How to Prepare Your Premiere Pro Project for Color Grading
Just like editors, colorists have different sets of rules and requirements, but they all want the same thing as the rest of us – a simpler life. Building your reputation as an editor who makes things easier for the colorist will help to build stronger relationships that can only benefit your career.
During my own career, I’ve worked on a number of projects that took longer to reconcile properly in the coloring software than to actually color the project. This is stressful when the client is expecting you to color grade and instead you’re wasting time trying to get things to import properly.
As a colorist, there’s a lot to keep on top of, from color spaces to LUTs, screen types and scopes. By properly anticipating the needs of the colorist you can save them a considerable amount of time and stress, as well as reducing the overall project cost. And that’s a win for everyone.
So here’s how to prep your Premiere Pro project in a way that will make colorists want to work with you more than once.
First, flatten and simplify your timelines
A flat timeline means that your timeline only contains one or two video tracks with basic cuts (in/out) and nothing else. It’s necessary because we’re round tripping.
If you’re not already aware, round tripping means sending a timeline from editing software to coloring software and back again before the editor exports the final cut. And here’s where the problems start. Because editing and coloring software have different ways of handling the edit data, it’s not easy for projects to survive this trip with everything intact.
So your best approach is to strip your timeline down to basic cuts, making it simple enough for both the NLE and coloring app to interpret it correctly. As well as saving the colorist a lot of time, you’ll also be protecting your own edit from being lost in translation.
Make sure the editing is finished before you do this. Then duplicate your Premiere Project file (.prproj) and keep the original as a backup. I usually rename the new file by adding “FOR COLOR” at the end before stripping this new project file down to only the timelines that you’ll be sending to the colorist. Delete the others.
In the remaining timelines, you’ll need to flatten the tracks, ideally merging all your video tracks until only one (or two) remain. Now simplify what’s left.
Remove all transitions
I would recommend removing transitions and applying them back after color grading. Especially if handles are needed, transitions can’t be applied in the coloring process. This way you can adjust each transition later.
Reset custom cropping/framing
If you resized or cropped footage it’s better to remove it for now and do it when you get the colored footage back. Or ask the colorist to crop it. In cases where the crop is severe, the colorist might want to sharpen or add some grain post cropping, to compensate for the loss of resolution.
Stabilization doesn’t translate well, so it’s better to remove it for now and apply it again later. Coloring software like DaVinci Resolve offers stabilization tools, so this is another task you might want to hand off to your colorist.
Un-nest nested sequences
In my experience, nested sequences never translate well. For simple nested sequences, I recommend un-nesting (returning the nested footage to the main timeline). For complex sequences, you should render the nested sequence and replace it with the rendered file in your flat timeline.
Remove effects / graphics / text
Anything that doesn’t need coloring should be removed, like texts, graphics, etc.
Remove audio and/or leave one audio master track for reference
Audio is not necessary but you could leave a stereo export of the audio as a reference for the colorist. It makes it easier for the colorist to check for sync errors.
Remove empty tracks
Any empty tracks should be deleted so our timeline is as concise as possible.
If there is any retiming, you might want to leave it and tell the colorist about it so they can make sure it translates well.
Retiming introduces a higher risk of timing and sync issues, so it’s something to avoid if possible, as it requires coloring the retimed clip(s) separately. If it’s unavoidable, try to use constant (linear) retiming and not variable retiming like ramps. In case of a ramp, I would suggest asking the colorist to grade the full clip and re-apply the speed ramp post-coloring.
It’s also good practice to keep media bins inside your Premiere project neatly organized and clearly named.
Note on VFX
Before we move to the next step, I’d like to talk about VFX and compositing. These should be done prior to color grading to allow the colorist to match all the clips. Any shot that is going through VFX/compositing should be exported in a color space and gamut suitable for coloring.
The best way to establish this is to ask the VFX artist and colorist which color space they need.
As a guide, smaller projects that are not shot in a RAW format will generally be in a Rec. 709 color space and gamma, but projects shot in RAW can be color graded using a variety of color spaces and gammas that will depend on the final desired look.
So talk to your colorist about what would be best for the project/clips that require VFX or compositing.
It might not work for everyone, but using the same software for VFX/compositing and coloring can cut down on round trips, and reduce the time required for changes.
Now consolidate your project
Consolidating your project simply means that you’re removing any unused assets from the timeline, and can be achieved using Premiere Pro’s Project Manager tool.
As well as making sure that all the files your colorist needs are now conveniently located in a single location, this will also reduce the bandwidth and time for uploads and transfers.
Another significant benefit of consolidation is that it brings all the footage used in the project (which may be spread across multiple drives and locations) into one folder.
Here are the steps I recommend:
- Open the Project Manager in Premiere (File > Project Manager)
- Check the sequences (timelines) you want to export for coloring
- “Exclude Unused Clips”: Check
- “Include Audio Conform Files”: Uncheck
- “Include Preview Files”: Uncheck
- “Rename Media Files to Match Clip Names”: Uncheck
- “Collect Files and Copy to New Location”: Check
- Choose a destination path
It’s worth noting that you can either directly consolidate onto an external drive if you’re getting it to your colorist by courier, or you can consolidate to a cloud storage folder to share later with the colorist.
But before you sent it out, I’d recommend that you test the consolidated project by opening it and checking that everything is still working properly.
Why not EDL or XML?
A popular industry standard has been to export each flattened timeline as an EDL file (Edit Decision List), which is a simple text file that contains the timecode and clips information.
Unfortunately, EDL is a limited format that only includes the in/out points of a clip on a timeline. Historically, editors have chosen EDL files when simplicity and cross-compatibility were a concern, mainly because there was no alternative. These days EDL files have been replaced with XML-based files which include more information. But because there’s no single format or standard for these XML files, they can be subject to compatibility issues.
It’s worth noting that Premiere Pro can export to a Final Cut Pro XML, which contains more information (retiming, cropping, etc.) than a simple EDL file. And coloring software like DaVinci Resolve is able to import those XML files pretty consistently.
But this is still a very limited approach when you compare it to prepping your Premiere Pro project and consolidating it with Project Manager, which gives you greater control over the media, timelines, and output.
Before you send it
When you’ve finished consolidating, it’s helpful to export each flattened timeline so the colorist has a convenient reference to make sure everything is translating properly in their software. A simple H264 or Prores Proxy in 1080p is enough for this. You might also want to include audio in these exports.
Keep them separate from the consolidated footage so that they’re easy to find – I create a folder called “References” in the consolidated project.
It’s useful to include a simple document file with notes for your colorist – like shots that need stabilization, denoising, cropping, etc. But a more effective approach is to use a collaborative cloud service like Frame.io instead. This will let you quickly comment and annotate with timecodes, as well as directly drawing on frames.
It’s also important to tell your colorist if you need frame handles and how long they need to be. Frame handles will be few frames before and after each cut (usually 10 or more) that the colorist will color grade so you have some room for adjustment after you get your colored project back.
Okay, now you can send it
Now you’re ready to get your stripped down, flattened, consolidated project to your colorist. With high speed internet becoming more available we can upload projects to cloud services pretty quickly and it saves time. For example a 100GB project can take less than an hour to upload if you have access to a 1Gb/s connection.
If this isn’t an option, there’s always sneakernet. Overnight shipping with Fedex or UPS is still fairly reasonable, usually around $50-100 for a small drive that’s shipped in the US, and portable drives are cheap and pretty robust.
What do you want to get back?
When you speak to your colorist, make sure you let them know your export requirements for colored footage. Ideally, you want something as close to the original format as possible, so that you have greater flexibility when choosing how to export the final delivery file.
I’ve found that the most convenient and flexible way for both parties is to export colored timelines as individual clips at original resolution which will allow reframing to happen later. I usually specify Apple ProRes 4444 (or 422HQ) for smaller projects, and DPX for bigger projects. If your colorist has their own copy of Creative Cloud, you might also want to ask them to include a Premiere project reconciling all the colored clips in their respective timeline.
You’re done (at least on the technical side)! Then the next step will be to choose a look for your film. If you’re stuck for inspiration, why not start by learning how to get the filmic look of celluloid, or how to craft high- and low-contrast looks?