Sunday, 17 November 2013

Colour Grading – A distillation of ideas, themes and emotion

If one word was to describe the outcome of the art and science of colour grading if would be ‘emotion’. Primarily this stage, of ‘finishing’ as it is often termed, is used to match shots taken with multiple cameras, of quite often different makes, models and settings. Standardising them so that different or incorrect exposures and white balance are corrected, and often ‘legalising’ the output within acceptable broadcast parameters.

However, that is just the beginning of the ‘finishing’ story.

Basic colour grading 

Once the colour grader has done with the vector scopes that allow them to bring each shot into the desired tolerance the art of colour grading can begin. With Hot Aches Productions latest feature documentary ‘Distilled’, this begun with a conversation with the Producer and Director, Paul Diffley.

We have graded two of Hot Aches previous award-winning films; The Long Hope and The Wide Boyz, with some minor colour correction on The Pinnacle and Paul has been a regular and successful film-maker at the Kendal Mountain Festival since about 2002 when we were having our own adventure documentary films screened. So it is fair to say that Paul and I have known each other for most of his film-making career, and this project was to build on that partnership.

Paul and his team had shot ‘Distilled’ in some of the gnarliest Scottish winter mountaineering conditions in which you could possibly hold a camera, and wanted a desaturated look for the resultant film. Paul also wanted to make a bolder statement than merely the odd ‘vinaigrette’ as we tended to call the stylised darkening around the edges (vignette). I set about by choosing one of the most impressive, keynote shots of the film to create a number of test grades which were forwarded to Paul for his preference.

From primary colour grading to applying a subtle mask

Alongside these preliminary tests we also discussed the narrative of the documentary, having been sent an audio recording of the interview with the subject of the film, Alpinist climber Andy Cave. After two versions and a couple of hours of phone conversations Paul assembled what was to become the audio-locked version of the film. By the time we had decided on an overall look and approach to the colour grading and visual effects that were to be applied, the climbing sequences had been assembled by Paul’s co-editor. The film was finally taking shape.

Original video to final look

My suggestion was to enhance the desaturated look of the film with subtle asymmetric vignettes, which in some shots also included a use of blur applied to the foreground. This not only created a more filmic look to the scene, but also served to create further depth in the image and focus the eye on the main action within the shot.

Applying a vignette and foreground image blur

This was particularly important in some of the more snowbound scenes in the film, where blizzards virtually obscured the shot, and added to the drama. Perfectly illustrating the environment of Scottish winter climbing. This was done by selecting a portion of the scene to be of particular interest and darkening the surrounding frame. In the case below, two climbers ascending a snow gully in almost whiteout conditions.

Asymmetric trapezoid mask to highlight portion of the image frame

Of course, as in most films, the ending is by convention generally uplifting. And as the second act of ‘Distilled’ reflects on the avalanche of a fellow mountaineering partner of Andy Cave the finale had to have a more upbeat look. This was achieved partly by Paul and his production team filming Andy climbing in sunnier conditions on Aonach Mor, overlooking Ben Nevis, which had been the focus of most of the earlier part of the film. Together with an even more subtle grade than previously applied.

Toning down the desaturation for the final 'act'

So, the outcome of this colour grading process was a result of long discussions about the narrative curve, content and turning points of the film, as much as stylistic choices of how the film was to look. The process not only standardised the shots recorded over 10 days in a variety of conditions, it also complimented the tone and enhanced the emotive quality of the film.

Paul Diffley has hopefully now began a successful run of accolades for his documentary ‘Distilled’ which won the People’s Choice category against stiff competition at Kendal Mountain Festival on 17th November 2013.

Meanwhile you can buy a download of the film for Christmas direct from Hot Aches for a discounted price of £9.99 using the special code 'Fridge' BUY HERE
RRP £14.99 (Offer ends 20/12/13)

All source images are copyright Hot Aches Productions © 2013

More information about Hot Aches Productions films can be found on their website

Kendal Mountain Festival

Andy Cave

David Jinks
Fridge Productions Limited
Tel: 0845 604 3582

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