LBBOL: An Eye for Colour: Exploring the Architecture of a Good Grade.

Some of the industry’s top colourists speak to LBB’s Josh Neufeldt about the significance of colour grading, personal techniques they employ, and what more agencies and brands should be aware of when it comes to this aspect of the creative process

Colour might just be the unsung hero of advertising. Sure, if you know about it, you’re going to look for it, but when there’s a myriad of things happening – from speaking to actions on the screen, and everything in between – it’s easy to lose track of this fundamental aspect. But, it’s so essential. Have you ever seen an ad where the colour of someone’s shirt randomly changes between shots, or the aesthetic is super washed out, or in general, things just look slightly off? That’s the difference a good colourist makes. Their job is to make things consistent and enhance the tone or mood of a piece via their work, and in doing so, that’s where advertising can really pop off. But what does it take to actually achieve this? We know the agency routines well, but what does the process of a colourist look like? How do they take the product from the director, agency or brand, and send it back shiny and new? To explore this, and discuss the impact a great creative grade can have on a film or ad, LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Stone Dogs colourist Mark Meadows, CHEAT founder and senior colourist Toby Tomkins, UNIT Studios London head of colour Denny Cooper, Tag Collective Arts junior colourist Nuval Jolly, Untold Studios colourist Julien Alary, and executive producer/partner at Alter Ego Post, Greg Edgar.

Mark Meadows
Colourist at Stone Dogs

Colour grading is an essential part of filmmaking and advertising, and one that can have a significant impact on the overall look and feel of a piece. It involves adjusting the colours and tones in a film or commercial to create a specific mood or aesthetic.
Understanding the architecture of a good grade might seem technical for non-experts, but there are a few key elements that are significant within the process. A successful grade should complement the message and tone of the film or commercial. If the spot/scene is light-hearted and energetic, the grade should be bright and vibrant. If the mood is more sombre or serious, the grade should reflect this with muted tones and colour palette. Two extreme examples of these contrasting styles would be to compare a Katy Perry music video to a film such as ‘Prisoners’ or ‘Fight Club’.  
A well-executed grade can enhance the emotional impact of a scene and draw attention to key elements – for example taking the viewer’s eye to the product being advertised in a commercial, or drawing focus to a specific actor in a scene. On the other hand, a poorly executed grade can detract from the overall impact of the piece and end up being detrimental to it. But overall, a grade should magnify the feeling or mood created by the DOP and director on set. 
Another important aspect to consider is the technical quality of the grade. A good grade should be consistent throughout the entire film or ad, and not jump between scenes. It should also have continuity. For example, if the colour of a red jacket has been adjusted, it is important that every time this jacket appears on screen, the red matches the adjustment made. Essentially, a grade should also be free from any distracting elements that could take the viewer out of the experience.
Ultimately, understanding the architecture of a good grade is about understanding how to use colour and tone to create an emotional response in the viewer. By paying attention to these key elements, creatives and clients can work together to create a grade that will enhance the content they have created.

Toby Tomkins, 
Founder and senior colourist at CHEAT

You don’t need to be an expert at colour or grading to know what a good grade is. It’s simple: 

  • Does it look good? 
  • Does it feel right?
  • Does it flow (or clash!)?

Speaking to the first point, colour grading is subjective – so there’s no right or wrong answer here – but personally, I would say that a good grade is taking what’s in the photography and making that the best version of itself.

Good grading should enhance what was shot and not try to fundamentally change the material. Authenticity is king, and the further you deviate from what is possible with real light in the real world, the less engaged your audience will be. Although we can manipulate the image in a myriad of ways, if we start doing something that breaks the relationship between light and reality, the viewer will subconsciously feel it and emotionally disengage. Don’t break the suspension of disbelief by pushing the images too far. A strong ‘look’ should be set through the production design, costume, makeup, lighting, and cinematography, with it being finalised and harmonised in the grade. 
And, if in doubt, do less! The best colourists’ work is invisible. That’s not to say they don’t do a huge amount of work and aren’t changing huge amounts of the picture – they are – but they’re doing it in a way that is photographic and natural. Work with colourists that can cheat what you need from the images while keeping it authentic.
Exploring ‘Does it feel good’ – maybe this should have been the first point! This is arguably more important than the above. After all, we’re in the business of manipulating emotion. A good grade has to serve the ad on an emotional level, above all else. Think of it like music! The right track can transform an edit, and the right grade can take that emotion even further. A good colourist can enhance or sometimes change the feeling of a scene by adjusting the temperature (warm for happy/nostalgic and cool for sad), the saturation (vibrant for joyful, desaturated for sad), and the contrast (stark, high contrast for tension or drama versus dreamlike creamy tones for romance or calm).
Finally, if you’re creating a ‘world’ or building a feeling within a story, it’s important that the shots match each other and flow well from shot to shot (and to some extent scene to scene). The suspension of disbelief with the rest of the filmmaking process, like the ‘unnatural’ effect of editing is already a demanding ask of a viewer to ignore, so the least we can do is make sure that it feels like it was all filmed at the same time and in the same light, with transitions between scenes being smoothed if there is a big jump in time or place.
You can also go the other way and clash between shots, especially for montage-style edits, where you might want to clash black and white archives with vibrant contemporary footage. What’s important to me is that it feels intentional, and there is a consistent visual grammar in what you do. Set rules and stick to them. Humans love patterns and recognising them, so if you’re going to break that, you better have a good reason!
At the end of the day, if all three of these are achieved, you’ll walk away with a grade that elevates the emotion, enhances the narrative, and seeps into the viewer’s subconscious – implanting a dream-like memory that just might make them buy something!

Denny Cooper 
Head of colour at UNIT Studios 

When first starting the process of a colour grade, it is important to start by considering what the artistic vision is, the message of the piece, and the mood that you want to convey in your project. Sitting with the creative team and director is always how I would like to start any new project – getting a feel for the mood and direction of the film or TV commercial and what particular message we are trying to convey to the viewer. 
The use of colour in any visual medium can have a tremendous impact on how the audience perceives the project. This is especially important when it comes to TV commercials, as there is only a short space of time to get your message across, so getting it right is vital. 
When it comes to the grade, the colourist can only grade the footage in front of them. So, it’s important to shoot well exposed and carefully considered shots on the shoot. And, ideally, to make sure the on set footage is as close to the look, feeling and mood that they want to finally achieve. This will help the colourist immensely, although, obviously, this is not always possible (and therefore the colourist will have to work extra hard in these instances). 
When considering what makes a good grade, it is essential to make sure that there is consistency throughout. The balance of the colour temperature, contrasts , saturation and textures needs to match from scene to scene, as even minor inconsistencies can have an impact on the overall aesthetic of the film/ad. 
Ultimately, the impact of a great creative grade on the overall impact of a film or ad cannot be understated. A well-executed grade can take an already-great piece of content and elevate it to new heights, creating an immersive and engaging visual experience that resonates with viewers on a deep emotional level. On the other hand, a poorly-executed grade can detract from even the most compelling content, undermining the narrative and aesthetic goals of the piece and failing to connect with audiences on a meaningful level.

Nuval Jolly 
Junior colourist at Tag Collective Arts 

A colourist sits in a pipeline of disciplines that make up the visual component of a film. A good grade should not draw attention to its part in that process, but instead further contribute to the shared goal set out by the brief, director and cinematographer. 
The resultant power of this collaboration is communicating tone and mood to the viewer, as well as what they should be focusing on within the frame. That could be making a horror movie feel cold and uninviting, or making you take notice of the shoes worn in a commercial.
Broadly speaking, a grade leverages intrinsic behaviours and associations we have – to tell the story intended. Whilst there is a breadth of knowledge too extensive to cover, we can focus on the instinctual responses we have. 
A simple exercise to try is to look away from an image, attempt to clear it from your mind, and then look back, taking note of what you feel and what you gravitated towards in the image. Compare that with the objective of the piece; is it conducive to that? Repeating this as you work with a colourist to discuss and address your findings should steer you ever closer to the goal.

Julien Alary 
Colourist at Untold Studios 

Speaking broadly, a good grade doesn’t take you away from the story of the film, but elevates it. Our role is to always focus on helping to portray the meaning and message of the piece. 
A good grade for me, personally, is just the strengthening and respecting what is already there from the cinematography, scenography, costume etc. I always start with a nice, solid tridimensional look – where the blacks are black and the whites are white with complimentary skin tones – while respecting the levels and exposure of the DOP. After that you can always spice up the film if it needs to give a particular vibe – something commercials generally have more room (than fiction). 
Building on this, commercials are a great platform to create new looks. There should be room for play and experimentation. When describing a desired look, people use words like ‘bold’, ‘premium’, ‘expensive’, ‘comedic’, ‘dirty’, ‘raw’ and, of course, the ones that are used the most: ‘cinematic/filmic’. Now, this last set of words can mean so much. For me, coming from a film studies background, ‘filmic and cinematic’ means how the film would look when it’s processed at the lab and shown on the silver screen. It’s a solid, neutral look. But, for many, this means the teal and orange look that was applied to a number of action movies in the early 2000s. So, what ‘cinematic’ means can also be very subjective. 
I suppose that as a creative, ideally you have the time to explore and research the best look for your film in the suite. Sometimes it’s the first one you try, and sometimes you need to tweak until it feels good. When you have nothing more to do, it’s done. Use gut feeling! The team behind the film has already, hopefully, got a strong idea of how they want their film to look, and the colourist’s job will be to enhance that idea and take it further – without tarnishing it in any way. 
Ultimately, it can be difficult to communicate how you want your image to look. I always say ‘you should express what you feel, and I will try my very best to interpret that’. It’s all part of the fun!

Greg Edgar
Executive producer/partner at Alter Ego Post

Colour grading can be a very powerful tool in the art of storytelling. It can help enhance the mood and emotion of a scene through shaping the light and colour. Having said that, it can also distract and take a viewer out of the moment when not done well.
‘Part art and part science’ is how I like to describe it. There are rules and values that are used, like in science. But, like in art, it can also be about moods, emotion and experimentation. A good colour grade should work with the cinematography, edit and sound to enhance the direction of a scene. In the case of a dramatic scene, it might be about shaping the light more to enhance the look in the actors’ eyes, or minimising the distraction so as to draw the viewer to the correct part of the frame. On the art side of things it is very subjective. If a look is forced onto an image that distracts from the story, then I think it fails. It could be a great look, but if it doesn’t drive the story forward, then maybe it’s not good colour correction for the piece.
Consistency is also one of the keys. A scene’s look needs to feel consistent throughout… but sometimes things need to be cheated to make the scene flow better. Rather than be a perfect match to a previous shot, it should be a perfect flow.
Often, clients say that the images are too dark because they see a lot of shadows in a frame, but is there anything in the shadows that needs to be seen? As long as that is not where the eye should be looking, then let the image be dark there and the viewer’s eye will go to where the action is happening. The shadows help to frame the image, and when they are lifted, the viewer can get distracted by those areas. This doesn’t mean everything should be crushed, but having a good density to an image often enhances it.
Finally, I’d add that colour grading is an important part of any production and shouldn’t be an afterthought. Yes, we can add a ‘look’ to images after it’s all shot, but it always works best when it’s part of the process. Art direction and cinematography often drive the feel – and colour grading can take it further.