What Do You Need to Start Color Grading Professionally?
As workflows evolve, it’s increasingly common to see color grading move out of the traditional color suite or finishing house and into the production company or agency—or even into the client’s office or home for approval.
With remote work becoming widespread, being able to grade or evaluate in-house is becoming essential. So if you’re thinking of building a small color suite, you’re not alone. But the world of color has traditionally been full of smoke and mirrors. There are long forum threads on what specific paint color you have to use, what lights you need to order, and confusing directions on what monitoring is considered acceptable. Let’s cut through the noise.
This article is not a guide on how to set up the perfect high-end finishing facility for major motion pictures; you hire an engineer for that. Instead, we’ll be focusing on building you something small, practical, and inexpensive.
Our goal is to combine best practice with industry standards to find a balance that’s realistic and affordable, which means focusing on mainstream grading in SDR rather than the emerging and expensive HDR standards. (You can always jump to HDR when your clients start asking for it.)
But before we get to that, let’s start with “Why?”
Why you need a small color grading suite
The biggest reason to set up your system for color grading is freedom. In post production, color grading is often a fixed date in the schedule with a color suite booked in preparation. This is fine when things go to plan, but if the edit runs over, booking a new date can incur extra costs (assuming that the suite’s even available). Or worse, if the edit wraps early, everyone’s left sitting around while they wait for the booked color slot to arrive.
This is at odds with our increasingly on-demand industry, where schedules are tighter and always shifting, and made more complex by production companies, post houses, and even agencies that want to get more involved in the coloring process. That might mean an editor taking a quick pass at color during early stages of the edit, or bringing in a freelance colorist when a final color grade is needed.
So, as well as a need for systems that allow you to color grade to current standards, there’s an increasing demand for setups that allow you to properly review the material. Fortunately, arrangements that used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars can now be achieved for far less, as long as you make the right choices.
Choosing color software
The first of these choices is what software platform to support, and for color there’s really only one option in the “small suite” space. At the high end of the market, Baselight still has a major footprint, and at the entry level you’ll see work done in Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro’s Lumetri, but for the vast majority of the middle of the market, DaVinci Resolve Studio is the tool of choice.
That doesn’t mean Resolve isn’t used on high-end work; it is. You’ll frequently find it in the workflows for Oscar-winning movies (and TV, too). There’s a free version available and it’s impressively powerful, but it’s worth investing in the $299 Studio upgrade. This supports more collaborators on projects, GPU acceleration, and higher frame rates/resolutions. Plus it opens up some nifty AI features like noise correction and face detection.
Also, if your plan is to build a color business yourself or to bring in outside colorists on a freelance basis, DaVinci Resolve Studio is the tool of the trade, so it will maximize the freelance talent pool at your disposal.
Choosing a reference display
A bigger challenge is choosing the monitor you’ll use to evaluate the image. You’ll hear the term “reference monitor” thrown around a lot. This simply means that it matches a particular standard, and looks the same as every other reference monitor for that standard—including the ones at the QC (quality control) house or the networks or streamers you might deliver to.
Size-wise, broadcast reference monitors range from 9-inch displays to eye-wateringly expensive 55-inch monitors, but 24-inch is the most common for desktop setups, especially if you’re setting it up alongside your computer display.
Working at this size means that it’s hard to see a difference between HD and 4K, so an HD monitor will do the job just as well as a more expensive 4K model. In fact, many facilities still use HD monitoring equipment, even when grading 4K media. Also, since HD has been around a while, it’s possible to get good quality used equipment and save yourself some money (just be wary of burnt-out ex-color house workhorses with 40,000 hours on the clock).
You’ll also see a lot of debate around whether it should be a “true” 10-bit monitor, or one of the much cheaper 8-bit+FRC displays. FRC (frame rate control) is a technique used to emulate 10-bit color by alternating pixels. (The image below is exaggerated – you can’t see the flicker on an FRC panel.) An 8-bit+FRC reference display is just fine as your starting point.
What matters more is how you connect to this reference monitor. It may accept either SDI or HDMI video inputs, so it’s tempting to take the easiest path and hook it up to your computer with an HDMI cable. But you shouldn’t and here’s why.
HDMI outputs from computers are typically designed to carry RGB signals to computer monitors. Without getting too deep into the details, these are not the same as the video signals that your reference monitor needs and can be extremely unreliable for color rendition, but I’ll get to that later.
To set up a color suite, you need your computer to deliver a video signal, and for entry-level setups this means 3G-SDI, a 3Gbps digital video interface that can feed your HD reference monitor with the 10-bit, 4:2:2 color signal that it needs.
Mac users typically choose Blackmagic Design’s UltraStudio Monitor 3G for this role, because it connects to a spare Thunderbolt 3 port and costs $115. PC users typically don’t have Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C may share the socket shape, but it is NOT cross-compatible), so you may need to consider an internal expansion card, like the $145 DeckLink Mini Monitor, instead. Both options offer an additional HDMI port, which will be useful when it comes to attaching a client monitor.
The important thing to remember about a broadcast reference monitor is that its goal is to look the same as every other reference monitor. Its purpose is accuracy. When you trust your display, you can work with confidence (and clients will often ask what you work on). So even though a 24-inch HD reference monitor with a 3G-SDI input will cost you between $3-4K, it’s an investment in your career as a colorist.
Choosing your client monitor
There is another monitor you’ll often see in color suites that’s often described as the “client” monitor. This is a larger display, possibly 42, 55, or even 65-inch that allows a group of people to see the image. If you’re working entirely remotely, then it’s reasonable to assume that you don’t need a client monitor, so you can skip this purchase until the need arises.
One widely known “secret” of the industry is that many of these client monitors are just good consumer models, like LG’s C-Line OLED TVs. This is partly due to OLED’s excellent color reproduction but also because it’s possible to connect probes to calibrate them at the hardware level.
Assuming that the SDI video interface you’ve chosen also has an HDMI output, connecting your client monitor is simple. Plus, it’ll be great for watching movies when you’re not using it for work!
To ensure the accuracy and consistency of your reference and client monitors, you should regularly check their calibration. As recently as a decade ago, monitors tended to drift rapidly over time. For example, Panasonic’s Professional Plasma displays—commonly used in the late 2000s—would require monthly calibration checks.
Today’s monitors are much more stable, but you should still check their calibration every year or so. Many manufacturers will let you send the monitor back to them for calibration (so keep the packaging). But you should also check local rental houses as they may be able to send someone to your location, eliminating shipping costs (and worries) and reducing your downtime.
Calibrating properly requires using a variety of external probes to help you evaluate the image. It’s a skill that can be learned, but for a small color suite my recommendation is to leave it to the professionals.
Choosing your computer monitor
All of this has been a discussion of broadcast and client displays, but what about the third screen—your computer monitor?
For most of color grading history, we didn’t care about the color accuracy of your computer monitor. It was usually just used only for your software’s tool panels, and a viewer used for drawing shapes.
However, in the last few years two things have converged to make the color of your computer monitor more relevant. First off, computer monitors have gotten much, much better. And secondly, more content is now being viewed on phones and laptops. So for the first time ever, it’s somewhat relevant how “accurate” your computer monitor is. But there’s a major problem.
Software applications process video differently. This is a hard thing to explain in text and is something you can really only experience in person, though the video below is a good place to start. Basically, if you take a video file, and you open it in Final Cut Pro, Resolve, and Premiere Pro, it looks different in each app, because of the ways they process the video.
It gets worse. Take that video file and upload it to YouTube and Vimeo; it’ll look different in each of them. Take that Vimeo link and open it in Firefox, Chrome, or Safari and again it’s the same story. Even if your monitor is accurate, the software is changing the video so you can’t trust the image you’re looking at.
This is why we use SDI video output devices to get a consistent signal out to a reliable monitor. With our SDI setup, you can switch between Premiere Pro and Resolve, for example, and the video output will look the same on your external reference monitor—even while it looks different on your computer monitor.
That said, it’s starting to matter how accurate your computer display is because displays are getting more accurate and more approvals are happening on monitors rather than reference displays.
As of right now, this is an area where Apple really is the leader. The Apple iPad Pro and the new Studio Display are rapidly becoming the default monitor for client approvals and review. And, honestly, they are pretty darn close to accurate.
Straight out of the box, with no calibration, the contrast is very good and matches quite well with broadcast monitors, and the color is close, being ever so slightly warm on the studio compared to a reference monitor.
It’s still best practice to evaluate your grades on a reference monitor. But looking at the preview screen and doing some evaluation on a Mac Studio display is going to be helpful as well, especially if your delivery is limited on what screens it’s going to deliver to.
Creating your viewing environment
One area of color grading that is still full of arcana and lore is the viewing environment. Read some guides to setting up a suite and you’ll learn that you have to use 18% gray paint on the walls and must use a D65 monitor backlight (also called a bias light), or your color grading will be useless. But take a look inside a few professional grading suites and you’ll soon find that not everyone follows these rules to the letter.
It’s true that your surroundings—in particular the area around the monitor—can affect your perception of the image dramatically. For instance, if you’re in a room that’s paneled with a very warm wood, your brain will tune that out by adding a lot of blue to your visual system.
It’s the reason that the inside of houses look warm when seen from outside on a winter’s day, but feel normal when you walk inside. Your visual system is always balancing out for the surrounding environment to neutralize color casts. It’s called color constancy.
If you were to color grade in that warm paneled room, the results would end up being far too warm, since your brain is adding so much blue to your vision to compensate for your surroundings. But this won’t become apparent until you view the results in a neutral room.
Ideally, then, you want to grade in a neutral environment, surrounded by colors that won’t affect your color perception—like 18% gray walls lit by D65 daylight bulbs. And this is what you’ll find in large setups.
But that’s a bridge too far for a lot of smaller suites, and the reality is that you should just aim for “generally neutral” in your color grading room. You don’t have to be in an 18% gray box because the viewer at home won’t be in an 18% gray box, either. Most living rooms have windows, have lights, and very few have 18% gray walls.
My advice is to focus your efforts on what you can easily control. Try to avoid placing any lights where they reflect off the monitor, and arrange your layout so that windows don’t either. Keep your windows as dark as possible, and definitely don’t sit your color grading monitor in front of a strongly colored wall. If possible, place your monitor against a darker neutral, but many suites do lighter neutrals and it’s just fine.
Aside from your eyes, a colorist’s best tool method for evaluating an image is reading scopes—a catch-all term that describes color analysis tools like the waveform, histogram, RGB parade, and vectorscopes. While most software has scopes built-in, I’d recommend that you get familiar with external scopes if you can. Especially if you are going to be bringing in outside colorists.
Internal software scopes are okay so you can certainly start with these, but they take up valuable screen real estate and occasionally miss image quality issues that external scopes would catch.
Once again, Blackmagic Design offers a cost-effective and simple solution; the Blackmagic Smartscope Duo 4K. Add this to the 3G-SDI signal chain between your computer and your reference monitor, and you’ll get dual screens that can display a variety of scopes (waveform, vectorscope, parade, histogram, etc). It’s currently priced at $795.
Alternatively, you can run scope software on another computer—like that old Mac Mini that’s been sitting in your closet for the last four years. This is becoming an increasingly popular approach, and the two most common choices for scope software are Nobe Omniscope and Scopebox.
Both offer a host of options for analyzing video in a host of ways, and being software, they get frequent updates. One particularly nice feature is the ability to analyze only sections of the image through selection, a very useful tool as you want to dial in on specific slices of your image.
Since you can run this on older hardware, it can be a cost effective solution for getting better analysis tools on a separate display. But you’ll need to add a device like the UltraStudio Recorder 3G to pass the SDI signal back into the computer you’re using for scopes, and possibly an SDI signal splitter if you don’t have an available SDI loop-out in your setup.
Choosing a panel
The other big issue you need to consider is whether or not to invest in hardware control panels for color grading. While no longer as expensive as they used to be—the entry level price was $30,000—they’re still an extra cost, coming in between $1000 and $3000 for even entry-level models.
In my view, panels are wonderful since they allow you to work faster, and can control multiple things at once. For instance, you can both lift your midtones and push down your shadows at the same time using two hands on the panels. Doing the same with a mouse/keyboard takes longer; first you drag up the midtones, then you drag down the shadows.
It might not sound like much, but when you’re shuffling these values to find the right balance, it can become a chore. With a panel, actions like this can become nearly instantaneous.
On the other hand, the last decade has seen a massive explosion in other tools in color grading that panels don’t control. Face detection and other AI tools, new innovative curves, color management tools, these are all keyboard and mouse operations.
If someone’s going to be coloring in the suite every day, a hardware control panel will pay for itself quickly in time saved. But if your suite is being built for a freelance editor to come in every other week, or your editor to touch color from time to time, panels should be lower on the list of priorities.
Even with a great color suite at your disposal and confirmation that the director’s client monitor is ready to approve, you’ll still face the challenge of getting a whole team to agree on and approve color.
The biggest issue here is not always knowing if everyone on the team is seeing the same thing. When your executive producer says “I think the lead actor looks a bit dead,” is the problem your color grade, or are they watching playback in Internet Explorer on their laptop at the beach? Remember, every browser, every platform, and every OS processes video differently.
To avoid these problems with client approvals it’s best to control the client’s evaluation environment as much as possible. The simplest method I know of for this is Frame.io’s a native iPad app. (Or the new app for Apple TV 4K.)
Most of your clients will have an iPad pro—it’s pretty widely adopted in many creative industries, even among PC users. So asking them to watch on an iPad Pro in an indoor lighting environment will give you the most consistent experience across various stakeholders. By controlling the pipeline like this, you know that what you’re seeing on your local iPad Pro will be the same as your client’s view.
Step by step
If money is tight, take it slowly and build your system in stages. With a little bit of planning you can get a small color setup for the price of a video signal converter, a reference monitor, and maybe a little paint, potentially getting you started for around $4K.
Then, as you get more color work, you can consider adding some external scopes, a client monitor, and then maybe a control panel depending on your needs. Just remember that you bring in the work, not your hardware, so don’t overstretch your finances and expand your client base before you make any big moves.