Refining The Film Look May 2021

Building Looks, General Color, Look Creation

During some downtime I decided to try to refine the film look even further. At a certain point it’s starting to become about the minor details. I’m starting to notice nuances in color overall. Using a Blackmagic Film to Arri LUT from Juan Melara is a great starting point, but I’ve found that I needed to balance the image even further. A couple of samples below, along with a video showing the before/after.

The Film Look

Look Creation

The film look is something I’ve been trying to recreate for some time. Over the past few years I’ve been searching online for different techniques but there’d never be a comprehensive guide for how to do so in a convincing way, and for good reason. I just didn’t really understand the principles of image acquisition and post processing in depth enough to really get it. My philosophy on being able to recreate these looks just comes down to time and effort. One off tutorials or buying creative LUTs never helped me, because I lacked a core understanding of the fundamentals.

The ‘film look’ can mean many things. If you look up ARRI Alexa vs 35mm film samples, the Alexa already does an amazing job mimicking the 35mm look. Add a good color grade with some grain, combined with good lighting and optics and it starts to get a lot closer to what you see on a Hollywood screen. Then there’s the 16mm look. It can look grainy and soft, but also sharp and organic, all depending on varying factors from film stock, optics, and the scanner being used.

There’s a lot of room for interpretation, and there are a lot of vague terms thrown around, but I’ll leave it at this since I’m not going into a deep analysis on this post – it either feels right or it doesn’t.

Completing the Look

Over the past year I’ve gotten a lot closer to being able to achieve this look myself. We were able to get close on the feature film I shot, Alberto and the Concrete Jungle, but I wasn’t the colorist, nor did I know how to explain the ins and outs of what I wanted the footage to look closer to. It wasn’t until I really dove deeper into coloring and image processing techniques and just work on a sheer number of projects before I really started getting it.

The footage below was taken by me on a BMPCC 6K. Out of camera, the footage is very sharp. Since I bought the camera I modified it to a PL mount and using my Zeiss Standard Speed set. This is the footage out of camera, BMPCC Film (basically log). One additional trick is I used a Schneider Black Frost 1/8 (similar to Tiffen’s Black Pro Mist) to bloom the highlights. 1/8 is pretty strong with street lamps.

From here, I added the LUT that changed everything for this camera, Juan Melara’s p6k 2 Alexa LUT. It adjusts the colors and contrast to get closer to the Alexa color palette:

I thought the contrast was a bit much from the base LUT, so I dialed it back using the color wheels:

I also thought it looked a little green, so I did some color balance to adjust the RGB parade and get it a touch more neutral:

Here is one of the key steps that I haven’t been able to create. I started seeing examples of this popping up online over the past few months by various colorists, and thought I would try to study this, but a colleague who’s in the same master mind group I’m in, Luke Linssen (@luke_linssen ), shared his technique and it’s a game changer.

One of the ways you can tell actual organic film from video that was graded to look like film is looking at highlights. In many instances where it rolls off into a blown out highlight, a red glow appears. Up until now it’s been one of the aspects I hadn’t spent time trying to reverse engineer.

I could have stopped there and would be happy with the results, but I decided to see how I could dirty up the image a bit more. I added a touch of blur to the image just to get it looking like vintage film, and I was blown away how close this looks. I also did a noise reduction to remove the chroma noise that comes with digital cameras and prepare for a clean grain addition.

The final step was to add some 35mm grain, direct form Davinci Resolve: 

This look isn’t for every project, but having it in the tool box to use when needed is definitely something I’m looking forward to.

Look Analysis: Cyan Skies

Look Creation

The Hollywood films I have been drawn to since I first started watching movies generally have a strong color palette with great use of color, with the color grade enhancing those elements to really make them pop. These movies feel glossy and special to me and speak to me as a cinematographer (regardless of the story).

One element I came across when studying films to try to mimic their color is the use of cyan in the skies. Once I started seeing this pattern, I couldn’t unsee it. One thing to note is that this isn’t a given for all films – it depends on the look of each film – but still a pattern nonetheless. Some are more pushed than others. This pattern is sometimes tied to the teal orange look, but not always is associated with it.

Some examples I’ve noticed in varying degrees of saturation/luminance in the skies, usually always pushing blue towards cyan:

The Wolf of Wall Street
Sicario
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The Judge

The main takeaway for me after recognizing this pattern was that I had another element in my images I could think about shifting the color to. I look at it as another tool in my arsenal as a cinematographer to utilize for the feeling the film is trying to create, vs. a blanket rule to apply to all footage.

Here’s some a screen shot from a project I shot with a comparison between what is captured on camera compared to where the image could be pushed. It starts with Arri Log-C converted to Rec.709 using Resolve’s Color Space Transform tool. Here is the transform with no other color applied – you could basically say this is ‘out of camera’. It’s not bad, but it feels incomplete. It also feels a little magenta in part of the sky:

Arri Log-C to Rec.709

Using Resolves Curves tool and just making an adjustment in the Hue vs. Hue tool to push blue a little towards cyan yields a subtle look in the sky without pushing too hard.

Hue Vs Hue, pushing blue towards cyan

If I wanted to go for a really obvious look, it would be a combination of pushing all of the Hue Vs tools – Hue, Sat, and Luminance. To me this feels a bit heavy and I likely wouldn’t go this far, but you can start to see how just pushing this one element completely changes the feeling of the image. One must also be careful of other blue objects in the image as they will be affected by the adjustments. This feels like something you’d get from a random LUT pack online 🙂

One of my mentors, Waqas Qazi, has repeatedly commented on work I’ve submitted to him for comments on and tells me to keep it as simple as I can. The more I dive into color, the more I’m seeing that when I focus on one element using as few tools and adjustments as possible, a lot can be done with a lot less work. It’s sometimes tempting to try to add tons of nodes to feel like I’m doing work, but often times images don’t need or require that much work applied to them.

The comparison:

Fortunately, these cyan sky changes are easy to apply across platforms as well, and not limited to just Davinci Resolve. It’s totally possible to do this in a workflow in Premiere Pro for editors who are dabbling in color as well. Find out how to learn these skills for Premiere Pro at https://purecolor.teachable.com

White Wall Grades

General Color

There have been many projects in the past where as a cinematographer one has to guide a portion of the post production. One of the major considerations is of course, the color grading process. It’s been my experience a lot of editors do not have experience doing anything beyond the basics of white balance and perhaps some contrast control. I was recently inspired by work Tom Poole did on Bad Education and it reminded me of this project I worked on years ago when I was still learning the outcome of not providing a color notes for post production.

The director gave a reference to another film whose office had a bluish gray tint. In Hollywood productions, it’s easier to swing this way because there’s budget for production design to paint the walls and bias it towards one color for better separation. On low budget indie films, this likely won’t be the case the majority of the time. So the color grade can come into play here.

The interesting thing about Bad Education is that I could see the office walls were white with a little bit of color mixed in. This let me go back and see that I could implement this on a past project.

Here’s the rough cut from the editor. It was originally shot on RED and converted to Rec.709:

Luminance Balance:

Then a white balance to get back to a neutral position in the color space:

From here it’s clear the skin tones are super pale. Therefore I pulled a qualifier for the skin and brought it to the skin tone indicator and boosted the color in the lows and mids.

From here another luminance balance:

Then using a reference frame I grabbed from Bad Education, I matched as closely as possible the tone in the walls. This will give the white walls some separation with the actors:

From here I passed the skin qualifier in a Layer Mixer node and brought the skin luminance down to match the reference point.

Adding 35mm grain finishes the look:

 

Teal Orange Look

General Color

The Teal Orange Look: A staple in Hollywood films, and for the past few years, in indie productions. Since Resolve is widely available, it’s been easy to recreate this look. This is the first look I was introduced to creating manually when I was searching for how to grade without using LUTs. 

There are many tutorials online to achieve this look. My first tutorial came from Juan Melara, and lately, I found one from Avery Peck that has been great as well. Both slightly different takes on a similar theme. While this may go in and out of style, you can’t argue that the complementary colors just pop and make a lot of images look great.

Camera: RED Epic Dragon

Log:

The initial grade begins with a color space transform to Rec.709.

The next step is a luminance adjustment.

Following, a color balance to get back to neutral.

From here, skin tones are isolated via a qualifier, and adjusted to match the skin tone indicator on the vectorscope, along with adding some dark reds into the shadows for what Avery Peck describes as ‘blood flow in the skin’. I think that’s a crucial step for more realistic skin tones.

From there another luminance adjustment is applied.

The teal layer is now added.

To retrieve the skin tones, the skin qualifier from a previous step is passed through to a layer on top of the teal look. Final contrast adjustment yields our look:

Node tree summary: 

And in motion:

Rotoscoping Color

Skin Tones + Qualifiers

I was inspired by scrolling through Instagram with some heavy color treatments from RGB Led tubes. I shot this project before the RGB lights were more common place – we actually used kino flos and had a somewhat complicated wiring setup to a DMX board. How times have changed since then! Shooting with tube lights in the frame was once something that seemed higher end at the time is now more common place with the advent of all these new technologies. I went back to this project to see if I could spice it up a little bit.

Camera: RED Epic Dragon
Lenses: Canon CN-E EF Mount

Step 1
Color space transform to Rec.709

Step 2
Contrast Adjustment

Step 3
Skin qualifier and adjustment

Step 4
Rotoscope and Look

Step 6
Highlight adjustment

Step 6
Diffusion and final look adjustment

The most difficult aspect was rotoscoping the model in the background and getting enough of a balance where we can feel just slightly the green environment spelling onto her. I think the next thing I will try to tackle is getting the highlight reflections on her skin to reflect more of a greenish hue than the current white light for a more realistic look where it feels like there is green light.

Here is the moving image to get a sense of the rotoscoping:

RGB Mixer Looks

Look Creation

This post looks at changing the values in the RGB Mixer in Resolve based on Alexis Van Hurkman’s Color Correction Handbook. There’s a concept of changing the colors input into each of the Red, Green, and Blue channels that can inspire some interesting looks.

These looks are totally stylized. While you can still qualify the skin tones and build the look around the skin tones, I don’t think these looks will ever look grounded. After going through some sample footage, I thought the most interesting look came from a sunny, wide open field. Below is our base image. Technical Specs:

Camera: Sony A7S II
Color space: S-gamut3.cine and S-log3
Base Grade: Color space transform to Rec.709 in Davinci Resolve

The default RGB Mixer are as follows in the below image. Reading the Color Correction Handbook, along with various YouTube tutorials, one can get some interesting (albeit super sylized) images from changing the type of input in each channel. Note that the “Preserve Luminance” option is on. To get a slightly more balanced effect out using these channels, this setting should be turned OFF.

After experimenting with some of the settings, I came to only modifying the Green Channel by setting the green input to 0 and the blue input to 1. It was really just trial and error to figure out what look I could potentially get away with in a project that needs a surreal look without there being any skill or taste applied to the look. Note that preserve luminance is OFF.

This resulted in the grass turning reddish/pink! Super interesting, and makes me think back to a couple of films shot in South Africa where the leaves were pink. I’ve always wondered how to apply this without having to do an HSL qualifier, and it looks like this is one potential way to achieve that.

This is a topic for another day, but I’ve also been experimenting with cross processing and mixing up S-curves and other oddly shaped curves in the RGB curves section. I deactivated the RGB mixer and came upon this super warm look:

This is the curve combination I used:

I had a thought to myself to try and blend the RGB Mixer and the cross processing and got a further enhanced image. It’s definitely a super stylized look that’s not that practical, but definitely an interesting exercise in combining looks to get something surreal looking.

My final node tree: