One of the most satisfying stages in my color grading journey is seeing my own progression in being able to understand how to recreate looks. One reason I tend to stay away from creative LUTs is because it always felt a little random to me. It was a setting that someone else made that I didn’t have much control or understanding of. Starting from scratch and building a look based on a reference image has been a great achievement for me since it took me a long time to build up skill and understanding of how to blend the technical and creative.
One thing I’ve learned to keep in mind is that when I’m given references as a cinematographer to emulate, at least in terms of lighting and color, is that the color palette of a scene needs to match somewhat closely to the reference image. This is something I try to communicate to productions I work with.
The challenge I’ve had on lower budget projects and working with teams who don’t put emphasis on production design is that a cinematographer can only do so much with lighting and color. A white wall is a white wall. A tiny apartment with generic furniture and no design elements can only take you so far. Cinematography and color grading can only go so far to make up for other deficiencies on set.
I was recently inspired by a series of photos a cinematographer colleague of mine, Justin Derry (www.justinderry.com), took. I loved the color tones he did with the photos, and it gave me a thought to try it on footage that had a similar setting – night scenes in NYC.
Here’s the image I started with on the left. The colors left a lot to be desired, with really tinted fluorescent practical lighting. A simple color correction on the right using color wheels in Resolve yielded a good base to start from. However, it’s bright and a little boring:
I found this reference image by Justin Derry on his Instagram (@jedfilm), which I loved and I thought would work well. His image contains a lot of red tones from the awnings on the building and the traffic light, which are also enhanced by the wet floor after the rain:
While I can’t recreate the wet floor in the grade, I did a skin qualification to keep the skin tones and the brown wardrobe neutral so they wouldn’t pick up color from the other adjustments in the grade. The mids in the floor contained a lot of blue/green which I shifted to match the reference image. The highlights/whites also had a slight blue hue to them which I matched with the gas pump stations. From there I also noticed a slight lift in the shadows with a light red tint in the lower mids, which I also applied. This was the result, which I was super pleased with. It wasn’t neutral and boring like the original color correction anymore:
To recap – matching a reference image has a lot to do with your source footage already have similar tones as the reference.