I've recently gotten a number of inquiries on the site asking about color grading, so i thought I would try and put together a blog post that could give some information on this process.  We'll look into the how, taking a look at a few of the tools available, but we'll also look at the why.  For me personally, i don't go much further than, "mess with the different exposure and tonal values, until it looks and feels right," But there a lot of more advanced color graders who can shed some light on the actual theory and approach to this process.  So I've asked a few guys to weigh in on this and share some knowledge.

After Effects is a fine tool with many color effects at our disposal.  But it's not primarily a Color Grading application.  We wouldn't be doing this topic justice if we didn't get a glimpse into the workflow of a more dedicated color grading application.  John Carrington, a filmmaker at NewSpring Church has graciously agreed to record a tutorial on his workflow and process inside of Apple Color.

A big thanks to John for taking the time to share a little of what apple color can do.

Here is a recent piece from John, beautifully graded

There are a number of other options for color grading, and one that i am personally excited about for the future is Davinci Resolve.  Resolve has recently been made available for Mac, giving us the chance to integrate an extremely high end coloring application into our workflow.

Now that we've talked about a few of the tools available lets turn to some color grading experts to hear their thoughts about this process.


Aaron Williams of AaronWilliams.tv (which is full of excellent tutorials and information of color grading) shares his thoughts with us.

"There are two main goals for color grading: make the shot look good, and make the shot feel right. Making the shot look good is more of the technical aspect of grading, where you balance and match the shot for the scene, remove distractions, focus attention, enhance the subject, etc. These are the basics of color grading and every colorist should know them. What separates a good colorist from a great one is how they make the shot feel. Exceptional color grading is more than just a trendy "look"; it works with the emotion of the scene to create a mood that draws in and connects the audience with what's happening."


Film maker Salomon Ligthelm shares his thoughts and gives us great tips on thinking about your color grading even before you begin shooting.  Be sure to check out Salomon's work on his site Ligthelm.tv.

"Color grading philosophy and workflow.

Before I start shooting a project I'll have a clear idea of what colors and tones I'll be using as part of my pallet. These colors will come through initially as I take into consideration and dictate wardrobe/set design/overall art direction. The final step in this process is controlling the color in the grade. If the former elements were not taken into consideration you are going to have a hard time in the grade! You can easily change the HUE of closely related colors but not so easily with opposing colors - especially when you are working with DSLR's

When thinking through the details of which colors to use, consider the story/idea/concept. Is it light-hearted, moody or comical? Often the answers to these questions will help you choose a grade direction.

I often look on blogs for pallet inspiration. I trial through ffffound.com, designspiration.net, graphic-exchange.com and a few others quite often - I'll save the images into my shared (I share a notebook with our CG/3D/Graphics guy at work) 'Grading' notebook in Evernote (iOS app - I highly recommend it)!

I'll then pull out all those references as I start building my 'looks'.

I typically grade in After Effects with the bundled tools in conjunction with Magic Bullet Looks.

One thing I always do when we've finished production, just before we do post - I'll grab a few of the shots and grade them - create many looks and try to find the one that best suits the tone/music/direction/STORY I am trying to tell!

Then as the grade direction becomes clearer, I'll start to define and finesse the final grade, using 1 shot only (make sure that the shot you are using to build a look is balanced - ie RGB values are balanced and it is at the correct exposure - this will be crucial when you apply this grade to other shots  and then try to balance the shots so that they all line up tonally)

So I'll apply an adjustment layer over all my other layers in AE and in that layer I'll have a Magic Bullet Looks instance, a few curves adjustments and a few Hue/Saturation/Luminance adjustments underneath the MBL grade to try and define color ranges and hue changes a bit more.

Finally I will try balance all the shots so that they all feel part of the same story - I'll do this by going to each individual clip in the timeline and adding Exposure, Curves, HSL or even Levels effects to try and match shots that are part of the same sequence.

I find that balancing tone between shots is often more important than balancing color. Often color will vary quite a bit - especially in a story that has many locations and setups, but its the continuity of tone - (highlight values and lowlight values remaining similar) that allows the story to flow without having to pay attention to bad grading!"


Here a few of Salomon's brilliant pieces.

Big thanks to everyone who contributed some knowledge on this topic.  Hopefully there was something in this post for you that you can take with you into your next project.