Refine a Color Look
To my mind, the most fundamental skill a good compositor must have is close control of the color of a scene, in order to make foreground and background elements look correct together. However, merely matching the elements is only half the battle, now that color-conforming and look design have quickly moved from exotic luxury items to basic necessities. What's commonly called color correction is really design of the final look of a piece: which colors stand out and which are muted; and the dominant hues of a scene, sequence, or an entire movie.
Look design is the process of taking control of the color appearance of a project. Study episodic television and feature films, and you'll notice that the colors look nothing like they do in the natural world. When you work on these projects, you'll see that the colors of the finished product also look nothing like those of the source footage.
Why has color adjustment become so popular? For one thing, most of today's footage is shot digitally, and the proper way to capture such images is by flattening the dynamic range so that the brightest and darkest values don't clip, thereby crushing fine detail that can never be recovered. The flat type of shooting that's ideal for postproduction also can make the source images look quite gray and ugly without the help of a skilled color artist. Digitally shot images are also more easily manipulated than filmed images.
The first feature film to be entirely color-graded was O Brother, Where Art Thou?; now I challenge you to find one that isn't. A few colors are typically emphasized for dramatic effect, and the rest are suppressed. Sometimes this treatment can be done with a straight adjustment, and sometimes doing so requires the use of secondaries—selections of specific color ranges for the purpose of adjustment.
Plug-ins are available that allow you to create a basic color look easily and interactively, and these tools can be used either in the NLE or in After Effects. Red Giant Software offers three:
- Mojo quickly creates the most common types of looks that emphasize human skin tones.
- Looks is a virtual candy store, containing digital creations of effects that might otherwise happen on set.
- The most powerful and professional of Red Giant's color correction tools is Colorista II, which offers the most sophisticated selection of secondaries.
All of these tools are more powerful in the compositing environment, but Colorista II in particular, with its emphasis on selection of specific areas of the frame, is most at home in a compositing environment. For instance, you can track a masked adjustment layer to apply a correction just to a face that moves across the frame. Once the look for a sequence or project is designed, the piece also needs to be color-conformed, to avoid any apparent variation in the color of dominant elements in the scene from shot to shot.
With this latest round of Adobe software, you don't even need to do this work in After Effects. SpeedGrade is a dedicated color-grading tool that's probably already on your system, given the kind of deals Adobe is offering for the entire Master Collection. It's such a powerful tool that this latest edition of Adobe After Effects CS6 Visual Effects and Compositing Studio Techniques features a full seven-page walkthrough to get you up and running on SpeedGrade (see Figure 5).
Figure 5 SpeedGrade's interface is nothing like any other Adobe application, but it's actually not very difficult to start producing transformative results with the software. Despite nominally being about a different application, a substantial section of Chapter 12 of After Effects Studio Techniques is devoted to getting deep into SpeedGrade.