Flat Doesn’t Really Mean Flat

A thought for the day, as it’s come up a few times in conversation. “Shooting flat” really means “capturing image data flatly,” it doesn’t mean flat lighting. Please, I beg of you, light the set, paint with shadows, and use a deliberate iris setting for specific intention. The “flat” or “log” data capture setting of your camera will then protect as much as that particular camera is capable of in the highlights and shadows, so we can have more fun during the grading session.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

My Small Contribution to the Superbowl

Production company Three Volts approached me to do some grading for a Park Nicollet spot they were doing. It’s a graphically treated spot (effects by Minneapolis-based Design Guys), but I was brought in to do specific work on the skin tones throughout.

The nature of the spot made the skin tones pretty easy to isolate for hue and saturation adjustment, but additional work involved whitening teeth, some subtle complexion smoothing, and contrast tweaking to match the graphics.

Interestingly, KARE 11 did a news story on locally-produced regional spots competing with their bigger-budget national counterparts that featured this commercial. Professionally produced graphics and color correction added necessary polish. If you ever ask yourself whether or not it’s worth the money to have your project graded, ask yourself how your project will compare to the competition if you don’t.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.


Last year I was the lead colorist for director Yan Vizenberg’s first feature, Cargo. The premiere was this last fall, and it was glowingly reviewed in both the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter, but I only recently noticed the new trailer.

This was the first film I’ve worked on with a second colorist. Due to scheduling constraints, I brought friend and colleague Patrick Inhofer on to work with me on the piece. After I spent a week with the director setting detailed looks for 3-4 shots within each scene, Patrick finished balancing the scenes while I was out of town. On my return, I reviewed the reels with the director and producers and made the final revisions and tweaks.

This was the last project I graded in New York while co-located with Twitch Post, prior to my move to the Twin Cities. Congratulations and best wishes to Persona Films. It’s a daring film with great performances, see it if you get the chance.


Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

But It’s Just For the Web

On many, many occasions I’ve heard “It’s just for the web, so it doesn’t really need to be color corrected, right?”

It’s a misconception that color correction, or color grading, whichever you want to call it, is primarily about fixing problems and dealing with broadcast safe issues. Thus if your video is well shot, and destined for the web where broadcast legality does not matter, you can skip it. The truth is, while fixing problems is a significant part of what I do, that’s not really why you want to bring your project to me.

You bring it because you want it to look as good as it can.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The following image is the camera original that was brought to me. It’s a nice shot, well exposed. No problems, no illegal levels for broadcast. It’s the kind of scene that many folks would feel didn’t need to be fixed. And they’d be right. There’s nothing really wrong with it.

However, if you gave me half a minute to make some adjustments, this reasonably nice looking shot can look like this:

This is not a complicated grade. I didn’t add any high style or make massive changes. I boosted contrast a bit, compressed the highlights up, added a bit of warmth, selectively adjusted the saturation of different colors, desaturated the shadows, adjusted the skin tone, and lightened the eyes (with the extra contrast, they were looking a bit too moody). All in all, only four sets of adjustments.

Okay, so the eyes are me overachieving a bit, but it wasn’t a big deal. The point is, having seen both the unadjusted and adjusted versions here, at reduced size on the web, I think it’s pretty clear that the difference is appreciable.

Or, say you give me another 30 seconds and the mandate for a grittier, more dramatic look. You could end up with something like this:

This time around, I jacked up the contrast with a luma-only curve, desaturated the skin tones, applied sharpening to the darker details of the man’s isolated face, and cooled down everything outside of his face (in the process intensifying the man’s already pale blue eyes; it’s really too much, but I thought it was fun). Generally speaking, I added one more correction and made some tweaks.

It’s natural, over the course of days, weeks, or even months of editorial, to get used to the way footage looks. You can get so used to it that it’s easy to imagine that there’s nothing to improve. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a client bring me a project and say something to the effect of “we think it looks good the way it is, it probably doesn’t even really need color correction, but I thought maybe you could take a look at a few shots.”

However, once I get going and they see what the process is really about, the few shots I’ve been asked to work on quickly expand into the entire program. Which is just fine with me. I like to make sure that folks I work with understand the process and feel good about what they’re paying for, and sitting in on a grading session is an eye-opening experience for many.

Similarly, it’s easy to think, since the web has no harsh requirements for video legality, and no quality control guidelines to adhere to, that color correction can conveniently be skipped. However, I hope you can see by the images in this comparison that even small adjustments can have a very big impact on how your project is perceived. Video doesn’t have to be on the big screen for improvements to be clearly seen and appreciated by your audience.

We, as content creators, are moving into an era where, for many programs, the web will be the primary and perhaps only venue. If you’re making a music video, a commercial spot, a short film, or a communications piece that will only exist for web viewership, you owe it to yourself to have it graded. Not to fix problems, but simply to make it look as good as it possibly can.

Remember, you only have one chance to make a first impression.

Special thanks to Jake Cashill for the clip from his feature, “Oral Fixation.” If you found this article informative, you might want to check out “How to Talk to a Colorist


Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

An Author Looks at iBooks Author (Updated 2/6/12)

Note—Since Apple released an update addressing the controversial EULA pretty much immediately after their initial release, it seemed fair to reedit this article to account for their responsiveness. However, to avoid an Orwellian rewriting of the past, I’ve struck through the now outdated passages, and made my edits as visibly as possible. Kudos to Apple for listening to the users.

Much as I love color grading, everyone knows I spend just as much time writing about color correction as I spend doing it. Outside of this blog, I either spend a lot of time developing content using various arcane content management systems for the creation of software documentation, or I spend way too much time in Microsoft Word (which I don’t love, but my publisher requires). I’ve contemplated self-publishing, but honestly, for the kinds of technical titles I like to do, it’s good to have a publisher or a corporate benefactor paying the bills and managing sales.

However, when Apple announced iBooks Author yesterday, I immediately downloaded the application and tucked in, experimentally creating a template matching a past project, and importing some content to see how it worked. Perhaps there are a few titles I might consider self-publishing, after all.

I’ve used a lot of text editors in my day, and at this point in my life, I crave a WYSIWYG editor that’s capable of generating whatever multiples of output I need. Yes, yes, I know all about the power of XML and dedicated non-formatted text editors and all of that. I have BBEdit, I have OmniOutliner, I’ve used VI, and have struggled through several dedicated XML editing environments.

However, I am not a database. My interest when I write a technical book is in creating a formatted, highly organized, friendly-looking and digestible salad of information that doesn’t make readers’ eyes cross or heads explode during perusal. I’ve written abstractly using a content management system, and I’ve written according to format using WYSIWYG environments, and honestly I’m happier when I can see the intended formatting while I’m developing the content.

For technical writing, I find that formatting guides and channels my writing process. I’ll structure information differently depending on the styles that are available, because it’s the right thing to do for readers. If I have to use someone else’s format, then I’ll find a way to write that takes advantage of that format. If I’m doing my own thing, I’ll create whatever styles I want, and will write differently.

I’ve long had difficulty understanding why it’s so difficult to create a WYSIWYG book-writing environment, a true single-source multi-output environment, that isn’t a giant pain in the ass to use. For this reason, I was really interested in what iBooks Author would have to offer.

Updated—The answer appears to be, “a nice book-development and creation environment that’s only primarily for putting things in the iBook store.”

Let me first talk about the application itself, which I like. I happen to be a fan of Apple’s Pages. It’s a relatively light, responsive text editing application that has decent formatting and styles control suitable for many of the kinds of documents I create. It’s no InDesign, which I’ve always felt was too bad, but it’s a nice place to write a bunch of stuff, whether it’s technical in nature, or creative (I’m currently writing a novel in Pages, and enjoying it). So you know where I’m coming from, prior to Pages, I did my own work exclusively in Text Edit, because I hated Microsoft Word so passionately, and honestly, I still use Text Edit for lots of things.

That’s all a long prelude to the following opinion: if you like Pages, then you’ll probably like iBooks Author. Author looks and feels like Pages, but with a lot of the page-formatting, desktop-publishing UI that I’ve long wished for built on top of it. It comes with pre-made templates, but obviously it’s more fun to use your own, and more to the point, my clients would want me to use their own unique styles, so I immediately set to creating a custom template.

Two hours later, I was done. It was pretty straight forward, though I did need to peruse Apple’s now-typically brief help from time to time to get a hint on how to proceed. Still, unqualified success. Every element I wanted to create, I could, and I now had a set of page templates with which to develop some content.

Now I was really curious. After all, applications like InDesign are great for layout and typography, but freaking horrible for content development. Fortunately, iBooks Author seems quite nice to work within. Once you’ve set up the styles you need, and have your page templates, editing text and images is a breeze, and it’s very cool to be able to add rich-media widgets to it all, though I wonder how I’ll feel about that when publishers start leaning more aggressively on authors to “make more videos for your book, and make some interactive presentation bits, but turn it in on the same deadline and for the same advance.”

However, writing was fast and responsive, and things generally worked as I’d expected from experience with many other text editing and formatting applications. In this case, no surprises is a good thing.

Some specifics. The available styles default with H1 and H2 headings, and I imagine the missing H3 heading (of which I’m a fan) is easily added. Happily, these headings aren’t just decorative, they’re tagged and produce indexing when used, hooray!

While I’ve not spent enough time with the application to have a strong opinion, the Chapter/Section model with which content is organized in the Book Outline seems to be more analogous to what I’d call Part/Chapter. However, with more use I might revise that opinion.

Updating my iPad to iBooks 2, the Preview function worked really well, allowing me to immediately preview how my content would look and work on my iPad at any point I wanted. So, in terms of developing content specifically for the iPad via the iBook store, this appears to be an elegant solution. I also like the easy way that custom templates can be tailored for landscape vs. portrait viewing, reflowing the content to different layouts. I also liked that you can choose to develop your content in either orientation. While I suspect I’d mainly use the portrait mode for writing, it’s nice to have the option so easily invoked.

So, let me turn to my main technological disappointment. PDF export appears to be a grudging afterthought. Despite the existence of heading metadata for indexing, no auto-generated bookmarks appear in the PDF output from iBooks Author. My response, as it has been in Pages, is really? You’ve got the metadata, and you’re still going to make me go into Acrobat Pro and create new bookmarks by hand? Sigh.

Furthermore, PDF output seems to only happen using a landscape view, or at least I couldn’t figure out how to export a portrait-oriented PDF. Additionally, an annoying watermark (“iBooks Author,” with the Apple logo) appears on every page of all PDFs. I realize Apple’s giving this application away primarily for iBook store authoring, and this might be the tax they extract for making things free, but I’d rather pay cash money for the application in exchange for being able to turn the watermark off. Incidentally, the watermark doesn’t seem to appear on the ePub documents generated for the iBook store.

You can also export your content as plain text, but that only seems to be a safety valve for getting your content out of iBooks Author given the EULA.

Apple’s end user licensing agreement is tragically honest.

Updated—While Apple’s original End User Licence Agreement was surprisingly strident, it was quickly amended in a subsequent update. The current EULA states that files in the .ibooks format may only be sold in the iBooks store. However, it seems clear that PDFs exported from iBooks Author can be sold however you like. On the other hand, one might assume that files exported using the .ibooks format and then otherwise converted to a different, more universally distributable format would also be exempt from the requirement of iBooks store exclusivity, but I’m not a lawyer and I’d love some verification (seriously, if you know for sure one way or the other let me know in the comments).

(Incidentally, it always seemed clear to me that Apple claimed no ownership over your content, merely the container you put it in for sales. However, it’s nice that this distinction is now crystal clear.)

The updated EULA for iBooks Author

Again, it’s their application, they’re giving it away as a favor, and they can stipulate whatever they want to. However, it completely torpedoes this application in terms of being a useful, general-purpose book-creation tool for commercial use or self-publication.

And I mention self-publication because I know how hard it is to develop a book and format it for the end user, complete with screenshots and illustrations. If you’re going to go to all that work, and then have to ignore the Amazon bookstore, the Barnes & Noble bookstore, and god knows how many other eBook storefront opportunities you might have unless you export plain text and completely recreate your book using another application…

Well, why not just create the book in that other application to begin with? The closest analogy I can come up with is a video editing application that stipulates you can only sell your edited output via one particular store. Sure, you could export all the individual clips and reedit your program in another video editor, but why would you do that?

Updated—But, while the new EULA is a vast improvement, it doesn’t change the fact that exported PDFs are restricted to landscape layouts and zealously watermarked, thus limiting their appeal. Furthermore, I don’t really know how convertible .ibooks output is, so practically speaking I’m still not sure how feasible this application is for multi-storefront book development (assuming I was willing to forego embedded rich media).

And I do understand, clearly, that the whole purpose of this application is to create an authoring environment for rich-media-filled eTextbooks to be displayed within iBooks on an iPad. I get it. And I also understand that people are perfectly free to give their content away for free; it’s just a terrible business plan for a technical writer that’s trying to make a living.

Maybe if the iBook application was ported to other environments, this wouldn’t seem so limiting. Amazon has done this, porting their Kindle application to practically everything with a screen. If I knew that the iBook store would also reach PC users, Mac laptop users, Android users, Windows Phone users, and the other various tablet makers out on the market, then I would be a lot more comfortable making the iBook store my single point of presence. But it’s not, and much as I’m a somewhat overenthusiastic consumer of Apple technology, I’m very much aware that it’s a big world out there, with a lot of different people using a lot of different devices. It’d be nice to sell to them, too.

In the short term, it’s a bit disappointing, because the team that created iBooks Author made a really, really nice piece of software. Something that I think is better at what it does then most other applications of its type on the market, for this very small niche of technical and textbook writers. I’d love to use it, and I would have paid good money were it a more general purpose tool.

So I hope Apple realizes what a great piece of software they’ve created, and eventually decides to open it up for more general purpose use. Or perhaps ports the same book-creation goodness into Pages, generalizing it in the process for the single-source creation of books that can be sold in all eBook stores, and not just the iBook store. I would happily pay ten times the price of Pages on the App store (Pages Pro, perhaps?) for this, and for a commitment to continue developing these capabilities, for multiple output types, into the foreseeable future.

By the way, for you single-source document-creation fanatics out there, I’d be very happy to hear what you’re using and why it rocks, down in the comments.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Hello, Japan!

The Japanese edition of the Color Correction Handbook.

Was I ever surprised when my editor gave me a call and mentioned that my Color Correction Handbook has been translated into Japanese. I had no idea, but apparently it’s been on sale for a while. I’m flattered, and looking forward to hearing from someone who can actually read the language to tell me how I translate.

It’s pretty cool to flip through a book that you know so well, and see a completely different layout and language. I must say, I like what they’ve done with it, even if all I can do is gape at the pretty pictures. A strange, wondrous feeling of illiteracy while looking at my own book.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Happy Merry Holidays. And Contest!

Merry Happy!

Well, it’s been a heck of a year. Moving from NYC to Saint Paul. Traveling all over the place. Reestablishing my career in a new locale. Seeing how well my book’s been selling. Overall, things have been just fantastic.

Alas, I’ve been too busy to put together any kind of elaborate season’s greetings, so you’ll have to settle for this picture of me and my dog, Penny.

However, as a gesture of holiday giving, and in recognition that my “Color Correction Handbook” remains the number two most wished for item in its category on Amazon.com (apparently video game writing and design is a more highly desirable career then color correction, who knew?), I’m doing a little contest for those of you on twitter.

The first three folks who come closest to guessing the length of my Dachshund, in either inches or centimeters, by the end of the day on Xmas eve (Central Time) get a free signed copy of my book sent to them, anywhere in the world. To enter, you need to tweet your guess with the hashtag #howlongismydog (if you don’t include the hashtag, I may not see your guess as I’m using a hashtag search to survey the guesses).

I’ll announce the winners on Christmas day, as that’s how I roll. However, I welcome non-Xmas celebrators to enter as well, since I figure getting free stuff is enjoyable for pretty much anybody. The three closest guesses win, my decision, no appeal.

So, there you have it. Merry Happy Whatever, everybody! I hope the year’s been reasonably good to you, that you’ve many fine prospects on the horizon, and that you’re not working yourself to death. Maybe you’re even taking some time off.


Update—Congratulations to @oliveira_mau, @AaronWeiler, and @eduserrano who came closest to guessing her length. For the record, she comes to approximately 32 inches.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

I Don’t Hate Stereoscopic Films

I continue to read a lot of negative opinion about stereoscopic filmmaking online, particularly within the postproduction community. Lots and lots, in fact.

While I have no great love of stereoscopy for its own sake, I must say that there’s a consistent criticism I read that makes no sense to me, either as a writer or as a postproduction professional. That criticism is that stereoscopy adds nothing to narrative, the implication being that it should be abandoned if it does not.

Roger Ebert articulated this when he wrote “It adds nothing to the experience. Recall the greatest moviegoing experiences of your lifetime. Did they “need” 3-D? A great film completely engages our imaginations. What would Fargo gain in 3-D? Precious? Casablanca?”

Okay, fair enough. But here’s a question in response: What exactly does widescreen add to narrative? Did Casablanca suffer due to a lack of widescreen? Citizen Kane? Sunset Boulevard?

Before you answer, recall that I asked what it added to narrative, not cinematography. As much as I believe that the purpose of cinema is to unify narrative with its visual representation as much as possible, I still draw a distinction between the two because any one narrative story can be represented via a plethora of cinematic approaches.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t cinematic advantages to be mined from the different shot compositions that widescreen allows. However, plenty of spectacular films have been made without it, and aside from how many closeups you can fit inside of a frame, narratively speaking I don’t believe that widescreen adds anything to a story that couldn’t be handled in 1.37:1. Let me put this another way—you’re a filmmaker who wants to make a film at 2.39:1, but you can only get financing if you shoot at 1.85:1—are you going to turn down the money because you can’t tell the story in a narrower frame?

Visually speaking, widescreen can be a fantastic and immersive experience, if used wisely by a director and cinematographer with a thoughtful approach to shot composition. As a moviegoer, this immersion is something I value. It helps me to become wrapped in the movie. It’s fun.

From what I’ve seen so far, if used well stereo visuals can also add to the immersion and atmosphere of a scene. On the other hand, if used poorly, it’s distracting and irritating. Two examples come immediately to mind.

Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo,” in my opinion, uses stereoscopic visuals well, lending oomph to the cavernous spaces and depth of the film’s shot compositions. Do the same shot compositions have power when watched in 2D? Absolutely. The traditional depth cues of perspective, occlusion, depth-of-field, and parallax still hold sway. However, stereopsis adds a little something extra, and in Hugo this something extra was wielded with appropriate care. I didn’t feel bombarded by eye-fatiguing craziness, I felt enveloped.

Not so with Clash of the Titans. I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the film itself, but the stereoscopic visuals (in this case, post-produced 3D conversions) were completely obnoxious. Distracting. Ill conceived and pointless. That was a case where stereoscopic visuals earned their derision.

So, there are some good examples, and bad examples. However, for many even the good examples don’t seem to be worth it. I’ll be the first to say that the reduced light output in projected 3D venues is depressing, and the reduced and shifted color that results saddens my colorist’s eye. Similarly, I don’t wear glasses in my everyday life, and I’m not terribly thrilled at having something sitting on the bridge of my nose in the theater. In production, 3D rigs sure seem like a pain in the ass. In postproduction 3D workflows are an even bigger pain in the ass, although as software tools become more accommodating and automatable, life seems to be getting better on that front.

But, all of these are technological limitations. Technology improves. Sync-sound projection once forced all of the same problems on production, postproduction, and theatrical venues that stereoscopy imposes now. The problems were solved, and another tool for cinematic expression was added to the filmmaker’s arsenal.

Which brings me to another point. I find it interesting that other cinematic developments have engendered similar criticism upon their introduction. Synchronized sound was not universally hailed on its introduction, and the criticisms of film sound were not all technical in nature.

Rudolph Arnheim, an early film critic and theorist, was a well-documented opponent of synchronized sound/dialog in film, believing it to push cinema towards an undesirable level of realism, defeating the symbolism that a more purely visual cinema manifested. British film critic Paul Rotha, quoted in a Wikipedia article on sound in film, said “A film in which the speech and sound effects are perfectly synchronised and coincide with their visual image on the screen is absolutely contrary to the aims of cinema. It is a degenerate and misguided attempt to destroy the real use of the film and cannot be accepted as coming within the true boundaries of the cinema.”

Honestly, I don’t mean to set these opinions up for ridicule, because they had a point. “Silent” cinema had achieved a visual vocabulary and cinematic efficiency that sound completely demolished, at least initially. It took years of aesthetic exploration before sound in cinema became the designed sound that we appreciate today.

I’ve read similar historical criticisms corresponding to the introduction of color as well, more or less to the effect of “color is good for popular entertainments and children’s films but unsuitable for adult storytelling.” And I’m now reading plenty of opinion back and forth about the introduction of higher frame rates, with proponents wanting to shoot and project at a higher temporal quality of 48 fps, and opponents insisting that anything other then 24 fps is uncinematic and unworthy of anything other then television news and sitcoms.

Which is fair. We who have grown up with 2D, 24 fps progressive, shallow-depth-of-field, front-projected films shown in dark theaters have come to associate these qualities with the cinematic experience. However, that’s an aesthetic based on what we’ve grown up with. I doubt any of us have the kind of meaningful opposition to either sync-sound or color that those who spent 30 years growing up with “silent” pictures had.

Furthermore, there’s another parallel between stereoscopy and film audio, one I’ve discussed previously. I would submit that neither stereo audio nor surround-sound audio make any direct contributions to the narrative of a film. Mix down any soundtrack from 5.1 to stereo, or from stereo to mono, and let me know if there’s anything you can’t understand about what’s going on, or any diminishment of the story.

But it’s still nice to have. Like widescreen, stereo and surround sound are enriching experiences that aid immersion into the world of the film. Both stereo and surround went through teething periods of overenthusiastic audio engineers creating hyperactive and exhausting mixes, before coming to some collective conclusions about ideal ways of using available surround channels to enhance, rather then distract.

Bottom line, I don’t care if stereoscopic visuals are useful narratively. They’re not. And that’s just fine. I’m more interested in the continuing exploration into how to best and most creatively use the potentially visceral depth that stereopsis provides to enhance and extend the rest of the moviegoing experience. To create another level of audience immersion, if the distractions and irritating technical limitations can, in fact, be overcome.

Here’s an anecdote that I find interesting. I was speaking with the eleven-old daughter of a friend of mine about “Up.” She said she saw the movie three times; the first time she saw it in 3D, the second in 2D, and the third in 3D again. At the first and third showing, she was so emotionally involved that she cried. At the second, while she still enjoyed the film, she didn’t. She brought this up to me, being somewhat surprised herself that 3D in and of itself was what seemed to be making the events so much more affecting.

Makes me think stereoscopy is worth exploring.

As an end-note, I feel compelled to say that with regards to the exploration of a new tool for visual entertainment, I suspect that the great filmmaker of the fantastic, Georges Méliès, coincidentally one of the characters of “Hugo,” would have been delighted at the potential of stereoscopic visuals, and would have had enormous fun trying to figure out how to use them to best effect.

(Incidentally, at the end of Ebert’s article “Why I Hate 3D (and you should too),” he says something I wholeheartedly agree with. “I’m not opposed to 3-D as an option. I’m opposed to it as a way of life for Hollywood, where it seems to be skewing major studio output away from the kinds of films we think of as Oscar-worthy.” Well said. Filmmakers should have the flexibility to use the tools and methods they believe will best suit the story at hand, discarding those methods that don’t fit. Making every film 3D makes as little sense as making every film cinemascope, or giving every film an overbearingly complicated surround mix.)

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Seeing Green

Green undertones = "more cowbell"

I’ve been seeing this a lot, especially with projects coming from DIY filmmakers who are grading their own projects for the first time. Wall to wall green undertones. “It makes it look like a movie, am I right?”

If you don’t know what I mean, undertones (that’s how I define them, anyway) are coloration of the middle to light shadows of an image. Not all the shadows, for as you can see in the image above, there are still solid blacks in the image to provide healthy luma contrast. And the highlights and upper midtones (containing the all-important skin tone) are also left naturalistic, both to give popping highlights for contrast, and to lend appeal to the young woman (green faces work better in Star Trek or Wicked).

However, to add visual interest and a sense of situation, a wedge of the lighter shadows in the image is isolated (using either HSL qualification, a luma keyer, curves, or whatever tool works best in your grading application), and tinted.

I’ve also seen blue undertones (often in night scenes, or heavily shadowed daytime scenes), but honestly I’ve been seeing the green undertones look used all over the place, and seeing it used in a book cover made me have to say something. I used to blame The Matrix for the superabundance of green looks; while it was hardly the first use of green tints, it was popular and I believe put its use on client’s radars. Trailers, music videos, and indie features have flocked to implement this stylization over the years, and like excessively low-hanging jeans on teenage boys, it’s a style that has lingered for a surprisingly long time.

I will surprise you by not passing judgement. It’s your project, do what you want. I will point out that it’s been done, but then so have warm looks, cool looks, skip bleach looks, supersaturation, undersaturated blue, so on and so forth. We all try so hard to be original, and then our clients say “could you make this look like Saving Private Ryan?” and we sigh and implement our individual variation of the bleach bypass grade. You know you have one.

What interests me is how we, as colorists, justify approaches like the green undertone. I’m not really inclined to read anything more then stylistic preference into anyone else’s motivations, as I’ve read so many disparate justifications that I’m happy to accept “it looks neat” and leave it at that.

However, I think it’s useful to examine different approaches to creating color meaning for a particular project, especially as meanings can be fungible, depending on the narrative requirements of the project you’re working on.

Let’s look more closely at the image up top, which is the cover of a young adult novel involving vampires and boarding school. Based on the melodramatic content, one might work out the following use of color impressions to use for various scenes:

This makes sense, and falls in line with many visual tropes that viewers will be well aware of and comfortable with. However, this is not sacrosanct, and there are other interpretations of color that may be just as valid in different situations.

For example, if we were grading a movie taking place in the desert, the following mappings of color to mood might make more sense:

The point I’m trying to make is that the narrative content of a project can and should influence the interpretations of color that you decide to rationalize. While there are widely accepted correspondences between color and mood, these correspondences have lots of wiggle room, and depend heavily on situation to give one interpretation weight over another.

What’s less ideal is to impose a “look” onto your project just because you saw it somewhere else, or because you read in a book (mine included) that this kind of scene ought to look like that. What worked for their program might work for yours, or it might not. More importantly, you should always ask yourself if there’s a way of using the color palette that the art department designed and cinematographer photographed that is more specific to the story at hand, and perhaps more creative.

There’s more then one way to create a sense of situation, and green undertones are not the only tool in the box. Be a contrarian and try something different.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Gone to Texas For the Day

Note to all clients, while I’ll be in Austin, Texas doing a DaVinci Resolve workshop on Wednesday November 16th from 8-10pm, never fear. My trustworthy assistant will be taking care of all grading sessions in my absence.

I've been training him in for years

In other news that promises to make my presentation more interesting, at InterBEE (Japan’s equivalent of NAB or IBC), Blackmagic Designs announced that the newest version of DaVinci Resolve Lite now has no restrictions on the number of nodes you can use in a grade. Also, all versions of Resolve will start including DNxHD compatibility for free (you used to have to buy an additional $500 add-on).

Lite is still limited to SD/HD resolutions, has no noise reduction, stereoscopic tools, or remote grading, and is also limited to only using a single processing GPU. Otherwise, the free version just became a useful tool for doing all kinds of HD projects. You can read more here.

As I said on Twitter, use the money you save on Resolve Lite to buy yourself a control surface.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Boston and Austin Rhyme; With DaVinci Resolve

A few weeks ago I presented at the Boston Supermeet, showing off some new things in DaVinci Resolve 8.1 (the seventh update that Blackmagic Designs has released in 13 months, by the way). I discussed the many interoperability workflows that DaVinci Resolve is now compatible with (complete round trip workflows for FCP7, Media Composer, Premiere Pro, and FCPx), and I went on to show a variety of grading techniques using composite modes to create interesting effects.

Video of my Boston Supermeet presentation, hosted by the FCPUG network, has been edited and posted at the FCPUG SuperMeet YouTube channel, along with other presentations from the evening, including one by industry legend Walter Murch.

Boston Supermeet Resolve Presentation

And By the Way

I’m going to be doing a two hour workshop in Austin, Texas, Wednesday, Nov. 16th from 8-10pm at “The Flying Saucer” bar. Because nothing goes with color correction like beer. Register at the Eventbrite page I’ve linked to to make the organizers feel like flying me out there is a good idea.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

Do Work You Can Be Proud Of


“We make a lot of shitty movies,” Meyer admitted. “Every one of them breaks my heart.”

That was Ron Meyer, President/COO Universal Studios (excerpted from Movie|Line). No earthshattering revelations here. Heck, every organization makes mistakes, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m fond of paraphrasing some quote or another to the effect of—if you don’t screw up once in a while, you’re not trying hard enough.

However, there’s another quote in the same article.

“[A critical hit is] great when it happens. But we did A Beautiful Mind, and I don’t know that we’d do A Beautiful Mind again. That’s the sad part. It’s great to win awards and make films that you’re proud of and make money, but your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.”

God DAMN it.

It’s clear that what he’s getting at is that Universal Studios is not currently in the business of making art, or even great movies. Universal Studios is in the business of making profitable movies, and in the process shoveling as much cash into their shareholder’s coal chutes as possible.

This is not news. However, the hew and cry about “we’re heartbroken about our shitty movies” is grating, because what I’m hearing is that you’re not sorry you made shitty movies, you’re sorry your shitty movies didn’t make more money, a point that’s mirrored on another blog post written about this same interview at iO9 (Why We Can’t Have Great Movies).

You can’t say that your first priority is making profits, and then shed tears of woe because somehow, mysteriously, your company made shitty movies as a result. Studio executives ride the producers, the writers, and the director of a major motion picture like ponies in preproduction, during production, and in postproduction. Studio executives approve the pitches, then review the scripts, have them rewritten five times by seven people, shoehorn more marketable actors in the casting, lurk on the sets, and insist on changes to all the edits after test screenings in Southern California malls. Most big-budget films I’m aware of, the studios are all over the process. Mr. Meyer goes on to say that:

“We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it. I have to take first responsibility because I’m part of it, but we all did a mediocre job and we paid the price for it. It happens. They’re talented people. Certainly you couldn’t have more talented people involved in Cowboys & Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens.”

Now, I happen to have liked “Cowboys & Aliens,” I thought it was a bit of goofy fun, but it clearly didn’t make the amount of money the studio was hoping for—it cost $163 million to make, and it’s worldwide gross has been $171 million, so he’s throwing it under the bus. It’s nice that he’s taking responsibility, but then saying “it just happens” is disingenuous. Someone from the studio had to have read the script, it’s not like the producers were working in a secret bunker and the studio bankrolled the project sight unseen. The title of the movie is COWBOYS AND ALIENS. What did they think they were going to make?

I suppose they thought they were getting a magic formula for profit. It was based on a comic book (comic adaptations are doing well, right?), it hit the teenage to thirty-something demographic, it was directed by Jon “Iron Man” Favreau (whom I have enormous respect for), starred Harrison “Han Solo/Indiana Jones” Ford, Daniel “James Bond” Craig, and Olivia “House/Tron: Evolution” Wilde, and was written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, Transformers, Mission: Impossible III). ILM did the many, many effects.

This is a massive collection of proven summer blockbuster talent. How could it have been such a $171 million dollar “failure” when its creative team was so carefully crafted from the perspective of making money? How can he complain about this film when it fits the profit-first production model so well?

Bottom line, if he didn’t believe in the project enough to defend it after the fact, then why did he green light it in the first place?

It was once represented to me that the old-time movie moguls had a two tiered approach to green-lighting projects. They’d approve the cheap and cheerful or expensive and crowd-pleasing projects that would (hopefully) make the money. Then they’d green-light a handful of movies that they knew full well wouldn’t make a ton of money, but were prestige projects. They were good (or at least they thought they would be), and would (a) keep the studios from looking like a bunch of no-taste assholes, and (b) win some academy awards that they could brag about for the next eighty years.

I’ve always thought that to be a fair approach. You want to make money, but you also want to make some good movies that you can take pride in having done, so you split the difference. Use the crowd-pleasers to finance the tough sells, and then stick to your guns with the difficult projects. Many actors follow a similar formula. Do some dumb big-budget nonsense for the payday, then do some risky or no-name indie projects that let you create a performance you’re proud of.

However, what I’m hearing is that the studios are increasingly unwilling to take on prestige projects. At all. They’ll bask in whatever awards they happen to get, and brag about how visionary they were to make such a prestigious piece of work, but they wouldn’t cross the street to get another one made. Instead, a movie adaptation of the board-game “Battleship” gets the go-ahead because it’s got name recognition (to be fair, Peter Berg, whom I respect, is directing; I hope he has fun with it).

I’ve observed a familiar story about a lot of Oscar-winning movies, which is some variation of “it took us years to get this project made, nobody wanted to green-light this movie.” Take “The Hurt Locker.” Kathryn Bigelow had to go forward with a measly $15 million budget to get it done, which tells me that none of the studios were particularly enthused. $15 million for an action-oriented war film. Let’s compare that to the budget for, oh, Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out,” which had a production budget of $30 million.

But she stuck it out, made a hell of a film, proved you don’t need a $150 million budget to do it, and won a well deserved Oscar. And then all of Hollywood got to vicariously bask in the glow of “we don’t just make shit” for one night at the awards ceremony, knowing full well that the next morning the execs would go right back to their desks to continue killing other projects just as worthwhile, while green-lighting other projects based on some imagined profit potential.*

What I find appalling is the naked, brutal admission that pride in making quality films has also become secondary to profits.

PRIDE. Why do any of us do the creative work we do? Are you writing that spec screenplay in order to drive a fast car and wear expensive clothes? You, on the left, did you go into motion graphics design so that you could maximize your profit-making potential? You in the middle, are you slaving away every night editing your independently financed film so that you can swim in an olympic-sized pool with all the money you’ll earn? And you, in the back row, are you honing your craft as a colorist so that you can install solid gold toilet seats in your mansion?

If you are, then you should stop, right now. There are much, much more predictable ways of making money. Ask anyone on Wall Street. Economic success is a terrible reason to pursue a creative career, because it’s so unpredictable. Great projects bomb, projects you might consider to be awful succeed, and one of the most widely quoted sayings in our industry is “nobody knows anything.”

We, and I squarely include myself here, shouldn’t be in this to create wealth. We may be well paid, and we ought to hope for financial rewards to all of our toil, but that will more likely just serve to balance out all the lean years that every freelancer and creative has.

No, we’re in this for pride of ownership. To create good work, quality work, work that we’re proud to stand behind even if it doesn’t turn out to do well financially.

And this ought to be true whether you’re a writer, a director, a post professional, or a studio head. Sure, you’ve got to stay in funds, and find ways of maximizing your revenues where possible. That’s just being sensible. But I sincerely hope that when you’re writing your screenplay, or editing your movie, that you’re saying to yourself, “I like this, this is good, this is something I’d want to go see,” and not “the audience should like this, and this ought to make money, and this should get the project by the studio.”

The studios are openly admitting that they’re bologna factories, cranking out head cheese for demographics that teams of execs have predicted will eat it.

But fuck them. Keep evaluating your work from a personal level. A question I constantly ask myself when I’m writing or working on a project is “why am I doing this?” Is this what I want to be doing, do I enjoy this, or am I pandering to some imagined theory of success?

In short, do I aspire to be a chef in a nice restaurant that tastes the food I’m about to serve, or do I want to work in the Oscar Meyer factory?

Creating media is difficult, arduous work. At whatever level you’re employed, you make important choices every day. Are you creating products that you think will sell to the widest audience, or are you creating projects that speak to you, stories that are important to tell with content that’s personally meaningful to you, whatever the genre?

Because I’ll tell you, the latter are the films I want to watch, and those are the projects I want to work on. Create something that makes you proud. Even if it later turns out to fail, you took your best shot, and you won’t have to stand up in front of an audience at a film festival and apologize.

*To be fair, as far as profits are concerned, Bigelow’s film didn’t make the kind of $200 million payday that studios crave. As good a film as “The Hurt Locker” was, Box Office Mojo reports the worldwide gross as being just under $50 million. That’s out of the park as far as its original $15 million budget goes, but simply making a profit isn’t what the studios are after; they require obscene profits to drive growth for the shareholders. Others have written about the value of sticking to smaller budgets to retain autonomy and to maximize your film’s chances of success. I suspect most non-crowd-pleasing films have the same potential to make about $50 million worldwide if given reasonable marketing support; if you’re making your dream project that appeals to a specific audience or type of fan, you have to accept that not everyone in the world will pay to see it.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

The Letters H and D Are Now Meaningless

I was walking down the street a few weeks ago, and did a double-take as I spotted the familiar “HD” acronym on the door to a downtown business. Can you guess what that business is?

Just guess.

Okay, here you go.

Yes. Apparently you can get a high definition tan. Or perhaps a “highest defenestration” tan, wherein your newly bronzed body is thrown from a window of the top floor of the building.

Jocularity aside, this got me thinking about a topic I’ve seen others address, namely that the idea of High Definition, like a million dollars, isn’t what it used to be. More to the point, HD as a selling point for video equipment is probably as meaningless as “broadcast quality” once was, whatever that meant.

Now, if you’re a stickler, HD as defined by frame size, square pixel shape, and frame rate (granted, there are a bunch of acceptable frame rates) is a perfectly valid definition. And yet frame size, or more specifically the number of pixels that are recorded, is not in any way indicative of the quality of the overall picture, or how well it’ll hold up in post.

YouTube can now stream 1080p “HD” video. Hell, it can apparently stream 4K. Does this make it a mastering format? Or even acceptable as a source format? Please god tell me your answer was no (I know, I know, you use what the client gives you).

At this point, the wide variety of camcorders, cheap-o party digital recorders, point and shoot and DSLR cameras, and even our cell phones can record 720p or 1080p video. High Definition video. And yet, what does this really mean in terms of quality? Most of these devices record a highly compressed video stream, now usually a variation of the reasonably competent H.264 codec. On more inexpensive devices, the chroma subsampling is 4:2:0, meaning that roughly 3/4 of the color data is irretrievably thrown away when the image is recorded.

Both the compression and the chroma subsampling are significant compromises, and while you won’t necessarily notice anything untoward when playing these video clips as is, it’ll become apparent during postproduction, as compression artifacts are exposed (macroblocking and junk in fast-moving scenes) and your colorist is stuck fighting a losing battle for latitude vs. noise while trying to make various adjustments (a result of the low chroma subsampling). For all the pixels that are available in these highly compressed formats, the quality is not nearly so high as that of other HD formats that are more lightly compressed and have better chroma subsampling ratios (4:2:2 or 4:4:4), such as HDCam SR or AVC-Intra. And yet all of these formats are unquestionably “HD.” Then there’s the Alexa, and while it records a 1920 x 1080 sized image, I suspect the engineers at Arri would beat me senseless if I referred to this digital cinema camera as recording HD.

Now, lest I fall into a common colorist whinge-fest about shitty formats, I will say that in my own practice, I grade what I’m given. I’d love to be consulted prior to someone’s shoot so that I could recommend that everyone shoot either film, or the RED EPIC, or an Arri Alexa.

However, not many folks ask my opinion, and I grade a lot of low and no budget projects, so it’s really not my place to gripe about their source format. And fortunately the newer higher data rate profiles of various cameras H.264 formats are not impossible to grade assuming the initial exposure was fairly close to begin with. (Ironically, I’ve always felt that highly compressed formats require much more skill on the part of the DP then do higher quality formats that have more latitude.)

Now, this is the part where you ask what my point is with all of this.

I suppose I have several. It’s almost impossible to buy a new standard definition television any more. Furthermore, recording, editing, and playing of HD media which once required a hugely expensive series of equipment upgrades, can now be done with cell phones, iMovie, and online video hosting services. “HD” is no longer that descriptive, it simply differentiates from older, increasingly quaint Standard Definition formats.

So, if you’re shooting video and you’re excited about the fact that you’re shooing “HD,” just take one more look at the specifications of the recording device you’re using and make sure that the digital media that’s being generated is a format you can live with in post. If you’re calling up a post house and they ask “what was the shooting format,” please be specific about the camera and the type of media that was recorded, because it matters, and “HD” isn’t saying much. And if you’re mulling over what format to shoot, ask your DP for recommendations before setting your mind on an inexpensive format just because it’s High Definition. Because otherwise you risk getting tanned in post.

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

You Can, In Fact, Get My Book Cheaper Then This

While checking out The Color Correction Handbook’s listing on Amazon, I noticed that there were some, let’s say enthusiastically priced used copies available. As far as I know, you can order this book in a pinch from Amazon.com’s US store from nearly everywhere, so I’m hoping this kind of international pricing is some sort of bizarre fluke. That said, I’d be interested in hearing just how many countries’ localized bookstores have copies, or at least a means of ordering locally.

While I’m on the subject of my book, I just got my quarterly report from my publisher, and sales have been great. A huge thank you to everyone who’s bought a copy and gave truth to my pitch that “people really want to learn about this whole grading thing.”

Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.

On the Road Again

I’m remiss in not mentioning this earlier, but I’m doing a series of three presentations on DaVinci Resolve (sponsored by Blackmagic Designs). I believe my title sums up the content nicely–

Grade Faster Without Working Harder in DaVinci Resolve

I’ll be kicking off with a two-hour presentation; an informal overview of DaVinci Resolve, followed by a collection of techniques for manipulating key aspects of images quickly and efficiently using the software/hardware combination of DaVinci Resolve and its matching control surface. The third hour will be audience-driven Q&A (one of my favorite things). This is your opportunity to ask me anything you like about grading theory, practice, or DaVinci Resolve. I’m speaking at three different venues. Hope to see you at one of them!


Color Correction Handbook 2nd Edition: Grading theory and technique for any application.
Color Correction Look Book: Stylized and creative grading techniques for any application.
What's New in DaVinci Resolve 14: Covering every new feature in Resolve 14 from Ripple Training.
DaVinci Resolve Tutorials: Far ranging DaVinci Resolve instruction from Ripple Training.