sunny day. But what we got was nothing like that. The shadows cast by the sun on the uneven sand were very blue – typical of a cold day (or a moonlit shot). So I adjusted the shadows part of the spectrum to make it warmer. I also adjusted the highlights so that the light falling on the sand was more on the orange side, instead of blue. The final result looks like beautiful magic hour light in the height of summer.

The second challenge involved some footage that was shot against the light, leaving the model heavily underexposed. To make matters worse, the details on the clothing were also gone. So I used color correction to basically re-light the scene, bringing the details back and making the exposure look normal. All while having to avoid completely wiping out the details on the background, which I could have easily overexposed had I not worked within specific ranges of the gray scale. If you saw the original footage and didn’t know how much you could do with color correction, you’d think that the footage was ruined.

The other important consideration while color correcting this footage was to give the model a beautiful skin tone – a very nice, golden tan. Once again I worked within a limited range in order to achieve the desired results while maintaining the natural whites present on the footage.

If you saw the finished digital master on a broadcast monitor, you’d swear that the footage was not only shot with a very expensive broadcast-grade camera but that there was also a lot of expensive production and post-production involved.

Whenever I approach a job like this, I do it on a shot-by-shot basis. First I optimize the luminance signal to obtain the best range from black to white. Only then I start working on the color space. That way I have a much better looking image to start with. And because color television consists basically of a black & white signal with color information added on top, working this way is, in my opinion, the most natural and quickest way to obtain good results.

The other recent color correction work that I would like to mention is the one I did for the movie Ball Lightning, written by Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) and directed by Amy Glazer. The movie was shot digitally in 24p HD using the Sony CineAlta camera. This project involved doing the color timing for the movie digitally – the exact equivalent to the chemical process. It is also equivalent to the work that colorists do when transferring film to video. Beside the obvious fine tuning of the footage to make it look good, I also used color to give the individual scenes specific moods, like you see done on any feature film. In addition, I had the opportunity to do some very creative color work. One of the scenes was that of a childhood memory of two kids playing. I decided to be brave and completely alter the color space in order to obtain a very specific look. I wanted the look of those old black & white photographs that were hand tinted. The colors used were usually pastel and had a limited range. Within minutes of experimentation I had the basis of the look I wanted. I tweaked it further and then I added a glow to give it a fuzzier memory feel.


Another interesting shot involved a fatal plane accident sequence. I wanted to give it a feeling of death from the beginning, so I removed most of the reds from the passengers’ skins, giving them a grayish cadaver-like look. I also gave the overall scene a subtle but unpleasant greenish tint.

The work I did for this film also involved a lot of fixes, including digitally re-lighting a shot where the main subjects were hidden by shadows. I also did a few special effects such as adding digital rain (done with particles) to a few shots where the rain machine used on location wasn’t strong enough to register well on film.

I hope these examples give you an idea of the immense range of options that color correction can offer, and how much it can add to your productions.

I recently read an article written by a long-time colorist on the future (and importance) of digital color correction. According to the author, this is a market that will explode in the very near future, especially with the increase of digital feature film production. I couldn’t agree more. And I must add that color correction like the one I do for Elle is also becoming extremely important for shows shot digitally and destined for broadcast. With tighter budgets and the use of smaller cameras, color correction can bring back the look of bigger productions. Whether you need to simply fix problems with footage, improve the look of a show, or use color creatively, I can’t overemphasize the importance of color correction.

What do you need in order to do proper color correction work? In terms of software, many editing applications such as Final Cut Pro and AVID products already come with decent basic color correction tools. These are good enough to do minor work and fixes and should be OK if your final product doesn’t need to look that special, or if the budget is not that high. The main problem with these tools is the limited processing power, average final quality and limited controls offered. If you are really serious about color correction, then you should invest in more powerful tools.

Adobe After Effects comes with very good color correction tools, especially the production bundle version. You can obtain fine results with them – in most cases much better than with editing software alone. But the AE color correction tools are not that intuitive to use. However, there are plug-ins that make the job much easier and give you a lot more control, turning After Effects into a great color corrector. One of my favorites is Color Finesse, by Synthetic Aperture. It gives you a very sophisticated work environment with all the fancy tools you expect to find in advanced color correction systems. And it handles all its internal processing in 32-bit floating point color space. The resulting difference in quality is amazing because the extra color space lets you push the color work a lot further without messing things up. Try, for example, to push the reds all the way in Final Cut Pro or After Effects alone. You will most likely end up with a big red mess. But with dedicated After Effects plug-ins such as Color Finesse, you can easily do this while maintaining image integrity.

In the higher end of the Mac tools, you find the best color correctors in dedicated compositing applications such as Discreet Combustion and Apple Shake. The color correction capabilities of these packages is truly amazing, offering the user not only the ultimate in terms of control but also powerful internal processing and floating point color space.

In terms of hardware, you need a professional video reference monitor in order to do proper color correction. The monitor should be properly calibrated so that you see true colors. The best and most expensive monitors, when properly calibrated, will ensure that what you see on them will look good on virtually any TV set. You also need a waveform monitor and a vectorscope to ensure that your footage meets broadcast specs. And, of course, you need a way to output digital video to your analog monitor while you work. Output can be provided by firewire to analog converters or dedicated video capture/playback cards. You should never trust a computer monitor alone for color correction.

If you are curious as to which tools I have used for the Ball Lightning film and the Elle videos, here’s the info. For color correction I used mainly Discreet Combustion running on a dual 867 MHz MDD power Mac (with lots of storage). I like Combustion because the interface is extremely intuitive, based on Discreet’s high-end tools such as Flame and Inferno. Combustion also features the same color processing engine found on those high-end tools, but at a fraction of the price. Its powerful keyframing capabilities and the ability to stack several layers of color correction, one on top of the other, give the user additional power and flexibility when dealing with complicated scenes.

I use a $3,500, 20” Ikegami broadcast reference monitor to view my work on. It is perfectly calibrated by using the optional setup probe, so that not only is the color temperature right on, but the colors and luminance are absolutely true. Combustion sends the output to video instantly, as I work, so I always see exactly what the final result looks like. And, of course, I use a waveform/vectorscope to monitor the video levels.

I must add that I am extremely anal when it comes to proper monitoring equipment. I was “raised” professionally in a very strict network television environment, where the slightest flaw was inadmissible. I was brainwashed into looking for the smallest problems and fixing them so that the final product was always pristine. The network used nothing but high-end Ikegami monitors in their post suites because they are capable of displaying the complete video signal with little or no distortions in terms of luminance or color. The difference it makes when you are doing critical work is amazing. So I got addicted to them and I never rested until I could finally afford my very own, lovely Ikegami.

I’ve had to use less expensive professional grade monitors for years, after I opened my first production company. They actually altered the video signal slightly to make it look better for the client by compressing the blacks. For regular editing they were fine. But for doing critical work, they weren’t that great. What looked fantastic on them sometimes looked lousy on regular TV sets. So I had to learn how to compensate for the way they altered the images in order to be able to produce good results.

The day I finally got my Ikegami I did some color work, burned a DVD, and played it on my home theater using component video. The image was perfect – exactly like my monitor had displayed. So I could finally turn off the monitor compensation circuitry in my brain and concentrate 100% on color work. Why did I make you read all this? Simple: if you are serious about your work, buy the best video monitor you can afford.


-- Paulo de Andrade


Paulo de Andrade is an award-winning television producer/writer/director/editor with over 19 years of experience. He has written dozens of articles on film, television and computers for leading trade publications. These days he mostly spends hours in front of monitors acquiring enough radiation to glow in the dark. But whenever he can, he takes breaks to spend time with his family and ride his Triumph motorcycle.


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