Most of us are after a more cinematic aesthetic in our grades, and one of the keys to achieving this is to gain a more detailed understanding of the fundamental visual characteristics associated with film.But simply knowing what we’re after isn’t always enough. If we’re going to successfully navigate the full breadth of color grading’s creative landscape, we also need to be able to recognize what we’re not after.
For most of us, this is the dreaded “video” look, and while it’s easy to spot in its extreme expressions, it can often sneak into our grades in little ways, subtly compromising our creative vision. So today we’ll be looking at some of the concepts and visual characteristics that tend to accompany the video look. And what we can do when we encounter them.
Setting up color management
Before we dive in, I want to stress the importance of working in a color-managed environment inside of DaVinci Resolve, meaning that you’re using color space transformation to accurately map what the camera captured into what my display can reproduce, rather than grading things by hand from their log state.
If you need more information on this, check out my ACES Explained series, which is an excellent primer on the subject. But for now, let’s get right into these concepts and the visual characteristics that we want to upgrade.
Avoiding single-dimensional contrast
The first concept to explore is the idea of contrast as a single-dimensional variable, by which I mean thinking of contrast solely in terms of being high, medium, or low. Let’s explore what it looks like to tackle a grade with this mindset and the results that we might get out of it.
Let’s say, here on this image of a dancer, that you want to go for a high contrast look. You want to get those hot highlights and deep shadows and really make the image pop.
The easiest way to accomplish a high contrast look in Resolve is with the Primaries – Color Wheel tab. You’d start by lowering the Lift wheel towards the floor, making the dark tones of the image darker.
Then, you’d raise the Gain wheel in the opposite direction, increasing brightness in the highlights until you’ve created a strong overall contrast adjustment.
But if you look at the scopes now, you’ll see that where the signal was previously contained between 0 and 1023 in the histogram, it’s now spilling through the bottom and the top of several channels.
This violates a rule of thumb that I always share, which is that you want to fill my dynamic range but not spill outside of your dynamic range with any adjustment that you make while grading.
This comes back to thinking about contrast in more of a dimensional way and considering the overall contour of an image as it moves from pure black to pure white. So far, we’ve only been thinking of contrast along a single axis, and we can actually do better than this.
Creating contoured contrast
Before moving on, create a still of your initial image adjustment into the Gallery by pressing Cmd+Opt+G/Ctrl+Alt+G for reference later on. Then, right-click on the node and select Reset Node Grade to give yourself a clean slate.
Now, let’s see if we can’t get a similar sort of feeling of contrast but without losing so much information in the bottom and top. You could do this with a number of tools, but today we’re going to do it using the Custom Curves tab. Enable the Reference Wipe by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+W to compare the initial version of our grade to our new approach using curves.
Our goal is to visually match the overall high-contrast level from the Primaries adjustment, but this time paying a bit more attention to the tones in between the deepest shadows and brightest highlights. First, create a toe in the bottom of the curve to deepen the shadows like you did with the lift wheel. Click in the bottom left quadrant of the tone line to create a control point, and then drag that point to the right and down slightly, creating a curve.
Then, create a shoulder further up the tonal line, increasing brightness in the highlights. Click in the upper right quadrant of the tone light and drag up and to the left. You’ll end up with a nice S-curve that preserves and compresses your tonal details instead of clipping both ends.
Now, it’s not a perfect match but if you compare the two images below, you can see that while there’s a similar contrast with curves, there’s no clipping. While in the Primaries version, there’s quite a bit more that is clipped and completely devoid of detail.
Adding visual weight with vignettes
Let’s take this concept a little bit further. We’ve preserved some tonal detail, but would like to get even closer to the weight that we’re feeling from the initial Primaries image. You can do that by adding vignette around the edges to add weight without it coming at the expense of detail.
Create a serial node (Opt/Alt+S) after your curves adjustment node and then select the Window tab. Add a power window by clicking the circle option and then stretch it out nice and wide and soften the edges to keep things subtle.
Next, click the invert icon for the power window to limit adjustment to the outside of the ellipse.
Then, return to the primary adjustment wheels and drop the offset down a bit, reducing the exposure of the edges of the image.
You’ll see more weight in the image than before, but you’re not overly crushing your shadows or overly stretching your highlights. This is what I mean by thinking of contrast in more of a dimensional way and thinking not only about contrast but about the overall contour of our image.
Creating low contrast with curves
Let’s say we want to create a low-contrast look for this image of a person at twilight. A simple approach is to do the opposite of the high-contrast approach.
Head to the Primaries – Color Wheels tab and this time, raise the Lift wheel, and then lower the Gain wheel until you’ve created a low-contrast image.
Next, grab a reference still of this approach, reset your node grade, and then let’s explore creating this same feeling using custom curves.
To accomplish a low-contrast look with curves, select the control point at the bottom left corner and raise it up slightly, which is quite literally a lift operation. Then, drop the control point at the top right corner down slightly, which is a gain operation.
This matches the low-contrast look created in the Primaries tab, but now you can manipulate the contour within the tonal curve.
By adding a little toe and a little shoulder to your curve, you increase separation and tonal variance within this newly reduced range of luminance, making things feel finished.
This is important because you’ll often find that, when not implemented properly, low-contrast looks don’t catch the eye enough, and they can feel a bit unfinished, which I would argue is absolutely the case in the initial Primaries version.
By adding curves within the low-contrast look, it’s now more engaging, and feels more polished and more finished, avoiding the one-dimensional contrast associated with video.
Separate, don’t saturate, your colors
The final concept to address that is almost always associated with the video look is around saturation. As with contrast, the problem is with thinking too narrowly about color, only in terms of saturation, and not enough about separating colors in the frame.
Let’s look at it using this example image of someone playing the piano.
The typical place to adjust saturation is in the Primaries tab, right below the color wheels. To start, we’ll crank the saturation in the image up to 70.
Now this adjustment creates a strong, eye-popping level of color. And that’s something that we often want to do when we’re grading. You’ve likely heard a client say, “Hey, I really want those colors to pop.”
And we’ve certainly increased the overall color in this image. But let’s see if we can’t get as good or better of a result without ever reaching for our saturation knob at all. In this case, rather than just increasing pure saturation, we’ll increase separation between colors and in doing so, create more of a sense of colorfulness in the frame.
The technique I’ll use to accomplish this is called split-toning, which is really just using different types of curves within your color channels.
Once again, grab a reference still of your saturation adjustment and reset your node before heading to the Custom Curves tab.
First, unlink the RGB channels by clicking the chain icon, allowing us to control the tonal curve of individual channels as opposed to a global adjustment.
Click the blue B to select only the blue channel. Then, Opt/Alt-click the line to add a control point that stays pinned to the line and slide it towards the bottom left quadrant of the graph.
Then, add another control point by clicking further down the line and raise the new control point up slightly, creating a little rainbow in the bottom of your blue channel. Next, make a similar rainbow in the green channel that’s not quite as strong as the blue.
So far, our initial adjustments have cooled the lower half of the tone curve. Let’s finish our split-tone approach by adding warmth further up the curve.
Select the red channel and Opt/Alt-click to create a pinned control point around the middle of the line. Then, create a wider rainbow in the upper part of the graph. Repeat this process for the green channel as well so you end up with a custom curve graph that looks like this.
You’ll notice this change might feel a bit aggressive but don’t worry, you can dial in the right feel by lowering the intensity slider of each channel.
Now if you compare this split-toned approach to our initial saturation adjustment, it’s much more subtle, but you can absolutely see how we have created more colorfulness within this frame without ever reaching for our saturation knob. It also feels much more organic with less of a video aesthetic then when we just cranked up overall saturation.
Questions to keep in mind
If you’re concerned about falling into more of a video aesthetic in your grades, keep these techniques in mind and give them a try. Ask yourself, “Am I thinking too much about my contrast simply in terms of high, medium, or low?” Or, “Am I thinking too much about just saturation and not paying enough attention to how I might separate the colors that are present in my frame?” Asking these questions will almost always lead to more polished, more organic, and more filmic results in your grades.
As you put these concepts into practice, you’ll start cultivating a creative roadmap for grading different types of imagery. And as you continue to explore this world, you’re going to find that there’s a lot more to it than a simple film versus video dichotomy. It’s the areas between and beyond that are where the real treasure lies.