Mixing Light: from the Scalpel to the Brush

This week I’m mainly a colorist.  Next week I might be an editor.  Next month I will probably be on set as a DIT. I wish I could spend time directing and maybe finally finish that script. I love cameras and lights and the world of VFX always made me curious. I like to watch and re-watch films. Some people say I lack focus. I believe I simply have too many intertwined addictions.

I enjoy colour grading, I find some of the process relaxing. It appeals to my creative soul and helps me showcase my technical skills. It offers an interesting balance of  isolation and collaboration. It might be that it reminds me of the process of sound mixing, but with light.

There are advantages to structuring  your work in passes, or phases. I do not always follow the structure religiously but it helps me outline some of the processes I go through when grading.


I start like a surgeon. I analyse the footage, preparing my prognosis. Of course, I pay attention to the creative decision made by the DP and the Production Designer. But, I have a tendency to first pay attention to the more technical aspects of the footage. Where is the noise? How balanced is the exposure, from one shot to the next? Are the white and black point neutral? What kind of skin tones am I working with?

I then match the shots in the first pass. Aligning my black points and placing the various exposures to the levels identified during the analysis, paying particular attention to the skin tones and/or other likely point of attention. If needed, especially with mixed formats, I try to match the sharpness as well as possible early in the process. I also correct the white balance and black balance as needed, cleaning the footage from any tint that will interfere with any isolation work I might need to perform later in the process. I want to get this phase of balancing and matching out of the way. Why? Because I don’t enjoy it as much as what follows. But sometimes, you have to fix it in post.

We could label the next phase as colour equalisation. The amount of work needed in this pass depends greatly on the amount of time spent defining and implementing  colour palettes during preproduction and production. Some footage arrives already ‘defined’ with 2-3 dominant colours guiding each scene, which I am likely to use to guide my creative work. I simply check the saturation levels and verify the hues and the work is done. However, some footage arrives with a multitude of randomly assembled dominant colours. In those cases, I rely on saturation curves to neutralise or emphasise specific hues, and rely on HSL isolation only if really needed. In a way, I create a light colour palette of 2-3 dominant more saturated colours that will drive the various scenes or locations.


To get a sense of where I might be going, I create a few looks and start to gather some feedback from the key creatives.  I start the next phase only once I can commit to a look. Various looks having to be built quite differently, I cannot outline all the various steps involved during this process. Some looks might involve a lot of isolations and skin treatment, if the budget allows for it.

There is, however, always some relighting occurring. Using windows, I relight the scene inviting  the audience to pay attention to specific points within the image, or to correct unmatched lighting setups as well as possible. Also, paying attention to the emotional content of the scene or simply listening to the musical soundtrack, I start to paint the frame with colours, introducing various tints in the shadows, mids and highlights. I like to experiment with various colour schemes, analog, contrasting colours, triad and so on, until I find something that feels right. Like an artist, I like to trust my feelings.

In the last phase, some of the work might be aimed at removing some of the video ‘edge’. I might add an additional coat of style, using blending modes and such. I finally verify the matching before I can send the final work back for approval; I perform the sweetening and baking. I’m a bit addicted to the ‘mix’ function various grading applications might offer. In Resolve, I always perform a final pass of adjustment on the Node Key Output Gain as I have a tendency to exaggerate my grades while I look for the right solution and I often need to tone the effect down but maintain the direction and intent. This allows me to play, to experiment, to turn each grading session into an experience of discovery, of new possibilities and directions.

It is important to cultivate a playful attitude, it helps our creativity and mental health. I like to joke around while I work, I like to do it with people next to me , bouncing idea off each other, refining the direction until we commit to a destination. There is this amazing playful and creative aspects to colour grading. Attention and dedication to the more technical and laborious aspects of the work will only enable to enjoy the playful moments properly. And remember, there are only 3 colors, 10 digits, and 7 notes; its what we do with them that’s important.


One response to “Mixing Light: from the Scalpel to the Brush

  1. Pingback: Color Grading: Exploration, Temperature and Contrast | W(A/O)NDERING Filmmaking·

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