Color Grading Movies

This remarkable video demonstrates the material impact of the color grading process in digital film making. It shows footage from the 2014 horror film “The House on Pine Street” before, during and after it’s been manipulated. The original picture quality is surprisingly bland and tonally even, lacking in dramatic contrasts. Here’s one example.

“The House on Pine Street” Color Grading

Color grading usually adds an expected amount of drama to the picture, but in some cases, it can substantially alter the meaning of what was captured by the camera. In this example, a normally lit hallway becomes shrouded in shadows and portent:

“The House on Pine Street” Color Grading

Though few people believe that what gets projected in modern films is “reality,” this demonstration is a powerful reminder that what we perceive to be merely embellishment can actually be a full-scale distortion.

Update: Director Jeffrey Zablotny, a director, wrote in with some clarifications on this process:

The ‘original picture quality’ that appears bland and tonally even—that’s not really representative of what’s captured by the camera; it’s just the most neutral possible picture to show all data available to the colourist. (It’s the equivalent of a RAW file.) There’s actually a tremendous amount of contrast and shape already built into that captured image by the cinematographer on set, and typically his or her intention is carried out and subtly enhanced by the colourist. It’s tempting to conclude that digital colour grading is the magic wand that truly brings the image to life, but it’s actually the last step of a long creative chain that begins before shooting even starts.

The versions of the shots you’re seeing fly by aren’t finished potential iterations, but more like important milestones as the grade progresses —hopefully, the cinematographer’s intent is the always final one. There’s an initial pass or two for overall balance and temperature (often called primary colour correction), secondary passes for subtler tonal values (subtly making things greener, bluer, etc), and then final cosmetic passes for vignetting, and special details. This video chooses not to address the wonderful world of keying and windows, which allow extremely particular details of the image (just one face, or whites of the eyes, or perhaps a certain specific shade of red in a lamp somewhere) to be isolated and tracked. Incredible technology.